Captain Ratna’s Tea

The Captain scribbles his contact details: "Cpt. H. Ratna, Colombo Port."

Captain Ratna spotted me in the underpass on Sri Dalada Veediya.

Minutes off a bus from the north, I’d wiggled through the rabble on the corner of Kandy’s Market Street before ducking into the cool underground. The big hand on the Ismail clock tower was somewhere past midday.

I know that’s when he saw me, because I saw him seeing me – through the scattershot spray of the fountain at the end of the passage. Before I reached his vantage point at the trinket stall, he had turned to climb the stairs. “Nice afternoon for tea,” he said without looking at me, as I drew up alongside him.

The fountain in the underpass where I met the Captain.

The protocol for such an invitation was familiar: It goes without saying that the invitee foots the bill. Take Jalliker, who presides over a non-optional shoe protection racket outside the cave temple at Dambulla. Temples generally require you remove your shoes and it would be un-Sri Lankan not to make a business out of looking after them for you.

Two nights earlier, as the sun set on the hill at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jalliker had insisted I join him in chasing down a couple of Lion beers with a glass of arack. You’d struggle to find a more dedicated custodian of footwear in the 25 rupee bracket, but equally challenged to meet a less gifted conversationalist. The fee for extricating myself from his amateurish freeloading was comfortingly negligible.

Jalliker: Shoe protector extraordinaire.

Sunset at Dambulla Cave Temple

Sunset at Dambulla Temple Cave.

From the beginning, it was clear that relations with the Captain would proceed on a different, more symbiotic footing. He would speak, I would scribble. “Captain H. Ratna,” he announced as we made our way down Castle Street, adding, with staccato underscore: “Former commander. Royal Navy.”

Ratna. Why did I know that? “A Kandyan surname,” the Captain offered. “Very ancient.”

I grew up around names rooted in South Asia: Choudhary, Sachdeva, Kadiri and, of course, Patel – the “Smith” of the subcontinent, at least as far as Londoners are concerned. Was it the stationer’s opposite the post office? No, that was Tanna. The halal butcher? Wait! “Ratna, Jeweler.” That was it. “Naturally,” said the Captain, with a customary Sri Lankan head bobble. “Ratna is meaning jewel.” It turned out to be one of his few verifiable claims that afternoon. 

Polyester trousers pulled up old-man high, chunky-lensed reading glasses protruding from the chest pocket of his striped linen shirt, and a smudged newspaper jutting from his armpit like the handle on a water pump, the Captain led the way to a nominally Italian eatery. A pair of breadcrumbed dhosa lingered incongruously behind the greasy Perspex of the food display on the counter. Upstairs, he motioned. A fetid waft of urine permeated the narrow staircase.

At the top, a waiter blocked the tiny landing, de trop like a misplaced traffic cone. We squished by into the barroom. The waiter and his grin remained in place. Our entrance doubled the occupancy of the room. In the far corner, a soft-bellied office sloth was pumping the room full of Gold Leaf fumes, his side-parted hair greasy and flaccid like a cormorant caught in an oil spill. Diametrically positioned, in room and girth, was a dusky stick insect with a shrunken head dominated by a bristly mustache. The head nodded respectfully to the Captain as we took our seats by the window.

Across Sri Lanka, such drinking dens are generally of a piece: threadbare, functional and, from the street, as discernible to the uninitiated as pan pipes in a bamboo copse. This is deliberate. “Public drinking is illegal,” sniffed the Captain. “But even if it were not, it would be terribly bad form. Especially for young people.”

This particular establishment seemed to be trying its best to put people off. I ordered two beers and, noting the Captain’s preoccupation with Slick Rick’s exhalations, a packet of Gold Leaf. You can have any cigarettes you want in Sri Lanka, as long as they’re Gold Leaf.

The Captain began with reflections on his time in the navy, which – doubtless playing to his audience – he soon melded into a eulogy on the virtues of the colonial era. “The British were bringing rule of law and discipline to Sri Lanka,” he said. “Strict but fair. To this very day, the procedures, rules, and even the punishments in the navy are based on Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.

“Even the punishments,” he repeated wistfully.

It crossed my mind to inquire whether the Captain had ever overseen the application of this discipline. Instead, I broached a wider, no less sensitive theme. Ratna was barely old enough to remember the crown colony, but no less nostalgic and selective in his reflections than many aging ex-colonials I’ve come across. In my adopted home of Taiwan, I observed, many oldsters still speak Japanese and view Imperial rule through a smeared, rising-sun-inflected lens.

But the Captain was not to be drawn into post-colonial theorizing, especially as the gate had creaked open affording a glimpse of more fruitful pastures. “Ah, the Japanese,” he bobbled. “They bombed Ceylon three times. But what can you do?

“As for Formosa,” he continued, tentatively, rolling his baggy cigarette around the rim of the ashtray. “A tea producing island, like Sri Lanka.” And there it was. The hook. There’s always a hook.

