Features
Stuck in the Mud
Settling pioneers in Allai in 1953
by Tissa Devendra

Uncomfortable in white satin drill suit, fond parents escorted me right up to the porch of the crumbling old Dutch building housing the Trincomalee Kachcheri. The year was 1953 and I was "assuming duties" in my first job as a District Land Officer. I was not to remain uncomfortable for long as Government Agent Mc Heyzer a burly one-eyed ex-serviceman in khaki shorts set a welcome example, of informality. The next several weeks I tagged along behind him on inspections, inquiries, Division Days and ‘land kachcheris getting the feel of his commonsensical approach to problems. The good earth that I began to feel beneath my feet was worlds away from the cloudy abstractions of metaphysical poetry that had wafted round my undergraduate head, a short year ago.

In 1953 two distinct Trincomalees existed side-by-side. One was the old town of narrow streets and winding by-ways, of houses crammed together with quaint low doorways and steep roofs, crowded bazaar, jostling fishmarket and dusty ‘maidan’. Occasionally the distinctive architecture of a kovil, mosque or church stood out from the general huddle. Two large unsightly corrugated iron structures graced the town. One was the hangar housing a lumbering fire-engine. The other was the Lord Nelson Cinema, honouring the British naval hero. A loud, asthmatically wheezing generator powered the town’s flickering lights. The Resthouse under a spreading banyan was refuge to the thirsty, and home to me.

The British Royal Navy ruled the other Trinco and was a dominant presence everywhere else as well. Fort Frederick and the Dockyard were exclusively True Brit, except for hundreds of civilian pen-pushers and menials who docilely trooped in every morning and checked out before sundown. RN trucks, jeeps and staff cars of naval top brass, resplendent in gold braid, whizzed through the streets. The RN had its own civilian police, better paid and much envied by the Ceylon Police frustrated by their total lack of authority over RN personnel, property or premises. The Lord Nelson screened films from Pinewood and Ealing for an almost ‘whites only’ audience.

The Trinco Club celebrated St. Andrew’s Day with Scottish reels and bag-pipe ‘music’. It was eye-opening to experience, at first-hand, the limitations of the Independence I imagined we had won in 1948.

District administration, however, was anchored in the real world of the peasantry and their eternal problems of land and water. Much of the district was under forest and it was an unfamiliar thrill to stumble along jungle footpaths and bunds of abandoned tanks to visit remote villages yet preserving a centuries-old way of life. In sharp contrast were the Colonization Schemes, a bold venture into human resettlement. Massive irrigation reservoirs had been restored and the cultivable land distributed to "colonists" hopefully expected to develop into a "sturdy, land-owning peasantry". These ‘colonies’ were in uninhabited or thinly populated regions and the few local farmers Were the first settlers. Most colonists, however, came from the densely populated villages of the south-west region and the central hills. Colonists were settled in government built houses round brand-new village centres of co-operative stores, schools, dispensaries, post-offices, bazaars and other utilities. Resident Colonization Officers represented the administration, serving all the colonists’ needs, as the Headmen of the old villages had little jurisdiction over them.

The experience of constructing wartime barracks in the jungle left an indelible mark on these settlements. Treeless expanses, arrow-straight gravel roads; dull, boxy government buildings and cottages strung out along roads, each standing forlorn in the middle of a desolate allotment. Settlers rapidly imposed a welcome disorder on the dreary uniformity. Relatives happily crowded in and built cosy huddles of huts on hitherto bare allotments. Government built ‘commercial centres’, geometrically planned on drawing boards in Colombo, were soon abandoned and clusters of little shops spontaneously sprang up wherever people needed them. Colonies, in real life, developed into vital organisms very different from the sterile barracks that had been planned.

The nerve centre of every new colonization scheme was The Camp. In addition to offices it housed, very comfortably indeed, the staff of the Irrigation and Land Development Departments responsible for irrigation and construction. The Camp was an enclave of privilege — comfortable homes (hierarchically graded, of course) tennis and badminton courts, club houses and circuit bungalows for the official travellers. It was a self-contained world bustling with official activity and busy mud spattered jeeps by day. By dusk, tennis, cards and conviviality ruled the club houses. Most officials lived here with their families and were generous hosts to bachelors seeking respite from incompetent cooks.

