“The White Tea story is almost like a fairy tale
To the DSA Era Group.
I reproduce below a letter I received from Mr Guneratne when we first organised the teachers felicitation ceremony in 2007.
The organizing committee members were really motivated by receiving this letter. It goes without saying, that this letter helped us to make it a great event.
Congratulations Malinga. All the best for your future endeavors.
Mr Sriyan Jayasekera.
37/20 Chapel Lane.
I send you herewith a cheque for Rs 5000/ as a contribution for one of the most significant events organized by Old Boys.
These men need to be honoured now, not when they have gone to the great beyond.
I write to also place on record my appreciation to the organizing committee for this most thoughtful felicitation ceremony.
Malinga H Gunaratne.
Taste of a Tea man -- Malinga H Gunaratne.
By Smriti Daniel
The scissors are only gold plated, and the pluckers may or may not be virginal, but this is still some of the most expensive tea in the world. That it is served in some of the most exclusive tea salons in the world has a lot to do with Malinga Herman Guneratne, the proprietor of the 200-acre Hadunugoda Tea and Rubber Estate. Herman loves to tell the story behind his plantation’s Virgin White Tea - unsurprisingly, there are emperors involved.
“The White Tea story is almost like a fairy tale. During the 5th and 6th century AD in the dynasties of Emperor Tsong and Tsang, the Chinese mandarins are said to have employed virgins to harvest the white tea,” Herman explains. “The virgins cut the white tea with golden scissors, it fell into a golden bowl and it was given as a tribute to the Emperor.
The only part of the human anatomy that touched the tea was the lips of the Emperor.” Herman revived the tradition here and declares that to the best of his knowledge “this is the only tea in the world that is completely untouched by hand.” He adds that its production ensures that the beverage boasts the highest percentage of naturally occurring anti-oxidants in its category.
Like his tea, there is more to Herman than meets the eye. Herman says he began working at 17. Before he took over Handunugoda Tea Estate, he was the regional manager of over 100,000 acres of the best tea lands in Nuwara Eliya. In a book soon to be published, titled ‘The Suicide Club’, Herman discusses the tumultuous times he’s lived through. He balks at calling it an autobiography – “those are written by men of erudition and distinction. I make no such claim” – but promises it will be filled with tales of the Raj. A noted political thinker, Herman is already the author of three books – ‘The Plantation Raj’, ‘The Sovereign State’ and ‘Tortured Island’.
Herman has a weakness for poetry, and whether he is discussing politics or philosophy, he always finds room for the likes of Tennyson. Telling me that at 65 he is well content and ready to ride off into the sunset, he turns once more to his favourite poet:
“Sunset and evening star
One last call for me
Let there be no
moaning at the bar
when I put out to sea.”
This week Herman recommends five great Sri Lankan experiences. n What to eat where: I am a very abstemious eater. Food is of complete indifference to me. It is more the company with those whom I dine, than the actual food that nourishes me. I am enriched always when I meet interesting and intelligent people who hold diverse and controversial views. I have two grandsons however who are quite efficient in the food department and am forced to accompany them to KFC/Pizza Hut and sometimes for Chinese meals. I myself would prefer the Majestic in Bambalapitiya or Raheema’s. Godamba Roti with a good chicken curry with some friends is my idea of a good time.
Where to visit: I like to visit Nuwara Eliya. It is home to me having worked for over 35 years in the area. I also like playing golf with my grandsons who keep me alert all the time. Even if they hit the ball to the thick jungle it suddenly reappears miraculously on the fairway. I have not only to be careful of how I play my shots, but have to fight the psychological warfare that is waged. No quarter is given, none taken. I have told them that in life there are no prizes for losers. I am ‘hoisted by my own petard.’
I like to visit educational institutions some of which I support. I support three bright students and two orphaned girls. I have told them clearly that the support stops if the results are not good. Learning perhaps is the love of my life. Learning that I never had. I try to teach them to be the best in whatever they do. I also walk 10 miles a day talking to the simple folk in my village about their joys and sorrows, sometimes translating their English lessons for them and also giving them some lessons of my own. I seldom visit places or people. For instance I came to Colombo recently after four months!
n What to read: I try to regain my lost childhood and lost learning by reading anything I can lay my hands on. Winston Churchill, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, The Prince by Niccollo Machiavelli, Buddhism and the Bible are my favourite books. Stories of survival under conditions of extreme adversity inspire me to face the trials and tribulations that life has to offer. I feel that those who do not read, do not live. Poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Milton and Reverend Senior are recommended as compulsory reading for the younger generation.
n What to listen to: I frankly prefer the sound of silence. But if there must be noise, listen to a good speech, an erudite sermon in a temple or Church. I have been greatly impressed by the speeches of Colvin R. de Silva and Lakshman Kadirgamar. The love of my life however is to talk to little children. It is from the babes that you get the truth. I spend hours laughing and joking with them. They give me a new lease of life.
n What to watch: The most enchanting sight that I never get tired of looking at is the view from the Mirissa Hills Mount Cinnamon Bungalow. It presents the most magnificent panorama of the Southern mountain massif and azure blue sea stretching to infinity with no intervening features. It is truly magnificent. The sunset over the Minneriya tank with the elephants frolicking in the water is a site that symbolizes our country’s rich heritage of wild life.
Gazing down at the Kotmale valley from the Dunsinane Estate bungalow in which I lived, is something very special. Kotmale is a mist laden meadow. The mist curls up from the Valley below and shrouds the bungalow.
