Writ­ten in stone

Shad­owy sto­ries are re­vealed at a grave­yard in Kandy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PICO I YER

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.


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