In comparison to all other countries to which I have travelled, the people of Sri Lanka were undoubtedly the most friendly and welcoming. I could not walk down the street outside the school in which I was working without being invited in for tea with parents at nearly every house. Tea is a Sri Lankan institution – you cannot say no. This kindness and generosity may have been because I made up exactly half of the white population of the town, but, wherever I went on the island, I was greeted equally well.
Looking back at my time on the island it is clear that the old cliché of the importance of who not what you know is not far from the mark in Sri Lanka — that had become evident even before I left England. As I entered the Sri Lankan embassy in London to sort out my visa, the Sri Lankan representative for the charity who was helping me announced himself at the desk and we were straight away shown away from the queue into a plush waiting room and swiftly escorted to the visa office. They skimmed through my application and, a couple of minutes later, I was on my way out — visa in the post. The best example, however, came from the very same man who had called up his ex-Sri Lankan international fast bowler friend to get me tickets to the England vs Sri Lankan test match in Colombo.
During the afternoons when I wasn’t teaching, I would help coach sport and, after a particularly successful trip to the all island sevens competition, I was invited to dinner at the main coach’s house. His name was Denzil Darling, not the most orthodox of Sri Lankan names, brilliant nonetheless. I felt quite honoured to be invited. The reason for that feeling was that Denzil knew anybody who was someone, and anyone who was somebody knew Denzil. He is a big man, has a rugby player’s build and a big personality. He holds a powerful air, has a knack of dominating the room without trying and a habit of putting people down with one comment and a potent look.
Neither before nor since have I been to a dinner with such a random assortment of guests: why invite me alongside them?
Not knowing what to expect, I turned up to a modest house and was presented with two gifts from Denzil and was shortly joined by three more guests. The first was the head tea-planter of the Uva region, who presented two kilos of tea leaves to me (that’s a LOT of tea); the other two, very high ranking officers in the Sri Lankan army, arrack in hand. After eating, we set about some of the arrack and the officers sang Sri Lankan folk songs into the early hours. The relaxed atmosphere was broken only on leaving as they started barking orders at the soldiers who had been waiting outside all night to drive them home.
Neither before nor since have I been to a dinner with such a random assortment of guests: why invite me alongside them? Was Denzil making a show of his friends in high places? And how did he even know them in the first place?
They stick together and are intensely proud of their upbringing and their school, a conversation with a Thomian rarely passes without mention of the school or his fellow old boys and what they have become.
Whom you know is so often governed by whom you went to school with and it is no different in Sri Lanka. St Thomas’ College, Bandarawela is one of three private sister schools, all named St Thomas’, and quite simply being a Thomian (old boy of St Thomas’) unlocks doors. They stick together and are intensely proud of their upbringing and their school, a conversation with a Thomian rarely passes without mention of the school or his fellow old boys and what they have become. In the words of a Thomian tea estate super intendant, ‘walking into a job interview and letting them know you were educated at St Thomas’ gives you a huge advantage’. This group is somewhat of a closed shop as well: the three sister schools offer places to the sons of past pupils first and foremost. There is a small number of other schools which share the same prestige as St Thomas’, mainly around Colombo. Such is the reputation of these establishments that the annual cricket match between St Thomas’ College Mt Lavinia and Royal College Colombo enjoys coverage in all the main national newspapers, the intense rivalry is however often marred by violence.
This was the final instalment of our special Sri Lanka Scenes series by Thomas Seaman.