responding to an Invitation from The Editor, Thuppahi after the latter had seen an extract of this detailed and invaluable autobiography in Facebook in 2023 **
As a child and in school:
I am very fortunate to have been brought up as a small child in a rural village in the Kalutara District of Sri Lanka, in a setting under relatively comfortable and caring conditions. I was the number two of three brothers and two younger sisters. Two more brothers were added to the family later on. We were the masters of our time and life was totally carefree. Our parents had an abundance of time for us. In addition, most of the time during the early childhood we had my mother’s sisters, who adored us, staying with the family. We also had the loving but respectful attention of the senior schoolgirls.
My father was a headmaster of the Pahala Hewessa Government School and my mother was an assistant teacher in the same school. We lived in the teacher’s quarters attached to the school consisting of three rooms. There was a semi-detached kitchen. The school was located halfway on a hillock overlooking a meandering valley.
The village temple was on top of the hillock and the main road was only a footpath in the early days. It was the bottom boundary of the school garden, which was in three terraces. Beyond the road was a stream, the Hewesi Ela and a small Dola joined the Ela on one side of the school garden. The clear waters of the Ela, which was one of our favourite haunts, flowed sedately most of the time, but could transform into a violent rush of muddy currents after a heavy shower.
Later in life whenever I read Tennyson’s “Brook” I was reminded of the Hewesi ela.
I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.
Between the road and the Ela was our playground: sellam pittaniya. Facing the School garden was a fork in the foot path, the main path leading to the village bazaar. Bounded by the two-foot paths and opening up in the shape of a fan were the paddy fields stretching up to the foothills.
It was an idyllic location for a growing child. For company I had my elder brother who was two years elder to me and a less than two years younger junior. But we also had my mother’s younger brother who was not very much older to us. From time to time, at least another boy stayed in and helped in the household work, but also attended the same school with all of us.
Their main responsibility was to “babalath ekka sellam karanna” play with the babies. The three of us were the loku baba, madduma baba and ukkung baba, which meant the big baby, the middle baby and the milk baby. And these pet names transformed in time to loku kule, madduma kule and podi kule which have stuck with us since then.
I and my elder brother had our early education in the Hewessa school. If I say that we learned to crawl in the school, it would not be incorrect. I cannot remember much about my teachers or classroom activities other than an intensive coaching given to me by one teacher to prepare me for the 5th Standard Scholarship Examination when I was in the third standard and was not in the least ready to face such a challenge. Another was a pretty young female teacher who was boarded in our house due to the absence of any other suitable home in the village. The only other place in the village where she could have stayed was the Headman’s house. But his house could hardly accommodate his seven sons. She was newly married, and her husband used to visit her at least once a week. She was always very fond of me, and her affection used to become more intense after the departure of her husband on his regular weekend visits.
Although I cannot recall classroom activities, I remember that we spent a lot of time, particularly during rainy weather reading whatever reading material was available in the meagre school library. During World War II schools were bombarded with plenty of propaganda material and I loved to read the valiant deeds of the Allies even if they were retreating most of the time during the first phase of the German blitzkrieg. However, my father’s Sinhala version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf was read with considerable admiration for Hitler.
Until the entry of the Japanese into the conflagration the Germans and the Italians were the bad guys, and the Allies were the good guys. The Japanese were looked at in a different light. To us they were an Asian Buddhist nation, and we were very confident that they will not do any harm to the ordinary population of the country. At the time of the Japanese air raids in 1942, there was a rumour that when an English airplane was shot down close to a Buddhist temple the pilot who was unharmed tried to escape from the plane and was spotted by the Japanese pilot who returned with his machine guns blazing. When the priest of the nearby temple saw this, he ran to the pilot and covered him with his robe. Seeing the robe around the enemy the Japanese pilot ceased shooting and flew away. At the start of 1940s there were many other rumours floating around — which I will refer to later.
There were a number of school events which I can recall clearly. One was the annual celebration of the King’s Birthday. Although my father was a non-conformist and a nationalist, as the headmaster he had to strictly adhere to the procedures laid down in detail in the Departmental Circulars for the conduct of this event. During the time of the war there was more emphasis in drumming up loyalty to the King and the Empire. On this day the children had to come smartly dressed in clean clothes. There was the hoisting of the Union Jack and singing of songs in praise of the King and the Queen. I remember distinctly one of the verses of praise as we had our own version which we sang bravely and lustily as we knew that our rendering was drowned by the din created by the majority who were not privy to our mischief. The original version had the following words:
George apage maha raja
Mary Bisawa guna kanda
Lankawath raka didi
Wajambe seth siri sadi,
This meant ” let our great King George and Queen Mary the epitome of kindness, while protecting Lanka, reign in health and prosperity.
Our version was.
George unge mah raja
Mary Bisawa goma kanda
Lankawata paw nodi
Wanasev sat dinakadi
The meaning of our version was ” Their king George and Queen Mary the heap of dung, sinning against Lanka will destruct in seven days.”
In the early years of school this was sheer mischief without any malice. We really had no anti-imperial feeling, but neither [had we] a great respect for the King and the empire. However, the propaganda against Hitler and Mussolini must have had its impact on our young minds in that we certainly admired the victories of the allied forces.
In the later years of Sinhala education, I had access to the novels of Sinhala authors like Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. de Silva in my father’s library and the newspaper Sinhala Bauddhaya which was subscribed to by my father. Although I did not understand half the things I read, it was sufficient to create a deep pride in our national heritage and an acute awareness of the historical tragedy of Lanka. Although we did not feel in our hearts to praise the King, we looked forward to the liberal serving of kavung and kiri bath which followed the ceremonies.
There were two events, which the children awaited with some trepidation. One was the visit of the School Inspector. The man wore coat and trousers and looked very serious. On the day of inspection, the teachers were clearly nervous and the tension was passed on to the children. The inspector would select a class at random and take a lesson. Even the best of the children dreaded being asked by the Inspector to read a lesson or work out a sum on the board. For the children of the headmaster there was the consolation in enjoying the food prepared for the Inspector. There were many special dishes of chicken, stuffed chilies, tempered brinjal etc. The pickles made for the occasion lasted for a few more days.
The other event, which children would have liked to avoid, was the visit of the public health officer for smallpox vaccination and hookworm treatment. But attendance on these days was compulsory. While the vaccination could be tolerated and many of us liked to show others how brave we were in bearing up pain, the taste of hook worm treatment — Chenopodium — was awful and would not leave your mouth for many hours.
There was one problem with the smallpox vaccination. It was our impression that if a blister did not appear at the spot of vaccination that one would have to go through the process again. In order to promote blister formation and avoid a second vaccination many children applied the latex of the Divi Kaduru plant on the skin. During these days not only were the children immunized and treated in school but also health education was given high priority. There were health days where the parents too participated actively. Although the well water from the school well was quite safe for drinking, boiled water was provided in cisterns with taps. During these times almost all children of schoolgoing age attended school. There was a special officer of state named the Attendance Officer who ensured that all children of eligible age attended school. A strong incentive for the poor children to attend school was the midday meal which was prepared mainly by the older girls who did it in turns. Although our food was prepared separately in our kitchen, we also took the school mid-day meal and enjoyed the hard grained milchard rice and dry fish and wattakka curries.
We never spent time on after school classes or homework. Of course, as the headmaster’s children the school premises were the place where we grew up. The school library, though not very sophisticated, was a place we spent many thrilling hours reading stories and even serious subjects as science and literature.
School was also the venue for social events and for community meetings such as the meetings of the Village Co-operative Society and Credit and Savings Society. Although these were strictly adult events, the long speeches, particularly by visiting luminaries, never failed to impress us with the big words used and their oratory. Even a few village leaders made use of these events to display their talents at public speaking. We did not much understand the substance of these speeches, but we did not fail to notice the many repetitions of the same message.
The school was the venue for magic shows and magic light shows, which meant slide shows. I remember the sadhu sadhu cries coming from the spectators when slides of the famous sacred places were projected onto the screen. When there was a strong man (sando) he continued his feats to late evenings the sando was allowed to stay over the night in the school building and we were privileged to private demonstrations of strength and skill to our great appreciation and admiration. For days after the show, we used to try without a glimmer of success but much pain, the feats of strength like bending iron rods by striking them on the chest. When a police patrol came to the village, they always paid a visit to the school and sometimes stayed overnight in the school building. This association no doubt increased the respect that the villagers had for my father who most times intervened to ensure that culprits taken into custody were not harrassed at least when they were brought to the school premises.