Travelling to Allai colony was, literally, an overseas adventure unless one took the slow road with its many lumbering ferries. We voyaged by launch from Trinco, across Koddiyar Bay, to Muttur. These rickety boats with smelly engines were loaded to the waterline with sweaty passengers, bulky merchandise and squawking poultry. A thrill of familiarity struck the recent student of Joseph Conrad, perched on the cabin roof, sunburnt and windblown as the launch chugged along the indigo-blue sea passing towering battleships, snappy torpedo boats, the graceful bellying sails of rice cargo boats and schools of frolicsome dolphins. Once in a rare while the engine coughed to a halt in mid-sea. The launch tossed soundlessly while the boatmen muddled around with rusty spanners, tins of smelly oil and greasy rags while the passengers watched with familiar fatalism. A giant sigh of relief went up when the engine sputtered back to life. Our destination was a shaky wharf in the vivid green waters of Mutur’s mangrove swamp. A waiting jeep then whisked one along to Allai Camp past quaint Mutur where Robert Knox had been captured by Rajasinha’s troops three centuries ago. Allai Colonization Scheme was scheduled to welcome another, intake of colonists from the bill country. The first batch had settled in comfortably a few years earlier. My task was to lead a team of Colonization Officers and others and settle in the latest arrivals. Earlier colonists travelled by train to Trincomalee and had been taken by launch to Allai via Mutur. Officials had not yet recovered from the unnerving experience of shepherding boatloads of spectacularly sea-sick Kandyan peasants. The new plan was to disembark the colonists at Kantalai, load them on to open lorries and head for Allai along a rough road recently hacked out through the thick jungle. This road led to a ferry across the Mahaveli on whose further bank a convoy of lorries was to carry the colonists to their new homes. Logistically, an almost perfect plan — if only the weather kept fine.

We were on the Kantalai platform to greet the new settlers clustering in groups around village elders and Buddhist monks. Their worldly goods were in trunks and unruly bundles wrapped in mats. Village by village, lists of names were checked with the officers who had escorted these colonists from their homes. They were then hoisted into the open lorries of the first convoy which cheerfully set off in bright sunshine led by my jeep. The first few miles through the busy bazaars and lush paddy fields of the flourishing Kantalai colony gave the future settlers a preview of a bright future. Then, the jungle closed over our heads. Enormous trees blotted out the sky, thorny scrub tore at our vehicles, twigs and, creepers whipped our faces. The colonists were clearly nervous as they dodged overhanging branches and peered into the dark recesses of the jungle. At last, our lorries emerged on the bright grassy ‘villu’ of the river bank where the ferry awaited us. Euphoria overwhelmed the colonists, nervous no longer, as they saw the open terrain of Allai across the river and the lorries lined up to take them.

The ferry was poled across guided by a pulley running along a cable slung from bank to bank. Little thought had been given either to the capacity of the ferry to handle the numbers arriving; that day, or the faint possibility of the cable snapping. But the forest gods were kind to our ferry on that fateful day.

The lorries turned back to Kantalai for the next group while I accompanied the first colonists across the river. The welcoming team of Colonization Officers and Overseers systematically loaded them into lorries which then set off to deliver them to the doorsteps of their new homes. Later on in the day I called on some of them, boneweary and bewildered at the unfamiliar roominess of their tiled cottage with its stump and weedridden "garden" in this arid featureless plain far removed from the huddled villages amidst the lush green valleys, babbling streams and misty mountain tops of the hill country.

As the day wore on we nervously observed clouds looming over the Kantalai skies. It also worried us that no further convoys had turned up, at the ferry. While we were puzzling things over at Allai camp the clouds broke and we knew we had a major crisis. In the falling dusk and pelting rain our jeeps churned he mud towards the ferry. As we got there, the first bedraggled colonists, weary and footsore, emerged from among the trees on the opposite bank. They were the vanguard of a long procession which had abandoned the lorries stuck fast in, the treacherous jungle mud and trudged onwards to the river bank. The forest deities watched over these innocents in their weary trek through the elephant infested, jungle, stumbling along to the tremulous chant of ‘gathas’. Deep into the night the boneweary ferry men worked, relieved by volunteers from our team, till the last straggler was brought across.

My council of war at Allai now improvised a completely new plan to handle the crisis. Fortunately for the bedraggled colonists, shelter was available in a cadjan workers’ dormitory on the river bank. We requisitioned rice, dhal and coconuts from stores left behind by the first group. Wives and daughters readily volunteered for our platoon of cooks. The shelter soon became a hive of activity, redolent with the smell of cooking and choking with wood smoke which repelled mosquitoes. At last, the hungry were fed, squalling children fell silent and the new settlers fell fitfully asleep secure that they were being cared for in this strange land.

We drove back to the camp in the rain and mud and immediately set about collecting provisions and volunteers for the next phase of the operation. This was the preparation of a welcome breakfast of ‘kiribath’ and sambol for stranded colonists. Cooking went on all night. Cauldrons of food were loaded into lorries and we set off for the ferry site at day break which dawned bright and clear. An exuberant cheer went up as soon as the colonists sighted us. We lowered the tailboards of the lorries, lined up the hungry — women and children first — and loaded them with generous helpings of food. Meanwhile, others in our team brewed up gallons of tea. Once all this was done the now cheery colonists were loaded into lorries in orderly fashion and went off to the colony.

Recovering the baggage, now marooned in the jungle, was our next task. We set off in a small troop of ex-army jeeps and tractors. Towing out the loaded lorries, slip-sliding in the binding clay was a tremendous task accomplished with great good cheer. We squatted on jeep bonnets for added weight to counterbalance the lorries that were being pulled out of the reluctant mud. One by one the jungle mud let go its captives and the lorries chugged on to the ferry. All the baggage had lain secure and untampered in the bosom of the wilderness. Finally, onwards to Allai...

I had crossed the shadow line from youth into manhood.

 

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