Posted on July 6th, 2012


Only one lonely house was along the patch of road from Galkanda to Matthebokka. It was a very small thatched house built of wattle and mud. Facing it was a tract of rice paddies, across which the road meandered. The highland above it was vast expanse of cinnamon.

A villager passing by this spot would hear the lowing of cattle, the only thing that disturbs the eerie stillness into which the entire area has plunged. He would turn his head and see the cattle grazing in the land surrounding the house. He would also see an old woman seated on the doorsill fondly hugging a tender calf and saying, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-My little one, my little one.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚

The villager is not amazed. This scene is familiar to him.

A strange old woman indeed! She owned that house. She owned the tract of rice paddies and the cinnamon expanse, too. She had the means to live. But, sooth to say, hers was a miserable life. That must have been her fate. She was frugal. Too frugal! Even a piece of jack shell or banana peel was like treasure for her. She picked up such things and put them in her coarse bag wherever she saw them.

The villagers called her Kunu (stingy/rubbish) Nachchile. Whether this impressive title was conferred on her because of her extreme parsimony or habit of picking up rubbish is rather uncertain.

She was one of the oldest inhabitants in the village. Though toothless, she invariably had a wad of betel in her mouth. Pretending to chew always, she had an unmistakable hunch and the look of a witch, even though she lacked the bewitched broom in the fairy tale.

She had an unbounded love for animals, particularly cattle. She spent her days engaged in pastoral work. The black ox had trodden on her foot. But she got closer and closer to cattle, so close that she was wont to sleep in the company of calves inside her house lest some cattle lifter should steal her ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-little ones.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ She saw to it that cows in calf slept in the safety of her verandah. The smell of cattle droppings pervaded her house. But she did not mind that. Perhaps she liked the smell!

She bathed the cattle, collected food for them, and removed the ticks from their dewlap. With the help of her daughter, Bellakota (short-necked) Nachchile, she made ropes for them.

She had another daughter, Nidimatha (sleepy) Nachchile, and a son Karolis Baas, whose whereabouts were not known. Nidimatha Nachchile was married and lived elsewhere. She had a little daughter, just like herself. These two offspring did not care very much for their old mother. Only Bellakota Nachchile helped her either because she felt duty bound to help her mother once in a while or because she had no alternative.

In spite of her age, Kunu Nachchile was a very industrious woman. She was an early riser. She drew milk from the cows in the wee hours of the morning. And just at daybreak, she was at our doorstep with a bottle of fresh milk.

The milk she brought was never adulterated, her reputed parsimony notwithstanding. As she explained, she did not want to be the unhappy recipient of her customersƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ curses. She was God-fearing.

In the gloaming, she was back at our doorstep with another bottle of milk. Because her eyesight was failing, she had to find the way with the help of a torch made of dried coconut leaves. An extraordinary woman, she was ever determined to defy darkness. She was not afraid of the pervading gloom of the night, even on the day of the new moon. She used to trudge along the desolate road at all odd hours of the night waving her smoldering torch. Her shadow was her only companion.

Almost always, it was after nightfall that she went shopping to buy what she needed for her food. Those she bought in small quantities, just enough for a dayƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s meal and no more. So sparing!

It wasnƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢t just raw milk she sold. She curdled the milk and sold that, too. Excellent curd. She produced ropes by twisting strands of coir yarn and sold them as well. This type of rope would last a long time. She plucked the hands of plantains (bananas that belong to the Musa family) [CN1]ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ in her garden, ripened them, and sold those, too. She took these items to the market in the town to earn some small change and buy whatever she wanted, always in small quantities.

Doing her rounds in the village, Kunu Nachchile never failed to carry her coarse bag of rush. Round her right hand was a coil of stout cordage, meant for sale on demand by any of her regular customers. And those who owned cattle were in the habit of placing orders with her.

The ever-present bag of hers contained a variety of miscellaneous items, like pieces of jack shell, banana peels, and the creepers called maduvel and potavel. She habitually picked up these things on the road or elsewhere for feeding her cattle.

If she chanced to see a tangled cow or ox on the way, she would immediately stop and untangle it as gently as she could. She did not care to whom that bovine creature belonged. No business was as urgent as helping a cow or ox in distress.

Having untangled the poor creature, she would pat it most affectionately. Then she would address it by the endearing term Kelle (dear girl) or Kollo (dear boy) as the case may be and pleadingly ask it to remain there until she returned. The creature would moo as if it understood what the old woman said.

She and Bellakota Nachchile took immense pains to feed their cattle. They went to all nooks and corners of the village to cut grass and carry it home in gunnysacks, so much so that some people believed that those women served the cattle more than what the cattle served them. Being kind to all animals, she took great care of the brace of cats at home. She washed the milk pans and gave that water to the cats.

But why did Kunu Nachchile choose the difficult path of living? She owned a lot of land, about six hectares (fifteen acres) of cinnamon alone. Rice was no problem for her since she got it from her tract of rice paddies. Villagers speculated that she got a fairly good income.

It was true that thieves were in the habit of furtively cutting cinnamon in her land. Yet she got a cinnamon peeler to cut the remaining cinnamon twice a year and sell the product. Nobody knew what she did with that money.

I wonder why the villagers failed to acknowledge her good qualities. They did not recognize her as a lover of animals. But they were quick to acknowledge her curmudgeonly habits and call her Kunu Nachchile.

She died an octogenarian. Nidimatha Nachchile died about ten years earlier. Left alone, Bellakota Nachchile continued the work of her mother. A villager passing by her house would still hear the lowing of cattle. He would also see a woman seated on the doorsill dallying with calves. Was the woman feeling lonely?

ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Why lonely?ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Bellakota Nachchile would ask. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-I have my cattle at home. I talk to them.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚


[Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the Daily News Magazine on 19 Jan. 1966. Arcadius revised it in 2012. All of the 28 sketches in this series will appear in a book titled ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Village Life in the Forties: Memories of a Lankan ExpatriateƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ that iUniverse will release later in 2012.]

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ [CN1]Verify that this is correct. Even though they may look similar, a plantain is not the same as a banana.

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