walauwe murder in colonial Ceylon
Prof. Walter Perera reviews Sri
Lankan born Michelle de Kretser’s ‘The Hamilton Case’,
winner of a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book award.
In 2003, Rani Manicka, whose parents emigrated to Malaysia from
Sri Lanka just before World War II, won the Best First Book Award
(South-East Asia and South Pacific Region) of the Commonwealth Writers'
Prize for The Rice Mother. Her feat has been emulated (indeed surpassed
this year by Sri Lankan-born writer Michelle de Kretser who was
announced the winner of the more challenging Best Book Award in
the same region for The Hamilton Case last month.
Kretser not only becomes the first Sri Lankan expatriate to win
this prize - A. Sivanandan won the Best First Book Award for When
Memory Dies in 1999 - but has the distinction of overcoming formidable
competitors, like Peter Carey. Although Manicka's novel is initially
situated in Sri Lanka, much of the action takes place in Malaysia.
Except for a few scenes in England, The Hamilton Case is located
in the island and focuses on the Sri Lankan upper class milieu from
de Kretser, the author's father, and a well- known judge in his
time, had written The Pope Murder Case on the slaying of a British
planter in colonial Ceylon. Michelle's novel is to some extent based
on this book. In it, suspicion falls on an estate labourer but Stanley
Alban Marriot Obeysekere, a lawyer, and the chief character in the
novel, tries to establish that the killer was really Hamilton's
guest Mr. Taylor who had suspected Hamilton of having a relationship
with his wife Yvette, or of trying to molest her. What is ironic
is that Obeysekere, a self-proclaimed Anglophile, is passed over
for promotion at the Bar for daring to suggest that an Englishman
was guilty of such a crime.
in most novels that belong to the genre, however, the Hamilton Case
is not solved at the end. The reader is left with unanswered questions
and several versions of the ‘truth’. Stan's version
is eventually problematized when compared and contrasted with those
of Shivananthan, the lawyer and former schoolmate through whom Stan
learns about the murder, and Jaya, Stan's brother-in-law turned
novel has affinities with Gothic romance. The corridors of the ancient
walauwes echo with ghosts and other ‘presences’. The
many suicides, infanticides, and premature deaths contribute to
the eerie atmosphere that devastates the lives of the Obeysekeres.
book has much more to offer than ‘thriller’ value. It
is an engrossing and at times corrosive critique of the lives and
times of the Sri Lankan elite during the death throes of the Empire;
furthermore, like Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, this
novel demonstrates that their lives, though grievously flawed, were
nevertheless colourful and entertaining. What is especially engaging
is the author's wry sense of humour that provides some relief to
readers who are privy to the many horrific events that take place
within the confines of this book.
whose grandfather was a mudaliyar, grows up in a household which
boasts of the kind of inherited wealth that enabled his parents
to live like prodigals. Whenever his mother Maud quarrelled with
his father, she would throw objects like "first editions of
Tennyson, eighteenth-century candlesticks, a set of silver figurines,
a silver salver..." at him. Their world was a whirl of champagne
parties, balls, and long holidays in the South or Nuwara Eliya.
this add hunting big game in jungles, visits to flower-shows and
illicit, stimulating, love affairs. Such profligacy has its inevitable
consequences. Stanley's father dies leaving huge debts that his
son can only repay by selling their ancestral property and family
heirlooms. Then again, Stanley gets even with his mother for having
an affair with her son-in-law Jaya by practically incarcerating
Maud in her ancient, termite infested "mul gedera” in
Lokugama, an exercise which drives the once proud socialite insane.
Stanley tries to regain, or "purchase", the glamour that
he considers his birthright by marrying into a wealthy family that
his ancestors would have despised. All the antiques and land he
acquires do not compensate for the loss of the original estates
and possessions, however.
various obsessions that consume him after his sister's death affect
his relations with others so much so that his son Harry whose affection
he craves prefers his "unsophisticated" mother to Stan
and ultimately abandons him. The thrust of the novel suggests that
many "aristocratic" Sri Lankan families were fated to
pay for their excesses in such ways.
