MY MEMOIRS OF THE MASKELIYA / UPCOT DISTRICT

Devaka Wickramasuriya (2014)

MORAY:

When I was on Holyrood, Talawakelle, I was transferred to Pansalatanne, Ukuwela to cover up the duties of the permanent SD who was hospitalized following a Motor Cycle accident. Having moved over to Pansalatenne on 01st December 1978, I was shocked to find the condition of my Bungalow which did not have even the basic requirements of furniture. I was naturally very distressed but my distress was very short lived as six days later, on 06th December 1978, I received transfer orders to Moray Estate, Maskeliya.

No sooner I received my letter of transfer, I telephoned the Manager of Moray who was Mr. Conrad Abeysekera whose first question to me was “are you married”. On my replying in the negative, he sounded relieved and invited me to meet him on Moray a few days hence which I did. On inquiring from Mr. Abeysekera as to why he had asked me whether I was married, his reply was that as I was to be housed in the Forres Bungalow, which belonged to Mr. C. P. Fernando who owned Forres Estate, the understanding was that it could only be a bachelor SD who could occupy the bungalow as the Fernando family used to frequently visit the bungalow. I also met the other SD on Moray, who was on Rajamallai Division, Fred Amerasinghe, whom I already knew.

Closer to my date of actually moving to Moray, I decided to visit the Forres Bungalow and finalize arrangements for my meagre belongings to be sent over. I had informed my good friend Harin de Costa, who was SD on Brunswick, of my intended visit and that I would be coming over to his Bungalow for some lunch after I finish on Moray. Therefore on a Sunday, accompanied by the late Donald Gunasekera (who was my co SD on Holyrood) and his wife Sherine we set off for Moray but were “kidnapped” at the Maskeliya town by Harin and taken to the Maskeliya Club where a roaring party was in progress. Needless to say the intention of going to Forres had to be abandoned.

On Moray, I was in charge of Moray and Valladolid Divisions while my co SD Fred Amerasinghe was in charge of the other three divisions – Geddes, Corfu and Rajamallay.

Large extents of the estate were in VP with further extents being planted on both Moray and Geddes Divisions. The extents being planted on Moray Division were under my direct charge and these New Clearings have turned out to be excellent due to the high standards of work maintained in the planting of these extents.

I was also in charge of the extent of Forres which was a mere 50 acres. The fields were not motorable and supervision of these by foot helped me to keep fit as I was then playing Rugby for DMCC.

Mr. Abeysekera and his wife Seetha were wonderful people. The extremely cordial relationship I had with them continued until the sad demise of Mr. Abeysekera in around 2002 after which I, unfortunately, lost contact with Mrs. Abeysekera some years later. Mr. Abeysekera never interfered in what you were doing; only gave you instructions on how he wanted things done and it was left to you to ensure these instructions were carried out. However, if this did not happen, you would be in serious trouble. Fortunately for me such a situation never arose.

Fred Amerasinghe and I both were playing Rugger at that time. DMCC had decided not to field a team that year and instead the team fielded was a combined Dimbula/Dickoya side named the “DimDicks”. Practices were held both at Radella and Darrawella and many were the occasion that Fred and I rode to Radella from Moray (a distance of approximately 70 miles both ways), attended practices, quenched our thirsts at the bar thereafter and returned to Moray in the early hours of the following morning. I was fortunate as with Fred being of ample proportions and my being the pillion rider, I was able to sleep throughout on the way back from Radella – with Fred’s exemplary riding ensuring that I did not fall off! Needless to state, despite these exertions, we were both on parade at Morning Muster the next day and attending to our work as usual.

Salaries were not too good at the time and after paying your Club and Kadday bills there was not much left. Around the 3rd week of the month, both Fred and I would compare our financial situations and find that we were down to “salmon” or “eggs” with funds not even permitting the purchase of a bottle of the spirit that cheers. Mr. Abeysekera had a very fixed programme; he left office sharp at 4.30 p.m., read the newspapers and after a bath was ready to take on the evening from about 7.00 p.m. Fred and I knowing this gentleman’s hospitality, when things were really bad financially, used to call over at Mr. Abeysekera’s Bungalow around 7.00 p.m. His stock question to us was “any problem” and when we used to reply that there was none, he used to invite us in and before much time had lapsed we had glasses in our hands and were soon well on the way to spending a good evening which always ended with a sumptuous dinner. On finding that Mr. Abeysekera was serving us Scotch Whisky (something we could not afford to drink at that time) while he was drinking Arrack, which was his choice of drink, I asked him as to why he was serving us Scotch when he well knew that we drank Arrack. His reply was “then who is going to finish the hampers I got”. Therefore, Fred and I consoled ourselves that our unannounced visits to Mr. Abeysekera’s Bungalow were beneficial to him as well!

