CHAPTER—11 -VOTE FOR MENNA MAHATTAYA
Posted on April 13th, 2012

Arcadius

Whether the proud possessor of a resourceful brain responsible for the origin of the idea that “politics is a dirty game” was thinking of those who directly took part in that magnanimous “sport” or of others who played the roles of henchmen and sycophants, is not clear.

Considering how that “game” was played in our village on the occasion when the Soulbury Constitution had bestowed on the putative “free” citizens of Ceylon the responsibility of electing their representative to the supreme Legislature””‚the 95-member House of Representatives, it is reasonable to assume that the possessor of the aforesaid brain had a general notion of both categories.

My mind goes back to the first parliamentary elections that the soon-to-be dominion of Ceylon held in late 1947, just a few months before 4 Feb. 1948, the day when Britain elevated the island from colony to dominion. 

The villagers believed in the covetous political status symbol called democracy thought they might not have been informed of Abraham Lincoln (who spoke about “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”) or of other Western protagonists of democracy like Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Burke. They took a great interest in politics in spite of the fact that their political judgments depended more on personal consideration based mainly on caste and palm greasing rather than on party platforms.

Loku Maama (Ratagiya Mahattaya), the only declared Marxist in the village, also believed in democracy, though like any other modern Marxist he had his own version of it. There were four or five candidates in the field, each of them aspiring to do selfless service to the people, provided he were elected. I wondered why Loku Maama decided to actively support an independent candidate at this election, thus bypassing a couple of others who contested on left party tickets and who had more in common with his political convictions. I later understood that the reason was highly personal.

This independent candidate was a tall, well-built man who was probably in his early 50s. He came from a well-to-do family in Hallala. I can well recall his visits to our village. He regularly came to issue instructions to Loku Maama, who was acting as his principal canvasser and agent in the village. On every such occasion, he never failed to carry a peculiar walking stick, with an ingenious handle easily convertible to a seat. Whenever a few people gathered around him, he used this convertibility to good advantage both as a means of impressing the village-folk and a means of sustaining his bulk, which being rather heavy needed an extra prop in addition to his pair of natural props.

On the opposite side of our house, just across the main gravel road, there was a small plot of leveled ground earmarked to build a retail shop. This project, started by Ariyasena Maama, showed little progress after the foundation stage, the walls having gone up to a height of about two meters, and then stopping there for lack of financial resources. Loku Maama, applying a bit of his overflowing creativity, overnight converted the shop-site into an election propaganda office by stretching a canvas tent over the incomplete walls.

Various posters extolling the virtues of the independent Candidate were prominently displayed all over the tent. His election symbol being the key (which was not a party symbol then), several posters carried the rhythmical slogan Yatura Apay Mitura (Key is Our Friend) in large Sinhalese characters side by side with a massive illustration of the symbol in question. Another poster announced the obvious fact that we open the door with a key!

The most impressive but enigmatic poster was one that carried a large photograph of the candidate with the presenting words Menna Mahattaya, which when rendered into English would read something like “This is the Gentleman.”  What led to the origin of this particular poster, according to Loku Maama, was a kind of psychological reasoning the candidate adduced: that a person reading this poster would be curious to know more about the “ƒ”¹…”Gentleman’ represented therein; the curiosity thus generated would lead the voter to take a greater interest in him and ultimately vote for him!

One result of this poster was that the candidate came to be popularly referred to as Menna Mahattaya.

I remember a meeting held in our village in support of the Independent Candidate.  The candidate himself delivered a stirring speech in which he modestly conceded that he was a very devout practicing Buddhist; that of all the others in the running he was the only person capable of helping the poor people with devotion and seeing to their betterment; and that disaster would befall the constituency if any other candidate was elected.  He also confided in his listeners that he would not insult their intelligence by telling them how they should vote.

This practicing Buddhist, however, brought at least half a dozen bottles of arrack in his old crock whenever he came to the village to hand over to Loku Maama with the motive of keeping up the spirits of his supporters!  I am told that Loku Maama himself being a magnificent tosspot, his normal practice was to lap up most of the liquor himself and fill the bottles with a liberal quantity of water.  The supporters were thus entertained to drinks that contained only about 10 per cent liquor.

