Unanwitiya – house building

It was good to see him again. He looked thinner and less well groomed than when we had last been together. Seven months ago Robert had boarded the Air Lanka plane at Gatwick looking every inch a successful moneyed businessman. He had flown away from England to Sri Lanka anxious to see his family particularly his aging mother. He needed time to repair his bungalow, to arrange for electric power to be laid on; a major exercise just to get the paper work started. He had been busy with all manner of tasks and the worry was showing in his face.

We had known each other for eight years and despite the discrepancy in our ages had become good companions. Drawn together by our separate needs, he, then a student at a south London technical college, wanting the comfort and security of a home, I wishing for a sensible trustworthy companion who could cook (something I was incapable of) and who would share the chores as well as the comfort.

The incessant cold of the dark English winters not only disheartened Robert but they also unsettled me. Being used to living in hot climates for more than half my years I too was disgruntled. The lure of Sri Lanka and the sunshine was too great.

Thus I found myself in Katrunayake Airport, internationally known as Colombo, as Heathrow is known as London.

“My dear Robert, it’s good to see you again.” I wanted to take both hands and shake them, but Robert hung back, greeting me solemnly, he had always been shy with effusive people, but why with me? I had expected a warmer greeting. I regard Robert as a son of whom I have grown fond. He seemed intensely preoccupied. I have arranged a car I heard him say. I too was now occupied with growing doubts of how he had weathered the past seven months. I was to learn gradually and in small measures how he had coped with the contrasting life style he had not experienced for more than a decade.

The small Japanese car that had been arranged for our use during my stay carried us comfortably along the road to Colombo twenty odd miles away. We busied ourselves with small talk and messages from friends and relatives as is usual but he would not be drawn into more personal conversation and I spent much of the drive into town studying the local scene and coming to terms with the Lanka style of driving. Eight years have past since I last drove in an Arab country and the pedestrians and drivers seemed to have more respect and regard for each other than they do here. Pedestrians and cyclists have scant regard for their own safety. It was as well we were both sitting in the back of the car. Had I been sitting up front my feet would have worn a hole in the floorboards. The afternoon traffic was milling in both directions. All the sights and sounds, the smells and the colours known to me in India and Bahrain years ago were now to be savoured afresh.

We spoke very little on the journey to Colombo. Each had his own thoughts and it seemed wiser to wait until we had reached the hotel and relaxed. There was much to keep my mind occupied trying to adjust to the chaos of the traffic and road discipline.

The Ceylon Intercontinental Hotel where we lodged for two nights allowed me to relax after the long air journey and Robert too was a different fellow after a cooling shower and fresh clean clothes. I had not realised he had travelled the whole day, by car from his home almost twenty hours ago and had been milling around at the airport awaiting the flight.

Having busied ourselves on the second day with bank business and trying to find the Omega service agent to replace the glass crystal to Robert’s watch we fetched up at the veranda bar of the Galle Face Hotel with long cool beers watching the sun go down over the ocean. It seemed pointless to return to the plastic of the Intercontinental. It could not compete with the nostalgic ambience of the Galle Face. Ordering tournedos steaks and a bottle of Medoc to be followed by baked Alaska pudding, we were required to wait the best part of an hour which we used for reminiscing and quieter drinking. The wait was worthwhile for the superb meal that followed. During the three and half hours we spent in the hotel the lady pianist had been pleasantly tinkling away at the ivories evoking old favourites not heard for many a long year.

We made a late start the following morning, and were further delayed buying special items from a supermarket that were not easily obtainable in the south, not even in Galle. We were restricted to what we could take because no electric power was yet laid on to the Unanwitiya house.

The road out of Colombo to Galle followed the seacoast all the way, a distance of some seventy nerve shattering miles. Even with the best drivers I am far from a perfect passenger being mesmerised by the antics of the various road users. The broad highway from Galle Face green to Mount Lavinia was being repaired and this didn’t help the traffic chaos. The drivers of large State owned busses belching out clouds of black diesel smoke drove imperiously down the centre of the highway swinging into the pick up points without warning. The ‘private’ coaches, the opposition, darted in and out vying for custom on already overloaded vehicles not built for the task they were now used. Many of them showing signs of being in several accidents often devoid of back windows or bumpers.

Taxis of all shapes and sizes hooted in between the amazing parade of motor vehicles, cars forty years old, many looking in fair condition until one realised why they go drove so slowly. It is because they have little or no suspension left in the springs. An ox cart trundles along; axles sticking out like Boudicea knives, the old ox, head down breathing in poisonous diesel fumes oblivious of the other traffic. An impatient fellow in a smart brand new Honda Rover swept past tooting other traffic from his path. Ratnapala uttered an oath; I understood and sympathise. Cyclists wend and weave, one shuts one’s eyes. How do they survive? The road narrows, a deep excavation is being dug by heavy plant cordoned off in the centre of the highway. Every vehicle wishes to pass at the same time. A creaking contraption of a cart laden with a heavy load of cement bags is pulled and shoved by men straining and heaving being tooted and yelled at by impatient drivers; a motor cycle with two up nips in and out causing two lads on a cycle to skid into the side and fall off. Two motorised ‘rickshaws’ vie for space and almost collide, but they don’t, it is all par for the course I suppose. The driver, speaks to Robert. I sensed they are amused by my apprehension. ” The driver wants to know if his driving upsets you”. “No, not all, tell him I am afraid for the cyclists and the pedestrians, how do they survive? “ Ratnapala turned his head to listen and grin. I see the lorry in front come to a halt, the driver turned back to the wheel slammed on the brakes and we slide to a stop inches from the tailboard.

