The Sunday TimesPlus

9th February 1997



It's heaven at Hellbodde

Plantation Homes: by Royston Ellis. Pics by Gemunu Amarasinghe

To an English speaker, a name like Hellbodde for a bungalow bodes ill when wondering how it looks. At 1,188.7 metres (3,900 feet) above sea level, it is more likely to be chilly than hot. Somehow one imagines a rather draughty house, bleak and unwelcoming and wrapped in swirling mist: a hell in the hills for a British planter far from home who finds himself transported there.

Hellbodde lies off the Pussellawa to Nuwara Eliya road. The nearest railway station (the kind of information gleaned from old copies of Ferguson's Ceylon Directory) is at Gampola, 20km (16 miles) away. Ferguson's also tells us of a hospital nearby at Sangilipalame and "Disp. on Estate".

An outside viewThe entrance hallHistory is important at Hellbodde and the bungalow is probably unique among Sri Lanka's plantation homes in having its history scribbled on one of its walls. At first, the unexpected elegance of the entrance hall dazzles the newcomer, as the eye is agreeably distracted from the past to a warm and welcoming present.

There was no one at home when we visited Hellbodde but the personality of the occupants - Mr. and Ms. Vernon Tissera - was very much in evidence. They have done justice to a fine bungalow, accentuating its strengths with carefully-placed, well-chosen furniture, and retaining a vestige of what has obviously been a glorious past.

The particular vestige that visitors find intriguing is a Height Chart: a section of one wall on which planters and their children have made their mark, scribbling their names, heights and date. Looking at it only briefly, I found names dating back to 1902. This confirms Hellbodde's status as a vintage British- built bungalow of granite blocks and teak shingle roof.

The entrance sitting room is baronial, setting the mood for the delights of the decor of the rest of the house. There is no ceiling and its roof has been stripped bare inside to expose the underside of the wooden shingles and wooden rafters. A wooden post supports its centre and beams frame eight, paned windows.

Light floods into the room (there are no curtains to dull the view). Hanging lanterns illuminate it at night. Arched French windows give access to the lawns and formal garden gallery.

The room is sensibly furnished with comfortable sofas draped with slip covers of dark green. There are plenty of occasional tables of varied vintage, and footstools and traditional plantation chairs with scrolled arms and legs. Potted plants abound.

The main lounge is more conventional, autumnal in theme contrasting with the spring-like atmosphere of the entrance hall. Its brick fireplace is obviously a much-loved feature as the easy chairs are grouped around it, each one with a tiered, triangular foot cushion. The russet hue of the carpet completes the character of a room centred around creature comforts.

There is another contrast in the bungalow's dining room. Its magnificent ceiling of boarded and beaded panels has been painstakingly preserved. Potted plants and boughs in a corner add to the rusticity of this charming room, which is lit with an adaptation of an old oil lamp. The long oval table has many parts and must have seen many roisterous feasts in the past.

The bedrooms at Hellbodde also reflect the occupants' interest in keeping the bungalow beautiful. With well-tended fireplaces and homely touches, they have bathrooms as exquisitely furnished as the main rooms. Even the wooden toilet seats have been retained.

As well as volumes of Reader's Digest dating back to the 1950s (always an indication of a bungalow's - or planter's pedigree) there are magazines and books about house interiors scattered on coffee tables. Hellbodde, one feels, has occupants whose dedication has given it a new, and stylish, lease of life.

A true bungalow, it rambles a bit, and its garden gallery is narrow but adequate enough for when the weather is fine to enjoy its superb setting. There are fields of tea and trees on one side, and jungle on the other. A mountain hawk eagle eyed us from his perch; the area is rich in wildlife and a leopard was seen near Hellbodde last year. Far from its diabolic connotations, the bungalow at Hellbodde actually conjures up images of heaven.

