Selwood

Sensitive portrayal of solitary splendour

Selwood Nuwara Eliya And The Story Of An English Cottage by Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda. Designed by Nelun Harasgama Nadaraja. Photography by Devaka Seneviratne. Published by Veritas. Price Rs.1,000. Reviewed by Tissa Jayatilaka

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/061112/Plus/pls22.html

Selwood the book is as splendid and as rare a product as Selwood the cottage in Nuwara Eliya seems to be judging by its author Dr. Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda’s fine account of the latter. Selwood Nuwara Eliya And The Story Of An English Cottage to give the book its full title, is a triumph of design. Here is a superb publication in which the designer, photographer, writer and publisher have come delightfully together to produce a book of beauty. It is a product of exquisite taste that is bound to please the aesthetic sense of any sensitive human being.

The designer of the book, Nelun Harasgama Nadaraja, is one of those uncommon souls in our midst whose style is the more striking because it is so delightfully unostentatious. As in most of her paintings so in her design of Selwood, there is a beautiful artistic sparseness. This avoidance of over-elaboration and Nadaraja’s delicately evocative touch contribute handsomely to the charm of the finished product. Devaka Seneviratne’s photography is excellent and does his illustrious seniors and predecessors at Studio Times proud. Also included in the book are a few photographs by Anu Weerasooriya and Christopher Silva of Studio Times. The photography contributes immeasurably to the overall superior quality of Selwood. This publication marks the first public attempt at writing by Tammita-Delgoda after his monumental and memorable book on the life and art of Stanley Kirinde, arguably Sri Lanka’s foremost living painter, that came out in August 2005. In Selwood he has succeeded in sustaining his well-earned reputation as a scholar and writer of distinction. Veritas, the publishers of the book, deserve praise for having the imagination and daring to invest money in a project of this nature.

Of course the less idealistic amongst us will probably scoff at the labour of love of the above-mentioned individuals and may even note that this lot is as mad and as impractical as most people of good and refined taste usually are! To those of us, however, who fret about the future of our country, enterprises of this kind offer much reassurance. All does not yet seem lost despite the fact that we live in times when commerce has settled (literally) on every tree and a vulgar and hideous consumerism has our once gracious island home by the throat -- a vulgarity and hideousness made the worse by rampant corruption, unbridled violence and political skullduggery. That in the midst of our near-total collapse as a nation-state of any substance, we have sensitive spirits amongst us willing to spend their creative energies and limited funds on bookmaking of the kind we find in Selwood, provides us with the desperately needed hope for future years. We will perhaps muddle through the present sordid mess we are in and, in the not too distant future, effect a moral regeneration based on our national ethos of which excessive and mindless materialism has never been a part.

Selwood is the story of the cottage that Hannah Hoodright, an English woman, built in the early years of the 20th century at the foot of Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak. It was a cottage that was designed to remind her of home. Set in the midst of an English garden it is situated in Nuwara Eliya, a provinicial town that ‘….has a mournful air of a British seaside town, forgotten, faded and rather drab’. By the time Selwood was built, Nuwara Eliya ‘had been the hill capital of British Ceylon for nearly eighty years’. The author has placed the history of Selwood cheek by jowl with a potted history of Nuwara Eliya. We shall return to the evolution and decline of this provinicial town later in this essay.

Upon Hannah Hoodright’s death in 1924, and her husband’s a few years later, another English woman, Henrietta Brian Saunders Clark, acquired Selwood. The latter’s husband Robert Clark, we gather, is responsible for the carved wooden mantelpiece which now adorns the dining room. One of Henrietta Clark’s lasting contributions to Selwood is the care she took of its beautiful garden. As a lover of birds ‘she designed her garden especially for the birds’ and it has been kept partially wild since then. Her love for birds was such that she extracted a promise from any prospective buyer of the cottage ‘to put out half a coconut every day for them’. Thanks to Henrietta Clark’s love of nature and the sincerity of the subsequent possessors of the cottage who kept the faith, the garden at Selwood remains ‘a favourite haunt of migrating birds to this day’.

Enclosed by greenery, it is still a world unto itself, an enchanted little wood. In summer (sic) it is a riot of colour, full of begonias, nasturtiums, geraniums, yellow lantanas and fuschias. There is still a particular softness about a Nuwara Eliya morning. In this part of the world the sun takes far longer to climb into the sky. It rises slowly out of the mist, gently bringing the dull and sombre shades to life. When the sun is shining you feel that the garden is a place that you never want to leave. The trees crowd in upon you swaying in the highland air, their shadows dance upon the lawn. Sometimes it seems enough to sit and watch. In the distance the bus roars away, a reminder of the world outside this wall of green.

Devaka Seneviratne’s photographs on pages 4, 28-29, 34-35 and 55 of Selwood offer the reader a glimpse of this slice of nature.

