A long journey to the past

Inspired by Michael Ondaatje's lyrical writings about his birthplace in Sri Lanka, Beverley D'Silva, whose family exchanged prosperity in the tropics for poverty in London, goes there in search of her roots
Click to follow
There are strange days. We may no longer believe in God, but the desire for origins, a place to belong, grows stronger. "The search for ancestors is a search for nobility," writes Steve Jones, professor of genetics. That search can be compulsive in those severed from their ethnic roots, like the children of immigrants to Britain in the Fifties. The writer Michael Ondaatje returned to his birthplace in Sri Lanka because, he said, "in my mid-thirties I realised I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood."

Reading his autobiography, Run-ning in the Family, was like regressing to another life. My family, like Ondaatje's, came to England in the Fifties. My parents were Burghers - Sri Lankans of mixed blood. Ondaatje's father was of Tamil origin, his mother of Dutch. But the place was an ethnic melting-pot and, as he says, "every-one was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood going back many generations". The world Ondaatje described was so familiar. The flame trees and frangipani. String hoppers and seeni sambol. The passion for storytelling and the supernatural. The Burghers' fun-loving urge to "put a party". His father's "manic alcoholic consumption". All oddly familiar.

Ondaatje made me realise I had been caught between two cultures all my life. By day I was like any other teenager growing up in Sixties London, with an unquenchable desire for British pop, fashion and revolution. At night I went home to the foods, accents and habits of my Sri Lankan family, and all the dislocation that implied. The West Indian and Asian communities had prominent figures to give voice to their history and culture, such as Gandhi and VS Naipaul, and the Trinidadian historian CLR James. It is only recently, by comparison, that the Sri Lankan Burgher voice has emerged. The first I was aware of was Ondaatje. Then came Romesh Gunesekera, whose novel Reef was shortlisted for the Booker in 1994. This year I discovered Carl Muller, who has written extensively in quasi-fictional style about the Burghers.

If the Burghers never made it on to the cultural map, it's because they were Sri Lanka's smallest ethnic minority: in the Fifties they were 0.5 per cent of a population of 8 million. The island, a teardrop at the foot of India, was occupied from the 16th century by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Burghers were the product of marriages between the natives and those colonials, on whose coat-tails they rode, enjoying the good life. The payback came in 1956, when SWRD Bandaranaike began the nationalistic reforms, replacing English with Sinhala as the first language. Many Burghers refused to raise their children speaking Sinhala. So they left, in their droves, the rich losing land and property to the reforms. They went mainly to Australia and England. Some grew rich. Some went down the dumper. Some still mourn for their south-Asian idyll, their "Paradise Lost".

The migration was not forced. My grandparents were among the Burghers who stayed and adapted to the new regime. In their posed studio portrait, Aelian and Merlyn Chapman of Mount Lavinia, dressed in starched clothes of jungle white, seemed like characters in an EM Forster novel. Apart from funny names and clothes, they had servants. (My grandmother Merlyn's faithful maid, Backhouse Mary, was not pictured.) And connections. They partied with Colombo's upper crusts. They enjoyed the trappings of a semi-colonial lifestyle.

I'd never understood why my parents chose to leave. Why swap privilege for poverty; the sunny tropics for cold, damp London? They couldn't explain it themselves. My mother, Ruth, blocked out her past. I could only imagine her youth as being like that of Marguerite Duras in the Mekong jungle. Sweltering skies and swanky costumes. Ella Fitzgerald's voice filtering from a crackling gramophone. Languorous afternoons of sex.

The search for ancestors was getting to me. "Go. See for yourself," my mother said, secretly hoping I wouldn't. "Those thugs are bombing the place. But if you must, go."

Bombs. They were as much of a threat here as there, was my argument. So I went.

Mount Lavinia, eight miles outside Colombo, was the ancestral grail. But when I came within a tuk-tuk ride of the family town, I stalled. What if it proved to be an anti-climax? What if bad memories lay in wait for me? Playing for time is easy to do at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Established in 1802 when Sri Lanka became a British colony (it was the country residence of a British governor; Lavinia, legend has it, was his love), the place is an institution. My relations, misty-eyed, always recalled it for its famous garden parties of the 1940s. The hotel has grand Victorian interiors and eccentric charm, a mix of English tradition and Asian casualness. But what's so special is its sound. Its fountains, doorman, even its bellboys, are gentle on the ears. Wedding parties for families from Colombo's rich Cinnamon Gardens are quiet and orderly.

