Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Christine - A Memoir

I must confess my ignorance. When I first heard of Christine Spittel Wilson and her famous father Dr R.L.Spittel, I was unaware of the formers fame as a writer and the latter’s fame as an anthropologist surgeon. I imagine that it is a common plight among my fellow countrymen today. Many people would, when you ask them if they know about Dr Spittel, vaguely say ‘His name sounds familiar’ but most of them have not read his body of work on the indigenous people of the island of Sri Lanka – the Veddahs. For that matter most people may not have read Christine Spittel Wilson’s eleven other books that she had written previously. I know I had not. I believe for the most part, they are largely forgettable – mushy historical romance, except for Surgeon of the Wilderness, and Brave Island, which were about her father.
But if you read this Christine Spittel Wison’s book, simply titled, Christine – a memoir, it does more than talk to you about her life or her father or romance. It is also the journey of a country.
The book spans the life of a woman from childhood to old age. Christine is in fact still alive at the ripe old age of 95 years, living in the heart of Colombo, next to her childhood house that is the legendary Wycherly.
Apart from being a skillful writer, Christine unwittingly, I suspect, writes a commentary on the changes of Sri Lankan life. The Burgers, privileged during the time of the British, so privileged in fact, I don’t wonder that most of them thought they were in fact the heirs to the British and somewhat superior to the rest of their countrymen, lived for the most part a life of advantage. When reading the book you get a sense that despite Christine’s love and affiliation for the country, there is a sense that this affection only relates to the country and not the people in it.

During our twenty years away the island had changed. Spoken English was being swallowed by Sinhala. The charming small politeness had disappeared and a proud new people had emerged who learned English in their sixth form. (p252)

The book begins with the writer’s childhood where she would watch a bullock drawn water cart suppress the red dust of the road down Alexandra Place by spurting water on it. As a young child she was already aware of her father’s frequent disappearances into the jungle to study and befriend the Veddahs. Her younger sister’s death, when Christine was six, of a medical misadventure when her parents were abroad, left the family scarred and hurt. She attended Bishops College and one day when her father found her speaking to herself because she was lonely, he brought home a little Veddah child to be her companion. As I read that passage, I thought, that he had brought the child home like the way one brings a pet into the family. Therefore it is no surprise when the Veddah child turns bad, began to gamble and steal and eventually was sent to prison for theft. Christine Spittel Wilson writes of the incident without judgement or responsibility which is also perhaps a reflection of the attitude towards the indigenous people of the island, despite her fathers committed work with them.
One of the loveliest passages in the book is when she is taken by her parents as a child to sail from Kalpitiya to Wilpattu on a dhow. Camping on the beach, and eating fresh grilled fish they attended Christmas Eve mass at a tiny Catholic church in the middle of the jungle. Incredible!
Eventually sent to England for her education, Christine returns to the island to get married, live on a tea plantation where one had to ride horses to get about and then finally divorce her husband soon after her daughter is born. She then joins the war effort, becoming becoming a Class lll TWA at Army Command Headquarters. Her description of Colombo then, is ironically similar to what we have now.

Colombo had changed almost overnight. Loops of twisted barbed wire and men in kakhi blocked roads. The racecourse where we had watched somany races, was a heavily camouflaged aerodrome and Wycherly with a white cross painted on the red tiled roof of the nursing home, was now in a strict Security Zone…Troops everywhere. Army vehicles thundering along the towns treets; the Museum where I had done so much research, strange in its camouflage coat. The city filled with officers, troops and yet more arriving daily; people hurrying in their thousands to the hills in over-loaded cars, buses, coaches, bullock carts, bicycles, and on foot, out of Colombo. (p 108)
It was then that Christine meets the man she is to marry, Alistair Wilson – a Scots captain. After some years in Glasgow, they return to live in the island, visiting far flung places with Dr Spittel, and Christine beginning to write seriously. The rest of the book deals with her life after they return to Scotland, then the move to Africa and finally back home to Sri Lanka.
What the book did was to teach me that as always there are different perspectives to a situation and a history. Christine Spittel Wilson writes a beautiful though skewed memoir of her country, her various homes, and in the process gives us a interpretation on the world of that time and this.


  1. Bought the book. It was borrowed by someone and still trying to get it back - six months late grrr

    Can wait to read it.

  2. let me know what you think about the book?