Today is the saddest of days, for Chinta has died.
The inexorable world will not stop its spin around the sun, nor Sri Lanka pause to knows this. Even in our little town of Galagedera the news will affect just a few. But here on the estate, we all stop, deeply shocked, barely knowing how to react, or what to do next.
Chinta had been away from work for a day, complaining of being a little tired and dizzy, a state that was too easily put down to the occasional colds that come at this monsoon time of the year. It little warned us that this was a far more significant symptom.
But whatever the cause of her death, it is her life that I – and everyone else here – stops to really give thanks for. As ever, I am at a loss to know exactly who to thank for it, but whoever it was who put her together – thank you. Her life so effortlessly and so gladly enriched mine, and all of us here at The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel.
Barely could Chinta look at someone else without smiling, the hint of a giggle almost always present on her lips. It started my day, waking up, collecting the dogs for a walk, and coming across her, already at her tasks of getting the hotel ready for the day. To be that positive and with such grace every day takes a very special talent for - and love of - life.
She had worked here for years, following in her mother’s, Anulawathi’s, footsteps. Anulawathi was one of the people we sort of inherited when we arrived, the rubber tapper of the estate trees, daily emptying the white latex from their coconut shells into a bucket that would be taken to the ancient 1940s rubber rollers (imported from Wolverhampton, and still running strong today) to be processed.
At first Chinta worked on the estate, helping tame the jungle into more pliable plantations for pepper and spices. When we opened the hotel, she moved across as a housekeeper, keeping the rooms and public spaces clean and orderly. This task is always herculean - even when the hotel is closed, so great is the presage of nature in the jungle, the leaves, insects, pollen, and occasional over curious wild squirrels, birds monkeys. To leave things for just 24 hours is to court the censure of all right minded Little Miss Tidys.
Chinta could manage the unexpected as well as the predicable, and with equal calm - whether it was feeding six tiny puppies every three hours with a teat, cooking her in-demand village dishes for staff lunches or helping keep at bay the occasional massive swarms of day flies that can suddenly arrive on the back of a jungle monsoon.
I sometimes play the game of “if X was an animal, what animal would they be?” And for Chinta it would have to be the loris.
There are a variety of lorises to choose from. There is the Northern Ceylon Slender Loris, discovered as recently as 1932 in the Gammaduwa region of the Knuckles Range, with its very distinctive facial stripe. Just five years later yet another sub species was discovered, this time on Horton Plains - the Ceylon Mountain Slender Loris, in 1937 and barely seen since. The sweetest sounding is the Highland Ceylon Slender Loris, whose Tamil name - kada papa – means "baby of the forest". Unlike its closest cousin the Loris Llydekkerianus Uva, its fur is redder in colour.
But for Chinta, the loris I have in mind is the beautiful Sri Lankan Red Slender Loris, slim, graceful, and modest as she ever was. This loris is also the country’s most celebrated loris species, not least because it is just one of 24 endemic mammal species on the island. It is a tiny, tree-living creature with heart-stoppingly adorable panda eyes. Like all lorises, it is a creature of the night, so unless you are a lucky insomniac you are unlikely to see them. Its custom with its offspring (one that I am sure Chinta differed from) is to coat them in allergenic saliva, a toxin that repels predators - though Chinta was ever proud and protective of her two sons.
Her commute was the sort of walk to work that most people can but dream about. Chinta lived in one of the tiny hamlets that abut the estate, and from her home, overlooking paddy and a small river at the northern edge of the land, she would walk along a tiny narrow jungle track, its faint route scoured only by the daily tread of her feet. She would have known every tree and bush, each creeper and family of monkeys that ran along her route. I am sure that they would have given her as much joy as I get along my daily walk, albeit one at the end of five taut and tangled miniature schnauzer leads.
I have never seen a loris on the estate but, at 1,000 feet, and given over to jungle and rich plantation, this is just the sort of place that lorises favour, sleeping in leaf covered tree holes by day and climbing through tree tops by night to gather the fruits, berries, leaves on which the feast.
Gratefully, we busy ourselves with the practical things, not least Angelo, the general manager, helping the family with the awesome and demanding requirements of a traditional funeral and alms giving. This typically lasts for a week, during which time friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, and anyone associated with them will drop by the house to pay their respects and enjoy a cup of tea, cake, and biscuits. With hindsight, it is remarkable (though at the time it seems merely normal) just how everyone who can help, does so, in small practical ways. Rarely does anyone ever die privately in Sri Lanka. The country, especially in its more traditional country villages like the ones around us, still enjoys an extraordinary degree of community. This can cut differently, but at a time like this, seems to cut in an agile and nourishing fashion.
Briefly, I pause the day to day, and all the practical considerations that have suddenly become relevant, just to write this. To say thank you to whichever Gods there are for the life of Chinta.