D.H. Lawrence on Dharmaraja Hill
(with grateful acknowledgements to ‘The Ceylankan’ (Australia) November 2007)
This article also appeared in the "Digital Pencil", Issue 1.
By Tissa Devendra
Lake View Hill in Kandy, seventy years ago, was a delightful mix of scattered trees waist-deep in pungent ‘maana’ grass with a steep red gravel road and stony footpaths which led up to the sprawling garden and rambling old bungalow of the Principal of Dharmaraja College. It became our family’s home at this time when Dharmaraja’s charismatic Principal Kularatne invited my father D.T. Devendra to join his teaching staff. The Kularatne family generously shared the house with us for many months. The airy old house had an open verandah with a glorious view of Kandy Lake glimmering blue in the sunshine or dimly reflecting street lamps and flaming processional torches in its inky depths at night. The overgrown garden was a paradise of earthly delights for the four Devendra children. We woke to the chirping, twittering and trilling of birds that flew in and out of berry laden bushes and trees where they fed and nested. Once in a while a slim green snake slid through the grass or slithered up a tree raising goose- pimples on us Colombo-raised children. We rarely had the pleasure of tasting the fruit of the large mango tree which overspread the garden to shadow the road to the school. Schoolboys smartly flung stones to bring down the green ‘geta’ greatly relished for their crisp bite and milky sourness. The fruits on the higher branches, beyond the range of schoolboy marksmen, managed to ripen - only to feed the nightly clouds of squeaking bats. Sadly, we moved on to other homes and other towns and this lovely old garden receded down the dim corridors of memory.
Many years passed. I was at the [one and only] University reading for a degree in English when, with a thrill of recognition, I read D.H. Lawrence’s wonderful poem ‘Elephant’ and realized that he too had lived some time in Kandy, though in the 1920s. As the critical scrutiny of literature was our aim at the time, not a quixotic search for actual locations, I never bothered to find out where Lawrence had lived in Kandy. Decades passed.
A few years ago I was in Kandy at a gathering of ‘old boys’ of Dharmaraja sharing reminiscences. I told the Principal Mr. Damunupola that my first home in Kandy had been the lovely old bungalow he was now fortu-nate enough to occupy. He gently smiled and said “Somebody even more eminent than you lived there some years earlier. Did you know that D.H. Lawrence lived there for a few months?” I was amazed at the revelation and persuaded him to take me along to visit the home of my long ago childhood – now made more magical by the shade of D.H. Lawrence. I spent a few nostalgic hours walking the verandah overlooking the Lake and imagining myself in Lawrence’s shoes mulling over his ‘Elephant’.
Some months ago I wrote a tribute to Kularatne’s daughter Maya Senaayake where I spoke of the mag-ical months our family had spent in the Dharmaraja Principal’s Bungalow. My old friend W. Panditaratne had read this and, to my delightful surprise, sent me photocopies of the letters Lawrence had sent while living at “Ardnaree” Lake View Hill Estate – the earlier ‘avatar’ of the Principal’s Bungalow.
There is a particular significance in this correspondence to the readers of “The Ceylankan”. Lawrence left Kandy and went on to live, briefly once more, in Australia. I will now let the letters of this rather querulous genius speak for themselves.
Lawrence came to Ceylon in 1922 at the invitation of his artist American friends Earl and Achshah Brewster who were already living in “Ardnaree” and studying Buddhism. Achshah gives a vivid description of the house and garden in her “Ceylon the Luxuriant”.
“Verandahs encircle the house: thickets and jungle encroach on the open compound………We can see the mongoose climbing a jak tree, from the trunk of which depend fruits like green melons. Beautiful trees are alive with birds and little chipmunks, marked with the stripes of Siva’s fingers. Termites raise mounds like models of Gothic cathedrals. The garden swarms with creatures. Shrills with bird cries and insect hums, bursts with lush life, flowering, producing…….Life bears an inextinguishable flame in this land.”
Little wonder that Lawrence and Frieda sailed to Cey-lon and went on to Kandy to live with the Brewsters in their Edenic retreat on 14 March 1922.