of Michelle de Kretser's greatest strengths as a novelist is her
ability to deal with the politics of the time in a manner that is
not intrusive. This novel covers the 1950's, when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's
socialist government swept into power, established Sinhala as the
official language, and adopted several measures which eventually
resulted in the westernised elite losing its privileged position
in society. Indeed, this was the climate which induced Burghers
who has read R. K. Narayan's Waiting for the Mahatma will realize
that even the greatest novelists face difficulties when they introduced
recent, historical figures into their work. De Kretser avoids this
trap with some aplomb. It is commonplace for many of those who left
the country at that time to attribute its ills to the political
agenda of the 1956 government. De Kretser eschews such a facile
option for a more complex exploration of the issues. To Stanley,
Jaya epitomes those who "let the side down" by shelving
their aristocratic ancestry and manners for populist measures and
is the ultimate bounder, the "past master of the conceptual
sleight of hand". To Shivananthan, Jaya's former political
ally, "Jaya lived to see his theorems of national pride codified
into a geometry of racial hatred". The discerning reader soon
learns that both Stanley and Shivananthan are unreliable narrators
whose assessments are erratic at best. Stanley for one is obviously
envious of Jaya's ability to charm people, especially his sister
Claudia whom he "loses" to Jaya. He also smarts at Jaya's
constant jibe that Stanley Obeysekere stands for "Obey by name,
Obey by nature"; in other words, Stan is described as one who
is ever willing to fulfil the needs of Empire and the institutions
that represent it.
on the contrary, makes use of his knowledge of these institutions
to challenge their principles and change the status quo although
these revolutionary transformations are accompanied by racist policies
that in turn create discord of another kind.
Sri Lankan expatriate novel has been beneficial on the whole because
it has provided readers overseas access to the country via literature.
Unfortunately, some of these novels tend to exoticise the island
which no doubt pleases publishers and boosts sales but produces
an enervating, orientalist effect. What is refreshing in The Hamilton
Case is that descriptions of the ocean, wildlife, scenery, and local
customs are usually functional. When Stanley speaks pompously about
the skills involved in shooting an elephant and sets off on a hunt,
one expects the kind of account that is commonplace in Colonialist
the entire sequence is rendered farcical when Jaya who is not privy
to any of these theories shoots the elephant (with “beginner’s
luck” according to Stan) and afterwards adopts “...an
ironic pose (while waiting to have his picture taken). The faint
but perceptible exaggeration of the stance parodies all those photographs
of self-satisfied Englishmen lording it over the corpses of their
Empire's fauna." The word parodies is especially important
here because the novel at times mocks the style adopted by others
who have written on Sri Lanka, including expatriate writers.
Maud who has engaged with royalty and socialites from various countries
up to her middle years is forced to live in appalling circumstances
later on, she exoticises her immediate environment in writing to
her former associates thus: "I wish you could see this marvellous
old place", she says in one letter, "I have been gorging
myself on rambutans. Such fruit! Spiked scarlet globes the size
of a hen's egg, split open with a thumbnail to yield segments of
delectable white flesh". Then again, as Shivananthan who has
emigrated to Canada and taken to writing fiction on Sri Lanka acknowledges,
"The coloniser returns as a tourist, you see. And he is mad
for difference. That is the luxury commodity we now supply, as we
once kept him in cinnamon and sapphire. The prose may be as insipid
as rice cooked without salt. No matter: call up a monsoon or the
rustle of a sari and watch him salivate."
Hamilton Case is elegantly written in flexible language that captures
the cadences of the various voices found therein, and its narrative
technique capable of rendering the story from multifarious perspectives.
In its attitude to colonialism and the "white washed"
local elite, as Jean-Paul Sartre would have described them, the
novel is variously satirical, irreverent, subversive, and occasionally
nostalgic. But there is a word not used so far in this review that
must be employed to make it complete - compassion. De Kretser is
obviously cognisant of the fact that the evil traits that some people
possess are not always of their own making. While she is caustic
in her treatment of characters, she is scrupulous in showing that
they are what they are because of a colonial "disease"
that in some cases is incurable, or of accidents in the past which
have substantially altered their personalities. As Shivananthan
says of Stan, "I think he glimpsed, obscurely, that we were
being written by the grand narratives of our age". Condemnation,
therefore, is invariably tempered by compassion.
my stint as a judge of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1999 and
its Eurasia Chairperson in 2002 and 2003, I was privileged to assess
novels by the likes of Austin Clark, Richard Flannagan, Michael
Fraynn, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Caryl Philips,
and Arundathie Roy to name just a few. De Kretser’s novel
is of the highest class on par with the best of those that I have
read over the years.
