VILLAGE SKETCH—22, KANKANAMA MIXED PEELING WITH FEELING
Posted on June 29th, 2012

Arcadius

Kankanama puts his right leg forward and involuntarily imparts a slow motion to it. Not that he is trying to shake something off his leg. That is his habit.

Then, he puts his arms akimbo, implicitly warning everybody that he has something to say. However, everybody around him knows about that “something.” For, he has repeated the same many times over. But everybody likes to give him a ready ear because his delivery is most entertaining.

 He is a short man, almost dwarfish. Though he is bare-bodied, he has covered his neck with a span cloth. He likes to punctuate his torrential delivery with well-timed peals of laughter. Though his teeth are not very pleasant to see.

He is a cinnamon peeler by profession. Having regard to his stature, villagers called him Miti Baas or Mitta (Shorty). In his absence, of course! He likes to talk of his past.

Always the Hero

“You see, Sir,” he would say addressing my father, “at the time I was paying friendly calls on Samatha’s mother, I was a thoroughly stubborn bloke”¦.”

The reference is to his first wife, who is dead. He always referred to her as Samatha’s mother. Samathapala was his only child by his first wife.

“I wasn’t scared of even the elephant or the lion,” he would continue. “I was very mischievous. I was then the Kankanama (overseer) of a cinnamon estate in Mirissa. Twenty chaps worked under me. Believe me, Sir. That was the time when I exercised my authority! I had six silver chains around my waist. My belt was made of silver rupee coins!

“You see, Sir, the owner of the estate was a Burgher man, a very tough person to deal with. No Kankanama could work under him. He was a drunkard, who was too exacting. One day, Sir, he came heavily drunk with a gun in his hands and started hurling insults at me as he used to do with others. My blood started boiling within me. Believe me, Sir. I dragged out my chopper and told him in plain language to clear out or face the consequences. He went away without uttering a word, and he never interfered with my work thereafter! Ha”¦ha”¦ha!

As he moved toward the climax of his act of bravery, he deftly synchronized the motion of his right leg with the rapid delivery of his speech so as to give the distinct impression that he was in the mood to bestow a lively kick, with very great relish, on the buttocks of the Burgher gentleman in question.

Whenever he enlightened his audience with his past affluence and authority, Kankanama invariably started off by referring to the time he was paying friendly calls on Samatha’s mother. Just like a storyteller would start his story with the words Once upon a time”¦

He happened to be the hero/protagonist, always. Never the villain/anti-hero!

His delivery was so entertaining that I soon learnt to imitate him. I imitated him so well that my elders often and on badgered me to give repeated performances. Thus whenever I had to obtain Grandfather’s permission to accompany my parents to Colombo on a short visit or to go to see a perahera (pageant/procession) in the town, I had to coax him to do so by giving a Kankanama performance.

Another Story

How Kankanama started calling at our place was another story. He was a person from Randombe. His second wife was from Pelena. They came to our village to settle down at Aluthena, a six-acre (2.5 hectare) cinnamon expanse, which was about a one-half kilometer from our place. The footpath leading to Aluthena, which was in the interior, ran through our land.

Kankanama had taken Aluthena on lease. Probably he was lured by the rich growth of cinnamon there. He would have speculated that his returns would far exceed his investment. So he came, he saw and he conquered.

His wife was a shrew. Thanks to her verbal competence, she was able to make a name in the village within a very short time. Whenever it occurred to her to display her admirable skill, she never failed to mention, with imposing gusto, that she hailed from Pelena.

Kankanama’s son, Samathapala, was a very mischievous lad, who had developed the habit of throwing stones at our veralu (wild-olive) tree and the lavulu (canistel) tree when he walked past our land.

Punchi Maama, who was himself a mischievous stripling then, was waiting for a chance. One day, he hurled a stone at Samathapala just when he was aiming a stone at our lavulu tree. Samatha cried in pain as blood trickled down his temple. He went home crying all the way.

A while later, we heard a woman’s cries rending the air. We knew that it was Kankanama’s wife. She came up to our backyard triggering off a formidable round of verbal gunfire and demanded to know why Samatha was assaulted. Did he not have the right to walk along the footpath without stones being thrown at him? Let it be known that she hailed from Pelena.

Mother girded up her loins, and let the woman know, in turn, that she (Punchi Hamine) hailed from Pathegama; that the ingrate should have known the footpath ran across the land belonging to us; that if we wanted we could prevent anybody from using the footpath.

Mother asked what right Samatha had to stone our lavulu tree. In any case, the woman should know that there was a proper way to make a complaint.

