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Martin Wickramasinghe describes his father’s skill in investigating crime in this last section of the sixth chapter of Upan Da Sita
Of cattle thieves and a mining misadventure

Father’s death was a tragedy that disturbed me immensely. There were times when I thought that Mother’s face underwent some change after his death. With unmarried daughters and a small son, she lives like one who walks with an unbearable load on her shoulders.

Father had earned a reputation among the villagers as a village chief who was wise because he had managed to solve some crimes committed in the village and get the thieves punished. Stories about the experiences of elderly villagers get circulated around the village. Some of these stories become folk tales and enter Ando Aiya’s "story book". Both children as well as adults listen to such stories with great interest. It is from these stories that the villagers accessed the knowledge, craftiness and wisdom of the older generation. On account of this knowledge, some acquire a wisdom of their own. Some develop cunning. Some becomes tricksters.

I believe that my father, who did not learn from books, acquired wisdom from such stories which told of the lives and experiences of generations past. Such knowledge might have also been enhanced by the advice offered by the police with respect to the apprehending of thieves. The following story about Father and some cattle thieves is written using information provided by Loku Akka and a man named Jayan who helped Father capture the thieves.

Father knew the two or three villagers who stole cattle, slaughtered them and ate the meat as well as some of their friends. Father sent them to jail only after catching them a couple of times and advising them not to do it again. Finally one of his spies told him how these men had stolen a cow, slaughtered the animal, cut the meat into pieces and how their friends received a portion each. He summoned the two thieves and told them what he knew. The thieves were dumbfounded and could not say anything.

"I warned both of you a couple of times. On both occasions I already knew how you had stolen the cattle and where you slaughtered and cut the animals. I was also able to find witnesses who were ready to testify against you in court and thereby get you convicted. I thought that you would stop stealing after I warned you."

"Mahattaya, please save us. We will not steal again," said one.

"There is nothing to be done now. The police inspector will arrive today and conduct an examination and take both of you back to the police station. I will try to get your punishment lessened."

Some time after this, a village veda complained to Father that his cow had been stolen. After recording the complaint, Father asked, "do you suspect anyone?" "No," said the veda. After dismissing the veda, Father sent for Nonis. Father knows that Nonis is not a cattle thief. He was however a friend of cattle thieves since he had a liking for beef. Nonis invariably got a portion of beef from whoever slaughtered stolen cattle.

"Nonis, there is a complaint that you have stolen Jakoris Vedamahattaya’s cow," said Father, looking intently at Nonis’ face.

Nonis, facing a charge he never would have dreams would be directed at him, looked around uneasy. Father, thinking that his ploy would succeed, attacked him with a barrage of questions.

"Tell me the truth - I will save you."

Nonis looked around again.

"There is no one else here. Don’t be afraid. Tell me the truth."

Nonis continued to ponder.

"Speak without fear. I won’t let anyone touch you."

Nonis spoke. "Opisara Mahattaya, I didn’t steal the veda mahattaya’s cow. It was Carolis that did it. I heard that he had tied the animal under a godapara tree in the Mapalawa forest. I learned from one of his associates that the animal is to be killed tonight.

Father went to Mapalawa with his two guards immediately, entered the forest, untied the cow, went to Carolis’ place and returned home with him. He threatened the cattle thief and then said, "I will let you go this time. I am releasing you because you didn’t kill the cow. Remember that you will have to go to jail if you ever steal another cow."

Karolis, who was not unduly disturbed, went away happily.

Father spent about about three thousand rupees on the plumbago mine before he died. Mother wanted to abandon it. The man who worked on the mine allayed Mother’s fears. "Stopping work now is like abandoning a treasure trove," Eluketiye Rala argued. We are very close to the plumbago and if we dig another two or three feet, we will reach it. I work on just one meal a day. Hamine, please don’t abandon this."

A thick set man with a moustache that drooped over his upper lip like the tail of a dandu lena, he talked like one who has travelled in another country and discovered strange things. Watching him speak, I thought that he pursued his search for plumbago with as much joy as one would search for hidden treasure. Madduma Akka also decided that the work should not stop.

"We have to continue the work, even if we have to sell off whatever we have," she said. "After all, Eluketiye Rala says that the plumbago is at hand. He knows a lot about mining."

Mother did not show any enthusiasm and spoke without emotion. "Since they struck rock, even Father was thinking about stopping the work. Father said that it will cost a lot to blast the rock. One day he also said that breaking the rock might result in a spring gushing forth."

"What lies, Hamine," Eluketiye Rala said. "That is something that some school teacher would have put into Opisara Mahattaya’s head. How can there be springs under each and every rock? School teachers know nothing of what is in the earth; they know things that are in books."

Mother looked at her daughters and said, "If you think it is alright, I don’t mind."

Mother pawned off small pieces of land and funded the blasting of the rock. Madduma Akka, who was convinced that once this was done, the plumbago would be found, waited impatiently for word from Eluketi Rala or someone working at the mine. Mother went about her work as usual. Her sense of nonchalance increased when she realised that the money was not sufficient to completely break down the rock.

Madduma Akka said, "We have to pawn our gold ornaments. How can we stop now?" It was she that derived the most joy from betting money on the panchi keliya. Even if she was dragged to the place, Mother never took part in this game.

"Get me some gunpowder and a yard of fuse; I will return only after having mined the plumbago," Eluketirala said.

Mother handed over the money she got from pawning the jewellery of two of her daughters to Eluketirala. Unlike at other times, she did not try to get gunpowder and the sevanul from Galle. On the day that the rock was finally blasted out, the mine was filled to the brim with water.

"If not for the water, we would have had to use carts to haul out the plumbago," Eluketirala said sadly. When the last piece of rock was broken off I saw a silvery vein that was as thick as my leg. It was because of your bad luck, Hamine, that there happened to be a spring just there. If we had a pump, we could draw out all the water and begin mining."

"Our bad luck." Mother did not blame Eluketirala.

Madduma Akka was incensed that the money from her pawned jewellery had been lost. "Bad luck!" she said and laughed.

"A liar, a damned big liar!" she cast accusations at Eluketirala.
(Translated by Malinda Seneviratne)


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