The school was also the venue for the sub-post office. We took our turn in entering in registers the mail that was received and sent. The opening of the mailbag that was collected from the main post office in Meegahatenne was always an exciting event. Meegahatenne was also the location of the Police Station.
When any government official, including police officers, visited the village, it was customary for them to drop in at the school. Our parents enjoyed treating them with a cup of tea or even a meal if it was mealtime.
In the very early days of my childhood there were groups of pilgrims (vandanaa naday) trekking on foot to Sripada who would break journey for the night at the school premises. One could hear the approach of these pilgrims from far away from their lilting chants of Sripada vandanaa kavi. They were very disciplined and walked in single file with each carrying a white carry bag which was called a sahalluwa meaning ‘light weight’ however heavy it was. These groups consisted of men, women and children of all age groups. As a rule, another group of pilgrims from Hewessa would join a group transiting through the village. The school building was the preferred place for overnight stay for many a Naday.
The Sripada pilgrimage was considered a must for all adults without any exception of age or sex. It was an annual event after the harvest when the pilgrimage was undertaken mainly to express gratitude to the gods for a good harvest. There was systematic preparation for the event. A leader of the group (naday gura), an elder who had undertaken the pilgrimage many times before, is agreed upon as the naday guru for the year. Although only a small group would go on the journey, the whole village would be involved, in one way or another, in the preparations. As the journey would take over two weeks, the naday had to take adequate dry rations for cooking the meals. The villagers made generous contributions in kind to their naday. Almost every household would also give the naday gura panduru to be offered on their behalf at the Sripada.
There was always a sense of unusual excitement in the village at the time of a pilgrimage. It was not only of religious importance, but a significant socio-cultural event where there was wide participation and fulfillment. It was a time for compassion (karunaawa) which was the word of greeting on the pilgrimage. Just as during the Sinhala New Year in April, the villagers forgot their acrimonies and differences. It was one more bonding factor.
During the season of the Sripada pilgrimage another unforgettable sight was the unending flights of small yellow butterflies in their thousands flying towards the East, which was in the direction of the holy mountain. We were made to believe that they are on their journey to pay homage the Sripada Mountain where they will die and be born as angels in the next birth.
After school and school-holidays, it was time for games, adventure and discovery. We played a variety of games. When we were tired with one game, we would switch to another. For Katti, Kalli and gudu we used the pittaniya by the ela. For games, where space was not a limitation, we used the school garden. The more vigorous games of Katti, Kalli and gudu were played for long hours with regular dips in the ela when it was too hot or boring. The rules of the games were varied by consensus according to the skills of the available players and the numbers that could be mustered for a game.
Katti was a team game (like modern Kabadi) where the number of players on each side was limited by the space available. The court was rectangular in shape with the shorter side of the rectangle being about 30 feet. The length could expand depending on the number of players taking part. There is a center line joining the two shorter sides of the rectangle. The two longer sides are joined with lines parallel to the shorter side at equidistant, making squares. There is an attacking team and a defending team. The objective of the game is for the attacking team to move from one end to the other through the ground defended by the opposite team. The defense has a guard each on the shorter lines who can operate only on the line assigned. A lead attacker is assigned to guard all the lines including the outer and the centerline. Attackers have to dodge the guards and pass through the lines while avoiding any contact with the guards. If a guard touches an attacker, he is scored out. The Game is played till all the attackers reach from one end to other or are scored out.
The game of kalli was played with a long stick of about 3 feet and two short sticks of 8 to 9 inches. A shallow hole of about 10 inches in length and two inches in width is dug in the ground and one of the short sticks is kept across the hole. The other short stick is then inserted into the trench and kept against the crosswise stick with about six inches protruding in to the air. The game is to tap the protruding end of the short stick (the kalliya) with the long stick and make it spring into the air and strike it to go as far as possible. The game is played in teams or a single player against any number of other players. When a Striker strikes the kalliya, the non-striking team or the rest of the players try to field the kalliya. If the kalliya is caught before it hits the ground the striker is declared out. When we were very young, the game of kalli was taboo to us as a hard struck kalliya is a dangerous missile at short distance and could lead to eye injury. No young player was allowed in the “silly point” position. Catching a gyrating kalliya was more difficult than catching a cricket ball.
The selection of the wood for the kalli sticks called for some expertise in plants. The long stick had to be strong and heavy. The kalliya stick had to be smooth, pliable and strong. For the long stick or the batting stick we selected kata kera or keppetiya and for the kalliya the bombu or wallapatti plant. At that time nobody was aware of the commercial value of wallapatta. When getting the length in kata kera or keppitiya was a problem the bombu which grew straight was a good substitute. A piece of small green bombu stick served as a double-ended disposable toothbrush as well. A twig of the pila –plant served the same purpose. The somewhat astringent pila-plant, particularly the root, was considered good for the gums.
The divi kaduru plant with evenly forking and strong branches was the choice to make catapults. To make bows the best was the straight, strong and pliable bombu plant. For the gun rod to ram the bullets of kora kaha berries or jambu buds in bamboo pop guns (bata thuwakku), there was nothing to beat the very strong and rigid kora kaha sticks. A fairly durable ball for cricket or the game of matta, was made by dipping a dry goda kaduru fruit in rubber latex. A solid rubber ball could be made by wrapping tree scrap of rubber around a domba seed or even a rubber seed until you get the desired size. These balls were very hard, bouncy and fast and were not very popular.
The matta was a very simple game where a short stick like in kalli is placed on two coconut shells turned down and placed on the ground about 10 inches apart. The players have to stand about 30 feet from the matta and throw a ball to dislodge the stick. A strike is not counted if the shells are touched. If the sticks flies into the air and is caught by the fielding team the whole striking team gets out.
The other game we reveled in was gudu which is a team game of four to six players in each team. A centerline divided the territories of the combatants. The objective of the game was to venture into the enemy territory and touch any part of the body of an enemy and run back to the home territory. This looks easy, but the condition was that once you are in enemy ground you have to hold your breath. In order to demonstrate that you are holding your breath, you have to make the sound gudu gudu continuously to be heard by all. The opponents tackled the attacker like in rugger in order to bring him down or hold him until the chant is broken. Then he is declared out. But if he returns home without breaking the chant after touching any opponent the person touched is declared out. This was always a vigorous game and sometimes many a young adult joined in the game.
A more docile game, other than in the penalties imposed, was a kind of marbles which was called “Isten” (pronounced “eyesten”). Some players had genuine marbles which gave the owner lot of prestige. Others fashioned their own marbles by chiseling a piece of granite of appropriate size and shape and polishing it on a stone. Some of these marbles were so very hard and heavy that they could break the genuine marbles. This of course was one of the higher objectives of the game. The game was played with 3 shallow holes, slightly over the size of a marble, made in the ground and placed about 12 feet apart. A point is scored when a ball is rolled into a hole starting with the second hole. Once you get to the third hole you come back to the second and the first, until a total of 10 holes are scored. When you score the tenth hole you shout “Istan”. (Now, I wonder whether this was ” I stand” or I am ten). There were other terms such as “no road” and “no clearance” used at this game. It would be of interest to look into the history of this game.
The game needed some skill in that the ball can only be flicked with your finger and not thrown. To get to a hole you may first strike a ball of another player, but your ball should rest further than span length from the ball struck. If the space between the balls appears to be less than a span, the owner of the ball shouts, “span” and measures it. If it is less, then you forego your turn. The game is played strictly as individual players. At the start of the game all the players flick the ball one by one to the third hole from the first hole. The proximity of each ball to the third hole determined the order of play. Once one player wins the game, all other players are penalized. The penalty is based on the number of holes less 10 that each non-winning player has scored. It is imposed as strikes on the knuckles with the ball flicked from the first to the second hole. The victim has to place his fingertips on the edge of the third hole with the knuckles facing the striker. Amongst very young players the striker had to flick the ball from a sitting position and was not allowed to move the hands. Although a direct hit on the knuckles was rare, it could be quite painful.
