Village Sketch – 1-‘CANNIBALS’ INVADE VILLAGE
Posted on February 7th, 2012

Arcadius

 [Note: A shorter version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on June 12, 1965. Arcadius revised it in 2012. This is the work of a Ceylon-born rural lad who used his mastery of English to give the global literati direct access to the principal characters of his birth-village in the mid-20th century.]

 Pathegama [“ƒ”¹…”Low lying village’ in Sinhalese], which I have chosen to write these sketches, was the place of my birth.

Those days, it was a sparsely populated simple village whose people were dirt poor so much so they could hardly afford to possess anything even resembling a modest luxury. Buddhism had taught them that excessive craving (tanha) was one of the major interdependent factors that engendered sorrow (dukkha). They had very little, yet they were content.

Had an economist visited Pathegama before the outbreak of World War II, he/she would have classified it “underdeveloped.” But the low lying village, which had no natural or man-made attractions to offer except for the hilly terrain named Maligakanda (Palace Hill) about 1,000 meters from the main drag that marked the front boundary of our ancestral property in a semi-circle, rarely attracted outsiders of any significance. Those who climbed Maligakanda through the groves of cinnamon, assorted berry plants and touch-me-nots did so to get a distant view of the Indian Ocean to the south.

The coastal town of Weligama (“Sandy village” in Sinhalese), known for the huge moss-covered bolder called Kushtarajagala (which contains a 3.65-meter carving of the Mahayana bodhisattva figure of Samantabhadra) and the private villa called Taprobane Island on the bay (once owned by Count de Mauny of France), served as the global gateway for the people of Pathegama.

A distance of three or four kilometers separated the town (in the east on Weligama Bay) and the village (in the west on the Batawala-Pitiduwa dirt road. The narrow dirty, rutty track amply suited the needs of the peasants whose major mode of transportation was self-propulsion on foot or bicycle. Heavy goods reached the village on bullock carts, and the village heavies rode on ox-driven buggies. This main drag, which turned muddy during the monsoons, was not meant for smoother, faster motor vehicles.

The villagers had heard of Colombo, the island’s major city, but not many had gone there. The result was that they had fantastic notions of the country’s capital””‚exaggerated fabrications of human imagination that kept snowballing among the village folks until they reached supra-real proportions. Yet, some unsuspecting peasants believed them. He, who had physical contact with Colombo, always found a ready audience at any time or place. The braggart would recount his city adventures with utmost relish, and often add color to his stories with a flourish of the hand and an aside such as, “You see, the sky over Colombo is not blue–rather red and very fascinating.”

The unsuspecting audience would huddle together to listen to the braggadocio with gaping mouths and unmitigated curiosity. The village cooperative shop and the few tea kiosks and grocery stores along the winding main drag provided the venue for such spontaneous gatherings. The storyteller would survey the audience to be sure that none of those who had visited the big city was present in the vicinity before the delivery of his tall tales. So the raconteur kept the audience in rapt attention while relating his capital exploits thereby engendering hopes among the youngsters to visit the “ƒ”¹…”paradise’ if they could save enough money to make the 144-kilometer trip in what the village kids called the “ƒ”¹…”Kolomba Duwana Yakada Yaka’ (the Colombo-bound Iron Behemoth), a metaphorical reference to the train.

I don’t say that everybody had faith in these tall tales inasmuch as some had common sense though illiterate. But I can still honestly say that there were quite a number of the villagers, particularly women, who were happily gulled.

Our village did not have any massive buildings. The poorest of the villagers lived in wattle and mud houses, and the more well to do folks lived in whitewashed ones. They lived according to their means in conformity with the Buddhist principle of “small is beautiful.” They were also caste conscious with people of the “Goigama” (farmer) caste ruling the roost in the village in comparison to Weligama where the “Karawa” (fisherman) caste dominated. Thus, vestiges of feudalism lingered on.  People married within their caste, class and creed.

At the time of my birth in 1940 until well into the next decade, my grandfather””‚to be precise, my mother’s dad””‚was the village headman, an office that commanded much prestige and respect around the World War II era in the Matara District of the Southern Province. Another perk of this exalted office was the material benefits he received from the hoi polloi as gifts for the duties he performed as the Ralahamy, the popular title by which the headman was known.  Though poor they may be, even the poorest villager would bring a gift of some fruits, vegetables, pastry, etc. when visiting him. Village tradition was not to reject gifts from visitors even if the donor had intended it as a bribe.