It was in 1938 that Selwood passed into Ceylonese hands when Leonard Peiris, a barrister by profession, the son of Sir James Peiris, ‘lawyer, nationalist, social reformer and one of the foremost citizens of colonial Ceylon’, purchased it as a gift for his wife to celebrate their copper wedding anniversary. And so Selwood became the property of yet another woman, Isabel Marjorie Geraldine Peiris, the grand-daughter of Charles Henry de Soysa (1836 – 1890) ‘renowned as much for his philanthropy as for his fabled wealth’. It is estimated that de Soysa gave almost half a million sterling to charity during the course of his life (according to The Graphic, 25 October, 1890, quoted in R.K. de Silva’s 19th Century Newspaper Engravings of Ceylon – Sri Lanka, London, 1998).

With the house, the new occupants of Selwood had inherited much from its English predecessors and by far the most significant of this ‘inheritance’ was Ratnam, ‘the Indian cook and major domo’ who had first come to Selwood as a young boy during the time of the Hoodrights. There is a fine cameo description of this interesting character who comes across as a person more Selwood than most of its possessors! Isabel Peiris handed down Selwood to its present possessor, her daughter Chloe de Soysa. Selwood and times spent together there had been a special part of their life together for her and her late husband Cecil de Soysa. Despite some of the unfortunate but perhaps inevitable changes for the worse that have occurred since the de Soysas came by Selwood, it remains in one piece today, ‘a world unto itself, shrouded in fog and rain’, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Chloe de Soysa.

While Selwood has managed to survive in solitary splendour, time and ‘progress’ appear not to have left Nuwara Eliya alone. Situated six thousand feet above sea level, protected by wild forests and home to the island’s highest mountains, Nuwara Eliya had been for centuries, according to James Emerson Tennent, ‘the secret refuge of the Sinhala Kings’. John Davy, a British army doctor and his party of explorers, it is believed, stumbled upon Nuwara Eliya when they set out to explore the highlands beyond Kandy in 1819. Davy has opined that it was once ‘the dominion entirely of wild animals: and in an especial manner of the elephant, of whom we saw innumerable traces’. Sir Edward Barnes, the British Governor of Ceylon from 1824 - 1831, is credited with having started the development of Nuwara Eliya as a health resort and hill station. It is he who also encouraged the plantation of coffee and the commercialisation of the place. By the time Tennent became colonial secretary of Ceylon (1845 - 1850) Nuwara Eliya had suffered massive deforestation -- an awful consequence of the planting of coffee. As the years went by, the colonists built amongst the hills a new life for themselves replete with a church, club, racecourse and other familiar landmarks of the colonial English. They managed to create a ‘little piece of England’ just seven degrees north of the equator, ‘a town of stone and timbered buildings with gabled roofs and bow and dormer windows’. The once vast tracts of dense, dark forests which John Davy had spoken of disappeared forever, ‘to be replaced by commercial cash crops, first coffee, then tea and now vegetables’. A devastation well captured by the poem New Clearing reprinted in Selwood. Interestingly it is a devastation and a plunder that the grandfather of the author of Selwood, the late R.B. Tammita, highlights and analyses incisively in his sadly neglected novel about colonial Ceylon, The House is to Let.

The unhappy outcome of vagaries -- both colonial and post - independent -- suffered by Nuwara Eliya is plain to see today. The bleakness and the environmental degradation of the place are stark reminders of damage inflicted by unplanned and unsustainable growth in the name of a spurious development. The slopes above Selwood are no longer thickly forested and the jungle is nowhere near its back door as it used to be. The leopard who used to come down to empty the dustbins of Selwood, and attempt more besides, is not a visitor anymore.

Today the slopes of Mount Pedro are full of houses. Although there are strict laws prohibiting construction above 6,000 feet, every year the line of buildings creeps further up the mountains.

Happily Selwood has managed to weather these storms of change and ‘progress’. To those less sensitive souls who people our society, our distress at the damage done to places like Selwood may seem an anxious defence of an irrelevance. They perhaps view Selwood as a social anachronism, a relic of a vanished or vanishing elitism. Such an attitude though understandable to an extent is not acceptable. There will always be a place for the right kind of elitism in inclusive human society, a need for refined taste, uncommon style and gracious living being some of the features of it.

Selwood deserves a fate far better than being taken over and made a lodging place for government clerical hands as happened to it a few decades ago. Nuwara Eliya and its re-forested natural environment must be protected and safeguarded for the wellbeing of future generations. It should not be made a centre of excellence for potato cultivation or turned into a gigantic vegetable plot. For after all is said and done, raping Nuwara Eliya or destroying homes like Selwood does not put food in the mouth of the poor or provide employment for the unemployed or liberate the oppressed as the demagogues and place-seekers amongst us would have us believe. There are a few precious places in our island home and in the world outside that should be permitted to be worlds unto themselves untouched by human greed or vulgar envy. To not do so is to inflict irreparable harm on the world we live in. Like the occupants of Selwood and the lovers of the flora and fauna of Nuwara Eliya and elsewhere, we are but impermanent custodians of our dwelling places and their surroundings. It is not yet too late to drink deep of this truism and seek to reflect the wisdom inherent in it in all our transactions with nature if we are to leave behind more than mere ‘stony rubbish’ to those that are to come after us.