Rosalind Mendis - a 1920s Ceylonese Author of Fiction in English


- Nan

The neat, large house, situated in the heart of Kandy was rather old-fashioned, but… was altogether a comfortable house. Such was Seethagiri Walawwa" and so this early 20th century novel begins and winds its way to Nuwara Eliya, Matara, Colombo. My interest was captured by the mention of Kandy, retained by the lovely Kandyan girl protagonist and the Englishman and all peripheral characters until the last page was read with a sigh and a smile. You had to read the book once it was taken in hand, but it was soo romantic with much sighing and tears in eyes and outright weeping. There’s unrequited love, an inexplicable coincidence, meeting on horseback around the Kandy lake and death, both sad and melodramatic. The last page has the Englishman seeing an apparition of his beloved and knowing she was dead, dying himself of a broken heart. These things did happen way back when.

The novel is the first written in the English language by a Ceylonese woman and published. Author and title? Rosalind Mendis writing The Tragedy of a Mystery. It was published by Arthur H Stockwell Ltd, Ludgate Hill, London, in 1928. Fortunately it was reprinted in 1986 by The Centre for Society and Religion with which institution one of the author’s daughters was associated. If it is out of print, it should be republished.

The book cannot be reviewed since its style, plot and even language are far far removed from what we are used to. Its title itself lends itself to be termed archaic and melodramatic. But the author can be written about and her life goes to show that though trapped in Victorian norms she could break the mould in more ways than one.

The author

Rosalind Jayasinghe grew up in her father’s spacious house in Hedeniya, eight miles distant from Kandy. He was businessman Paul Jaysainghe, owning most of the shops in the hamlet and many acres of tea and rice fields. He was inclined to socialize and so his home was often filled with guests, including Up Country British tea planters.

Rosalind’s mother was his third wife. The first two died, both in their first birthings. This third wife had eight children – two boys and six girls. Rosalind was the fifth. She married young and lived in Colombo with her husband Tennehewa Abrham Albert Mendis. A story hangs here. The young Abrham Albert saw her when she was twelve and promised himself that she would be his wife. When she turned eighteen he was back asking her father for her hand in marriage.

Rosalind started writing seriously while caring for her children. Maybe she scribbled earlier, but it is a compliment to her understanding husband that she spent time nurturing her talent while a busy wife and mother. This convent educated girl used to say to her husband: "Oh you don’t have to go to church to believe in God" and spent her Sundays sitting up in bed, writing furiously. She had the desire for creative writing, an almost shocking bent in those days when a wife was merely a good housekeeper, caregiver and homemaker. Her time was supposed to be dedicated totally to these responsibilities even if plenty of servants were at hand. But to publish would surely have been a frustrating, near-insurmountable obstacle. If the British women found it difficult to be published and had to resort to using masculine pen names (George Eliot) how near impossible it would have been for a ‘coloured’ woman to be published in England. Surely worse in Sri Lanka with less published fiction in English and never a woman trespassing in male dominated territory as writing and publishing were in the early 20th century.

On those Sundays of writing, the indulgent husband, a Buddhist, accompanied the children to Church. However, Rosalind did come back to traditional Catholic living and was a daily Mass goer later. Abrham Albert Mendis was employed in the Excise Department though his father owned a plumbago mine. He offered his innovative distilling method to the department which refused to use Mendis to identify the new arrack, so he left his job and produced his new drink – the now famous ‘Mendis Special’ further refined by his son, W M Mendis.

Abrham Albert and Rosalind were two of the most liberal individuals of their age and at one time were the ballroom dancing sensations among relatives and friends. They had five children, Violet, Walter, Basil, Bernadeen and Nimal. Their liberalism spilled over to the children, where each of them grew up in their individuality, to branch out into completely different pursuits and careers. Her youngest went into jazz and pop music and even farming after returning from a spell of migration in England as a boy almost. His penchant for the modern in spite of his parents’ home being filled with the strains of Western classical music.

Rosalind was also way ahead of her generation in other ways. At one time she wanted to join her brother in England to study law. He was at Lincoln’s Inn. To humour her, Abrham Albert said "why not" and she, taking him seriously, started preparations for departure. His admonition: "This is crazy - you with four children want to leave them to become the dream lawyer of our country?" stopped her in her tracks. The youngest of the five used to tell her: "Gosh Mum, if you had gone I would never have been born!!"

When Rosalind turned forty, she again showed her individuality. Others her age were willing to go plump. After all they had succeeded in looking after their man and children and were now considered old. Not Rosalind. She would get up early, exercise, and walk a long distance with her youngest son, along the Bambalapitiya railway track. Then, at the mirror, she would do facial exercises, pat her cheeks and neck, to keep them young and smooth. No professional beauticians and facials then! She was an avid reader stockpiling books by the great authors, everything about Ceylon and even Arthur Conan Doyles’s books on spiritualism. Her conversations were on politics, art and literature, never gossip.

In Britain

In 1960, the entire family, although some of the children were married, found themselves in England through various circumstances. They ran a grocery store in North London specializing in eastern spices. The shop was originally set up by the well known classical pianist Mano Chanmugam’s aunt and taken over by the Mendis’. Mano was a very good family friend. Rosalind would get up at 3.00 a m (unthinkable in London) to make patties and vaddais to sell in the shop. These became regular, popular sales items in the shop, even among the English. After work they would make sure to buy patties and vaddai which were soon sold out. Rosalind could not cope with demand. Here was this sophisticated lady from Ceylon, in that period of time, doing the unusual to make a living for her family in the heart of London. Both Abrham Albert, who already had survived two heart attacks, and Rosalind were wonderful examples of sacrifice and dedication to family. Nimal, the youngest, said that he never heard his Mother or Father talk ill of a relative, neighbour or friend. Rosalind returned to Ceylon in 1963 and much of her life from then on was spent involving herself in the affairs of her children and grandchildren and, reverting to her Catholic upbringing, daily church services and prayer. Her life was a rich tapestry interwoven with the arts and spirituality and the main thread - a zest for life, with all its vicissitudes, sorrows and joys.

Rosalind continued her writing and brought out ‘Nandhimitta’, based on a historical person who lived in the reign of King Dutugemunu, and was probably one of the ten famous warriors. A love story again, set against the backdrop of the mighty struggle between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The book was translated to Sinhala by Martin Wickremasinghe and both the English and Sinhala versions were illustrated by Ivan Peries. Her last major work was a book of short stories titled ‘My Son Lia’, the cover of which was designed by Richard Gabriel. The majority of the stories are rural in setting and deal with age-old customs, values and conflicts of the simple Sri Lankan.

Rosalind’s one great desire was that one day one of her stories would be made into a film. She never lived to see that day although her daughter-in-law, Ranjani, was determined to see this through. Unfortunately, Ranjani passed on in October this year. It was to Ranjani that Rosalind gave her notes and scribbles of her other writing, including unfinished manuscripts. These two women were akin in their special interest in creative writing.

Rosalind Mendis died at 93. Her eldest daughter Violet still lives in the ancestral home in Milagiriya Avenue. It’s much changed now, as the street is. The house was built in those early days by famed carpenters from the South. As in every house that emerged from the Colonial period there are stories wrapped around the people who lived there, interesting and vital, waiting to be told. This is about one of them who is reputedly the first published woman author of our country to write in English.

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