Telling Sri Lanka’s tea history like no other

Herman Gunaratne who launched his latest book The Betrayal, The Plantation Raj, discusses his world of tea while sipping an expresso
By Wendy Shaw

Herman Gunaratne sits opposite me at the Railway Café in Galle. He fits the dapper mould, respectable, polite and with a slight glint in his eyes. A New Age Old World man and bestselling author of The Suicide Club, he is a tea plantation owner and is here spinning me tales covering the island nation. His new book; The Betrayal, The Plantation Raj, chronicles the kingdom that tea has created, and its role in Sri Lankan culture. Herman in his own right is a King of this industry, and has surprised me already, by ordering an expresso.

Herman Gunaratne

Herman hunted his white whale, the Moby Dick of the tea world and he found it. The history and myth of White Tea presented a challenge to a man of particular taste and austerity. Chinese virgins from the fifth century are said to have gloved their hands to snip the tea leaves with gold scissors to present to the Emperor, a tea of complete purity. Herman was unsure about creating this tea, until a brief encounter with a perfumer while in France. This old man had a curious selection of Jasmine flowers from all over the world. What made them different? Herman was intrigued. “Human oils and sweat” this remarkable claim of olfactory brilliance allowed this old professional to sense the eating habits of people who had picked Jasmine from around the world. This led Herman on a quest to create a tea “pure from the beginning,” and he is now the only consistent producer of this, in the world.

While the experience of tea is romanticised by so many, it has a 5000 year old history that no adverse marketing can touch. It has been as cheap as water, refined as silk; and has defined trade roots, colonies and nations. Its consumption has increased each year and Herman claims that it is the women who are the connoisseurs of tea, “Perhaps they have more time.” Or taste, possibly. Swiss, French, English, Austrian and Sri Lankan women all visit Herman’s plantation to try the 25 teas on offer, to find like a perfume; the tea that suits them. One woman was not inclined to share her White Tea with her family members, as it became a personal ritual for her. Colds and flus filled the household, but she remained well; guilt set in and she began sharing the precious leaf elixir. The antioxidant properties in tea are well known, which is Herman’s pivotal reasoning for being a conduit of tea, he is a pusher, but in the pursuit of health. Now an ingredient in beauty treatments, and perhaps if drinking tea hadn’t already had such great anti-aging benefits for him I believe, Herman may even oblige a facial for himself, he probably would, he says, if he had the time.

A grandfather, business man and known as Romeo amongst his friends, writing comes easily to this raconteur. He writes from his depth of experience and it flows as naturally and as warmly as his words. He is a fan of Jeffrey Archer, as he is a storyteller, an experienced man who is readable. Herman’s image of an author is someone pompous who thinks they are beyond measure, when it is the audience who are important. “No matter how bad your grammar, if you can engage a reader that is all that matters in the end.” He cannot quote a Sri Lankan novelist that he likes, his publisher Juliet Coombe knows one that he may not like. “It’s not that I don’t like him,” Herman protests “I’ve just not been able to get past the first two pages of his book.”

Tracked down one day for an interview for her book Plantation Tea, Herman was presented with the quirky, passionate and gutsy Juliet Coombe. What was to be a 20 minute interview turned into two books (so far) and an unlikely friendship. Juliet recalls being given a collection of readable and humour filled stories, and once established, travelled with him and her children to the 10 plantations of Herman’s past. With the new publisher on board, The Suicide Club was in formation. The now iconic title and imagery were all workshopped thoroughly that caused eye opening realisations about the book’s readership. Herman agrees that Sri Serendipity has published a book unlike any other. “With all those books in a bookshop, how do you make one stand out? You hit them in the eye with ‘The Suicide Club’.”

Their relationship represents much hard work. “As a publisher it is the challenge of keeping up the momentum of selling a book”, from taking books to 200 individual sellers, to branching out to an international market, to distributors who then need to pitch it to their distributors. “Where all these things take time, patience and laborious hard work,” says Juliet. A publishing success story is where you have the ability to sustain those long periods of hard work, evidenced now, when they are both in negotiations for a film of The Suicide Club. The Sri Serendipity Publishing House stocks books in cafés, fashion houses, boutiques craft and corner stores. Looking onward and diversifying from conventional methods of sales and distribution, they are books with style, where a great story with knowledge and depth is presented as the new must-have consumer item.

Herman’s books are currently downstairs to the entrance to the Railway Café, wedged between in-house designed bags, millstones from the 1880’s and clothes fashioned with parts of old sarees. Perhaps it is the selective stories told here, the details and histories that keep this author appreciated. As we sit upstairs with the horns of Galle Train Station ringing through the window, Juliet receives an email from a man written after reading The Betrayal, the Plantation Raj. She reads aloud the succinct praise from the reader, who touches on the feel of the book, the clarity and depth of the author and how one tale had him laughing out-loud on public transport and how he couldn’t stop. This sends Herman into a deep warm laugh himself. Now if only we could get him to enjoy some fellow Sri Lankan authors. Perhaps a challenge set by a man who has presented a history of Sri Lanka, like no other has yet to do. Tales accessible to the masses, from the slurping workers of builders tea on the run, to the refined White Tea addicts, and all those of us in between.

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