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Fiction Family Life

Tamarind Sky

by (author) Thelma Wheatley

Inanna Publications
Initial publish date
Oct 2020
Family Life, Contemporary Women, Literary
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    Oct 2020
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When British immigrant Selena Jones marries Aidan Gilmor, a Sinhalese-Eurasian -- part British -- from Sri Lanka in the 1960s in Toronto, a passionate clash of culture ensues. Selena's mother in Wales is horrified when Selena brings Aidan home to Wales for the wedding. Back in Toronto, Selena faces further prejudice and disapproval of her "mixed marriage," despite Pierre Elliott Trudeau's new "multiculturalism," which was being encouraged but also resented. She is shocked not only by the reaction of neighbours but by the teachers at the all-White school in Toronto where she teaches, and she pretends that Aidan is a White Canadian. When two poor West Indian and two East Indian children from a new government housing project nearby unexpectedly arrive at the school, Selena is forced to take a stand in their defence. Gradually she learns to face her fears and confront racism. She is drawn into a deeper understanding of her Sri Lankan family, and especially of her father-in-law, a former tea planter under the British, who left Ceylon after Independence in 1956. She sees the effect of colonialism on Aidan and his family, trying to be "British" while caught in the middle of the civil war conflict in Sri Lanka. The revelation of her father-in-law's secret guilt about the past leads to an inevitable and shocking climax.

About the author

Grand-daughter of a Welsh coal-miner, Thelma Wheatley immigrated to Canada in her twenties to teach, and obtained her Master's degree in English at York University. She married a Sri Lankan in the 1960s when "mixed" marriages were frowned upon. Wheatley bonded closely with her Eurasian Sri Lankan in-laws in Toronto, who were part of the British colonial empire in Ceylon (later, Sri Lanka. She is the author of award-winning And Neither Have I Wings to Fly: Labelled and Locked Up in Canada's Oldest Institution (2013), which was short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year Award 2014 among other awards. Her first book was about her autistic son, My Sad Is All Gone: A Family's Triumph Over Violent Autism (2004). Tamarind Sky is her debut novel.

Thelma Wheatley's profile page

Excerpt: Tamarind Sky (by (author) Thelma Wheatley)

Jaywardene is busy quelling riots instigated by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or J.V.P., young Marxist Sinhalese communists that had first risen up against Prime Minister Bandaranaike. They are still around stirring up trouble. He ends the state of emergency that she had put in place, a policy that the citizens had hated throughout the island. He promises to acknowledge the Tamil language on a par with Sinhala, a compromise Mother and Father-in-law approve of. This pleases the Tamils and angers the Sinhalese, especially the monks. ("There's a stir of resentment within the Buddhist ranks," reports Voice of Ceylon.) The "Sinhala Only" Act, passed by SWRD Banadaranaike in 1956, had made Sinhala the foremost language in the country, and the monks want it kept that way. What is wily Jayewardene up to? He assures everyone that it's simply to calm things down, restore normalcy to the island, encourage foreign investment. Who wants to risk money in a riot?

"See?" cries Father-in-law. "A man in charge."

But Mother-in-law doesn't trust Jayewardene. (I suspect she has a sneaking admiration for Mrs. Bandaranaike.) "Jaywardene is an old dog," she says. He's been involved in Ceylon politics for a long time. He was Minister of Finance, for instance, in the 1950s when Dudley Senanayake was in office and cut the rice subsidy for the poor that he'd promised never to touch. Riots had ensued, followed by a hartal. "Now you remember that, pet."

Father-in-law sways. "Ughh, yes, the hartal. Whole bloody island shut down."

"Hartal is a Tamil word meaning 'general strike' or 'work stoppage,'" explains Mother-in-law. The police (or was it the army?) had moved in to the square in Colombo; there was violence and people were killed in the streets. Dudley Senanayake, who couldn't stand the sight of blood, had taken off, hiding out in a naval ship in Colombo harbour until it was all over. Of course, he had to resign in the face of such ignominy.

Father-in-law's eyes glaze. "You remember it, son? The hartal...?"

Aidan winces. He would have been about to turn twelve, just going into adolescence at Holy Innocents College, locked up and desperately lonely--though Mother and Father-in-law know nothing of that, of his true feelings. They are part of the many confidences whispered between us under the sheets at night.

"I-I don't remember, Daddy. I was at school."