Off we go, on the way to Galle only sixty-eight miles to negotiate. It will be quite an experience, that I can forecast.

Although a main road, it is in poor condition. The springs on the car take a bashing. The speed depends on the condition of the road and the resilience of the springs. We don’t travel fast yet appear to do so. As the road is the lifeline to the south it passes through all the villages and towns. The road in the villages is literally each family’s front yard and the family, the dogs and the animals treat it as such. As one nears a village it is a sure bet that one of the several minibuses which have been tooting behind us will sweep past and then cut in front to pick up a passenger causing Ratnapala to brake, mutter, and carry on.

Approaching Galle I get a feeling of ‘deja-vu’. The shuttered shops the open drains remind me of Manama and Doha in the late forties. Robert wishes to buy an icebox and so we drive into the Fort area to Walkers an old trading establishment. We have no luck, and had an icebox been for sale, no one was able to tell us where we could obtain ice.

My first introduction is made to the New Oriental Hotel where we treat one another to ice cold beers. The New Oriental is to become my ‘local’ during the following years. But we must away to Unanwitiya, Robert’s family await our arrival and time is pressing.

The road out of Galle was one of several routes to the village of Unanwitiya. We weave our way through the back roads and lanes to the town of Baddagama some fourteen miles to the north and a similar distance from the coast. Passing a mixture of paddy land and coconut plantations nestling between the hills formed from outcrops of huge rocks sheltering the smaller tea gardens which proliferate in this area, the road snakes through tiny villages and past dwellings perched high on a hill or, as one climbs higher into the tea country built almost on to the road at tight ‘hair-pin’ bends. Some of the bungalows are well designed and well built. The older houses showing an Indian influence in style and ornamentation, the original paintwork flaking and faded or over run with black mould. The newer buildings of modern architectural style, the clean lines and the use of small red bricks and polished wood blending neatly into the verdant country side. The road is still a hazard of animals, bicycles, and pedestrians and the busses both State and private need plenty of space as they rattle past. The scenery changes, we reach flat paddy land and arrive at the small town of Baddagama.

The main street comes to a sudden end – blocked off with a thirty foot high bank of earth, the huge bund built by Chinese labour and funded by Chinese government grants to harness the annual floods of the river Gin Ganga which flows through Baddagama. A new track has been scratched into the left side of the bund and fixed with a light surface of tarmacadam continuing the road over the bank of earth and down the other side joining up to cross roads one of which leads to our village. There are still six miles to go. Now the road becomes rough and more pot holed. It improves between villages. We near a tributary of the Gin Ganga at one point the earth bank has slipped into the river leaving only a seven-foot width of worn road that we crawl across.

Passing a clump of bamboo trees we come upon a branch road bearing right. On the corner, the post office building, sad and unpainted heralds the entrance to the one main street of Unanwitiya. And on the opposite side the village shop and the office shop of the village trader who dealt in buying small parcels of rubber from smallholders. Built next to the large electrical transformer perched on a stout steel platform the miller had his grinding mill. The man who owned the village forge was also assured of a first off take of electrical power, he was on the other side. There was so much to see and take in. The narrow lane – the main street of the village meandered up through neatly built and pretty tiled and gabled and bungalows until we reached a large bungalow in a fine garden where we suddenly turned right and wandered across a narrow causeway over rough paddy land. Then we caught sight of the house, perched on a knoll at the end of a small hill of tea bushes. The car stopped at the bottom of a narrow and steep driveway, partly paved, leading to the house. It seemed the drive was not completely operational at the top so the car was to be offloaded. A couple of youths appeared. Nephews.

Robert's house in Sri Lanka

Robert’s house in Sri Lanka

Robert led me up to the house. The original house, a collection of four rooms had been well built and designed. The original hipped roof covered in old and attractive tiles had been removed. He had built three rooms and a corridor at the back and covered the whole with a tall straight roof with deep gables front and rear. Although still not completed, the design was well proportioned and it looked good. A bathroom had been built as an extension to the main bedroom. It had a flat roof forming the platform for a small water tower.

I was taking all this on board whilst being introduced to various members of the family as they appeared, shy and slightly apprehensive of this strange elderly man they had heard so much for the last several years. It was a bit of a jumble, the nephew, Jayantha, a tall gangly lad of fifteen worked hard to grab his uncle’s attention. The water tank which they had spent many hours manually filling had a leak in the bottom bung. The other nephew, Ariyadasa had been over-zealous removing it when first cleaning the tank and had fractured the seal. Whilst the nieces cleared the cases and parcels from the car, we set to and temporarily sealed the leak. My shower was assured, and I now realised this had been a main priority, the lads being instructed that the tank was at all times to hold plenty of water.

