Memories of childhood in India
Arriving in Ceylon
We sailed into the harbour at Colombo, Ceylon (this was a time when it was called Ceylon and not Sri Lanka) in the evening, and at about eight o’clock, the P & O liner let down its anchor with a great rattle of heavy chain. My brother and I were wildly excited and we dashed from watching the anchor back to our cabin, where a frowning Mama was still counting luggage and putting tips into envelopes.
The ship was too big to dock, so it stayed out in the harbour, and we went ashore by motor launch in the dark, the incredible tropical dark that comes in a second; a velvety darkness. Twinkling lights beckoned to us from the land. It was hot and sultry, but I’d got used to that on the voyage as we journeyed from the bitter cold of an English February into steadily warmer weather. My brother, the stargazer, had his eyes fixed on the skies, as he had done every night since the stars changed to those of the southern hemisphere. ‘It’s like being in another world,’ he said.
Ceylon was definitely another world. On land, we still had our sea legs and walked uncertainly. Here was Pa, not seen for months, come to welcome us. He had travelled down from Calcutta to meet the boat. He was just the same, silver haired and moustached, but deeply tanned. We went with all our luggage to a hotel, and the two of us were packed off to bed. It was strange to sleep in an ordinary bed, and I felt I was still on the boat, with the room swaying around me. Above our heads slow punkahs revolved, one of them going clunk, clunk, clunk. A mosquito whined: I knew it would attack me, but not my brother.
Next morning we woke early. The room seemed huge, after our cabin on board. And there was an enormous bathroom, all to ourselves. Amazing to children used to one bathroom and an extra lav. We skipped down the stately staircase and into the dining room for breakfast. More punkahs whirling round, and Mama and Pa were already there, seated at a big round table with a gleaming white tablecloth, deep in talk. Breakfast was served by bearers in white uniforms, moving silently on brown bare feet. Bacon and eggs with toast and marmalade; I was surprised, I’d expected curry.
‘This morning,’ Pa said, ‘we’re going to the elephant factory.’