Hamilton Case will surely become essential reading for the general
reader, students of Sri Lankan Literature in English and specialists
in post colonial literature whatever the outcome of this year's
about student visas
How to obtain your student visa
to... by Preethiraj Weeraratne. Reviewed by Priyanwada Ranawaka.
Leaving the country for higher studies is
a big step. It's not a matter of finishing your education, deciding
and applying for the college or university of yourchoice, packing
up and leaving. There are many things that have to be prepared first.
a student visa is a major hurdle that all potential applicants have
to face. Many find it hard to obtain this important document, as
the procedure is complicated.
to Obtain Your Student Visa' by Preethiraj Weeraratne is the first
educational consultancy book for students wishing to study overseas.
Through different case studies, the book explains important factors
to consider when selecting a country, a study course and an institution.
to the book, the most recommended countries for Sri Lankan students
are UK, USA and Australia. The writer feels that the UK is the best
country for Sri Lankan students, considering entry requirements,
tuition fees, living expenses per annum, quality of education and
1998, Weeraratne started 'Education Overseas', the only educational
newsletter on overseas education in Sri Lanka. Presently it has
an estimated readership of over one million.
says that Sri Lanka is a haven for 'bogus' colleges to advertise
in. He has provided information on how to contact reputable organizations
to verify the status of the institution or university.
book provides guidelines on how to obtain application forms and
how to present yourself at a visa interview. On a practical note,
he advises getting someone apart from the applicant to stay in the
queue at the embassy (which starts forming in front of the gates
at 4 a.m.), so that the candidate would not look tired by the time
of the interview.
of visa application forms, drafts of letters and financial statements
would be extremely helpful for anyone hoping to obtain a student
visa. 'How to Obtain Your Visa' is now available at Vijitha Yapa
Bookshop and other leading bookshops.
on the Conch train and hurricanes
A Sri Lankan in Key West by Ian
Jayasinha. Reviewed by Esther Williams.
A Sri Lankan in Key West is a collection of vignettes written in
verse by journalist Ian Jayasinha. The poems give voice to his impressions
of the exotic town of Key West, a little tropical coral island at
the southernmost point of the USA where he lived for five years.
Although the author currently lives in Sri Lanka, the isle of Key
West is a place he feels passionately about, for it is where he
found his Conch wife (people born in Key West are called Conchs).
His intense love for her comes out in the poems.
first poem Take my hand speaks of his vulnerability in a new country,
feelings common to all strangers in foreign lands. He borrows from
William Blake's Tyger, tyger, burning bright in New York, New York
Burning Bright that reflects his awe of the giant metropolis.
as he takes pride in his country of origin, his distress over the
ethnic conflict is evident. A verse has also been written depicting
his amazement of the ignorance of some westerners who had not heard
of Sri Lanka.
his poems Ian introduces the town of Key West, a place that was
a longtime haunt of writer Ernest Hemmingway and describes with
humour its favourite spots such as the Grotto at St. Mary's, bookshops,
churches and the stock island where the poor lived. The book also
serves as a personal account of his life at Key West recording the
people he met and the places he visited. There are vivid descriptions
with a few personal anecdotes thrown in of the howling hurricanes,
October festivals, the Conch Train and places to eat and shop.
gives colourful descriptions of food such as the popular seafood
salads, Key lime pie, considered the best of the desserts in town
and the famous Egg Nog, a Keywester's delight detailing their novel
aspects with humour and rhyme. Writing in the foreword to the book,
former American ambassador James W. Spain says, “Brief as
it is, this volume is an important link in the chain of mutual understanding
between Sri Lankans and Americans.”
at S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia, Ian worked as a journalist at
Lake House for 25 years. A staffer at Trinity College Kandy, books
published by him include Vignettes of a Sri Lankan Outsider, The
Satin Doll and Poems in American Anthologies.
residing in the US he appeared on TV a few times to read poems written
by Dylan Thomas and some of his own. He won the Golden Poetry Award,
had in a minor role in Criss-Cross with Goldie Hawn and was conferred
a PhD in Journalism by Medicina Alternativa. He was also the runner-up
at an international short story competition.