Legacy of Bandaranaike -what is it?

by P.R. de Silva
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike celebrated her 80th Birthday a few months ago. Predictably prominent personalities of her political party vied with each other on this occasion to heap praise on her and often did so in a manner befitting a feudal potentate rather than a politician living at the dawn of the 21st century. Ms. Bandaranaike perhaps better travelled and having a broader outlook than her delirious supporters appeared to have preferred the religious ceremonies for this occasion to the mass hosannas.

In her political career Ms. Bandaranaike has achieved many distinctions. She began her political career as the Prime Minister of Ceylon in 1960 and became the head of the government without even contesting an election. Her appointment not only made her the first woman Prime Minister in the world but also made the Bandaranaikes the first Prime-ministerial couple. Today she is perhaps the oldest serving Prime Minister in the world.

Ms. Bandaranaike, the private person from all accounts is a gracious lady. She has displayed courage and tenacity in both her public and private life which is admirable. But Ms. Bandaranaike is first and foremost a politician who aspires for political office. Her stewardship of our country in the past has been responsible significantly in shaping our post-independence evolution. She has also been instrumental in creating the Bandaranaike dynasty of Sri Lanka. It is this role and the legacy thereof that we wish to examine in this essay.

In to the abyss

In 1956 Mr. Bandaranaike was not the only politician who chose to ride to power on divisive politics. The UNP jumped the band wagon and so did the Federal party. But Mr.. Bandaranaike was the chosen agent of clamorous partisan grievance.

Mr. Bandaranaike knew the voters and read their mood correctly.

Bandaranaike told them there were special virtues in being a peasant or a worker or a medicine man and 1956 would be their year of destiny. He who took great pride in his association with a British university sang lyrical about education in the vernacular. He who had travelled extensively promised to make Sinhala the national language in 24 hours of being elected Prime Minister.

The voter needed no further coaxing. Mr. Bandaranaike swept to office with an unprecedented majority. That was the year that Sri Lanka lost its promise and romance. But few noticed it.

Even before Mr. Bandaranaike could properly settle down to his new job the mob invaded the hallowed inner chamber of the parliament and in a manner reminiscent of the French Revolution one of them sat on the chair of the speaker. Loyal partisans of the government claimed that this act was symbolic of the common man ushering in a new era. It was indeed.

Mr. Bandaranaike was a good orator and debater. And despite his public postures he was essentially a moderate and a democrat. But governments do not run on speeches. Habitually late for appointments he set the tone for an ineffective and inefficient government style that was high on speeches and low on performance.

His economic policies were disastrous. He began the era of nationalisation of economic activity. The word nationalisation is a misnomer in the same sense that equality was in the former socialist states. All that it meant was that the nation was expected to finance these institutions which soon became white elephants. But they provided the unscrupulous politicians with a place to channel his unemployed supporters with the main jobs reserved for his relatives. The amount of national money lost on these under-performing ventures would be astronomical. It is indeed ironical that Mr. Bandaranaike's daughter is struggling with all her might today to privatise some of these ventures.

Mr. Bandaranaike calculated that there would be more peasants than farmers (land owners) in the country. This was a vote bank he could not resist. Hence the infamous Paddy Lands Act which further fragmented the tiny paddy farms we had. The result was totally untenable ownership of land with the owner in no position to introduce capital or technology to his tiny farm. It did not make the peasant any more prosperous. The only result was that Lanka became a huge importer of rice.

For ever the populist Mr. Bandaranaike tolerated unruly and irresponsible trade union action. In this he was singularly short sighted given the fact that most of the unions at the time were not genuine representatives of workers but organised mobs of the leftist parties. This farce was finally exposed when the left parties joined the government in 1970 and these unions went into hibernation despite tremendous hardships suffered by the workers.

lf his economic policies were disastrous his national policies were calamitons. Theoretically aware that the ethnic problem needed a wise and pragmatic approach he yet wavered between this ideal and his desire for the adulation of the other extreme. Thus unable to act, he opted for symbolic gestures such as the "Sri" car number plates and the ordering out of the British Naval base from Trincomalee to establish his nationalist credentials. But these cosmetic changes did not fool anybody. The only result of this inept meddling in the ethnic issue was to stoke the small bush fire of racial tension into a burning inferno. The next generation was to pay the price in blood.