I now watch the world go by. All illusions shattered. I still have hopes for Sri Lanka where we march to a single bugle and dance to a single drum.
Last edited by sriyanjay; 01-01-11 at 02:31 PM.
RE: "The White Tea story is almost like a fairy tale
From: Tilak Selviah <email@example.com>
Thank you Sriyan for the inspirational article.
I did have the opportunity to visit these 2 locations along with fellow hoteliers about 2 yrs ago and it left an indelible impression in my mind.
Herman is a legend and very charismatic in his ways.An ardent Thomian and a very proud son of lanka!!!!!.
Truly great to know such a man,
TILAK SELVIAH MIH ( UK ), MIM, MITD, MSLID
EDEN RESORT & SPA
Beruwela - Sri Lanka
Telephone (General) : +94 34 2276075 - 6, +9434 2276078,
+9434 2276180,+94 34 2276313,+9434 5588775- 6
Direct : +94 34 5080231 Fax: +94 34 2276181
"An ISO 9001:2000 and HACCP Certified Hotel"
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
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" To create the ultimate hospitality experience with complete responsibility to all"
" WINNER OF THE EXCLUSIVE GOLD AWARD FOR BUSINESS EXCELLENCE FOR THE HOSPITALITY TRADE
FROM THE NATIONAL CHAMBER OF COMMERCE FOR 2008 AND 2009"
Date: Sun, 29 Aug 2010 19:28:37 +0530
Subject: Re: Taste of a Tea man -- Malinga H Gunaratne.
Great boss to work for ( my PD on Queensberry Estate, Kotmale )
Date: Sun, 29 Aug 2010
Subject: Re: Taste of a Tea man -- Malinga H Gunaratne.
A fantastic guy to work with. I really mean it ! He was our Senior S.D. @ Ury, Passara in 1971.
The 'TEAM' :
Tissa R. Bandaranayake - The Boss
Malinga Herman Gunaratne - Senior S.D. - Ury Division
Harry Abeykoon - Agratenne Division
Anil Fernando - Small Divisions - (Blarneywatte/Tannuge/Panguthottam)
Sunil Perera - (A.S.I. son of Archibald) Mahapagalla Division
Those were the days. Harry/Herman, Can you remember the night of the 'Generals' ?? when we almost burnt down the bloody C.W.C. office.
The reason - the Dist. Rep. was sending too many letters.
Last edited by sriyanjay; 03-09-10 at 12:07 AM.
The Suicide Club by Herman Gunaratne will be launched in Colombo in November.
The Suicide Club - shooting the death of the Plantation Raj
Covering four decades in four days, planter and writer Herman Gunaratne takes an extraordinary trip through his plantation life with his publisher Juliet Coombe
Book launch: The Suicide Club by Herman Gunaratne will be launched in Colombo in November. The book is priced at Rs 750. For more details or to pre-order call the publisher, Juliet Coombe on Tel:0776838659 or email her with a book order at email@example.com For more information, see the website www.sriserendipity.com
The relief and the pleasure you get when you complete the book that you are writing, is like the final moments in a dalliance with a pretty woman whom you have been able to get into the bedchamber.
I had just finished writing ‘The Suicide Club’ which deals with the pre and postcolonial era of life on the plantations. The anecdotes and stories have never been told before and they all relate to true incidents. ‘The Suicide Club’ and its mysteries will have to be left as a surprise to the reader.
But my relief and pleasure was short-lived. My publisher Juliet Coombe from Sri Serendipity told me one day as I was savouring my freedom from endless re-writes ‘You must take me to every plantation that you worked on.’ I thought I could slip through this tackle, busy as I am running my own plantation Hadunugoda and the delightfully stunning ‘fortress in the sky’ Mirissa Hills. It was not to be. She mounted the pressure till I eventually relented and we embarked on a journey to the hill country.
Into the misty past: Herman goes back four decades
Juliet, her baby Amzar and I set off; her book designer Kavinda was to join us later with her features/news writer Rathindra. Having written three previous books I was wondering what all this fuss was about.
The first place we visited was Ury Group, Passara where the Chairman of the Dunsinane Company Sir John Arbuthnot had sent me for a ‘change of scenery’. Change of scenery was a euphemism used to describe a compulsory punitive transfer.
Succumbing to Juliet’s pressure I had no time to inform the managers of the respective estates that we would be descending on them. I pleaded this as an excuse to Juliet to postpone the trip. ‘That’s ok; we will go all the same. You take me to the places, I will take the photographs that will bring the book to life.’ No respite from her. ‘These darn English’ I thought and acquiesced.
An international photojournalist for over a decade, Juliet has been zeroing into war zones and taking pictures is her forte. The plantations to her, was as easy as falling off a log. We encountered no difficulties. The Managers were full of courtesy and went out of their way to assist us.
Jayantha Hulangamuwa, Manager of Ury Group showed us his bungalow and the estate office, which is referred to in The Suicide Club. He also accompanied us to my old bungalow, the Ury senior assistant’s residence. Ury was run very well and it warmed my heart to see this estate in such good condition. The old problems still existed, he told me, due to the proximity of Ury to the villages.
We were to rest our tired bones at Warwick Gardens at Ambewela. Before that we visited the Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya and the Golf Club. We were gently told at the Hill Club that we could not enter as Juliet’s child was below 5 years of age, but could have lunch at the chalet of the club. The Hill Club operates so efficiently and maintains the old standards, we were told because of the strict adherence to rules incorporated by the founding fathers. This we could understand.