When the midula and the grounds were wet and not very inviting, particularly when the parents were not in the house, we used to trap birds. The equipment used was the kulla, a stick and a long string. The kulla was balanced against a stick with a line tied to it. The line was taken to a place not visible to the prey. Then some rice grains or any other food would be scattered under the Kulla. When a bird would come directly under the trap the line would be pulled closing the kulla over the bird.
The easiest to catch were the demalichchas. Crows were too smart for us. The price catch was the neela kobeyya which would land in the midula from nowhere mainly after a shower. There were occasions when a neela kobeyya would fly head on to the white wall of the house and drop down dead.
After catching birds, we would release them almost immediately. The demalichchas would walk into the trap even within a couple of hours. Of course, as every demalichcha looked the same it was difficult to say whether it is the same bird, which was cheated again.
The games mentioned above were only occasional pastimes in comparison to our frolics in the stream. It did not matter to us whether it was morning noon or dusk or sun or rain for us to enjoy a romp in its cool waters. Other than during heavy rains, which of course was quite frequent, the water was translucent, and the sandy bottom of the stream was clearly visible. Even after floods, which sometimes overflowed the banks, which were about 10 feet high at normal water levels, within a few hours, the water would become clear.
At normal flow the water was in most parts of the stream was between 2 feet to 4 feet. There were small pools where the water could reach 6 feet, which we considered a very dangerous depth. These pools were always at the bottom of a narrow rocky neck through which the water gushed through rapidly. The danger was for the uninitiated who get drawn down one of these mini rapids into the deep pool below and try to fight the strong current and failing in the effort panic and grope the bottom with their feet and lose control when they fail to stand on the bottom. We learned the hard way that the trick is to allow the current to carry you to the lower end of the pool that ended up in a shallow. The lesson learnt was that it is easier to overcome a strong opposing force by using the same force rather than fighting it. This lesson was reinforced later in life when I had an introduction to the basics of Judo.
When we were very young, we used to jump into the ela stark naked. But when we were slightly older, and when female bathers of any age were around, we used a handkerchief as the amude (loin cloth). Most times, the same handkerchief was used by a number of boys in turn to get into the ela. When the first user is in the water the piece of cloth is thrown to the next boy to wear for a decent entry into the water and so on until everybody was safely in. The same process in reverse applied to get out of the water. Severe punishment was imposed on any person who came out clad and refused to throw the piece of cloth back to the next.
Other than swimming in the deeper pools, diving was a popular pastime. The rocks close to these pools provided ideal diving platforms. The more daring would take leaping dives from the perpendicular bank. This was safer when the water level was high preventing you from hitting the bottom. Racing upstream against each other gave us many thrills and spills. The contestants are allowed any form of motion to propel them forward, from running, wading, crawling to swimming depending on the depth of the water. As the current was swift even running and wading was not easy. Another test was to stay underwater as long as possible.
A favorite and safe game was the spraying of water at each other using the palms of your hands. The only rule was that the opponents should face each other and keep their eyes open. In more violent and long bouts of this sport resulted in having your eyes bloodshot by the end of the game.
A visit to the ela also was a voyage of discovery. There was a wide variety of fish to watch and catch. The dandiyas, pethiyas, loved the fast-flowing water. The tiny tiththayas with a white spot on its head stayed in the shallows and closer to the banks. The kanayas, madayas and lulas were in more sedate pools. The weli govvas (sand fish) were found in the sandy bottoms. Andas (eels) and teliyas were found in deep water nooks and crannies, but were not very common.
We used many devices to catch fish. A kitul pittha and telgara thread and a bent pin made a reasonable hook and line. These tools were not taken home but hidden safely under a bush by the ela. We never used live bait. When meat or fish was brought home a few small pieces were spirited away to be used as good bait. One golden rule was that the fish caught would be put back into stream. As there was no barb in the safety pin it was easy to unhook the fish without causing major injury. When we wanted to show off our catch the fish caught was temporarily kept in a pool dug in the sand bank.
The other method of catching fish was to tie one end of a sarong and hold the open end in a narrow channel of water. While two boys would hold the contraption, others would drive the fish downstream into to the channel and hope that some of the fish will get trapped in the sarong. The weligovvwa would hide in the sand with only its head protruding. Catching this fish was easy but needed a different kind of courage, as you have to use your amude for this purpose. The handkerchief is spread softly over the fish and holding the sides down and grab the fish in the cloth and throw it out of the water. One cannot do this without the presence of a partner who would faithfully return the handkerchief.
The ela also had other treasures for us. The narrow and fast channels fanned out with deposits of well-rounded pebbles of different sizes and hues. One of our favorite activities was to dive down to the bottom and scoop out handful of these pebble for inspection and collection. Once I brought up a beautiful stone about the size of a small marble. Streaks of light could be seen inside the pebble when held against the sunlight. I was very confident that I had found a gemstone of a sort and showed it with glee to the other kids who were there. One of the older kids laughed at me and said that it was only a piece of quartz and a genuine gemstone cannot be broken. I was impatient to put my find to the test and immediately I reached home, I kept the stone on a kurakkan gala and struck the stone with all my might with a heavy hammer. The stone went into smithereens. Later, one small piece of the stone was shown to an old gent who was considered an expert on gems. He inquired from me where it was found, and I related to him the whole story. He held his head in his hands and cried out “what have you done. You have destroyed a very valuable cat’s eye.” As I did not appreciate the value of gems, his anguish did not affect me in the least and I told him that I would find another. For days we spent hours in vain trying to locate more gemstones without success.
During the fruit season the ela also brought in its waters ripe and juicy small fruits such as alubo and batatumba. As the water was very clean, we had no hesitation in eating them.
The ela also provided material of economic value. There was the continuous renewal of deposits of clean sand. On the exposed banks of the ela were deposits of kaolin which was used for making the weird figures of numerous demons when bali and thovil ceremonies were performed. The ochre-colored clay was dissolved with gum arabic was for painting walls. It was called samara.
The village of Hewessa though thinly populated at that time was a large village. Ours was Pahala Hewessa meaning lower Hewessa. It was heard that the village derived its name from the term hewa wissa or twenty soldiers. This village had to supply twenty soldiers for the King’s service in the olden times. The village consisted of scattered clusters of houses generally located not far from the footpaths leading to other clusters or villages. There was one cluster, which was called the wahumpura goda, where a particular caste formed the majority. The caste of a person could often be identified with the ge or house name. Most of the children from the wahumpura goda carried the ge name of hewa hakuruge. (A ban on the use of ge names would go a long way in eliminating the caste system. A good example are the names of the present-day national cricketers which do not reveal any ge names) Another cluster was called vedi goda. The vedi goda had some significance in my infant days as an old lady we called vedi goda acchi had a black cow which provided my milk. The small sinhala cow did not produce more than my daily requirements.
Among the villagers, the kind of name one was labeled with indicated to a great extent the level of cultural sophistication and the degree of affluence. There were families of Jayasinghes that produced the headman (gam muladani) and later a postmaster. Jayawardhana was the village boutique keeper. Gunatillekes owned lands. The owners of names such as Girigoris, Andiris, Carolis, Simon or Burampy were lesser persons. Amongst the children there was no distinction and they mixed freely. We, the Headmaster’s children were shown some respect but when it came to games, and fisticuffs there were no holds barred and we received equal treatment.
Pahala Hewessa was a hundred percent Sinhala village. But in the adjoining village on the way to Pelawatte was the Thambi Kade which was run by a Muslim mudalali. Among his merchandise, which was of no great variety, were kerosene oil, cartridges, gunpowder and fishhooks. Further down the road was the Suruttu kade or the cigar shop which was run by a Jaffna Tamil. The black cheroots and tobacco leaves were his specialty. The black Jaffna cigar as it was called produced a profuse amount of insufferable smelling smoke, which made any kid foolhardy to try it very sick. There was also the itinerant Chinese who came on a bicycle with a bundle of shiny fabric among which was material called fuji silk. While the young village damsels were yearning to buy a few yards of the relatively expensive silk material, we were more impressed by his demonstration of Cheena Adi (martial arts), made at our pleading.
