Victor Melder, whose preferred title is “The Truth about Gregory Peck and Peyawa”
In 1953 my father, Randolph (Rando) Melder, was stationed as Driver, CGR in Kadugannawa. We occupied a ‘Railway Bungalow’, besides the rail tracks bordering the Kadugannawa – Pothupitiya Road. A rail gate was situated by our home too. In early 1954 the movie “Purple Plain” was on location in Sri Lanka and much of the filming was done at Kadugannawa, at the outskirts of the town, on the Colombo- Kandy Road (Peradeniya end). An entire Burmese village was recreated in an area of a fallow paddy field. It was fascinating watching the village come up, with the local villagers supply plants, timber etc, all for a fee.
I had finished my schooling and at 18 years of age, was on the lookout for employment and had plenty of time to myself.
Gregory Peck, who played the main role in the movie, lived with an Englishman who occupied a large residence, a few minutes walk up hill from where we lived. It was his daily routine to drive down to the set each morning (passing our home) about 8.00am to return back by 4.00pm. Each morning a scheduled goods train from Kandy to Polgahawella, would be shunting for quite some time, from about 7.50am to about 8.45am, necessitating the rail gate to be closed to traffic for this period.
Peck would arrive at around 8.00am and be held up for the duration of the shunting. One morning seeing Dad and myself gardening, he got out of the vehicle in exasperation, came into the garden said, “excuse me, do you know what’s going on here with the train”, to which Dad replied, “yes I do, this is a scheduled train and it is performing the booked shunting duties”, adding “in future you had better go through before 7.45am or after 8.45am.”
Peck’s next comment was “what a green thumb you must have, I’ve never seen Dahlias as big as Dinner plates before”. This was cue for me to pedal on my trusty bicycle and head for the village and get talking to Peck. I was a daily visitor to the site and brazenly pushed myself forward and seeking the company of Peck answering his many questions about the area, customs etc.
A healthy rapport developed between the two of us. His secretary Monique (whom he married later on) would be on site daily too, mainly seated in a tent typing away all day, which I believe was attending to his ‘fan mail’. On some days filming would take place at the ancient Gadaladeniya Buddhist Temple at Pilimathalawa, down the road from Kadugannawa. Peck intimated to me one day that in a few days time they would be leaving for Sigiriya, where filming would continue using the old airstrip.
Win Min Than, the leading actress was also present on location daily, but kept to herself reading her script all day.
With permission from my parents I invited Gregory Peck home (on a convenient date to all), for a cup of tea (whilst he was returning home, from the days filming). He turned up about 4.15pm and spent some forty five minutes with us. Mum had baked a butter cake and had our famous pot of “Tangana” Tea on brew.
Peck was laid up with a severe cold, as he said ‘having been drenched whilst filming certain scenes as per the script’.
With six sons who constantly fell ill with coughs and colds, Mum resorted to home remedies and always had on hand a large bottle of ‘Peyawa’, which was brewed and had by all at night time for three nights running, by which time the coughs and colds would disappear.
What is ‘Peyawa’ ?, it is a concoction of ayurvedic herbs, which are roasted and ground to a fine powder. Those from Sri Lanka may recall some of the ingredents: Coriander seeds, cumin seeds, dried ginger, bellimul (roots of the beli plant), thippili and some others I cannot recall. Mum and I would visit the local ayurvedic medicine store, purchase those ingredients in bulk and take them to the local grinding mills, where they were ground to a fine powder and then bottled for use when necessary.
Before Peck left Mum offered him a small bottle of ‘Peyawa’ for his cold, she explained to him what it was and that it was to be brewed and a quarter teaspoon of coffee added to it. He opened the bottle smelt it and said, “it is most aromatic” and took it with him. Dad was most annoyed and told us later we had made fools of ourselves, as he would take it home and toss it out.
A short time later filming was over and they moved lock, stock and barrel to Sigiriya to continue on, before he left he asked me for my address.
Approximately a week later I received an express letter from Peck, stating he was down with a cold again and he could not make the Rest House Keeper at the Sigiriya Rest House understand he wanted ‘Peyawa’ for his cold. In his words “the Rest House Keeper thinks I am mad”. He continues, “could your Mother please send me as soon as possible that brew for my cold”. A small quantity was sent to him by express post. Dad had nothing to say in this instance.
No one ever knew about the episode of Peck and the ‘Peyawa”, until I wrote about it many years later, which was then picked up by journalists and was turned into part of what Gregory Peck said a press conference. I am positive this was never mentioned by him at any press conference.
Once filming was over and the cast and crew were winding up, they moved to the Queen’s Hotel in Kandy. I then received an invitation from Peck to a Cocktail Party at the hotel, one weekday evening. Attached to the invitation was a sketch to the back doors, where I had to be 6.00pm, then two knocks on the door, and I would be admitted and taken to the venue in the Hotel.
This was done by me, as set out in the sketch accompanying the invitation. I was overawed at the presence of so many distinguished guests. Gregory Peck sensing my unease, came up to me after a while and said, “Feel free to leave anytime you wish to, but please see me before you do so”. When I was ready to leave, I walked up to him to wish him goodbye, he handed me a gift wrapped present and said, “this is a memento for you”, we shook hands and parted.
The gift turned out to be a copy of the publication “The Ascent of Everest” by John Hunt, 1953, autographed by Gregory Peck. This publication accompanied me when I migrated to Melbourne in March 1968, with time the hardcover has faded and tarnished.
Sadly, I never attempted to keep in touch with him. When he visited Melbourne for a brief visit in 2000 or 2001, he stayed at the Windsor Hotel. I made several attempts to contact him to have him re-autograph the book, some 45 years later. His ‘minders’ would not have a bar of it and would not let me contact him, I am sure my letters to him never reached him either. He passed away a year or two later.
1. Had I kept his letters to me, they would have sold for a tidy sum today!!
2. Burmese actress Win Min Than became a bhikkuni after her husbands’ death, taking the name ‘Daw Wanthalamar”. She is 85 years of age and currently lives in a Buddhist Nunnery in Melbourne’s West.
Victor Melder, June 13, 2018.