The truth is, Sri Lanka's economy is in dire straits. The GNP is dropping, rubber prices are down, and even tea, the mainstay of the economy, is suffering. Prime Minister Bandaranaike had effectively nationalized the estates and the rupee and sterling companies when she was in power, with their consequent demise. Now Jayewardene has to turn things around. First, he turns to real estate. He has plans for a vibrant new Sri Lanka, a tourist mecca: towering high-rise hotels along the coasts, replete with central air, kidney-shaped swimming pools, and all-day buffets for the Europeans who like to eat bacon and eggs, smoked salmon, and prawns non-stop. And signs on the beaches: NO TAMILS, NO FISHERMAN, NO LOCALS. The goal is to attract zillions of tourist dollars and revitalize the economy. But of course, he has to get rid of the Tamil fisher-folk first; they are still there, shitting up the sands, their shaky thatched huts taking up space on the pristine beaches. Prime property. The developers rub their hands in anticipation. Jaywardene is their man.

Mother-in-law frowns, perhaps sensing betrayal. Aidan joins in: "See, Daddy! The fisher-folk have been there since timeimmemorial, and now they're getting evicted." He senses a duel of words with his father. Polly fingers the picture of the old village man, Mr. Sugunasiri, in her daddy's old storybook, tracing his long beard that runs through the village, over the stream and the paddy fields to infinity....

The baby shifts inside me and kicks, perhaps alarmed at his future grandfather. Another three months, and he'll be in this world.


"Yes, you're right, Jack," observes Felix. "It was the Ceylon Citizenship Act that set it all off." "And then that bloody 'Sinhala Only' Act that came after it."

Father-in-law purses his lips and glares. The special measures that followed had been the reason the Gilmors left Ceylon. It's a story that defines them, sending secret signals back and forth in the drama of their lives. Aidan had been too young at the time to fully understand why the family had suddenly left Ceylon after the citizenship and language acts. Sinhala had become the important language of the country, but the Gilmors spoke English. Buddhism was suddenly the favoured religion, and they were Christians. Being Sinhalese was what was foremost, and they were British Eurasian.

"We were on the wrong side of history, old chap." Felix sighs wryly.


"I wasn't a citizen in my own bloody country," says Father-in- law bitterly.

"It's no longer our problem, pet," says Mother-in-law patiently. "We're here, not there." (Can't he understand that?) "What for opening old wounds?"

"It matters, pet!" Father-in-law explodes, gulping down another whisky.

"Ah, history. If we do not learn from it we are doomed to repeat it, or something like that," says Felix enigmatically. "Who said that?" The blossoms have fallen silently from the apple trees, covering the ground like melting snow. Summer is gone.

Father-in-law stares. "Achmillai, achamillai, acham enpathu illaye...." The ancient Tamil words roll off his tongue. I've long known that Father-in-law can speak Tamil, a language he loves. The tea planters used it to communicate with the labourers and pickers, but it's a thrilling shock all the same to hear the strange undulating syllables, Achmillai, achmillai....

"Fear I have not, fear I have not," explains Felix, who has understood the words, being part Tamil himself.

"Vasudevan was a great Tamil poet, Selena. He wrote that during the height of British imperialism when he was a rebel. Damn brave of him, I'd say."

"What for Jack reciting Tamil poetry, Felix? It's long gone." Mother-in-law eyes them both with exasperation. But it's surely an important moment. The poem has touched on something. (What were their lives like before? When they read Tamil poetry?)

"Damn scoundrels!"

Father-in-law gurgles over his whisky as Felix recalls someone called. Saviamoorthy Thondaman, the leader of the Tamil labourers in the old days and the president of the Workers Trade Union Congress. He would go around the plantations at night teaching the coolies all sorts of things--insurrection, how to put an x on a vote. Quintus, Mother-in-law's communist brother, was a follower of Thondaman and accompanied him at night.

"Crazy times when you are young," says Felix with a sigh.

"Oh yes, Quintus was very much involved with labourers' rights!" agrees Mother-in-law.

"First they take away your language; then everything else follows. Thondaman said that," murmurs Felix. There's silence.

Father-in-law stumbles out of the kitchen to the bedroom. He can't take any more.


