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The Hamilton Case: A Novel


A name is the first story that attaches itself to a life. Consider mine: Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere. It tells of geography, history, love and uncertainty. I was born on an island sus-pended midway on the golden trade route between East and West-a useful bauble, fingered and pocketed by the Portuguese, Dutch and British in turn. In 1902, when I was born, Sir Alban Marriott was Governor and he agreed to be my godfather. How could he refuse? He had been in thrall to my mother ever since she sent him the skin of a leopard she had shot, along with a note. I shall call on you between five and six this evening. The skin is for the small blue reception room, which is ideally suited to fornication and whatnot. Her name was Maud and she was a great beauty. Also a first-rate shot. In Scotland she had stalked deer with the Prince of Wales; his performance, she reported, was mediocre. He presented her with a brooch fashioned from an eagle's talon mounted on silver and onyx. Mater dismissed it as monumentally obvious and palmed it off on her stewardess in lieu of a tip on her voyage home.

My father insisted on calling me Stanley, although my mother hated the name. I have often pondered the significance of Pater's uncharacteristic resolve. His father, too, was a Stanley, so he might simply have been affirming family tradition. On the other hand, might his assertion of my paternal provenance betray some anxiety about it? My mother had a certain reputation. It was alleged that she once swam in a jungle pool wearing only her bloomers, even though there were gentlemen and snakes present. Half of Colombo society followed the lead of Lady Marriott, who was stout and afflicted with shingles, in cutting her dead. Mater said Stanley was fit only for a peon, so it was just as well my initials spelled Sam. These days there is no one left to remember that I was ever called anything else.

Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere: between the names that define me as my father's child falls the shadow of an Englishman who didn't serve a second term as Governor. Shortly after his death eight years ago a package from a firm of London solicitors found its way to my desk. It contained a small murky oil painting of a large and largely unclad female gathering flowers and berries against a backdrop of broken marble columns in a woodland glade. The artist -quite unknown to the works of reference I have consulted -signed himself Tom Baltran. The executor's letter accompanying the painting explained that the Baltrans and the Marriotts were cousins. Moreover, it continued, the Hon. Thomas was descended on the distaff side from the first Duke of St. Albans, Charles II's illegitimate son by Nell Gwynne. The artist's hefty nymph was held, in family lore, to represent the orange seller, but this was purely speculative. Sir Alban, wrote his solicitor, was most anxious for this painting, the gem of his small collection, to pass to you. He retained the warmest memories of his years in Ceylon, and often referred to happy times spent in the company of your mother.

An ambiguous legacy, wouldn't you say? I keep the painting in a cabinet, along with Sir Alban's other gift, a silver eggcup presented on the occasion of my christening. Now and then I set these objects before me and study them. An egg, a mistress, a bastard son: their message seems unequivocal. But the testimony of signs is unreliable. Within minutes I have reasoned that an eggcup is a wholly conventional gift on the part of a godparent, and that the Hon. Thomas's daub points only to the ill-judged sentimentality of a nonagenarian. The argument prevails for a brief interval; then doubt creeps in again. These sessions always end the same way: I cross to my mirror where reassurance waits in the solid evidence of my flesh.

If you wish to ascertain a man's lineage, read his face not his birth certificate. My skin is as dark as my father's, our branch of the Obeysekeres being famously black. Like Pater, I am of average height and inclined to portliness in age. We share a high forehead, thick, springing hair, a curved nose and assertive ears. We are not handsome men. But we have presence. Whereas Sir Alban, as he appears in my parents' photograph album, is tall and hollow-chested, with pointed features and an entirely unconvincing mustache. He clasps his left wrist in his right hand, holding himself together.

By now it will be apparent that my pen is not constrained by decorum. I have always set great store by the truth, a virtue not usually prized in my profession. But it was my ability to see accurately and to speak the truth, without concern for convention or fear of reprisal, that made my name in a different sense. The very notoriety of the Hamilton case has seen it shrouded in the fog of rumor, conjecture and misinformation that passes for analysis in the drawing rooms of this country. In these pages I intend to set down the facts of the matter at last.


My grandfather, Sir Stanley Obeysekere, was a mudaliyar, an office that placed a man at the pinnacle of our island's social system. A mudaliyar was a leader of men, with considerable influence in his ancestral district. By tradition he was a gifted soldier and a skilled diplomat, abilities he placed at the service of his sovereign.

With the advent of the Europeans, however, the role of the mudaliyar evolved. The Kandyan kingdom remained unconquered in the hills until 1815, but as the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British occupied larger and larger areas of the maritime provinces, it was for their administrative talents, above all, that my ancestors came to be valued by the colonial powers. Their education, the respect they commanded among their countrymen and their knowledge of the island's customs meant they were ideally suited to assist in the colonial administration: as record keepers, as intermediaries and interpreters, as presidents of the courts that dealt with native disputes concerning land, contracts and debts.

The Europeans rewarded loyalty with land: whole villages were given in gift to the mudaliyars, vast tracts of jungle, tax-free estates.

Pater's inheritance included landholdings throughout the southern provinces, four properties in Colombo, six or seven outstation bungalows, a cottage in the hills, a tea plantation and a plumbago mine; as well as Lokugama, our country seat, where my childhood unraveled in splendid isolation.