The Golf Club was the next destination for photographs as it is mentioned in The Suicide Club. After cheese toast and tea, we set off to Jetwing Warwick Gardens at Ambewela. The moment we stepped into Warwick I realized that I had been there before. Warwick was a plantation belonging to the wealthy Sri Lankan family of Percy Fernando who was also connected to my family. George Wickramasuriya was the Superintendent almost 50 years ago when I visited Warwick with my father. I went to Warwick again 25 years later on being told that it was for sale.
Warwick today belongs to Hiran Cooray, Chairman of the Jetwing Group of Companies, leading hoteliers in Sri Lanka. Warwick is Hiran’s personal creation and an indication of what is possible and great about this island.
Warwick Gardens bungalow has a special significance to Sri Lanka’s heritage specialists. It symbolizes and exemplifies a 19th Century plantation bungalow. These vanishing plantation bungalows are just as much our heritage as the ancient ruins in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. I had last seen it 25 years ago and what Hiran has done with it defies description. The only thing missing was an old Scotsman emerging from the bungalow, smoking his pipe with a pack of hounds following him.The re-creation was almost perfect. All plantation companies must send their Managers and Assistant Managers to inspect Hiran’s handiwork. It has been recreated to exactly what it was when we had the privilege of working in the Plantation Raj.
Woman power at Handunugoda: Tea is nothing without the people
I did not know Hiran Cooray till I launched Sri Lanka’s most recent tea book Generation T: The Ultimate Guide to Sri Lankan Tea, at the Casa Colombo under his chairmanship. I was glad to have visited Warwick. This national heritage has to be preserved and we need to take a lesson from Hiran. It is easier to preserve these bungalows now, rather than wait for them to assume ruined status before making feeble attempts at restoration. This can be a job for Hiran Cooray.
Warwick is the idyllic spot for a holiday, with an enthusiastic and first class Manager Faris who is a fountain of knowledge of the area. The morning walks are very special and one is hurtled headlong into the days of the old Raj.
With Juliet there was no respite and we were not allowed to savour this lovely restoration. Cameras, computers, her cute baby and all were huddled into our four wheel drive and we moved next to St Clair Estate, Talawakelle, a plantation on which I had worked for a very short period. From St Clair it was next to Queensberry in Kotmale, where Juliet took some very unusual photographs and even used her computer to recreate sepia-toned pictures. Watching her lying on floors, climbing on top of things to get a better angle or getting up close to things taking the weirdest of objects means there was never a dull moment. ‘You never know when an old colonial carpet pattern will come in handy, a carved toilet seat handle will add a talking point to the book, a rusty Victorian lock in a colonial chest an opening chapter shot, or a light fitting for a spot of inspiration complete with wires and cobwebs might also come in handy to give The Suicide Club both texture and depth,’ Juliet would say.
Is she mad, I thought. But as Kavinda created the pages of my book on location, picking up elements of each place from my life - from the people to the very fabric of the buildings we explored from top to bottom, I realized that this is what publishing should really be about.
As we travelled from plantation to plantation Juliet kept asking ‘what memories are re-kindled in you on these visits?’ I would have preferred not to answer her. I have never re- visited a plantation that I worked on ever before. They bring back joyous and sometimes sad memories. I never live in the past and I would rather not think about the good times or the bad. The past as far I was concerned was behind me. I only look to the future. Too many people in our land live in the past.
Cont. The Suicide Club by Herman Gunaratne will be launched in Colombo in Nov
From Queensberry it was on to Harrow Estate, Punduloya. Harrow is a guest bungalow.
I completely disapprove of this beggarly concept of converting plantation bungalows into guest houses. The manager’s bungalow is the symbol of authority. It was large, grand and usually sat on top of a hill commanding a view of the whole estate. If the manager does not occupy the bungalow that was meant for him, he no longer is the King who governs the estate. Sri Lankans like in most matters seem to have got it wrong. What the plantation loses from this conversion to guest houses is unquantifiable. The gain in the form of accommodation rentals is merely a pittance. Harrow was in this sad position. The Harrow factory that made very good tea is shut down.
A common sight: Fifty per cent of the factories have been shut down
The next visit was to Dunsinane, which is really the crown jewel in the plantations. I served this estate both as an assistant superintendent and later as manager. We were welcomed most warmly by Manager Senarath Pahatakumbura. Dunsinane was like a picture postcard. It always has been. Lush, manicured and well managed, it warmed the cockles of my heart to see the estate so. The bungalow was in impeccable condition. Nobody had walked away with the immensely valuable pieces of furniture that were a legacy from the past.
It was now the home run back to the Ruhuna. On the way we visited Narangalla Group, Aranayaka, where I had taken my first faltering steps into the Plantation Raj. The bungalow was no more. The jungle had swallowed it up. When we finally located the Narangalla Bungalow all we saw was a huge hole in the wall where my bedroom had been. The factory was used for washing clothes and hanging them up to dry. It was no more.
It was then to Yataderia Estate, Undugoda that we finally travelled. I had lived and worked from the Yataderia Division assistant superintendent’s bungalow. I was told at the estate office that this bungalow had been handed over to a Buddhist monk. We went there all the same. I could not believe what I saw. The bungalow was indeed the residence of a Buddhist monk. The tea lands were apparently taken over by squatters. The division comprising the best low country tea was no more. This entire estate was owned by the Yataderia Sterling Company for over 140 years, and how a Buddhist monk could lay claim to it I cannot fathom.
