The Sri Lankan Henry Miller, a Burgher with a German first- and surname and a to-hell-with-it attitude, says he will continue to write, furiously.
Carl Muller, undoubtedly Sri Lanka´s best-selling English novelist, coined the term “faction” to describe his work which he says is a combination of fact and fiction. There clearly is a strong streak of autobiography and sex running through his writing which, he is not shy to admit, has been spiced up some to make the story read better. Mr Muller is a Burgher or, to use the kind of language he favours, a “Burgher bugger”. Most of Sri Lanka´s Burghers, relics of Dutch and Portuguese colonial rule, have emigrated to Australia, or, as many Lankans, have it: “Burghered off down under”. Once favoured by the British for a variety of jobs in government departments like the railway, customs, excise, prisons and the police, the Brits also found them comfortable berths in the plantations in the countryside and mercantile firms in Colombo.
The attraction then was that they were more Anglicised than the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The majority of the Burghers lived among the Sinhalese, and spoke Sinhala well, but their preferred language of communication, or their “home language”, was English. Sinhalese (or Tamil in the plantation bungalows where many Burgher planters served as superintendents or assistants) was only spoken to the servants.
Once the Sinhala Only Act was adopted in 1956 by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, and English ceased to be Sri Lanka´s official language, the Burghers felt that their time was up in a nation which they had over generations learned to love. Usually white skinned and with European-sounding names, the white Australia policy of those days was no deterrent to their emigration and they left, first in a trickle and then in a stream. They might have done better in the USA or Canada, but few thought of striking in that direction. Australia, by far, attracted the greatest numbers and they are doing very nicely in that country where they have been joined by many Sinhalese and Tamils who, like the Burghers, found conditions at home not strictly to their liking.
Among the Burghers were the elite “Dutch Burghers”, who still have their Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) in a sprawling Colombo mansion where circumstances have now forced many to drink arrack which in their heyday was considered good for the natives and the not-so-pukka Burghers who comprised the majority middle class. At the same time, there were also the so-called “shoe Burghers”, cobblers by trade, who spoke a peculiar patois of a combination of several languages.
Carl Muller belongs to the middle class. His father drove one of those Puffing Billy-type of steam engines (and later the diesel locos that followed) for the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR). Muller Sr was, by all accounts, one of those hard-drinking, fun-loving, roistering archetypal Burghers whose mission in life was to eat, drink, be merry, beat up the wife, kick the kids around, and generally raise Cain. That background gave Mr Muller the insights to write on the subject he tackles best – the Burghers and the railway.
A lot of what he has written in his racy, irreverent, inimitable style has infuriated the ´good´ Burghers who do not relish his portrayal of them as an uncouth, incestuous, rowdy lot. Also, Mr Muller has chosen to pinch some of the shoe Burgher patois which he puts into the mouths of middle class people who never spoke like that or, if they did, only a little bit. In the Muller dialogue, that was the English they exclusively spoke. (“Oi, Sonnaboy, who that fellow you clouting?” “Damn bugger, saying he won´t marry Anna.” “Never said that,” Anna screeched, “I jumping in well now.” “If you don´t shut up I´ll put you in the bloody well.” – from The Jam Fruit Tree, Penguin Books, India, 1993.) But then Mr Muller does not claim empathy with the upper class of his tribe and makes no secret of the fact that the DBU is one of his pet hates.
“Now, at 62, I can´t ride the carousel any more. I am very much the victim of my own ´to hell with it´ philosophy and very sick,” says Mr Muller. “All I do is write, and keep writing furiously.” Since his first novel, The Jam Fruit Tree, was published in 1993 by Penguin India, he´s had two more Penguins (Yakada Yaka – literally “the iron demon”) and Once Upon a Tender Time, following in quick succession, making it a trilogy. Puffin printed an anthology, The Python of Pura Malai and Other Stories in 1995 and then came two more Penguins, Colombo and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery.
All these since his first success. Jam Fruit Tree and Yakada Yak were particularly good although from Mr Muller´s account, they have not made him rich. Says he: “Making money? Not on your nelly. Royalties trickle in once a year and I am taxed 30 percent at source by the Indian government. I can´t depend on writing alone.”
So Mr Muller does other things. He works for the Central Province Chamber of Commerce in Kandy where he lives, editing the chamber´s newspaper. He also edits a children´s newspaper out of a Kandy press and serves as publicity officer for the Queen´s Hotel, the grand old lady that is the best-known hotel up in Sri Lanka´s central hills.