Kankanama’s wife looked like a hen dripping wet. She was taken aback by mother’s unexpected counter attack. She went away completely disarmed.

Kankanama came to our place in the evening in his subdued manner. He conceded that what Samatha had done was wrong. But Punchi Ralahamy (that was how Punchi Maama was known in the village) should not have hit him with a stone. If Samatha’s mischief had been made known to him, he would have imposed the necessary punishment.

He urged mother to forget what his better half had said in a moment of anger.

The two parties put this incident behind them very easily. Thereafter, Kankanama and his wife paid frequent visits to our place. They became very helpful to us in various ways. After every harvest, we used to give them six kuruni (gallons measures) or so of paddy. As a friendly gesture, they brought us some vegetables and a loaf of bread whenever they sold their cinnamon product to the wholesaler in town.

Whenever mother and I went to Mederikoratuwa, the ancestral home of my father, along the footpath via Aluthena, we always dropped in at the wadiya (dwelling) where Kankanama and his family lived.  As we walked along, I would pluck off cinnamon leaves and eat their stalks and also chew the tender leaves. At the time, none of us knew the value of cinnamon to improve the glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes (revealed in a 2003 study) or about its potential to inhibit the development of Alzheimer’s disease (revealed in a 2011 study of mice).

At Work

It was Kankanama who peeled our cinnamon too. During the proper season he would put up a thatched shed somewhere on our property for his work. The nature of the work was such that he would come and stay at this shed. This was the time when tender leaves had disappeared from the cinnamon tree.

In the dawn, when the vegetation was refreshingly bedewed, he would set out with his chopper to begin the day’s work. He would chop as many trees as he could deal with in the course of the day, lop them off and bundle the sticks. Samathapala would wait at the shed to take over these bundles from his dad.

Then the dutiful dad and the obedient son would start scraping the crust off the sticks with a curved blade. This operation over, they would beat the sticks lightly with a small rod; and then, using a sharp knife, adroitly peel the bark into segments of equal size. Thereafter, they linked these segments together to form sizable sticks stuffed with chips of the bark. Finally, they hung the finished product on the string ceiling of the shed for spontaneous drying. They did not classify the type of cinnamon they worked on.

More recently, I learned about seven types of Ceylon cinnamon alone: Pani/Pat/Mapat Kurundu; Naga Kurundu; Pani Kurundu; Weli Kurundu; Sewala Kurundu; Kahata Kurundu; and Pieris Kurundu. I am not sure whether Kankanama or Samatha had any notion about these botanical distinctions. However, it is worthwhile to read the elucidation in Wikipedia:

Ceylon cinnamon, using only the thin inner bark, has a finer, less dense, and more crumbly texture, and is considered to be more aromatic and subtler in flavor than cassia. Cassia has a much stronger (somewhat harsher) flavor than Ceylon cinnamon, is generally a medium to light reddish brown, hard and woody in texture, and thicker.

Sometimes, Kankanama and his son worked even after dark with the help of a kerosene oil lamp. It was their habit to cook their own meals with borrowed rice and spices from us. However, at the time of settling accounts, my mother carefully debited the value of these commodities from what she owed for their service””‚an exemplar of a mixed transaction involving both money and barter.

The unwritten agreement between the cinnamon owner and the peeler required the equal (50 percent) sharing of the proceeds from the sale of the finished product. But the actual share that Kankanama received was less because of deductions for advances and debts.

Aftermath

 Since their arrival in Aluthena, Kankanama’s wife gave birth to two sons. The first of them died quite early. The other survived to keep company for his mother while his father and half- brother were away at work.

Kankanama and his family lived in Aluthena for nearly 12 years.

I cannot recall the exact circumstances that led to their departure from our village. It might be that they were unable to renew their lease on the cinnamon expanse.

Till long after their departure, Kankanama came to our place every year to peel our cinnamon. Obviously, his fortune was declining.

He still liked to talk of his past.  He would keep his arms akimbo, put his right leg forward and imparting a slow motion to it, talk of the time when he was paying friendly calls on Samatha’s mother. He was then a thoroughly stubborn bloke, indeed.

But what baffled me was why he never talked of the time when he paid friendly calls on the mother of Samatha’s half-brother””‚the loudmouth from Pelena.

 

[Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the Daily News Magazine on 12 Jan. 1966. Arcadius revised it in 2012. All the 28 essays in this series will appear in a book titled “Village Life in the Forties: Memories of a Lankan Expatriate” to be released by iUniverse later this year.]

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