I meet Prasanna Jayewardene, director of the hotel, across plates of the best French cuisine on the island. He is a handsome, Byronic-looking man, out of the Sinhalese top drawer. His cousin was JR Jayewardene, the former prime minister and president, who towed an internationalist line. Prasanna sees himself as a man of the people. He would not argue with the die-hard Sri Lankan belief in pre-destiny, "when your card's marked". A favourite local saying is "don't attempt anything which doesn't come easily - you may find you didn't want it anyway". Which all sounds like a bit of a cop-out. But it explains my mother's favourite: "You worry too much."

Mount Lavinia's palm-fringed beach of 1943 was the scene of lovers' trysts. Couples stole across its moonlit expanse to the darkness of the rocks. In wartime, Ruth sneaked away for one such tryst with Pat, a GI, based at the American Air Force camp at Ratmalana. An American boyfriend was like a trophy, a piece of the West, fascinating to a 16-year-old girl with Western tastes for cigarettes and dresses copied from the latest Paris models. Her affair with Pat was innocent, just stolen kisses. But if her father had known, she'd have been dead. He was away then, at the new hospital in Angoda. An architect, he went where the work was. It wouldn't have been the soldier's nationality he'd have objected to. He'd have objected to any man. But young women, especially those who'd joined the war effort, as Ruth had, wanted more than their mothers' quiet, subservient lives. They wanted their own money. They wanted excitement. Ruth would soon marry a man who fantasised that he was Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who'd go shooting rabbits in the haunted cemetery, crash his bike and break his leg; who watched movies at the picture house in town with her, and shared her dreams of the West. Whether her father liked it or not.

I tried to call the man who could show me Merlyn's house and tell me whether Backhouse Mary was still alive. "Back next week," I was told by his Sinhalese servant. "When?" I asked. "Next week, sometime." he replied stubbornly. Time has a different meaning here - a vague one. So, to fill it, I took a tour with a friend, a guide and driver, going south on the Galle Road.

The first five miles from Colombo are a tourist trap of ugly hotels and scrubby beaches. Frenetic roadside facades - piles of jack fruit and foul- smelling durian on the sidewalk, hand-scrawled notices for "ECG health tests here". These eventually give way to tranquillity, interrupted only by the odd fishing village, a julienne of rag, stick and bone. Not until one reaches Hikkaduwa, haunt of Australian surfers and scuba divers, does Sri Lanka satisfy its reputation for scenic beauty. The sands are whiter than I've seen in the Caribbean, the palms bushier, more laden with fruit.

Just before Galle, the historic Dutch fort on the south-west coast, a Daliesque vision hoves into view. A group of about 20 men appear to be perched on poles, far out to sea. They are the stilt fishermen of Weligama. I wade into the shallows and beg to photograph them. The fishermen's self- elected spokesman lays out the charges. One hundred rupees (about pounds 1) for single portraits, 250 for a group shot. Why should they care for a bourgeois concept like art being free? I hand him the money. He snatches it, his eyes orange-flecked, like a tiger's.

Sri Lanka has no real tigers, it's not in the same big-cat league as Kenya. Before we entered Yala National Park, on the south-east coast, the gamekeepers confessed this, and humbly asked our forgiveness. I'd have been no judge of their leopards, crocodiles and sambur (elks), anyway. It all seemed thrilling, especially when a grey elephant, high as a house, came so close to our car it snuffed the light out. It was searching for pineapples, the scent of which drives them mad with sugar lust. Even the safari connoisseurs loved the elephant orphanage at Pinawella, which gives sanctuary to about 15 baby elephants, rescued from abandonment in the jungles.

There were no queues to see the orphan elephants, or the temples and antiquities of the "cultural triangle", up country at Polonaruwa, Sigiria and Anaradhupura. Tourism has dropped by one quarter since 1983, when the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils flared up again. The war has consequently been disastrous for Sri Lanka's economy. The government claims everything's under control: it has forcibly repatriated Tamils to the north, and sited armed security blocks every 20 miles around the island. Tourists are rarely, if ever, stopped by army personnel. However, parts of Colombo are still closed after the bomb blast to the main bank last year, and such attacks, however sporadic, are bound to put some visitors off.

There is an old-fashioned steam train which runs from Colombo, on a precarious ascent up rickety mountain tracks, into the Hill Country, to Kandy's Temple of the Tooth, the pearl in the centre of this rich, beautiful town. We took the east road instead. Sri Lanka's major coast roads offer a wonderful diorama. It was the Buddhist full moon (poya day), celebrated with new cooking pots and cycle races. Hot cyclists in Lycra, are drenched by spectators, and accompanied by relatives, sometimes five to a motorcycle. Building is going on everywhere; coolies scale the bamboo scaffolding like spiders on a web.

