Christopher Ondaatje’s journeys with Woolf in contemporary Ceylon

Gamini Seneviratne reviewing Christopher Ondaatje: Woolf in Ceylon … taken  from The Island, 17 May 2006

Gamini Seneviratne

Gamini Seneviratne

This book runs to over 300 pages–room enough for Christopher Ondaatje to touch on virtually every aspect of Leonard Woolf’s life and work. It would of course be possible to pursue each of them towards a clearer understanding of both (author and subject). In a review of this kind, though, a consideration of what appears to be the author’s view of what Woolf experienced here and in England must suffice.

CHRIS ON 122 It is embellished by many photographs, most of them truly excellent. Some have been drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society and the University of Sussex, many are of Ondaatje’s own making. The author has been to a great deal of trouble researching the people and places mentioned by Woolf in his writings on / from Ceylon: ‘The Village in the Jungle’, ‘Stories from the East’, his letters and ‘Growing’ the segment of his autobiography that covers his stay here, and his ‘Diaries’ as Assistant Government Agent, Hambantota. The writing is lively and lucid, perhaps less so here than in ‘The Man-eater of Punani’; a selection of the photographs in both books merit publication in a separate portfolio.

CHRIS ON 11Christopher Ondaatje had left this country for London at a young age just before the Union Jack was hauled down (but not quite put away). After his early education there he had proceeded to Canada where he became a highly successful businessman in the world of cross-border finance. He had not returned to the land of his birth for forty years but, over several visits since, has done his best to get in touch with the changes that have taken place here since 1947. He has also endeavored, through Woolf as well, to comprehend what had gone before. The sub-title to this book, “An imperial journey in the shadow of Leonard Woolf” seems to mirror the author’s, perhaps not quite inexact, view both of himself and of Woolf’s reconstruction of his history here. In the latter he is not alone, and has adopted Woolf’s own account of what led to his resignation from the Ceylon Civil Service. Woolf had not arrived at that decision, as is generally assumed, before he returned to England on sabbatical leave, but while he was there pursuing his hopes of marriage to Virginia Stephen.

In this book, Ondaatje, who has also followed Sir Richard Burton into the Sindh and up the Nile as well as immersed himself in Ernest Hemingway’s safari world in Africa and written about his own experiences of those journeys, seeks to go much further than in those narratives. Rather than confine himself to travelogue, biography, and literary criticism, he has attempted here, in addition, what he has referred to as ‘a kind of social commentary’. In that last he has been handicapped by his long absence from his native land and from the kind of information that anybody in Canada and England who has an interest in this country would have willy-nilly received from the press out there.

As ‘travelogue’, Ondaatje has followed Woolf’s passage from Colombo, with a brief stop at Anuradhapura, to Jaffna (where he served in the Kachcheri for two years as Cadet and Office Assistant); to the pearl fisheries off Mannar; to Kandy (for work) and Bandarawela (for some kind of ‘R&R’). After that relatively brief exposure to the tea plantations and their managers and the ambience in which the British colonials sought to pass their time, Woolf was posted, finally, to Hambantota for the most memorable portion of his stay in this country. (His choice, had Virginia turned him down, was to return here to function permanently as Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota). Ondaatje’s itinerary, however, includes places that Woolf did not visit and supplies hints of what they should have meant to Woolf had he visited them. In doing so the author inserts his own nostalgia for places he had been to as a child and for this other world he had left over fifty years ago. Throughout this book Ondaatje refers to ‘Ceylon’, the name used by the British, (which, unbeknown to them, is the Sinhala-specific name of the country).

Ondaatje’s exploration of Jaffna takes him to Delft where he had noted the old fort but missed the ancient dagaba built of coral, perhaps the only one of its kind anywhere. He had also gone through Punani, the location of the man-eating leopard that he had written his earlier book about. In that book, in which the leopard and his executioner figure almost as footnotes, it seems to me that Ondaatje produced his most perceptive “social commentary” on this country. In it he had also set down “The Truth” in the sense that Auden applied to that term, about his earlier life here, a time in which the anglicized Ceylonese were almost, not quite, as privileged as the Brits. His account of his family rings more true than his brother Michael’s crazy run through that landscape (“Running in the Family”). In its evocation of the Burgher segment of what the literature of sociology refers to as the “upper middle-class” it is akin to the vignettes crafted by Jean Thwaites (whose big sister, Barbara Sansoni, distinguished artist, artisan and entrepreneur, introduced this book at the British Council). It is understandable that despite owning an estate, the senior Ondaatje did not take to planting – the Dutch who came here were Burghers, town people, not Boers / farmers, as in Africa.

Ondaatje’s quest for Baddegama is intriguing and in the result, successful. Like any person who lived in the dry zone, Woolf would have been aware that there were thousands of such “villages in the jungle” and been acquainted with many of them. In the course of that journey of discovery Ondaatje’s fancy takes a flight to Baddegama (famed as a center of learning): he ropes himself over via a tenuous connection that links a Mayer, a Bickersteth, a Mayer – a charming fantasy, vaguely reminiscent of the work of the Dutch Burgher Union a few decades ago towards establishing the genealogy of applicants for migration to ‘white Australia’.

