VILLAGE SKETCH—14 PUNCHI MAAMA’S SALAD DAYS:LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Posted on May 6th, 2012

Arcadius

The early childhood of Punchi Maama, the younger legitimate son of the imperious village headman of Pathegama in the era of World War II (and, therefore, the younger brother of my mother), had a remarkable similarity to that of Pip Pirrip, the protagonist of Dickens’s Great Expectations.

 For both were brought up “by hand” and owed their early upbringing to their much older sister””‚Punchi Maama to my mother; and Pip to Mrs. Joe Gargery, the wife of a kind-hearted blacksmith. Like Mrs. Gargery, mother had been wont to go on “a Rampage” and apply “the Tickler” on her little brother whenever he failed, intentionally or unintentionally, to accede to her wishes, both tacit and expressed.

But Pip was an orphan whereas Punchi Maama was not. Because grandmother was not living in the village, it had fallen on my mother’s lot to tend and bring up her kid brother, who was 14 or 15 years younger. Tradition forced my mother to care for her little brother under the extended family system that we followed those days. That’s why grandfather, as well as his offspring (married or not), lived in the same Maha Gedera (ancestral home).

My mother was in her teens when she took over the “child-care” of her brother. At the time, even mother had not the slightest idea that items of mortality bearing the appearance of my sister or me would add to the country’s population explosion.

 

Joke of the Milk Spill

When Punchi Maama was a toddler, he had a supreme dislike for milk.

Mother had been in the habit of forcing a glass of milk down her brother’s reluctant throat every morning. Because he had an intense dislike for cow’s milk (the primary source of nutrition for young mammals, both human and otherwise), the aforesaid owner of the throat had considered milk consumption the most excruciating daily torture imposed upon him by his cruel older sister. Sometimes, when he had resisted this torment, mother had imposed her will by handing him a glass of milk and ordering him to empty its contents within a specified time. He did empty it all right. But the contents had rarely reached the glands of his body.

One day, mother had handed the glass of milk to Punchi Maama as usual, and secretly watched how he managed to empty the contents so expeditiously. The artful dodger was just about to throw the contents out the window, when mother rushed in with “the Tickler.” Taken aback, the confused boy had spilled milk all over the floor. But instead of being terrified, he had started laughing in the most uproarious manner possible!

Mother, on her “Rampage,” had demanded to know what caused this unwanted mirth.

“It is that ant you see on the floor,” Punchi Maama had said still rocking with laughter. “I spilled some milk on the floor. And you know, Akka [older sister], this ant slipped and lost its balance and fell down mighty hard! That is why I am laughing.”

This explanation had placated mother, involuntarily putting her into a paroxysm of laughter. The sister and the brother had thus laughed together to their hearts’ content.

Role of Cattle Minder

As he grew up, Punchi Maama took an interest in pastoral work. It is difficult to understand how he developed an interest in tending cattle when he hated the taste of the cows’ milk. Let that as it may, he had taken upon himself the task of driving our herd of cattle to adjoining pastures and grazing them. His assistant herdsman had been a boy of his own age, Ariya of Pathegama-Gedera.

There was a rich pastureland facing Samagam-kade, the local co-operative shop. This allotment belonged to Hirigal Thattaya, who had made it known that no cattle should be brought there for grazing. Punchi Maama had defied this order and taken his herd there whereupon Hirigal Thattaya had arrived on the spot and chased away both the herd and the herdsman.

Biding his time, Punchi Maama had taken cover behind a hedge and hurled a stone onto the shining head of his adversary, who had started screaming at the top of his voice.

When the young assailant returned home, grandfather had been waiting for him with “the Tickler,” for soon after the incident Hirigal Thattaya had made a complaint to him in person. Since she had a good knowledge of the behavior of grandfather’s temper, mother had been on alert to save her little brother from the impending flagellation. Thus when grandfather had rushed out and started to box the ears of his youngest as a preliminary to applying “the Tickler,” mother had dashed to his rescue, but unsuccessfully.

In spite of the pain, Punchi Maama had not started crying right away. Instead he instantly feigned the status of a motor vehicle by making the appropriate vibratory sound, and pretending to drive with his hands, had taken to his heels brushing past grandfather with the announcement, “Here comes the headman’s Baby Austin!” Then he had deposited himself in a far corner and started crying.

Of course, even grandfather had not been able to restrain his urge to laugh at this action of his youngest!

 

Sarenthu-kade Adventure

When he was12, Punchi Maama had met an affable stranger, who had promised to give him a carriage in exchange for a young bullock. The stranger had given his whereabouts to Punchi Maama and asked him to come over at any time convenient to him for effecting the transaction. Lest he would forget the name and address of this “Good Samaritan,” Punchi Maama had put it in musical form and started whistling and singing it over and over again. Thus:

                        “K L A Wilson

                         Sarenthu-kade junction.”

