VILLAGE SKETCH—15,SINGAPPURU BASUNNEHE: ‘HONEST’ GOLDSMITH
Posted on May 12th, 2012

Arcadius

“ƒ”¹…”Nor all that glisters, gold.’

When Thomas Gray (1716-1771) made this observation, he must have had some sort of prescience about the ornaments produced by the goldsmiths of our village, particularly those of the workmanship of Singappuru Basunnehe (Goldsmith from Singapore).

He was called Singappuru Basunnehe not because he had the appearance of a man from the Straits, but because he had practiced his craft””‚which, of course, embodies more than one meaning””‚for a couple of years in Singapore.  He had left the shores of his beloved motherland with a flaming heart!

I am told that some people, who poke their noses into other people’s affairs, had reason to believe that he did not carry his flaming heart because, rather sentimentally, he had left it behind in the possession of a nubile damsel, who happened to be a daughter of Udawatte Nachchile (Goldsmith-woman from Udawatte).  May be for safekeeping!  Whatever the reason, he had been very much concerned with the welfare of the damsel in question.  And every month he had sent her a portion of his earnings presumably for her education.

When the damsel in question graduated as a teacher, the eager bachelor returned to Ceylon and married her.  Having severed all his connections with Singapore, he decided to settle down in the village and practice his craft.

Singapore Basunnehe shrewdly built up a client base in the village by practicing Yankee-style public relations. He won the goodwill and confidence of potential customers with his courtesy calls on numerous people with samples of his workmanship that he described as the latest models in Singapore.  The village womenfolk were much impressed because they had a high regard for things with a foreign touch.  But traditionally they were rather cautious in their dealings with goldsmiths.  For, on the basis of folklore, it is not prudent to trust even one’s own son if he happened to be a goldsmith!

Once upon a time, according to folklore, there was a Nachchile (a woman of the goldsmith-caste) who had a golden frog in her possession.  Unable to trust even her husband, she had kept it a dead secret until a son was born to her and he grew up to be a practicing goldsmith.  One day she had handed over the golden frog to her son entreating him to melt it and make some ornaments for her.  As the days passed by the mother had asked the son when he would be giving her the ornaments.  The son had calmly replied that nothing could be done because the golden frog had hopped away when he tried to melt it in the crucible!

When Singappuru Basunnehe paid his courtesy call on Habaradugewatte, Menike Nenda had complained to him about Handy, the son of Ongohamy Nachchile.  She (Menike) had given two bangles, a pendant and a pure-gold sari-pin to Handy for melting them and making new-model ornaments. But Handy had apparently pawned them.  Handy was a close relation of Singappuru Basunnehe, and so the latter had promised the complainant that he would take steps to recover the articles for her.  And he had kept his promise!

This exemplary gesture on the part of Singappuru Basunnehe won him kudos in the village as an honest merchant””‚an exception to the rule related in the story about the mother and the son. Singappuru Basunnehe had a disarming smile.  He spoke in a pleading voice with a drawling accent.  An incorrigible betel-chewer, he had selected the sarong and the jacket as his mode of dress.  Some people said that he had a golden heart (though it was earlier a flaming heart)!  He always carried an umbrella under his armpit, perhaps having regard to the necessity of protecting from sun and rain the physical frame, which contained the said golden object.

Soon, he was doing a thriving business, thanks to the confidence he had gained.  He used to call at our place regularly with various articles of gold, which were safely deposited in small gilded cases.  He would take out the cases from his pockets and open them, one by one, with the utmost circumspection.  Then with great deliberation, he would explain to mother the virtues of each of those items and the reasons why she should not hesitate to buy them.

Often, he used to confide in mother that those items were specially brought to her for her attention.  They were the most novel items in Singapore that only the elite of high society wore.  He would not even think of showing them to other women in the village!  O, no!  They were made of sovereign gold, and he could sell them to mother at a concession leaving him only a Rs. 5 profit.

When mother bargained, he would agree to reduce the price by Rs. 5 or Rs. 10, apparently either making no profit or incurring a loss!  Perhaps only a person with a golden heart could do that!