On the matter of ‘biography’ Ondaatje has researched Woolf well and what follow are additions and emendations that the author may have felt disinclined to write about or had missed.

Leonard Woolf, as his letters home to old Cambridge friends show, was an exceptionally percipient observer of much more than people and places. He seems to have felt that to speak of or to imply the presence in his colleagues in Ceylon of a ‘world-view’ that would define their conduct and bearing, would be to accord them a distinction they did not merit. Nor had they, as a class, by his account, an inkling of its absence in their daily life and designs. He had made, instead, astringent comments on their personalities and ‘life-styles’. Woolf had seen the structure of their daily lives as “ridiculously circumambient and of a tropical suburbia”, and was struck by “the ineffable boredom of their social life and the unconscious comedy of their tea parties, tennis matches and their drinking bouts”. It was a manner of conducting themselves that the anglicized classes here adopted as wholeheartedly as their means permitted. And, Woolf says, more naively perhaps, “We spoke of Ceylon as if it was the center of the universe”. So it was, not so much for her people as for the colonizers, who enjoyed a life-style / conveniences they could not have dreamt of ever having at ‘home’, in London, the true center of the universe.

Woolf used some of the material generated by his experiences in Jaffna and Colombo in his ‘Stories from the East’. In Kandy he seems to have been wrapped up in the sense of importance that traditional Sinhala ceremony laid on him, as well as an infatuation with a tea plantation manager’s daughter. He had seen nothing of how the plantations were destroying the people and the land and, from quite early on, destroying the foundation of the country’s farming systems. Some of his predecessors here, civil servants and governors, had seen it clearly enough and warned the policy makers in London (who, as it turned out, cared naught for the damage that ‘planters’, most of whom knew nothing of agriculture, were inflicting on this country). Today, as I write this, ‘privatization’ has made the large-scale tea plantations unmanageable, almost bankrupt, in full view of Ministers, Cabinets, and officials whose “world view” stays put, despite jaunts abroad at public expense, behind the spectacle of luxury vehicles parked within their security gates.

In his ‘social commentary’, Ondaatje occasionally misdirects himself. Recounting an episode with a prostitute (as described in Woolf’s ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’), he refers to an account by Pablo Neruda of his lust for a sakkili woman. Neruda’s experience however was not comparable to that of Woolf’s protagonist. Ondaatje surmises that Neruda was “conscious of his power as a white man and that the woman’s low-caste status left her with no option but to submit to him”. Neruda did not see himself as “a white man” cloaked in racist thoughts – he was anything but. The point made in his ‘Memoirs’ was that the woman did not submit to him and had regarded him with contempt (which, as he acknowledges, he deserved).

Woolf’s experience, or some of it, in Hambantota went into his masterpiece, ‘The Village in the Jungle’ (there’s no mention in it of the p/reservation of ‘game’ in Yala for ‘authorized’ hunters, mostly ‘planters’ and British officials). There is no evidence in his novel or in his diaries, or anywhere else in the record, of our people slaughtering animals for sport; the elephants in particular were, by law, protected in their own territory. Woolf’s sense of that south-eastern dry zone seems mundane compared, say, to that of Wilhelm Geiger who visited it not much later.

Woolf used the Hambantota diaries again in “Growing”. They were published, in 1962, together with his ‘Stories from the East’, as “Diaries in Ceylon”, by Tisara Prakasakayo, Colombo, a press founded, incidentally, by the great Sinhala novelist, Martin Wickremasinghe. It carries two introductions, one by the publisher, S D Saparamadu on their historical value and one by Mervyn de Silva on the literary merits of Woolf’s work.

In his introduction, in what is the most perceptive and erudite account of the Civil Service administration to date, Saparamadu, himself a member of the Ceylon Civil Service and, some four decades ago, Government Agent of the district that abuts Hambantota, provided indicators for further research into the British administration in this country. It is to be hoped that such scholars as we have left, or as our academic systems are able to nourish, would take them up. At the turn of the 19th century, Maitland, Governor of what were known as the ‘maritime   provinces’, had decreed that the Agents of his administration maintain a record of work and events material to the colonial administration, as well as observations on the environment in which they worked. Later, after the British occupation of this country had proceeded further, this requirement was extended to cover key ‘line-departments’ of that administration, such as ‘Land Settlement’. The practice was, formally, discontinued in 1941.

I must note in passing that in his introductory essay on Woolf’s letters, Frederic Spotts has evidently made extensive use of Saparamadu’s introduction with no acknowledgement that I could see. That may be seen as a further instance of the ‘appropriation of local knowledge’ that has distinguished the colonial enterprise. Spotts, an American and a diplomat at that, had served in Paris, Bonn and Rome and had produced books on German and Italian politics. The French, perhaps, were beyond his comprehension in any degree.