Sarenthu-kade Junction was in Galle. He had known that the distance from our town to Galle was about 27 kilometers. But not discouraged by that fact, he had made arrangements with Ariya to go there in the bovine company of our bullock called Suda (White).

One morning the two companions had set about on their journey on the pretext of taking Suda to the farrier for shoeing. In the absence of a vehicle to transport the animal, they had no alternative but to wend their way along the Galle-Matara road by foot.

As the trio trudged along, curious bystanders had wanted to know where they were taking the animal, probably because the Animals Act required a permit to move a bullock from one area to another. At one stage, even the police had interposed to make the same inquiry. The two boys had quelled all such inquiries with the reply that they were taking the animal to a nearby farrier.

Passing through Koggala, they had to appease the foreign military personnel (British, Australian and African), whose knowledge of Sinhalese was confined to the words Bohoma Hondai (Very Good) and Bohoma Narakai (Very Bad).  Imitating their foreign pronunciation, Punchi Maama had greeted them with the words Bohoma Ni-ra-kai, Bohoma Ni-ra-kai and continued the journey.

They had reached Sarenthu-kade Junction in the gloaming evidently hoping that K.L.A. Wilson (whoever he might be) would give them a warm welcome particularly because they had come with the bullock.  Their inquiries, however, had revealed that there was no such person, living or dead, in that part of Galle.

In utter despondency the threesome “”…” including the bovine companion “”…” had started ruminating.  It was already dark and too late to return home.  Then it had occurred to Punchi Maama to go to Walahanduwa, where an uncle of ours (Putu-Putu Maama), a sanitary inspector, was stationed.  And thither they had trudged for the night.

Battle of Ceylon

Punchi Maama could well remember the exact day of this adventure.  It was the day before the Easter Sunday Raid (5 April 1942, also called the Battle of Ceylon)””‚the air attack by carrier-based aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy targeting British warships and harbor installations, and air bases in Colombo. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the raid with a fleet of 120 planes. Twenty fighter planes from the Ceylon RAF took off from the Race Course grounds and shot down 25 enemy aircraft and damaged an equivalent number. Punchi Maama claimed that he had heard the sound of guns at the Galle Harbor.

But back in Pathegama, my mother had gone into hysteria Saturday night not knowing what happened to her 12-year-old brother who was her ward. Ariya’s mother too had come to our place and started weeping for the same reason concerning her son.  Knowing the gravity of the situation which the two young adventurers were not mature enough to realize, the uncle at Walahanduwa had, at the earliest opportunity, sent word to mother informing her that the threesome were safe at his place.

I can recall another occasion, several years later, when mother was similarly in frenzy the whole night because of Punchi Maama, who had gone out on a motorcycle and not returned.  That was when he was in his late teens.  He had wheedled my mother to give him money to purchase a Norton motorcycle, which became the focus of his teen-age life at the expense of his studies.

I think that mother had great affection for Punchi Maama.  It was she who spent on his studies although I do not think that he had the slightest interested in attending school.  No body had great expectations about his ability to get through the hurdles of public examinations.  

Thus, he surprised no one when he failed the senior school certificate examination on his first try.  However, he belied our expectations when he passed the examination on his second attempt.

Like Father, Like Son

 I very much doubt that the examination results reflected Punchi Ralahamy’s own learning skills.  Rumor had it that he hired someone with superior learning skills to impersonate him at the examination. (The requirement to produce identity cards at public examinations was not strictly enforced at the time.)

Well, like father, like son! Both disregarded the Sila (ethical conduct) dimension of the Exalted Eightfold Path for their own convenience. My mother and Loku Maama also lacked in Sila, but to a lesser extent than their younger brother.

After his examination success, Punchi Maama got a teaching appointment at a village school in Kuliyapitiya.  He took leave from grandfather (that is, his father), mother (that is, his sister) and all of us prior to leaving with his bag and baggage.  He was in tears.  Mother too was in tears.

Some years later, we got the tidings that he had fallen in love with a girl in the village of his school.  Mother theorized that the girl’s party had given him a charm to rob his heart.  She stoutly opposed this love affair.

 I met Punchi Maama many times at Kuliyapitiya before his death.  He spoke ill of mother.  “Your mother gave me only 10 rupees when I came here,” he said.  “Nobody accompanied me when I came, and I had to find my way alone. And with only10 rupees in hand, I had to come all the way from Weligama to this remote village and find a place to say.  Your mother did not treat me well.”

The feeling that my mother had favored us (her own children) and discriminated against him (the rightful owner of one-third of Maha Gedera) had soured him. He had no good words for my mother for nursing him through his childhood.   He showed no awareness that we lived under the rules of the extended family tradition in Pathegama.

I knew that the girl Loku Menike (of Kuliyapitiya) had really captured his heart. 

 [Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 18 Sept. 1965. Arcadius revised it in 2012. 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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