On several occasions mother gave him her old-fashioned gold ornaments with instructions to make more fashionable items out of them.  Of course, he was too good to do a mean thing like pawning them.  Instead, very dutifully, he took pains to convert them into more fashionable, more glittering jewelry.  But, eventually, when mother took the self-same jewelry to a reputed jeweler in the town, the assayer had told her that “all that glistered was not gold.”  For most of the ornaments produced by Singappuru Basunnehe contained more copper than gold!

Metaphorically speaking, in the words of the 15th century Scottish poet Andrew Wyntoun, “Oure gold was changyd into lede.”  One may surmise that he used others’ gold to replenish his golden heart, which, not surprisingly, was changing its quality.  It must have been a self-defeating endeavor, anyway.  When his craft was exposed, his business did not thrive any longer.

Yet he continued to come to our place with his gewgaws.  He contended that the jeweler who assayed and condemned his ornaments had not told the truth because all jewelers were envious of their competitors.  He could swear that they were not alloyed.

Having lost the hard-gained goodwill and confidence, Singappuru Basunnehe was going down in the world.  One day, he pleadingly coaxed mother to give him a loan of Rs. 50 swearing that he would settle it the following day.

Weeks and months passed, but there was no sign of the loan being repaid.  When the worthy goldsmith was sighted walking along the main gravel road, mother would rush to meet him and pretend that the encounter was entirely accidental.  He would make a bow to show his respect and say in his pleading tone, “Madam, these are hard times.  I expect to get some money soon, and I shall settle your loan.  Don’t you ever trust me?”

When the same act was repeated over and over again, mother must have got fed up.  During one of those “accidental encounters,” mother casually asked her debtor what the current price of a sovereign was in the market?  The debtor replied that it was in the region of Rs. 70.

Mother said that she had a gold sovereign, which she intended to sell because she was hard pressed for some money.  Would he care to buy it?

He would like to help her, but he did not have the money to buy it at the moment.  He might be able to borrow some money from his brother-in-law and come to our place on the following day to do the transaction.  Would that be all right?

Perfectly all right.  She would be very grateful to him.

The next day, Singappuru Basunnehe came to our place with the money, and asked for the sovereign.  Assuming a degree of humor, mother said that he should not hesitate to give her the money inasmuch as she would not think of grabbing it for nothing.  And having taken the Rs. 70, she digressed from the topic to deal with inconsequential matters relating to various people, which must not have made the least impression on her eager listener.  Ultimately, when he managed to break in and mention that he had some urgent business to attend somewhere, mother suggested that he had better do so because, in any case, she had given the sovereign to Ariyasena Maama (oldest son of Hene Achchi) for pawning as she wanted the money the previous evening and that she hoped to redeem it the next day.  She requested him to drop in the following morning for the sovereign.

When he came the next day, mother said that she had sent Ariyasena Mama to redeem the article but that he had not yet returned.  Singappuru Basunnehe came the following day too.  Mother said that the unexpected had happened, for the pawnbroker had sold the sovereign to somebody else; now that nothing could be done, she would cancel Rs. 50 in settlement of the loan and give him the balance Rs. 20.  That should not displease him, she said, because he had not lost anything.

But though he had not lost anything, his face assumed a grimy gloomy aspect at this bit of edifying information.

One day, several months later, Singappuru Basunnehe visited us again and pleaded with mother to give him her pair of fashionable ear-rings just for the purpose of showing them to the folks at Pelawatte, the adjoining house, because the daughter of Marathelis Appu had wanted to see them since she desired to have a similar pair for her wedding.   Naturally, mother hesitated.  The crafty goldsmith said that she had no reason to hesitate because he was taking the ornament only a few meters away.

This reasoning made mother give way.  She gave him the pair of earrings.  But that was the last she saw of these ornaments.

Another series of “accidental encounters” ensued.  Each time Singappuru Basunnehe would penitently say that he had to pawn the earrings because those were hard times for him.  He would return the ornaments as soon as he redeemed them form the pawnbroker.

Probably because mother’s doggedness turned out to be a nuisance to the badgered goldsmith, one day he brought to our place an ersatz pair of ear-rings.  Mother knew that they were badly alloyed and worthless, like his metallic heart.

Without any fret and fume, mother philosophically observed that something was better than nothing.

 [Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 9 October 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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