Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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I have just met a curious procession of coolies going to one of their Saami places, evidently to perform some act of devotion. This sacred place is in a nook between the projecting roots of a huge banian tree, and the spot is always kept carefully swept. I happened to be walking near and seeing the procession behind me, motioned them to pass, no coolie will pass his "Dorei" or "Dorei Sani" without permission to do so. First came a man carrying an oil bottle, then another bearing aloft a basket shaped like a round straw hassock, on this was a coil of twisted wet white cloth like the coils of a serpent, a third had a long tile filled with wood ashes still alight, whilst a fourth carried a plantain leaf. They were followed by a few more coolies, these being empty handed. I was sorely tempted to climb up a little knoll to watch the proceedings, but on second thoughts, I came to the conclusion that to do so would be an act of impertinent intrusion on my part, which would probably vex them; for, however mistaken they may be, these visits to the Saami places are to them real acts of devotion, to which they attach much importance; a Saami oath being as binding on them, as our most solemn oaths are on us.

The head Kangany who went to India to marry his daughter has returned, having accomplished his mission quite to his satisfaction. To show that some really reliable natives are to be found, though I grieve to say they are the exceptions, I may mention that he arrived on the evening of the very day he had fixed six weeks ago. We were in hopes that he would bring with him some additional coolies, and especially a few of low caste who would condescend to carry our "beef box" and occasionally fill gaps about the bungalow. But there is so much work at present in his part of India (Travancore) in opening up new coffee and tea estates, that he failed tO persuade anyone to come to Ceylon. The dearth on Raneetotem of pariah coolies causes us continual perplexity, for none but they will act as kitchen coolie, or as horse-keeper, or fetch our meat supplies. This very day we were in absolute danger of famine, for the man who usually takes the "beef box" has hurt his leg, two other pariahs were engaged on necessary Estate work, and the fourth has run away to shirk holing; so there was no one left to undertake this very necessary duty without breaking caste, a thing not to be thought of for a moment. At last the difficulty was solved by taking a man from the work he was already doing, and we hope to have our supplies in time for an eight o'clock dinner. This system of caste complicates not only work, but also marriages, for the girls are absolutely compelled to marry into exactly the same caste as their own family. It also causes trouble in sickness, for however weak the invalid, he or she will eat nothing cooked by our servants or in our kitchen. On a friend's Estate a poor woman was absolutely dying of exhaustion having been ordered by the doctor a more nourishing diet, my friend begged to be allowed to send her jelly and chicken broth; she emphatically refused, but on great pressure being brought to bear she at last consented, on condition that the lady cooked all the food herself, in brand new saucepans, that had never previously been used. This was accordingly done, and the poor woman's life was saved.

One of the drawbacks of the low country is the great number of snakes. Yesterday as I walked along a well defined path, a "tic polonga" glided across not two inches from my feet. Happily I had been looking down at the time, or else I should probably have trodden upon it. Last week a valuable dog belonging to a neighbour was bitten in its kennel by a cobra, and died in five minutes. The reptile bit two other dogs in the same kennel immediately afterwards, but evidently the venom had been exhausted in the first instance, for the two others survived. The kennel adjoined a stable where a much prized horse was in his stall so my friend was only too thankful that the victim happened to be the animal of lesser value.

MAY 8th. - The shoot, so long planned, has at last come off. On the evening of the 6th, our neighbour arrived to dinner. Soon afterwards a number of his coolies with dogs innumerable appeared, some to act as beaters, and others with guns, hoping to get a shot if the Doreis missed. Everyone retired early to rest. Next morning at daybreak amid much barking of dogs, and much jabbering of Tamil, the gentlemen departed, accompanied by their motley crew, anxious to be at work whilst the scent lay on the dew. They did not come back to the bungalow until midday, hungry and tired, but delighted with their bag of red deer, mouse deer, and a huge lizard. Recent tracks of a large cheetah had been seen, but it could not be found anywhere. We are not quite without amusement; a Saturday and Sunday spent with the M.'s generally means plenty of tennis and golf for Rob and always a most enjoyable time for me. I cannot say enough for Ceylon hospitality. An almost utter stranger, you find yourself welcomed in to the pretty pleasant homes, as if you were an old friend, and in cases of illness the kindness and attention one receives are almost incredible. It quite raises one's opinion of human nature, and sends one on one's way rejoicing to find there are such kind people in the world.

