CH9 Pt3 Ceylon / Sri Lanka

Finally, at midnight, like a cork out of a bottle, we left the Gulf and the ship thrust itself into the Red Sea. The next day it was glistening water on either side, sweltering heat, porpoises and clouds of flying fish emerging with a whirring sound from the water, flitting through the air for several yards before falling back into the sea.

We stopped briefly at Aden: an incredibly rocky and barren place, rising straight out of the sea. From the ship we saw several white houses, a clock tower and various wireless aerials rising from the summits of rugged slopes. The vendors in their cockleshell boats were similar to those at Port Said except that they seemed to be mostly African or Indian. There were none of the half-Europeanised Arabs such as one found in Egypt. African divers swam about the ship as we looked over the rail.

“Throw! Throw! Hi! You got sixpence? Throw!”

Thus far east then, has the English language penetrated, and thus far the tentacles of the old British Empire, now sadly disintegrating. The divers diligently avoid a police launch. The crew, smartly dressed with black puttees and black fezzes, stands stiffly to attention. I notice particularly the flag fluttering at the launch’s stern. It is a British ensign with two large-sailed Arab dhows enclosed by a circle in the bottom right hand corner. How much longer will that relic of Britain last?

As we crossed the Indian Ocean, a heavy swell developed, but the stabilisers kept the ship on a reasonably even keel. It was very warm, and at night Irene and I slept on the top deck, as did at least half of the passengers on board. We were all getting to know each other fairly well, and scraps of gossip began to be bandied about the ship. Mr “A” has had a serious tiff with his wife over her supposed infatuation for Mr “B”.  Mr ”C”, a cultured man, though of a powerful physique, has quarrelled with two other passengers over the division of food at table, and has relieved himself of some most uncultured language in the process. Three young New Australians have been brought into the world since we left Tilbury, notwithstanding the fact that women more than three months pregnant were not supposed to travel. (I always suspected that our own medical examination was more than somewhat cursory). Old Tom, who has been to Aussie before, relates how, in the outback in the twenties, he was nearly speared by Aborigines, only escaping because he left a bundle of clothes in his tent wrapped up in blankets, but actually slept in the bush. Mr “X” who is a former soldier is going to drive bulldozers in open-cut coalmines, and is always making plans to bring out his wife and children whom he misses deeply. However this does not prevent him having a torrid shipboard romance with Mrs “Y” who is on her way to rejoin her husband. Mr “W”, who was stationed during the war in Sydney wonders how many of his old girl friends will be married and whether Australian beer is still as strong as it used to be. He has it in mind to marry one particular girl, and the question of employment is uppermost in his mind. That subject probably worries us all, but there is little point in considering it until we reach Australia. It is then that the “New Life” will begin.

It was about half past ten one night a week later that we began to see lights ahead – almost the first sign of land since Aden. Rapidly they became brighter and more numerous until we were passing along a channel marked with buoys which gleamed wanly, like oil lamps in the darkness. Within a short while we were well within view of the intermittent, dazzling beam of a lighthouse. Then suddenly, on the port side, a cluster of red and white lights surged towards us out of the darkness and a small white-painted launch came alongside. A rope ladder had been slung down from the Ranchi with two dangling thongs protruding. A man in a white shirt, shorts and raincoat stepped on to the side of the launch, grasped the thongs and swung himself towards the rope ladder, up which he proceeded to scramble. The pilot was coming aboard to take us into Colombo Harbour.

In the morning, we found ourselves anchored within the harbour in the company of many other vessels. The sea on the other side of the harbour wall heaved and swelled and periodically smashed itself into sparkling white smithereens against the unyielding stone. A small launch took us ashore for a rupee apiece and put us off at the main jetty. Beyond, in one of the major streets of Colombo, rickshaw coolies in loincloths and makeshift turbans, or patched shorts and battered hats pestered us to hire them.

“Take you to native quarter, bazaar, Cinnamon Gardens, sair. One rupee. Very cheap.”

“Madam! Take you for tour of Colombo. All the sights. Very cheap.”

So English is the lingua franca even in Ceylon. Australia is the next stop. Then comes New Zealand, and the next major country round the world is North America. English has indeed encircled the globe. However, the rickshaw pullers clearly do not understand the word “No”. If you tell them you don’t require their services, they grin villainously and say: “All right, sair. By and by.” They then continue to follow you, keeping up a running commentary on the attractions of Colombo.