Somasiri Gunatilleke of our age lived next to the school garden. He was the youngest in the family and until he was quite a big boy he used to run home during the interval to lap milk from his mother’s breasts. The Headman Jayasinghe had seven boys and we frequently stayed with them during weekends. It was quite a crowd and we had lot of fun. One pastime was to go on hikes into the hill behind their house. A big attraction of these hill climbs was the jaggery and treacle made by one of the families up in the mountain. The boy of the family, named Simon was my classmate. His father tapped a number of Kitul palms for both toddy and treacle. He was a regular supplier of Kitul toddy to the Headman who was a heavy drinker. The Headman became very jovial after drinks and used to recite aloud all types of verses. With his loud singing everybody within at least 100 yards would know of his presence. But in his official work kept his cool and maintained his status regardless the drunken state. The Headman would advise us that a small drink of toddy will not do any harm and encouraged us to take a sip. The fermented toddy with its strong smell did not appeal to us but we would not say no to a glass of unfermented sweet toddy, which was used to make treacle and jaggery.
My classmate was Simon who was a very intelligent boy and had superb handwriting. He knew many pal kavi and gifted me an exercise book with a large collection of kavi written in his beautiful handwriting. I can still recall the first verse in Simon’s gift i.e.
Laksana himawathe mavi pasenne
Duk dena ali athun panna harinne
Rakmena deviyane wela bath budinne
Duppath kama nisay ma pal rakinne
Simon was a poor boy. Maybe he selected this verse to be the first in his manuscript to express his own feelings. Simon had an extra short finger joined on to his small finger. When children wanted to tease Simon they called him hayangilla (the six fingers). In the village both the children and adults had the cruel habit of calling a person with any defect by that very defect. A dumb person was a goluwa, a blind one a pottaya or kana and a deaf person a beera. Even if a person had a slight squint in the eye, he/she was labelled a vaparaya. Anybody with a defect in a foot was a kora. There was a boy who had a deformed foot who was called by everybody as undaya.
People were very kind and sympathetic towards each other. But this name calling without malice was the norm and the person so called was never embarrassed. Although the villagers were not well educated the impact of Buddhism was very evident. The pervasive influence of Buddhism was evidenced in the day-to-day discourse of the village folks. Frequently used terms like Porisadaya, Kevattaya, Jujakaya, wasawarthaya, vessanthara and devadattha are from the Jataka tales.
The names of characters that feature in the Jataka stories such as Porisadaya, Kevattaya, Jutakaya, wasawarthaya, vessanthara, musalaya, sakraya and visvakarmaya were in everyday use and denoted the qualities of their traits in the Jataka stories with particular nuances. A villager will say he is not a vessantara when somebody makes a unjustified claim for a favor. Musalaya is a person who brings bad luck. Some acts which cannot be done is something that even sakraya cannot do. The term Uddachcha which stands for ‘restlessness” in the abhidamma was used to describe arrogance. Villagers used to describe a serious mental shock as a Panchaskandayama avaluna (set fire to the five skandas). I wonder whether they used this term with an understanding of the basic concept of Buddhism on Panchaskanda. Terms like anichcham dukkam, sansara sagare connected with Abhidamma were used frequently. The highest form of oath taking was Budunpalla in the name of the Buddha.
When the villagers met each on the road the form of greeting was “Barak yanawada” (Are you ‘going far’ or just “barakda?”) and the standard reply would be “na me langata‘ (no just to close by). Only if the relationship was intimate would the destination would be disclosed. When a higher status person is greeted the barak yanawada would be preceded with the term aybon and the usual form of address to the person concerned such as Peter Unnehe or Iskole Mahattaya. We were addressed as punchi mahattayas.
The villagers cooperated closely with each other and the authorities. On the major farming operations like harvesting the farmers worked collectively in each other’s farms. These events called kayyas were enjoyed by not only the farmers, but the women folk who did most of the reaping. They recited melodious verses as they worked. There was no payment involved, but always a late morning meal and lunch was served in the field. If there was any kayya close by we would join in some minor activity like collecting the reaped paddy and benefit from the ambula. Imbul kiribath stuffed with coconut scraping sautéed with treacle was a favored delicacy.
During that time there were no tractors, and the buffalo was the main motive power used in the major operations of plowing and threshing. Threshing by buffalo was carried out in the field itself in a higher ground called kamatha. In the smaller fields where the crop was not very big the farmers carried the crop to their garden and threshing was done with the use of their feet, which were rough and tough as they were always barefooted. I cannot recall any person other than the monk in the temple wearing even sandals or slippers.
The villagers showed deep concern for each other and in sickness or in some other predicament they would go out of their way to support each other. They were remarkably forgiving. There was the case of Cornelis who in a drunken state, on some trivial provocation, clubbed another villager with a rice pounder. (This was usually made of kitul wood and could become a lethal weapon). The man was convicted of homicide and given a long-term sentence. However, his sentence was reduced on good behavior and he was released within a short time. The villagers welcomed him back to the community with open arms. The talk was going around that the village mudalali predicted his return home by noon on a particular day after hearing a crow crowing in a special way perched on a branch of the jak tree overhanging the roof of the house of Cornelis.
There was no vedamahattaya in the village. Villagers had their own home remedies or go to the adjoining village to consult the vedamahattaya. He never demanded a fee, but the villagers gave him a small fee wrapped in a betel leaf. The villagers had more contact with the village Kattadi Unnehe who was a much-recognized person in the village. When a person was afflicted with even a minor ailment the villagers would consider it as a result of aswaha or katavaha for which the Kattadiya is called upon to dehi kapeema and a nulak bandima which was done with reciting manthras. If additional action is required an Apa Nool was tied promising further rituals. Longstanding sicknesses were generally identified as due to kodivina done by an enemy for which there would be an elaborate thovil ceremony with lot of dancing and beating of drums to neutralize the kodivina or reversing it for which the kattadiya has to be paid more. A thovila was also the remedy for mental sicknesses which was more common among young girls. Here the diagnosis was that an evil spirit had taken possession of the afflicted person.
In these thovilas the dancing and and rhythmic beating of drums drives the person into a trance and reveals the spirit which had possed the person. The kattadiya used threats and offer of sacrifices to exorcise the evil spirit after which the young girl would became absolutely normal. I think this practice was a substitute to the couch of the psychoanalyst. With modernity the dilemma of the ordinary villager is that he has lost faith in the kattadiya and cannot afford the psychoanalyst. The thovila was also a social event when the villagers gathered to enjoy the dancing and also the hospitality of the family of the patient’s family.
The village temple was a hive of activity especially during the poya days and during the vas period. My parents were active dayakas of the temple when we were very young. The temple was located on top of the hill with the school in the lower part. At that time the elder priest was respected as a pious (silwath) hamuduruwa. As we were the closest neighbours of the temple it was the custom to take as dana any special food item made at home before it was consumed by us. It was considered akusal to consume any food meant for dana before offering it at the temple. In addition, there was also the regular dana where a full meal was taken to the temple on a fixed day of every month. When special food items are taken to the Loku hamudurowo he used to accept it and touch our head and say “suwapath wewa” and also very often give us fruits and sweets.
In the early days of our childhood my father played an important role in organizing pinkam. I remember how once he made a hot air balloon to be released at the pinkama which attracted many people from even the neighboring villages. Later on, after the demise of the elder priest, as the Podi hamuduruwa was not known for being silwath my father kept away from the temple and for this reason and due to other distractions, our visits to the temple, unless on big occasions, became infrequent.
The severance of the relationship with the village temple gradually introduced several new dimensions to our learning process and our religious leanings. Firstly, our home became a meeting place for a select group of village elders for regular evening chats. Peter Jayawardhana, who could be named as the closest friend and confidante of my father, dropped in directly at our place from his kade before going home. There were a few assistant teachers who probably had no other pastime who were regulars at these evening gatherings. There were many others who would occasionally drop in from their visit to the nearby kada mandiya. One attraction may have been the well provisioned bulath heppuwa and a cup of plain tea (kahata) with a piece of jiggery served by my mother.
Most of the time there was a group of four to six persons. The discussions were wide-ranging. My father who was well read on Buddhism used to talk about its deeper philosophy and was critical of the priests who preached more about the merits of giving dana than the purification of the mind. He often quoted the Buddha’s explanation of the essence of Buddhism in the Gatha which emphasized on the purification of the mind.
