An extreme experience | Sunday Observer

An extreme experience

3 February, 2019

I first met Sir Christopher Ondaatje in 2004 when I was in London. He comes from the famous Ondaatje family (his brother Michael is the author of Running in the Family) and Christopher himself left Ceylon in 1947 to go to school in England, spent five years in the City of London and then went to Canada where he made a fortune – first in finance, and then in publishing.

A lot has been written about Christopher and his business career in Canada. He is an enigmatic man. At the height of his financial power he sold all his companies in Canada and returned to his first love – writing and exploration. He has written a number of books, but the book closest to his heart is The Man-Eater of Punanai (1992) about the man-eating leopard that terrorised the tiny village of Punanai in the early 20th century until an English tea planter Shelton Agar shot it. Far from being only the story of this cunning leopard, Ondaatje uses the story of his return to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) after 38 years – to pick up the pieces of his early family life and to use the story of the man-eater as a metaphor for his relationship with his tyrannical but much-loved father. It is a classic that has sold over a 100,000 copies and describes a way of life that has now completely disappeared on the Island that he loves so much. The book is a parable and a love story.

Anxious to meet him I wrote Ondaatje a letter in 2004 and suggested a meeting in London. Not surprisingly, he wrote back and invited me to have lunch with him at Carafini – his favourite Italian restaurant on Lower Sloane Street – where he lives in London. I told Ondaatje then in 2004 that I was anxious to do an article on him and persuaded him to return to Sri Lanka to do a journey of discovery with him. This is the story of that journey.

Ondaatje is a man of many colours. Although a respected Dutch-Burgher family – the Ondaatjes are in fact Brahmins from North India that followed Shah Jahan (reigned from 1628 to 1658) and conquered South India. The original Ondaatje was a man in Shah Jahan’s court who eventually became Physician to the King of Tanjore (present day Thanjavur). When in 1659 the Dutch Governor of Ceylon, Governor Adriaan van der Meyden’s wife became incurably sick – presumably from cholera - he sent for Ondaatje who came to Ceylon and cured her. In return the Governor gave Ondaatje much land in Kotte, and Ondaatje stayed on the Island and married a Portuguese Lady in Court – Magdalena de Crooz.

That was the start of the Ondaatje dynasty. They were clever people, committed to literature and learning, and to religion. Ondaatje, whose original name was Ondachi, converted to Christianity, and one of his descendants was the first person to translate the Bible into Tamil. The Ondaatjes intermarried, usually with Europeans, and almost certainly the most famous Ondaatje was Peter Philip Juriaan Quint Ondaatje who left Ceylon when he was 12 years, on a scholarship to a university in The Hague, sponsored by a burgomeister Hendrik Hooft, and became head of the Patriot Party in Holland, and led the uprising against the House of Orange (ca. 1785). He became a powerful politician, was exiled to France when the Patriot Party and the supporting Austrians were overthrown, but returned to Holland with the advent of Louis Napoleon (Bonaparte’s brother) in 1806. At that time Quint Ondaatje was one of the six most powerful people in Holland and for a while ran the Dutch East India Company until Bonaparte, suspected of being jealous of his brother’s popularity in Holland, returned him to France and exiled Ondaatje to Java. He died there.

Sir Christopher Ondaatje is a direct descendant of the original Ondaatje (1659) and is proud of his heritage. There have been many Ondaatjes in Ceylon and Sri Lanka, lawyers, politicians, authors, and members of the Church – in particular, St. Thomas’ in Gintupitiya. There is biographical information on many of these Ondaatjes, the most recent being Michael Ondaatje, Christopher’s younger brother, who wrote Running in the Family (1982). The best of Christopher Ondaatje’s books are The Man Eater of Punanai and Woolf in Ceylon.

Ondaatje, now 85 years, lives in London and The Bahamas with his wife Valda. Their three children are grown up and live in California and Greenwich, Connecticut - in the USA, and in England.