The Maskeliya Club was functioning extremely well. Both Fred and I were active members and used to visit the Club (almost 12 miles away) at least three times a week. Mr.Abeysekera, however, did not visit the Club very often but supported all its activities. A story that comes to mind was one during the time of the Club’s Monsoon Dance in 1979 when Mrs. Abeysekera had been asked to prepare two whole Fish in some form or the other as a part of the Supper that was to be laid out. This having been done, they were handed over to me to be taken over to the Club in Mr. Abeysekera’s car which was released to Fred and me for the night. We were taking a Clerk from Moray to help at the Bar and he was tasked with keeping the two large dishes containing the two whole fish on his lap. Approaching Maskeliya Town there was a shout from this Clerk – “Sir, Sir, please stop the Car”. On doing so and asking him what the trouble was, his reply was “Sir, this fish knocked that fish and that fish’s head has come off”! Running repairs were immediately done on the damaged fish even after which it resembled one that had been strangled as we were just not able to get its head straight. The two fish were duly handed over to the Lady Convenor who after inspecting them closely looked at us in a suspicious manner but probably due to the look of absolute innocence displayed on both Fred’s and my faces, fortunately, did not make any comment.

The Fishing Hut on Rajamallay was another frequent haunt of ours. Many were the Sunday’s that most of us in the district spent the day there thoroughly enjoying ourselves. The water was ice cold and the beers and chasers were placed in the running water and were chilled instantly. A dip in the cold water used to sober us up after a hectic day.

Climbing of Adam’s Peak using the normal route through Dalhousie or through the jungle using the path from Rajamallay Division was another frequent pastime of ours during the Adam’s Peak season. There were occasions when we used to climb the Peak through Dalhousie in the evening and return through the jungle path the next morning, which ended very close to the Fishing Hut and spend the rest of day at the Fishing Hut.

These good days came to an end all too soon. Fred lost a sister and decided that he must find employment in Colombo to care for his aged parents for whom the shock of losing a daughter was immense. He applied to the Agricultural Development Authority which was then headed by Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne and was immediately selected. At around the same time, Mr. Abeysekera was informed that he would be moving to Strathspey, a property of which he had been the Visiting Agent for many years, and was to be succeeded on Moray by Hemannath Wickremesooriya. Mr. Abeysekera was not too happy with this transfer and probably in an attempt to get it cancelled had mentioned to the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation that Hemannath Wickremesooriya and I were close relations, which was not the case. This resulted in my too being transferred to Brunswick and all three executives on Moray – Mr. Abeysekera, Fred and myself leaving the property virtually at the same time.

BRUNSWICK:

My transfer to Brunswick was effective 01st December 1979.

Brunswick was a “jewel” and consisted of six Divisions - Brunswick, Bloomfield, Dunottar, Emelina, Mottingham and Caskieben. Harin de Costa my co SD was in charge of Emelina, Mottingham and Caskieben while I was in charge of the other three. The Tea Factory was under the PD Mr. Manilal Abeyawardena’s direct charge with Harin and me assisting in Stock Checks etc.

The Staff on Brunswick were a set of absolute gentlemen. The Factory Officer - Mr. T. S. Hannan (who was the 3rd generation of Hannan’s to be on Brunswick with his father and grandfather having been Field Officer and Factory Officer respectively), the Head Clerk - Mr. C. H. B. Joel, Field Officers – Mr. Jiffrey, Mr. S. Solamuthu and Mr. Dharmasena, the Senior Assistant Factory Officer – Mr. Ganapathy, the Assistant Clerk – Mr. Piyadasa, the Mechanic – Mr. Seeladasa (who could repair anything from a 5 ft. Fluid Bed Drier to even your watch) are some names that I recall.

