Village Sketch–26, Wala Semba: Simpleton or Entertainer?
Posted on July 28th, 2012

By Arcadius

 Wala Semba (one who used a pot to empty a pit) was a well-known person in our village. He was a seedy, bandy-legged man sporting a bristling moustache. His face revealed the unmistakable signs of a quitter. Although the village folks had no knowledge of physiognomy, they saw cowardice wrapped up in his personality.

Village records showed he had (dis)graced the terra firma (solid earth) for more than fifty years. As if to prove that he were a true terrae filius (son of the earth), he preferred not to scrub his legs, which were invariably bedaubed with mud. He was a farmer.

But there were other true sons of the soil, also farmers, who did not consider that their legs should necessarily carry a plaster of earthy matter to prove who they were. They at least took the elementary hygienic measure of washing themselves after a hard day’s work.

He cultivated the tract of rice paddies called Paraikumbura, which was very close to Mahavella (big embankment). The canal, which the washer people used to wash their laundry, provided the water for this rice paddy.

Villagers had once seen him dashing out water from a wala (pit) in his rice paddy with a sembuwa (a small metal pot) with the idea of catching fish easily. That seemed ridiculous to many a yokel in the vicinity. Having thoroughly enjoyed this singular act, they called him Wala Semba. That name stuck to him like glue.

A few years before World War II, a curse befell our village in the form of a pestilence, which people identified as Mahamariya. The authorities opened a quarantine camp in Midigama and hauled the victims of the Mahamariya pestilence to this pathetic dump. Poor Wala Semba was one of those who had the (dis)honor to grace this camp in splendid isolation for some time. That was also the time of a food shortage. Consequently, it was not possible to supply an adequate quantity of rice to the camped sufferers even at the behest of a gubernatorial decree. So the authorities did the next best thing. They allowed the victims to hang on to their lives with a scanty meal of bread.

Let me, with great reluctance, blow my grandfather’s trumpet and state here on the authority of old-timers that he took it upon himself to consign a large quantity of rice at his own expense for the benefit of these who hung on to their lives. A certain mudaliyar (a colonial titleholder), who probably felt quite miffed, had told my grandfather that if he, the mudaliyar, had occasion to be a Ralahamy (which, of course, was highly hypothetical), he would never have done such a foolish thing (which again was a superfluous statement because everybody knew about the mudaliyar‘s avaricious disposition). Here I end blowing my grandfather’s trumpet.

Semba was a voracious eater. Naturally, the share of feed that the authorities set apart for his consumption at the camp was excessively out of proportion to his reputed gluttony. He had humbly complained that his intestinal worms were engaged in a nonstop battle in protest against this injustice. When the authorities refused to pay heed to the protests of his intestinal worms, he himself had taken steps to pacify these demonstrating creatures by picking up scraps of bread discarded by others and hurriedly gulping them down to reach his innards and the creatures therein. Thus did he manage to stop the battle.

By the time he was released from the quarantine camp, this story had leaked out to the nasty yokels in the village. It was great fun for them to rouse his anger by shouting at him referring to this fact. From a safe distance away, a village boy would shout, “Karantin ekay paan rodu ahulan kaapu Wala Sembo!” (Wala Semba, you who picked up scraps of bread and ate them at the quarantine camp!) Semba would look about and dash off to catch the offending boy uttering a round of filth. The one who used to tease Wala Semba often with these words was his own nephew, Balappu.

Semba was also noted for his timidity, so much so that the phrase “as scared as Semba“ became part of the patois of our village.

Kalu Appu and other members of the Kota family, who were thieves by profession, made capital out of Semba‘s timidity. The one place they would go to rob coconuts and other movable property (if any) without any fear of being caught was the territory owned by Semba. In the night, thieves would turn bare his beds of sweet potatoes and climb up his coconut trees to pluck the nuts. Even if Semba happened to hear the noise, he would never come out of his house in mortal fear of his life. Instead, he would peep from a window and drawl appealingly, “Aney puthe, matath tikak ithuru karala aran palayan.” (Have mercy, son. Leave me also something and take the rest.)

Semba was married to a woman called Meepe Lamaya (damsel from Meepe), his second wife. Probably he had a lot of affection for her. He always used to swear by her name every time he wanted to convince a second party that he was telling the truth and nothing but the truth. But everybody was quite aware that his swearing had become a routine matter. Nobody took his truths quite seriously. Though Wala Semba was a coward, he was an interesting person who contributed to the entertainment of the village youth.

He contributed his share without himself being aware of it.

 [The Ceylon Daily News magazine first published this story on 12 March 1966. Arcadius revised it in 2012.]

A Statement to the Reader

My real-life village sketches of the unique characters that made Pathegama what it was in the 1940s end here. I left my birth village when I became a teenager to attend school in the big city, Colombo. I first attended Carey College before shifting to Ananda College, the premier Buddhist high school in Ceylon. I then gained admission to the University of Ceylon in 1958 and completed a four-year special degree in economics. Soon after I received my bachelor of arts degree in 1962, I joined the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (Lake House) as a journalist.

However, I did not sever my connections with Pathegama until I966, when I left Ceylon for the United States on a World Press Institute fellowship in 1966. Since then, I have visited Pathegama only on rare occasions. The last time I visited the village was in 1990.

I have included this story in my latest book Village Life in the Forties: Memories of a Lankan Expatriate (iUniverse, 2012).  It is one of a trilogy of my autobiography published in 2012. The other two carry the title From Village Boy to Global Citizen (Xlibris, 2012) with the first volume focusing on my life journey and the second on my travels. The next two stories in the village sketches series will be fictional. Still, Pathegama remains the backdrop to both stories.

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