Mr Muller´s knowledge of the Burghers and the railway served him well in his first two books which won him his well-deserved reputation of being a good, if somewhat bawdy, storyteller. Predictably, the Ceylon Government Railway has accumulated a lot of railway lore in the 100 years and more that it has run the trains in Sri Lanka. The engine drivers and train guards were a colourful bunch whose many escapades had been retailed and roared over arrack-and-sodas in Railway Institutes in various parts of the country and in the running bungalows where train crews slept in-between duty stints.
Carl Muller has squirrelled away these yarns which he has skilfully woven into his novels. A knack of telling a good story honed in several newspaper and advertising jobs in Sri Lanka and the Middle East, and lots of rich experiences. (“I lost my first job as a weigh bridge clerk in a Colombo mill one week after starting work. I was fired for making eyes at a pretty Swiss girl. How the devil was I to know that she was the boss´s wife?”)
After his first mishap at Mosajee´s Wystevyke Mill at age 17, Mr Muller spent four years as a rating in the Royal Ceylon Navy and was co-opted to an ex-servicemen´s squad in the Ceylon Army in 1958 to quell the communal rioting that broke out that year.
“I was chucked out of the Ceylon Signal Corps in four months. Post-traumatic epilepsy following a series of blows on the head in various half-forgotten brawls, incidents and accidents sent me into the military hospital from where I was discharged from the army as unfit for further duty. I then joined the Colombo Port Commission as a signalman in the pilot station.”
Two years later he joined a new advertising agency set up by Tim Horshington, a fellow Burgher, where he began to “experiment with the pen”. His first article was printed in the Ceylon Observer in 1962. “I continued writing thereafter while working any and everywhere. Jobs included advertising, travel and entertainment (he was a pianist at a resort hotel close to Negombo) and work for several newspapers in Colombo before taking off to the Middle East for more newspaper jobs (Gulf News in Dubai, Gulf Weekly Mirror in Bahrain). I chucked journalism to join the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry where I became vice-president for international sales at the Export Centre in Sharjah where we conducted up to 15 international trade fairs a year. I moved to the Times of Oman for the Gulf war period and finally came back home, broken in health, and began writing in earnest”.
Several more manuscripts have been completed. The Children of the Lion is due to come out in Viking hardcover in November. The army-navy days will be dealt in Spit and Polish. A whole lot of other novels are in his head and being written, including The Jawbone of West Asia, based on his seven years in the Middle East, which will be his first British Penguin.
Mr Muller has been featured by The Age in Melbourne, Time magazine and the Far Eastern Economic Review. He´s won the Gratiaen Memorial Prize for English writing in Sri Lanka, takes very unkindly to any kind of criticism of his work and cheerfully admits that his Sunday column for the Sunday Island in Colombo annoys a lot of people.
“Part of being a maverick, I suppose – prodding sundry ribs all the time. The indiscipline is in my writing too. But then I have always been the despair of many. Guess I´ll reform after I am dead!”
In 1960 I visited the Maldive Islands. That was, considering the march of history, a long time ago. It was the kite flying season and every Maldivian male between six and sixty was engrossed in fashioning weird contraptions with coloured tissue and slivers of wood and sending them aloft where they would soar silently upon a still offshore breeze.
I went to the single post office where a single clerk sat behind a counter. I needed a two larees stamp. The clerk gave me a pained look. One of his hands was stuck out of the window. He signalled greeting with the other and raised a black eyebrow.
He shoved across a sheet of stamps. I detached one carefully and, with his one free hand, he pushed the rest of the sheet away, accepted my money and doled out some small coin. He didn´t speak. All the while he kept shifting his gaze to the hand that was stuck out of the window. He would also arch his neck and bob his head to glance obliquely out then resume a more human position.
I stuck on the stamp. The free hand waved me to the post box. He intrigued me the way a cat would be intrigued on seeing a mouse pushing a wheelbarrow.
Some Maldivians trooped in with sing-song voices and bad-toothed smiles. They, too, received the one-handed service. They did not seem to mind the fumblings and contortions in the fishing out of the registration tab, the daubing of some runny gum on the better part of the envelope and the awkward dispensing of small change. Very curious, I went outside, walked to the side of the building where that window was. Yes, the hand was there. It twitched occasionally. It held a spool of thread.
My post office wallah was flying a kite.
From “You Scratch My Back…” A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery, Penguin Books India, 1995.