Sabbba papassa akaranan,
Sachitta pariyo dapanam,
He used to say that the pin anumodan kireema with promise of future pleasures of earthly and heavenly existence (melowa & devlowa sapa) was an appeal to tanha. While these supramundane discourses would have a left an indelible impact on our young minds we listened with rapt attention to their tales of adventure. We were thrilled with the hunting and fishing tales and ghost stories that were repeated many times but never lost their appeal. These stories were based on their personnel experiences and the rest of the group had plenty to contribute to them. The ongoing war was also a hot topic. My father had a Sinhala translation of the book Mein Kampf (mage hatana) of Adolf Hitler. Therefore, there were many references made to this book. Everybody had a sneaking admiration for the Japanese and some of the statements made at the evening sessions could have been considered seditious.
The personnel experiences of my father appealed to us the most, making him a real hero in our minds. He had lost both his parents and two other memberS of the family in a malaria epidemic when he was young. He and two elder sisters were the only survivors and they had to undergo severe hardships in life. The encouragement from his sisters and sheer perseverance made him pass his examinations and he secured a teaching post in a remote school in Bingiriya area. He was the only teacher in the school. His next school in the late 1920s was Atale not very far from Hewessa, but perhaps more remote than Hewessa at that time. It was there he met my mother who was the only other teacher in the place and was on her first appointment. Although my mother was very much younger than my father, I suppose as two persons with common interestS cocooned in an isolated village were destined to get married.
One of the stories that enthralled us was about the removal of a huge banyan tree which straddled the school premises in the remote village in Bingiriya. The living quarters of my father was a room in the school building. The branches of the tree were hanging over the roof of the room. The tree cut off the light and the falling leaves made it difficult to keep the place clean and gave the place an eerie look. My father also had a suspicion that the big tree entwined with roots was harboring snakes. He requested a number of villagers to cut the tree, but they made every kind of excuses why they could not do it. Later he found out that the real reason for their reluctance was their superstition that anybody harming the tree would come to grief as it was an ancient tree and probably the abode of a tree sprit. However, as the tree was becoming a nuisance my father was determined to cut the tree. He took the whole day to do it and nobody even visited the place on that day. In the night he woke up with a high temperature and was taken aback by seeing a number of mapilas on the underside of the thatched roof. He was all alone and kept a lamp burning to keep off the snakes. By morning the fever had come down and the snakes were not seen. But the next night he had the same experience of high fever and a visit by snakes. On the following day he saw a doctor who diagnosed that he was having a bout of malaria and was treated. To us the story was blood-curdling as there was a belief in the villages that seven mapilas work as a team and they come down from the roof by making a chain of snakes by one snake holding in the mouth the tail of the next snake. They then suck the blood of the victim who is drained of all the blood without him feeling any pain and dies in his sleep.
My father’s religious fervour rekindled during the latter part of our stay in Hewessa with the commencement of a forest meditation center at the Kalugala forest reservation. It was started by a totally dedicated elder who was called Smaradivakara Ralahamy whose antecedents were not known. He was able to get the unstinted cooperation of the villagers to build a few wattle and daub structures for the common use of prospective aranyawasi priests who meditated in caves. It was no surprise that he chose the school to meet the people rather than the temple which may not have been very keen to have a competitor. Both my father and mother were highly impressed with his piety and his devotion to the cause of Buddhism. They became the chief dayakayas of the Aranya.
Kalugala was an ideal place for seclusion and meditation. It was at least 3 km from the closest human habitation. The place was thickly wooded and had numerous caves that were converted as meditation cells (kuti). Each kuti also had a short sandy sakman maluwa (meditation walk) for meditation while walking. The whole atmosphere of the place was tranquil and inspiring. It was a revealing experience to see the priests young and old walking sedately, with their begging bowls, in single file from their secluded kutis to the central hall for their dana. After the dana is served, they would take the meals back to their kutis. One elder priest would remain to preach a sermon. The visitors observed absolute discipline and even the children would not speak above a whisper. One of the first kutis made out of stone and mortar was a donation from my father and mother. We were delighted that it was later converted to the Shrine Room/budhu ge. Even after leaving Hewessa, we had the privilege of a dana day for the aranya priests every year.
Later in life, when I was in the University of Peradeniya, on a visit to Kalugala I picked up a piece of rock from a stream bed which was filled with golden colored metallic intrusions. I was ecstatic thinking that I had found a source of gold. I took it to my Geography Professor Kularatnam who to my profound disappointment pronounced it as “fools gold” or copper pyrite. I have had no occasion to do any further investigation on this find. Recently I have read on the Internet that pyrite is often associated with the presence of gold and copper, and locating fool’s gold may mean the real thing was not far off. The Professor did not even inquire where it was found. He was a liability to the Geography Department. That is another story.
Before the second world war, there was only a narrow foot path to Hewessa from Pelawatte, a distance of about two kilometers. There was a motorable road to Matugama through Horawala. But the destination of the private bus service was Kumabaduwa, which was a good three kilometres from Pelawatte. The reason for this may have been the lack of passengers and the fact that the owner of the bus service was in Kumbaduwa. In the early 1940s the Army opened a road through Pelawatte to Elpitiya through Pitigala, connecting Kalutara and Galle Districts and a military camp was established in Pelawatte. (The present mental hospital is located in these premises). The villagers called it the Pissan Kotuwa. Mental sickness was not looked at with sympathy. A mentally sick person was a pissa who should be kept in confinement. A pissa was an object of ridicule and the village children took great delight in jeering any pissa. The road construction entailed the building of a bridge over the Hewesi ela at Pelawatte where there was only an edanda.
It was at this time that my father decided that the footpath to Hewessa should be developed to make it motorable up to Hewessa. When this was proposed to the villagers there was widespread enthusiasm and support for the proposal. An important factor that urged the villagers to action was that they could bring a motor vehicle or a even a cart to Hewessa to transport any sick person, which had [previously] to be done in a chair or a sling hung on a pole and carried on the shoulders of a few persons. The work was started at both ends Pelawatte and Hewessa and there was a keen competition which team was making the best progress.
Large numbers of men, women and children participated in this shramadana. The villagers themselves provided the implements, food and tea. There was no fanfare and no politicians involved. Enthusiasm was high and progress rapid till the two teams approached Magalkande where the road had to be cut through a hillock and the gradient reduced. Here they encountered rock outcrops and had to use explosives to blast the rocks. We never got tired of watching the rock blasting procedure. There was only one person in the village who had the know-how for this tedious and delicate operation. He would bore a hole in a spot of the rock, which was selected with great care. After a measured amount of gunpowder was poured into the hole, he would insert a detonator cap fixed into a fuse. Thereafter wads of pol mudu and pieces of rag would be rammed into the hole. The excitement in us climaxed at this point when we would run and hide behind a boulder and wait for the cry of boray and the blast. The blasting material, the black gun powder, was readily available at the Thambi kade and was given free of charge by the Thambi mudalali who stood to benefit immensely by the opening of the road.
The road development was completed in good time and there were congratulations and celebrations all round. But there was no ceremonial opening by any VIP. After all the hard work our family and a few people who led the project decided to go on a pilgrimage to the ancient cities of Sri Lanka partly as a thanksgiving to the gods who blessed the work and protected the workers. The real opening of the road took place when one early morning the first car to come to Hewessa arrived to take us on the pilgrimage. There were many people gathered that morning to celebrate the event, see the car and bid us safe journey. There were also offerings to be made to Ruwanweli Mahasaaya handed over to the pilgrims by the people left behind. I can remember one incident that the elders were surprised when at Sigiriya, looking at the Lion figure, I asked the cheeky question whether the Sigiriya got its name after the giriya (throat) of the lion.
My father also took a lead in establishing new institutions in the village such as the cooperative society and a savings and credit society. When the school needed more space a new building with wattle and daub, thatched with bata kola (bamboo leaves) was built with shramadana. We liked these occasions as they were accompanied by kiri bath and tasty meals prepared by volunteers. But to my mind his best and lasting contribution to Hewessa was the development of the access road.