Robert’s mother, sisters and nieces remained very much in the background after the first formal and brief introductions. They were busy in one of the back rooms that was to become the kitchen.

Robert and family in Sri Lanka

Robert and family in Sri Lanka

I was given one of the two veranda rooms of the original house. The red polished cement floor was cool to the feet. Nephews Jayanta and Ariyadasa had been busy fixing a ceiling of light polythene sheeting and installing a small tube light worked by a car battery. Electricity distribution ended in the village across the bunded road over the paddy fields. To obtain a line was to be a major problem in the year ahead.

Other than the veranda and the rooms on either side the cement floors had been ripped up and left loosely compacted whilst building work was going on. Robert had been under pressure to get the roof completed in time for my visit. When I later learnt, piecemeal, by asking pertinent questions just how many setbacks he had experienced from the rains, marshalling labour and materials and the initial local customs and taboos before he even started, he had my admiration.

We had bought a supply of food and drink in the cold store and super market in Colombo, the dozen Evian water costing more than the dozen beer. After a delicious supper we sat on the front porch under the stars with a few beers and a bottle of arrack, each with his private thoughts or little dream, pleasantly at peace with the world. The two ‘Tilly’ lamps were turned down signalling we should all turn in. The others went to bed in the dark, I had the benefit of the car battery light that, as instructed, I was able to extinguish by yelling, “O.K. Jayantha, you can switch off now”. Whereupon he unclipped the battery in the room beyond. The magic of modern science! The effort those lads had made to make me more comfortable. I was impressed and truly grateful. I slept well that night in cool white sheets on a firm wide bed under a virgin mosquito net. Getting up in the night I negotiated the path to the bathroom with a the help of a battery torch, crossing the floor of the main area which was to be the living room, trying not to disturb the family who, other than Robert sleeping happily in the opposite veranda room under his mosquito net, were stretched out or curled up on sleeping mats in the dark shadows.

I awoke the next morning to a new world. I wore a sarong. Not elegantly, for one needs a slim body to wear a sarong with panache. Being the size of a portly Roman senator, perhaps a toga may have been more becoming. But I was not to be put off. Worn under the stomach it looked obscene. Perched on the circumference it slipped off at highly inconvenient moments. Worn over the stomach it presented a highly pregnant look. No matter, it was cool and convenient. Around the house and the garden only the family had to suffer and as we seemed to be drawn happily towards each other I did not feel uncomfortable.

Robert E. Hill in sarong

Robert E. Hill in sarong

Sitting on the veranda enjoying a boiled egg and fresh bread from the village baker, we sipped our tea and watched the youngsters go off to school, the girls dressed in simple yet attractive white dresses and white stockings, the lads wearing brilliant white trousers and shirts. The girls went to the middle school on the far edge of the village, Jayantha to the senior school at Nagoda a bus ride away and the elder nephew attended high school near Galle. They were beautifully turned out, neat, clean and uniform without seeming to be wearing uniform. This was to happen every school day. Whenever one saw children going to, at, or coming from school they all wore smart white clothes. But as soon as they returned home, off came the whites and as they had only one set, if need be they were washed, dried and hand ironed before bedtime.

I would liked to have sat and sorted out the family relationships, for although I knew the immediate family I wanted to pin point each one firmly in my mind. Robert had other ideas, he wanted to show me the new well and see the house more thoroughly, which I was also eager to do. The well had been dug one third of the way up the knoll. About twenty five feet deep, six feet in diameter and sturdily constructed in cement with a three-foot splash platform, he had finished it off with a graceful cantilevered arm for the bucket. One of his brothers had dug the well and helped Robert line it with a cement wall and build the upper cement concrete structure. They had done an excellent job.

The new foundations for the bungalow were generous for a village house. Some forty two feet long by thirty two feet wide with an addition of an eight feet square bathroom, the place, when finished would have four bed-rooms, a large living room, dining room and a spacious kitchen with a big store room and back corridor.

The new roof, solidly built was covered in tiles. There was much to be done, the ridge tiles were not in place, the roof was still held up by two sturdy coconut wood posts where the inner major walls had not been completed. Some windows were in place, the rest were being made. The work that had been done was of good quality. When I had climbed all over it Robert asked, “Well what’s the verdict? ” “Give me a cup of tea and I’ll tell you”, I replied. “You have done a grand job, so far you seem to have done much of the major work and now you will have the tedious task finishing off the rest – you are going to wire it for electricity?”

“Of course, I’ve applied for a line but they will not consider it until they see the house finished and wired up to their standard. They come and test it, y’know.”

“That’s a good thing – have you got a chap in mind for the job? “

“Yes, the man from Baddegama he’s reliable and does most of the work around here.” he replied.

Sri Lanka letter 8th May 1990

Sri Lanka letter 8th May 1990

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