Return to Sri Lanka

It wasn’t difficult for me to convince Ondaatje to return to Sri Lanka – the problem was when and for how long. Ondaatje is busy. He is involved with many organisations – particularly, the Royal Geographical Society, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Somerset County Cricket Club. It has taken 14 years for me to organise the diagonal journey binding together many of his famous haunts such as the Yala Game Sanctuary, Gal Oya, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Wilpattu National Park, and eventually Colombo.

My wife Ayanthie and I met Sir Christopher and Lady (Valda) Ondaatje at the Colombo Airport about 1 pm when their plane from London arrived. I had not seen Christopher for four years. Now 85 years old, I was amazed to see that osteoarthritis had affected his feet so that he now walked with the use of a stick. However, his enthusiasm was not diminished and we piled into our van and took the long three and a half hour journey to Tangalle where we had booked rooms at the Anantara Peace Haven. I had recommended a three-day rest to recover from the accumulated jet lag. It was quite overcast when we arrived – but we had time for a Sri Lankan dinner of hoppers and four or five curries which we washed down with some coconut arrack and king coconut water (thambili). We went to bed early that night and the Ondaatjes slept late.

Surprisingly, one of the first things that Christopher wished me to do was to go to a roadside cobbler in Tangalle to get his old safari boots fixed – as the soles were coming apart. He explained that he had not used these boots since 2004 when he was last on the Island. As he explained a fundamental rule for any arduous journey was to have comfortable footwear. While we left the boots to be fixed Christopher also forced me to take him to the local ayurvedic dispensary where he bought some oil made from the Mee tree seed (mousey mi or Madhuca longifolia)– a known aid for arthritis. Christopher continues to passionately believe in the healing powers of ayurvedic medicine in Sri Lanka. We collected the boots around 4 pm, went back to our hotel and had a relaxed discussion of our plans for the next day which included a visit to the Yala Game Sanctuary and the Ondaatje Bungalow (a 1992 gift from Sir Christopher to Yala) as well as a return to Hambantota to witness the reconstruction of the old harbour which took such a catastrophic toll on the morning of Boxing Day December 26, 2004. A return to Hambantota was a sensitive issue for us because we knew that the previous Rajapaksa Government had, in return for help from the Chinese Government to end the civil war in May 2009, allowed the Chinese Government to build its own deep-water harbour in Hambantota – a somewhat criticized gesture.

The next day, Christopher and I left at 8 am and drove straight to the Yala Game Sanctuary main office where we had a meeting with the wildlife personnel – including Warden Siyasinghe, Deputy Warden Ranjith Sisirakumara, and former Director General of Wildlife Dr Sumith Pilapitiya. Many sensitive political issues were discussed, and the problems ensuing from the explosion and popularity of wildlife tourism in Yala. Booking Park bungalows was difficult, there were not enough trackers available to service the Park attendance, and the growth and power of the jeep drivers were making wildlife viewing uncomfortable. We made a separate visit to the Ondaatje Bungalow, which was undergoing some re roofing and plumbing. We were glad to hear that the Bungalow continued to be a popular destination and had served its purpose well in that part of the Park on the road to Kataragama where squatters had posed a dangerous threat to the Park boundary.

An emotional event

Our return to the Hambantota Rest House around 3pm was an emotional event. The aftermath of the December 26 2004 tsunami, where the old pier had given way to a massive breakwater of stone across the mouth of the old Moorish harbour, was shocking. Several new buildings had been built immediately below the Rest House and the old crescent shaped beach that stretched away in the distance was still there but not as beautiful a sight as described by Leonard Woolf when he was Assistant Government Agent in the early 1900s. Although we could not see the new Chinese harbour we could clearly witness the tall secretive cranes, which protruded into the sky – not visible to any passer-by because of the high protection bunds along the surrounding roads. Our attempt to see the harbour was curtailed by a roadblock and a sentry. I introduced Sir Christopher to Mr B Cassim an old Malay lighthouse keeper. He told us how his family had survived the 2004 tsunami because they had left Hambantota earlier that morning. He said, life had never been quite the same and gave us photographs of the destitution and what they had witnessed the next day when they returned. It was horrifying. Our journey back to Tangalle was mostly silent. We had a lot to think about. The horrific destruction of Hambantota will take a long time to forget – as will the price this country has paid to end the civil war. The significant influence that China will have in the country – both politically and economically - is hard to ignore.

