VILLAGE SKETCH—7 ATHA KOTA: ROBIN HOOD OF GALAGAMULLA
Posted on March 16th, 2012

by Arcadius

Atha Kota (Man with Lost Hand) and his five younger sons lived a “primitive” life of hunting and gathering in an idyllic spot called Galagamulla on the foothills of Maligakanda. Kambura, the toddy tapper, was their closest neighbor. No wonder that the two families regaled themselves with a steady supply of toddy so much so that sobriety was the exception than the rule in their lives. They often killed the local fauna””‚porcupines, iguanas, wild boar and rabbits””‚and raided the backyard nurseries of others to gather food for their enjoyment even though manioc and banana plants grew in abundance in their backyard providing them with a steady supply of food.

I venture to say that Atha Kota was a local blend of Sura Saradiel (1832-1864) and the 13th century British outlaw Robin Hood.  Although Atha Kota and his robber gang of sons did not steal the rich to give to the poor but to feed themselves, yet they mocked the British Monarchy by stealing from the property of its village-level representative, the Ralahamy, and other imperial minions. Thus, the Kota gang became the outlaws that   His Majesty’s local constabulary pursued.

Atha Kota was known to have been the recipient of His Majesty’s hospitality for several years at the high-security imperial lodgings in Bogambara and Welikada””‚which he considered to be his town residences. King George VI had recognized him as an Island Reconvicted Criminal (IRC) through his imperial judicial agents at the District Court of Matara.

In fact, the notoriety of Atha Kota was the reason that the village of Pathegama (in the division of Weligama in the district of Matara) became the talking point of the judiciary of the district that on one occasion they sent an emissary to Galagamulla to observe the lifestyle of the bandit and outlaw at his country residence.

Sartorial Style

Atha Kota was a dark well-built man, probably in his 50s. Just like many other men of his era, he too had his long hair combed backward and rolled into a tight knot on the back of his head.  However, no stranger could miss a certain peculiarity about this head honcho of the Kota gang:  his sartorial choice. He wore two sarongs, one covering waist downward, the other covering a part of waist upward.

The sarong he wore robe-fashion served him better than a shirt or a singlet, neither of which he ever wore except when he made his periodical visits to the Matara District Court to renew his acquaintance with His Majesty’s judiciary.

Atha Kota used the waist-up sarong to hide a physical distortion that he had accidentally inflicted on himself during one of his misadventures. He had lost his left forearm when the trigger of his homemade gun, which he carried on his waist, activated itself without his intervention.

Atha Kota, just like Upasaka Mahattaya (the father of Menike Nenda), was one of the village’s prolific procreators””‚Kota specializing in males (with at least seven sons and one daughter); the latter in females (with at least seven daughters and two sons).  Other than in procreation, these two worthies had very little in common barring their addiction to toddy. The village’s feudal caste and class structure separated the two.

Infrequently, when I received permission from mother, I visited our property in Galagamulla, in the company of Ithali Maama, to forage for our favorite wild berries””‚dan and himbutu“”‚and to observe wildlife in its natural glory. We carried our bamboo-made toy guns to test our skills at targeting the flying birds. Sooth to say that we were just a couple of spurious “hunters” without the will to “kill.” On those incursions, we visited the Kota cottage””‚a thatched mud house””‚across the rice paddy opposite our property.

Split Personality

The Kota family welcomed us warmly on such occasions and invariably invited us to join them for tea with hakuru (kithul jaggery). Later in my life, when I studied political economy at Peradeniya, I interpreted that the theoretical state of nature, which Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” encapsulated the actual lifestyle of the Kota family.

In his capacity as the Ralahamy, my grandfather summoned Atha Kota to our home at least once a month (when the latter happened to be in his country residence) for some reason or another. The shrewd man that Atha Kota was, he always pretended that he knew nothing about the acts of thieving that had taken place though all of us were well aware that the Kotas were the culprits. Affecting a loud cackle, he would declare that he had a sound sleep at night although signs of lack of sleep were all too visible on his face.

