From The Beginning

by Martin Wickramasinghe


Chapter 2

It is with limbs, organs and sensibilities made somewhat supple by playing with the village children and engaging in all kinds of mischief, that I went to the guru gedera to learn letters.

Today, where mechanical horses, elephants and oxen can be made to turn, jump and dance, even the most rural of our children cannot obtain the utter joy I experienced with my home-made polpithi haraka, pulling it along after boring a hole in its "nose". For a set of horns I used sticks. I pierced its nose using a pen knife. As I pulled it along, my cousin Darly who was about a year younger to me, walked behind, hitting it with a stick, saying "chah!".

For the wheels of the cart I made using ekels and string, I used four suriya gedi. For the two alavangu also I used two ekels. All the village children derived as much joy as I did making and pulling this cart. The polpithi sekkuwa was something that caught their imagination much more strongly than any of these toys. Two or three children are busy trying to bore holes in discarded coconut husks. Another is stacking these one upon the other on a stake planted firmly on the ground. Another, having secured a pol piththa with a large head is trying to pierce it. This is placed right on top of the stake. The smallest child in the group sits on the pol piththa his legs dangling on either side. Another takes the other end of the pol piththa and moves in a circles. The game does not end until each and every child has had a turn at the polpithi sekkuva.

The only thing that gave me more joy than the polpithi sekkuva was my bamboo rifle. The barrel of the gun was about the length of my palm. I found great joy in shooting at not just birds and dogs, but people as well. On the rare occasion, a battichcha would fall to a well aimed shot, the bamboo rifle spouting puffs of smoke as the bullet (epala gedi, a small spherical fruit) sped towards its target. If we did not run fast enough and catch it, the bird would once again take wing. A dog, when hit, would yelp and run away. If it was a villager, he would scold us.

My friends and I learned the art of shooting by firing at the leaves of trees. Anyone who could send the bullet through two or three leaves was a hero. I was among the two or three such heroes. Having learned to shoot thus, we divided into two teams and waged war. Our military fatigues consisted of head bands, belts and other attire made of Jak leaves.

Having learnt belligerence from such activity, in the guru gedera we were very obedient students. The ethos of the village persuaded us to respect and love our teacher. A moustache adorned the upper lip of our teacher and it drooped down on either side to his chin. His beard was short and covered his cheeks like the blades of two kethi. His preferred style of shaving gave Andiris Gurunnanse’s face a keen and mature countenance. It was not by threatening us with switches taken from tamarind or narang trees, that he disciplined us, but with the kindness and compassion hidden in his mind. Andiris Gurunnanse, wearing a sarong with another draped over his shoulder, always reminded me of my father.

I was hardly eight years old when my father died. He was never harsh on me, never beat me. He hardly ever talked with me.

Today, when I picture his almost bald head with a konde the size of a batu gediya, his keen eyes and his lips, which rarely moved to speak, sticking to each other firmly, I am reminded of an artist’s rendering of a detective.

Father said things not just to his daughters but his son too, through Mother. Even the children, if they had to tell him anything, would get Mother to say it. Mother conveys these things to Father. This was a custom that prevailed among villagers.

Mother would sit on a lower seat in Father’s presence. Upon seeing Father come home from a journey, Mother would get up not just from a high chair but a lower seat as well. The entire family imitated Mother. There were short and tall chairs and benches in rural middle class households on account of this practice. The short chair was a lower seat.

It was not the custom among villagers to openly demonstrate love and affection to their children, close relatives and friends. Parents kissed their children only inside the room; love was expressed to relatives at the dining table by covering their plates of rice with curries, badum and mallum.

Father was a man of very few words. I have never seen or heard him speak angrily to Mother or anyone else. On one occasion when he was annoyed the threw the bunch of keys on the table. Mother stood up from her seat, smiled and went about her other tasks. Rural parents showed love and respect to their children and their children reciprocated in a silent language known only to them. It was not a traditional custom. I worshipped Mother and Father only on Sinhala New Year’s Day.

Although he rarely spoke with me, I knew that Father was strongly attached to me. He would go to the Galle Kachcheri once or twice a week for official purposes. When he returned, he never failed to bring a handkerchief full of sweets, its four ends tied together in a knot. He would give it to me, his face full of smiles. Knowing that he would bring me this parcel each time he went to Galle, there were days when I didn’t go to sleep until very late.

"It is not very late. Go and sleep, Malli," my Madduma Akka would say.

"I am not sleepy. I will go to sleep after Father comes home."

