VILLAGE SKETCH—9 RATAGIYA MAHATTAYA: A HALFWAY INTELLECTUAL
Posted on March 30th, 2012

 Arcadius

The poor villager stood at the doorway of his thatched dwelling.  He watched the flowering medium-sized murunga (billygoat plum) tree, which he had planted in the front-yard not too long ago. He absorbed the elegant beauty of its small, creamy-white flowers that dotted the spikes of its leaves.

This murunga tree provided the man with all the means for his meager ascetic-like living. He used the murunga pods to prepare a tasty dish for his own consumption.  He also took the pods to market to exchange for rice.

The man thought that on this occasion he would not use the pods for his consumption; instead, he would sell them all in the market for 5 rupees (Rs. 5).

With that money he would start a small pastry business, which would, in a month, enable him to earn Rs. 50.

Then he would open a grocer’s shop, which would push his capital to Rs. 500 in three months’ time. He would use that money to open a textile shop.  In one year’s time he would be a rich man earning nearly Rs.100 a day.

After becoming a man of means, he would send a proposal to the daughter of a village chief who would, of course, like to have a rich son-in-law.  But then he could not bring the bride to the thatched dwelling.  He would, therefore, build a palatial house on the same spot with a road leading to it.

When he came with the bride, people would gather to see the couple.  The people should have enough room to do so.  They would not be able to see the couple properly if the murunga tree happened to be there.  The best thing would be to cut the tree.

The “castle-builder” immediately went inside the house, brought an axe, and cut the murunga tree!

 

This interesting little story, which I read in a primary school book, comes to my mind when I recall the fate that befell our Maha Gedera (ancestral home), which the villagers had named Aluth Gedara (New House).

Loku Maama (better known as Ratagiya Mahattaya in the village) was back in Pathegama.  The World War II being over, he had returned to his native land after leaving the Eighth Army, which the soldiery preferred to call the “Desert Rats,” as a member of which he was in the thick of the fighting in the Middle East.

Loku Maama had a remarkable predilection to start things and stop halfway.  This was true of every job that he undertook, irrespective of its nature.  Perhaps this was due to something that only a psychologist could reason out.

He got himself enlisted in the Army at a time when he was in a fighting mood.  It was a headstrong act.  He would have regretted it later.  But once in the Army he could not resign till the war lasted.  On a couple of occasions he had narrowly escaped death.

Being away from the turmoil of the war, he would have been pleased to live in the tranquility and serenity of the village.  Such a peaceful environment was, as a matter of course, conductive to resourceful thinking that would spark highly original concepts and ideas.

And Loku Maama, it was known in the family circles, was not wanting in such originality.  The fact was that he was exceptionally resourceful in submitting ideas reeking of novelty and originality, which often resulted in baffling and irritating others.  Like any other intellectual he pursued those ideas for their own sake.  Unlike the professional man who lives off ideas, Loku Maama was an “intellectual” who lived for ideas.

One such original idea, which he solemnly put forth, was that we should demolish our old-fashioned house and build a new one on the architectural lines of an Italian villa he had seen, I think, in Naples! (He used to say that he crossed the Mediterranean by ship from Tripoli to Naples at the time when the Germans were retreating from Southern Italy faithfully following the scorch-earth policy).

When grandfather heard of this most original idea, he vociferated a series of sentiments, audible to the entire neighborhood, concerning the proponent (namely, his son) that would have been most admired by those who regularly voice their sentiments at Mariakade (Maradana Fish Market) or Billingsgate.

I have a fair recollection of the house.  I am told that it was the house built by grandfather when he emigrated from Nadugola to settle down in Pathegama, which was almost a jungle then.  It had a verandah jutting out of the main building and two front rooms on either side of it.  The room on the left was used as an office while the one on the right was used as a store.  The house had an upper storey with a dilapidated wooden floor, which was prudently left for the use of mongooses, bats and unclassified reptiles.  Some suspected that this upper storey was haunted, and nobody dared to climb the staircase after nightfall.

For some years this house had the unique distinction of being the only whitewashed one in the village.  It was, moreover, roofed with tiles.  Yet, it was old-fashioned and timeworn.  The walls had not been renovated for many years though there were many plasterless patches, which were also covered with a greenish moss resulting from exposure to rain. I remember two incidents associated with this house:

One was the result of an attempt I made to invade a field normally reserved for adults.  I had made a determination to experience the sensation caused by smoking.  For I thought that people were habitually smoking cigarettes because of a certain irresistible flavor.  One morning I bought a cigarette and a box of matches form the boutique and stealthily entered the office-room.  I locked the door, crawled under the writing table, placed the fag between my lips and majestically lighted it.  I was puffing away at the cigarette mimicking my father when I heard a slight noise at the window, which was open.  When I craned my neck what I saw was the scowling look of my mother that put me quite out of breath.  Without speaking a word she broke open the door, dragged me from under the table and mercilessly scourged me with a cane, every application of which was accompanied by suitable vocal intonation on my part depending on the severity of the blow.

