Midweek Review
R. L. Brohier’s Seeing Ceylon


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R. L. Brohier

by R. L. Lalprema
At a television interview, in commemoration with the 109th birth anniversary of Dr. R. L. Brohier, his daughter, Mrs. Deloraine Brohier said how her father adored a profound love for humanity before everything else. Born on the 5th of October 1892 Richard Leslie Brohier, the Surveyor, turned out to be a celebrity in penmanship who gave expression to his life’s experience of wide-ranging wanderings, in which, he maintained a rapport with the inhabitants whom he met in remote villages, even those veiled in thick jungles.

A culture and heritage symbolic of simplicity and virtue, he had been quite familiar with, enchanted him so much, that he delved into its 2500 year long history with great admiration accompanied by an undying thirst for knowledge. His readers, will, no doubt, see eye to eye with me to say that they were awakened to the beauty of several facets of their land and its people, sometimes for the first time, portrayed through his revealing works on a miscellany of subjects that came within the purview of his interests. In fact, the uniquely intriguing ‘Blow hole’ or ‘Hummanaya’ in Dickwella, is now a tourist attraction, after he had first seen its beauty and chosen it for inclusion in his books on travel. In a diversity of fields related to history, archaeology and anthropology, his discoveries and observations as found in his writings, confessed to his authoritative knowledge and the critical attitude, not accepting things at face value.

Born of parents of French (Huguenot) origin, he has a claim to an ancestry that made Sri Lanka its home from 1777 serving under the Dutch East India Company. However, his readers had been misinformed that he was of Dutch decent in view of the period under reference. The Portuguese and the Dutch rulers, perhaps, would not have known even the length and breadth of this land over which they exercised their sovereignty until the British founded a Department for surveying. As the time passed, it fell on Brohier, as the first Ceylonese surveyor, during 1910-1949 to make plans not only computing its length and breadth but also surveying the life and culture of its people from which he drew inspiration to form the backdrop of the bulk of his prolific writing.

This eventually brought him to limelight which culminated in his enjoying national recognition to earn an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Ceylon. His international reputation, just to mention one instance, made him an officer of the O.B.E. Having his education at the Royal Academy which was the founding name of Royal College he chose surveying as his profession, a trade then, neither familiar nor popular. He had the distinction to be the first Ceylonese Surveyor to join the Department run exclusively by the British Colonial officers.

Brohier says he roamed the country almost in its entirety for a life time with the theodolite and tape, but more so with a seeing eye, which I believe, many hundreds of his like had missed. Going further, with a discovering eye, he was animated by the singularity of a heritage of a people subjected to assault culturally, for many centuries by the domination of several foreign powers. Eventually, the nomadic nature of his Public duty, enriched with authentic and authoritative information on what he had seen and discovered, made into books, had the pertinent names, Seeing Ceylon (1965) Discovering Ceylon (1973) which caught my eye in the old Library of the Survey Department where I too was employed much later. I felt honoured, that by a stroke of luck, I happened to work at the very place graced by so illustrious a man. There are many more books to add to his complete list of works, including posthumous publications.

It was a breath taking experience for I was amazed at his ability to understand in depth, the national heritage of a people whose influence on him could be overwhelming. He left no stone untumed to study every aspect of the life of those, then remaining, under trying conditions, in areas rarely visited by sluggish town dwellers.

Their simple existence and open attitude against the sophistication and presence of the urbane man fired his imagination to feel, in every way, that they were the real claimants to a great heritage, evidently now in the form of relics. Crumbling ruins, debris of Dagobas and masses of brick and stone buried under the earth were his unsuspecting tools that helped him to dig up the past of a glorious civilization unparalleled in the history of mankind.

Unlike many other writers who wrote from their desks with the recorded information available, he had first hand data for him to write. He saw, he touched, he verified before he gave expression to his discoveries. He was so observant of the minute details of their beliefs and disbeliefs that he never forgot to touch even on the predictions of the cry of a gecko, they had reckoned to be a bad omen before starting off on any good work.

This broad knowledge of diverse people gleaned from many decades of travel, and his deep sense of the contrast between the urbanized Sinhalese and the freer nature of rural folk informed his writing. Apart from the academic approach to the subjects of research, his pen captures all that beauty of nature with its people and every living thing, reminiscent of a moving experience of fiction of realism, however minus fixed characters. I wish he were a fiction writer! His books, that explored a legacy long left behind these people whom he held in overwhelming regard, emanated a charming style perked up with impeccable English. It easily conveyed to the English reader a faithful translation of the Sinhala idiom deep seated in the folklore, habits, and mannerisms. For instance, his translation of a familiar jingle Aturumithru dambadivathru reads, " The new bride which the merchant Rajakapuru brought, having taken a handful of rice, washed it and divided it between the upper and lower houses"

Mrs.Deloraine, she herself a writer, talked to me at her Bambalapitiya ancestral home, far down a lane closing at the sea, the outer walls of which bore the signs of unremitting assault by the rough blowing. The interior with a restrained array of antiques, old glass cupboards bursting with volumes, family photos, all emanated a serene mood. An anecdote, she related thus; The Surveyor General, then, Mr Johnson having met Mr.D.S.Senanayaka, the Minister of Lands who needed the service of a Surveyor as Sesretary to the first Delimitation Commission, introduced his Deputy Mr. Wilson as his ideal offer for the post.

The Minister’s response was cut and dried, " I have already made my choice on Mr. Brohier." A passing comment in general, made by Brohier on the outlook of officers of the generations that followed, was that they were lazy in making use of their experiences for widening their horizons. Endowed with the precious prospects of travelling far and wide, they were tensed with impatience in getting back home with the least possible delay, in order that they might make the most of a cocktail party or a card game in their club. On the contrary, wherever he visited, ruins of Rajarata or far away village settlements, for example, he had the humility to maintain a dialogue with the carefree villagers who rushed to see a gentleman in shorts and shoes with stockings and a canvas tent to live under. Priests of temples, old patriarchs or children whom he met was a source of delight for him.

He documented all that for posterity, not to laugh at their idiosyncrasies but to study them, with respect, as symbolic of culture and humanity. Never did he make any attempt, as is practiced by some to write off them and their actions by the yardstick of the modern scientific thought or logic. "I have learnt to respect their beliefs and contemplate their self-mortification as an expression of penitence, with tranquillity." he states. His unsettled urge made him probe into the origins of what is now practiced as custom and tradition to convince himself, beyond doubt, that they had been handed down to generations through tradition, convention or from the word of mouth.

This, he attempted to corroborate by comparing with the evidence born out of history, archaeology etc. Volumes of his books, confirm his great insight into the cultural life of Sinhala race, while his magnanimity comes with all his independent research, never done for qualifying for any official titles or exams as is done generally. For me, Brohier is reminiscent of Martin Wickremasinghe, the greatest Sinhala writer of the century, in comparing what he has explored relating to life and culture. It had been a vacuum in the vast realm of our literature that his books were not available for the Sinhala reader. But now, a couple of translations have met with that need. However, I note with regret the English editions of many of his books are out of print for the present day readers.