Vivid anecdotes while sipping a cuppa

Book facts : The Suicide Club by Herman Gunaratne. Reviewed by Anura Gunasekera

Recently, on a rain-drenched weekday evening, several hundred people from varied walks of life, braved both the unforgiving Colombo traffic and the near certainty of being marooned by flood waters, to congregate in a converted warehouse in the seedy heart of the former Tripoli market complex.

Elegantly dressed women, more accustomed to swaying down the pile-carpeted aisles of five-star hotels, waded barefoot through murky water with stiletto heels in hand. Corporate heads, alighting from chauffeur driven luxury vehicles, ruined their hand-made leather shoes in sloshing their way to this unlikely venue. Inside, society women, normally fixtures in local glossies like the “Hi” magazine, were seen in earnest discussion with grizzled, gravelly-voiced veterans of the press; retired planters exchanged views with current politicians; well dressed matrons, lawyers, attractive young women and obvious foreigners all mingled freely, trading information-gossip in between bites of delicate canapés and sips of chilled wine.

The author Herman Gunaratne

This strange assortment of people, under normal circumstances, would have had little or no connectivity. The only common factor that they shared on the day was their attire, by event organizers’ request, in interesting permutations of black and white. They had all been drawn to this spot by a common thread. Their presence in this cavernous hall, leaky and draughty despite the arresting harlequin theme, was a tribute, not to the book that was being launched that day - as very few would have had a chance of reading it – but to the man, Malinga Herman Gunaratne, who wrote it.

I have known Herman for over 40 years. We were nurtured, first in the same school and thereafter, in the same profession. Herman left school early and well before I did ; some may say precipitately though the circumstances have not been made public, yet. We both left the planting profession, not precipitately but early and for different reasons. Our paths diverged thereafter but the bond has been sustained, by a commonality of interests which includes both issues and people.

Herman the man is clearly reflected in the story he relates. With successive publications commencing with his first book, “The Plantation Raj”, he has established that he is no one-book author. All his books are of equal interest as he has always dealt with issues which were current, potent and of national interest. In common with the previous books, all events in the “Suicide Club” are narrated in the first person because of Herman’s direct involvement in them. He embraced controversy early, willingly and quite often with great enthusiasm.

“The Suicide Club”, charts Herman’s journey from a small and inauspicious beginning to a successful finale, with both success and recognition arriving early. It is written as Herman would normally relate it, over an evening drink in his home, or mine, or yours. I have heard several of the stories before, some from the protagonists themselves. Despite the disguised names used in some of the episodes he relates, many of the actors are likely to be accurately identified by some of the readers, though I do not think that will really matter. Those in the know will, surely, be capable of empathy. There are also other stories in his repertoire and personal experience which he has not told. Perhaps we will read them in a later book.

The humour manifest in the many episodes should not detract from the seriousness of the central theme. Through a series of personal anecdotes, Herman chronicles a vanished era in one of the most interesting and vital dimensions of Sri Lankan life and its industrial history. Till the emergence of the garment industry, plantations were the primary source of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. However, most importantly, unlike the garment sector with its imported technology, systems and skills, the Sri Lankan plantation industry is entirely home-grown and in all its aspects, locally developed.

The vignettes described by Herman capture the essence of plantation life when the industry was dominated by the British, from both within and without. They wrote the rule book and, when appropriate, waived the rules. It was an insular, tradition dominated environment and successful integration demanded compliance with and the adoption of its values. That Herman, essentially a maverick, survived to go on and prosper speaks volumes for his fortitude and skills.

There is no other industry in this country – perhaps not in any other country either – as sensitive to external stimuli, particularly political, as the plantation industry. As a consequence of the land extent it covers, the resident population and its ethnic composition, it is of enormous political significance. This combination of factors also makes it the most volatile. With a few well chosen incidents, featuring political rivalries and infighting between common candidates, Herman highlights the unsavoury aspects of the industry and the manner in which unscrupulous politicians leverage workers’ grievances for political mileage ; the pawns in this game, as will be clearly seen, are the hapless plantation workers. Tragically, this sequence of events is being repeated right up to the present day, with the only change being that of the political players.

Herman is the quintessential insider. He has always been a participant and a mover. His genetic predisposition for courting danger has, right through his life, enmeshed him in difficult situations including the temporary suspension of civil liberties. It is this personal involvement that lends the book its special flavour ; Herman offers the reader, both a ringside view of complex political machinations with national implications and a real taste of personal entanglements, humorous as well as bawdy. The life and times described by Herman had great charm. The work was demanding but play, more often than not, compensated. The numerous plantation clubs, many sadly no longer in existence, were hives of activity, both licit and illicit. The anecdotes in the book are fairly accurate samples of what actually took place. Those of my age came into this industry at the tail end of its golden era but, nevertheless, enjoyed it to the fullest.

A complete outsider, a total stranger to Sri Lankan plantation life, on reading Herman’s book may classify its actors as alcoholic, licentious and irresponsible. In truth, these elements, in varying proportions, were not absent from their makeup. Yet, the size and success of this enormous industry, built up, managed, developed and sustained over the years by successive generations of seemingly rambunctious men, would successfully deny the validity of such an assessment.

If you buy this book – and I recommend that you do – read it with sympathy, empathy and understanding. It is not a work which seeks to establish a benchmark for literary excellence. Herman writes about serious issues with casual ease. He has woven an intricate and tantalizing web composed of disparate episodes, some of them displaced in space and time and perhaps not in chronological sequence. Disregard the irregularities and seize the thread which holds everything together ; and that is the writer’s passion for and commitment to a profession, which is also a lifestyle and that which he is still living. It is both vivid and candid, with all the warts- including the writer’s- very much in evidence. It is Herman the consummate raconteur, telling you enchanting stories over an evening drink. You will enjoy listening to him.

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