Irene and I strolled along, following the little single decker trams until we came to a market quarter. In many ways, this resembled the Sukh in Cairo. Certainly if you closed your eyes and inhaled the awful odour of human and animal smells, cooking, and rotten fruit, you could easily imagine yourself back in Egypt. Yet the people were entirely different. There was almost no European or African racial admixture. The people were either dark brown or golden brown skinned, with straight black hair often done up in the case of the men in a bun at the back of the neck, although many had western-style haircuts. The men generally wore an ankle-length skirt of patterned material with either a shirt tucked in, or a small jacket. The women wore a similar skirt and a small bodice-cum-brassière. Most of the women seemed to take very definite pride in their appearance, and a few were strikingly beautiful. Silken saris were also frequent, and fitted most becomingly into the general picture. Some of the women were dressed western-fashion, and among the businessmen of the community one saw white ducks and white topees.

The traffic of Colombo consisted of the small, rattling, single decker municipal tramways, lean rickshaw men, trotting barefoot, with bicycle bells screwed to the shafts of their conveyances, modern motor cars, carts with curved, plaited straw awnings, drawn by incredibly small bullocks, and red double-decker buses which, incidentally, were run by a private company, and imported from England. Irene and I boarded one of these buses after seeing the native market, and travelled to Mount Lavinia, on the coast about half an hour’s ride distant.

At the time of our visit, this country had recently become independent from British rule, but was still known as Ceylon. Since 1972, it is now the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 

We got chatting on the bus to a smartly dressed native of Ceylon. He was employed by the bus company, and spoke perfect English.

Education was free and compulsory in Ceylon, he told us. Children with the necessary ability could go to University without payment. He himself had got his school certificate, which meant that he had roughly the same education as I. My mind slipped back to a few tattered, deformed, dirty child beggars I had seen only a short while ago in the native quarter, who I am sure had never seen the inside of a school in their lives, but I thought it might be bad manners to question our friend about this on such short acquaintance. Nevertheless, our meeting strengthened my impression that Ceylon was a civilised country, which was pressing ahead. Kandy, said our friend, was the best place on the island for Europeans – elevated, picturesque and cool. It was a pity that we were stopping only a few hours. We ought to have seen Kandy.

He was evidently very enthusiastic about his country. Almost everyone on the island understood some English, although the mother tongue of most was Sinhalese. Schooling in English had fallen behind but they would pick that up – they must, for all the best technical books were written in English. Rain had drenched Ceylon for the previous three days, but we had arrived at an opportune time when the sun was shining.

Our bus ran roughly parallel with the sea on the way to Mount Lavinia, and we passed some lovely bungalows with shady verandas and orange tiled roofs, clearly the properties of wealthier inhabitants. Inevitably there was also the odd super-modern cinema with its captions in English and Sinhalese, the latter so different from the dots and squiggles of Arabic, but still looking like some weird and heavily written shorthand.

Alighting at the bus terminus, we walked along a road of orange-roofed single storey homes, past a school where dark-eyed, dark-haired boys and girls sat chanting their lessons. As we topped a green rise, our view looked down on the yellow sand and gentle surf of Mount Lavinia Beach. The pure blue sea heaved itself into long, glittering rolls sweeping shorewards and finally spreading themselves in a creamy, hissing confusion on the golden sand. And all along the beach were palm trees. But such palm trees! Incredibly tall, incredibly slender, with a green, coarse tuft of leaves at the top, and a cluster of nestling green coconuts.

After filling our eyes with the beauty of this scene, Irene and I went up to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, an imposing building at the end of the beach. We wondered whether the ten rupees, which were all the money we had brought ashore, would be enough to buy us a drink. We sat in the spacious, luxuriously furnished lounge and gazed at the dazzlingly bright beach with its background of palm trees. A waiter came to us, took our orders, and returned with two very large glasses of iced lemonade. Sixty cents for the two of us! I gave him a fair sized tip in my excess of relief.

We bought a few souvenirs for the children of Oll and Alma P in Australia, all at a very reasonable price. Then we caught a bus back to the centre of Colombo, looking down from our top front seat at the strange shops and bistros, the orange tiled houses, the cars, the rickshaws, and the policemen. The Ceylon police struck us as being fine, upstanding fellows. They were tall, well-built, dark skinned men, dressed in slouch hats, khaki jackets and shorts and black puttees. When directing the traffic, they stood on little raised pedestals in the centre of the street, with a small umbrella like arrangement suspended over them to keep off the sun.

We returned to the Ranchi, having seen as much of Ceylon as we could during the few hours allotted to us, and having spent only ten rupees, much to Irene’s delight.

Well, a penny saved is a penny earned. And in just over a fortnight, we shall arrive in Sydney, where Oll and Alma will be waiting to meet us. Then we shall need every penny we can muster. During the whole of this trip, we have spent slightly less than five pounds. Other migrants have spent several hundreds. If they have money, then they may well have more money than sense. As for us, we don’t expect to get it easy. We are preparing for a struggle. England is a long way behind. But we don’t feel homesick.

We are going home – not leaving it.