Akka looks at me with a mischievous smile playing on her mouth and eyes. I knew that she was thinking that I was staying up on account of that parcel of sweets Father would bring. I did not keep awake in expectation of the sweets. I knew that it was for me that Father brought the sweets. But I had a vague notion that it was somehow wrong for me to go to sleep when all my sisters kept awake on account of Father. Now, thinking back, I wonder if I was not persuaded by some selfish desire. I cannot say that I did not suspect that my sisters were not trying to win the affection he had for me. That I was the only son in a family of nine held no significance for me then.

In the parcel that Father gave me there were biscuits, sugar biscuits and sweet crackers, and sometime even toffees. Maybe it is that early habit that has made me crave for rusks. Even today I eat biscuits from Monis of Maggona every morning. I prefer Monis’ biscuits to any brand of imported tinned biscuits. I do not really enjoy eating imported biscuits now.

Of all the things I heard, saw, did and said before I was six years old, I have only faded memories. I have heard my relatives often say that Father, my sisters and cousins were overjoyed the day I was born when the midwife, standing in the room with the door half closed say "Sarama" . They had been thus happy because after having given birth to eight consecutive "Kamba".

From all my experiences as a six year old, I have with me one indelible souvenir. It is under my right nostril. Only someone who peers closely into my face would see it.

We had an old horse who drew a carriage that was little more than a heap of old iron. Selenchiya the man who looked after the horse would massage and clean it with a brush in the evening. As he was brushing the horse, I went out of the house running to get out of the gate. Selenchiya was at that time brushing the underbelly of the horse. Tickled by this the horse lifted its rear leg and kicked. The foot landed somewhere between my upper lip and nostril. I remember vividly someone picking me up, bleeding from my nose. I remember the cries of the people in the house. The scar of that wound that I received while escaping to go play, remains like a birthmark under my nostril.

There is another unforgettable memory. On account of the Sinhala Avurudda, I got sarongs, shirts, coat material etc., not only from Father but from relatives as well. I was particularly taken up by a white sarong with thin chocolate brown checks made of fine material, given to me by an uncle who did business in the up country. I wore it with great fondness until it became threadbare and tore.

That uncle had four pretty daughters. By the time I was around ten years old, I had grown to be very happy to see them. I enjoyed visiting them much more than I did my other relatives. It is impossible for me to figure out if my attachment to that sarong was so strong because the sarong itself and its particular print was inextricably entwined with the beauty of my cousins.

As a small child I had a sense of detachment that allowed me to tolerate things which my friends and my cousin Darly could not suffer. And neither was I frightened by things which scared them. There was not in me even an iota of that which would persuade me to argue with other children.

Upon hearing that a hunter in the village had killed a wild boar or that a cow run over by a train was being cut up, I would immediately investigate like a young veddah. There were two of three villagers who were skilled at burning the skin of a boar, splitting its stomach, taking out its insides, carving out chunks of meat and measuring them into equal portions. They skinned, cleaned and carved the carcass of animals with as much expertise as a student learning surgery.

There were some friends of mine who just could not suffer the acrid smell of flesh and blood being burnt and they would not tarry long in fear that they might throw up. Darly would also leave, teasing me. I would leave a scene where a cow or a pig was being slaughtered only after all the meat was cut and sold.

My excitement grows when the butcher splits open a cow and removes its heart, kidneys, liver, lungs and entrails. One of my older relatives, laughing at this disgusting habit of mine remarked "It would be good to teach Martin surgery".

Whenever we went to see the remains of a man run over by a train, my friends would excitedly watch, but from some distance away. I derived a certain pleasure mixed with fear and disgust watching the broken corpse from close by like a veddah. The Kidaram flower, when it wilts, exudes the smell of decaying flesh. Other children would hold their noses if the stench of that flower hits them while walking along a jungle path. I would wrinkle my nose a little, but walk on calmly. Like a veddah I was thrilled to watch the village cattle being branded. This was done only once a year. The cattle would be brought to our house. They were taken, one at a time, a rope thrown round the stomach and tightened so that they fall to the ground. The feet would be tied together. When the branding iron touches the hide, there would be smoke and the singed skin would give out a foul odour.

I would climb to branches left along by other children when we went to pick cashew. I was never scared as a child to go out on the river or out to sea on boats. I learnt to run quickly across the edanda upon which other children would tread warily.

I believe that it is a sense of detachment that allowed me to surpass other village children in these things. As a result I did not form strong feelings about anything apart from sea animals, wild animals and flowers. Ego subsides in a person who does not have strong desires. Although his sensitivity to fragrance, danger, beauty and ugliness, are finely tuned, they are never overpowering. Nevertheless my desire to triumph in the playing field transcended the limits imposed by my mental and bodily strength.
(translated by Malinda Seneviratne)