“Hello?” said the dignified voice of a lady, and immediately I had a strong hunch that Helga De Silva Blow Perera herself was on the other end of the phone.
“Hi! I was just wondering if you could tell me how to get to Helga’s Folly. I’m driving by the Kandy Lake right now,” I said.
“Oh, keep driving until you pass by the Maha Maya School and then take a right turn down Maha Maya road. You’ll soon come to a sign that will point you in the right direction.” I couldn’t help noting the exalted tone of voice, the perfectly articulated syllables and the slightly lopsided pronunciation of ‘Maha Maya’.
“Thanks very much. We’re just on our way to visit the hotel,” I said.
“And will you be staying with us?” That immaculately vocalized Queen’s English again, which I was really beginning to admire.
“No, we hoped we could have an early dinner and then look around the hotel. May I know who I’m speaking with?” I asked, so that I could finally put my suspicions to rest.
“This is Helga,” she said, “I think your call may have been transferred to me by accident.” She was right. I had asked the man who answered the phone for directions to the hotel and he promptly put me through to Helga, possibly because he misunderstood me. I was surprised to be put through to her with such alacrity, but this is the sort of place that Helga’s Folly is. The ‘anti-hotel’, as Helga likes to call it, is unlike any traditional stopover for holiday-makers. From the outrageous character of the building and the delectable food, right down to the warmth and graciousness of its proprietor, I think it’s safe to say there is no other place on earth like Helga’s Folly. The lady could have easily asked someone else to give me the information I wanted, which is why I was touched that she chose to talk to me herself.
Before ringing off she said, “I do hope you enjoy the house,” and I thanked her for sharing her home with us because essentially, this is what Helga does. And it seems she’s not only offered her home to visitors, but also her empathy. Several heartfelt notes and drawings left in the hotel’s hefty guestbooks bear evidence of this.
Simply to enter Helga’s Folly is an experience on its own. It’s the kind of place that you either love or hate. There isn’t a possibility here for a lukewarm response. The bold colours and psychedelic murals on the walls can seem either creative or kitschy. The jagged strands of paralyzed wax dripping from the candelabra and the shadowy corners caused by muted lighting can be either intriguing or alarming. Various styles of antique furniture, low hanging chandeliers, porcelain urns, wooden busts, ornately framed mirrors and countless other objects can make you feel either hemmed in by paraphernalia or embraced by entities with stories to tell. We thought it was creative, we were intrigued and we were certainly enchanted by the stories. We loved it.
I think my favourite quality about Helga’s Folly is that it is highly conducive to escapist fancies and ridiculous imaginings. If you’ve got the tiniest smattering of whimsy about you, you’ll catch yourself indulging in wild fantasies and daydreams, if not out loud then at least in the secrecy of your mind. We found we couldn’t help picturing ourselves in the most eccentric circumstances – eccentric, but still with a sense of childlike fun. Sipping deliciously aromatic cardamom tea, poured out of an antique teapot, I felt like a Mughal princess being waited on hand and foot.
We dined on the balcony on spaghetti drenched with masses of soft, chewy cheese and zesty garlic, ginger and chilli. With my golden (okay, it was brass) cutlery and silver (come on, let me have just this one) goblet, I was a queen surveying my vast and prosperous domain. Mind you, that included the Kandy Lake and the Temple of the Tooth. Dining beside me, my friend was indulging in his own, more sinister fabrications. Silver goblet in hand, he had morphed into the Sheriff of Nottingham and was plotting his most devious scheme yet to ensnare the ever-elusive Robin Hood. Ardent fan of Robin Hood, his band of outlaws and their daring escapades as I am, I just wasn’t feeling any Maid Marion vibes.
Our thoughts did converge on one far-fetched delusion, though. As darkness fell and ancient chandeliers threw crooked shadows across walls brought to life by colonies of bats, we couldn’t help thinking what a fitting abode this would be for elements of the undead. It would have made perfect sense to run into a vampire or two, complete with Dracula-esque opera capes and high collars. By this time our enjoyment of the hotel had hit delirious levels and I was giggling unabashedly when I said, “Good thing there was a bit of garlic in our dinner!”
As fun and playful as our experience at Helga’s Folly was, many other guests have been moved by the hotel in a far more profound manner. Several of the murals adorning the walls and ceilings are the work of guests themselves. Undergoing various hardships in their lives, the artistic expression had a healing effect on them. Helga herself began decorating the house to recover from a painful divorce. It is this therapeutic effect of painting that she extends to guests when she suggests they put brush to the walls of her home.
Until I had spoken to Helga and experienced her graciousness, I must say I was somewhat daunted by the photographs I’d seen of her. Her rather exceptional sense of style – a quixotic headpiece featuring a large black feather, a batwing shaped high collar on a jacket coupled with a saree, heavily framed spectacles and statement jewellery – made me feel it would be difficult to relate to her. But her courteousness immediately put me at ease and our brief conversation was effortless. I suppose in a sense she’s a lot like the house she designed – once you get over the initial shock, you start feeling right at home.
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