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Sunday, 10 October 2010





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John Still :

Planter who paved the way for Minneriya

Exactly sixty-nine years ago this September, there died at Fort Alfred in South Africa, an Englishman whose name is synonymous with archaeological discoveries of Sri Lanka in the early part of the 20th century, an associate of the late Senarath Paranavithana, where he played an active role in the discoveries at Sigiriya. In the 1900s he promoted rice-growing on a large scale at Minneriya, which ultimately paved the way for the first colonisation scheme in the country. He created a record for the high jump in Sri Lanka around the year 1900, which was beaten only in 1991.

The Englishman in reference here is John Still, author of the celebrated book "The Jungle Tide" Born in 1980 John was educated at Winchester College (like his grandfather, father and his son), came out to plant tea and later moved over to archaeology and land settlement.

During the 20 years or so he actually spent in the island. John Still travelled widely and amassed a wealth of knowledge about the country and the people. While creeping in a Dik-Oya tea estate, he learned Tamil and Sinhala, had his first experience of a tropical jungle in the estate's timber reserve, where he befriended wild animals, studied relics of the Stone Age man and went out to explore the secrets of the vast Peak Wilderness.

As assistant to H.C.P.Bell, John Still supervised the excavations at the ruined city of Anuradhapura, riding his bicycle with his pet bear "Durik" cantering behind.

He brought to light many a ruin around Mihintale, and for a time at Sigiriya explored the ruins of King Kasyapa's capital. At Polonnaruwa John Still discovered the ruins of the Lotus Bath about which he observed "Strangely enough, this pond was already known to me though no one had then found it, for it is described in the Mahavamsa.

Enlisted for service in the First World War, John Still was taken prisoner in Turkey and while in captivity there, driven to seek some absorbing work to make life endurable, he discovered that he could write poetry, and embarked upon "an awful career of writing verses." His book "Poems in Captivity" was published by John Lane of London in 1919. The bulk of the 300-page volume is on Sri Lanka, her jungles, her people and history. The poems were written minutely on 10 sheets of note paper and concealed in a hallow walking-stick.

In spite of his deteriorating health in prison, John Still established contact with England through coded messages. The seemingly harmless letters he sent eventually reached the war office and enabled steps to be taken to alleviate the sufferings of the POWs in Turkey. But it was not long before a Turkish medical board declared him insane and recommended his release.

The fastidious writer that he was John Still wrote much but, published a little and destroyed much of what he wrote. He took 16 months to compile the "Index to the Mahavansa", while his "A Prisoner in Turkey" was written in eight days and four hours.

John Still took 10 years to write his "History of Ancient Ceylon", an enormous work of 100,000 words, which he never published. In 1925, writing to a close associate back in Kandy he confided, "Yes, I burned the history. Lane, the publisher, wanted to print it, and I had a long yarn with Edward Garnett who thought it could be published. But I said, 'You only judge it as literature, it is bad history'. So I burned it"

One time or another, he had consigned to the flames a book of essays on East and West, a novel about Ceylon jungle folk, an illustrated children's book and a large collection of poems, songs, sonnets and tales in verse he had composed.

John Still considered "Jungle Tide" as "the only good book I ever wrote" and was happy at the way it was received by discerning critics. He was even pleased with his efforts to have it prescribed as an examination text book in Ceylon, "I should like to feel that many of the brightest boys and girls of Lanka might learn my way of looking at, into, through and behind things, mentally rather like the leopard in Jungle Tide" he contended.

In 1939 John Still went to Rhodesia where his son was living to spend the last days of his life there. Stricken with diabetes and arthritis in the final seven years of his life he was nursed by Monica, a Lankan-born daughter of a Gampola tea planter, whom Still was long acquainted with. Monica describes Still in his last stages thus: "He was a devout Buddhist and an ascetic. He had self-control which amazed me! Suffering so much with the dreadful diseases that he had the ability to bear up with a sense of humour was something that struck me, even after so many years of nursing that I had behind me."

Tragedy overtook John Still with the commencement of World War Two. His son John Still Jr.,with whom Monica and her charge were living died in action, leaving them to their destinies. After this John Still went downhill steadily and died on September 9, 1941.


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