MAY 23rd. - The Kandy festivities are just over. They always take place twice a year, at new year, and on, or near to, the date of the late Queen's birthday, and consist of a tennis tournament, and gymkana under the auspices of the Sports Club; and include sometimes a ball at Government House, if the Viceregal party happen to be in residence. In any case there is a public ball of some sort, and often a concert. People come into the hotels for two or three days from the neighbourhood, and the ladies take this opportunity of wearing their very smartest frocks. The gymkana ground is a lovely flat, wedge-shaped, well turfed and embossomed in wooded hills. A grand-stand with dressing-rooms attached, and also, on this occasion, a temporary stand, exquisitely decorated wfth a fringe of the delicate young leaves of the plantain and the cocoanut palm. The events consisted of golf-driving, pigeon-shooting, bending races on bicycles, and on horseback, leaping, also foot races of all kinds, putting the weight, and high jumps. All the beauty and fashion of the neighbourhood, including the Government House party, turned out to see the sport, and a very pretty scene it made; the ladies' bright summer dresses as they crossed and re-crossed the green sward looking like flowers in the afternoon sunshine.

But to me, a much more interesting sight were two Buddhist processions that I met in Kandy streets. The first was on the occasion of the Sinhalese Wesak Festival. Forty-five priests, preceded by horns and tom-toms, and clad in every shade of yellow silk, from cream colour to orange, paraded the streets. The great man of all had a large umbrella carried over his bead. Most of them had intellectual faces, but a furtive downcast expression spoilt the looks of many. Wesak is kept up with great pomp by the Sinhalese, even the villagers decorate their houses, placing arches and flags, and Chinese lanterns in front of the verandahs. The richer members of the Sinhalese community take the opportunity of feasting their poorer brethren, and for at least a week afterwards, the newspapers were full of Wesak benefactions, such as the following, culled from the "Ceylon Standard":-

"Alms-giving was on a mighty scale. The Dayakas of Wiejenanda Temple in a most liberal manner fed and distributed rice and curry, sweets and other delicacies to over 2,500 persons at the fish market to-day. The neighbouring fruit market likewise entertained a good many with sweets, young cocoanuts, tea, &c. Refreshments of a like nature were given at the plumbago stand."

This is only one of many such announcements.

The other procession was that of a Burmese priestess who had come to visit the celebrated Kandy "Temple of the Tooth." She was lodged on the opposite side of Kandy lake, so we had a prolonged view of the procession as it wended its way along the circuitous road at the water's edge, and the beauty of the scene was very much enhanced by the very vivid reflections on the smooth surface of the lake. All the dresses were pure white, the priestess herself walking under a white canopy, whilst another important person had, what appeared to our irreverent gaze, an old patchwork quilt as a canopy over him (or perhaps her). In front walked what I suppose I must call the band - very primitive drums and fifes with banners. The noise of this, and the wild acclamations of the people in the streets, were almost deafening, but the stateliness of gait of the processionists and the pageant as a whole, were much to be admired. To the native mind, noise seems inseparabie from rejoicing. Lately a coolie wedding took place near us; the tom-toms began to beat at daybreak, and continued until midnight. One could not help thinking that the bride and bridegroom must be both dazed and deafened before the end of the day. Tom-toms are also beaten when a death occurs - but then in a much slower and monotonous manner.

I have just invested in a light bullock hackery - called here a buggy cart. It is something like a governess car with the addition of a canopy formed by a light iron framework covered with American cloth. A little black Sinhalese bull goes in the shafts with a yolk passed between his head and his hump. The harness is a rather intricate arrangement of rope. The little bull runs capitally, and we did nine and a half miles of very bad road in two hours, the first time I took him out. Hitherto I have had to borrow the hackery belonging to this group of estates, or a neighbour's, whenever I emerged from this solitude, and my vicissitudes have been many. I think I could almost write a book called "The troublesome travels of an unprotected female in Ceylon." Once my driver left me in a lonely part of the road, signed to a slip of a boy to take the reins, disappeared down a side road (doubtless to an illicit arrack still) and only reappeared a couple of miles further on; my young driver, meanwhile, out of pure devilry having goaded the bulls to a furious pace, the hackery swinging along at the very edge of precipices and just missing by an inch or two stumps of trees and projecting rocks, I holding on inside perfectly helpless, from want of a knowledge of the language.

Another time the bulls had a sulky fit, tried first to take the hackery into a toll-keeper's house, failing in this they proceeded to land me in a native shop; and finally after doing their best to upset me into a deep drain, one of the bulls got his neck out of the yoke, and quietly turned round and looked at me. When I tell you that a great part of the road is bordered on each side by deep drains, to carry off the heavy monsoon rainfall, you will understand it was rather nervous work, and sympathise with me in my rejoicing over having my own small conveyance and an innocent little bull to draw it.

