Dal, rice and a round of Scotch in ‘Little England’

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes from Nuwara Eliya: It’s monsoon time in Sri Lanka. The rain drops sound like little pellets bearing down on you from some invisible musket somewhere in the high firmament, their intensity simply unrelenting, as I set out on highway A1 from Bentota to Nuwara Eliya, a good seven hours away.

My driver, Alex, though, seems unfazed by the celestial barrage as he manoeuvres the Toyota Land Cruiser with the ease of a seasoned veteran used to water splashing on the wind shield with more force than the feverishly sweeping wipers can handle.

Past the Mackwoods Labookellie tea estate, 1200 acres in all, and founded as far back as in 1841 by an Englishman named captain William Mackwood, on a beautifully winding road of sheer beauty, with thoughtfully marked lines in glistening white on either sides of the dark asphalt, I finally reach the Hill Club up in the mist wrapped mountains of Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s ‘Little England’.

The Hill Club, born in 1876, as a watering hole for British planters, assumedly for them to gather in the evenings to mingle with their own kind, is a mesmerising symbol of all that the age old era of British colonialism stood for.

Walking into the grand stone and timber manor standing like a lone weather beaten sentinel amidst the white clouds that seem to be on some perpetual journey through the day and night in this part of world, I was transported instantly to at least a hundred years back in time.

Incandescent lights issue forth a mellow glow from their positions along walls that also play host to a myriad other objects of curiosity ranging from an amusingly wooden specimen of a rainbow trout caught by a club member in one of the lakes around, way back in 1927, to a black and white photograph of Queen Elizabeth II as a young girl, a little past her teens.

There is a certain British air to the whole place; not for a moment to be mistaken for any hint of snootiness that has unfortunately come to be associated with that time and age, but a gentle, easy, relaxed charm to it, a certain dignified classiness to it all, an ever so subtle intimation of old courteousness pervading the place, leaving you with a strange sense of being part of an era where the world was a lot more unhurried and more importantly, less complicated.

The quietude, the remoteness, the feeling of being gently cut off from the hubbub of the world at large; you could well imagine you are somewhere in Kirkmichael in Ayrshire in Scotland!

Sri Lankan waiters, gloved in white and wearing golden woven epaulets on their uniform shoulders, genially smile and greet you at every turn along the corridors inside, where are placed vases full of lilies on wooden stands that were surely made at the turn of the last century.

In the library with its collection of books ranging from the latest magazines to one on the history of the club is where I found out that the first-ever remark written in the club’s register was in 1881 when a member complained that there were no markers in the billiards room!

The ceilings are an ornate decoration in solid rose wood, all carved, dark and regal; the furniture mostly in latticed wood. Tables look like they are perpetually set for an impending banquet with snow white napkins neatly folded in a floral form; the cutlery perfectly in place.

Huge upholstered sofas with floral designs sit in the splendidly large ‘formal’ dining hall, with the ubiquitous fire place in the middle, to sup at which, you are expected to wear a jacket and tie, which anyway shall be provided ‘free of cost’ from the club’s wardrobe, as the manager told me, if I was interested.

Of course, there is a ‘casual’ dining hall too, where I settled down for the evening.

Corn and egg drop soup, roast pork or seer fish, plus profiterole, tomato soup, and orange mousse for dessert. Chicken dipped in mayonnaise and garlic sauce.

Herb roasted lamb sandwich with tomato, lettuce, red onions and tzatziki. Ground tenderloin meat loaf sandwich, baby spinach and blue cheese salad with granny smith apples and sweet grape, tomatoes tossed in warm bacon vinaigrette.

I beckoned the waiter whose name was Chamila and asked him if I could get some rice and dal with vegetables.

He smiled and said, ‘yes sir’.

My evening was made. I ordered another scotch!