He was of mixed ethnicity. His father, Franklin Dormer was a wealthy Englishman and his mother, Sumitra was an Indian moor. They met when Sumitra and her widowed mother left their home in Mumbai to work on a tea plantation. The tea plantation was owned by Dormer. He lived there with his wife, Alexandra. They had no children.
When Franklin Dormer saw the dark and beautiful Sumitra, he was bewitched and he wasted no time in bedding her. It was uncertain if the relations between them were consensual or if she acquiesced because she feared that if she didn’t, he would get rid of her mother and her. And they needed the wages albeit meager and despite the harsh conditions.
Dormer and she would meet in a secluded place where he would lie with her. When it was over, she returned to the shack she and her mother shared with other women. Whether Sumitra’s mother knew beforehand about her daughter’s relations with the plantation owner, no one knows for sure. When Sumitra got pregnant, she continued to work until she couldn’t any longer. It was a hard labor and she was weak when she finally gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Her mother and the other women marveled at his fair skin. They must have realized then who the father was but they said nothing.
After learning of Sumitra’s pregnancy, Dormer stopped having relations with her. He planned to send her and the child to another plantation. When he heard that she had given birth to a boy whose skin was very fair, he had Sumitra’s mother bring the child to him.
“He’s very fair,” he exclaimed. “It’s hard to believe that he has the blood of a moor in him.”
Sumitra’s mother didn’t say anything. She stood there and watched as the master of the plantation held his son.
“The shack is no place for this child. He will stay in the main house. A nanny will take care of him.”
“But what about Sumitra?” her mother asked. “Will she get to see him?”
“I will let her see him briefly before I send her to another plantation.”
“Why are you sending my daughter away where she can’t be near to her son?”
“It is for the best.” He summarily dismissed her and took the baby into the mansion with him.
Sumitra didn’t get to see her son before she went to Koslanda tea plantation. Shortly after she got there, she died in a mudslide. When her mother heard the news, she suffered a heart attack and died. She was buried in Borella Kanatte Cemetery. Mr. Dormer went to the authorities who had recovered Sumitra’s body and he took it back with him to Colombo and buried it beside her mother’s. He had a headstone placed on her grave which simply said, Sumitra Bandara, beloved daughter and mother.
A year later, Dormer sold the plantation. He and his wife returned to England. They raised Sumitra’s son as their own. The story they told people was that they adopted the child. He received the best care possible and Alexandra adored him in spite of the fact that he was the product of her husband’s infidelity. A devout Christian, she believed that, “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father.”
The child was christened Neval Anthony Dormer. He was a very bright child. His father made sure he had the best education which money could afford. He sent him to to Eaton and then to Oxford. Everyone marveled when they saw Neval. They couldn’t believe that he had Indian blood in him. “He looks like one of us,” they would remark.
Neval was raised to be a proper English gentleman. He was never told anything about his mother except that she was born in Mumbai to a Indian father and a Sri Lankan mother and that she had died shortly after he was born. He accepted what they told him. After all, why should they be dishonest about his background? As far as he was concerned, the Dormers were his parents.
Then, one day, Dormer fell very ill and a week later, he died. He had left everything to his wife, Alexandra and a sizeable trust fund for Neval to receive when he turned twenty-five. The funeral was a big affair. All in sundry turned up to pay their respects. The mansion seemed quiet and dull without Dormer. Alexandra mourned for him and wore black for the rest of her life. Now it was just Neval and her. She tried to encourage him to go out with his friends. “You’re young,” she told him. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”
To please her, he went out with his friends and he met a lot of girls whom he dated but nothing serious developed–at least, not on his part. He wasn’t ready for a long-term relationship. He preferred to concentrate on his studies and think about his future after he graduated from Oxford.
His life changed when Mrs. Dormer fell ill and became bedridden. He was constantly at her side. She looked so frail but her eyes were bright and alert. He held her hand in his. “In no time, you will up and about,” he said.