Mervyn de Silva reveals both his bent for scholarship and his keen eye for good writing in his segment of the introduction. As noted below, he is dismissive of Woolf as a political activist, as an analyst of ‘current affairs’ (which de Silva too specialized in). Woolf, however, did bring to his analyses an informed perception of how the various forces then current were likely to move, as well as how they had got to where they were.

To get back to ‘biography’. On passing his Civil Service examination, but not well enough for an appointment in England, in the ‘Home Service’, Woolf had been presented with Hong Kong, Malaya and Ceylon as his stations of choice. He came here with no clear idea of what this country was like or what his duties would be. What seems to have impressed him was that he had been put through a crash-course in horse-riding that, as he told Lytton Strachey, his confidante and sometime lover, had resulted in leaving “my bottom raw and my balls in a suspension bandage”.

There has been much speculation regarding the sexual orientation of both Woolf and his wife, and we might as well get that out of the way. They had several friends who were homosexual, but, unlike for Strachey, Duncan Grant, E M Forster, and John Maynard Keynes (whom Woolf disliked), Woolf’s homosexual experiences seem to have been those of an extended adolescence. After he came here, he was quickly into debating the relative merits of Sinhalese, Tamil and German whores and had acquired a Burgher concubine in Jaffna. He retained his interest in homosexuality, though, retailing an account of a Scottish army officer’s pursuit of a fellow Britisher at a remote circuit bungalow in the dry zone, and surmising that the two Arabs who had ‘buggered a missionary half to death’ in Yemen were among the pearl divers off Arippu.

Woolf and his wife were not constrained by ‘Victorian’ hypocrisy; they were among the few who offered to testify at a trial, reminiscent of ‘the trial of Lady Chatterley’ but conducted ex-parte, of ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radcliff Hall. It had female homosexuality or lesbianism as its theme. (George Bernard Shaw had declined to bear witness in the matter; perhaps he had no interest in sex of any kind). Virginia herself had a lesbian affair with Victoria Sackville-West, and in deciding how her manuscripts would be distributed, Woolf recognized the value that his wife had placed on that association. It had been a passing fancy though: on her last visit to her psychiatrist a day before she killed herself, she had said, “I have been so very happy with Leonard”.

Another element that has drawn comment is how Woolf’s ‘Jewishness’ influenced his life, his career in particular. On that he has written, “I have all through my life come up against the common or garden anti-semitism, but I cannot think of a single instance of it having the slightest influence on my career or social life in Ceylon.” The only doubt he had experienced on the matter, among his friends, had been with T.S.Eliot.

Woolf is also popularly associated with the ‘Bloomsbury group’, which is being made much of these days, and by Lankans at that. It had consisted of less than a dozen people: Strachey, Roger Fry, Forster, Toby Stephen and his sisters Vanessa & Virginia, Grant, Keynes, Clive Bell and Woolf. Questioned on the matter in later life, (by an American scholar who reviewed his autobiography), Woolf declared that there was no such thing as a ‘Bloomsbury group’, that the persons mentioned were a disparate lot and shared no philosophy or ‘attitude’ to things in general. For instance, Strachey (who dismissed Woolf’s novel as ‘being about blacks’), and Virginia (who recorded her recoil at visits from ‘the darkies’ D.B. Jayatilaka and E.W.Perera), were, in today’s idiom, ‘racist’. Grant was a painter; Keynes an economist, whose theories continue to determine, to this day, the agenda of debate on macro-economics. (Keynes was, besides, a predator who seduced several of Strachey’s boys – and reported to Strachey the specifics of what he had done with them).

Woolf’s association with Bernard Shaw was via the Fabian Society and not particularly close. Shaw wrote “On the Rocks” that Ondaatje refers to, in which ‘Sir Jafna Pandaranath’ figures, in the early nineteen thirties. Ondaatje represents that character as some kind of avatar of Sir Mutu Coomaraswamy, the father of Ananda Coomaraswamy. Shaw, however, introduces him as “an elderly Cingalese plutocrat, small and slender to the verge of emaciation, elegantly dressed”. The description, and, indeed the name, as well as the setting, are more likely to have been drawn from S W R D Bandaranaike who, about that time, had made a name for himself at Oxford as ‘quite the most brilliant orator’ there. As is recorded by Christopher Hollis in his history of ‘The Oxford Union’, when Bandaranaike, who had been its Secretary, ran for President of the Union in the late 1920s, he was narrowly defeated through the votes of old Oxonians who lived near the University being accessed for his rival: “some members had felt that it would not do to have a president who was ‘not white'”. In Shaw’s play, “Look at your people and look at the faces of my people in Ceylon, the cradle of the human race,” says ‘Pandaranath’. “Now I cast you off. I return to India and leave you to perish in your ignorance, your vain conceit, and your abominable manners”. There was no clear distinction between ‘Indians’ and ‘Ceylonese’ at the time, – indeed all those colonized by the British, from Africa, Asia, Australasia, Canada and the Caribbean were ‘British citizens’. Bandaranaike was President of the Indian Students’ Association at Oxford.