What of the Plantation Raj, you may wonder. The picture I saw was grim. Tea crops have declined dramatically. Huge well-equipped factories have been shut down. Privatisation of the plantations has been a failure and if this trend continues this most enduring legacy that has been bequeathed to us by the colonial powers will be no more.
This government and new minister Mahinda Samarasinghe must immediately make a critical assessment of the plantations. Now. Not one day later. Minister Samarasinghe himself comes from a plantation background. The industry seems to accept him as a sober, mature and well-meaning politician. He has the qualifications to make the hard and tough choices. If he does not do that it will be another example of Sri Lanka destroying the cornerstone of the country’s economy.
‘Those who matter do not care and those who care do not matter’.
How Lankan planters lived and loved
How Lankan planters lived and loved
The Suicide Club by
Interview with the writer
by Juliet Coombe
“The Plantation Industry in our country is taken so much for granted”, says the writer of The Suicide Club Herman Guneratne. He goes on, “The people, the politicians and all those who matter seem to think that like the rivers, the streams, the trees of this land, the air we breathe, and the plantations will continue forever to be the main income earner for Sri Lanka. This colonial legacy that was bequeathed to us, has served the country well for the last 145 years.”
Herman strongly believes that Sri Lanka produces the best tea in the world; it is certainly one of the largest exporters. ‘We have the best array of teas’ are oft-repeated statements that are made all over the world. But what of the current situation of the plantations? Sri Lanka has lost the pre-eminent position that it enjoyed as the largest exporter of tea to the new boy in the classroom - Kenya. Tea factories are being shut down and around fifty per cent are no more. The crops are declining dramatically. Valuable tea lands are being abandoned. The industry has gone through many upheavals and convulsions and today is in peril as observed on a four day shooting trip for the book with the publisher and designer of the book. “The nationalization and the subsequent changes have been a failure and only succeeded in placing in jeopardy the continued prosperity of our country,” explains Herman.
The Suicide Club then is the story of how this magnificent industry was developed, how it was nurtured over a period of almost four decades where Herman had the privilege of serving the colonial and post colonial plantation Raj during all its glory days.
The stories introduced through Herman’s personal experiences as a planter are intended to tell the story of the hard work and the dedication to duty that made this magnificent industry what it was. It is also his view that the lessons learned must be imparted to the aspiring planting students of future generations.
Dining with Lord Mountbatten
The tales in The Suicide Club are not only about the hard work, they also tell the story of how Sri Lankan planters lived and loved in the esoteric preserve of the white man. The issues they faced daily managing large numbers of people in often very remote and challenging areas of the country. In Herman’s case how a man successfully brought up two children as an only parent, what he learnt from the Tamil people and in particular one woman, the great love of his life a beautiful French girl called Hugette. The Trout fisherman, the tormenting dinners, the black magic and witchcraft, resorts to merely hold jobs, all form a part of the story of The Suicide Club. The flirtations with British girls, the dalliance with lesbians and lunches with the King Emperor Lord Louis Mountbatten are related from the ringside.
The story is also told of the old plantation clubs ‘ladies rooms’ that were put to untidy uses by mischievous planters. The twilight ladies brought to the clubs by the euphemistic ‘uncles’ are all a part of the books scandalous charms.
It is the inside story with all the nuances, failures, foibles of those who served the tea plantations. Herman says, “The story has never been told before and as intended, if it successfully transports the reader to the romance, the disappointments and the humiliations that we had to suffer in an era gone by, then I will be happy.”
The tales of The Suicide Club form an integral part of the story where fortunes were won and lost on the roll of the dice and add some lustre to a reckless day and age.
The splendid chequer board headquarters of The Suicide Club was at Nalagiri Matara and although the legendary dice throwers are no more, the magnificent property remains an iconic reminder of an era when life itself was a gamble.The ancestral home of Herman’s grandfather K.C.Albert De Silva even survived the world’s worst ever-natural disaster the Boxing Day tsunami, when the waters immersed the house in 2004.
The members of this gambling club comprised the very elite in Sri Lanka. The sessions of the Suicide Club were moved from place to place, and only those in the know can really explain the draw and appeal to this most dangerous of activities that fixated and in some cases totally ruined lives.
Sipping gins and rolling dice
The club members came to Nalagiri with their servants and acolytes. They were either given accommodation at Nalagiri or housed in the various other establishments in Matara owned by Herman’s grandfather. The second sessions of the Club were held at his grandfathers Colombo residence at Elibank Road Bambalapitiya. Nalagiri was a sight to behold during the sessions of the Suicide Club.The most expensive limousines with liveried chauffeurs and uniformed staff were gathered in the drive way or quarters which exist even today. The Lords and Masters could be seen on the veranda or in the house sipping gins and tonic and rolling the dice.
There were many who craved to be members of the Suicide Club and still do. However membership was strictly restricted to the very elite.A chosen few approved by all the members were allowed to participate, but they had to be accompanied by the senior member introducing them and only once accepted could they attend.
While the club was in session Herman’s stunningly beautiful mother, Isla, her sisters Nina,Olive and Janaki along with their girlfriends and a whole host of young admirers would play tennis on the private tennis courts of Nalagiri. The sea was just next-door and so sea baths were another attraction of this southern seaside town. A permanent lifeguard was hired to ensure that the little darlings did not venture too far in the turbulent waters.