“No, my Dear,” she said. “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Before I leave, there is something I must tell you.”
“What is it, Mother?”
“You don’t know how good it is to hear you call me Mother. I’m your adoptive mother who loves you as if you were my own flesh and blood but there was another woman who was your mother. She gave birth to you. We told you that she was from Mumbai and that she died shortly after you were born and that much is true but there is so much more that I need to tell you.” She told him everything. “What my husband did was unconscionable and I regret my part in it. Your mother never got to see you before she was sent to another plantation. It was at that other plantation where she lost her life.”
“How did she die?”
“There was a mudslide. When your poor grandmother heard the dreadful news, she suffered a heart attack and died. My husband and I are responsible for her death and your poor and unfortunate mother’s too. I won’t blame you if you hate Mr. Dormer and me and want nothing more to do with us.”
“I don’t hate you, Mother. I’m grateful that you have told me everything. I don’t feel hatred toward you or Father. I feel sadness for my mother. I wish that I could have known her.”
“By all accounts, she was a very beautiful woman. My husband said that while you have his complexion and eyes, you inherited her features. At first, I hated her because she stole my husband’s affections but my jealousy turned to pity. I can’t imagine how she must have felt when she was separated from you. It’s a crime to separate a mother from her child. I shall never forgive Mr. Dormer or myself.”
“You have always taught me that when we confess our sins to God and are truly sorry, He will forgive us.”
“Yes. I have God’s forgiveness for what I have done but it’s hard for me to forgive myself.”
“Why don’t you ask God to help you to forgive yourself?”
“You’re right, Neval. I should ask Him to help me to do that.”
She prayed to God, asking Him to help her to forgive herself and to erase the guilt which still plagued her. A few days later, she passed away peacefully. After her funeral, he flew to Colombo and visited the plantation where his mother and grandmother worked. He saw the appalling conditions in which the workers lived and decided on the spot that he would sell the mansion in England and buy the plantation. He spoke to the owner who after some persuasion agreed to sell.
Neval returned to London and sold the mansion. He packed up everything he had moved to the plantation in Colombo. He set about improving conditions for the workers by providing them with better living quarters, increasing their wages and decreasing their work hours. He made it possible for parents to send their children to school. And for those who were interested, he shared the Gospel with them. Many believed and were baptized.
He visited the plantation where his mother worked before she died but it was to a part which wasn’t affected by the landslide. He was told that the area was vulnerable and that people were warned to move. One man told him that there were families in his neighborhood who were living at the bottom of a mountain and that if a mudslide were to happen they would all be buried. Neval asked him why didn’t they leave and his reply was, “We want to leave but we haven’t been given a proper alternative.” Neval told him that his mother was one of the victims of the mudslide and the man offered his condolences. Neval told him that he hoped that housing alternatives would be offered to the man and his neighbors before another tragedy took place.
Next, Neval visited Borella Cemetery where his mother and grandmother were buried. He spent a long time there, overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and loss. After leaving there, he returned to the Dormer plantation and spoke to the women who knew his mother. They told him all that they remembered about her. “It’s too bad she didn’t live to see what a handsome son she has,” they said. “She would have been very proud of you.”
He traveled to Mumbai where his mother was from. It was there he met Aksana. She was a descendant of the “Bombay Africans.” Her ancestors were Africans from Mozambique who had been rescued from the slave ships operating in the Indian Ocean by Royal Navy Squadrons. Aksana worked at a Christian Missionary Orphanage in Mumbai. Both of her parents were dead and she had no other family there. They were all in Mozambique.
He met her when he went to church one Sunday morning. After the service, she approached him. “Hello,” she said in English.
“You’re new. I would remember seeing you if you’ve been here before.”
“This is my first visit to Mumbai.”
“Oh. Welcome to Mumbai.”
“Where are you from?”
“I came from Colombo where I was born.”
“If you weren’t wearing that on your head, I never would have guessed that you were Indian.”