His association with Virginia Stephen the novelist, both as his wife and as co-founder of the Hogarth Press, has tended to focus attention on Woolf’s own novel, ‘The Village in the Jungle’, in so far as it received attention at all in England, (his publisher, Edward Arnold, had been amused when Woolf demanded copyright to the book), to the exclusion of his work with the Labour Research Department in London.woolf growing

On ‘literary criticism’, Ondaatje has made the kind of effort that any academic would be happy to have done. He has examined studies of ‘Village in the Jungle’ by E F C Ludowyk, Mervyn de Silva, Jeanne Thwaites and Yasmine Gooneratne, and made his own critical assessment of that material.

Ludowyk in his introduction to the novel makes several forays into “interpreting” it, some an unconscious apology for it. Ludowyk too may not have been familiar with the folk poetry / folk speech that expresses village life in all its interconnections with the life of the jungle. Mervyn de Silva’s introduction shows the qualities of the highly perceptive literary critic whom he failed to present to his examiners. “Woolf’s picture of the village community was a total one, a portrait of both the physical and inner life of the peasant, his beliefs, his ways of thinking and feeling. For a foreigner, this is indeed an extraordinary achievement”. It also shows the kind of the sleight-of-hand Mervyn was known for, in his dismissive comment on Woolf as a ‘commentator’ (rather than a ‘theoretician’ / ‘thinker’). Perhaps, as a fellow-traveller of the USSR of Stalin, he was miffed by Woolf’s critique of the Soviet leadership in ‘The Barbarians at the Gate’. Yasmine Gooneratne, eminent scholar, poet and novelist, who published the original version of the novel, concluded that Woolf’s “attitude to his subject . . was sympathetic and serious, rather than condescending or coldly analytical”.

In her assessment of Woolf’s creative writing and his diaries, Jeanne Thwaites takes his performance as an administrator as her theme, especially in relation to that of her own father, R.Y.Daniel, who joined the CCS shortly after ‘the Great War’ of 1914 – 1918. Rex Daniel too had been educated in England, at Bedford and Oxford, and having served in all the provinces, retired as the Government Agent, Colombo. Her account of Woolf in Ceylon is negative on the whole but she recognizes his skills as a writer. Whether he was or was not a dutiful servant of ‘imperialism’, Thwaites comments more closely on his lacks as a social being, tracing them to his heritage in London, and his failure to adjust himself here in the setting of privilege in which he found himself.

Nobody who reads ‘the Village in the Jungle’ would doubt that it is “a true story”. The novel is generally seen as a sympathetic account of people in an isolated village in the south-eastern dry zone of Sri Lanka whose lives, in important particulars, especially those related to farming, were touched by British civil servants such as himself. He is seen in that context as an enlightened person who gave body to British claims that they practiced a form of benevolent paternalism in the exploitation of the resources of countries they had overcome by a mixture of deceit and force of arms. The deceit and the shamelessness of it all are well documented: if one were to give that phenomenon the name it prefers, one that seems to confer dignity to the subject, ‘perfidious Albion’ was not, is not, a myth. ‘Imperialism’, though, was not a central theme in the Village in the Jungle. In any case, with the British defeat in the Boer War, ‘Empire’ was seen to be coming to an end. Woolf recognizes and dramatizes ‘the contradiction between the fact that the basis of imperialism is economic while its apologists claim for it a moral basis’. People who are required to teach / be taught Forster’s Passage to India (Woolf encouraged him to get on with it) would see that Woolf shows a deeper understanding of life in the hamlets in our dry zone than Forster, who chose a larger canvas, understood either India or the nature of the British presence there. They would see also the quandary in which Woolf found himself when he was reduced to being a mere witness to the operation of the processes of British law.

In his other books, as on ‘International Government’, ‘The Future of Constantinople’, ‘The Framework of a Lasting Peace’, and, especially in his study of ‘Economic Imperialism’ in Africa, Woolf gets at the nitty-gritty of the imperialist enterprise. He documents the greed that motivated European piracy of the resources of other peoples and analyses the ‘patriotic histories’ that Europeans constructed to justify such pillage, as well as the use made of myths of ‘a higher Christian civilisation’ which he presents as a further red-herring in that enterprise.

In the course of his analysis, however, Woolf betrays his own prejudices about the peoples whose victimization by Europeans he documents. That element in his work, which probably followed the application of theories of biological evolution into the field of social history, would throw some light on his attitudes as a colonial administrator in Sri Lanka. Here, he had perceived that ‘the imperial system was directly contrary to the political values of Britain itself. Theoretically everyone is told that he is equal with everyone else while practically we try to be paternalistic, despotic ..’ Nevertheless,Woolf himself shared the ‘received wisdom’ on how such people, at least some of them, should be handled. Writing of the pearl fisheries, he says, “Arabs will do anything if you hit them hard enough with a walking stick, an occupation in which I have been engaged for most part of the last 3 days and nights.” He had refrained from employing that technique on the others – the ‘Moormen’, the Tamils and presumably, ‘the Sinhalese from Ceylon’ (whom he refers to in his account of the pearl fisheries off India in ‘Pearls & Swine’).