Herman explains, “This was never intended to be a personal story. It belongs to all of us who lived and worked on the plantations of colonial and postcolonial Sri Lanka. I am just the narrator.” It’s up to you the reader to judge what has happened and what can be done about the current state of the plantations.
Last edited by sriyanjay; 01-01-11 at 02:33 PM.
The launch of The Suicide Club
Risky Business – The life of a tea planter
The launch of The Suicide Club
The Sunday Island November 20, 2010,
In his fifth book, The Suicide Club, launching at the Maradana Warehouses on Tuesday November 23, Herman Gunaratne the author of this startling series of tales takes the reader on an exciting journey through his life and the islands most important tea plantations.
Sri Serendipity Publishing House international editor going through the proofs had asked Juliet Coombe the publisher ‘Was life really like that in Sri Lanka’. To the uninitiated Sri Lanka is symbolized by stilt fishermen scantily clad sitting atop a stilt casting his bait upon the waters of the continental shelf. Or a toddy tapper walking from tree to tree extracting the juice of the coconut flower for a delightful drink of toddy, which is later transformed into the popular local spirit Arrack.
The other half of Sri Lanka, the manicured plantations, the life within the interaction between the British plantation bosses and their Sri Lankan counterparts has an unmistakable ring of romance and also sadness. The Suicide Club endeavours to capture this magical period in the country’s history. How the British aristocracy worked, how they were treated when they came to visit their possessions in this Island, how even the British plantation managers were reduced to nervous wrecks during these visits, is a story that has not been told before.
The fast disappearing plantation clubs and the mischievous goings on in these venerable institutions are a part of this story. The trout fishing exploits of a Sri Lankan planter who shattered all the angling records with the most unorthodox fishing techniques heaved upon the poor trout, form an integral part of the story.
The stories told in the book are all true and give us a never before shown insiders view of how one man worked his way up from the bottom of the workforce to now, owning his own tea plantation and buying back much of what his grandfather gambled away, Herman takes the readers through his journey of courage and relates how a man successfully brought up two children as an only parent, what he learnt from the Tamil people and in particular one woman, the great love of his life a beautiful French girl called Hugette. It’s a true riches to rags to riches story of a self made man who overcomes the circumstances of fate and triumphs in life.
There is also the delightful anecdote of Mountbatten of Burma, King Emperor and Admiral of the fleet meeting his gardener from the past on Dimbula Estate, Patana and taking a photograph with Sinniah whom we had to retrieve from a cattle shed for an audience with the Naval Sea Lord, illustrating eloquently the greatness of a simple man.
Herman has received so many letters telephone calls, and emails from past colleagues from all over the world, recounting stories on incidents during their stewardship in the plantations. Herman says, "I could not use them all and I think the Suicide Club will be a precursor to many more extraordinary plantation tales." Herman has been asked ‘What have you written about plucking pruning and weeding’? They ask me impatiently.
I cannot divulge too much about the Suicide Club at this stage. Herman the heart of the book must remain a mystery till the book launches on Tuesday. All I can say is it is about love, betrayal and political manipulations at the highest levels in this vital part of the Island’s possessions.
"The enquiries come not only from plantation bosses but also from the staff on the estates, the chief clerks, kanakapulles and factory officers. For this is also their story. They perhaps, have a greater reservoir of knowledge of how the Plantation Raj functioned, the inner workings the conflicts, jealousies and the nuances in the industry.
Karuppiah Ramanathan, an old kanakapulle who worked with me said ‘ Sir, with you we had justice; you worked us tirelessly but you looked after all our needs and you protected us’. At the end this is what it amounts to – looking after those who work with you.
But mostly it is a plea, albeit a desperate one, to arrest the decline that has set in. I bear absolutely no malice to anyone, but do feel that the story must be told and the decline arrested before it is too late.
Despite the fact that Herman says humbly "This is not an autobiography, these are normally written by men of erudition and distinction. I make no such claim. This is the tea plantation story. I am just the narrator- nothing more."
The BBCs best selling writer Steve Davey says it’s a page-turner and the bureau chief of the UK Independent newspaper Andrew Buncombe says you can literally smell the tea; it’s so vivid an account. The book will show the reader a previously unseen side of some of today’s prominent political figures.
A film on the Suicide Club is also under discussion with a British and Australian Film maker, who believe Herman has that Hemmingway Je ne sais quoi. Read the book and see if they are right.
Herman says, "The story has never been told before and as intended, and if it successfully transports the reader to the romance, the disappointments and the humiliations that we had to suffer in an era gone by, then I will be happy."
The book is priced at Rs 750. For more details or to pre-order call 0729166208 or email with a book order at firstname.lastname@example.org and for more information, see the website www.sriserendipity.com. The book can be bought at ODEL, Barefoot, and all leading bookshops. Dress code for the launch is black and white, nothing else.
Summing it in a cuppa Herman Gunaratne shares ideas on ‘The Suicide Club’:
Summing it in a cuppa
Herman Gunaratne shares ideas on ‘The Suicide Club’:
There are three ways for man to despoil his life. Gambling, gluttony for alcohol and unquenchable avarice for women are the easiest way for man to do away with his life. Still our society has witnesses to prove how millionaires decline themselves to beggars because of their addiction to alcohol, gambling and excessive lust for women.
Condescending from a high position to a lowest position will be similar to committing suicide. That is why the gambling association, headed by Herman Gunaratne’s grandfather, was called ‘The Suicide Club’ its members themselves.