Mr. Abeyawardena had a unique system of being in the know of what happened on the estate. The SDs had to consolidate Divisional work details, forwarded to them daily by the Divisional Heads, in a specific format in a Manuscript Book, that served as a Field Diary, which had to be sent to the Estate Office daily by 7.30 a.m. The system was very effective as the SDs in entering the Divisional work details in this MS book became totally aware of all the work done on their divisions the previous day even if for some reason they had been unable to personally check on the work done. This book also served as a Correspondence Book between Mr. Abeyawardena and the SD. It was only if the SD was on leave were the books completed by the Divisional Heads forwarded directly to Mr. Abeyawardena. Instructions from Mr. Abeyawardena were only given to the SDs and never directly to the Divisional Heads. I followed all of these practices on the estates I was Manager of as this reporting system was most effective.

My first “field round” with Mr. Abeyawardena commenced with a visit to Field No: 1 C of Bloomfield Division which was being tipped after pruning. Mr. Abeyawardena found that the tipping done was low is certain sections and was furious. At this time the Field Officer of Bloomfield Division, unfortunately, came up to where we were and Mr. Abeyawardena on seeing him reprimanded him saying “Jiffrey look at this bloody tipping. You are only fit to be a spare …………… on a honeymoon”. Jiffrey obviously not quite understanding at that time what had been told to him replied “Yes Sir - I will get it rectified” after which Mr. Abeyawardena and I proceeded on our field round. That afternoon Jiffrey was at my Bungalow, with his letter of resignation, to tell me that he had never been insulted so much in his life before. I was able to convince Jiffrey that Mr. Abeyawardena would never have meant what he said and that it was purely due to the bad work that he had lost his temper. Jiffrey fortunately accepted what I told him and the matter ended there.

Field No: 1 C of Bloomfield was the highest yielding field on Brunswick and was yielding around 6000 kgs/hectare. A strange phenomenon was that though Field No: 1 A which was adjoining 1 C was riddled with live wood termite, there were no termite attacks in 1 C. The only conclusion that could be arrived at was that live wood termite did not affect VP tea.

Replanting was being done on a large scale on Bloomfield and Brunswick Divisions both of which were under my charge. Plants were raised in the Dunottar and Mottingham Nurseries and due to the meticulous work standards and attention to detail in these nurseries, excellent planting material was available.

The work in the New Clearings too was of a very high standard which resulted in the replantings being excellent. One incident that I can recall is that on the day when holing in a New Clearing on Bloomfield Division commenced, a worker who was engaged in holing suffered a heart attack and dropped dead. I thought this was a bad omen and on mentioning this to Mr. Abeyawardena was told not to worry as any bad omens would have been dispelled with this worker’s sudden death!

Another matter of significance which comes to mind is the block infilling of 80,000 plants in, if I am correct, Field No: 4 of Dunottar Division. This work which too was done maintaining very high standards were excellent. Mr. Abeyawardena had a unique system of bringing plants into bearing; what he called “half cut and bend”. This resulted in plants forming into bushes in a very short period of time and thereby being brought into plucking much earlier than when using other methods.

Mr. Abeyawardena insisted on a very high standard of work and plucking standards were excellent. Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne, then Chairman of the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation on visiting Brunswick, shortly after I had left the property, had stated that the standard of plucking on Brunswick was the best he had seen. Mr. Wijeratne mentioned this to me on his visiting Kallebokka, where I was then, and insisted that the Brunswick standards be achieved on Kallebokka as well.

Despite Brunswick being a very high-profit maker, there were many shortcomings in Executives perquisites. The PDs Bungalow did not have a proper cooker, drawing room suite, a carpet for the sitting room and no proper refrigerator while I too did not have many basic items including a refrigerator in my Bungalow. These items were supplied in abundance to other properties but for some unknown reason Brunswick was left out. On Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne visiting Brunswick and finding the excellent condition the estate was in and the massive profits being generated, he had asked Mr. Abeyawardena what he wants for Brunswick including the Bungalows. On Mr. Abeyawardena informing him of what was required for the bungalows, Mr. Wijeratne had flown into a rage, castigated the Regional Office Executives who were present and instructed Mr. Abeyawardena to immediately purchase his requirements irrespective of whether an estimate to do so was available or not.

Harin de Costa and I were Treasurer and Secretary of the Maskeliya Club respectively and, ably supported by Mr. Abeyawardena, kept the Club going despite there having been an exodus of Club stalwarts. Many were the day, after work, that Harin and I would sit on the bench on the veranda of the Club to “capture” those who had come over to the district newly and were passing by and entice them to join the Club and its activities. Our efforts were successful.