At Cajugama, women in saris sell the town's eponymous product, the cashew nut, from stalls. Cricket is played on any flat strip of land. The variety of landscape is the best surprise. One is prepared for the overgrown jungle, but in the dry zone, you could easily be driving through the leafy greens of Welsh mountain forests.

The road can also be a hellish racetrack of lurching lorries and tuk- tuks belching diesel fumes. The driving in towns is atrocious. Overturned vehicles, crushed to concertinas of jagged metal and glass, are too common a sight. Come the third collision of the day, one hardly decelerates. Come the fourth, one drives past yawning. Perhaps this is where JG Ballard was inspired to write his collision-fixated novel, Crash. But we saw not one incidence of road rage, or any other rage.

In the heart of tea-picking country, a town called Nuwara Eliya is known as the "little Windsor in the jungle" because of its mock-Tudor and Victorian houses. Sir Samuel Baker was responsible for the anomaly: in 1846 he imported the building materials and the plants to make gardens full of hollyhocks, gladioli and beds of leeks and beetroots, growable in the area's cool climate. Nuwara Eliya was the holiday home of the monied classes - Sinhalese, British, Tamils and Burghers. The Hill Club, surely modelled on the Garrick, with its prohibitive dress and behaviour codes, caters to the worst snobbery. It's a shower for show-offs, where they speak BBC English, more tightly clipped than the topiary in the grounds.

I returned to Mount Lavinia with an image of the island, red as a ruby in my heart. It was dawn and I'd been followed for a mile along the beach by a beach girl. "My name ees Eendigo," she told me. "I'll take you to the Buddhist temple, Miss. The private one." Indigo was insistent. So we crossed the train tracks, which run parallel to the coast, and made towards Vihare Road. People walk for miles on the tracks, adults with children, or a donkey, or a pot-bellied pig on a leash, behind them.

The temple grounds were a tranquil vista of bo trees and sun dappled red earth. On the verandah sat a Buddhist monk, in the customary orange robes and shaved head, frowning at a crossword puzzle. He started, as if he hadn't seen a human for days. The Reverend Nandana Ginikola became a monk at 10, he told us. Faith is not dying here - after asking your nationality, the next question is always "what is your religion?" But monks are a dying breed, and enrolment is falling. "Celibacy is not easy," Nandana said, to explain the falling numbers. He fluttered his eyelashes at me. He was as flirtatious as Brad Pitt. My mother told me of "bad" monks, who invited women into their sleeping quarters for more than the usual religious instruction. Nandana said he was good, devout, "a maths teacher". The temple, a cavernous white space, has an orange and blue Buddha that would make a perfect centrepiece at a rave. I told Nandana he was lucky to live and worship here, in these Elysian fields by the Indian Ocean. Nicer than the grandiose, crowded temple at Kandy. When I left, I offered him money. He refused: one can't pay for friendship, he said. At the end of the trip, I sent him my remaining rupees. He wrote, and told me he'd used them to buy the switch to supply electricity to his mother's house. I had been "the switch that ends the darkness in her life."

In Huludagoda Lane, Mount Lavinia in 1959, life had changed for Merlyn, like many of her neighbours whose adult children had emigrated. She had waved them goodbye from the docks, as cruise ships sailed them to new lives. Now she began an airmail letter to her daughter Ruth with news of the August Perehera. Each year the elephants broke away from the processions of the Buddhist festival and caused havoc and sometimes death. This year was no exception. "The Kandy Perehera was serious. First day, 15 dead, 1,000 injured; second day, 65 taken to hospital."

Merlyn's dhobi woman, Mageleine, had had twins. The laundry was piling up. Her other servant, Backhouse Mary, was "with a big stomach" - Mary's eighth. Two of the woman's boys had rickets, and Merlyn had massaged their legs with oils, and given them herbal medicine and lime juice. She hoped they'd walk.

Indigo was waiting for me outside the temple, and had another project in mind. There's a man who comes to her fishing village; he gives the local women money and takes away their babies. Would I like to meet him? It's unclear whether she thinks I should expose this pimp in the vile baby abduction trade, or use his services. Child prostitution is also rife here. I tell her thanks, perhaps next time. What was her surname, I ask her. D'Silva, she says. Indigo may be one of my long-lost cousins. My heart lurches and she gets an extra large tip.