Herman Gunaratne - who is just a planter, according to his own introduction - seems to have his intuition not only on the tea market but also about writing. Having already written three books, it is not at all unreasonable to call him a writer, a term he despises.
“I’m just a storyteller. I don’t like others to introduce me as a writer. A writer is too much different to that of a storyteller.” Herman said launching his fourth book The Suicide Club which includes his genuine experience in his career as a tea planter.
Speaking to Artscope, Herman Gunaratne explained why he wrote such a book.
“All the books on plantation, you know, have been written by British planters during colonial times. Now hardly anyone knows the plantation process and the amount of hard work necessary to maintain the plantation. This is also a story of how we Ceylonese worked with the British.”
Gunaratne recalled his past memories: his grandfather lost over 300 acres of land gambling it away. When asked if he is also a gambler, he smilingly admitted he still gambles with life. Herman remembered how acrimonious he was climbing up the professional ladder for the attainment of a well settled planter.
Suicide Club is a chronological narration of Herman Gunaratna going down his memory lane which traces back to his salad days as a novice to learn the rudiments of plantation. In his narration he has employed the storytelling style which speaks for his claim to be one.
The importance of the book is highlighted since the writer’s device, flashback, which courts with the semblance of sweet memories of his life. The stories date back to his youth exuberant with his impish young energy. His memories drive us into early Ceylonese days during which tea plantation was the royal mainstay of Ceylon economy.
The labour and the resources had been specified for this industry. Now they are the days of past. Thing have been largely transmuted with the upcoming advancement of the service sector. The book conceptualizes the good old days of tea plantations. The hegemony for tea plantation has been granted to up country.
That’s why Herman begins his endeavor of penning the book from his heydays in an estate in the hill country. The narration is adorned with the thread of humour and sarcasm amply to the places where it is most eligible. That enhances the taste the reader expects from a book which is dressed with the style of storytelling narration.
The writing style can compulsorily supposed to be ad hoc but that is the very beauty of the book. That way of writing has greatly contributed to the intimacy and the book is instrumental to develop with the reader.
The book brings the reader into an imagination which is quite clear with the condition that had existed those days. Herman must be mustering the mind’s appetite to taste past memories. In that aspect, Herman’s effort is a success.
Herman began as a creeper for an estate and later emerged as a planter for which he sweated blood by stepping up his tortuous journey to success.
The ability of a creation to reach the hearts of the reader is the rubric of the progress if expected by the writer. The Suicide Club is qualified with this preliminary requirement and would for sure carve a niche in the provision of Sri Lankan English writing.
Herman is now a planter who plants virgin white tea which is the most expensive kind of tea in the world. Writing is his past time activity.
Last edited by sriyanjay; 28-12-10 at 07:40 PM.
Vivid anecdotes while sipping a cuppa
Book facts : The Suicide Club by Herman Gunaratne.
Reviewed by Anura Gunasekera
Recently, on a rain-drenched weekday evening, several hundred people from varied walks of life, braved both the unforgiving Colombo traffic and the near certainty of being marooned by flood waters, to congregate in a converted warehouse in the seedy heart of the former Tripoli market complex.
Elegantly dressed women, more accustomed to swaying down the pile-carpeted aisles of five-star hotels, waded barefoot through murky water with stiletto heels in hand. Corporate heads, alighting from chauffeur driven luxury vehicles, ruined their hand-made leather shoes in sloshing their way to this unlikely venue. Inside, society women, normally fixtures in local glossies like the “Hi” magazine, were seen in earnest discussion with grizzled, gravelly-voiced veterans of the press; retired planters exchanged views with current politicians; well dressed matrons, lawyers, attractive young women and obvious foreigners all mingled freely, trading information-gossip in between bites of delicate canapés and sips of chilled wine.
The author Herman Gunaratne
This strange assortment of people, under normal circumstances, would have had little or no connectivity. The only common factor that they shared on the day was their attire, by event organizers’ request, in interesting permutations of black and white. They had all been drawn to this spot by a common thread. Their presence in this cavernous hall, leaky and draughty despite the arresting harlequin theme, was a tribute, not to the book that was being launched that day - as very few would have had a chance of reading it – but to the man, Malinga Herman Gunaratne, who wrote it.
I have known Herman for over 40 years. We were nurtured, first in the same school and thereafter, in the same profession. Herman left school early and well before I did ; some may say precipitately though the circumstances have not been made public, yet. We both left the planting profession, not precipitately but early and for different reasons. Our paths diverged thereafter but the bond has been sustained, by a commonality of interests which includes both issues and people.
Herman the man is clearly reflected in the story he relates. With successive publications commencing with his first book, “The Plantation Raj”, he has established that he is no one-book author. All his books are of equal interest as he has always dealt with issues which were current, potent and of national interest. In common with the previous books, all events in the “Suicide Club” are narrated in the first person because of Herman’s direct involvement in them. He embraced controversy early, willingly and quite often with great enthusiasm.
“The Suicide Club”, charts Herman’s journey from a small and inauspicious beginning to a successful finale, with both success and recognition arriving early. It is written as Herman would normally relate it, over an evening drink in his home, or mine, or yours. I have heard several of the stories before, some from the protagonists themselves. Despite the disguised names used in some of the episodes he relates, many of the actors are likely to be accurately identified by some of the readers, though I do not think that will really matter. Those in the know will, surely, be capable of empathy. There are also other stories in his repertoire and personal experience which he has not told. Perhaps we will read them in a later book.
