VILLAGE SKETCH—6-KAMBURA: THE TODDY TAPPER
Posted on March 9th, 2012

Arcadius

Legend has it that Andare, the court-jester who served during the reign of  KingRajadhi Rajasinghe (1782-1798), was once ambling along a footpath when he saw the village toddy-tapper guzzling a potion of liquor (palm wine) down his bulgy throat. Andare had smacked his lips and pleaded with the tapper for a draught to quench his thrist. This pleading having gone on deaf ears, the fun-poker had expressed a wish, in verse, to see the toddy-tapper falling down from the heights of a coconut tree.

The tapper, who was highly sensitive to the effects of the evil mouth, had then deemed it desirable to help Andare quench his thrist so that the mishap that the latter wished to happen might not happen. Whereupon Andare had expressed different sentiments and even gone to the extent of invoking the blessings of the gods on his benefactor.

Though they may be rude at times, toddy-tappers are generally considered benefactors. And Kambura, the toddy-tapper, who made a name in Pathegama, was no exception.

This is the story of Kambura.

He came to be known as Kambura not because he had anything to do with a smithy (as the meaning of the word might lead some to believe) but because his origins were in Kamburugamuwa.

I have a vivid recollection of this man because it was he who tapped the coconut and kitul palms on our property. He was a fairly old man who sported a bristling growth of stubble on his face, a shaggy knot of hair on his head and a thick growth of hair all over his body. He wore a necklace of amulets for protection against evil spirits and the physical dangers associated with his job. His body was always exposed to the ravages of terrestrial and cosnmic forces except the part that the law required a man in a civilised society to cover.  He covered his private parts twisting the front portion of his sarong like a rope, sending it between his thighs and stuffing it inside the back waistline of the sarong so that it looked like a perfect amude (loincloth) .

Over the sarong, he also wore a leathern belt to carry several razor-sharp tapping knives encased in sheaths. The other occupational paraphernalia he carried included a blackened coconut shell and a hammer-like piece of wood, both of which he deemed essential for his work.

Villagers used to say that when Kambura happened to be at any place, they could easily detect his presennce without even seeing him merely by the use of the olfactory organ. For when Kambura was about the place, gas ganda (tree odor) permeated the immediate vicinity. The consensus was that this obnoxious smell emanated from his sarong, which certainly needed a thorough wash.

A village rumor alleged  that Kambura had conspired with my grandfather to dupe the Police and the Excise officers and profit from an illegal trade in toddy. The fact was that Kambura tapped so many coconut trees, an astonishing multiple of the number of trees for which the Excise Department had issued permits.

One early morning, as I lay on the rush mat still feeling sleepy, I looked through the window, and I saw Kambura crossing from one tree to anoher hanging on to the connecting ropes between them. He walked  on the lower rope holding the upper rope with his right hand without the slightest fear. I began to think of him rather as an expert funambulist who, considering his daring, should have got a job in a circus in Colombo that I heard of only the other day.

I was full of admiration. I resolved that I too would preform this risky feat as soon as I got the opportunity. But I was scared to express this wish in fron of the elders for fear that I would be locked in a room for my own safety.

Now I could see Kambura getting on to the top of the other tree. He adjusted the branches and after performing several other  preliminaries, leaned on a stipe (stalk) facing the spathe (encased flower). Slowly, he removed the coconut shell he had hung on to the spathe the previous evening for drawing its sap  that turned into toddy. Having removed it, he lowered the toddy-containing coconut shell to the ground by means of a long rope.

That done, he left the spathe alone and moved on to the next tree with his occupational toolkit. I turned around and fell asleep for a few minutes.

When I finished the snooze and ran to the kitchen, I saw Kambura standing in a corner talking to my mother. Mother was preparing tea.

Would Kambura take a seat please?

No, he would rather keep standing. That is healthier.

Would he like to drink a cup of tea?

Yes, a cup of plain tea would be most stimulating. But it should not be mixed with sugar. A diabetic patient should avoid sugar.

Was today’s collection of toddy satisfactory?

Not very. Some devilish parakeets have managed to extract a fair portion of the sap from the spathes.

For how much did his son, Fentis, buy the buggy cart from Godella?

“Ninety-hundred,” madam. (meaning 900 rupees but which could be much less making allowance for exaggeration).

