My Father has had an incredibly eventful life. These are just a few anecdotes from a small chapter of it. The Motor Neuron Disease has caused the loss of most of his coherent speech, and so it took quite a while to get this information. I have tried to write exactly what he has said in first person – but as he became rather tired, some of the events recalled below are from what I can remember him telling me over the years.
In 1980, my Appa (Dad) started managing a 1000 acre agriculture and animal husbandry farm. The farm land, owned by a huge company named Ceylon Theater, was surrounded by jungle and situated near the ancient Tamil villages in Othiyamalai, Sri Lanka. He recalls the four years he was there as the best time of his life (other than the day I entered this world of course, haha). From his adventures it’s pretty clear to see why.
Appa lived on the farm in his own quarters, along with all of his employees and their families. He looked after both Sinhalese and Tamil employees and so spoke both languages. Remember, 1000 acres is a lot of land and so they produced rice in the paddy fields as well as hundreds of other crops. Everything they ate, they grew themselves – even the meat. The farmers tended to the needs of the usual farmyard animals; chickens, cattle, goats, sheep, etc… except he mentioned once that they looked after over 800 chicks alone, so these animals were there in unimaginable abundance.
Appa in his late 20s
He told me to stress that it wasn’t easy being in charge of all of this. Work started around 4am for him and often finished very late. Although the farm had men prepped with guns on night-watch, Appa always took one night time gun patrol himself around the farm to ensure no jungle animals were on the grounds trying to attack the people or the animals. He absolutely loved it . He said it felt so free to be outside in the hot sun and even though he was always working (yep, he never just sat back and let his employees do all the manual labour), it didn’t feel like work.
Due to the space on the farm, Appa apparently decided to teach himself how to drive a tractor and a motorbike. Yep. He used to tell me stories of how he rode his bike through the dirt roads in the jungle, so often and so fast, that he would become partially deaf every now and again from all the dust particles. He said that once when he was on these travels, he had a dangerously close encounter with a lone elephant. She was in the way of the dirt road he was on, so his only option was to head back. BUT the noise of the engine would be so loud, that it would scare her into running and undoubtedly killing him. The only thing he could do was wait. After a while, the herd arrived and they all crossed the dirt road into the jungle depths. This wasn’t the first or last life and death situation he encountered though;
“I was a keep fit man from a very young age… I used to run in the afternoons with the dogs around it. One day I was running through the mango grove, when suddenly the dogs who normally ran behind me leapt in front and started barking. I looked down and saw a viper camouflaged in the grass, waiting to strike at me. My dogs saved my life.”
My Dad’s side of the family are immense dog lovers; Appa had four VERY loyal beagles and around twelve mixed breeds who used to travel with him around the farm and jungle area;
“Another time, I was running with the dogs and I saw a tiny buffalo calf looking at me. I thought it was abandoned so I walked towards it. Then the calf started making a noise and it’s mum came out of the jungle, like a bullet, trying to attack me. I started running as fast as I could, but you cannot escape from a charging wild buffalo. Luckily my dogs started barking and running towards the buffalo, taking her attention away from me. My dogs saved my life again.”
He would take in abandoned animals he would find on his travels around the jungle area to keep as pets, rather than for food; below is a photo of him with a deer he found as a baby and reared himself. I call it his ‘disney princess’ photo haha (oh come on Appa, you’re stroking a deers face with a leaf?!)
Appa with the pet deer he found abandoned and reared.
Because of Appa’s experiences such as the ones above, his advice to me when I was small was hardly the usual, ‘be kind, be good, don’t bully anyone, stay smart etc…’ He has always said things like;
‘…stay out of the way of an elephant when it’s alone – it is by far more dangerous than a herd, because the chances of them attacking to protect themselves are much greater.’
‘…if a black bear attacks you, remember to stay away from it’s front paws. They are very strong. Don’t run. It will always be faster than you. Grab a stick and attack the back legs because they are its weakest point.’
Haha thanks Appa, very sound advice for a kid growing up in the city… your words actually made me want to go and live in the jungle.
He recently told me that once when it was far too hot to sleep in his quarters, he went for a midnight walk around the farm, taking his gun with him just in case. When he eventually got tired, he went to sleep in the grass next to the huge reservoir which nourished all the crops. He said that he woke up to a herd of wild buffalo who had gathered around the water, drinking it. To me that seems like such a surreal, breathtaking experience. To him it was just his life.
This extraordinary chapter of his life ended in 1984; by this time, the Tamil people had been persecuted by the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka for decades, resulting in the Civil War between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) – my parents have many stories regarding the things they witnessed growing up (but I’ll leave those for another post).
News was traveling around the Tamil populated area near the farm that the SLA were on their way. So Appa ordered his workers and their families (both Sinhalese and Tamil) into the jungle, but some refused to leave with him. Appa told me that as they left via one route, they could hear the Army coming through another. He said that he had his trusted dogs with him as they escaped, but the dogs started running and barking in the opposite direction of the way they were traveling. The Army followed the noise – the dogs were the reason the Army did not follow them all into the jungle. Those dogs saved a lot of lives that night.
On their way through the jungle to the nearest village, Appa said he saw a few of his workers- his friends- returning in the direction of the farm from errands they had been running. He begged them to go with him, but they did not believe the SLA could have got to the farm so soon. On the 1st of December 1984, the SLA entered the farm.
As soon as Appa heard that the SLA had left the farm area, he went back to the farm with a few others. The army had burned thousands of animals alive in their cages with none to spare, along with acres of crops. The workers who had refused to leave and those returning to the farm from errands whom Appa encountered, had been burned to death. And then there were his dogs who had distracted the SLA – all shot and killed. Appa said that when he saw the scene, he knew the land was dead and gone. There was nothing. I researched all of this online recently, and found that the SLA had also paid visits to some of the Tamil villages surrounding the farm that week, with equally horrific consequences for the people there.
On the morning of December 1st 2013, the first thing Appa said to me was, ‘today is the 29th anniversary of the attack on the farm. If they had killed me back then, I would never have met you.’ At this point I’d like to mention that his mind is completely fine- he knows I’m his kid, although from the way we talk to each other it does sometimes feel like we’re friends rather than parent/child. I will always remember the look in his eyes when he said this sentence though, of deep nostalgia, despair but also love. In all my life, he has never mentioned the date it had happened before. I think he was feeling pretty emotional.
Well, that is that. Remember, it’s just a small time frame of Appa’s life. Like many others from back home, my parents are filled with stories to tell. But I’ll leave the chapters of their youth AND of how we managed to travel through Sri Lanka in one piece to come to London (I’m ABSOLUTELY going to have to paint it), for another time !
Appa says thank you for listening to him. I say adios Chicas and Chicos, until we meet again. X