Life in Hewessa during the latter part of nineteen-thirties was uneventful. For us kids it was a life of play and plenty. Of course, we had our share of sprains and bruises as games were played with much passion. The only major mishap I had was suffering a severe burn injury in the chest. I had bent down with a kerosene bottle lamp in my hand to retrieve a top which went under the bed and the jungi I was wearing had caught fire. Fortunately for me my aunt who had heard my cry had lifted me by my arms and dumped me into a tub of water. She had the presence of mind not to try to undress me because getting in and out of the jungies of those days took a huge effort. I still carry a scar of about two square inches on my chest.
After the Japanese invasion of Burma and Singapore, and once the war came nearer, there was a certain restiveness in the air. There were a few families, including the Jayasinghas from Payagala, who came to reside in the village. Among the new arrivals was a teacher of English. His class in “Basic English” was our introduction to English. With other things we learned songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, which was our favourite. We of course had our own version of the song, ending up with “ape balli vaduwa, katada ona patiya”. Another popular ditty was “abcd malu kadedi, a es me es balallu kewa”. Most of the children had immense difficulty in pronouncing the “f” sound. A “fan” was always pronounced as a “pan” to the severe frustration of the teacher. This elementary introduction to the King’s language gave me and my elder brother the edge to be placed at higher forms when we joined the English medium classes in Kalutara Vidyalaya.
It is necessary to record a few things which are taken for granted today which we did not experience or had no knowledge of in the 1930s when we were kids. This also shows how liberal and brave our parents were.
- We were born at home; there were no doctors and nurses in attendance.
- We were only breastfed and had no supplements. Later we consumed only fresh milk. When the milk was boiled a few leaves of gatatumba or kalanduru yams were added which gave it a pleasant flavour.
- We did not eat bread; it was a luxury. We ate kiribath and lot of yams;
- We regularly had herbs in our food and herbal kanda for breakfast.
- Meat was eaten rarely. For fish there was loola fish brought by the village fishermen. We did not even know the taste of apples or grapes.
- We ate anything and everything that was there; we grew our own vegetables. A variety of banana plants in the school garden gave us a regular supply of bananas.
- Herbs were plucked from the school garden which was quite large. Most of the time it was a mix of herbs. A favorite preparation was hathmaluwa, a mix of seven herbs.
(I had a interesting experience on herbs in Nepal where I was on a consultancy assignment on rural exports. I was walking with a few Nepalese officials on a rural path to a distant village when I noticed Sarana growing wild on the side of the path. I told my companions that sarana is a popular herb which is also used in indigenous medicines. Their reply was that it is eaten only by cattle. On that trip I identified five other herbs which are consumed in Sri Lanka. I also observed a cluster of pretty looking plants with a lush growth of leaves in the compound of a villager. It was the first time I had seen such a plant. Noticing my curiosity on those plants my colleagues had a good laugh and said that is the only herb that has any value and said the plant was cannabis.)
Back to our childhood: ……….. We had no medical checkups; the only medicine we were given was Inguru/kotthamalli. When we suffered a sprain, which was not infrequent venvelgeta was added to the coriander. Only the gata was used. Venival was also called baanwal as the vine was used to tie up cattle. We did not know of aspirin, panadol, or anti acid pills.
We had many sprains and bruises, for sprains the remedy was balathana, salt and scraped coconut, bruises were ignored.
We did not know about the telephone or radio. Television was not even in our dreams.
We did not wear slippers, sandals or shoes, we did not use toothpaste only charcoal and bombu sticks; there were no perfumes, talcum powders or creams in the house, we slept on mats.
The whole family used only one towel; Only soap we used was Sunlight. We never used soap to wash our hands.
Most of the time we drank water drawn with a bucket from the school well; We had no electricity or water on the tap. We had no attached toilets.
There were no rules to follow. We climbed trees and were not asked to do it, we were not coached to swim but learned it the hard way; we played all day in a variety of games and never got tired.
We were not scared of heights, snakes, insects, lightening or water.
In the lower classes we used slates and galkuru. We did not have tuition classes. We studied under kerosene lamps. We built up physical toughness and immunity. We had freedom, failure, and success and we learned HOW TO DEAL WITH them.
SECOND STAGE IN HEWESSA – Learning survival and facing challenges.
We were very fortunate that my father as a teacher appreciated the importance of English education and wanted us to enter the newly started premier Buddhist School Kalutara Vidyalaya which was founded in January 1941 by Sir Cyril De Zoysa. I understand that the decision to send us to KV was also influenced by CWW Kannangara who the Member of the State Council for the Agalawatte electorate. My father was a great admirer and an ardent supporter of CWW.
Mr. P.C.P. Samaraweera was the first principal of KV. The motto of the College was “De Samaya Surakinu” projecting the Sinhalese Buddhist ethos.
My elder brother and myself were also admitted as boarders to the school hostel. I was considered too young to be taken by the hostel but an exception was made as I had my elder brother with me. I still remember the first time we came to the hostel we had to walk a good 4 miles from Hewessa to Kumbaduwa to take the only bus to Kalutara which started its journey at dawn. Our meager clothing and other toiletries etc which were meticulously listed and packed by our mother were in a single steel trunk…. (I used this sturdy trunk even when I was in the Peradeniya University) …. which was carried on his head by Dionis with whom we could hardly keep pace.
Dionis was another well-known and useful character in the village. It was said that he had to eat rice cooked of one Seruwa at a sitting and would work or carry heavy luggage non-stop for six to eight hours. In the absence of any form of transport including bullock carts he was in much demand to carry goods from Kumbaduwa the main supply point to Hewessa and beyond. The main reason why we could not keep pace with Dioinis was that we were wearing leather shoes, which we were not used to. After the first half an hour of painful ambling, at the suggestion of Dionis we took them off and Dionis was obliged to carry them.
My elder brother KP and I were in the first batch of students at KV which commenced operations in a two storied house in Nagoda, Kalutara. My father was an ardent supporter of CWW Kannangara and it was his influence that the two of us ended up at KV. Although KP and I started English education at the same time, as he was in a higher form in the Sinhalese school, he was placed in Standard 4 and I was placed in Standard two. The hostel was located in the upper floor and the classes were conducted within the ground floor and a few temporary outhouses. I was the youngest of the hostellers and received special attention from the hostel masters and seniors. During the first few weeks I was homesick but as the elder brother (loku ayya) was also there it was not difficult to bear the loneliness. We looked forward to the weekends when my father used to visit us. He used to cycle all the way from Hewessa though Pelewatte and Mathugama. He was a very fit person and was able to cycle with me from Poddala to Hewessa through Baddegama, Kurundugahahatapma, Elpitiya and Pitigala even when he was fifty plus years. His visits were appreciated not only by the two of us but the other hostellers as well, as he used to bring a considerable quantity of rice with him, which was a very scarce commodity. Most of the time we had cereals like bajiri and wheat flour Roti. A popular joke was that ARP which stood for Air Raid Practice also meant Appa, Roti and Pittu.
The stay in Nagoda was a quiet one except for the presence of the British Military on high alert. It was also the time that the Katukurunda airstrip was being constructed. Very soon the Royal Air Force took over our school premises and KV was shifted to Alwis Walawwa, close to the Kalutara Town. The new place was on a large extent of land with a large open area in front and similar area behind and on the two sides of the building. The garden was full of mangosteen, mango and nutmeg trees. It was an ideal adventure spot for the young lads. I was one of the few boys who could climb trees and was not afraid of heights. Particularly when the ripe fruits were on a small branch which would not bear the weight of a bigger boy, I was much in demand to deliver the goods. More often I used to keep the best mangosteens and throw the rest for the greedy lot on the ground. I would not dare to climb down without enjoying the select fare.
In front of the School was the school playground bordering the Galle Road, beyond which was the railway line and the lagoon. Many an hour was spent watching the trains and the glorious sunsets across the lagoon and the sea. We were strictly prohibited to get out of the gate to cross the road and the railway line. The lagoon opposite the School was wide and deep, but towards Kalamulla to the South it was shallow and narrow. During weekends we were taken for a river bath on the seaside of the lagoon in Kalamulla. The seniors were allowed to swim across the lagoon at the shallow end. I was the only junior hosteller allowed to join the seniors as I was a good swimmer having learned the hard way to swim in the streams of Hewessa and the lakes in Bandaragama. There were no coaches to teach us to swim and nor lifeguards to give us confidence.