“I’m Eurasian. My father was English and my mother was an Indian moor. She was born here. She and my grandmother moved to Colombo where they worked on the tea plantation which my father owned.”
“What’s your name?”
She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Neval. My name is Aksana. Would you like to stay and have lunch? I’m very interested in hearing more of your story.”
He smiled. “I would like that very much.”
She took him down to the basement where the other church members were and after introducing him to them, they helped themselves to the buffet. They found two chairs in a corner where they sat and following a prayer of thanksgiving offered by the pastor, they began to eat. “What happened to your mother?”
“She was working on a tea plantation in Koslanda and was killed in a mudslide, triggered by a monsoon. My grandmother died from a heart attack when she heard the news.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“I visited the plantation where my mother died. If another mudslide were to happen the families there would be buried like my mother was unless they move and they can’t move until they are given a better alternative. I wish that there was something I could do for them.”
“It’s up to the government to provide them with housing in secure locations.”
“The government doesn’t care about those people. All they care about is money and cutting expenses. A woman I spoke to said that the government offered alternative housing but in an area where a landslide occurred 60 years ago. People have the right to live in areas where they don’t have to worry about being buried under mudslides during monsoon season. How many families have suffered losses because the government doesn’t care?”
“The best thing the tea plantation workers and you can do is to continue to lean on the government until they do something.”
“Unless they are directly affected, they aren’t going do anything to help those people.”
“I’m hoping that something will be done to help them.”
He wasn’t convinced but rather than pursue the matter, he changed the subject, asking her about herself. They talked and after hours later it was time for him to return to the hotel where he was staying. She offered to give him a lift. When they got there, he asked her to have dinner with him and she readily accepted.
They had dinner the following evening and they saw each other regularly until it was time for him to return to Colombo. It was a bittersweet parting but Neval promised to visit her again. And he did. He visited her as often as he could.
One evening when they were together at her place, he said, “I have two propositions for you.”
“What are they?”
“With the support of UNICEF, the building of a daycare center on the tea plantation is nearly completed but I need someone to run it. The person will be responsible for hiring staff to take care of the children. This way, mothers can bring their babies to work to breastfeed them and they don’t have to leave them in the area surrounding the plantation with no one to take care of them or leave them at home with older siblings who end up skipping school. This daycare will change the lives of my workers and their families. Are you interested?”
“Yes, I’m interested.” She was for two reasons, she loved working with children and it meant that she would be near him.
“Good. I’m very grateful that you’ve accepted my first proposition.” He hoped with all his heart that she would accept the second too.
“What’s the second one?”
“How would you feel about being the wife of a tea plantation owner?”
Her eyes widened. “You mean–?”
“Yes, Aksana. I’m asking you to marry me. Will you accept?”
“Of course, I accept,” she exclaimed, laughing. Tears welled up in her eyes.
He slipped the exquisitely beautiful ring on her finger and then, taking her in his arms, he kissed her.
Several weeks later, she left her job at the orphanage and went to Colombo. They got married on the plantation with the tea workers in attendance. For their honeymoon, they went to Victoria Falls. It was a dream trip for them, a once in a lifetime experience. They both wished that the honeymoon would last but after the seven days were over, they had to return to the plantation.
Upon their return to Colombo, Aksana got busy hiring staff for the daycare center and it was up and running like clockwork. The children were taught and fed. The mothers didn’t have to cook and wash their children before leaving their homes anymore. The children had a place where they could learn and play while their parents worked to earn a steady income in a safe environment. Everyone was happy.
Neval named the daycare center after his mother and hung only photo he had of her on the wall in the office opposite Aksana’s desk. Her memory would live on in the lives of the children whose voices and laughter filled the classrooms and hallways of the center.
Sources: Wikipedia; DW; CTV News; Faith Gateway; Antislavery; Archives History; National Post; WSWS; The Indian Express; UNICEF Blog; Go2Africa