VILLAGE SKETCH—8-VEL VIDANE: ‘LORD’ OF THE RICE-PADDIES
Posted on March 24th, 2012

Arcadius

It was perhaps the best of times. The best of times, I mean, for the Vel Vidane (Irrigation Headman).

In a general sense, Pathegama was self-sufficient in paddy, and the Vel Vidane was more self-sufficient in the commodity in a particular sense.

For this achievement was not the result of persevering industry involving his own labor, but rather the result of his astonishing skills in the use of craftiness, Therefore, his self-sufficiency so achieved was entirely a matter of cunning.  

                     

As the headman in charge of the rice paddies, the Vel Vidane had a responsible job to do. Villagers believed that the Government Agent (of the Matara District) was perhaps in a state of dementia when he appointed the Vel Vidane for our village. For, had the GA known about all the shenanigans the Vidane used to please the district officers, the GA would have had second thoughts.

Anyhow, if the tidings on how well the Vel Vidane disposed of his responsibilities had reached the ears of the constitutional head of the British Empire (King George VI), His Majesty would have instantly dispatched a top emissary from Buckingham Palace to bestow a couple of vigorous kicks on his “native” official!                                                                          

The villagers, however, did not mind calling him by the more dignified name Vidane Mahattaya even though, from a legal point of view, they could have just addressed him Vel Vidane.  Moreover, the villagers saw the advantages of currying favor with him by showing a higher degree of respect for the office he held.

Agriculture being the main activity of the villagers, the Vel Vidane indeed had a good deal of work to do. He had to give a “patient” hearing to the complaints made by victimized peasants regarding, for instance, the unlawful breaking of dam-outlets harmful to the stretch of rice paddies, the willful destruction of embankments, the devastations brought by cattle and all other matters, big or small, pertaining to the rice paddies.

The degree of patience he was willing to expend on any case depended entirely on the standing of the man who lodged the complaint.  The action he took consequent on the complaint also depended on the identical consideration.  He was perhaps completely unaware of the bedrock principle that “a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence.”  Though he did not have the power to fine (thank God!), judging by the action he normally took, any peasant with an iota of intelligence could have well imagined what he would have done if, by some misfortune, he had recourse to such power.

Judging by his physical appearance, he was in his late 50s or early 60s. He was a lean man with a lean face, which was not very pleasing to look at even though he wore a pair of spectacles to cover his sunken eyes.  That pair of spectacles was fastened on to his face by two wires connected to his ears by a peculiar device. He had combed back his greying hair gathered in a knot resembling a ping-pong ball.

He probably knew a smattering of English for he signed his name in that language with due deference to colonial customs.  But perhaps because capitals and punctuations were unknown to him, he wrote his name in a crawling hand, which, when completed, formed the word “simona.”  Though that name sounded more female than male, and, moreover, had no connection to his actual name, that did not matter to him.  What mattered was that he signed in English!

He used his aquiline nose, which jutted out of his face, as a pliable apparatus to dance on the self-same face whenever he deemed it opportune to use sarcasm or irony.  Thus whenever he used words falling into the two categories mentioned, especially with reference to people toward whom he was not well disposed, the nose would immediately go into action evincing more meaning than the words themselves could express.

Our village contained more than 40 hectares (or 100 acres) of rice paddies.  Customarily, however, the extent of paddy land was expressed not in terms of hectares or acres but in terms of the bags of paddy used for sowing.  A bag comprised 12 gallon measures (or kurunis). The owner of a stretch of paddy land where two bags of paddy could be sown would therefore evaluate his property in those terms, and call himself the owner of two “Vee Malu” (bags of paddy).  A bag of seed-paddy was expected to result in a yield of about 12 bags.

The Vel Vidane, who was not a stipendiary, was legally entitled to 1/48th  (or 2 percent) of the yield from each paddy landowner.

The acquisitive instinct having got the better of the duties and responsibilities entrusted to him, the Vidane was keener in collecting his share of the total yield of paddy in the village than in anything else. He was thus one of the busiest people in the village during the harvesting season moving from one threshing-floor to another so that nobody could dupe him about the total output and the amount of his share. This being a rather difficult task for him alone to manage, he delegated several members of his family to deter people from under-reporting their seasonal paddy harvest.           

