By Hans Ebert
The first memories of my mother was Podhi. Podhi was the servant “designated” to me. She fed me, bathed me, took me to kindergarten, sheltered me from bullies, cleaned my backside, and being an only child, she was my one play friend.
She played marbles with me, put up with my temper tantrums, and looked after our stray cats and dogs. She was more than a mother and it was extremely emotional seeing her when visiting for the first time what had become Sri Lanka in over twenty years, locating her. and her touching my face, looking me in the eye, and remembering her “baby”.
Her much younger and buxom niece Alice cooked for the family and apart from the visits to the house by my father’s younger brother Uncle George whom I adored as he was tough- played professional rugby and cricket, lifted weights and could handle himself in a fight- and listening to my godfather play piano in a way that made Liberace seem manly- this was pretty much the framework of growing up as the only child- a Dutch Burgher which meant a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese ancestry intermingled with something rarely mentioned- marriages with the local inhabitants- in what was then called Ceylon.
Reading up recently on Ceylon’s various wars, the racial divisions within the island, the power wielded by the Buddhist monks which still exists today and when the island was under colonial rule, it’s a very sad story of a country that had so much, but was raped and pillaged and left in tatters.
Unlike Hong Kong, Ceylon somehow didn’t have the resilience to make a comeback. It was taken for a ride and never returned from wherever it ended up. It’s still being taken for a ride by many opportunists while trying to claw its way back, but I feel it’s left this comeback too late. There’s simply not the money for the island to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes. It’s wings seem to have been clipped forever through corruption and a series of weak governments and a lack of genuine entrepreneurs who can deliver but can’t do this on their own.
Sri Lankan-born Tamil and Rapper and overall creative talent M.I.A used her memories of growing up on the war-torn Island in the late nineties and the “adventures” of her political activist father as the subject matter and launching pad for her recording career. Born against that backdrop couldn’t have been easy for her. Many in Sri Lanka dismiss her as opportunist. Who knows? It worked for her at the time.
Thinking back to the days in Ceylon with the rigid and often warped thinking of the Burghers, which was passed from generation to generation, it’s a minor miracle that we made it this far.
These days, my mother would be described as being “cold”. She was caring, extremely intelligent, a very good sense of humour- she knew the rudest and most blue jokes around-was artistic and a very good painter and definitely the most grounded of her three sisters. She kept her feelings hidden, however. She seemed to trust no one and which really surfaced when we came to Hong Kong. There, she became increasingly tense, nervous and both claustrophobic and agoraphobic. Something seemed to snap. And it finally did many years later when my parents had moved to Melbourne.
While my father wanted to be the best dressed man wherever he went and everyone’s friend, my mother was guarded. When in Hong Kong, she would always grumble about meeting my father’s family and being greeted with kisses. She found it all phoney and unnecessary. She was probably right.
Complicated, isolated, and dysfunctional, would be an understatement to the life I led in Ceylon. It really was living alone and growing up with no real guidance other than being told masturbation would lead to blindness. And many wonder why I grew up doing some of the outrageous things I did? Of course, there were “outside forces” at work, but the biggest culprit was that internal combustion of possessing that Burgher DNA. It might have been a terminal dislike for and anger with my family and petty minded dysfunctional relatives. Hell, the whole lot of us were dysfunctional. It’s a Burgher trait.
Sometimes I think I was a hippie before there were hippies. I loathed talk of who in the family was doing better than the other, something that really surfaced when moving to Hong Kong, and seeing the preoccupation with money and crass and class.
Why the name Hans Ebert? With a mother, father and uncle with names starting with the letter H, maybe it was a way to save on monogrammed bath towels. Actually, it had to do with the singer in my father’s jazz trio falling in love with a German named Hans and insisting that if my parents were to ever have a son, this was to be his name.
There were many days I wish I was called Sabu. It would have short-circuited all the times I’ve had to explain the history behind my name. It should have been printed onto my name card.
After a prolonged wait and years of trying, on October 7, also my mother’s birthday, out popped Hans Llewellyn Ebert. The Welsh middle name shared with my father? No idea where that came from, but Dutch Burghers were and are a notoriously mixed up bowl of fruit salad. And varying assortment of nuts.
What recently had me thinking is that my mother’s father was a surveyor originally from Malaya surnamed Jaliel whereas her mother was an Ebert. Was the grandmother on my mother’s side related to my grandfather on my father’s side? It was never mentioned. Burghers, you know. Somewhere along the way we’re all inter-connected. All points led to the same home.