The roles of the traditional administrators were recognized by the people with all the authority and obligations attached to them. Woolf, like many other ‘anti-imperialist’ servants of the colonial system of administration, seems to have transmuted those obligations into the truncated or diminished form of the practice of “fair-play” at micro level. It took him time to get to know the macro picture of the exploitation of people founded on the expropriation of their land and other resources. The administration reports of his colleagues who served in the hill country would have provided him the necessary insight here. As noted above, he spent much time studying that reality as it was manifested in Africa. But even there he failed to see the people, you know, the people, who were despoiled by the Europeans: for Woolf, they were “the non-adult races”.

Woolf believed that, as he put it, he “was the great man and father of the people”. That kind of self-perception may have been derived from the European mythologies relating to ‘the colonial encounter’ that Gananath Obeyesekere blew apart in his work on Captain Cook, — much to the discomfiture of an American ‘godfather of anthropology’, Michael Salins, and his devotees. Woolf, like all other persons in authority, especially Government Agents, – a job which required more or less direct interaction with the people and their immediate concerns, drew their authority and acceptance from the Dissavas and Rate Mahattayas they had replaced. At a lower level, hierarchically, but in fact at ‘the cutting edge’ that mattered in administration, the Headmen, the Arachchis, and the Vel Vidanes constituted the real rulers of the village. Woolf did not quite understand that, as some entries in his Diaries in Hambantota show. (Neither have many others who followed him, in district administration, in the post-independence period). When ‘British Administration’ is spoken of, we might also note that it was ineffective over large swathes of the country, especially in the southern, Sabaragamuva, north-western, eastern, Uva, central and north central provinces. It was most effective perhaps in the western and the northern   provinces. Evidence of that ‘ground situation’ or reality may be gathered from the diaries maintained by Government Agents and their Assistants.

CHRIS ON 33Ondaatje is not a historian and inaccuracies are inevitable. Most such errors are unremarkable, some require comment. He was of course not attempting to write ‘history’; his comments or accounts are based on impressions he had gathered on his visits here or on what he had been told by ‘native informants’, – or were perhaps predetermined by the kind of propaganda he had been exposed to in Canada and England.

For example, learning Sinhala and, from 1824, Tamil, when it was prescribed in place of Portuguese, was written into the conditions of service in the Ceylon Civil Service right up to its abolition in 1963. Somapala Gunadheera and Wimal Amarasekera (who had graduated in Sinhala), conducted their work in Trinco and Jaffna with much acceptance and mostly in Tamil. Francis Pietersz, while Government Agent in Matara, took several months off to master his Tamil, – long before, as it happened, he came to be posted to Jaffna as Government Agent. All this was decades after Woolf and the demise of the British colonial administration. It is a practice that should be re-enforced.

Some of Ondaatje’s deviations from what is known are his own and are the outcome of his own upbringing. When he refers to ‘the luminous green’ of tea estates, for instance, it is simply what he sees or continues to see, and I do not begrudge him those memories: his father had been managing some, been owner of his own estate in Kegalle. But the question remains to this day, (when the plantation companies are seen, unmistakably, to have destroyed the land, especially the central highlands), about the impact of the estates on our society and economy. David Craig, like Woolf, ex-Cambridge, professor, novelist, poet, mountain climber, caver, – and my friend, wrote a poem about key aspects of that some forty years ago:

Or climb to the cool resort where rich Victorians clipped

a perfectly British golf course out of the scrub,

carving the joint on Sundays and watering the rose-garden.

How did they pay for it all? The country paid for it,

The red soil bled for it, the wounds

Still glare among the tea bushes.

The top-soil ebbs away to the sea,

Rivers that sparkled in the chronicles

Skulk in their pools like coffee-dregs.

Woolf had missed that too, though the Director of the Kew Gardens had reported on the matter while Woolf was yet here. Some years ago, over an evening drink in the garden of a friend, himself a planter and a steadfast supporter of that system which was / is overwhelmingly parasitic, I recited for him the following lines by an African poet:

The white man killed my father,

My father was strong

The white man raped my mother

My mother was beautiful

The white man broke my brother

Under the noon day sun,

And now he turns to me and says

In his white man’s voice,

“Boy! Whisky! Soda! A napkin!

As I finished, my friend’s “man Friday”, Subramaniam, ex-estate, appeared bearing a tray with whisky, soda and a napkin. (We had been taking arrack). Yes, the social mores of the ‘Raj’ and their foundation in extended servitude for some, has taken a long time dying.

Several other amendments need to be made to Ondaatje’s account of his trek here. The “LTTE reactionaries” are not “Hindu”. In a recent article in this newspaper, a Tamil correspondent wrote that the LTTE were ‘anti-Hindu’, that Hindu festivals that were celebrated in Government controlled areas were forbidden in un-cleared areas, and that ‘Christian churches’ were the driving force behind the LTTE.