Kambura had two spouses, both sisters. I am not comptent enough to say which one was his legal wife. That, however, should not bother anyone’s conscience inasmuch as the two sisters lived in amity and harmony faithfully serving their common husband.

Every morning the two spouses dutifully followed their husband when he came on professional business. Their business was to collect the toddy-containing coconut shells that Kambura lowered to the ground from the tree tops. Then they had to put the toddy in two large clay pots, deliver the share of the tree owners and carry the balance home to Badigewatte via Galagamulla, the domain of Atha Kota.

Passing Galagamulla was a risk that they had to bear. For Atha Kota or any of his infamous sons would sulk in the jungle and grab a potion of toddy as the two women carried the liquor along the jungle path. The women, however, were used to such guerilla attacks.

In the eveingt Kambura would return to the scene. This time, he would bring several blackened coconut shells hung on a string. Toting the coconut shells, he would climb a selected tree placing his feet on the withes tied round it from bottom to top. Halfway on the climb, he would stop a while to chew a wad of betel.

Reaching the top, he would do the preliminaries and as uaual lean against a stipe facing the spathe. Then he would tap the spathe with the hammer like a piece of wood, slightly cut it with a particular tapping knife, take one of the coconut shells from his back and fix it to the spathe. Having done that he would move on to the other tree.

While Kambura was tapping the trees, I used to take a keen interest in watching birds. Attracted by the spathes (palm flowers) that Kambura had tapped, birds of diverse sizes and types””‚parakeets, orioles, magpies, babblers, bulbuls, etc.””‚all sang their avian songs and moved about freely adding splendor to the life of the village.

Anytime in the day or night, toddy was available for sale at Kambura’s place. His charges were very moderate. For those who could not pay spot cash to work themselves into high spirits, he gave the spirituous stuff on credit, although infrequently several such customers failed  to honor  Kambura’s trust. He, however, did not mind that. For goodwill was his biggest asset. Moreover, how else could a toddy-tapper become a sort of benefactor without a spirit of give and take?

Strictly from a legal point of view, Kambura could not have sold toddy because the relevant authorities had issued licences for tapping trees only for extracting telijja (sweet toddy). The trade in fermentd tody was, therefore, illegal.

My grandfather, who delighted in spirits, had given his blessing to Kambura. The latter, according to rumor, had regularly greased my grandfather’s palm for the protection extended to him by preventing the myrmidons of the law from carrying out a successful raid.

Whenever there was an indication of a possible raid, grandfather would immediately send word to Kambura through a confidential messanger, who would impart as much human power as possible to his organs of locomotion and whisk away to Badigewatte.

No sooner the news reached  Kambura’s wives, they would remove the moonshine with despatch to the jungle area of Maligakanda (Palace Hill), which even the bravest of law enforcement officers feared to tread because of the venomous reptiles inhabiting the spot.

Probably, in the course of time, the law enforcement officers got wiser.

They learned not to repose confidence on the headman, who was quite famous for his Bacchanalian propensity.

One evening, the news spread in the village that Kambura had been hauled to the Police station by a posse of constables. The constables, dressed in plain clothes, had concealed themselves in a thicket overlooking the center of the illegal business and closed in to take Kambura into custody while he was engaged in selling toddy to a few customers.

My grandfather did his best to settle the matter with the Police and get Kambura out of his predicament. These efforts failed, and on a later date he was produced before the Matara magistrate.

The magistrate, considering that this was the first known offence of the defendant brought to book, sentenced Kambura to two weeks’ imprisonment. My grandfather was warned for his complicity in the unlawful business.

Kambura’s absence was badly felt by the habitual customers””‚including my grandfather””‚who found solace in libation. Those of them who regularly defaulted felt it the more.

For Kambura, the toddy-tapper, was a benefactor too.

 [Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 10 July 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.]

One Response to “VILLAGE SKETCH—6-KAMBURA: THE TODDY TAPPER”

  1. Arcadius Says:

    Fran:

    Thanks very much for your comment on Village Sketch–5.

    I am now putting together a manuscript of all 26 Village Sketches for publication as a book titled “VILLAGE LIFE IN THE ’40S: MEMORIES OF A LANKAN EXPATRIATE.”

    Do you reckon it would have an appeal to non Sri Lankan readers as well?

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