Birthright buried alive | Daily News


Birthright buried alive

Thelma Wheatley. Picture by Chaminda Niroshana
Thelma Wheatley. Picture by Chaminda Niroshana

The old gentleman turned to look out the window at the icy weather. The winter is here, and not gone yet. Droplets of a mild snowy rain could be heard hitting the pane, which made him feel heartbreaking. However hard he threw himself to forget all that, he would oftentimes roll back to where and what he used to be a few decades ago.

Her father in law would fondly recall the golden rays of sun rising above the vast swathes of tea estates. He takes a while to reflect those good old times. He was a periya dorai (big master) running a tea estate with a large Tamil workforce under his command. With children sent to the private Catholic colleges, his was the favoured lot in the island entitled to huge salaries, bungalows and many other perks.

That privileged status was not to last long, however, with the British leaving the island to the locals in 1948. This background and the foreground of her father in law furnished Thelma Wheatley’s latest work Tamarind Sky. Wheatley’s forte has been non-fiction so far, but she weaves ‘Tamarind Sky’ as a pure work of fiction based on her real-life experiences of a marriage to a Eurasian Sinhalese from British Colonial Ceylon.

Country wife

“I have made things up in this novel based on my experience. The story is about Selena, her Eurasian husband and her father in law, Thomas Gilmor.”

The British were in Ceylon to make fortunes from tea, rubber and hemp. Their biggest cash crop was tea. With a wife back in England, the British tea planters did not mind reaching out for a mistress in Ceylon. She was considered a ‘country wife’. Although a legal bonding was not likely to occur, it was a given marriage in the local context. Consequently, the offspring were not registered as well.

And that’s where Wheatley’s theme appears.

“Most of the white people were mistaken for British. They were actually Eurasians. The British owned the tea estates, and they entrusted the Eurasians with the job of running the estates. The Eurasians were the offspring of the mixed marriages between the British and the locals. They were half British half Ceylonese,” Wheatley offers an introduction to this tribe which now seems to be lost forever.

Although Eurasians communicated in the Queen’s lingo, most of them were conversant in Sinhalese as well. Welsh-born Thelma’s husband, a Eurasian, was one of them as he was brought up with the Sinhalese. Yet English was the superior language while Christianity was the superior religion. The lion’s share of the state coffers was channeled to the private Catholic colleges while a little left was allocated to the Buddhist schools.

Fair Eurasians

The Eurasians claimed enormous authority across the island. But they were not without concerns. Not all the Eurasians were fair-skinned. As a result of getting married to the locals, the Eurasians sometimes turned out to be dark in their complexion. For instance, Thelma’s mother in law was dark-skinned. Thelma’s son was dark while her daughter was fair. The fair Eurasians secured the best jobs.

“The Eurasians had a wonderful life. They had personal horses. They spent evenings in clubs. The bachelors would often go to Colombo, bring down the prostitutes over the long weekends and send them back.”

The power they enjoyed without boundaries came from the British colonial masters.

Tables began to turn hot on the heels of the 1948-Independence episode. Sinhalese was made the official language while Buddhism was recognised as the state religion. The monies were taken away from the private Catholic colleges and channeled to the Buddhist schools.

Controversial bill

It became even worse with the government, dominated by the locals, introducing a controversial bill called Ceylon Citizenship Act in 1948 which stipulated that anyone wishing to obtain citizenship had to prove that their father was born in Ceylon (that they were at least third generation born in the country). Most of the Eurasians had no documentation to support their birthright since their grandfathers had not registered the marriages with country wives. They had no option but to emigrate to countries such as Britain, Canada and Australia.

The part I of Tamarind Sky centres around that experience in Canada when multiculturalism seeped in under the government of the then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the father of Canada’s incumbent Prime Minister. In part I of the novel – chronologically four decades ahead of Part II - the reader runs into Selena’s father in law, no longer endowed with the luxuries of a huge bungalow and servants at the beck and call.

But then why Tamarind Sky?

You have of course heard of tamarind, a commonly seen pod-like fruit in this land. And you are familiar with its taste too: strong, sour and yet sweet to a certain extent. Quit recalling what else you felt savouring the fruit, and be attentive to Wheatley.

Golden sunrays

“It is like life. It is sour as well as sweet. But it refers to the life we had back in Ceylon too. My father in law, just like Selena’s father in law, becomes nostalgic whenever he remembers those tea estates during the winter. Those golden sunrays blossoming over the tamarind trees would never be forgotten.”

‘Tamarind Sky’ is more than a mere eponymous title. It signifies a particular era of this land and a race forgotten. Wheatley’s fiction is split into two parts signifying a kind of discrimination that particular race had to undergo in two different C-spheres of the planet: Canada and Ceylon. Canada did not provide them with the prestige of the private colleges and other perks that Ceylon offered.

But it is not completely a story of regret, sadness and nostalgia. The story unfolds in Toronto between a Welsh girl married to a Eurasian from Ceylon. Selena feels alone in Canada with her family still in Britain.

The Eurasians are now a lost white tribe – almost, at least. Leafing through Thelma Wheatley’s Tamarind Sky, you will run into myriads of mixed and interracial marriages. Her plot looks straight across into bonding between these marriages.

An excerpt From Tamarind Sky

I surreptitiously observe Father-in-law as I eat. His fair English features are clear-cut and chiselled next to Aidan’s dark, powerful face with deep-set eyes. Aidan obviously follows Mother-in-law’s Sinhalese side of the family in Ceylon. I note thoughtfully. It’s something I hadn’t really taken in in the first throes of romance when we met here in Willowdale six months ago. Now I can’t seem to keep myself from scrutinizing these members of my new family, my new in-laws through marriage. Skin hue, colour of eye, hair, build, even facial expressions all come under my hidden, dark scrutiny, though what is it I’m trying to clarify? I’d tried to explain to Mother before the wedding that Aidan was half-British half Sinhalese from Ceylon, the island at the foot of the Indian subcontinent where all the tea came from. He called himself Eurasian, I said.

Grand-daughter of a Welsh coal-miner, Thelma Wheatley emigrated to Canada as an adult and took a Master’s Degree in English at York University and other graduate work in Special Education at Toronto University. She married a Sri Lankan who grew up under British colonialism in the tea planter milieu of former Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, on which the novel is based. She has two children, and lives in the Greater Toronto Area with her cat but has made several visits to Sri Lanka. She began writing later in life and her work has been described as ‘of great passion and determination’ by Quill and Quire in Canada, and ‘vibrant, passionate and deeply moving’, by the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History.

When young white British girl, Selena Jones, married Aidan Gilmor, a Eurasian immigrant from Sri Lanka in Toronto, she unwittingly enters a complex web of old British colonialism in Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, and an outmoded elite of tea planters that her irascible alcoholic father in law, Jack Gilmor, Cannot escape. As Selena faces prejudices in Toronto, before the era of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s multiculturalism, she learns to become strong even as events move inexorably to a profound revelation of race and violence at the heart of Sri Lanka. Startlingly honest and humorous, Wheatley explores the subtle influence of colonialism on the psyches of her characters who find themselves caught on the wrong side of history. 

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