After learning that, four years after the conclusion of the civil war, Sri Lanka has the most cases of disappeared people anywhere in the world apart from Iraq, I began reflecting on the evidence of a prolonged ethnic divide I came across during my time on the island nearly three years ago.
A weekend on a tea plantation staying in the Super Intendants bungalow made the gap between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations obvious to me. I had been picked up by the man himself and, before going off road onto a bumpy mud truck, we were waved through three checkpoints as the driver was recognised. We started to head even further up the hill side towards the bungalow which, since the very first colonial settlers, has been located above all of the other properties on the mountain as a blatant sign of superiority — though, theses day, it is not Westerners living in them, but the privately educated Sinhalese elite looking down from their immaculately groomed gardens on the Tamil workers. Continuing down the dirt track which led us further up the mountain but deeper into the wild for what must have been forty minutes, and after passing the rudimentary concrete and sheet metal homes of theworkforce who had to tend to their own small patch of crops after the working day, we passed through the brick gateway into a separate and exclusive world.
There was a sense that, if they had stopped picking in that place, they would lose the best of the crop and profits would consequently drop.
Having arrived in the early evening, I was sat down in the living room and introduced to the family by the very proud father, consisting of a very well behaved eight-year-old carrying the mandatory cricket bat and the wife with another child on the way. After half an hour of introductions and small talk, his wife and son left and the butler brought in the drinks trolley. The Super Intendant of a tea planation can usually boast having a servant, however my particular host seemed to have taken it to a new level – I counted three: the butler, a driver, and a cook.
Sri Lankans, while being some of the nicest people I have ever met.
Sri Lankans, while being some of the nicest people I have ever met, are very eager to show off their relative wealth and particularly social status at every available opportunity. Hence when the butler brought in the drinks trolley packed with whiskeys, arracks, beers, mixers and snacks, one glance from my host sent him scurrying back behind the scenes and reappearing moments later with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey, which — it seems — is a great indicator of social standingamong the Sri Lankans.
The butler made another appearance at dinner and, while I was greedily helping myself from the dishes in the middle of the table, in an unashamed display of superiority, my host ushered him with a series of hand movements and stern glances to serve his food. The conversation carried on as if no one else was in the room though a display which had been designed to impress just made me feel slightly awkward as the gap between rich and poor was being acted out in plain sight.
The next day, I went on the rounds with the Super Intendant whose first job was to check on a group of tea pickers who were reluctant to carry on picking where they were because, the week before, a water buffalo from the neighbouring jungle had charged and killed a supervisor and there had been sightings of another, possibly the same one, that morning. They were, in short, told to get back to work, though it would be wrong to say that their concerns fell on deaf ears as it was clear that the supervisors were on edge as well. There was a sense that, if they had stopped picking in that place, they would lose the best of the crop and profits would consequently drop.
At that point, I felt it appropriate to ask why so many of the workers were Tamils and was given the explanation that, during the civil war, hundreds of Tamils had been forced to move to rural areas to look for work because no one would hire them in the towns and cities — the tea plantations were a lifeline.
Look out for the second instalment in our special Sri Lanka Scenes series by Thomas Seaman.