The Club’s Annual Monsoon Dances were always resounding successes due to many sponsors being found resulting in us being able to engage a very high profile band and an exclusive Cabaret artiste from Colombo. 

For the Dance held in 1980, being Secretary of the Club and a bachelor, I was delegated the responsibility of picking up the Cabaret artiste from the Hatton Railway Station and accommodating her in my Bungalow due to it being the closest to the Club and for no other reason! The Cabaret artiste was chaperoned by her mother and another gentleman who claimed to be her “Uncle”. After having refreshed themselves at my Bungalow, I took them over to the Club and deposited them in the Club’s Billiard Room until it was time for her to perform. Needless to say, being the good host that I was, I frequently checked on how she was doing and provided her with ample “refreshments” in the hope that this would enhance her performance! A very senior PD of the district, who had downed quite a few drinks by that time, observing my frequent visits to the Billiard Room, asked me why I was doing so and I was compelled to tell him that it was due to the Cabaret artiste being there. On hearing this he walked into the Billiard Room with me following and having inspected her asked me “Devaka, as she is anyway going to perform in a short time, would she be willing to do a private performance for me now if I pay her something”. The Cabaret artiste and her mother both took umbrage at this and I had a phenomenal task in preventing them from leaving. The senior PD who caused the rumpus fled “the scene of the crime” leaving me to resolve the problem on my own.

Harin and I were also playing Rugby for the DMCC at that time with me captaining the team in 1980. This necessitated travelling to Darrawella Club on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s and leaving the estate on Saturday morning for matches played at Kandy, Taldua, Badulla etc., for which we had Mr. Abeyawardena’s approval.

In December 1980 Harin left Brunswick to take up the position as General Manager of the Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya. I accompanied Harin to Nuwara Eliya when he went to take up his new appointment and it was ironical that 26 years later, in 2006, I was with Harin when he left the Hotel.

Harin was succeeded initially by Sanath Kularatne and thereafter by Andrew Taylor. On Andrew Taylor leaving Brunswick in 1983, Seevali Mudannayake assumed duties as SD on Brunswick, it being his first appointment after “creeping”.

Shortly after Seevali arrived on Brunswick, Mr. Abeyawardena and I decided to take him down to the Maskeliya Club to “break him in” and instil into him “Brunswick traditions”. Many others too were present and an enjoyable evening was in progress. Mr. Abeyawardena after some time insisted that Seevali, being the youngest amongst us, pours his drinks. A short time later it was time for a re-fill and Mr. Abeyawardena called out to Seevali “Seevali, one finger Arrack topped up with Soda”. Seevali duly obliged and when the glass was handed back to Mr. Abeyawardena and he had taken a sip, there was a shout from him “Seevali don’t you know what one finger is”. Seevali’s reply was “Yes Sir, one finger” with his finger extended upwards!

My tenure on Brunswick ended with my transfer to Kallebokka, Madulkelle in November 1984, having been hand-picked for the job by Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne to assist Mr. Manthi Delwita who had just taken over the property. Naturally, I was immensely sad to leave Brunswick and the Maskeliya/Upcot District which I consider were the best years of my planting life.

Much kindness was extended to me by both Mr. Abeyawardena and his gracious wife Srima and their three sons, Mandana (the quiet one), Senarath (the studious one) and Harish (the scamp). My association with the Abeyawardena family that commenced in the Maskeliya / Upcot district has gone from strength to strength and I am indeed honoured that they all continue to regard me as a good friend.

Friendships that started in the Maskeliya/Upcot district are yet in existence and probably stronger than ever. This resulted in Harin de Costa, Randy Mcleod and I creating what was initially known as the “Association of Ex Planters of Maskeliya” and has now become “The Mascots”. The objectives of both the “Association of Ex Planters of Maskeliya” and “The Mascots” are “To continue and develop the camaraderie and goodwill that exists amongst the Planters and others who were employed in the Maskeliya & Upcot Districts and who were members of Maskeliya Club” and is ample testimony of the wonderful days spent in this unique district which all of us are determined should continue.

Devaka Wickramasuriya

Comments

(In keeping with the objectives of this website, all COMMENTS must be made in the spirit of contributing to the history of this estate, planter or person i.e. names, dates & anecdotes. Critical evaluations or adverse comments of any sort are not acceptable and will be deleted without notice – read full Comments Policy here)