My parents, Helen and Herbert, both worked as, what was called in those days, stenographers with my father making some money on the side working for a larger than life character named Donovan Andree. Donovan Andree was an entrepreneur and Ceylon’s Mr Showbiz. Maybe he was Ceylon’s Donald Trump- but far less bombastic and orange. He was respected, he was feared, and all I remember was that he looked as if he belonged in The Sopranos.
Every few months, Mr Andree would bring a travelling circus to town. As a kid pretty much left to myself, Hans Llewellyn Ebert would sneak off at night to be mesmerised by jugglers and clowns, sideshow freaks and faith healers. It was like a scene out of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row
What’s still very vivid would be faith healers purging those with illnesses, especially those having goitres. Gawd knows why or how, but Ceylon had so many people with goitres- huge bulbous thyroid lumps growing from their necks. It was part Elephant Man and part any weird David Lynch movie. Aren’t they all very weird?
The faith healers- always American- would place their hands on these goitres and command that the person be healed. These people would suddenly become possessed by some invisible power, their eyeballs would roll back into their sockets, faint and be carried off the stage leaving audiences stunned.
Was it simple showbiz? Who knows? It was a far less cynical world then and we believed everything we saw. For a five year old, it was both terrifying and fascinating. A real life Nightmare Alley.
Donovan Andree’s business empire included promoting the more entertaining and theatrical sports like basketball featuring the Harlem Globetrotters and family entertainment like the Ice Capades and beauty pageants.
He also ran the handful of nightclubs in Ceylon. It was for these venues that my father would book acts, mostly Filipinos, from Hong Kong- magicians, acrobats and bands. His brother in law, a Portuguese merchant seaman Gustavo, who had somehow met, wooed and married my father’s eldest sister Primrose while passing through Ceylon, worked as the middle man and brokered the deals. It wasn’t big money, but along with my father hosting a Jazz programme called The Melody Maker for Radio Ceylon, it helped the household income.
That jazz programme also introduced me to the world of music. Here was this kid growing up with the sounds of the Benny Goodman Trio with Peggy Lee, Ella, Sarah Vaughan, Julie London, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Dave Brubeck Quartet and knowing all the lyrics to “The Autumn Leaves”.
It also meant my father knowing many of the visiting celebrities and us having people like the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet and Actor Peter Finch and Elizabeth Taylor who filmed “Elephant Walk” in Ceylon home for a curry lunch. Those were my first brushes with celebritydom though I hardly knew it at the time.
The times I was closest to my father was being allowed to get on the back of his pale green Vespa and drive to the taping of his radio shows or accompany him to church every Wednesday night for novena even though we were Protestants and not Catholics. But those nights at church were magical. Perhaps it was the scent of the flowers and candles, but there was something very peaceful about those nights. Perhaps it was just being able to get out of the house.
Mine was a very odd childhood- playing marbles by myself, playing cricket by myself, digging for worms and collecting and having no fear of all the strange animals that inhabited our garden- giant chameleons called bloodsuckers and huge rats known as bandicoots who one day ate into their cage and had my father’s budgerigar collection for dinner.
The highlight for me was Uncle George driving us once a month from Colombo to Nuwara Elya-a two hour drive that was like a picnic with us enjoying sandwiches and patties along the way- to visit my mother’s brother Maurice and his first cousin and wife, my beautiful green eyed Auntie Bernice.
Both of their children who were slightly younger than I was were deaf and dumb mutes, but it didn’t stop us from communicating with each other and having fun. Uncle Maurice introduced me to playing the Indian board game known as carom which I excelled in. I could play carom for days on end and even tried to introduce the board game to Hong Kong.
Enjoying a bet, both uncles would take me down to the racecourse close to where they lived- upcountry as it was described with orchards, tea plantations and the cleanest air in the world. I loved those visits.
Being a Burgher- I always reminded that we were Dutch Burghers, that we were the privileged few- almost the colonials of the island, which was a colony until those glory days ended in 1959 and Ceylon became Sri Lanka, something that must have been on the cards long before I knew my family, unlike other Dutch Burghers, were not emigrating to Australia, but, instead, a strangely named place called Hong Kong.
With most if not all my Burgher friends at prep school emigrating to Australia, I was embarrassed to mention that we were moving to Hong Kong. In Ceylon at that time, the Chinese were either noodle sellers or worked as cheap labour in the tea plantations. Us kids used to taunt them with chants but now here I was going to live in their home. I lied to my school and said that my family was also moving to Australia. But this day seemed a million miles away. There was first life in Ceylon to get through.