Although it is less than a 100 miles from Tangalle to Kumana as the crow flies, it took us almost five and a half hours to make the journey to the Kumana National Park gates. The road followed the winding devious elephant path around the Moneragala hills – making the journey almost three times as long. We were met by Christopher and Marlon Perera (no relation) – major shareholders of Xtreme Nature Tours. We were also welcomed by the Park Warden Sisisra Ratnayaka, and Gaminie Samarakoon, ex Assistant Director of the region. Through his initiative he had managed to increase the size of the Park by a third during his time in the region.

Formerly known as Yala East National Park, Kumana is located at the southernmost corner of the Eastern Province. Kumana is undoubtedly the most picturesque area of the dry zone coastline of the Island. The Park is physically separated from the more famous Yala National Park by the gently flowing waters of Kumbukkan Oya (river). The very name Kumana conjures visions of our abundant wealth of avifauna in all its plumed splendour. A natural highlight of the Park is Kuman Villu, a 500-acre mangrove swamp lake sustained by the river through a half mile long narrow channel. These mangrove swamps are a destination of choice for migratory birds.

Among regular visitors who nest and breed are spotted billed pelican, painted stork, spoonbill, white ibis, open billed stork, eastern purple heron, eastern grey heron, eastern large egret, median egret, little egret, pond heron, night heron, chestnut bittern, Indian darter, Indian shag, little cormorant, complemented by resident birds Indian waterhen, water cock, purple coot, pheasant-tailed jacana, black-winged stilt, whistling teal, and the little grebe. In the Villu grow kirala trees interspersed with bushes of karang and hambu. The Villu lies amidst abundant wildlife filled planes and jungles, archaeologically rich rock outcrops of fantastic shapes with their many habitable drip-ledged caves and inscriptions dating to pre-Christian times, and miles of unexplored golden beaches. The successive saltwater lagoons along the coast,each surrounded by extensive plains give the impression that this indeed is the mythical Garden of Eden. The lagoons attract numerous sandpipers, plovers, ducks, and waders during the North-East Monsoon. Animals found in adjacent Yala are also found in Kumana.

We piled our bags into the two camp jeeps and made a three hour game drive to Ada Kumbuka Camp 2 – on the banks of the Kumbukkan Oya (river) – the last remaining great river of Lanka still untouched by man and undammed. The campsite is named after the giant slanted Kumbuk trees draping over the riverbank at that spot. Rumour has it that the largest recorded blue sapphire in the world (1,500 carats) was found in the river some years ago. We saw plenty of bird life, spotted deer, three elephants, wild boar, peacock, etc. – but no leopard sighting despite several alarm calls and the putrid smell of a buffalo calf carcass which the Pereras had seen the day before killed by a leopard. We felt that he was around – but out of sight. Leopards do not stray too far from their killed prey for several days.

Arriving at the camp we were met by the well-known former Deputy Director of Wildlife Shirley Perera (Christopher Perera’s father). Sir Christopher had not met Shirley since 1991 when he spent two months in Sri Lanka researching and writing his book The Man-Eater of Punanai They had a lot to talk about, especially, about the late Nihal Fernando the well known photographer, author, and owner of Studio Times. It had been raining a lot in the Park. The roads we travelled were muddy and sometimes impassable. It also made tent camping damp and difficult but the Pereras were very professional and made things as comfortable for us as they possibly could. There were four spacious tents well covered from the rain as well as sheet covers, torches, ground sheets, and teapoys, in which we put our possessions and clothes. The tents were under the canopy of a sprawling Mee tree above which grey languor and macaque monkeys enjoyed pelting our camp with Mee tree fruit and seeds. We were surrounded by constant gunshot sounds as the heavy fruit landed on our protective camp covering. It was ceaseless.

(To be continued)