"You know, Aidan, your father was a very good master and loved his Tamil labourers," says Mother-in-law finally. "He got the owner of Madeniya to provide a new set of clothes for them every year at Christmas. He had a school built for the workers' children on the estate. And he was very upset when the labourers lost their voting rights after the Act."

"And then he lost his own rights," says Felix drily. "It was a bad time for us Eurasians once the British left."

We can hear low rumbling snores from the bedroom. Father-in-law's siesta.

"The Catholic Church certainly didn't like Buddhism replacing Christianity as the chief religion!" says Felix.

Aidan looks perplexed. "I only really remember Ganesh, the Tamil gardener at Weyweltalawa. taking me fishing."

"Ah, now!" Mother-in-law breaks in. "Jack gave him his old pipe when we left, and he wept bitterly."


"What happened, then?" I murmur to Aidan, nestling under the blankets. "Why didn't you all speak Sinhalese? It's your language, too."

"Same reason why you don't speak Welsh, I suppose," Aidan retaliates. "Ma and Daddy and the priests spoke only English to us. What happened to your Welsh grandfather? The one who was gassed in the trenches?"

"I don't know; I never knew him. Nangi always spoke in Welsh about it to the old miners. I couldn't follow the words; I was too little. I only understood what Nangi said about him later, when she used English. She said he was gassed in the war and died later in his fifties. The gas had burnt his lungs."

We marvel at the fact that both of us had lost our native tongues. Now Nangi is dead. She passed away the previous summer in her little house on the hillside. With her has passed away the last of the Welsh language in our family. It follows the demise of the great coal fields, the collieries gone. So it was with me, and so it is with Aidan, with the loss of Sinhala. The language has passed away from the Gilmor family here in Canada. Our children will likely never speak either tongue, and we don't want them to. That is the truth. They will be "English Only" Canadians. Like Scottie.


The months pass full of waiting, expectancy. I wonder what the new baby will look like, writes Mother tentatively from Fernside, and is irritated when I reply I don't know. I can't help tensing. I'm thinking of Mr. Mirrell, my old principal, and his earnest intention to "keep Primrose Hill white."

Suddenly it's fall, and the apple trees turn a deep russet hue in Father-in-law's garden. Flocks of birds gather on the washing line and make forays into the berries. The garden moves into winter mode in November. The remains of Father-in-law's frozen turnips at the bottom of the garden stick up like pokers. A sheet of ice coats the lawn, and snow powders the Ceylon lion above the roof.

My time is near. I'm seized with apprehension, excitement, and anticipatory dread. I've taken the usual leave of absence from my teaching position, received the obligatory kind gift from the staff at Primrose Hill: a baby change-table. I also got some pointed opprobrious looks from Marlene; it's clear that she thinks I am taking a reckless risk by having a second baby. Who knows what it might turn out like this time? The troubles of Ceylon pale in the face of the sudden chasm that opens within, the throes of tribulation my body undergoes, the throbbing pain as my thighs part. Aidan rushes me to hospital and calls Mother-in-law to look after Polly.

"Aiyo, Jack, pet, pet," she says, putting down the phone. "Turn off that silly radio. Selena has had the baby--our sixth grandchild, imagine! A boy."

It's happened.

He's tiny and beautiful in my arms, with dark, dusky skin, a mass of fuzzy black hair, and curved eyelids--unmistakable. They have come down four generations, a gift from his Burmese great-great-grandmother. We name him Rupert Owen Gilmor. He looks Sinhalese, with Nangi Jones's nose.

Editorial Reviews

"With its stunning portrayal of tea plantations in the higher elevations of Sri Lanka, Tamarind Sky takes the reader on a journey from British colonial times to the present, vividly documenting the vast world of tea cultivation, and quietly celebrating the history, beauty, and culture of Sri Lanka. An elegant and fascinating book."
&mdsah;Ananda Fernando, Director of Maskeliya Tea Plantations, Maskeliya, Adam's Peak Area, Sri Lanka

"Thelma Wheatley's Tamarind Sky is a master class in the social history of forgotten yet recent times. In a tale that centres on family love and the immigrant experience, Wheatley has skilfully captured the searing ugliness of racism in Ontario (1967-1989) and Ceylon (1947-1956). Her portrayals of time and place on each continent are riveting. Tamarind Sky is a compelling read about colonialism, its aftermath, and the human spirit's will to survive and overcome."
--Bonnie Lendrum, author of Autumn's Grace

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