Mick Moore, relating a true story with all names of people and places changed
Courtesy of NĒTHRA Volume 11, No. 1; ISSN 1391-2380
The battle on the bund took place around the time of the 1965 general elections. The details were disputed when we first heard about it in 1976, but the outlines were clear. On the one side was the Schoolmaster’s extended family: his father, three brothers, and their offspring. Somasiri and his father were prominent members of the opposing group. The parties exchanged blows on a narrow paddy field bund less than 100 yards long. The Schoolmaster’s party came from the eastern end, where the bund connected to the only motorable road in that part of Wellepollewa. Somasiri’s party came from the western side: a block of highland where about a dozen modest little houses, connected only by narrow pathways, were hidden among tall cinnamon bushes. Access to their piece of highland was closed off on the other side by the fencing of a small rubber estate; the path across the bund was the only direct access to almost every place they were likely to go. Somasiri’s people had been pressing for the bund to be widened, so that they could reach their homes by cart or motor vehicle. The area had strong traditions of leftist politics and of ‘self-help’ in getting or keeping control of increasingly scarce land. Election fever probably emboldened them: one day, they assembled with hand tools and set about widening the bund into a cart track.
A sliver off a paddy field of mediocre quality might seem a small price to pay for giving a dozen families access to their houses by wheeled vehicle. But the paddy land belonged to the Schoolmaster’s father’s brother. It would have been totally out of character for any member of that family willingly to give up any of their property for the benefit of their poorer neighbours. In the muscular environment of local politics, the family strategy was not to use their modest wealth to cultivate goodwill and grateful dependents among the local poor, but to maintain a reputation for striking back hard in the face of provocation. In 1976, one of the Schoolmaster’s cousins had just been released from jail. He had killed a man who refused to re-pay money loaned to him, bribed his way out of police custody, and later assaulted a police officer. As he related the story to us and explained that his family would always rally round one another, the Schoolmaster’s father seemed positively proud of his nephew. With his kondu (top-knot), betel-chewing, willingness still to labour even in his 70s, and confrontational attitudes, the old man conformed to one image of a traditional peasant. He was not rich, but, like his three brothers, he was well off compared to most locals. He owned over 7 acres of
paddy land and a couple of dozen acres of highland. He claimed that his family had been the first to settle in that part of Wellepollewa. They had moved in the 1930s, as the older centre of Meegama village, a mile or two away, had become increasingly crowded. Other families, he said, had followed only in the 1940s and 1950s. Meegama is dominated by a single caste. You did not have to go back more than a couple of generations to find kinship connections between families who now regarded themselves as very different. And the Schoolmaster’s family were insistent on status differences. His father was not ashamed of his own peasant lifestyle and persona, but had ensured that his children would not share them. By 1976, when I took up residence in Wellepollewa, the Schoolmaster was the Principal of a large secondary school a few miles away. Already in his late 40s, but unmarried, he was in immaculate white national dress as he set off for work each morning on his bicycle. His younger sister was also a teacher, also unmarried, and also living at home with their parents. Brother and sister were educated enough shyly to try speaking a few words to me in English. The Schoolmaster’s brother, who visited occasionally from his senior post in the Survey Department in Colombo, was fluent. The family had done well for themselves. The old man at least intended to keep things that way, and saw family solidarity and a reputation for willingness to use force as essential instruments.
He had paid a price for that willingness on the day in 1965 that the family mobilised to drive Somasiri’s people away from their path-widening enterprise. Blows were exchanged, and the old man received a bad cut to his stomach. But his family won the battle. The bund was not widened. For the next few years at least, the attempt was unlikely to be repeated. The United National Party (UNP) won the 1965 general elections. Anyone who knows rural Lanka may already have guessed that there was a strong party political dimension to this conflict. The Schoolmaster’s family were strong UNP supporters, as were most property owners in that locality. Poorer people were predominantly leftists: supporters of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Marxist LSSP, or later the insurrectionary leftist JVP. Somasiri’s father had spent time as an estate labourer, and had represented the LSSP on the Village Council.
When the UNP lost the next general elections, in 1970, local politics hotted up. The house-cum-shop that had served as the UNP’s Wellepollewa headquarters was burned to the ground. The houses of several UNP-ers, including from the Schoolmaster’s family, were attacked and damaged. More violence was soon to follow. In 1971, JVP (People’s Liberation Front) launched their first Insurgency. The Meegama area was a JVP stronghold. It was several weeks before the army regained control. Somasiri, his father and a brother were among the several thousand young men held in army custody for several months. Another brother had been killed during the fighting. The detainees were apparently all beaten, but grateful not to have been captured by the police, from whom worse was expected. The police were alleged to have captured and killed the local JVP leader after the area had been pacified; his daughter was married into Somasiri’s family. It was also whispered that information on the JVP had been provided to the security forces from the Schoolmaster’s house. Did it come from his belligerent father? From the rather more reserved Schoolmaster himself? Or was it just another one of the many false allegations that political opponents made about one another?
