Out of Sri Lanka: A black comedy of manners as old as the hills

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The Independent Online
COLOMBO - The drive from Colombo up to the hill country where Sri Lanka's tea is grown is like a journey back through time. Off the busy road to Kandy, along the switchback route up the mountains towards Nuwara Eliya, the tea plantations run up and down the slopes much as they did when they were first planted by the British 100 years ago. There is not a tractor or an automatic crop sprayer in sight - just flocks of Tamil women in bright clothes wading through the tea bushes, plucking the leaves as their mothers and grandmothers did.

It is cooler up here, the hills are green and peaceful, and very soon Sri Lanka's brutal war and political turmoil, which nine days ago brought the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, seem very far away. Some older Sri Lankans, in unguarded moments, speak fondly of the stability and order of the British regime, and the bungalows, country gardens and sporting clubs in the hill country are monuments to nostalgia. But some of the more curious aspects of colonialism are preserved here, too, in pristine condition, as shocking as they are anachronistic.

But first the tea. Sri Lanka produces more tea than any country in the world except India, and it is an important source of foreign exchange. The tea bushes - which would be trees if it were not for repeated pruning - produce new leaves for picking every seven to 10 days. The whole business is quite labour intensive.

Sri Lanka's tea industry has been losing ground to its competitors in India and Kenya since all the big estates were nationalised in 1975 by the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Poor management and a lack of new investment saw production go down and costs go up, until Premadasa's government finally accepted the need for reforms. Last year the estates were grouped into a series of enterprises, and put out for private management, initially on five-year contracts.

Tyrone Howie manages the Hellbodde estate, and has 1,000 workers under him. He has been 'planting' tea for 30 years, and his first lessons were from the old British planters. He thinks the reforms will work, making the tea industry profitable again. The government 'cannot go back now' on its move towards privatisation, he says, although many inefficiencies have crept in during the period of state control, and it is still politically impossible to lay off unwanted workers. But his estate runs fairly smoothly, and the tea he serves in his house bears little relation to the execrable tea-bags of the all-too-busy industrialised West.

Hellbodde Estate is 3,500 feet above sea level: further up, at about 6,000 feet, is the old British hill station of Nuwara Eliya, which functioned as a cool sanatorium for soldiers and civilians drained by the tropical climate of the rest of the island. It was set up as a resort in 1825, and acquired houses with gabled roofs, an Anglican church, and one of the most difficult golf courses in Asia - complete with impenetrable gorse bushes from Scotland.

Today Nuwara Eliya is a weekend retreat for rich businessmen and moneyed property owners from Colombo, who behave almost as if they were parodying colonial times. In the golf club, affected upper-class English accents and foreign educations are bandied around as valuable social capital in the game of status acquisition. This level of society, barely touched by the violence that has ravaged Sri Lanka for the past decade, regards any mention of politics as a lapse of etiquette.

Next to the golf course is the renowned Hill Club, built in 1876 and still functioning as a private club as well as a hotel for tourists. Its walls are hung with the mounted heads of wild boar and deer, a hollow elephant's leg serves as an umbrella stand outside the men's bar - no women permitted - and a jacket and tie are required for dinner.

But most amazingly, Sri Lankans are not allowed into the Hill Club, unless accompanied by a member. Membership is restricted, and only a small number of Sri Lankans have been admitted past the self-inflicted racial barrier: the current president is a Sri Lankan. Sri Lankans who have emigrated and now carry British or Australian passports are exempt. 'Something to do with keeping its old appeal,' said a man in the golf club. Some appeal, 45 years after independence.