My appetite having been seriously whetted by that first fleeting visit to Rookwood in ’98, during the intervening years before I landed feet first in Colombo in 2000, having added his teas to my range of offerings, I was in constant touch with Ronnie. To press home the advantage, keeping a day free on a couple of occasions on my regular trips to SL, I had driven up to visit the estate to spend some time with Ronnie. The more I saw of the property, the more I fell in love with it. A romance which blossomed after my relocation.
Before I wade into the main course, a little bit of history of Rookwood becomes de rigueur
The history of tea in Ceylon dates back to 1867 by which year, the fallout of a plant fungal disease over many preceding years, all the coffee estates which till then had been the mainstay of the Island, were totally devastated. History has it that 1867 was the year when James Taylor planted out Loolecondera, the first tea estate in Ceylon, the property being situated fairly close to the ancient Ceylonese capital of Kandy at an altitude of approximately 3,000 Ft. What the history books ignore or fail to mention is that it was in that very year and only 10 miles further up on the same range of hills, while Taylor was doing his bit lower down in the valley, that another pioneer had pitched his sights a good 3,000 Ft higher. Having personally ventured across the Palk Straits to India, from where he brought back a sackful of tea seeds from Darjeeling, Charles Spearman Armstrong was on the job planting out Rookwood Estate. While his plants were maturing, Armstrong constructed a small factory advantageously perched on a crest so as to gather in the winds from all directions which, when the estate and factory would become operational, would ensure a perfect natural wither to the tea leaf which would be spread out on ‘tats’ in the loft.
From the time Jaidev and I first drove up to Rookwood in ’98 with Disanayake and walked into that tiny factory, it was apparent that on that beautiful estate it was almost as though time had stood still. Through the years of my involvement with that property, there being no electricity supply to the estate, the entire machinery in the factory was operated through a complex system of shafts and pulleys mechanically driven by an old Crossley Marine Engine which, thanks to the small brass plaque riveted on the base plate of the engine, we knew that the engine had been installed in 1930. Rummaging around in an old disused cupboard in the factory office Ronnie had come across a couple of old sepia prints. Within that bunch of half chewed up and faded prints are these two very interesting ones of the engine being hauled up to the estate, probably sometime in the mid 1920’s, by a pair of elephants working in tandem and straining with the effort.
The Tea bushes on Rookwood Estate, relentlessly buffeted by the harsh winds, naturally grow up hardy and tough. Which single factor, in combination with the high elevation which results in the bushes besides being robust, regardless of the season constantly throwing up leaf which (not at all surprising) is literally bursting with flavour. With what is nature’s bounty being supplemented in that tiny factory with Ronnie’s painstaking efforts, the results could not be anything other than that spectacular range of Orthodox Teas on offer. How could one not fall in love with those teas which were literally shouting out for attention.
Which meandering ramble explains why and how no sooner had I had planted my, albeit shallow, roots in Sri Lanka, that I teamed up with Ronnie with both of us having decided to do the tea world a favour. The quality of the product being what it was, we didn’t have to look far to sell the teas. In very short time our joint efforts culminated with one single customer in Japan committing himself to buying whatever Rookwood could produce. The arrangement with the gentleman being that prior to any consignment being sent to Japan, as and when a batch of 20/25 cartons were ready for despatch we were to inform his agent, a Japanese who was resident in Colombo, to make a trip to the estate to check the teas and approve that particular batch for shipment.
Accordingly, whenever advised of a consignment being ready, this “gentleman” (the word being in parenthesis for a reason) would drive up to Rookwood where, in the factory, the 20 odd cartons would be stacked up, all duly strapped and ready to go. The inspection agent would randomly point to any one carton which would be pulled out and opened for him to do his bit. His procedure being to shove his balled up fist into the centre of the tea, pull out a handful of tea which he’d simply sniff and give a visual once over before casually dropping the tea back into the carton which was then resealed and strapped. On the top of the carton which had been inspected, the “gentleman” using a black marker would put a large cross and his signature. His job done, he would trundle off back to Colombo and the tea would follow to the airport for being freighted to Tokyo.
A smooth hassle free operation which ran like clock-work for almost two years till one fine morning I had Ronnie call me to say that a team of policemen accompanied by a couple of SL customs officials had arrived in Rookwood wanting to arrest the hapless Mr Asirwatham. My “whatever for?” was answered with “They say that we have been smuggling Sri Lankan gemstones out of the country”. Dropping everything and driving to Rookwood as fast as I could go, on arriving there a good five hours later, I found Ronnie in a state of total exasperation. While I had been in the car heading up to the estate Ronnie had been plying the ‘arrest party’ with tea and biscuits to calm them down. The officials having been mellowed down, he had managed to wheedle out the reason for them to have ‘descended’ (an oxymoron considering that the party had come all the way up 6,000′ from Colombo at sea level) upon him in this sudden swoop. A bizarre story which he blurted out to me no sooner than my stepping out of my car.
The Japanese “gentleman” acting as the inspection agent for the buyer in Japan, who apparently was NOT involved in this fellows shenanigans, was a known bad apple in the books of the SL authorities. His modus operandi to hoodwink innocent Mr Asirwatham being as simple as falling off a log. Whenever called in for an inspection this fellow would bring along a fistful of high value SL gemstones, which in SL attract a very high export duty, packed tightly in a small plastic pouch. When shoving his hand in to pull out a fistful of tea for the perfunctory sniff, this smuggler (I am at this point of time dispensing with “gentleman”) would leave the pouch in the centre of the carton which, since it was easily identifiable with his markings, would be collected at the other end by his accomplices who, having extricated the pouch from inside the tea, would deliver the tea consignment to the buyers warehouse.
During the six hour long interrogation of Ronnie, the officials having established that the gentleman was an innocent person who had unknowingly been sucked into the scam, while he was served only with a legal notice, the factory however was immediately locked up with the lock being wrapped in an official ‘not to be tampered with’ cloth pouch bearing an official red wax seal.
While Ronnie ended up making innumerable visits to the court in Colombo to clear his name, one never did hear what became of that damn “gentleman”!
Having filed away the Rookwood story as just another very interesting experience, life has moved on. Now, years later, Ronnie and me regularly have a chat and share a good chuckle about how a fistful of gems almost landed him in the clink!