“Thanks for the warning,” came the text from Danby this morning. The message displayed his characteristic linguistic athleticism: lean, economic, pertinent, fully fortified against any misunderstandings, whatsoever. An expatriate, living in a house of books perched above a golden beach, and surrounded by battlements of cinnamon, Danby’s honed lifestyle ought be on school syllabuses. If he is not surfing, or beach combing, he is searching out lost architectural glories in Europe; ambient tea estates, or hot Colombo cafes.
I had sent him the dates of the Kandy Perehera, the country’s supreme festival. Every night, for over a week, Lord Buddha’s tooth relic is removed from his eponymous temple and paraded around Kandy’s shabby-chic streets. The relic sits atop Sri Lanka’s most senior elephant, swathed in robes of gold brocade; and followed enthusiastically by thousands of serious priests, ecstatic dancers, fire eaters, acrobats, and junior elephants.
The festival occurs in July. Or sometimes August. The date is kept flirtatiously vague until the last moment, as monks (and possibly weather forecasters and astrologers) ponder the heavens to determine auspiciousness. I say weather forecasters because you can set your gardening clock by the dates of the Perehera. The blue monsoon rains only fall the day after the event ends. The forecasting is unerringly accurate.
Whether Danby’s message implied a fear of traffic jams, an aversion to excessive religiosity or a dislike of crowds was something he left teasingly open to speculation.
Traffic jams was an unlikely casus belli. Merely thinking car here is to invite traffic. Nor could it be distaste for excessive religiosity. Sri Lanka is nothing if not famously religious-minded. Living here happily presupposes an elastic tolerance - if not devotion- for the divine, with the option of some kind of temple, kovil, mosque or church for every 1,000 souls. No. It had to be enochlophobia that was troubling Danby.
Even so, it is hard for enochlophobs to take against the Perehera crowds, per se. They are faultlessly well behaved, lining Kandy’s streets ten or twenty deep for up to 6 hours as the nightly procession rollicks past. Picnics are held, short eats and blessings flow like flood water. The whole fiery event is unexpectedly magnetic.
Before the civil war ended the Perehera was wholly patronised by locals, the tourists choosing Bali over a war zone. Today well healed travellers pay serious money to bag a comfortable seat outside the straightlaced Queen’s Hotel – pole position from which to watch the spectacle.
Even so, hundreds of thousands of extra people cramming themselves into a tiny city tangled around several mountains is a lot of extra humanity to deal with, however well behaved they are. As I picture them, I sense, looming behind these crowds still greater ones. It took 200,000 years for our world’s population to hit a billion but barely 200 years more to reach 8 billion. And now the pundits warn that in 30 years’ time there will be 25% more.
That’s a lot more people to fit into land that, as Twain observed, isn’t being made anymore. No wonder Danby is stressed. He’s also probably seen that mesmerising Edvard Munch-like painting: previous occupants of a single room. The room overflows with the ghostly forms of people in different costumes, sleeping eating, reading, making love – living.
Like Danby, my reaction is to retreat upcountry. Village country. Jungle country. Mrs Miniver-like, I gaze across the great green vastness of the jungle here, picturing some of those who saw this very view 500 – 5,000 - years ago, just a few of the 100 billion people estimated to have ever lived on planet earth.
And looking, my foreignness starts to disintegrate. I picture the first nation Vedda, pushed to these inland hills by boat loads of Iron Age migrants from the Indian subcontinent. The columns of medieval refugees fleeing Chola invasions and the destruction of the glittering city of Anuradhapura, climbing up from the dry Kurunegala plains into these bastion hills. The ranks of colonial armies wilting in serge twill up the Galagedera Gap forever failing to take Kandy, until, at last, the last kingdom fell, victim not to brigades, but bribes.
They are my friends, these few forgotten people. And walking the narrow mountain roads we have cut on the estate, it is hard to comprehend the seething stress, and excitement in the almost equally narrow streets of Kandy. Like Danby, I’m staying put.
Enochlophobia is, I reckon, something of an age thing. The older you get, the more enochlophobic you become. Its one of aging’s more agreeable symptoms – something you can bring up over dinner or drinks, unlike, say dribbling or a life threating medical condition. It’s something to bask in, and bask in it I do.
Unless, like Danby, you’re very self-disciplined, it is all just easy to be sidetracked: nights outs, once-only offers on Nordic furniture, spinning sessions at ambitious gyms; bagging the last table at Oxo; office jousting like a medieval knight. Life, in the absence of people or services, is finally about just what you alone should do.
Life on the estate is a textbook balance between solitude and activity; calm and commotion - some 6-12 hotel guests per day, eager for the rest and with a thoughtful story to tell; 20 staff, 5 miniature schnauzers and eight Marie-Antoinette goats. Priyanka comes and goes in his little tuk tuk fetching fruit and vegetables; the Palaeozoic village tractor collects rubbish weekly; the Ceylon Electricity Board stops by to fix power lines destroyed by monkeys. It’s just the right amount of hither-and-thither to keep you plugged into the world.
Friends warn me that I am severe danger of becoming a sort of hill version of Symeon the Stylite. But I aim to be a lot more successful that that. After all, poor old Symeon, sitting as a hermit atop his pillar, became so renowned that hordes of curious bystanders swarmed daily at his feet depriving him of the very solitude he sought. Like Danby, I will get on with my own quirky callings; and leave the festivals for next year, or perhaps the next.