The life as hostellers was somewhat regimented where there was a strict time schedule for study, play and many other activities. We were trained to do things without assistance and in time. I was the youngest of hostellers and was allowed some leeway in going to bed after dinner only with a short period of study.
KV was much advanced in cultural and aesthetic activities. We had Mr. Anangalal Athukorale, a product of Shanthi Niikethan as our music teacher. He was also the composer of the school anthem which captured the spirit of the school,
Vejambewa Kalutara Viduhala ape
Budhuradun uthum siripa
Samanalin galana gangathera
Viduhala ape – Vejambewa
Kalutara Viduhala ape
Vihidi dasatha guwan kuse
Bo samidun paseka pene
Watin negi ena sulange
Indiya maha sayure
Tharanga raga wage
Vejabewa Kalutara Viduhala ape
Susiri Kusum velanda api
Soyuru pemin bendi weli
Lanka maniyage supin
Saru darun vemu sema
Vejabewa Kalutara Viduhala ape
Veera Gemunu maha Perakum
Walagamba heda raja sing
Ude sawasa sihi kara kara
Gayamu vijaya geetha me api
– Ape viduhale
Kalutara Viduhala ape
During our time at the KV, one key event was the staging of “Rohini” a drama based on the novel by that name by Martin Wickremesinghe. The drama practice went on for long hours after school and we enjoyed watching it. The added attraction was that a few girls from the sister school Balika Vidyalaya used to participate in the drama practice.
Mrs. Perera was the class teacher of my brother who was two classes ahead of me. Her elder daughter Chintha was our class teacher. She played a lead role in the Rohini drama and her younger sister Vajira was a regular visitor to watch the rehearsals (later in life she married Chitrasena and was the leading ballerina in the country).
The hostel masters were Messrs Wimalasena and Bandara. They were very kind and helpful but particularly Mr. Wimalasena was a strict disciplinarian. An forgettable episode concerning him was how he gave a long lecture to two Italian POWs and the junior hostellers when the two Italians had entered the hostel premises and was having a prolonged chat with us. At this time there were many POWs in Kalutara camps who were allowed to get out of camp in the evenings. There were Black soldiers and white POWs who were mainly Italians. We used to wave at them and sometimes speak to them over the wall of the school; but were careful not to get familiar with them. Our communication with the outside world over the boundary wall was confined to waving or calling “hello Johnny “. We were really scared of the big-made black soldiers. In the villages there was a belief that the Kapiri soldiers who were cannibals had there mouths padlocked to prevent them from eating people.
One evening two very young Italian soldiers came to us at the wall and started in not too perfect English talk about their families. We also joined them in our broken English inquiring about the war and their villages. After sometime they wanted to see our school and the hostel which request we readily agreed to. The chit chat continued inside the junior hostel till the lights came on at which time Mr. Wimalasena walked in. He was furious to see the two young Italians and ordered them out. They apologized profusely and meekly left the place.
Then Mr. Wimalasena who had taken part in the Gandhian Independence movement in India and experienced first-hand, how the whites had treated the native Indians, calmed down and spoke to us at length of the dangers of dealing with strangers and also his experience in India as a young student in an Indian University who had actively participated in protest marches and the Gandhian illicit movement to make salt. These stories made a deep impression on us and planted seeds of patriotism and anti-imperialism.
Looking back at the total environment at KV at that time I now understand that it was based on the overarching objective of instilling a sense of nationalism and patriotism. We learned to play a few oriental musical instruments. We also observed Sil on full moon Poya days. Ven. Narada Thero preached bana on these occasions. At the end of every school day we used to sing the Gatha – Yo vadatham Pavaro Manu Jesu. At the beginning I wondered whether Manu Jesu referred to Jesus Christ.
There were two unforgettable experiences linked to trees in the KV grounds. One day I had reached the topmost branches of a fairly tall guava tree. My friends were greedily staying at the foot of the tree, competing with each other to catch the fruits thrown down to them. I was focusing my attention on a ripe big fruit a little out of my reach, when I realized that there was total silence from under the tree. When I looked down, to my horror I realized that my friends had vanished and there was the frightful apparition in the form of the formidable personality of Sir Cyril Soyza [sic “De Zoysa?] staring up at me. We juniors held him in intense awe and deep respect. The trepidation was a result of the tales we had heard on how he used to assault errant bus drivers of his bus company, Swarnapali (which was later known as the South Western Bus Company). He personally patrolled the routes in and took drastic action on any breach of the strict rules he had imposed. We used to be well behaved when we saw him from far coming in his Hansa motor car which was easily identifiable. Swarnapali was supposed to be the name of the daughter and a favorite ditty of the older boys was the conflicting wish-
Swarnapali bus eke mata yanna labeda,
Swarnapali kellawa mata ganna labeda.
The second experience was connected with one of our favorite exploits of plucking young coconut from the not very tall thambili trees which were in abundance in the Alwis Walawwa premises. The mischievous activity was resorted to generally after dinner on moonlit nights during weekends when there was no study session. The moonlit nights were preferred as it was easier to identify the nuts of proper maturity for drinking and eating the kernel. The coconut has different terms in Sinhala, based on the stage of maturity which most other fruits do not have. The earliest stage is atti or kurumbatti, the next is gobalu followed by wevara which turns into kurumba and later kalati. Pol is the final stage when it is normally plucked. It was not so easy in the moonlight to pick only the wevara and kurumba. Kurumba was preferred as the nuts did not burst when thrown down to the ground and the soft kernel was a treat. With experience we used a mattress to cushion the impact particularly when tender wewara were plucked.
The nasty experience I had was when I was on the crown of a fairly tall thambili tree; the master in charge of the senior hostel appeared with a few seniors. On the suggestion of the senior boys they and the junior hostellers formed into two teams to play a game of football in the moonlight. Unfortunately for me and to the consternation of my fellow juniors the tree I was on was selected as a goal post. The double whammy was when the Hostel Master volunteered to be the goalkeeper. The game of football was never-ending and the wind had started to swing the crown of the tree faster and faster. After about an hour I was feeling giddy and was tempted to come down and accept any punishment for taking the risk of climbing a tree especially in the night. Some of my fellow culprits by this time were feeling desperate and one by one feigned too tired or injured to continue the game. To my immense relief the Master suggested that the boys could go across to the bank of the river and enjoy the cool breeze. Meanwhile the Master had inquired about me and a prompt explanation had been offered that I was resting as I was not feeling tired. The Master, while accompanying the boys to the riverbank, asked one of the juniors to fetch me to join the others. When the all-clear was signaled by my friend I came down from the tree and joined the others.
I can only remember the names of a few students at KV during our short spell there. I encountered Chandra Jayanetti the younger of the Jayanetti brothers, as a senior manager of the Peoples’ Bank. Albert Perera, known later as Amaradeva of national fame was also a contemporary senior. I had much to do later in life with the two Tillekeratne brothers, who were day-scholars. The younger brother became an MP and was also the Speaker of the Parliament. The senior Tillekeratne was my colleague at the Ministry of Communications under Anil Moonesinghe and was a family friend.
We were in KV only up to the first term of 1942. Even during this time there was an impending war atmosphere. A Japanese invasion was anticipated at any time. We saw mock-up batteries of artillery placed on the strip of sand across the lagoon. We of course knew that the artillery pieces were Kitul and Puwak trunks painted black, and part covered with camouflage nets. We experienced a few huge blasts which were claimed to be the RAF bombing the river mouth to remove sand blockades.
We were at home in Hewessa when the Japanese air raid on the 5th of April 1942, took place. We even witnessed a few dog fights in the distant sky.
This was a time when food shortage was acute and government had allocated land to middle class for food production immediately, and later to cultivate perennial crops. My father with a few others obtained land under this scheme. The land was under thick forest cover in Ihala Hewessa. The forest was cleared with manual labor and burnt. As we had no school, we were allowed to watch the operations. It was sad to see huge trees cut down but we were thrilled when they crashed down flattening the undergrowth. After the burning of the felled trees and initial clearing, Rathal paddy was sown and a vast number of manioc cuttings were planted. Simultaneously a wattle and daub cottage consisting of a large room a hall and a veranda and a kitchen was constructed for people to stay the night. The cottage was located in on top of a steep hillock and was affected by strong and incessant blowing. Winds were so strong it was necessary to place heavy round logs on the batakola thatch to hold it down. The cottage was cool and comfortable.
