Written in stone
Shadowy stories are revealed at a graveyard in Kandy
THEIR ages when they died were 23 or 24 or 74 days, and they are described in the barely legible letters on the headstones as infant daughter or son.
The names beside them might make up an atlas of homesickness — Epsom and Abingdon and Surrey, as keenly remembered here as in the buildings all around (called Glendower and Ascot and St Andrews) that try to make home seem less far away with hotwater bottles and Anglican bells and billiards tables.
The words aspire, in the classic British way, to hold their heads high but something else keeps slipping through: ‘‘Man appoints but God can disappoint’’ and ‘‘We walk by faith, not by effort’’.
As I keep surveying the ages — six months, seven months, 26, 24 — I see the real, unwritten story of the island of Sri Lanka. Diseases that had never been heard of in Britain, or ‘‘cirrhosis of the liver’’, as one long-time English resident in Colombo assures me.
The dead might have been victims of foreignness itself.
I suppose, as the son of products of British India, born in Oxford with a complexion that speaks of Bombay, I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries and the shadow stories they tell, especially in places where the mingled unions of empire are most visible on headstones. In once BritishIndian Aden, in Patagonia, certainly everywhere across South Asia, the elegies you find in country churchyards tell the story of Britain abroad with a human directness that textbooks shirk.
But few graveyards I have visited are more redolent of all the spirits in the air than the British Garrison Cemetery, which sleeps on a small, unmarked ridge just a few minutes’ walk from Queen’s Hotel and St Paul’s Church in the Buddhist capital of Kandy in Sri Lanka’s hilly heart.
Just below it is the Temple of the Tooth, the single most striking and gorgeous image of what was long a separate kingdom here in the island’s interior, and which sits around a lake.
What the British brought to Sri Lanka, and took from there, acquired a whole new meaning in a country that, as soon as it gained independence, in 1948, reverted to age-old tribal divisions and started to tear itself apart.
The graveyard’s headstones, I learn, had once been shipped all the way from Britain, on vessels that took back to Blighty tea and cocoa and rubber from the ‘‘island of gems’’. I walk around the silent tablets one hot day in late June and look at the headstones recalling some poor soul who ‘ ‘ died suddenly of sunstroke at Rozel Estate, Ambegoda’’.
As I lean in closer to try to make out the full inscription, I see a movement in the trees and then a man, who has been lying in a tree trunk, as if in a hammock, reading a Sinhalese paper, comes out of his perch and greets me in his language.
I turn away — Kandy swarms with unwanted friends, as do most poor places where the occasional visitor is a lottery ticket on two legs — but this man, clearly used to such brusqueness, says, ‘‘I work here. My name is Charles Carmichael.’’ I have taken him for yet another Sri Lankan drifter but now I look again at the beetrootbright shirt, the sandy grey hair, neatly parted on the side, and I see that the Carmichael name is no lie.
It’s common in Sri Lanka, as in parts of India, to meet Johns and Thomases and Abrahams, and especially to meet De Souzas, Fonsecas and Fernandezes, whose names recall the Portuguese settlers of the 16th century. But a dark-skinned Carmichael is rare. And the keeper of graves perhaps has taken me, too, for a mongrel product of Sri Lanka who doesn’t know quite where he belongs.
Now, as he switches to fluent English, I see the ‘‘Charles’’ in his brisk syllables and intricate, easy diction (almost too intricate; it’s the type of English I have yet to encounter anywhere across the island). ‘‘I come from an Englishlanguage household,’’ he says, to deflect the question that he knows is on the way.
Charles tells me his grandfather, a good, upstanding Carmichael, had visited a Hindu priest on the island and been very taken with the holy man’s daughter. She was only 15 but the English were used to getting what they wanted and soon she was pregnant by the Englishman. Not much later he headed off to Calcutta, never to be seen again, but, unusually, his grandson tells me, he sent back money for the boy’s mother and his education.
Another Englishman came across the unattended mother and made her more times.
Charles Carmichael preserves some irony towards the colonisers, stressing to me that the gravestones are all the British left in exchange for the tropical treasures and spices they took away from Sri Lanka. But he is keen to stress the good they did, too, now and then. Things are shoddy in Sri Lanka, he takes pains to tell me; the solid constancies of Britain are nowhere to be found.
‘‘Most of these graves have been torn up,’’ he goes on, a little like a host apologising to a guest who has surprised him in the middle of a shambles, ‘ ‘ by looters. They thought there would be j ewels here, family heirlooms. They didn’t know the English don’t take their treasures to their graves. So it is in a state of terrible neglect.’’
It is for that reason he was appointed by the church to come and clean up before Prince Charles was due to visit in 1998. ‘‘And after the visit they asked me to stay on.’’
I look around at the stunted grass, the undisturbed silence. ‘‘Do many English people come here to find their roots?’’
‘‘Oh yes. There have been seven visitors,’’ he replies.
He clearly doesn’t want to lose his eighth visitor. ‘‘Now, see that grave over there? Died of sun-
few stroke at Rozel Estate? Well, Rozel Estate is not very hot. What happened was that he ran into a wild elephant. The elephant must have chased him and so he must have got very warm and fainted of sunstroke.’’
Another man had died the falling of a house’’.
‘ ‘ Sabotage,’’ says my kindly guide. ‘ ‘ The English do things properly. Their houses don’t fall down like ours.’’
In the distance, a tall memorial recalls a man who had been the most powerful in the area. When he died, Charles tells me, he gave his money not to his own offspring but to all the children in Sri Lanka who were illegitimate, with English fathers and Sinhalese mothers. ‘‘Because he knew their lives would be difficult.’’
Charles pauses. ‘‘It’s so unusual, that kind of selflessness.’’
Killed by falling trees, killed by falling houses; Elliot, Fenerson, Freckletown, Garnock. From Lewes, Aberdeenshire, Weraloo. Whole lives compressed into a few words or lines.
The most recent body arrived in 1951, that of a woman who had been denied entrance in the early days of independence until the church pursued action against the local council to put her where she belonged.
Had I spoken to Charles Carmichael on the phone, I would have presumed someone blond, tall, from a goodish school, perhaps, the kind of upstanding fellow who represents old England in films. But the man before me, as divided as the island all around him, has Tamil blood and Sinhalese and British. He has never suffered from his mixed inheritance, he insists, though he was denied a passport because he did not have three generations of ancestors all born on the island.
Once upon a time, at the beginning of Charles’s tenure, when the other Charles, from Buckingham Palace, was due to visit the cemetery, just after the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth next door, his security officers had told the prince it wasn’t safe so he flew over here in a helicopter.
He offers to show me his little office, where a book written many years before teased out the life stories that he has been sharing with me. On one wall is a tiny framed letter from Prince Charles charmingly telling his local hosts how sorry he was to have missed the opportunity to see the graveyard. ‘‘I hope one day,’’ wrote the heir to the crown, ‘‘to be able to see the really interesting places in Sri Lanka.’’ They hope, much more powerfully, to see him.