Ondaatje’s statements on the history of this island and her people seem to follow the misrepresentations that have been bruited abroad by ‘asylum seekers’. In his innocence, Ondaatje seems to have adopted the propaganda. He writes, e.g., that there had been ‘centuries of conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil armies’ ‘beginning in the 2nd century B.C.’; that there were ‘regular outbreaks of warfare with the Tamils who had settled and firmly established a kingdom in the north around Jaffna’. And so on. As Dr. K. Indrapala, (incidentally, himself a Tamil), foundation Professor of History in Jaffna University put it: “On the slender evidence at our disposal it would be rather far-fetched to claim that there were permanent or widespread settlements (even) of Tamil trading communities in the first millennium A.D.”

Ondaatje is obviously unaware that the ‘unification’ of the Island which the British executed, was that of the KandyanKingdom and the maritime provinces, (primarily the districts of Colombo, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Chilaw, Batticaloa and Jaffna which the Dutch had controlled), not of the Sinhala kingdom and a Tamil kingdom. When Jaffna was attacked in 1619, the King sent his troops there but failed to save that principality from the Portuguese.

He is also unaware that, as has been set out in F.A.Hayley’s ‘Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Sinhalese’ of 1923, the standard text on the subject, the law that prevailed throughout the country at the time of the Kandyan Convention was the Sinhala law, that Muslims and Hindus were subject to it, and that it applied to Europeans in the Kandyan provinces for over half a century of the British administration here. The Niti Niganduva (The Grammar of the Law) was translated into English by T.B. Panabokke with C.J. Le Mesurier, Assistant Government Agent, Nuwara Eliya, in 1879/1880. Christopher Ondaatje might be interested in that subject too because, as I recall, there is a record of ‘a Proctor from Kegalle, Aelian Ondaatjie’, presenting another translation of it c.1906.

It was not only the British criminal law, as Woolf believed, that was ‘uncivilized’: it was the civil law as well. Woolf, who had conducted inquiries under the Kandyan (i.e., the Sinhala) marriage law, had been bemused by them – as well as by the fact that a civil administrator, and not a lawyer, was entrusted with that task. Divorce proceedings under the Sinhala law (which I have conducted myself), unlike those conducted in the courts of law that prevail today, are ‘civilized’. No ‘lawyers’ are permitted, the matter/s at issue are presented by the applicant, the spouse says what s/he has to say about the matter/s complained of, a resolution is put to them and, with such amendments as suggested by them and seem reasonable to the adjudicator, the matter is decided.

Woolf complained that, being in Ceylon, he was cut off from “intellectual life”. However there were such activities that should have interested him, had he but taken the trouble to keep in touch with Colombo as he did with London. Besides the various ‘accounts’ of the Island, her resources, her people and their customs (e.g. John D’Oyly, John Davy, Anthony Bertolacci, James Cordiner, Henry Marshall et al), the memoirs of Major Skinner and Emerson Tennent, as well as the writings of William Knighton, Alexander Johnston, J B Phear on the laws and the economy of the country, Woolf could have accessed the work of George Turnour, Le Mesurier, Archibald Lawrie, J Bailey, Herbert White (whose ‘Manual of the Province of Uva’ would have been of immediate interest to him), and of other predecessors in district administration. Such material would have given him a broader view of the society in which he was required to function here. There is no evidence that Woolf had at any time looked at the Monthly Literary Register or the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch. Had he done so he would have come upon ‘Demonology & Witchcraft in Ceylon’ by Dandiris de Silva Gooneratne (published by the RAS, CB, in 1865, – it has been pirated recently by an Indian publisher) and other such accounts of matters that he says he had wished to but failed to understand. Parker’s ‘Ancient Ceylon’ and the Seligmanns’ ‘The Veddahs’, published while Woolf was here, should have been of interest to him. For Woolf, ‘intellectual life’ was at the time confined to whatever gleanings he obtained from Cambridge.

Published by HarperCollins, Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ has much more meat than the usual coffee-table book. It is a matter of some interest that the publishers have chosen Visidunu Prakashakayo as its distributor. Like the Woolfs’ ‘Hogarth’, ‘Visidunu’ is a small publishing house established by the grandson of our foremost man of letters of the 1930’s, a distinguished poet and a continuing influence in Sinhala language studies, Munidasa Cumaranatunga.

‘Woolf in Ceylon’ and ‘The Man-eater of Punani’ should be treasured for their piquant but in many ways representative view of this country and her people, in an age gone by, of an expatriate Ceylonese whose heart has clearly been her.

ADDENDUM: WORKS BY Christopher Ondaatje

  • Olympic victory: The story behind the Canadian Bob-Sled Club’s incredible victory at the 1964 Winter Olympic Games (1967)
  • The Prime Ministers of Canada, 1867–1967 (1968)
  • Leopard in the Afternoon — An Africa Tenting Safari (1989)
  • The Man-eater of Punanai — a Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon (1992)
  • Sindh Revisited: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1996)
  • Journey to the Source of the Nile (1999)
  • Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2004)
  • Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf, 1904–1911 (2005)
  • The Power of Paper: A History, a Financial Adventure and a Warning (2007)
  • The Glenthorne Cat and other amazing leopard stories (2008)
  • The Last Colonial: Curious Adventures & Stories from a Vanishing World (2011)

ADDENDUM. A Comment from Gerald Peiris


There is an aspect (perhaps a minor one) pertaining to Gamini’s commentary on the Woolf’s ‘Village in the Jungle’ (which I found extremely interesting – Thanks) which I would like to bring to your attention: namely, the impact which Woolf’s novel had on Sinhala creative writing.