I have no doubt that my ancestors were vigorous men. One of my lasting regrets is that I never knew my grandfather, who was by all accounts a wise and able administrator. I have by me a copy of the confidential memorandum from Government House recommending his knighthood. It notes that my grandfather possessed a most complete and accurate knowledge of the practice and procedure of the Island and describes him as a man of the highest character, honourable, high principled and unswervingly loyal.

Alas, Sir Stanley met with disaster at the age of thirty-four. He was boating on the lake in Kandy one afternoon when he noticed that a party of English girls, who had ventured out without a boatman in the spirited way of the young, had gotten into difficulty. Before his horrified eyes, one of the girls, who had unwisely risen to her feet, was pitched overboard. Ten years earlier my grandfather had swum the Hellespont, cheered on by a smelly band of very villainous Greeks, as he recorded in his diary. Now he dived at once into the lake and reached the young lady's side in a few swift strokes.

All would have been well had it not been for the hysterical reaction of Miss Daisy Dawson, one of the ladies left shrieking in the boat. Afterward her father, the Government Agent for the Jaffna Province, offered in extenuation the terror and confusion his daughter felt at the prospect of capsizing (none of the ladies could swim) and her extreme distress at seeing her friend, a sweet girl on the threshold of womanhood, being manhandled by a native. In her understandable terror, confusion and distress, Miss Dawson brought her oar crashing down on my grandfather's skull. He drowned, of course.

Miss Dawson's party, including the sweet girl in the water, was rescued by two Scottish engineers, whose presence on the lake was taken as proof that my grandfather had acted courageously but precipitately. Two white men would not have sat by and watched an English girl drown. Sir Stanley would have done better to attract the engineers' attention with manly shouts. The sentiment in billiard rooms and news-7 paper editorials was that the Ceylonese, even the ablest among them, were prone to exaggeration.

Pater was a boy of nine when his father drowned. Some said Sir Stanley had been murdered; it came down to one's point of view. His death served as a pretext for a halfhearted attempt to stir up anti-British sentiment, which floundered at once since the Obeysekere clan failed to support it. In fact my Great-Uncle Willy wrote a strongly worded letter to the Times of Ceylon regretting his brother's impetuousness, and absolving Miss Dawson, a mere inexperienced girl, of all blame.

It so happened that Willy was involved in litigation at the time. He was the subject of a lawsuit brought by a man called Perera, who was contesting Willy's title to some twenty acres of forested land near Chilaw. This fellow Perera claimed that the land had belonged to his family for generations, although he could produce no certifiable title of ownership. He alleged that Willy had acquired a spurious title to the property and then sent a band of thugs to seize it by force.

Such allegations -indeed such practices -were common enough in those days, when everyone who could afford to do so was mad to get his hands on land that could be used for cash crops. One might argue that the land grab had been set off by the government, whose Waste Land Ordinance had declared that all lands not permanently cultivated or in certifiable ownership were the property of the Crown. In this way the British acquired acres of primeval forest that were sold for plantations.

The local elite followed suit, clearing land for coffee and tea and rubber and coconut with so much zeal that the government was eventually forced to consider measures for preserving the jungle and slowing down sales of uncultivated land.

Willy and Perera had hired teams of lawyers who had been fighting it out in our tortoiselike courts for years. In fact the case had dragged on for so long that Willy had grown quite fond of his adversary, whom he referred to affectionately as The Blasted P. He regaled his relatives with details about this character: his hair oil, the sturdy umbrella that accompanied him everywhere, his habit of picking his teeth with a long fingernail, his numerous offspring ("I counted at least fifteen. Huge, hairy hulks. And as for his sons. . . !"). When he learned that The Blasted P's eldest daughter was to be married, Willy sent her a handsome canteen of cutlery. It was returned the next day. Willy slapped his forehead. "Of course! The Blasted P scorns cutlery. Should have sent the girl a set of fingerbowls."

Whenever the clan gathered at Lokugama, Pater and his cousins would entertain the adults by acting out imaginary episodes from the life of The Blasted P, who had quickly passed into family myth. The Blasted P at Buck House: much hilarity from the spectators as our hero presses betel on the Crown Prince, slurps his tea from a saucer, ogles the behind of a lady-in-waiting, asks a footman when the arrack will be served, all under the unamused eye of Victoria (my Aunt Sybil, much padded with cushions, who at the age of twelve bore an unnerving resemblance to that redoutable monarch).

Willy once took The Blasted P aside and made him a sporting offer: settle the matter once and for all like gentlemen, weapon of his choice, circumvent the bally lawyers. But The Blasted P was a devout Buddhist. "Lectured me on the taking of life and whatnot. Blighter's bleeding me to death in the courts but that's different, it seems."

With the shift in government policy on the sale of forested land, the matter was no longer farcical. Willy's lawyers expressed pessimism about the final ruling, expected in a few weeks. Then my grandfather died and Willy wrote his letter. The court found in his favor. His jungle acres were cleared for coconuts and in time returned considerable profits.

The Blasted P faded from view, although Willy always sent him a card at Christmas. Yet he died a disappointed man, poor Willy, because the OBE he yearned for never materialized. The English have long memories, you see. Their great talent lies in the reconciliation of justice and compromise. A formidable race. I miss them to this day.

Excerpted from The Hamilton Case © Copyright 2005 by Michelle de Kretser. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.

The Hamilton Case: A Novel
by by Michelle de Kretser

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316010812
  • ISBN-13: 9780316010818