As I recall, my grandfather was a vociferous man probably in his 50s or early 60s, very grave in deportment, and much feared by the village- folk. He was born in a village in the Matara area and subsequently bought rice paddies and land in Pathegama (not to be confused with the more populous Pathegama, more than 20 kilometers east of Matara), where he settled down as a landed proprietor.

He married a woman from Kelaniya in the Western Province. The couple produced four legitimate children””‚two daughters and two sons. My mother was their first offspring. His second daughter, whom we called Punchi Amma (“Little Mother”), died prematurely of tuberculosis while serving as a nurse in Matara. (Rumor had it that my grandfather was the illegitimate dad of a few other kids though his mistresses never acknowledged the fact.) During my early childhood, our extended family lived together in the “Maha Gedera“ (Ancestral Home), the property of my grandfather.  Ours was a big whitewashed tiled house, about hundred meters away from the main road, which encircled almost half the expanse of land around our house+–The year must have been either 1943 or 1944 for I could not have been more than 3 or 4 years old, when a certain memorable event unfolded that frightened the villagers and took them by surprise.

I cannot tell which day of the week it was, or which month of the year it was, but I can distinctly remember that it was morning.  My elder sister and I were playing in the compound, when we noticed a sudden rush of people, making frantic turns on the road, running and creeping into all the by-ways and thickets and houses, skulking and sneaking, with obvious agitation.

My mother appeared at the doorstep, shivering from head to foot, stammering us to come in.  She then closed every door and window pulling down the curtains with a mad hurry, locking us in the bedroom. Nobody else was at home except our servant-girl, Susila.  My father, a post-master, was in town at work.  (He had a “ƒ”¹…”Dayton’ push-bicycle, considered a real luxury then, to go to his office.)  And my daredevil grandfather, who was very rarely at home, was absent.

When I gathered sufficient presence of mind to talk, I asked mother what the fuss was all

about.

“Cannibals,” whispered my mother, still shivering, at which my sister started crying.

“Pipe down,” said mother, shutting sister’s mouth with her hands.  “If you do that, they will be here soon to shoot us all down.”

I looked at the road through a crack in the window.  A file of very swarthy people, dressed in khaki, was marching along the main gravel road, guns in hand.  They had protruding lips, which looked very ugly.  A deadly silence pervaded the entire village.

“They are called kaberi,” explained mother, “and they come from Africa.  If they meet anybody on the way, they might eat him alive.” (Kaberi might be a derivative of Kaffir.)

The file of African soldiers””‚nobody in the village still knows the purpose of their unwanted visit or from where on earth they made their appearance””‚went past our house, and I keenly listened to hear the sound of a gunshot fearing that at any moment these cannibals might attack anyone very near and dear to me.  But nothing was heard, and after about an hour they returned by the same road and again went past our house back towards the town.

The doors and windows of our house were opened only after three or four hours.  But we were not allowed to go out for the whole day.  It took the village a couple of days to recover from the shock.

The file of African soldiers never reappeared in Pathegama.

 

(This is the revision of a story first published in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 7 June 1965.)

2 Responses to “Village Sketch – 1-‘CANNIBALS’ INVADE VILLAGE”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    Shelton !! My memory goes back to remembering that Count De Mauny was the owner of Culloden Estate in the 50s, in the Kalutara District. He also had a House opposite the Vihara Maha Devi Park, on Turret Road, between the turn off to Park Road and Rowlands. At this time, The Superintendant Michael was a childhood friend of mine.

  2. Naram Says:

    Shelton,

    I enjoyed reading your account specially as in mypre-teens – mid fifties. My parents moved to and lived in Weligama for a short while. I can remember womenfolk going early morning with alay pots in their heads to bring water from Pathegama where there was a good water well of low salinity. My father had a car for a short while, a remnant from his more itinerant days doing relieving woork, and used to drive to a fresh water s well for the more morecomforting as the wells in Weligama used to leave the hair stiff.

    Our neighbours in their chats about old times used to recall how young children were hidden from the sight of Kapiri soldiers in the wartime.

    That was also the time of Thapasa Nikaya, when a group of young men, mostly Sinhala drop outs from village society, tried to start a Buddhist sect of their own, climing reaching great heights of mental gumnastics by meditation, somewhere close to Nirvana and they occupied a land in Mirissa . Thousands used to flock there to see the light said to emanate from their bodies when they reached the exalted state in meditation.

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