“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.” – [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A vision of paradise

Remembering Nihal Fernando

“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.”

- Edward Abbey
I first met Nihal Fernando back in 1996. After having spent almost my entire life in the United Kingdom I had returned to the country of my birth, happy to be back and rediscovering my roots, but still feeling a little lost and out of place. I was reacquainting myself with family, re-acclimatising to the tropical weather, and most importantly trying to find a place for myself in society.

As the adjustments gradually progressed, I took some comfort pursuing my artwork, which had been a lifelong hobby but nothing more. However a few months later, coaxed by family and friends, I found myself participating in a group exhibition at the Lionel Wendt Gallery. I had a few paintings, discreetly secreted in a far corner, and was quietly thrilled any time anyone wrote something about my work in the visitor’s book. And it was on the final day, while browsing through these comments, that Nihal Fernando strolled into the gallery. As a friend of my grandparents I was never quite sure whether he had been compelled to make this obligatory visit, but whatever the reason, it was a meeting that would change my life.

It was only later that I realised that Nihal Fernando was the author and creator of the book that took pride of place on my grandmother’s coffee table – The Wild, The Free, The Beautiful. That book had been one of the reasons why I had longed to return to Sri Lanka. Those images had captivated me – the photographs presenting an almost mythical, primeval vision of Sri Lanka – they were signposts to a land I now desperately wanted to discover for myself.
So when just a few weeks after my exhibition, Mr. Fernando paid a visit and offered me the chance of a lifetime, I could not believe my luck. He was working on the final stages of what many believe to be his magnum opus, Sri Lanka: A Personal Odyssey. A treasure trove of images from over 40 years of photographing his beloved country, accompanied by an exquisite collection of prose, it was obviously a work of dedication and love, and he wanted it to be perfect.

He asked whether I’d like to help edit the outstanding chapters – match poem and prose to picture, and thereby help create a semblance of a storyline that would shape the entire book. The job would also entail several more photographic trips across the island, to fill a few gaps that he felt were still remaining. And so began a journey into the back of beyond, an adventure that would last for most of the next two years.

But before those expeditions to the far corners of the island, one of my first trips with Mr. Fernando was to his family’s plantation in Chilaw. It was probably both an ice-breaker and preliminary test of my photographic skills, as I was now an official member of Studio Times Ltd., and would have to start contributing to their library (if I was good enough).

For most of that first day I was left to my own devices, to explore the plantation itself, with camera in hand. And I soon discovered that I was walking through a kind of botanical wonderland. At least half the land had been planted with countless varieties of mango, of all shapes and sizes; most of which I had never seen before. There were other wild and wonderful fruits growing here too and by the time I had explored the entire property, it was already late afternoon. It was then that I noticed a herd of buffalo, stretched out in a long procession, entering the plantation grounds – and at the head of the herd, leading them in with a broad smile on his face, was Mr. Fernando himself.

Those buffalo were following him like so many overgrown puppies, and it was only when I came closer that I realised they all had blue eyes. Mr. Fernando explained that they were a very rare breed confined to a certain part of the island, and he was trying to build up their numbers in his own breeding program. Apparently the curd produced from their milk was exceptional!

The livestock and the trees were a reflection of Mr. Fernando’s deep respect for Sri Lanka’s ancestral agrarian society. He was endeavoring to preserve what was slowly being lost to modernity. He believed in the traditions of living off the land and existing in harmony with the environment.
And I realised that my education had begun.

The next morning we woke early, and soon after breakfast, we were greeted by a man who turned out to be the local toddy tapper. He came bearing gifts; three arrack bottles filled to the brim with freshly tapped toddy. Mr. Fernando and I sat on the verandah. He poured out a frothy glass for both of us, and then he said, “Charith, we shall see now how Sri Lankan you are.”

For the rest of the day we proceeded to drain the bottles of their contents. As the sun beat down, I began to sweat, and the smell of the toddy emanated from us. The heady aroma of yeast gradually enveloped me and I became pleasantly drunk and was probably uttering nonsense… in front of the man who to all intents and purposes was my boss.

I think I passed the test however, because on our return to Colombo, I was given my own camera kit and soon afterwards we were on the road. Over those next months, we traversed thick jungles, high mountain passes, and barren, windswept coastlines. I learned about the people that lived there, the sustainable ways in which they endured, and the traditions that held these communities together. All the while, in his own inimitable way, Mr. Fernando was teaching me. As always, it was an experiential education, and I was learning to tell these stories through the lens.

In the hundreds of miles that we covered over those two years, I learned so much; not just about the art of photography, but also the culture of rural Sri Lanka. No text book or lecture could have ever compared. But more than just opening my eyes to the country of my birth, Nihal Fernando’s education gave me a sense of place; and ultimately made me feel like I belonged.

But even this chapter had to finally come to an end. A Personal Odyssey was published, and to this day I still experience a small flush of pride reading my name in the credits. But I also had aspirations of my own. So when eventually, the time and opportunity arose for me to follow my dreams of making television programmes and producing wildlife documentaries, I received one of my most valued letters of recommendation from Mr. Fernando. It was straightforward and to the point, and simply ended with, “Charith can drive for days on end, he can sleep anywhere and he can eat anything. I shall miss him.”

I last visited Mr. Fernando around four years ago. I had been warned beforehand that his health had deteriorated quite considerably. But I still hadn’t been prepared to meet the quiet, stooped man, dressed in his familiar white long-sleeves – but rooted as it were, statuesque in his rattan chair. I sat with him for only 20 minutes or so, but it seemed to stretch on for much longer. He didn’t utter a word; just stared in my general direction. I had hoped for a spark of recognition in his eyes, but I could sense his weariness, the absolute fatigue of his illness, and I did not want to intrude much longer.

Mr. Fernando had always been frugal with his words. He would have a reason and purpose for saying what he did. Frivolous conversation was not his thing. But it was painful to see my mentor bathed in this silence. So I said my farewells and was accompanied outside by his daughter, Anu. She thanked me for visiting and I apologised for having left it for so long, work commitments in Singapore having prevented me from coming down sooner.

As I left, I gazed once more on Nihal Fernando’s beloved Perfumed Garden, this verdant, living memory of all his favourite corners of Sri Lanka – these plants that he had so painstakingly collected over the years. The delicate snowflake-shaped water-plants of the southern wetlands; the aptly named Gloriosa superba, that extravagant, climbing flame lily of the savannahs – crowning the trees above, and the many jasmines and queens of the night that would expel their intoxicating aromas every evening.

I realised then that this would be the last time I’d see him. Those two years of adventure suddenly seemed like they had been lived by someone else, in another lifetime. And I knew that my vision of this earthly paradise, so shaped and influenced by the man who taught me about the magic light of predawn and how to tell a story without the need for words – would never be the same again.

Few men were so loyal to their maternal earth. Few men could recognise paradise so clearly.
One day, on that windswept coastline, I will call out his name, and thank him for bringing me home…

- Charith Pelpola

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