- Publishers Sri Serendipity Publishing House
- Suicide Club by Herman Gunaratne
By Gamini Weerakoon
Malinga Herman Guneratne is rare not only among the species of the tea planting tribe but also with the Sri Lankan community at large. Whereas Sri Lankans tend to hide or be evasive of the misdemeanours of their ancestors, Guneratne regales us of how his grandpas and great grandpas busted up their wealth in gambling and within a few generations, left him with only a self generating kick-start in life.
That is how Suicide Club swings off to a start. His legacy is of the palmy days under the British when coconuts dropped like rain in the rich fertile lands of southern coconut plantations and money flowing from copra and coconut oil into bank accounts led to the carefree life of the owners. They gambled heavily and the financial suicide gallows was his ancestral home at Matara where the Suicide Club gathered.
What is most amusing is that Guneratne who is one of the victims of this ancestral profligacy does not seem to have the slightest remorse. He not only appears to have a sneaking admiration for his ancestors’ financial recklessness in gambling but time and again attempts to suggest that the ‘gambles’ he had taken in his plantation career standing up to the white Sahib could probably be because of the reckless ancestral genes he had inherited. He, however, was either fortunate or unfortunate in not inheriting the material legacies of his ancestors and Suicide Story is that of the survival of a planter with a stubborn backbone that was not flexible to the dictates of the Plantation Raj or the bureaucratic raj that followed.
Suicide Club is a story, the writer says should serve as a guide to young planters about management strategies of plantations which went from British days to the turbulent days of management of state owned corporations and now privately managed plantations. Perhaps the basics of the industry will remain the same and that is probably why Guneratne says it is a managerial guide to future planters. We are not privy to secrets inside or around the tea bush and we leave it to this planter of over 40 years experience and his readers to decide.
To a student of Sri Lankan history or even sociology this is an account of the transition period of the plantations from the days of the Plantation Raj to nationalised plantations and thereafter. At the time Guneratne took to his career British planters had got the message that their time was up and were gradually pulling out even though nationalisation was hardly spoken of. This was the period when Sri Lankans mainly from the best known ‘public schools’ were replacing British planters. These schools have inherited traditions of British public schools and the transition was smooth with Sri Lankan planters performing their duties with aplomb much to the satisfaction of the managers of the British plantations who remained in their head offices in Colombo.
The meat of the book is on the frolics of the Sri Lankan planters who were provided with ample facilities which other Sri Lankan professions could not dream of – well maintained bungalows with gardeners, membership in plantations clubs with expenses paid, vehicles and many more. Guneratne while working in these British owned estates met future politicians and trade union leaders such as the legendary Saumyamurthy Thondaman who played a key role in his career. He commenced his ‘creeping’ in an estate owned by a chettiar where he underwent much privations but still has glowing praise to the owners. It was a hard climb but the determination to succeed carried him through into the real British owned plantation Raj. Life was good but if one crossed swords with a boorish British pukka sahib it would be curtains. It nearly happened to our author when playing billiards at the club. Gunaratne who still carries off an air of nonchalance and daring was aiming his cue with a cigarette dangling from his mouth when a white plantation boor raged loud and clear: “Take the bloody cigarette out of your mouth” before one and all. Guneratne couldn’t take it. “If I burn the baize, I will replace it” he had hollered back. Such impertinence to a superior plantation boss was unheard of even in the ‘60s and ‘70s and Guneratne was in hot water.
But he came through it all and British managers of his own company found him another billet in another estate: much bigger and more prestigious than the one he had served. The Britisher was fair and appreciated you if you stood straight, did your job and did not kowtow to them, is the theme of his book.
During his stay in Dunsinane Estate, one of the biggest tea plantations in the country, Guneratne eased into high level politics where he had many close shaves including one which sent him behind bars for many months till Minister S.Thondaman rescued him. It’s a delightful book full of anecdotes such as an estate cook out of job making an application for employment to an upper crust English lady: ‘I not married will look after lady like my own. When master go visiting I will do nice things to lady like Patrridge lady…. I am good at massaging. Like rubbing lady nicely at nice, nice places……’
Anecdotes are the mainstay of the book ranging from planters having hitch-hiking girls as guests to Lord Louis Mountbatten, Vice Roy of India and Ceylon visiting Dimbulla Estate adjoining the estate Guneratne was on. Mountbatten had had his hill station resort on Dimbulla Estate during World War II. He had asked for his old gardner, Sinniah of 40 years before and wanted to see him. The meeting of Sinniah and Mountbatten is quite moving and illustrates the good relations even top ranking Englishmen had even with the humblest of their subjects.
Suicide Club is extremely well edited both regards to the written content, photographs and is an exemplary production. Gunaratne has had the benefit of talent from the Galle Literary Club such as Juliet Coombe and Mark Thompson.