VILLAGE SKETCH—2-LOKU MAAMA MAKES THE BIG-TIME
Posted on February 13th, 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 was a small village. Its Arcadian charm pleased its denizens.  Whereas city dwellers hardly knew even their neighbors, rural dwellers knew everything about their neighbors, as well as about the entire village.

The African apothegm that “it takes a village to raise a child,” made popular by First Lady Hilary Clinton during her book promotional tour in 1996, resonated well with the rural culture of Pathegama, where friendliness was contagious. Villagers intuitively understood that life was a cooperative. Village life demonstrated the dynamics of interaction, interdependence and interconnection of all creatures and things, great and small. Unpaid volunteers were readily available at weddings, funerals, exorcisms, pirith chantings, etc.

The significant fact was that everyone was taking an interest in everyone else, with few exceptions.  The villagers had their oddities, eccentricities and differences, but these did not matter. Pathegama had its share of sworn enemies within its territorial limits.  These enmities, however, were mostly based on trivial disputes, which they easily forgot in times when community action required high priority.

The peasants of Pathegama, just like their fellow folks in the rest of Ceylon, were still enmeshed in observing colonial and feudal social norms even at the mid-point of 20th century. 1948 marked the demarcation line between de jure colonialism and independence. But their de facto demarcation came much later. My grandfather and our family were among the beneficiaries of this time lag because we continued to receive feudal privileges until we left the Maha Gedera in the 1960s. 

Such was the state of affairs in Pathegama when my Loku Maama (“Big Uncle”), the Ralahamy’s older son, made a big splash in the village as a participant in World War II (1939-1945).

Well before Clinton discovered African wisdom, the villagers of Pathegama were raising their kids under the watchful eyes of the entire village. I was one of those village lads who grew up under such community scrutiny. Because of this affinity, I feel immensely proud to point out that my village also had a role to play, however miniscule it may seem to outsiders, in winning World War II, the most titanic conflict in history.  Unfortunately, neither the world nor our own country has yet recognized the contribution of Pathegama, which sent two of its stalwarts overseas to join the imperial forces.

These two hale and hearty stalwarts, young and handsome to boot, were well known for their ambidexterity.  One had a remarkable tendency to dismantle structures and stop halfway through; the other had a natural gift for climbing coconut trees for a fee.  At the time in question, occupationally speaking, one was a Police officer and the other was a tree-climber.  One had an educational background and acquaintance with the city; the other had no educational background and no acquaintance with the city.

In physical build, however, both were similar.  The one was Loku Maama, the second offspring of my grandfather; the other was Naamba (“Stallion”), the spouse of Maggie who earned a living by converting paddy into rice on the wangediya (rice pounder). (Susila, our housekeeper and babysitter, was the daughter of this couple.)

 Loku Maama, who subsequently came to be known in the village as Ratagiya Mahattaya (“Gentleman Who Traveled Overseas”), had not inherited the vociferousness of his father, but only his vigorous disposition.  Naamba was a harmless fellow who, in spite of his physical stature, was renowned to be in mortal fear of any chance person who might accost him to challenge him to show his pugilistic skills

When these two worthies had left Ceylon on their peregrinations, I had been harmlessly lying in my mother’s womb.  The details set forth above are those I culled later.

My mother tells me that all in our family were very much moved when tidings came that Loku Maama had joined the Army.  It was to them a sudden shock for he had never told the family of any such intention.   The first thing my mother had done when she got the bad news was to put up a pahan-pela (lamp-lighting hut) in the front-yard of the house and to invoke the blessings of God Vishnu to guard her wayward brother from probable mishap.

Grandfather had worked himself into a fiery rage when he heard of the capricious act of his son, stomping his feet on the floor and shouting deprecations at the top of his voice.  Since the old man was not on talking terms with his son and never showed open affection to his offspring, no wonder that his son decided to see the world courtesy of His Majesty, the King of England.