“Ceylon tea, sir, is the finest in the world. As a matter of fact, Kandy’s broken orange pekoe variety …” And now, there was no stopping him: As luck would have it, his house up in the hills was right next to Kandy’s finest plantation. In his position as an inspector at Colombo Port he could expedite the swift dispatch of all kinds of goods. He’d be back there in a couple of days. I wasn’t a big tea drinker? Great gift for the family …

For a good while after the line was cast, the hook just dangled there. He didn’t jerk it; I swam by, feigning obliviousness. The conversation spun to the weather, the reintegration of Tamil Tigers cadres, a strike over reusable fruit crates – anything and nothing. We were both getting bored. It was time to go. As he jotted down my mum’s address in London on a shred from my notebook, I almost let myself believe that I’d been too hasty, that it had been a motiveless offer. But finally, as I settled up and made to leave, the line was reeled in. “Of course,” murmured Ratna, unable to meet my gaze, “there is the question of export duty.”

Beautifully maintained hedgerow at the botanical gardens in Peradeniya, on the oustskirts of Kandy.

Down in the dumps: A monkey watches as crows scavenge through the garbage at the edge of the botanical gardens.

Strolling around the botanical gardens at Peradeniya later that afternoon, I came to a clearing between clusters of gigantic bamboo. A mire of garbage fringed this northeastern corner, a kind of festering buffer zone between the park and the Mahaweli River. A troupe of macaques was vying for pickings with stray dogs, egrets and various members of the crow family. It was a free-for-all, with any semblance of ceremony long discarded. I thought about the Captain, his mendicancy tinged with obvious shame, and all for a paltry 250 rupees.

I tuk-tuk’d back into town, alighting at the lake. The sun had already gone down and the wind was making ripple mousse of the dark water. An army of fruit bats was out on maneuvers, screeching reproval at the bluster. In the shade of the fig and tamarind trees that lined the uneven promenade, snug in their latex cloaks, hundreds of reserves had yet to be shaken from their slumber.

Ahead, the furry glow of the Temple of the Tooth beckoned. I mingled shoelessly with the faithful before exiting by St. Paul’s church. Up close to the windows, a doleful hymn could be heard, but it soon melted into the Buddhist sutras shuddering through speakers stationed in the eaves of the gates.

Kandy Lake at dusk.

The Temple of the Tooth

With an hour to kill before a mutton supper at the Old Empire Hotel, I walked to an indoor spice market and half-heartedly haggled for packets of cardamom and vanilla. The vendor waved photos of pasty tourists with post-rip-off grins slapped across their mugs. Apparently this was evidence of the market’s authenticity. I conceded defeat, hapless in the face of such illogic.

Draped against the wall, alongside the wares, a wiry middle-aged man observed my capitulation and exchanged banter with the salesman. His lined, chocolate-caramel face was flush with disdain, but it wasn’t until he coughed an imprecation in a more familiar tongue that I knew for sure he was taking the piss.

 “You speak Italian?”

“Sono un Napoletano,” he grimaced, affably menacing, through a piano of teeth.

“There are a lot of thieves in Naples,” I observed.

“Indeed, sir. I knew a great many. The worst was a burglar named George.” He paused before finishing with a Yoda delivery: “British he was.”


Enzo spoke cheerily of four years working Italian ports. This inevitably brough Ratna to mind and I related the exchange. Enzo was tickled. If my lack of market nous had been amusing, then, in succumbing to the Captain’s pathetic ruse, I had betrayed myself as an unmitigated oaf. “A complete imposter,” was Enzo’s view of the Captain . “If you ever see that tea, I’ll be bloody buggered. The Sri Lankan navy has not been ‘Royal’ since independence in 1947.”

“That’s not quite right,” I retorted. “It still went under that name until –”

But he had anticipated this last desperate line of defence. “1972? How old was this Ratna then? Sixty? Sixty-five? A commander in the navy at 25 was he?” He hawked a clump of phlegm to the cobbles in triumphant disgust.

Something snapped. Whether it was the tingling of my cheeks brought on by his gleeful derision or an inexplicable need to justify the Captain and, with him, my naivety, I flung out a diversory “takes-one-to-know-one” ad hominem:

“How was it you knew this criminal, then?”

“George? I met him on the street. He was nothing but a chain snatcher.”

“That would make him a mugger, not a burglar.” I’d salvaged something, though I wasn’t sure what.

 “That all depends on where you are snatching the chains from, doesn’t it?”

Floundering, I was reduced to a feeble final thrust. His shifty, weather-smacked face spoke of accomplished wrong-doing – I was sure of it. What had he been up to at the docks for all that time?

“Me? Oh, I was no street thief,” he objected. “I was a dope smuggler.”

I looked for a trace of jest. “Dope? How much dope?”

“Tons, sir, tons. You see,” Enzo concluded.  “With we Sri Lankans, things are never quite as they seem.”

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