There is a Sinhala adaptation (almost a translation) of Village in the Jungle, titled Bäddegama (Bädda, in Sinhala means jungle) by a writer named Eratna, published, I think, in the late 1940s or the ‘50s. It portrays the hardships suffered by the peasantry in that ‘arid’ and remote part of the island. It has a thematic focus on the rapacious ratēmahattayās and the ārachchis who represented British rule at the village-level and elaborated on the manner in which the ordinary folk suffered under their despotism. In the novel, Silindu murdered the ārachchi and was tried and convicted. Clearly, Woolf’s sympathy was with Silindu. Woolf and perhaps a few others in the colonial administration must have understood what was going on.

   As far as I am aware, Sinhala novelists (including stalwarts like Piyadasa Sirisena, Munidasa Cumaratunga, Martin Wickremasinghe and W. A. Silva) did not devote any attention to this aspect of village life; and it was Eratna (and through him, Leonard Woolf) who should get the credit for an entirely new genre of Sinhala creative writing (and other pop arts like films, radio plays and tele-dramas) with this thematic focus. These have continued to be quite popular since about the time of the ‘SWRDB revolution’ of the mid-50s.

   Incidentally, there are people in the ‘deep south’ who believe that the setting of Village in the Jungle was a hamlet named ‘Weliweva’, which the NORAD-sponsored IRDP in Hambantota District, launched in 1978, attempted to develop through a ‘Village-Tank Cluster’ project’. The project was a failure, as Prof V.K. Rao and I found in the course of our field surveys in the mid-1980s. Even at that time it was a thoroughly depressing area with the kind of poverty not found elsewhere in SL. This area was also the main JVP power-base in the early1970s. People say that now things have begun to change quite dramatically.






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3 responses to “Christopher Ondaatje’s journeys with Woolf in contemporary Ceylon

  1. Clive Fernando

    I enjoyed the dissertation of Mr. Seneviratne. However, I must confess that I am skeptical of Mr. Christopher Ondaatje’s writings on Ceylon/Sri Lanka after reading “The Man-eater of Punanai” with it’s inaccuracies and anomalies. In my early adulthood I was closely associated with places and personalities referred to in the book. The book would be acceptable to someone sans any knowledge of Ceylon. In this context, I have the misfortune of having read the works of Dr. R. L Spittel, Harry Storey, Leonard Woolfe, John Still, Dr. Brohier and Philip Crowe, to name a few, who had first hand knowledge of “the far-away” places in Ceylon.

  2. Though we had some of the classical / sanskritic poetical works and W A Silva’s novels as school/exam texts and I have written, mostly in the 1960s, on some aspects of Sinhala literary works of the post-independence period (especially on verse associated with the ‘Colombo/Peradeniya’ ‘schools’ as well as Munidasa’s, and the novels of Sarathchandra, Siri Gunesinghe, Gunadasa Amarasekera, Sita Kulatunga and some others), and reviewed plays (including suddek oba amatai a few months ago), I’ve not really kept in touch with more recent developments in film, teledrama etc that Gerry mentions.
    In early Sinhala films esp those in which Eddie Jayamanne performed, a veneer of slapstick was used to poke fun at ‘the Mudliyars’. I have commented on that option, employed by Shakespeare as well, in my Ludo Memorial lecture on ‘Subaltern Voices & the Academic Enterprise’ (which you may have seen). Current developments probably reflect also the change in the audience and its exposure to what may be referred to as ‘Amer-Indian’ movies.

    Martin Wicks et al focused on the somewhat better-off, including the ‘middle classes’ and their decline in the face of commerce, (also as Blake perceived it) rather as de Lampedusa did (The Leopard) or Satyajit Roy in ‘Jalsagar’.
    Woolf’s awareness of exploitation of a largely dispossessed peasantry (far less so than, e.g. resulted from the ‘Clearances’ in Britain) did not penetrate his mind in relation to the appropriation of the homelands, well managed and prosperous, of the Sinhalese in the highlands that the Brits coveted, captured – and ruined. As you both know, it was executed through genocide underwritten by enactments designed to expropriate their land. (Le Mesurier had some words on the effects of that ‘success story’).

    The most significant lack in scholarship relating to Sinhala literature has been even a reference to popular culture – the folk songs that touched not only their diurnal / seasonal afflictions but their perceptions of the rulers, including rate mahattayas. Before the European invasions they had access to a judicial system that made it possible for them to take their complaint, mostly related to land, up to the King (see Neville) – though people in the Giruva pattu, for instance, may not have had as ready access as those closer to Senkadagala.