Enter the family

The death of Mr. Bandaranaike left the SLFP rudderless ðMade up of mediocre non-entities the SLFP was lost without him. This was the call for Ms. Bandaranaike who although a tyro in politics did not shy away from accepting the heavy responsibility of premiership.

The 1960's and the 70's were the years in which the countries of South East Asia consolidated and surged ahead. During most of these pivotal years our Prime Minister was the untutored and inexperienced Ms. Bandaranaike.

From the economic statistics of this era it would be obvious that the task was beyond her.

Ms. Bandaranaike continued with the policy of nationalisation of economic and social assets with gusto while she ruled the country under the emergency.

The people's verdict on her government in 1977 was unmistakable.

If this is the reason why Ms. Bandaranaike continued in politics it is a bad reason. A nation deserves leaders who are motivated by higher ideals. Public office should not be considered an opportunity to indulge one's ego or vent one's spleen. The only question a politician should ask himself is what contribution he can make to our nation. This should be a contribution comparable to those leaders of the South East Asian and other developed countries.

In 1994 due to the vastly changed circumstances and frailty of age Ms. Bandaranaike's return to the premiership was not a total triumph. Now the rules had changed and we had a presidential system of government. So it had to be a family triumph with her daughter as the President.

History repeats

When Karl Marx wrote his famous aphorism about history repeating itself, first as a tragedy and then as a comedy, he would have not had the Bandaranaike family in mind. But the Bandaranaike family success in capturing the top position in this country for the third time shows the old sage's uncanny grasp of the ironies of history.

Despite the rather tragic consequences to the country from Ms. Bandaranaike's rule the SLFP and the nation endorsed her daughter as the president in 1994. Her main criticism of the UNP was that it introduced a presidential system which she argued concentrated power in that office leading to an erosion of democratic values. Elected to this very office she appears to be in no hurry to do away with this supposed evil.

When the Bandaranaike image was adopted by the SLFP as its mast-head it became a self-fulfilling myth. Whenever the SLFP is voted to office it is not because the voter wants an alternative to the UNP but because he embraces the Bandaranaike policies. The family of course needed no persuasion to grasp this self-serving logic. During Bandaranaike governments we see the spectacle of Bandaranaike holidays, Bandaranaike halls and roads, Bandaranaike airports and schools. There are public places named after even his family members.

A political party whose raison d'etre is the Bandaranaike image would not have noticed the absurdity of making Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga the president, her mother the prime minister and her close relative General Ratwatte (promoted by her) the deputy minister for defence and perhaps the heir apparent.

The soil and the growth

The Bandaranaike family and other social phenomena do not happen in isolation but are by-products of the Sri Lankan society that has evolved in the 20th century. The society is the soil on which all the rest grows.

According to a recent survey less than one third of Sri Lankans read a newspaper daily. Of this small number an overwhelming majority would read the news in the vernacular.

This is another result of the Bandaranaike education policies. The blinkered attitude imparted by an education in the vernacular contributed substantially towards the breakdown of our society which occurred in the 1980's and 1990's. The JVP ideology was essentially that of the narrowly educated rural intelligentsia. On the other side of the divide the ascendency of semiliterate Prabhakaran can also be attributed to the poverty of the intellectual and moral life of the north.

The material poverty of our country is even worse than its intellectual poverty. Statistically on every score we belong to the poorest of the poor countries.

When you consider the appalling quality of our political leadership and the almost insurmountable problems facing the nation there is little room for optimism. Considering the gigantic transformations taking place in the brilliant economies of East Asia and other developed countries our post-independence performance looks like a meaningless drama.

President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural speech posed the following questions: "From those to whom much is given, much is required. And, when on some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us, recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state, our success or failure, in whatever office we held will be measured by answers to four questions: were we truly men of courage? Were we truly men of judgment? Were we truly men of integrity? Were we truly men of dedication?"

These are questions that all our politicians would do well to answer. How would the Bandaranaikes answer these questions?

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