on forest farms and other gardens
The Forest Farms of Kandy and
Other Gardens of Complete Design by D. J. McConnell. Reviewed by
There is no doubt that the traditional forest
garden of the wet tropics, with its mix of trees, palms, bushes
and vines, is a truly wondrous agro-ecosystem. Here, in contrast
to modern intensive agriculture, is a small yet highly productive
and sustainable method of farming with the closest approximation
to nature, which not only promotes biodiversity but also conserves
water, soil and energy, requires no fertilizers or pesticides, and
contributes little to global warming.
it is too late for the forest garden to solve the world's environmental
problems or become a practical substitute for modern farming, it
offers a wealth of knowledge and is perfect for rehabilitating the
degraded lands of the tropics. Probably the first national attempt
at using forest gardens in a rehabilitation role was on eroded tea
estates in Sri Lanka during the 1970s.
problem, as D. J. McConnell is quick to point out in The Forest
Farms of Kandy and Other Gardens of Complete Design, is that traditional
agro-ecosystems are not favoured by governments or development agencies.
The forest garden in particular is considered confusing.
book seeks to enlighten policymakers and those working in agro-development
circles. Initial chapters provide an ecological and economic description
of the types of forest garden found throughout the tropics, such
as the huertos familiares, the ‘family orchards’ of
Mexico, and the pekarangan, the gardens of ‘complete design’
analysis is reserved for the forest or rather home garden of the
Kandyan highlands of Sri Lanka, where McConnell has carried out
research spanning several decades. The core chapter ‘Kandy,’
written together with three Sri Lankan researchers, K. A. E. Dharmapala,
G. K. Upawansa and S. R. Attanayake, presents an impressive array
of statistics to demonstrate the wide-ranging benefits of the home
garden. The authors conclude that the Kandyan gardens show such
completeness of design that the home gardener has only agro-developers
they much happier than other folks?" the authors write of Kandyan
home gardeners. "Not really. They're remembered for great kindness
and civility. Others, too critical, find them inclined to litigation
- perhaps too ready to draw law, or blood, over the leaning of a
coconut palm across a fence or the wanderings of a village rooster.
Still, the conditions for paradise are there. If they want to screw
it up that's their affair."
is made on the very first page of the book of the pioneering work
of Ranil Senanayake in Sri Lanka, who coined the term "analogue
rain forest" in connection with the creation of home gardens
as part of rehabilitation ecology. The analogue rain forest recreates
an entire ecosystem, with the plants selected so they provide a
micro-habitat for animals, birds and insects. While such models
have great relevance in the tropics, McConnell comments that "They're
also a warning of the time and effort required to recreate a forest
ecosystem once it's been destroyed."
chapter ‘Diversity’ details the importance of the forest
farm in the in situ conservation of biodiversity and as possibly
a final species reservoir. Inventories reveal not only economic
plants, but those from the household pharmacopoeia and some kept
for no apparent reason, which together provide a significant habitat
for micro-fauna. McConnell writes of agro-foresters: "their
social role as conservator, rough and incidental, is far more valuable
globally than is their local economic role as farmer."
concluding chapters are devoted to establishing the authenticity
of traditional agro-ecosystems. ‘Shifters’ examines
the surprisingly old swidden system (chena cultivation) and proposes
that those involved in the practice should be encouraged to switch
to forest gardening. ‘Origins’ sifts through and discards
biblical-influenced notions that agriculture of the wheat-sheep-cows
variety began in the Near East. The final chapter, ‘Genesis,’
presents a bold theory that the first agriculture was the forest
garden variety as practised by the Aborigines, thus challenging
the assumption that they have always been foragers.
has an engaging style that is humourously serious and bluntly incisive.
With a fondness for quoting the poetry of Spenser, and evoking characters
as diverse as Pandora and Inspector Gadget to emphasize his point,
he succeeds in making a complex subject more accessible. Despite
its rather dull appearance this is a practical and illuminating
book that should appeal to those in the natural sciences. However,
it deserves a wider readership in Sri Lanka to reinforce the tradition
of home gardening. For in years to come, wealth may well be equated
largely with biodiversity, in which case Sri Lanka should have a
distinct advantage. So long as that biodiversity is preserved, of