Life in a Colonial Bungalow

By Richard Boyle

Two main categories of books on Ceylon, usually indicative of the sex of the author, emerged during the British colonial period. The mission of the majority of the male authors was to promote the island as a commercial proposition for pioneers and investors, or to amass information on the colony. The scant female authors, however, had a different agenda and a different sensibility. Their works, generally being of the memoir type, were more personal and impressionistic, and their descriptions often demonstrate they were more observant than the males.

My favourite such memoir is Caroline Corner’s ‘Ceylon the Paradise of Adam: The Record of Seven Years’ Residence in the Island’, published in London and New York in 1908. Caroline Corner: what a great name, seemingly coined, for an actress or singer! Her main predecessors- Maria Graham: A Residence in India (1812), Constance Gordon-Cumming: Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892) and Marianne North: Recollections of a Happy Life (1892) – may have been more pioneering in their travels, but none had her urban experience, engaging style and dry sense of humour. Here are some invaluable observations on early 20th-century Colombo bungalows, both colonial and local – their decoration and design, creepy-crawly guests, and manner of organisation.

‘East and West do Meet and Mingle’

“White, virgin white, all of it. Some are yellow, others pink, and so on, but these (bungalows) are invariably in the occupation of ‘natives’. The European draws the line at white. White the stately pillars of the square portico, white the pillars on either side, two of them, some twenty feet, within. These four pillars lined the long stone verandah screened by closely wooded tats and curtained by trellised and clambering creepers, as well as carpeted by Indian matting and a few loose rugs. In the centre of the verandah, and facing the imposing portico, was a pair of jakwood doors lofty and large, by day always wide open, except when the monsoon rages wild and furious. At the top of these doors were elaborate perforations by way of ventilation and decoration both. The Sinhalese are mightily proud of these designs and achievements, and always when bargaining for the bungalow draw European attention thereto. The locks of these doors, however, have much to be desired. Why they have locks at all is a mystery, starting from the point of their usefulness. A push and a shove and the lordliest of doors gives way, and one finds oneself in the drawing-room.

“Herein lie the pomp and circumstance of the dwelling – a queer combination in which the centripetal and centrifugal forces of East and West do meet and mingle. The effect although bizarre, is picturesque and somewhat artistic withal. Civilisation and barbarism, crudity and culture, the latter depending on the European occupant individually, for collectively culture is conspicuous by its absence in Ceylon – ancient and modern, everything antithetical and anachronical arranged together in delightful olla podriga [Spanish: “all sorts of things” - dish with many ingredients] of the Orient and the Occident.

“All of the best is here, however – the pomp and circumstance of the bungalow, and of the occupant, who, if a ‘Service Man’ lets that fact speedily be known. As on the verandah wicker chairs and bamboo tables preponderate, those from Singapore with cushions after Liberty being very comfortable indeed. A teapoy or two is de rigueur, as likewise are the card table, cabinets in beautifully carved Bombay wood, whatnots, and bric-a-brac of the gentlewoman of today, that is if she determines to live as though she were still a resident in, say, South Kensington.”

Uninvited Guests

“The walls are a feature of the Orient,” Corner declares. “In Cynthia’s home they were ‘distempered’ olive green, with stencillings of salmon pink, very effective and restful on the eyes. From a distance, however, the wall bore a distinct resemblance to a map in a London railway guide. Lines and lines traversed them, meeting sometimes and forming mounds that might be junctions, then diverging and continuing from floor to ceiling, from ceiling to floor, ay, and across the floor, lines of mud, constructed by white ants all over the rattan matting.

A Colombo dwelling boasts of seven different genus of ants, each with an individual taste in the way of appetite, although all are gourmands, thence nothing falls foul of the ants, from the interior of the piano to the interior of the sugar basin, with everything between, the dining-table having to stand in wells of water on their account and even then the white cloth is traversed by opposing regiments of them as soon as laid. The ceiling – a mere sheet of chunamed canvas stretched tightly beneath the tiles – permits of a few inches space against either wall as an exit for huge furry spiders which, when the lamps are lit, take their walks abroad from their nest in the tiles, foraging for gnats, mosquitoes and whatnot for their next day’s dinner.”

The Vagaries of Island Architecture

The vagaries of island architecture were, according to Corner, exemplified by the uncertainty in the disposition of windows by Oriental architects, for “One room may have many; another none. However, the drawing-room had three, while a small apartment on either side, which were called respectively a ‘boudoir’ and a ‘study’, were all window from ceiling to floor, although the spare room – a large one - was windowless.”

Corner reveals that the drawing-room and dining-room were divided by “a remarkably handsome screen of beautifully carved jakwood, reaching almost to the ceiling. The dining-room, however, boasts of an Austrian pinewood ceiling, which though it may prevent insects flavouring your soup, certainly rendered the atmosphere hotter, spite of the punkah. The only item distinctive, saving the punkah, which is addicted to St. Vitus’s dance owing to the wallah continuously being caught napping, was the extraordinary number of soda-water glasses on the dinner-wagon and the display of delicious tropical fruit.”

‘A Cool and Cosy Couch for Snakes’

From Corner’s description it appears that the bungalow was in the vicinity of the Beira Lake and possessed a magnificent garden, typical of the era:

“On either side of these pomp and circumstance apartments are the bed, dressing, and bathrooms. They overlooked the palm-fringed lake – a truly lovely view; the others, the compound, in which trees – suryas, peepuls, papois, castor-oil, pomegranates, sugar-cane, cocoa-nut, dare and areca palms flourished; while bougainvillea, beaumontias, pineapples, pumpkins, cucumbers, with trailing columbine and begonia formed a luxuriant tangle over a carpet of orchids and blossoms that spring up in a day and make a cool and cosy couch for snakes. Right in front of the bungalow was its glory – to the gharry-passengers [gharry: boxlike vehicle with small wheels] a marvel – to wit, a flambeau tree. Twice a year its far-reaching branches were pendant with blossom. Such blossom! Bell-shaped, each fell from each branch several feet in length, in colour red, brilliant as fire.”

In Fear of Appoo

Lastly, here’s Corner’s warning to newly-arrived brides in Ceylon concerning the loyalty of “bachelor factotums”, especially that of the Appoo, a syndrome well-examined in the film Elephant Walk, with Elizabeth Taylor having to contend with the situation in which her orders are not taken seriously by the staff.

“And now a word for the household economy. Practically it was in the hands of the Appoo, or head servant, called by Europeans unaccustomed to such a functionary, ‘my butler.’ The Appoo is, indeed, not merely a star of the first magnitude, he is a sun, around whom all the domestic system revolves. Cynthia was inclined to be a bit afraid of such a mighty personality. He had been her husband’s servant for seven years. Brides, beware of these bachelor factotums!

House-boy, dressing-boy, coolie, even the ayah is subservient to him. Not so the cook, who is a law unto himself and a terror over his ‘mate’ or assistant; not so the Muttu, or horsekeeper, who only makes his appearance twice a day at the back verandah door in order to exhibit the paddy and gram prior to giving to the horse, as he would say – previous to purloining as Cynthia soon found out.”

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