By Abdul H. Azeez
Herman Gunaratne is an effervescent gentleman. Owner of Handunugoda tea estate and the pioneering introducer of white tea to Sri Lanka, he is many things. But at his core is a strong love and understanding of everything to do with tea and, consequently it seems, everything to do with living in interesting times.
His latest book, The Suicide Club, is a romp through his life, an insight into his thoughts and opinions and a generally laudable effort at bringing to life the workings of the British plantation Raj, if its early critiques are anything to go by.
The book is named after an exclusive club to which all Sri Lankan gambling men and women above a certain select level of wealth and society belonged to at the turn of the last century. Herman’s grandfather was its president and his motto was ‘you have to risk all to gain anything’. With this rather obvious aphorism for a gambler, Herman’s grandfather proceeded to adopt a rather loose attitude to his money and gambled the majority of his fortune away.
Consequently, Herman found himself as a young man working in a tea plantation with only his wits, charm and modest wardrobe available to get him there. This is where the book starts. What follows is a set of stories that we are assured will ‘give us a never before shown side in the lives of planters and their lifestyles’.
To this writer, planters always appeared rather stoic and distant; giving the impression of being immersed in an addictive world of their own; of being interconnected despite being isolated from each other whilst confined in vast estates in remote corners of the land and all the while maintaining an air of mystery and intrigue. At the bottom of my mind was always the question, Why? Why do the job? It can’t be all the free cups of tea, surely. So I asked the man himself.
“A plantation manager’s life is like paid for being on a holiday. You are regularly in the most energising temperatures breathing in oxygen when all your fellow human beings are choking on pollution,” says Herman in that relaxed drawl of his. Over the years he has become somewhat of an activist for the tea industry.
“The industry has gone through so many convulsions. From private and British hands it came to Sri Lankan state control, and then it was privatised,” he says. He points out unfortunate trends in the closing down of plantations and the decline of crops and laments the need for independent monitors and proper administration of the industry. In a hopeful note he adds that ‘the new minister I think offers some hope for the sectors’ future as he appears to be a man with a firmer grasp on affairs and he is talking to all players of the game’.
The story of Sri Lanka’s plantation sector has been recorded many times in many different ways. But the majority of these accounts have been written by the British hand. The Suicide Club is touted as the first look at the inner workings of the plantation sector and the changes it has gone through over the last many decades through the eyes of a Sri Lankan.
“The book is a tale of riches to rags to riches again” said Juliet Coombe of Sri Serendipity, his publisher. At her insistence, Herman has visited several of the locations associated with his past that he had given no thought to for decades, many of them were apparently in ruins. There is probably a deep and relevant metaphor in there somewhere, but I cannot quite put my finger on it.
And like most Sri Lankans it seems that Herman appears to have been unable to resist bringing in a few elements of that universal conversation lubricant, politics, into the The Suicide Club’s equation. We are promised tales of political machinations of that notorious group of individuals, planters, in the post colonial era. ‘After the nationalisation’ says Herman ‘the post colonial political environment politicised the plantations as well. Recruitment was not entirely on merit and there were political interventions on all levels,’ says Herman.
This is his fourth book. His previous work The Plantation Raj is now a collectors item. His keen interest in politics and affairs of the state also prompted him to write For A Sovereign State on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka in the late ’80s. He is an understated man with understated words and is dismissive of his success.
When asked about his writing and how he prefers to write he says ‘I write at anytime and anyplace, I really don’t take it that seriously’, probably an enviable result of having a career as a permanent holidaymaker.
The Suicide Club however was a work he’d written a while ago. ‘I had stopped writing the book an year or so ago, but then Juliet and Daisy (from Sri Serendipity) renewed my interest in it’. Indeed Juliet Coombe, Publishing Director of Sri Serendipity has been catalytic in getting the book out.
“I was working on GenerationT and wanted a character from the area in Galle. Galle is an unusual place for tea because it is so close to the sea and I heard about Herman’s white tea being the most expensive tea in the world. When I met Herman I realised that he was a great raconteur. When I learned that he had this other manuscript I was immediately interested, I read it in one go.”
“It is an honest book, it inspires the reader not only to think but also to act, and Herman is very candid and open about himself in it” continues Juliet. “He has lived by a code of integrity, freedom of choice and justice”. She is full of praise for Herman’s dry wit and calls him the Oscar Wilde of Sri Lankan writing. “He’s lived life like Jeffery Archer, lived it to the full. People like characters that can live very big and still be on an appreciable moral scale. Herman is a natural film star. The Suicide Club has been selling fast.”
Sri Serendipity focuses on real life stories with an emphasis on people. Their recent publications have included Around The Fort In 80 Lives and Sri Lanka’s Other Half, both groundbreaking travel books that have sold well internationally. They take a peculiar twist to the standard text only book. Pictures and other visual content are used to maximum affect. A brief skim through the pages of The Suicide Club left me hungry for more. It appears to be a book that promises a refreshing and relaxed read like a nice hot cup of tea.