A Brief Encounter


by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

I was born in Kandy during WW2 to middle class parents and enjoyed a privileged childhood. This was enhanced by being an only child. I was a little emperor to my parents, well for some of the time. There was a maid to look after me during those early years. The maids treated me with great affection. My most frequent request was for bedtime stories which they had in plenty. Many were about kings and queens but a few were of demons and darkness which were a huge part of village life, far away from the bright city lights. I distinctly remember the fearsome figure of a demon called "Mahasona". These fantasy folk tales had an impact on my psyche. Like most kids of my generation I developed a fear of the night and the dark.

The plantation industry began during the British period in 1830. At first they grew coffee. This was replaced by tea around 1870. Rubber was first grown commercially in 1883. The tea and rubber estates were owned by British Companies until 1972 when the plantations were nationalised by the Sri Lankan government. The senior manager of the estate was called "Periya Dorai" or PD and his assistant "Sinna Dorai" or SD.

In post-colonial Ceylon, the 1950s started a period of enormous transformation. The era of the common man emerged, as the politicians wooed the rural voters in their quest for power. There was a frenzied rise of nationalism that swept across the land. It was an irresponsible act of political vandalism that created racial division. This was a dramatic turning point in our recent history. Political turbulence, the rise of the trade unions, and strikes quickly followed. Our economy suffered irreparable damage.

In the 1950’s my paternal uncle was a PD in a tea estate in Neboda in the Kalutara district. He was indeed the master of all he surveyed. It was called Geekiyanakanda Estate, an appropriately sublime name for the sheer beauty of the surrounding landscape. My uncle and aunt were remarkable, warm and loving couple, generous with their affections. The elegant house was Edwardian in character built on a windswept hill overlooking some stunning scenery. The thought of this wild and memorable location still fills my heart with an exhilaration that will last forever.

The furniture in the house looked old and of the same period as the house. Walking around in the house seemed so surreal, it was like stepping back in time. The lounge had their wedding photo and several paintings hanging on the walls. There was a thick pile Chinese carpet decorating the floor. The grand house had a lovely terraced garden that was immaculately maintained by a team of gardeners. There were several statues, classical fountains and a pond with fish and water lilies. A multitude of ferns thrived on the dampness of the rockery. The garden was a haven for bees and butterflies. The weathered wooden garden seats were placed to appreciate the astonishing views the valley below and the stunning beauty of the surrounding hills.

In the mid 1950’s we were still wedded to our British way of life. My uncle had a butler and a retinue of servants. The food served was British through and through – three course meal starting with a soup and ending with a dessert. My uncle and aunt had no children. They were very fond of me. I was like the child they never had. I well recall the thoughtful gift of "Tom Brown’s Schooldays" they gave me for my 12th birthday. I was fascinated by this Thomas Hughes’ classic that revealed the mischief and jolly romps of students at Rugby School in England. On his retirement he gave me his stamp collection which I cherish.

I remember well a visit to Neboda with my parents during my school holidays. Managing an estate was a lonely job for the British Planters who were far away from home. They established Planters’ Clubs which are now seen dotted all around in the hill country to meet their own kind and socialise. The nearest one to Neboda was Thebuwana. We were taken to this vibrant social hub. I recall playing table tennis with my uncle and also having a game of billiards. The Britishers kept to themselves and walked about as if they owned the place. After an enjoyable evening we returned home rather late. After dinner we all sat in their spacious lounge. In those days children were to be seen and not heard. I read the latest Reader’s Digest while the rest unravelled the intrigue and innuendo of family gossip. It was around eleven o’clock when I began to yawn. There was an unmistakable chill in the air. My aunt took me upstairs to the guest bedroom. It was such a huge space for a bedroom. She asked me if I was happy to sleep on my own as everyone else slept downstairs. I saw no problem there.

The room had several cabinets full of old leather-bound books. They had the warm smell of wisdom. The collection had prose ranging from Shakespeare to Dickens and poetry from Chaucer to Wordsworth. Amongst a stack of magazines on a chair there was a heap of the popular British monthly called "Post". What caught my eye was the "The Ceylon Causerie". This was the "Hello" magazine of the day and contained the latest gossip of the great and the good in the island of Ceylon. It also had a collection of wedding photos of the rich and famous with vivid and colourful descriptions of the attendees. Several pages were dedicated to prose and poetry of Ceylonese writers. I recall the fascinating stories towards the end of the journal, one by Dr R.L Spittel written with authority on wild life conservation and the other a novel by SWRD Bandaranaike captioned "Mahahene Riri Yaka" (The Horrors of Mahahena). The latter was written and serialised in a local newspaper of the time when he was the Prime Minister. I read both those wildly diverse narratives. The novel written with such flair and skill held my attention. It was such a gripping tale brilliantly woven in the mould of Arthur Conan Doyle. A fictional character like Sherlock Holmes helped to untangle the mystery. As I recall it was well past midnight when I reluctantly switched off the light.

Like most kids I always enjoyed unbroken sleep until dawn. Being rather tired I fell asleep swiftly. It may have been several hours later I felt a cold hand on my neck. I do not quite know if I was awake or still asleep. The fingers on my neck tightened very gradually and haltingly until breathing became intolerably difficult. It was a most frightening experience. I tried hard to open my eyes but I just couldn’t. I had lost my voice too. When I felt I was on deaths door the tightness on my neck was suddenly released. I could now open my eyes and saw the garden light through the window. All seemed quiet around me. For a 13 year-old this was a distressing episode. I plucked up some courage and switched on the bedside lamp. Being too shy to shout for my parents I bottled up my fear and emotions until the next morning. I was shy and also not brave enough to mention this until several months later.

I am still unclear if this was just a nightmare after reading the chilling tale or the work of a resident spirit who loved to surprise the unwary. Some of the old houses are thought to be haunted by people and events from the past. Belief in the supernatural and paranormal is old as history itself. Spooky stories of ghosts, spirits and of apparitions are in existence in every continent and in every country. These figures have been linked to religion and to death and afterlife. There is no real proof that they exist. The stories have a certain timeless quality. Perhaps this was just my mind playing tricks on me or an unwanted relic of those childhood folk tales.

I dedicate this narrative to my uncle and aunt, Merille (Bonnie) and Sumana Amerasekera who spent many years at Geekiyanakanda Estate. I saw them and their slow decline in their twilight years when they lived in Havelock Town. They both endured the hardships of old age with great courage. They were a charming God-fearing couple, generous and hospitable in the extreme. They retained their love for the British way of life until the very end. May their Souls Rest in Peace.

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