    After that, with the Europeans imposing their own laws, mostly founded on the myth of all land belonging to The King (now their own one) appropriations of land and / or produce were made ‘legal’. The RMs and other officials used their seeming ignorance of traditional laws in order to strengthen their own, mostly non-existent ‘rights’.

    As Gerry says, the Giruva Pattu, with its ‘gambarakarayas’ who, even now lord it over the cultivators in the name of absentee landlords, was among the worst so affected (‘Jaffna’, and now, Kilinochchi, are others).

    GAMINI S via direct email

  3. My sister rcvd a school prize of the above book and we wondered just which village the book referred to as we lived near that seat of learning possibly referred to near Galle which is said to have been derived from ‘Baththenagamma.and not apparently in the jungle but near the valley which my grandfather planted out..His spouse was called HInhihamy! We learned that Woolf was employed elsewhere. It was in this rice giving area/village that my British grandfather started sugar planting in Baddegama which I believe is that seat of learning you refer to. It was founded by the CMS missionaries who were taken to Galle in my gt gt grandfather’s vessel he part owned called, Vittoria. He was baptised by the Rev Venn one of the founders of this Society. and a campaigner with Wilberforce for an end to slavery.These missionaries built Christchurch and then the school which my family supported throughout the generations. My grandfather continued supporting it and the Buddhist Vehara.too since his my grandmamma was a Buddhist. The locals followed suite following my gt gt grandfather and grew sugar and prospered.
    As an environmentalist, I am well aware of of the erosion planting on hills can cause etc. This was also commented upon by a British man at the time. saying the hills of Lanka would end up in the sea! However, our Lankan folk in the centrals hills cultivated paddy on hillsides. I guess this may also cause such erosion and chena cultivation destroys too.. It takes a very small population and a lot of forest for chena cultivation to be less destructive which does work in S.America//. In Lanka in the late 1800’s much land was completely exhausted by villagers in the Udarata which my other grandfather noted so he bought some fields from them which he manured and later grew cocoanut palms etc. He first lived with my Udarata grandma in a goma/cowdung and earth hut with cadjan roof. near a pohilla/water spout with her paddy fields below.
    When our early ancestors all over the Planet began cultivating the earth, so began the early destruction. Much jungle must have been destroyed in the area of the ancient Sinhala cities too//As for the plantation industry, there were regulations set out for labour conditions(see Nicholas) but they were not adhered to even after Lankan Independence. The shortage of labour and importation of Tamil labour and ensuing conditions were regrettable. But they found the hill country far better then conditions they had left behind.
    I enjoyed Chris’s book ” the Last colonial “and loved the photo of the place his father managed which I visited. My father too managed a place nearby and was not unaware of the conditions of the labourers which he tried his best to improve.They loved him, and gave him a ring which he wore until his death.An uncle once told me how much the Tamil kanganies charged these labourers: 300% for loans etc.One British planter built flush loos the labourers did not use!
    The local village school etc were funded by the village tax my fathers ujtil the end and a factory tax when tea prices were at all time low. others Sinhala planters paid too. One of them was Henry Amarasuriya ,the Buddhist philanthropist.
    I am aware of the behaviour and arrogance etc of some boorish Britsh folk during colonial times but it is not confined to the British. I wish you could hear what some Locals in Lanka say who dont realise I can speak Sinhala.!! The jeers and the tittering.There are 2 sides to every coin.It is not only the British that were arrogant, rude and racialist. My little Sinhala village pal encouraged me to call a Tamil boy, a Little pig!!!
    I am glad I didnt have to live under the last Telugu King of Kandy under the hated Rajakariya but I guess my Kandyan ancestors did. In fact my British ancestor was asked for information(Colebrooke/Cameron papers, when the Sinhalese believed that Rajakariya was to be re- introduced
    I also cannot forget that my Sinhala ancestors were also Colonists no matter how fantastic their reservoirs were.Thankfully, the population remained small due to natural causes and the ravaging of the Cholas etc.
    Lastly, you write so wonderfully well in English through which we communicating with, the lingua franca which we environmentaist use and find necessary. In this regard, I hope those Lanka realise just how much damage will occur with a population the size of Australia!
    On Christchurch hill now there is a Buddhist school? right next to the church. My father was given a Buddhist honour for studying it and I try to do so too inspite of having been brought up a Christian. Standing in the cool of Christchurch, I wished both Buddhists and Christians would do the same due to the sad events we hear of unheard of in our day.
    I deeply revere both religions but remain a humanist, grateful for the , schools, hospitals and roads built during Colonial rule and the international suffrage we attained eventually. Woolf recommended federalisation..
    The mayhem occurrred after Independance but I was so lucky enough to know the peace we had before amongst my school mates of all races and just after it when we experienced the really ugly face of nationalism of some in 1958.
    I am convinced that Lanka’s early peoples must have been S. Indian tribes from whom the Tamils are descended since the island was once attached to India.
    Thanks very much for your very informative article.’
    The Buddha said that it is a SIN to be ignorant so I try not to be but note that !The good that men do is soft interred with their bones but the evil lives on”!!

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