The rather frail Lawrence, however, did not share the Brewsters’ enthusiasm for “Ardnaree” and soon began to find the heat increasingly intolerable. On 25th March his letter to Catherine Carswell speaks of the Raja Perahera for the Prince of Wales he saw - which inspired his “Elephant” “We’re in a nice spacious bungalow on the hill above Kandy in a sort of half jungle of a coconut palm estate- and cocoa – beautiful and such sweet scents; The Prince of Wales was here on Thursday – and looks worn out. The Perahera in the evening with a hundred elephants was lovely. I don’t believe I shall ever work here.”
Three short days later he writes to Mrs. A.L. Jenkins in Australia – already tiring of Kandy and the Buddhism so dear to his hosts, the Brewsters “Well here we’ve been for a fortnight – rather lovely to look at, the place – but very hot and I don’t feel at all myself. Don’t think I care for the East. Shall try going up to Nuwara Eliya this week I don’t think we shall stop long – two or three months then come on. My mind turns towards Australia I have a fancy for the apple-growing regions, south from Perth: have a great fancy to see apple trees in blossom and to be really “white”. I feel absolutely dead off Buddhism, with Nibbana or Nirvana, Kama or Karma. They can have Buddha Tell me if you think we should like W. Australia – if not we’ll go straight to Sydney.”
Lawrence was an indefatigable letter writer. His letter to Robert Pratt Barlow, written just two days after writing to Mrs. Jenkins shows, once again, both fascination with the Perahera elephants and dissatisfaction with the Buddhism he found in Ceylon –“…We were at the Perahera here for the Prince of Wales. It was wonderful, gorgeous and barbaric with all the elephants and flames and devil dances in the night. One realizes how barbaric the substratum of Buddhism is. I shrewdly sus-pect that high-flownness of Buddhism altogether exists mainly on paper; and that its denial of the soul makes it rather barren, even if philosophically etc., more perfect. In short, after a slight contact, I draw back and don’t like it…..”
Later on, in the same letter Lawrence, rather surprisingly, expresses ideas that can only be described as proto-fascist in their distaste, towards Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as English working men ! -“…I rather think that the most living clue in life is in us Englishmen in England, and the great mistake we make is not uniting together in the strength of this real living clue – religious in the most vital sense-uniting together in England and so carrying this vital spark through. Because as far as we are concerned it is in danger of being quenched. I know it is a shirking of the issue to look to the Buddha or the Hindu, or to our own working men, for the impulse to carry through. It is in ourselves, or nowhere and this looking to the outer masses is only a betrayal……”
On 11 April he writes to Austin Harrison – “…I’ve been in Ceylon a month and nearly sweated myself into a shadow. Still it is a wonderful pace to see and expe-rience. There seems to be a flaw in the atmosphere, and one sees a darkness, and through the darkness the days before the Flood, marshy with elephants mud-grey and buffaloes rising from the mud, and soft-boned voluptuous sort of people, like plants under water, stirring in myriads…I think I shall go on to Australia at the end of the month…”
Achshah Brewster, with whom the Lawrences lived in “Ardnaree”, has left a charming vignette of the poet at work, in cosy domesticity –“Across the pages of the copy book his hand moved rhythmically, steadily, un-hesitatingly, exquisitely, leaving a trail of small writing as legible as print. No blots, no scratching marred its beauty….All of this went on in the family circle. Frieda would come for consultation as to whether the rabbit’s legs should be embroidered in yellow or white. The pen would be lifted for a moment then go on across the page. Sometimes Lawrence would stop and consult us about the meaning of a word : considering seriously whatever comments were offered. He listened gravely and intently to everyone.”
