Taste of a Tea Man

Recommended by Herman Guneratne
By Smriti Daniel

The scissors are only gold plated, and the pluckers may or may not be virginal, but this is still some of the most expensive tea in the world. That it is served in some of the most exclusive tea salons in the world has a lot to do with Malinga Herman Guneratne, the proprietor of the 200-acre Hadunugoda Tea and Rubber Estate. Herman loves to tell the story behind his plantation’s Virgin White Tea - unsurprisingly, there are emperors involved.

Herman Gunaratne

“The White Tea story is almost like a fairy tale. During the 5th and 6th century AD in the dynasties of Emperor Tsong and Tsang, the Chinese mandarins are said to have employed virgins to harvest the white tea,” Herman explains. “The virgins cut the white tea with golden scissors, it fell into a golden bowl and it was given as a tribute to the Emperor.

The only part of the human anatomy that touched the tea was the lips of the Emperor.” Herman revived the tradition here and declares that to the best of his knowledge “this is the only tea in the world that is completely untouched by hand.” He adds that its production ensures that the beverage boasts the highest percentage of naturally occurring anti-oxidants in its category.

Like his tea, there is more to Herman than meets the eye. Herman says he began working at 17. Before he took over Handunugoda Tea Estate, he was the regional manager of over 100,000 acres of the best tea lands in Nuwara Eliya. In a book soon to be published, titled ‘The Suicide Club’, Herman discusses the tumultuous times he’s lived through. He balks at calling it an autobiography – “those are written by men of erudition and distinction. I make no such claim” – but promises it will be filled with tales of the Raj. A noted political thinker, Herman is already the author of three books – ‘The Plantation Raj’, ‘The Sovereign State’ and ‘Tortured Island’.

Herman has a weakness for poetry, and whether he is discussing politics or philosophy, he always finds room for the likes of Tennyson. Telling me that at 65 he is well content and ready to ride off into the sunset, he turns once more to his favourite poet:

“Sunset and evening star
One last call for me
Let there be no
moaning at the bar
when I put out to sea.”

This week Herman recommends five great Sri Lankan experiences. n What to eat where: I am a very abstemious eater. Food is of complete indifference to me. It is more the company with those whom I dine, than the actual food that nourishes me. I am enriched always when I meet interesting and intelligent people who hold diverse and controversial views. I have two grandsons however who are quite efficient in the food department and am forced to accompany them to KFC/Pizza Hut and sometimes for Chinese meals. I myself would prefer the Majestic in Bambalapitiya or Raheema’s. Godamba Roti with a good chicken curry with some friends is my idea of a good time.

Where to visit: I like to visit Nuwara Eliya. It is home to me having worked for over 35 years in the area. I also like playing golf with my grandsons who keep me alert all the time. Even if they hit the ball to the thick jungle it suddenly reappears miraculously on the fairway. I have not only to be careful of how I play my shots, but have to fight the psychological warfare that is waged. No quarter is given, none taken. I have told them that in life there are no prizes for losers. I am ‘hoisted by my own petard.’

I like to visit educational institutions some of which I support. I support three bright students and two orphaned girls. I have told them clearly that the support stops if the results are not good. Learning perhaps is the love of my life. Learning that I never had. I try to teach them to be the best in whatever they do. I also walk 10 miles a day talking to the simple folk in my village about their joys and sorrows, sometimes translating their English lessons for them and also giving them some lessons of my own. I seldom visit places or people. For instance I came to Colombo recently after four months!

n What to read: I try to regain my lost childhood and lost learning by reading anything I can lay my hands on. Winston Churchill, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, The Prince by Niccollo Machiavelli, Buddhism and the Bible are my favourite books. Stories of survival under conditions of extreme adversity inspire me to face the trials and tribulations that life has to offer. I feel that those who do not read, do not live. Poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Milton and Reverend Senior are recommended as compulsory reading for the younger generation.

n What to listen to: I frankly prefer the sound of silence. But if there must be noise, listen to a good speech, an erudite sermon in a temple or Church. I have been greatly impressed by the speeches of Colvin R. de Silva and Lakshman Kadirgamar. The love of my life however is to talk to little children. It is from the babes that you get the truth. I spend hours laughing and joking with them. They give me a new lease of life.

n What to watch: The most enchanting sight that I never get tired of looking at is the view from the Mirissa Hills Mount Cinnamon Bungalow. It presents the most magnificent panorama of the Southern mountain massif and azure blue sea stretching to infinity with no intervening features. It is truly magnificent. The sunset over the Minneriya tank with the elephants frolicking in the water is a site that symbolizes our country’s rich heritage of wild life.

Gazing down at the Kotmale valley from the Dunsinane Estate bungalow in which I lived, is something very special. Kotmale is a mist laden meadow. The mist curls up from the Valley below and shrouds the bungalow.

I now watch the world go by. All illusions shattered. I still have hopes for Sri Lanka where we march to a single bugle and dance to a single drum.

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