The other was concerning a snake.  There was a very old wooden cupboard attached to the crumbling staircase in grandfather’s room.  One day, Hinni Hamine (“Tiny Madame”)””‚the unmarried sister of Upasaka Mahattaya from Habaradugewatte””‚had opened this cupboard to take out some earthenware when she had seen the dilated hood of a cobra.  When she conveyed this information to the others, it kindled a lot of interest.  Hinni Hamine surmised that the occupant of the cupboard could well be an old relation of ours who had come there to see to our welfare!  Others concurred.  So a coconut oil lamp was lighted and placed in front of the cupboard to have a better look at the occupant.

Hinni Hamine squatted near the lamp and respectfully urged the hooded visitor, whom she addressed as Nai Hami (Respected Snake), to go somewhere else inasmuch as the small children in the household were afraid of him.  Nai Hami, however, did not seem to care for small children very much.  He continued to be there for several hours and then slowly slithered out of the house.

Now, it was the self-same house, with which these and many other memories were associated, that Loku Maama had proposed to demolish! I felt rather sorry about it.  At first, other members of our family were not very enthusiastic about the original idea of the brilliant intellectual, who incidentally, had declared himself a Marxist. (Perhaps Loku Maama himself had only a faint idea of Marxism.  For the rest of us, a Marxist was a person who had no respect toward the elders and who did not give two hoots for religion.)

But like the castle-builder in the story concerning the murunga tree, Loku Maama must have had his logical reasons for demolishing the house.

For one thing, he was a very eligible bachelor who was looking for a respectable young lady of a family of some standing.  There was, however, a small problem.  His pituitary gland had failed to shut down its output of growth hormone as he matured and he had kept on growing to a towering 6 feet!  Therefore, it was a bit of a problem to find a female counterpart to suit his stature.  Anyhow, how could he bring a young lady to a dilapidated old house?

For another thing, a good number of his ex-Army friends had informed him that they would someday visit him.  And if they happened to do so, the dilapidated old house would put him into utter shame!

Apart from these two, many other considerations would have exercised their weight for the idea of demolishing the house.  But one thing was clear:  that quite unlike the man who cut the murunga tree, the logic of earning money (for putting up a new house) had never occurred to Loku Maama.

As a result of his pressing insistence, subsequently everybody agreed to allow Loku Maama to do whatever he pleased with the front portion of the house.  He was so enthusiastic about the whole venture that without much delay he brought a wheelbarrow and several spades and rakes so that he could start work on demolition right away.

He sought the assistance of Geeman Singho, the mason.  They drew up a plan for a piazza, and brought more instruments and material necessary for the work.  And everything seemed to be conforming to expectations.

One morning, they started work on demolishing the old verandah.  First, they removed the tiles and stacked them in piles behind the house.  After doing the same with rafters, they dismantled the walls with crowbars.  Then, they collected the debris with spades and rakes, and removed the collection on the wheelbarrow.

It took about a week to finish this work.  When the work was in progress, Loku Maama used to entertain the workers by relating his adventures in the Middle East.  He deliberately made it a point to mention names of foreign places with a view to inspiring awe in his listeners though he was well aware that they would not have the slightest clue about their location.

One story was about a buxom Greek woman who ran a hotel in Alexandria.  At the time when he was in the military camp at El Alamein, he and several other Ceylonese soldiers had been in the habit of visiting this hotel once a week in a jeep to enjoy a tasty rice and curry meal prepared in Sinhala style.  The Greek lady spoke Sinhalese, as did her two Egyptian waiters.  Because coconut oil was not readily available in Alexandria, the cooks had to use olive oil to prepare the meals. A meal cost them only 10 piasters, damn cheap.  As was their wont, soldiers spoke in lewd Sinhala.  The Greek lady, far from being offended, was quite used to answer in similar Sinhala!