By some strange coincidence, every person I meet in the next 24 hours is called D'Silva, or a variant thereof. The turbanned DW Silva - "servant of the British army, catering corps, 1940 to 45 ma'am" - who salutes me. Jacqueline Da Silva, manicurist. Rodney de Silva, "doctor" of ayurvedic medicine. No sign of our most famous "cousin", the cricketer Aravinda. By each D'Silva, I was greeted with bone-breaking handshakes. I recall Professor Jones's sage words: "Genes show that all families and all nations are connected by an invisible web of kinship." Only later, looking up the name de Alwis in the local phone book, do I discover that the number of D'Silvas listed in the area is around 3,000.

Neville de Alwis is warden of St Thomas's College. Showing off the immaculate grounds, he instructs me to "please be careful not to step into the sacred quadrangle". Ondaatje spent his schooldays here. As we sip King Coconut from pale orange husks, Neville recalls how English was phased out from the national curriculum. "Now we're reaping the rubbish of the Bandaranaike era," he says. "It has taken 40 years for us to realise that what still divides us is language." English was recently reinstated to the college curriculum.

Neville, now near retirement, was a close friend of my uncle's. His parents, well-off Sinhalese, owned the land and dairy where my family lived. Neville will never forget the nationalistic fervour of 1956, an uprising leading to the departure of his beloved friends to new worlds.

Southampton, 1958, and immigrants are arriving from all over the Third World. India, Pakistan, the Caribbean. They come to meet Britain's demands for fresh labour. Today, the Dutch ship Willem Royce, sailing from Colombo, unloads its human cargo of families who've left their homelands for another reason but whose reception will be similarly cool. They are paler and thinner, after the two week crossing. As a thick pea-souper curled around their legs, meting out elemental punishment severe even for an English February day, they wondered: could humans really withstand such freezing conditions? The tropics were another planet now. But no matter. Here, English was spoken. Here was the home of the BBC World Service, they'd listened to on their radio set. Which, owing to lack of luggage space, and with a host of other things, including property, they'd had to leave behind.

A Mercedes pulls up outside a white house almost obscured by jungle evergreens. This is finally it, Merlyn's house. Her herbal beds, her karapincha tree that my mother recalled so fondly, have long been replaced by rubber plants and tropical weed. Kingsley Fonseca, the house's new owner, begs us to sit, drink a glass of tea, put up our feet, reminisce. It's not what I'd expected. I'd visualised a mansion: columns and arches, a status-symbol drive and wallahs waving palm fronds on the verandah. This is more like a barn with a wooden ceiling, round which a fan staggers drunkenly. Not grand at all. But it has a peaceful feeling. A good place to think.

Kingsley dispatches a messenger to the village who returns with a silver- haired woman. Furious debate in Sinahalese ensues. This is not Backhouse Mary, but her daughter, Guna Wathie. She tells me Mary died 15 years ago, after a road accident. The woman, who is in her fifties, can't remember Merlyn well, but she wants to show me something. We go to the poorest quarter. We pass a woman who soaps herself, under a bathing sari, at the well. Dogs and hens scratch desperately among the rubbish.

At Guna Wathie's house, I meet her brother, Siri Seni. He's a scrap of a man; the span of his hips would hardly make one healthy man's thigh. Siri Seni was one of the boys my grandmother gave medicine to. I can see he's a hooch addict. He takes his first hit of lethal home brew from a filthy chipped cup. It's 9am. Above him, by pictures of sports stars cut from the tabloids, are a few family snapshots. None of Mary. The very poor make but one visit to the professional studio, to have their picture taken prior to death. Mary's departure was too sudden. An elderly woman enters. Her skin is riven like bark, her eyes milky with cataracts. She says her name is Mageleine, that it was she who worked for Mrs Chapman. Furious debate ensues. It could turn into a catfight. Finally, the two women agree on one thing: "She loved us very much."

Now I can see what my parents went through. In Sri Lanka, they were spoilt, feted. Money? When funds ran low, my father would bring home another suitcase full of banknotes from his job at the docks. Wasn't import-export a lucrative number? There, they were something. Life in Britain, could not be the same. Before coming to England, my mother had not done a stitch of housework. After, she had to cook and clean until midnight. When the suitcases of easy money ran out, she took a factory job, pressing buttons. Long hours at one machine. Life was not the same, and she liked it. Her spirit soared. The same process took my father down, into a lightless world of alcoholic oblivion. She swam. He sank. Their story was all too common.

The island was as visually stunning as my dreamiest dreams. But paradise with warts on. The ancestral home was no palace. But one could sense the happy times it had seen. "Home is where you feel at home" was Holly Golightly's wise epithet. My mother chose England because she wanted to. It is home. No going back.