I should mention here an incident, which happened after the election, to illustrate Loku Maama’s capacity to drink.  He had taken a Rs. 50 bet with another thirsty soul to toss off a bottle of clean arrack.  Having made up his mind to win the bet at any cost and thereby gain admiration of all concerned, he had dispatched the raw liquor down his jugular region with apparent ease when suddenly he had started blinking at a rapid rate and involuntarily let his lofty figure move with lightning-speed from its original vertical position to a horizontal position on the floor.  He had to be carried to the hospital where he complained of an acute pain in the chest.  The doctors diagnosed that he was suffering from the early stages of pleurisy and he had to be in hospital for several months.

Well, while the election fever was on, Loku Maama had enough to drink, thanks to the liberal donations from the Independent Candidate.  The latter also paid an allowance of Rs. 50 to Loku Maama on a couple of occasions when confidential representations were made about the indefatigable campaign carried on in the village to back the candidate and the necessity of further effort was pointed out.

Perhaps because he was a practicing Buddhist, Menna Mahattaya did not bother to find out what happened to his donations.  But on a number of occasions Loku Maama assured him of the very good response of the villagers to his candidature.

Irrespective of how Loku Maama splurged Menna Mahattaya’s campaign donations, it may be said to Loku Maama’s credit that he was thoroughly convinced of the need to defeat the “reactionary” party candidate who had been advancing the interests of the Karawa (fisherman) caste people who dominated the town.

When people visited the election propaganda office with the primary motive, I suppose, of enjoying free grog, Loku Maama made it a point to speak derogatorily of the Reactionary Candidate who, he said, was thoroughly caste-minded.  He wanted all the farmers to show their might against the fisherman.  Obviously, his socialism was very peculiar.

While engaged in the election activities, Loku Maama was also busy with a plan to make the plot of land around our house a model farm.  This plan was based on the first-hand knowledge of the success of co-operative farms in Palestine, which he had visited in his Army days.  He used to say that he spent several days in a farm in the neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

Loku Maama was so impressed with the industry of the Jewish farmers that he thought of doing farm work in his native village in the Jewish way.  He even went to the extent of accurately imitating the working dress of the Jewish farmer, and so adorned himself with khaki short and shirt, a beret and a knee-high pair of black boots prior to starting work in the planned farm.

So dressed, he was putting up a bed of sweet-potatoes with a mammoty (garden hoe with long handle), the sweat pearling down his bare forehead, when the Reactionary Candidate came canvassing with his agent in the village, Vithanage Iskole Mahattaya (Schoolmaster Vithanage).  When this candidate requested Loku Maama to consider his candidature, the latter plainly asked him not to labor in vain and save his honest words for some other person who might be willing to support him.  Loku Maama made himself clear in spite my mother’s desperate attempts to use body language to convey the message to her brother that he should not offend the very influential candidate.

At last the Election Day dawned.

I can well remember this day because mother had forced an aperient on me that morning to clean my bowels, which, in her opinion, contained a large quantity of impurities.

There was a good deal of enthusiasm with several old cars and buggy-carts transporting voters to the polling booth in the village.  There were cheers for the candidates as the vehicles, bedecked with the posters and flags of the respective candidates, moved on.  The candidates themselves made their appearance for a short while.  The Independent Candidate made it known that he had every prospect of winning easily.

The villagers came to know of the results the following day.  Menna Mahattaya had forfeited his deposit!  The Reactionary Candidate had won. 

Loku Maama, the principal canvasser and agent of the Independent Candidate, was not bothered at all.  He later made it known that he himself did not vote for Menna Mahattaya because that candidate had refused to give him some money on the election eve!  Being a man of principle, he had not voted for the Reactionary Candidate either.

Menna Mahattaya never made his appearance in the village again.  According to rumor, he later became a Buddhist monk so that he could be a better practicing Buddhist.

Dirty or not, that was how the game of politics was played in our village.

 

[Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 21 Aug. 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. All 28 articles in this series will be released this year in a book titled VILLAGE LIFE IN THE “ƒ”¹…”FORTIES: MEMORIES OF A LANKAN EXPATRIATE (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse)]

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