The whole village was perturbed concerning Loku Maama.  Perhaps his unorthodox association with many a villager had made him quite popular or perhaps the fact of his being the son of “ƒ”¹…”His Majesty’ the Ralahamy had caused them to think of him in special terms.  Whatever the reason, the village-folk _____ repairing to our house in straggling knots and expressed their concern over the matter everyone thought he was as good as dead.

As for Naamba, the nincompoop that he was, the concern expressed by his fellow-villagers was of a different type.  They would miss an expert practitioner of the ancient art of tree-climbing, and a man to poke fun at to boot.  He too was as good as dead.

I was born into this world (or should I say village), and a couple or two of years had graced me with the human arts of speaking, sensing and understanding.

I can vividly recall how my mother invoked the blessings of the Satara varam Deviyo (Gods of the Four Warrants””‚Vibhishana, Lakshamana, Tumburu and Narada) and all other deities known and unknown to guard her brother, every day, morning and evening.  My sister and I, unable to mumble even a part of a gatha (a Pali spiritual verse) would add a loud sounding Sadhu (Buddhist equivalent of amen) at the end of mother’s invocation.

Aero planes flying past the sky over our village were a common sight during those war years.  Once in a while, when a plane took off from the nearby Koggala Airport flying low in the sky, my mother would rush into the yard calling me to do the same, and say, “Now that may be Loku Maama. I think he is waving his hand.”  And both of us would wave our hands with utmost agility, I shouting out for Loku Maama“; and sometimes sister also joining in.

At least once a month, Loku Maama sent us a letter by airmail. I suppose those were e, the first airmail letters that the postman ever delivered to our village.  I can distinctly remember one of those letters, which contained the photograph of a pretty Siamese lady, because it caused much discussion in our family.  It  turned out that this lady from Siam was very eager to marry Loku Maama.

Another letter apprised us of a sensational incident which instantly caused mother to rush to the pahan-pela and thank every god and deity for the favor granted.  The incident was this: One unlucky day, Loku Maama and a colleague had stealthily repaired to a place (I cannot exactly recall the location or even the part of the world), where the enemy had bivouacked, Soon they were detected and the enemy opened fire.  The colleague fell dead and my uncle took to his heels with a speed he never had thought man was capable of, until he reached his camp.

After the war ended, Loku Maama wrote home that he would be coming back.  And all of us eagerly awaited his re-appearance in the village.

I returned from school one day to find an unusual festive air at home.  There was a hefty tall man sitting in the easy chair in the verandah talking to mother, and groups of villagers were peeping through doors and windows with dilated eyes and gaping mouths.  The stranger was dressed in military-costume.

“Here’s my son coming,” said mother. Then, addressing me, she added, “Now, meet your Loku Maama.” (Sister was already there in mother’s lap).

However, the lady from Siam, whom I was eagerly waiting to see, was not there.

Without warning, Loku Maama caught hold of me, hugged me, squeezed me and kissed me with such force that I was out of breath for quite some time, uttering all the while very affectionate words.  That was the first time I saw Loku Maama physically.  He had returned home without prior notice to make it a big surprise.

During the days that followed, my uncle had a busy time, recounting his adventures to the inquisitive village folks who dropped in at our house to see the man who had returned from overseas.

“And you joined the Military to see the world, sir?” a villager would ask.

“Partly.  You see, I like adventure very much,” my uncle would answer, and then go on with his stories.  Naamba also returned to the village somewhere around this time, and he wouldn’t divest himself of the khaki-uniform or the tin of cigarettes from his hand during the weeks that followed his return.  A ready audience listened to his adventures too.

But as his uniform underwent decay, and his finances took an adverse turn, Naamba returned to his original occupation””‚climbing trees to pluck coconuts for a fee.

 

 

One Response to “VILLAGE SKETCH—2-LOKU MAAMA MAKES THE BIG-TIME”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Thanks, Arcadius ! I really enjoyed your true story. I like reading about the days gone by, both in Lanka and in the west. “Grass for my Feet” (J. Vijayatunga), is a book on similar themes, readers may enjoy. So refreshing. Somehow times then had a flavor less ‘flakey’ though less socialist.

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