Lawrence writes to Catherine Carswell on 17 April – “We are sailing on at the end of the month to Australia – find Ceylon too hot and enervating, though it was lovely to look at it. The East is queer – how it seems to bleed one’s energy and make one indifferent to eve-rything ! If I don’t like Australia I shall go on to San Francisco…”
“Elephant” is foreshadowed in his last letter from “Ard-naree”, on 30 April to Lady Cynthia Asquith, as also his disillusionment with life in Ceylon –“I didn’t like Ceylon – at least I liked looking at it – but not to live in. The East is not for me – the sensuous spiritual voluptuousness, the curious sensitiveness of the naked people, their black bottomless, hopeless eyes – and the heads of buffaloes and elephants poking out of primeval mud – the queer noise of tall metallic palm trees ach! Altogether the tropics have something of the world before the flood – hot, dark mud and the life inherent in it makes me sick. But wonderful to have known. We saw the [Prince of Wales] at the [Perahera?] a lonely little glum white fish he was sitting up there at the Temple of the Tooth with his chin on his hands gazing blankly down on all the swirl of the East, like a sort of Narcissus waiting to commit black suicide. The Perahera was wonderful – midnight – huge elephants, great flares of coconut torches, princes like peg-tops swathed round and round with muslin – and then tom-toms and savage music and devil dances – phase after phase – and that lonely little white fish- up aloft –and the black eyes and the black bright sweating bodies of the naked dancers – and the clanging of great mud-born elephants roaring past – made an enormous impression on me – a glimpse into the world before the Flood. I can’t quite get back into history. The soft, moist elephantine prehistoric has sort of swamped in over my known world – and one drifts. no more of my tirades- the sea seems so big – and the world of elephants and buffaloes seems such a vast twilight – and by sheer or mere proximity with the dark Singhalese one feels the vastness of the bloodstream, so dark and hot and from so far off. What does life in particular matter? Why should one care? Yet I don’t believe in Buddha…..
We are going to Australia – Heaven knows why: be-cause it will be cooler, and the sea is wide. Ceylon steams heat and it isn’t so much the heat as the chemical decomposition of one’s blood by the ultra-violet rays of the sun. Don’t know what we’ll do in Aus-tralia – don’t care…..”
From “Elephant” – “…best is the Perahera, at midnight, under the tropical stars With a pale little wisp of a Prince of Wales, diffident, up in a small pagoda on the temple side. And white people in evening dress buzzing and crowding the stand upon the grass below and opposite:
And at last the Perahera procession, flambeaux aloft in the tropical night, of blazing cocoa-nut, Naked dark men beneath, And the huge frontal of three great elephants stepping forth to the tom-tom’s beat,in the torch-light, Slowly sailing in glorious apparel through the flame-light…..” And so the Lawrences bade farewell to “Ardnaree” and Ceylon.
Lawrence’s first letter to Curtis Brown, dated 25 May, from Darlington, West Australia already signals disillu-sionment - “It’s queer here: wonderful sky and sun and air – new and clean and untouched - and endless hoary “bush” with no people – all feels strange and empty and unready. I suppose it will have its day, this place. But its day won’t be our day. One feels like the errant dead, or as the as- yet- unborn. And there is a queer pre-primeval ghost over everything….”
It was, therefore, inevitable that in a few short weeks the Lawrences moved on again from West Australia to Thirroul N.S.W from where he wrote,in characteristically acid mode,to Mrs. A.L. Jenkins on 28 May - “Well we are in a little house to ourselves on the edge of the cliff some 40 miles south of Sydney. It’s a weird place – with coal mines near. I believe I wished I stayed in Darlington. In fact I am sure I do.
Australia goes from bad to worse in my eyes. Sydney and the harbor are quite one of the sights of the world.. But the quality of life is absolutely too much, or too little for me. Talk about crude, raw and self-satisfied……. I’m sure every Australian…seems silently to proclaim “There’s nothing better than me on earth”…..and not always silently. I’ve got a bitter burning nostalgia for Europe, for Sicily, for old civilization and for real human understanding….God, how I hate new countries…”
Sadly disillusioned that tranquility had eluded him in both Ceylon and Australia, Lawrence sailed away from Australia in July 1922 – voyaging onwards, ever hopeful -- “If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world” [DHL]
Mr. Tissa Devendra, an old Rajan, was the chairman of the Public Service Commission, the National Council for Administration (NCA) and an acclaimed author. He is a patron of Colombo Dharmaraja OBA.