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Fish Traps and Private Business
Welideniya Estate, Ceylon
The landscape is restless -- a sea of disorderly hills rising steeply. In all directions it looks the same. The hills are sharp bumps with a thin, hairy vegetation that scarcely covers them. Most of this is rubber, and the rubber is wintering. Mr. Murrow, the planter, says that in another week or two the present brownish-yellow leaves will be replaced by new ones. Where the rubber stops the tea begins. There the earth looks raw. The rocks show between the low bushes; here and there a mulberry tree with lopped branches, planted for shade.
On top of one of these steep humps is the bungalow, spread out all along the crest. Directly below to the southwest, almost straight down, is the river with its sandy banks. But in between, the steep declivity is terraced with tea, and by day the voices of the Tamil pickers are constantly audible. At night there are fires outside the huts on the opposite bank of the river.
The air is hot and breathless, the only respite coming in the middle of the afternoon, when it rains. And afterward, when it has stopped, one has very little energyuntil night falls. However, by then it is too late to do anything but talk or read. The lights work on the tea-factory circuit. When everyone is in bed, Mr. Murrow calls from under his mosquito net through the open door of his bedroom to a Tamil waiting outside on the lawn. Five minutes later all the lights slowly die, and the house is in complete darkness save for the small oil lamps on the shelves in the bathrooms. Nothing is locked. The bedrooms have swinging shutters, like old-fashioned barroom doors, that reach to within two feet of the floor. The windows have no glass -- only curtains of very thin silk. All night long a barefoot watchman shouldering a military rifle pads round and round the bungalow. Sometimes, when it is too hot to sleep, I get up and sit out on the verandah. Once there was no air even there, and I moved a chair to the lawn. On his first trip around, the watchman saw me, and made a grunting sound which I interpreted as one of disapproval. It may not have been; I don't know.
The nights seem endless, perhaps because I lie awake listening to the unfamiliar sounds made by the insects, birds and reptiles. By now I can tell more or less how late it is by the section of the nocturnal symphony that has been reached. In the early evening there are things that sound like cicadas. Later the geckos begin. (There is a whole science of divination based on the smallest details of the behavior of these little lizards; while the household is still up they scurry silently along the walls and ceiling catching insects, and it is only well on into the night that they begin to call out, from one side of the room to the other.) Still later there is a noise like a rather rasping katydid. By three in the morning everything has stopped but a small bird whose cry is one note of pure tone and unvarying pitch. There seem always to be two of these in the rain tree outside my room; they take great care to sing antiphonally, and the one's voice is exactly a whole tone above the other's. Sometimes in the morning Mrs. Murrow asks me if I heard the cobra sing during the night. I have never been able to answer in the affirmative, because in spite of her description ("like a silver coin falling against a rock"), I have no clear idea of what to listen for.
We drink strong, dark tea six or seven times a day. No pretext is needed for Mr. Murrow to ring the bell and order it. Often when it seems perfectly good to me, he will send it back with the complaint that it has been poorly brewed. All the tea consumed in the bungalow is top-leaf tea, hand-picked by Mr. Murrow himself. He maintains that there is none better in the world, and I am forced to agree that it tastes like a completely different beverage from any tea I have had before.
The servants enter the rooms bowing so low that their backs form an arch, and their hands are held above their heads in an attitude of prayer. Last night I happened to go into the dining room a few minutes before dinner, and old Mrs. Van Dort, Mrs. Murrow's mother, was already seated at her place. The oldest servant, Siringam, suddenly appeared in the doorway of the verandah leading to the kitchen, bent over double with his hands above his head, announcing the entrance of a kitchen maid bearing the dog's meal. The woman carried the dish to the old lady, who sternly inspected it and then commanded her in Singhalese to put it down in a corner for the animal. "I must always look at the dog's food," she told me, "otherwise the servants eat part of it and the poor dog grows thinner and thinner."
"But are the servants that hungry?"
"Certainly not!" she cried. "But they like the dog's food better than their own."
Mrs. Murrow's son by a former marriage came to spend last night, bringing his Singhalese wife with him; she had already told me at some length of how she resisted the marriage for three years because of the girl's blood. Mrs. Murrow is of the class which calls itself Burgher, claiming an unbroken line of descendency from the Dutch settlers of two centuries ago. I have yet to see a Burgher who looks Caucasian, the admixture of Singhalese being always perfectly discernible. It is significant that the Burghers feel compelled to announce their status to newcomers; the apparent reason is to avoid being taken . . .
Excerpted from Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue by Paul Bowles Copyright © 2006 by Paul Bowles. Excerpted by permission.
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