When we arrived Wellepollewa in mid 1976, Somasiri was rehabilitated politically. He was an active member of the SLFP, and was elected Chairman of the local branch in October. I liked him. He was a big, bluff, straightforward man with considerable charm – but also a rather short temper. He was in some ways a good politician, and certainly tirelessly active. Like his father, he was schooled in the language of revolutionary class politics. To her regret in later life, one of his young daughters was named Leila Khaled, in honour of the Palestinian plane hijacker and poster girl. This was a bold choice in that totally Sinhalese Buddhist environment. Like all local politicians, Somasiri was the subject of allegation and innuendo. One woman told us that he was trying to force her out of her house. Another said that he had seized by force the piece of paddy land he currently was cultivating. I respected in particular the opinion of a veteran member of the LSSP who ran a small cycle repair shop in Meegama. Schooled in LSSP traditions of party debate, discipline and loyalty, he had a low opinion of the political opportunism of Somasiri’s family. Just before the 1977 election, the Meegama LSSP office was burgled and robbed. Somasiri’s name was mentioned.
In 1976, the Lankan economy was at a very low point; imports, food and foreign exchange were scarce. There were far too many people in the village, especially children and women, who were not even getting enough calories. Complaints of theft were rife. There was no unpleasantness in Somasiri’s suggestion that, if my three research assistants and I were going to spend a lot of time there asking questions, then we ought to do something for the people in return. He did not try to get anything from us for himself, nor did he seem at all impressed or intimidated by the white foreigner. He was candid about some of his own plans. He hoped that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation would build a petrol station in Meegama and that his work for the SLFP would enable him to become the manager. That never happened. The SLFP-led government was already unpopular and out of steam. Somasiri had only a few months in post as local SLFP Chairman before the UNP won the general elections in July 1977.
With the UNP back in power, there seemed little likelihood that the Schoolmaster’s family would need again to turn out in force to defend their little sliver of paddy land. Wealth and power seemed physically embodied in the Schoolmaster’s substantial family house, that stood near a motorable road overlooking disputed bund. All three siblings were in secure government employment. In addition to the main house, their compound contained a small spare house suitable for visiting researchers; a sealed toilet; a solid, deep, reliable well for drinking water located just outside the kitchen; and the best bathing well I ever enjoyed in Lanka. On the other side of the paddy field, Somasiri’s people lived in small houses hidden among the cinnamon. Few had more than two rooms, and many were partly made of mud. Their drinking water sources were not always above suspicion. The air was not always free of the smell of excrement. Like most of the people in Wellepollewa, their main sources of livelihood were casual labour, wood sawing, peeling cinnamon when there was little else to do, and work as masons and carpenters on building sites in Colombo.
By the late 1970s the national economy was growing again and job opportunities were opening up in the Middle East. The repressiveness of the UNP government does not seem to have had much direct local impact in Wellepollewa. The Schoolmaster had strong political views, and was a believer in rules and order, but he was not an active politician. If retaliation or revenge for the battle on the bund was on his mind, it was not a priority. Despite being in the political opposition, and remaining an active member of the SLFP, Somasiri somehow got, and kept, a job as a bus driver with the Ceylon Transport Board. If it were not for the second JVP Insurgency of the late 1980s, the conflict between the families might have faded entirely. This time Meegama was not a JVP stronghold. However, as in much of Lanka, the JVP were for a while the dominant source of local authority. They collected identity cards and money from the villagers and enforced strikes and curfews. The JVP came close to success nationally, but over-reached themselves. From mid 1989, they suffered a devastating counter-attack. Death squads were formed from within the armed forces, the UNP and other political parties. Thousands of suspected JVP-ers were taken, sometimes tortured, killed and burned. One night, a vehicle came to Wellepollewa and parked by the Schoolmaster’s house. A couple of nights later, a group of masked JVP-ers broke into the house and stabbed the Schoolmaster to death in front of his father and sister. Why? A cousin of the Schoolmaster says it was all a mistake. The police came to the village searching for JVP-ers, and for some reason parked their vehicle by the Schoolmaster’s house. The JVP wrongly thought he had been helping the police, and murdered him in retaliation, just as they killed the Grama Sevaka and a couple of other people in the locality. Somasiri’s family tell a different story. It was not the ‘police’ that parked by the Schoolmaster’s house, but a death squad. They came over to Somasiri’s house because the Schoolmaster had told them that Somasiri was hiding a JVP-er there. Fortunately, a member of the squad somehow knew Somasiri, and did not believe that he was helping the JVP. One JVP-er from Meegama was killed and his body burned. Several others are still missing. But the death squad left Somasiri safe with his family.