The humour manifest in the many episodes should not detract from the seriousness of the central theme. Through a series of personal anecdotes, Herman chronicles a vanished era in one of the most interesting and vital dimensions of Sri Lankan life and its industrial history. Till the emergence of the garment industry, plantations were the primary source of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. However, most importantly, unlike the garment sector with its imported technology, systems and skills, the Sri Lankan plantation industry is entirely home-grown and in all its aspects, locally developed.
The vignettes described by Herman capture the essence of plantation life when the industry was dominated by the British, from both within and without. They wrote the rule book and, when appropriate, waived the rules. It was an insular, tradition dominated environment and successful integration demanded compliance with and the adoption of its values. That Herman, essentially a maverick, survived to go on and prosper speaks volumes for his fortitude and skills.
There is no other industry in this country – perhaps not in any other country either – as sensitive to external stimuli, particularly political, as the plantation industry. As a consequence of the land extent it covers, the resident population and its ethnic composition, it is of enormous political significance. This combination of factors also makes it the most volatile. With a few well chosen incidents, featuring political rivalries and infighting between common candidates, Herman highlights the unsavoury aspects of the industry and the manner in which unscrupulous politicians leverage workers’ grievances for political mileage ; the pawns in this game, as will be clearly seen, are the hapless plantation workers. Tragically, this sequence of events is being repeated right up to the present day, with the only change being that of the political players.
Herman is the quintessential insider. He has always been a participant and a mover. His genetic predisposition for courting danger has, right through his life, enmeshed him in difficult situations including the temporary suspension of civil liberties. It is this personal involvement that lends the book its special flavour ; Herman offers the reader, both a ringside view of complex political machinations with national implications and a real taste of personal entanglements, humorous as well as bawdy. The life and times described by Herman had great charm. The work was demanding but play, more often than not, compensated. The numerous plantation clubs, many sadly no longer in existence, were hives of activity, both licit and illicit. The anecdotes in the book are fairly accurate samples of what actually took place. Those of my age came into this industry at the tail end of its golden era but, nevertheless, enjoyed it to the fullest.
A complete outsider, a total stranger to Sri Lankan plantation life, on reading Herman’s book may classify its actors as alcoholic, licentious and irresponsible. In truth, these elements, in varying proportions, were not absent from their makeup. Yet, the size and success of this enormous industry, built up, managed, developed and sustained over the years by successive generations of seemingly rambunctious men, would successfully deny the validity of such an assessment.
If you buy this book – and I recommend that you do – read it with sympathy, empathy and understanding. It is not a work which seeks to establish a benchmark for literary excellence. Herman writes about serious issues with casual ease. He has woven an intricate and tantalizing web composed of disparate episodes, some of them displaced in space and time and perhaps not in chronological sequence. Disregard the irregularities and seize the thread which holds everything together ; and that is the writer’s passion for and commitment to a profession, which is also a lifestyle and that which he is still living. It is both vivid and candid, with all the warts- including the writer’s- very much in evidence. It is Herman the consummate raconteur, telling you enchanting stories over an evening drink. You will enjoy listening to him.
Memoirs of tea days
Memoirs of tea days
Pix by Nilan Maligaspe
Veteran planter Malinga Herman Gunaratne unveiled his memoirs - a no-holds barred witty account of his days as a planter and his sometimes rocky road through life at an entertaining launch ceremony at the Warehouse, Maradana on Tuesday.
Dr. Michael Roberts, professor of anthropology at Adelaide University, Juliet Coombe, publisher- Sri Serendipity Publishing House, the author himself, Kirby de Lanerolle, co-founder of the Warehouse Project all addressed the packed gathering of invitees who had made it through the rains, while the author’s sons, Vishva (Uchi) and Maithri played hosts for the evening.
The Suicide Club- a Virgin Planter's Journey takes the reader back in time to the golden days of the Plantation Raj the subsequent take-over of estates and the chequered times that followed, all seen through the eyes of an astute and dedicated planter.
The title for the book comes from a select group of rich men, that included the author’s grandfather and his father, who gambled away personal fortunes on the roll of the dice.
The author himself managed to salvage but a portion of what was left of the family inheritance and slowly but surely turned it around to a profitable venture. This is Malinga Gunaratne's fourth book.
The author autographing books
The author and publisher Juliet Coombe.
On the suicidal in The Suicide Club
Bottom of Form
On the suicidal in The Suicide Club
By Vihanga Perera
In his The Suicide Club, Herman Gunaratne marvels at the late CWC stalwart Saumyamoorthi Thondaman’s power over the collective plantation sector labour. He admits to him and Thondaman being very close associates and Thondaman is seen to demand the loyalty and the respect of the general Tamil estate labourer. In the case of an election, Thondaman merely has to send word as to whom the Estate Labour has to vote in favour of - his will, we’re told, is done.
The “respect”, “loyalty” and “willingness” highlighted here in the estate labour, so as to “loyally” follow to the dot Thondaman’s whim and fancy, is largely owing to the lack of education and exposure in the plantations. The “plantation community” was, at its inception, an artificially planted social thread. The governing principles of these estates have from the beginning itself, been servility and serfdom. Brought in hordes, planted in testing environments and subjected to heavy labour - three generations down, “unquestioning loyalty to the master” is acknowledged by the “master class” (Thondamans and Herman Gunaratnes) as the normative. Not that estate workers didn’t question authority but, where they questioned authority they would be “corrected” and returned to the “default labourer status” of the loyalty drive.