While the paddy was growing in the less steep areas of the land, elaborate land preparation with drains and pits, strictly according to the recommendations of the Rubber Control Department was undertaken at massive costs to plant bud grafted rubber. It was an utter calamity. When the rubber plants were producing a few tender shoots, sambhur deer took a great liking to eat off the tops. At the same time porcupines and wild boar peeled off the bark at the ground level. There was replanting done at regular intervals, but the disaster continued unabated rapidly diminishing the family savings. The Rathal harvest brought some return and we had a premier rice for our consumption. We also learned to thresh the paddy with our feet as other traditional methods could not be used in the remote location. We also converted the paddy into rice by pounding the paddy in a mortar with a pestle. Some income was attained from the cinnamon planted in land under rock outcrops which were considerable in extent. It appears that land under rock outcrops is not counted in the area allocated.
My father was very disheartened but while other allottees had extracted the valuable timber and abandoned the land he held on to it. He had no option but to use the two kids who had no school to stay in the remote cottage and protect whatever was remaining in the rapidly shrinking rubber plantation. I was 9 plus and my brother was 11 plus. We were accompanied by a sturdy lad of 16 years named Sirisena. To get to the cottage from the nearest house in the village took a good two hours which involved wading upstream in the fast flowing stream (Diyapattawa Ela) and trudging through thick vegetation and climbing a steep hill. We had a 16-bore shot gun as our insurance. But only Sirisena could raise and aim the weapon. When we had to aim the gun we had to use a stump of a tree to keep it level. Our main job was to get up in the night at regular intervals and shout out to keep away the marauding animals. We also recited pal kavi. We had a Robinson Crusoe existence surviving on meager supplies of food. The only food in abundance was manioc, which was our staple diet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a change we had roti. Whenever we uprooted a manioc plant the rule was at least five sticks should be planted immediately. Manioc was eaten with green chili sambol made with chili plucked from the chili plants around the cottage, which deterred any form of animal attack. The roti was made on a thin granite slab kept on the fire. This modus produced crispy roti without over burning them. The stone slab was also use to barbecue dry fish to accompany manioc and roti. We used coconut shells as cups and katukitul palm leaves as plates. Making plates out of katukitul leaves was a fine art. One had to make a circular cut of the size of the kolopatha part of a green frond and push it inside the wangediya (mortar) to get the shape of a plate. After a few days when it is hard and dry the finished plate is taken out. These were washable, light and unbreakable.
During daytime we went on hunting and fishing sprees. We never succeeded in hunting any big game but were more effective in catching prawns and rock crabs.
After a few months of this escapade, to our relief, Sirisena was replaced by a young man as a permanent watcher. I forget his name. Let me call him Simon. He was a well-built daredevil kind of fellow. He gave us lot of confidence. His knowledge of the jungle and wild animals was outstanding. He taught us how to read the cries of birds and animals. He could tell us that a cry of a night bird was in a particular location and was to raise alarm of the presence of a particular animal. On hearing a gunshot, he could say whether the animal shot at had fallen or escaped. He knew all the plants and trees and their uses. He helped is to recognize these plans.
He never missed a shot in the night and supplied us regular supply of meat. We accompanied him on bird shooting trips. He was familiar with the favorite fruit trees where birds flock to feed on fruits like alubo and batatumba. The easiest birds to trace and shoot were the Batagoyas (kind of pigeon) that could be located with their cries while feeding. It was easy to bring down three or four birds with a single shot. The larger variety named Mavilagoya were always in pairs and crooned from top of tall trees and were difficult to shoot.
Simon showed us the way to set a trap (habaka) to catch haban kukulas. The Sri Lanka jungle fowl was not present in the area. The more sophisticated device was the maruwala the contraption to trigger a trap gun to shoot wild boar and sambhur. I used to proudly demonstrate this skill to my brother scouts when I was a Troop Leader.
Simon helped us to recognize different types of trees and their utility value. As our land which was called Wisilaha was very close to the Sinha Raja Rain Forest, there was a tremendous variety of trees and plants in the surrounding jungle. I still remember some of them. Nava Dun were tall and majestic. We were enthralled to watch the gyrating Hora seeds floating from great heights. Kina and Na could be easily identified from the light-coloured tender leaves. Kokun tree was popular with the village damsels as its bark was used as a cosmetic. The seeds of the Dorana tree provided an aromatic oil. The ripe fruits of the Godapara tree were used by village women to make shampoo to wash their hair. There was a variety of cane. Wewal has many uses. Kukul wal and Govi wal are smaller varieties and Thimbotu wal is a giant variety. The thorny climbers of the canes can hurt any person venturing into the undergrowth.
One moonless night Simon invited me to join him to go on a night-shoot within our land. The target was mouse deer (meeminna), which used to feed on tender cinnamon leaves. We walked for about half an hour without spotting any prey. Simon took me to a rock at the highest point in the Cinnamon plot and asked me to stay there without making any sound. He went down about hundred yards flashing his torch light in a wide arc. I had no weapon or torchlight. Suddenly there was an ear-splitting shriek a few feet above my head from a branch of a small tree. I was petrified but refrained from calling Simon. The shriek continued with a rising crescendo. I was only aware that the torchlight was flashing in my direction and rushing towards me. Simon appeared very soon. He suggested that we go back to the cottage to which I readily agreed. Back at the cottage he announced to everybody that I had not been scared by the evil cry of the Ulama. I was happy to endorse his statement. The Ulama or devil bird remains to be a mystery in the villages.
According to Sri Lankan folklore, there was once a drunkard husband who demanded meat with every meal. One day he was not served meat at dinner at which he chased away the wife and in his drunken state butchered and made a curry of their only infant. The wife came back and was serving the curry to the man when she discovered that the meat curry was made out of her infant. She flew into a frenzy and pierced her head with the handle of the ladle and died. It is believed that the crest of the devil bird is the spoon part of the ladle and the spirit of the mother lives in the devil bird, her anguished wails forever sounding through the forest.
There are various contenders for the real species behind the mythical devil bird whose blood-curdling cry is believed to portend the death of a loved one. The spot-bellied eagle owl is the most likely candidate.
The next time I heard the cry was in Kantale from a tall tree close to my house. On that occasion there was a tragic coincidence when a watcher of the Paddy Store under the tree, died the very next day of a viper bite.
Another candidate suspected of this hideous cry is called “bodilama.” It is associated with an eerie mournful wailing in the middle of the night. It begins as a low groan until it crescendos in a loud cry resembling the wailing of a woman in the throes of childbirth. It was believed that at the peak of the wailing a macabre female appears from nowhere to throttle you. There is also a belief that the bodilima is the hump nosed lizard found in the Singha Raja Forest.
Simon continued to be the watcher of Wisilaha for many more years even after our father was transferred to the Galle District. My father continued to visit the property accompanied by me for a few more years. Two of us used to cycle all the way from Balagoda through Baddegama, Elpitiya and Palawatta to Hewessa, where we left the bicycles at the place of the Headman and walked to Wisilaha. At this time my father was over 50 years but was very healthy and fit.
Simon would have shot and killed so many animals to protect the rubber and cinnamon plantation but to no avail. They continued to destroy the crops. He spent a lot of money in replanting but the sambhur destroyed the top and the porcupine the bottom of the rubber plants. They finally won and our father was compelled to abandon the project and let the land go back to the wild.
The last I heard of Simon, our jungle lore coach, was that he was killed by a strike of lightening when he was working in a paddy field.
NOTE ** …. AA:
Sugath Kulatunga was born in November 1932 and, clearly, retains an incisive memory and a considerable knowledge about plants, animals and rural village lore. Sugath’s extended autobiographical essay demands close reading. Its strengths lie in its detailed native village and jungle lore and a remarkable degree of recall. The lore is a learning curve for all of us urbanized personnel who have no experience of village and jungle life of the sort imbued by an intelligent lad brought up within a stone’s throw of Sinharaja Forest in the southwestern quadrant of the island. I could not, and would not, pursue my usual policy of imposing highlights on portions of the text deemed significant. I have taken the liberty, however, of inserting pictorial embellishments in order to alleviate the reading of this extended essay.