Somasiri died, of natural causes, a couple of years ago. His tiled grave sits conspicuously between the remnants of the little house I remember from 1976 and the spacious, high ceilinged new building in which the family now live. Four members of the family currently work in the Gulf. Dropping in without notice on the last day of 2009, we find one of his daughters, a returnee from the Gulf, in a rather elegant black Western dress. It is the turn of this family shyly to speak a few words in English. Schoolbooks are all around. In this household as elsewhere in the village, job opportunities in the Gulf or in the armed forces seem to have induced an energy and optimism that was not there in 1976. And there is another very tangible change: a motorable road now passes in front of the Somasiri family house. It takes off from the older road that passes the former Schoolmaster’s house, and crosses the paddy field exactly where the battle on the bund took place 44 years ago. And right there, where the two roads join, is a large new solid concrete block with an official inscription, in Sinhalese: Somasiri Road. The SLFP majority on the local Divisional Council paid their tribute to the political opportunist who turned out to be a long term party stalwart.
And what of the Schoolmaster’s house? After his murder, the household began to disintegrate. The Schoolmaster was buried according to the minimalist rites that the JVP prescribed for their victims. In contrast to Somasiri, he has no visible grave. The Schoolmaster’s father passed away a few years later. His sister moved to a less hostile locality by the main road in Meegama. For a while, the house – and the adjoining researchers’ house – were being used for a furniture assembly business run by the Schoolmaster’s brother, now retired from the Survey Department. Both houses are now locked and empty. The vegetation in the compound is closing in over them. And that beautiful bathing well has been concreted over.
I like to think that Somasiri’s people eventually won the battle on the bund. It is partly a matter of fairness, but also because I generally found them more likeable. But, with hindsight, I wonder how much that reflected the ways in which poverty and relative lawlessness motivated different groups of villagers to behave differently? Because they were never far above the bread line, Somasiri’s people were always potentially in need of help and support from nearby families. Sociability was perhaps to some degree a material necessity. In contrast, the Schoolmaster’s family had enough property to feel the need to defend it against their less fortunate neighbours, but not enough wealth or connections that they could reliably call upon politicians, the police or other government agencies for help and support. Solidarity with other propertied family members and belligerent defence of every last square inch of land made sense. Theft was a constant feature of life, and intimidation, violence and murder never seemed far away. I remind myself of the evening when the Schoolmaster burst white-faced into our little house, with his forearm slashed open. He had just disturbed a young man stealing his coconuts, and been attacked with a knife. I knew the boy responsible, and was fond of his parents. His father had been working for years on the estate of a large landowner. He was legally entitled to the status of a permanent employee, with pension benefits. The landowner, nominally a politician of the left, was enjoying a sinecure political post in Colombo. When I had attempted to intercede on behalf of his employee, he had sent me away with a large flea in my ear. We did persuade the local police not to beat up the thieving son while he was in custody. That earned us a lot of kudos with the family and with people like Somasiri. No doubt the Schoolmaster and his family knew that we had in effect taken sides against them; they were good enough never to mention it.
The battle on the bund was not an historical inevitability. But the kinds of conflict it reflected did seem to have structural roots in the ways in which groups of people with different amounts of property sought security in that rather lawless environment. If behaviour and attitudes in the Schoolmaster’s family were driven more by these structural factors than by bloodymindedness, we should not begrudge them their achievements. The successor generation – the four children of the Schoolmaster’s brother from the Survey Department – have indeed done well. All are well educated. Two live in Colombo; one is settled in America and the other in Australia. Were he still alive, their grandfather would have been proud of their success, probably not too disturbed by the empty house and the buried bathing well, and perhaps not entirely enraged at the sight of Somasiri Road. The prosperity of his family is rooted in his hard labour and belligerence. It is surely progress that they have opportunities to enjoy prosperity without needing continually to watch and warn off their neighbours. The quality of social life in the Wellepollewa that I remember was not good. It is probably a more civilised place now that material poverty is not quite so pressing. And don’t even begin to talk to me about ‘the harmony of the traditional Sinhalese village’ – or at least do the body count before you start.