I think my greatest dilemma occurred lately. I was anxious one afternoon to reach Kandy early to do some necessary shopping, preparatory to starting at seven a.m. the following morning on a visit up country, so Rob sent a coolie to Kandy in advance, to fetch a carriage to meet me at the ferry, five and a half miles this side of the town. He gave the coolie strict injunctions not to leave the carriage until I got into it, and to have it at the ferry at three p.m. I arrived there at the given time, found our coolie waiting for me - he pointed out the carriage, one of two, on the opposite side of the river, I and my luggage were duly taken across, and the conveyance I came in and the coolie returned home. To my horror, on asking which was my carriage I found no one could speak English, excepting a native gentleman who said they were both engaged by him to go to his Estate. I have since found this was a lie. Imagine my predicament, landed alone with my luggage five and a half miles from Kandy. I sat for about an hour by the river bank hoping something might turn up. At the end of that time I walked to a neighbouring toll where the tollkeeper knew a little English; he got me a porter, and we started off to walk to the town. I shall never forget that walk on a dusty road with a blazing afternoon sun pouring down on my devoted head, the dreadful feeling of isolation and helplessness, and the astonished looks of the men working in the paddy fields at the sight of a Dorei Sani walking alone along the road. At length after about two miles, I saw a Sinhalese gentleman in his bungalow garden. He wore European dress, so I went up, and asked him if he spoke English, which he did perfectly. I told him my difficulties and who I was. "Very awkward, very awkward, I will arrange it all for you," he kindly said, and he was as good as his word. He ordered round a light bullock cart into which my luggage was put, and I proceeded on my way comfortably seated on my box, but did not reach Kandy until after dark, having been five hours doing sixteen miles. It is I believe a common trick of the natives to bribe the drivers of hired carriages, and annex them at the ferry, if it suits their own convenience to do so.

The poor little girl who was taken some weeks ago to India, and married there, became so dreadfully homesick when her father and brother left that her mother has had to go to her. Family feeling appears to be very strong amongst the Tamils. How few village mothers in England would undertake a journey as far as to Southern France to see a homesick daughter.

Our Sinhalese servant did not prove a success, he became more and more stupid until Rob could stand him no longer. We have in his place a remarkably sharp podian (young lad) who goes by the name of "Nipper." His father is head servant to our friends the M.'s, and is quite a travelled man, having visited London eleven times, when cook on the Clan Line of steamers. He has nine sons. Nipper has been well trained by him and by a lady in whose service he was. His father has sent him out into the world with a good outfit and three cookery books: the inevitable Mrs. Beeton, a book on Savouries, and another on Pastry. He is only thirteen but is a capital little servant, cleans the sitting-room and the bedrooms, valets his master, writes menus, lays the table, arranges flowers, helps the Appu to wait, and all for the equivalent of about L6 a year wages. One of his greatest accomplishments is that he speaks English, which is to me an untold comfort, as it ensures my wishes and orders heing carried out correctly. Added to which, he is a most picturesque little object dressed in white cloth, white jacket, small round cap, earrings, linger rings, and bracelets. I have another boy about the same age who is our tapal (post) coolie, and at spare times works in the garden and attends to the dogs and poultry, but unfortunately is of such high caste, that he would not condescend to do anything in the bungalow, or to fetch meat, and would rather die than eat anything cooked in our kitchen. He carries himself with quite an air. Many of the high caste coolies have this grand air, which makes one really feel there is something in caste.

One old Kangany looks so military, with well clipped white moustache and short side whiskers, and has such a commanding voice that we have nicknamed him "The Major-General." I am sorry to say he is a very stupid old man and not at all as chivalrous as he looks, for when Rob one day scolded him for some omission he promptly went and slapped the smallest little girl in his gang.

Work amongst the rubber and cotton is getting on apace. Two hundred pounds of cotton were picked yesterday. This kind of cotton is not the same sort as that grown in the States, or in the South Sea Islands, which is produced on a low bush with a flower resembling a Hibiscus. Celyon cotton or "Kapok" grows on a tree, having deeply serrated leaves, a waxy cream coloured blossom, and a hard pod three or four inches long, which opens when ripe showing its treasured contents of the most beautiful fluffy, silky cotton encircling rows of hard black seeds. These seeds, unlike their cousins in the South Sea Island cotton, are quite useless as food for poultry. When the pods are brown and ripe, coolies are sent round, some to climb up the trees, and knock them clown with long sticks, whilst others of the gang pick them up; a third lot, usually women, collect lint which has been blown away by the wind from over-ripe pods bursting prematurely. All that is collected is then detached from the husks, and put into bags, carried to the store and there weighed. Uncleaned cotton fetches about six rupees per cwt in the market, but a great deal more if cleaned, that is, the seeds extracted. Doubtless there are machines for doing this, but the natives have a primitive way of effecting the same result. They put the cocoons of cotton in a cask, and shake it about with a homemade instrument, similar to the toy windmills dear to the heart of little children who run holding the cross pieces of stick to face the wind. These sticks tear the cotton apart and the seeds fall to the bottom of the cask, care being taken not to raise them when the fluffy mass is removed to another receptacle. It makes delightfullly soft elastic stuffing for mattresses and cushions; the only drawback being that unless they are stuffed lightly, the contents have a tendency to become lumpy. A Ceylon friend of mine who went home lately tells me he bought a cushion in Aberdeen supposed to be stuffed with down, his suspicions were aroused, he opened it and found Ceylon Kapok.

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