As Herman Gunaratne calls it, the estate circuit initiated and pruned by the British is indeed a “Plantation Raj”. Within this Raj you have many power players. The Companies, their Managers, the Superintendents, the “local estate owners” (Thondamans) are all chess pieces that move up and down this rewarding hierarchy. At the very bottom of this layering m-33-2stands the “labourer” who has been denied education or awareness of his/her political, cultural, historical and social displacement. Yet, it is on their under-paid, devalued labour that the said “Raj” and its fripperies and complexities are grounded.
Herman tells us that places like Dolosbage yields to the densest rainfall for the greater part of the year. But, even still, the Tamil estate worker is seen (by the “master class”) to be at the height of enthusiasm and to be enthralled at her/his task. “I can think of no human being who would work so cheerfully under these the most unfavourable conditions as the Tamil plantation worker” (45; italics mine), Herman tells us. This “cheerfulness” is the mirror of the want of options the said estate worker’s social and historical condition offers her. It is the same form of haplessness and the historical displacement that politicians and other bigwigs of the power game manipulate for their benefit.
Herman Gunaratne says this of Thondaman:
“He was a rich landowner who could have lived a life of luxury. Instead he saw the appalling conditions under which the plantation workers lived and chose to espouse their cause. He was the single most powerful man in this island. He had total control over 500,000 workers. They did exactly as he told them. No party in Ceylon could have attained political power without his support. He used this power to extract all the advantages for his people. He was the Messiah of the workers” (232; italics mine).
It is interesting to note the subtle underpinnings of power and the appropriation of it that go unheeded in Herman Gunaratne’s narrative. Thondaman’s (or any idolized politician’s) career cannot be trivialized in that simplistic manner. Thondaman’s lap of luxury in itself is what enables him to be a stakeholder of power. He “controls” 500,000 workers; but, is, at the same time, their “messiah” and the “selfless benefactor”. Clearly, a string of contradictions? As if we are to believe that people are in politics “espousing causes” for the love of fellow sufferers! Rather, Thondaman is a historically m-33-3favoured individual who could manipulate the contexts around him to suit his political ambitions. He was born to the estate culture, but he becomes a proprietor. He makes powerful friends. He gradually rises up the rungs of the social and political ladder. This is not to denounce what Thondaman and / or other leaders of the “Estate Circuit” have done for that community; but, to analyze how Herman Gunaratne’s text valourizes as martyrs people who are more or less simply trying to get through their routine.
“For those who fight for it, life has a flavour that the sheltered will never know” (228). This sums up the apparent “cheer” in the Tamil estate worker, plucking in the rain, following to the letter the commandments issued by bigwigs and Thondamans, tacitly absorbing the forms of discrimination in to the “colonial spirit” of “unwavering loyalty” etc. They do not fight; for they cannot fight. The class consciousness of the worker has been arrested and retarded under the “normative” prescription of the “master class” - a class for which Herman Gunaratne speaks, and from whose portals he can sense the “cheer” of the drenched worker; and the “giggle” of the female plucker.
The Suicide Club blatantly reinforces colonialist ethics; and it goes to the extent of justifying some of the orientalist assumptions that derive from the discourse of European Imperialism. Herman Gunaratne takes the hide of a “native informant”, not only clearing the way for the Euro-centric judgment to pass; but, by stamping it with his seal. He testifies to being educated at S. Thomas’ and to hailing from an affluent and financially thriving stock. Across the narrative, he refers to numerous relatives who are in lucrative spots, doing extremely well in life. It could well be that Herman Gunaratne’s own socialization and upbringing is apart from the kind of postcolonialist reading I am involved in; but, that is a different point.
When he lays out the typical plantation, Herman quite effortlessly draws an analogy between the management body and the English monarchy (42). In a text that nostalgically and blatantly “goes shopping” for the “Plantation Raj of the English Raj”, the writer pours himself over anything that is English. He himself locates his persona as an “aspirant black sahib”, the kind of stooge Lord MacCaulay defines in his Minute on Indian Education (1835). At one point, when Herman gets his appointment to the Yataderia Estate, his educational qualifications are not referred to; nor are his recommendations considered. Rather, the appointment is made on the basis of his practical know-how of the trade. So far, so good. But, to Herman, this becomes a “manifestation of the British way of doing things. No attempts at influencing. Not even looking at a single certificate from [his former employer] (62; italics mine). When reported for incompetence and when being summoned to the Colombo Head Office, the Boss there - an Englishman, Andrews - first puts Herman “completely at ease” before proceeding to the graver issues and accusations. This, we are told, is “the hallmark of a good Englishman” (81). These generalized, transportable “Englishmen” cannot surely be the ones who made a “Little England” out of Nuwara-Eliya. But, then, again, Herman establishes that “one Englishman never lets another down but he also has a strong sense of justice” (82); even though they were here either on business or vacation.
One reference in the book reminded me of the Galle Literary Festival, where (in the past) some festival acts had been lined up in “White Only” hotels. The reference in question is to the “Hill Club”, Nuwaraeliya, which was “positively out of bounds for the Ceylonese” (128). Herman sees “nothing wrong in that. If the Europeans wanted to be among their own and discuss the vagaries of the weather and other inconsequential things, that was their problem” (128). The above-politics, above-history perspective here betrays the writer’s own sheltered vision.
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