Another story was the fate that befell Corporal Fosh Harris, an Englishman, at Tobruk.  Harris had been a close friend of Loku Maama.  This was during the time of “ƒ”¹…”the Push’ to oust the Germans from North Africa.  While they were crossing the Libyan Desert, German “ƒ”¹…”Bazookas’ (dive-bombers) were bombing the supply areas.  One night they had to put up at Tobruk.  He and Harris were sleeping in the same tent, when enemy planes prior to bombing put up flares.  Failing in his attempt to wake up Harris, Loku Maama alone had run to the trench for safety.  The bomb had fallen right on the tent smashing Harris to smithereens.  A week after his death, Mrs. Harris had sent a letter addressed to the deceased.  Loku Maama had written to her relating the story of the death of her husband and blessing her two children.

He related numerous other stories about his adventures in Jeneffa, Addis Ababa, Rafah (Palestine) and Tel el-Kebir, which his audience listened to with rapt attention and great awe.

Surely, such an adventurer could not live in a dilapidated house in his native village!

The verandah and the two front rooms having been done away with, the balance half of the house including the upper storey looked more like a piece of odd-looking ruins.

Loku Maama, who was still very enthusiastic, instructed Geeman Singho to lay the foundation based on the plan of the new piazza “”…” Italian style.  Stocks of granite rocks, sand, lime and cement sufficient for the work on the foundation were brought.  And the work commenced.

When this stock of building material ran out, Loku Maama appeared to lose his enthusiasm.  He wanted more money from mother to continue the work though at the outset it was he who undertook to do everything.  Apparently his financial resources had gone dry.

Thus there was a long standstill in the progress of the work.  Only the foundation had been put up.  Loku Maama had lost all enthusiasm:  halfway of course!

He would have given up all hopes of marrying a respectable young lady of a family of some standing.  That might have been the reason why he subsequently got interested in the third daughter of Upasaka Mahattaya whom we called Hamine Nenda.  Thus, like Bandarawela Bappa, he also started to show loving kindness at Habaradugewatte.  But within a short period he lost all enthusiasm there also:  halfway of course!

Several years passed.  The Italian-style piazza was still in the foundation stage, and weeds had grown in the place.  Especially the new village headman made us the butt of ridicule for trying to do the impossible.

The castle-builder who cut the murunga tree was, perhaps, not much of a looser.

 [Note: The original shorter version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 24 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.]

 

 

 

 [Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 24 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.]

6 Responses to “VILLAGE SKETCH—9 RATAGIYA MAHATTAYA: A HALFWAY INTELLECTUAL”

  1. Kit Athul Says:

    Arcdius, dumb British Colonial, you and Rip Van Winke time is over. You wirte this “Upper Storey” for the second floor! Dumb British colonial punk no one reads your thrash.

  2. Dham Says:

    You just read !
    Don’t be so mean, friend.

  3. Christie Says:

    Most of the writers articles when analysed shows the plight of Sinhalese.

    Loku Maama is a good example of the plight of the Sinhalese. The plight of Fijian soldiers in the British army is no different.

    While Loku Maama could not built his dream, Indian c0lonial parasites of the same era have prospered.

    The plight of Sinhalese and the Fijians are the same and Indian colonial parasites prosper in the Indian dominions.

  4. Christie Says:

    Most of the writers articles when analysed shows the plight of Sinhalese.

    Loku Maama is a good example of the plight of the Sinhalese. The plight of Fijian soldiers in the British army is no different.

    While Loku Maama could not built his dream, Indian c0lonial parasites of the same era have prospered.

    The plight of Sinhalese and the Fijians are the same and Indian colonial parasites prosper in the Indian dominions.

  5. Arcadius Says:

    Kit Athul’s knee-jerk reaction to this essay shows his inability to participate in any public debate.
    He writes in gutter English. He vilifies the author without specifying any reason whatsoever.

    I have received several accolades for the glimpses of social history (WWII era) this series of articles provide.

    It’s a pity that Lankaweb tolerates ill-educated nincompoops like Kit Athul to circulate drivel in the guise of feedback.

  6. Christie Says:

    Lankaweb is right in leaving such posts as it shows some of our failings caused by the Indian imperialism and colonialism.

    We have to understand British Empire is in fact a British-Indian Empire.

    For example like Loku Maama is a good example and Kit Athuls is another. Both like all non Indians in the island nation are victims of Indian hegemony since 1792.

    Sinhalese and Native Fijians joined the British Army but hardly any Indian colonial parasites joined the British Army during the WWII.

    Indians who joined turned on the British or deserted them. If the Indian did what they did to build the British Indian Empire the British Empire would not have collapsed after WWII in the way it did leading to the present Indian Empire.

    The Sinhalese would have rose against Indian colonial parasites as well as the British.

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