Christopher Ondaatje

Of Mudaliyars and Men

The Hamilton Case


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O L DE KRETSER was a high-profile barrister in Ceylon. In 1942 his The Pope Murder Case, the true story of the murder of an English tea-planter and the trial of his lullers, was published by Caxton Press. Now his daughter, Michelle de Kretser, has written a novel, set in the 1930s, about the murder of an Enghsh tea-planter in Ceylon and the strange course that the eventual trial follows. It was an unusual time in the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, when decay and corruption existed everywhere, and wealth and stature were powerful levers in a colonial society fast crumbling as political change prepared the way for independence.

The author paints an exotic picture of elephant hunts, vast tracts of jungle, Colombo house parties, up-country tea plantations and seaside retreats at the end of colonial rule. The novel takes the form of an autobiographical story, told by Stanley ‘Sam’ Obeysekera, a lawyer and one of a once wealthy but now debt-ridden fady comprising feuding parents (gambling father; beautifil, promiscuous and alcoholic mother) and a frail, disturbed sister who tragically marries a politician of the new order.

The family’s affairs gravitate around the sensational Hamilton murder scandal, which sends shivers through the island’s so-called aristocracy. Obeysekera’s involvement in the case makes his name after he convinces police officials that Hamilton was killed by a fellow Enghshrnan; but he sets off a chain of events that call into question the very hndamentals of British justice.

I devoured this book. De Kretser misses nothing: she has a keen ear for dalogue and an eye for detail. There is energy in her writing, and her book is a natural companion to two others on Ceylon in the 1930s and 1940s – Running in the Family by my brotier ~icha~ Ondaatje, and The ]am Fruit Tree by Car1 Muller. The first deals with the painful decline of a privileged Dutch Burgher family, and the second is a humorous account of the boisterous ‘Railway’ Burgher sect. (The Burghers of Ceylon were all that remained of the Dutch rule – a small, hard-working community who were descendants of high-ranking Dutch families, with a mixture, in the majority of cases, of Sinhalese blood.) But unlike these two books, de Kretser’s novel is written not from the Burgher perspective but from the rnudaliyar Sinhalese point of view. As Obeysekera tells us, ‘The Europeans rewarded loyalty with land. Whole villages were in fact given to the mudaliyars’ (the latter being the senior men in the island’s social system). However, ‘with the development of the colonial civil service the mudaliyars’ power had eroded, and a preoccupation with status had taken its place. Senior chaps like Pater had little do but advise the British on the doings and the opinions of the Ceylonese. In this way they came to wield enormous influence.’

As the events of the Hadton case unfold, Michelle de Kretser’s sensitive observation of the interplay between the various racial groups is most fascinating. ‘Miss Vanderstraaten was the first Dutch Burgher I knew. The European purity of her race was her great pride, and she guarded it with the zeal that brands all lost causes’; ‘Pater says there’s not a Ceylonese without mongrel blood in his veins . . . He says we’ve all got at least one skeleton in the family closet – a Tad, a Moor, a Swiss mercenary, someone we’d rather keep quiet about.’

This Ceylon no longer exists, and The Hamilton Case is an opinionated glance back at the island’s decline after the departure of the British. ‘After that everything followed with the inevitability of history: new stamps, hula hoops, ration books, flocked nylon, rising prices, a falling currency, Coca-Cola, cabinet ministers in sarongs, lades in trouser suits, faded coups, successll assassinations, race riots and a national anthem no one knew the words to. A generation was left marooned on verandahs, eking out its grievances like l whiiky-and-sodas. Land Reforms! The Twist!’

What a lucky thing it is for those of us who remember the exuberant pre-independence days that someone as gifted as Michelle de Kretser has taken the trouble to revisit that ddly irresponsible era.

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