We owned the village’s only gramophone, then considered a luxury. But the selection of records we had to activate the machine was very limited. Among the excellent discs we had at the time was one titled “Kotage Vasanawa“ (Kota’s Good Fortune), a mixture of dialogue and song, that told the story of a crippled man who regained his limbs with the help of a fairy during a pilgrimage to Sri Pada  (Adam’s Peak).

Whenever Atha Kota visited our place, I derived a good deal of pleasure playing this record to make him uneasy. But, contrary to my expectations, Kota listened to the story with utmost patience, often cackling like a hen to show his enjoyment. On these occasions, he acted like a child completely concealing the Mr. Hyde dimension of his personality.

Kota and his sons continued to be a burden on other village folks through both good and bad times. They often incurred the wrath of those who lost their coconuts, jackfruits, breadfruits, murunga and other assorted staples stacked in their backyards. The villagers themselves produced most of the food they needed. Food was not a deterrent to bringing up large families. Children were the concern of the whole village. Even when the Kota kids visited others’ homes on their surveillance trips, the villagers offered them food at mealtimes.

In the small hours of the morning one day, one or two hours before dawn, a cacophony of unearthly cries disturbed my sleep. I woke up to see what the commotion was all about, when I saw my mother, sister and housekeeper Susila peeping through a window with the help of a kerosene lamp placed on a table.  I rushed to my mother and crept on to her lap to see what was happening at a spot along the main gravel road closest to our house.

I saw Atha Kota and two of his more notorious sons””‚Ariya and Upasakaya“”‚dancing and rolling on the road with no clothes on responding to the heavy baton blows applied on their bare buttocks by a posse of policemen in khaki uniform.   We were able to identify the parties from the flashlight the police used.

I wondered whether the police caught the Kota gang as they were doing an “Oxford bath” at Galagamulla.  But I inferred from the scattered pieces of clothing lying on the road and their manacled hands that the police were punishing the thieves caught in the act of committing a burglary. However, I felt sorry for Kota and Ariya with whom I got along well during their numerous visits to see us. Human rights were not an issue under the British rule.

After the baton charge, the police huddled the thieves into a van and took them to the Weligama Police Station for booking. When the sun appeared in the sky that morning, there was much rejoicing in the village. The arrest of the Kota gang was their talking point for the next few days.

Soon Atha Kota had another opportunity to renew his acquaintance with His Majesty’s judiciary in Matara; whereupon he, together with his more notorious two sons, had another chance to enjoy the hospitality of the British Crown.

Thus, a period of undisturbed peace dawned in Pathegama. The beds of sweet potatoes (batala) were not turned bare, the kekiri (cucumis melo) and karavita (bitter gourd) plants were not hacked to pieces, and the mango and papaya trees were not vandalized by unseen hands during the night. And the villagers ate and drank well according to their means””‚until the return of the goons.

 [Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 19 June 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.]

2 Responses to “VILLAGE SKETCH—7 ATHA KOTA: ROBIN HOOD OF GALAGAMULLA”

  1. Sunil Mahattaya Says:

    Shades of the great Sinhalese writer Martin Wickremasinghe in this descriptive narrative on near parallel levels of Par Excellence relative to the English and Sinhalese languages both writers excelled in and a wonderful mind opener to the way it was during British rule.
    Makes great reading.

  2. Arcadius Says:

    I have commissioned iUniverse to publish my 26 village sketches and two of the short stories i wrote in the early 1960s in book form. The book titled VILLAGE LIFE IN THE ‘FORTIES: MEMORIES OF A LANKAN EXPATRIATE by Arcadius will be available for purchase by mid-2012.

    If interested readers can post fair reviews of this series, I can publish selected quotes on the back cover of the book.

    I read the works of Sinhala novelists like Martin W., Gunadasa A., GBS, ET AL in the late ’50s. I also read all of the works of Charles Dickens and some selected works of Tolstoy, Maupassant and numerous other writers. After a lapse of more than 35 years in mass comm teaching, I am trying to get into my interest in literature again.

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