There was the day I overheard that my Auntie Bernice, tired of life with my Uncle Maurice who it turned out was an alcoholic husband and looking after my two deaf and dumb cousins, numbed herself by drinking a bottle of arak, the cheap, local version of brandy, and placed her head on the nearby railway track and waited for the six o’clock train to take her away from this misery to another station in a better world. It was the favourite way in Ceylon to call it quits.
Working in front of our house and someone who befriended me was “Donga Man” and his only valuable piece of property- a bull. I was a kid who played with both. I even went around for rides on the back of that docile bull. One day, for reasons still unclear, the bull became violent and gored “Donga Man” to death. I watched that happen in slow motion…”Donga Man” flying through the air and then the bull being taken away to meet its fate.
Meanwhile, one of my mother’s elder sister’s- Auntie Olga- had a stroke, and I completely lost track as to what happened to her whereas her youngest sister Rosie married her cousin, my Uncle Brandon, eventually immigrated to the UK and after years had a son- Robert.
Robert Ebert was never supposed to have been born. My aunt and uncle had been warned that, like my aunt who took her life, cousins marrying cousins should never have children. That something would go wrong. In the UK, this was dismissed as an old wives tale and Robert was born- a healthy boy who grew up to be one of the youngest senior executives with Deutche Bank. Only when being transferred to Hong Kong did he get in touch with me after many many years of radio silence. He called me “Cuz”.
Robert Ebert had the world at his feet and moved into one of the largest houses on the Peak with his second wife- an American woman who looked like one of those television reality stars who had had a great deal of work done to maintain her youth. His first wife had taken her life. As for his second wife, she settled into Hong Kong’s plastic fantastic cocktail circuit lifestyle and hosted a number of lavish parties in their mansion. After haggling with me over a $500 payment for a saxophonist friend who played at one of their soirées, I never heard from them. The next time I did was around 2016 when reading that Robert Ebert, below, was charged with manslaughter.
His brand new Ferrari ploughed into a caretaker at a parking lot one morning while my cousin was driving to work. Faulty brakes were blamed for this moment of madness. The prosecution wasn’t buying it. Neither was Ferrari. In 2017, Robert Ebert was jailed for two years. I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing. And nor do I care. Ours was not exactly a tight family unit. It never ever was. There was just too much family in-fighting and jealousy.
Those early years in Ceylon must have built a very strong suit of resilience around me to safeguard and numb myself from anything remotely approaching emotional vulnerability. Hell, I had no feelings when my parents called it a day. I had no feeling when, after decades of cheating on her, my wonderful wife finally left, and I have blanked out much of the bad shit I did to her despite which she would still take me back. Shit happens and usually for reasons that become clear much later in life. Suddenly, the nonsense makes sense, Sherlock.
Except for what I put my ex wife Trina through, a beautiful American girl born to Lutheran parents with her father being a pastor, and plans for us going to grow old together crashing and burning, none of any of this bothers me. Really. Maybe it has to do with never having had a birthday party as a child, nor a birthday or Christmas present. Wait I lie: at around five, I received a birthday present of one of my father’s old watches. Growing up in Ceylon, we never even put up a Christmas tree. And so one grows up alone and which manifests into various demons the older one gets with no idea of how to exorcise these. They weren’t in the life manual that I inherited.
My family basically “escaped” from Ceylon soon after the assassination in 1959 of the then-Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike by a pistol toting Buddhist monk. There were wild rumours that the assassination was orchestrated by Mrs Bandaranaike aka “Mrs Banda” who was to become the world’s first female Prime Minister and who forged some strong ties with the then Soviet Union.
Ceylon was changing. The bourgeois Burghers were not welcome and I remember where we lived being pelted by black eggs and with our lives being in danger. Horse racing in Colombo, one of the first countries in Asia to have the sport and something my uncles especially dabbled in was not tolerated by the Buddhist monks. Two beautiful racecourses were shut down.
Sinatra was singing that the party and parties which the Burghers so loved, especially the New Year’s Eve Ball at the famous Galle Face Hotel, were well and truly over, red rover.
The assassination of Mr Bandaranaike merely sped up the transition of power, the end of the good life enjoyed by the Dutch Burghers. Ceylon became Sri Lanka and the tsunami of civil wars, years of unrest and widespread corruption that crippled an island still going through a healing process and with me wondering if the wounds are too deep to heal and whether the country’s soul is even in any Lost And Found department.
(to be continued)
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