ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 34

Free spirit

Growing up exploring the wilds of Ceylon with her famous surgeon father Dr. R.L. Spittel, Christine Spittel inherited his love for the land and its people. Her new book tells the story of their adventurous life

By Ayesha Inoon

A young girl sits in a tent in a jungle clearing in the Maha Oya area, typing on a little portable typewriter. She listens to the rush of the river and the chatter of the primitive Veddahs who live here, as she types. It is the early 1930’s, and any sign of civilisation is far away from this settlement of Veddahs in the heart of the wilderness.

As she puts her thoughts and experiences onto paper, Christine Spittel is supremely happy – accompanying her father, Dr. R.L. Spittel on his quest to learn more about the Veddahs is one of the most exciting things she’s ever done.

Today, at 94, Christine’s eyes still sparkle with enthusiasm as she recalls the wonderful experiences she had with her father travelling around the island on his many expeditions. In the peaceful atmosphere of her beautiful home in Colombo, surrounded by the mementos of a rich and colourful existence, we take a journey into Christine’s past - glimpses of life as the daughter of a great man and how it shaped her own adventurous life.

“He was a complicated person – a man of so many different sides,” she muses. As a surgeon, anthropologist, wildlife conservationist and author, Dr. Spittel was an extraordinary individual who dedicated his life to the people and natural heritage of Sri Lanka.

Inheriting his intense passion for life, love of nature and gift for creative expression, Christine became a living legacy of the man who made such an indelible impact on the history of the country. In her latest book, ‘Christine: a memoir’, she unfolds the rich tapestry of her life, from memories of her childhood with her parents to her experiences as a volunteer during World War II, from wildlife safaris in Nairobi to horse riding on Horton Plains.

Christine, who went to school in England, describes her schooldays as extremely lonely and isolated. “Till I came back to Sri Lanka, I was a ‘nothing’ person,” she says, since she spent her holidays in a rural vicarage and had very little contact with the outside world during that time. Returning to Sri Lanka and becoming her father’s companion and aide opened the doors to a wealth of new and wonderful experiences.

“I wanted very much to see the Veddahs,” she says, recalling the hurried manner in which they set off into the jungle in search of Tissahamy, when it was reported that he was sighted near Maha Oya. They trekked through the jungle together – Tikiri, Tissahamy’s son with his brief cloth and gun slung over his shoulder, Dr. Spittel, thin and emaciated with physical exertion, Christine, and behind her, over 15 trackers carrying parcels of food for their stay in the wild.

Mostly, says Christine, her father would carry gifts of clothing for the Veddahs – usually taken from hers and her mother’s wardrobes. “I’ll never forget the sight of a little Veddah girl wearing one of my cocktail dresses,” she laughs. Learning their way of life and trying to understand their needs, Dr. Spittel and his daughter won the hearts of the Veddahs who were also struggling to comprehend the ways of these white strangers in their midst. “They would sometimes ask my father if I was a boy or a girl!” she recollects. When they saw their reflections for the first time in her mirror, they became extremely alarmed, saying that this was the yaka or monster that appeared in the water when they bathed.

Driven from their camp by monsoon floods, they took shelter with the Veddahs further upland, running out of supplies and struggling to make do with what they had – at one point a single can of sardines had to suffice for more than 15 people, she remembers.

At the end of the two-week long sojourn in the jungle, Dr. Spittel laid his hand on his daughter’s shoulder and said with pride, “Good for you, Bunting!” using the nickname he had given her from the well-known nursery rhyme.

Dr. Spittel on one of his expeditions

“My mother of course, just called me ‘darling’,” she smiles, speaking with admiration of Clarie Van Dort, also a brilliant surgeon and writer who she says, despite being the third female doctor in the country and a gold medallist in surgery for her final exams, “completely subjected herself to bringing out everything in my father”. Deeply affected by the death of Christine’s younger sister in infancy, her mother dedicated herself to Christine, allowing her to run wild and nurturing her free spirit as she grew into a feisty and courageous young woman.

During World War II, a newly divorced Christine threw herself whole-heartedly into volunteer work, as a Class 3 TWA (Temporary Woman Assistant) at the Army Command Headquarters, and participated in dances to help the troops, sometimes against the wishes of her parents. Teaching herself short-hand and touch-typing, she worked in a small office near the banyan tree next to the then converted National Museum. She even tried to apply for a post as a spy, “a sort of Mata Hari person,” she laughs, adding that the officials decided within ten minutes of interviewing her that she was not the right person for the job.

It was during this time that she met Alistair Wilson, and married him. “One of the best things I ever did!” she exclaims, speaking of the strength and inspiration he has given her over the years. After a while, Alistair was offered a post in the World Bank in Nairobi where she accompanied him and spent 20 blissful years exploring the country and forming beautiful relationships among the people. Completely avoiding writing, she turned to other pursuits such as painting – both on oils and porcelain – gardening, cooking, sewing, and immersing herself in the wildlife of the area.

Returning to Sri Lanka in 1997, they moved into a house opposite the building of the famous nursing home Wycherly, built by her father. Once again she took up writing, and was greatly inspired by the other writers in the ‘Wadiya’ writing group which she joined.

Christine, who is renowned for her many books, including, ‘The Bitter Berry’, ‘Tea Plantations in Ceylon’, ‘The Mountain Road’, ‘Growing up and other stories’, ‘Reach for the Stars’, ‘I Am The Wings’, ‘Brave Island’ which she wrote with Dr. Spittel, and her outstanding biography of her father, ‘The Surgeon in the Wilderness’, says her creativity was nurtured at a very young age by her parents. Sometimes her father would point at a person on the road and ask her questions like, “Where do you think he’s going? And what would he do next?” Or her mother would start a story and ask her to make it up as she went along. As an adult, Christine would carry her typewriter wherever she went, recording special moments and later on merging them into books. “I’ve even written a cookery book - ‘Secrets of Eastern Cooking’,” she says, admitting to “hating having to write it.”

Her latest book took almost eight years to write, she says, and had to be rewritten twice from scratch, because of her computer crashing. Still, it has been worth the effort, to gather the vibrant threads of a rich and fulfilling life and weave them into a whole. “There’s been so much to learn from life, apart from writing,” she reflects.

It seems that almost a century of dynamic living, during which she contributed as much to the world around her as she gained from it, sits well on this wonderful lady who continues to inspire those around her with her enthusiasm for life and sensitivity towards people.

‘Christine – a memoir’ will be launched by the Perera Hussein publishing house on January 27 at 10.30 a.m. at the Dutch Burgher Union.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.