The Vel Vidane invariably bought the right to “ƒ”¹…”huvandiram’ (one forty-eighth share of paddy yields). If anyone else bought that right for, say, Rs. 500, the authorities had to give half of that amount to the Vidane under a particular legal requirement. Therefore, when the buyer happened to be the Vidane and the value of the right happened to be the same, he had, in effect, to pay only Rs. 250 to the authorities. The Vidane having these advantages over the others, nobody else worried much about the right to “huvandiram.”

Anyhow, the Vidane was prospering. The soil in the village rice paddies was rich. Often, the rains came in time. The farmers were persevering. And the output was good.  The result was that the Vel Vidane was up in the deal.

Although the Vidane was entitled to his huvandiram only, the farmers, who were much more considerate and generous, often gave him more.  But the Vidane’s greed knew no bounds. He did not spare the slightest opening that enabled him to obtain something more.  If the farmer was an ignorant man, the Vidane used his cunning to confuse everything with facts, figures and “legal” arguments with the ultimate motive of exacting as much as possible.

We owned several hectares of rice paddies identified as Muttettuwa, Weligodakumbura, Panagoda and Bibula.  The biggest and the most fertile was Muttettuwa, where six bags of paddy were normally sown.  I am told that on one occasion Muttettuwa produced a yield of 125 bags of paddy “”…” the highest recorded in the history of Pathegama.  For creating that record my grandfather was presented with a medal and a certificate by a certain government official at a public meeting held in this connection.  The official, who probably considered it a good opportunity to let off all that he had pent up in his lifetime, wound up his expatiation with the virtues of indefatigable effort directed at making the country a Canaan.

On that happy occasion, the Vel Vidane delivered an impressive speech the subject of which was my grandfather.  Though what he spoke was all in praise, those who observed his face later let it be known that the pliable apparatus implanted thereon did a continuous dance throughout his eulogistic observations!  I prefer to think that those observations were made as soft soap to provoke grandfather to give him a bigger share of the yield; and that the dancing of the nose was more habit.

During the harvesting season, I often used to go to Muttettuwa to watch the proceedings of reaping, threshing and measuring.  Women who tucked up their clothes reaped the standing corn with their sickles.  They stacked the reaped sheaves of corn in the rick-yard.  Bare-bodied men in span-cloths threshed the corn by holding on to a pole wand twisting the sheaves with their feet. Then the corn separated from the straw was winnowed to remove the chaff.  Now, the paddy was ready for measuring.

One could see the Vel Vidane moving about from one threshing-floor to the other.  His son, a swarthy young gentleman, follows him toting some gunny bags and a gallon measure.  As he moves on, the Vidane stops to ask routine questions from those farmers who catch his fancy.  He wears a very grave and responsible aspect.

“Vidane Mahattaya, would you mind dropping here at the auspicious time tomorrow for measuring our paddy?”  asks Podi Singho, the farmer, as the  Vidane passes our threshing-floor.

The Vidane stops, looks at Podi Singho adjusting his pair of spectacles, and says, “Tomorrow is a busy day.  But I cannot say no to you Podi Singho.”  Very obliging indeed!

The farmers normally cultivated the type of paddy called Bala Ma Vee during the Maha season and the type called Bala Sudu Vee during the Yala season.  Farmers preferred these two types because, compared to other varieties, they yielded the most.  Ample stocks of these two types of paddy were readily available at the Vel Vidane’s place at a price.  The villagers believed that he had made quite a fortune in paddy stocks.

That certainly looked like the best of his times.

But eventually his craftiness led to his downfall.  His acquisitive instinct had developed to such an extent that he had tried to swindle his own sister!

His sister, who was somewhat out-at-elbows, had borrowed a considerable sum of money from him transferring a stretch of paddy land on the dutiful understanding that the property should be handed back on the payment of the loan.

Accordingly, the loan was repaid in the course of time.  When the sister called on the obliging brother to get the stretch of paddy land back to her possession, the wily man had written out a document apparently intended for this purpose and duly signed.

Even after the completion of this transaction, however, the Vel Vidane had continued to cultivate the tract of paddy land that apparently had been given back to the sister, which had roused the suspicions of the latter.  Going through the document the sister had found out that only a part of the property in question had been given back to her.

The enraged sister had then entered the house of her obliging brother, who had deemed it desirable to take to his heels.  The woman had given chase and the panting old man, seeing no other way of escape, had thought of colliding himself against an oncoming vehicle. 

That collision proved to be fatal.

He died of a convulsion.

 [Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 17 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.]

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