Pico Iyer Journeys

Yorick in the Tropics

“Now”–he didn’t want to lose his eighth visitor–”you see that grave over there ? `Died of sunstroke at Rozel Estate.’ Well, Rozel Estate is not very hot. What happened was that he ran into a wild elephant. The elephant must have chased him, and so he must have got very warm, and fainted of sunstroke.” Nearby a governor’s wife lay, the victim of diarrhoea, he explained (though her ailment was more formally described on the headstone, graveyards, like travel books, being places where the truth is often prettily dressed up). Another man had died “from the falling of a house.”

“Sabot-age,” said my kindly guide, his stress on the “age: reninding me that he’d never seen the country from which his words and his name came. “The English do things properly. Their houses didn’t fall down like ours.”

In the distance, a tall memorial recalled a man who had once been the most powerful in the area. When he died, Charles told me, he gave his money not to his own children, but to all the children in Sri Lanka who were–”what is the word, `il-legitimate’ ? Who had English fathers and Singhalese mothers. Because he knew their lives would be difficult.”

He paused. “It’s so unusual, that kind of selflessness.”

I looked around again: one stone had been erected by “sorrowing friends in remembrance of [a friend’s] amiability and wisdom.” Another, Mr. Carmichael told me, belonged to a “traitor,” an Englishman who, seeing Singhalese approach, had deserted his post and fled. There was a scholar here, famous for his Sanskrit and Pali, a man who had fought against Napoleon and, having survived four wars, died here. There was the grave of a man who had travelled along the river to chronicle the country’s villages, and contracted a disease and been forced to abandon the project. To know the country better, his bosses concluded, was to lose good British men.

Killed by falling trees, killed by falling houses; Elliot, Fenerson, Freckletown, Garnock. From Lewes, Aberdeenshire, Weraloo. Whole lives compressed into a few words or lines. The most recent body arrived in 1951, that of a woman who had been denied entrance in the early days of Independence until the church pursued action against the local council to put her where she belonged.

Had I spoken to Charles Carmichael on the phone, I would have seen someone blond, tall, from a goodish school, perhaps, the kind of upstanding fellow who represents old England in our films. But the man before me, as divided as the island all around him, had Tamil blood and Sinhalese and British. He had never suffered from his mixed inheritance, he said, though he had been denied a passport because he did not have three generations of ancestors all born on the island.

Once upon a time, at the beginning of Charles’s tenure, when the other Charles, from Buckingham Palace, was due to visit the cemetery, just after the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth next door, his security officers had told the prince it wasn’t safe. “He flew over here in a helicopter.

“They were wise to keep him from coming,” Charles went on. “The Tamils have been so clever at assassinating everyone they choose. Or our own soldiers; they are careless. Not like the British. Quite capable of shooting someone by mistake.”

He offered to show me his little office, where a book written many years before had teased out the life stories that now he was sharing with me. On one wall was a tiny framed letter from Prince Charles, charmingly telling his local hosts how sorry he was to have missed the opportunity to see the graveyard. I hope one day, said the heir to the crown, to be able to see the really interesting places in Sri Lanka. They hope, much more powerfully, to see him.

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