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Two villages in the jungle

Dr. P G Punchihewa’s "Shattered Earth" belongs to a genre of the novel which combines insights drawn from real life experience of the author with the lifestyle of rural village folk. The story revolves round the family of a rural rustic, Kirisanda, who ekes out a living cultivating a chena in a remote jungle village in the Moneragala District. His worldly possessions include a two-acre plot of land given to him for occupation on a permit granted by the Government under a Village Expansion Scheme. He draws his sustenance by clearing up the adjoining jungle (illegally) and sowing chena crops like kurakkan in time with the N-E Monsoon rains. It is a life of uncertainty and hardship.

One cannot help but recall Woolf’s own experience in the Hambantota District as narrated in "Village in the Jungle". Though the events relating to the two narratives are separated by a span of seventy years there are striking similarities, and also differences.

The continuity of the jungle theme

Both Moneragala and Hambantota fall within the same agro-climatic zone. As the crow flies the distance between Tipalana of the former and Beddagama of the latter cannot be large. Sometime not very far back in history both locations would have been enveloped by one sprawling jungle.

In Woolf’s time the jungle was evil and menacing. "It was a living wall about the village, a wall which, if the axe were spared, would creep in and smother and blot out the village itself". Seventy years later no such threat is suggested. The jungle has retreated back in the face of human activity and Kirisanda has to walk some distance to reach his chena clearing. Very soon modern machinery in the form of the bulldozer would supplement human activity and the virgin forest, to use Punchichewa’s analogy, would be "raped by the giant bulldozer". Woolf’s predator has now become the prey.

The village folk

The two families around which the two narratives revolve provide a striking contrast. Woolf’s protagonist, Silindu, was a jungle man whose real occupation was hunting. He lived in a mudhut with a cadjan-thatched roof. Only the Village Headman had a house with a tiled roof. Like others in the village he did work a chena, but "in working in the chena he was the laziest man in the village." In contrast, Punchihewa’s Kirisanda was industrious in comparison to his fellow villagers. His entire homestead compound of two acres was fully planted with coconut, manioc, banana and other crops so much so that "there was hardly any space left to plant anything more." Above all, his house was tiled and whitewashed.

The members of the immediate family too provide a contrast. Silindu’s two daughters (twins) and sister were like him unschooled and illiterate. Kirisanda could read with some difficulty, but his son Siripala (eldest child) was competent enough to draft a petition for the use of the Rural Development Society of the village. The difference of seventy years in the narratives and the advance of general education in that period become evident.

The transformation of the Village Headman

The Village Headman and boutique-keeper (mudalali) are two individuals common to both narratives. They play important roles in the drama. In both stories they act in unison as power holders and power brokers in the village.

In Woolf’s time the Village Headman was the all-powerful government functionary – the symbol of state authority in the village. He was invariably the richest. The primary economic activity of the village, cultivation of food crops on state forests, was dependent on his patronage – the ability to grant or deny permission to clear a chena. This patron-client relationship was exploited by him to reinforce his economic standing in the village.

In Woolf’s story the Headman also doubled–up as the lender of credit, often in kind. Villagers in distress came to him to borrow a few measures of kurakkan to tide over till the next harvest. The repayment was also in kind – twofold, threefold or fourfold depending on the level of friendship. The Headman considered Silindu as a bad debtor and attributed it to his laziness.

Overtime the Headman lost his standing in village society. The abolition of the Headman System in 1963 led to the establishment of the Grama Sevaka service. The ascriptive mode of selection based on social standing was replaced by one based on a competitive examination. Most importantly, the GS did not have to be necessarily a person from the village. He was invariably an outsider, though from a nearby locality.

The GS we encounter in Punchihewa’s narrative is a lowly government official, solely dependent on his government salary. The villagers were not held in awe by him. He held their respect by performing whatever that was required of him, be it certifying the issue of rice-ration books, issue of food items for work performed on Shramadana, and filling in a miscellaneous set of forms required for government purposes. He was closely supervised by his immediate superior, the DRO, to whom the villagers had independent access. Above all, there was now above him the MP, the all-powerful "ombudsman" who made it his business to garner political support within the village through personal contacts.

In this changed context, we begin to see a different behavioural pattern in the GS. He ingratiates himself to the village mudalali by arranging the transfer of ownership of a valuable piece of land and house, circumventing the rules relating to the alienation of land given on a permit under the Village Expansion Scheme. Thereby, a complete outsider from Gampaha gets hold of a plot of state land in Tipalana, Moneragala. The GS is also shrewd enough to side with the private sector Company to which the Government has leased out 2000 acres of forest in Tipalana for agricultural development. He, being the son of a chena cultivator, realizes the penury to which this government decision will drive the poor villagers, but consoles himself by rationalizing it as a decision taken over his head, in Colombo. He befriends the resident Manager of the Company and helps the latter in many ways.

Thus, in the two stories we see the social transformation of the imperious Village Headman into a simple government functionary learning to survive on his wits rather than the power of his office and social standing in the village.

A critique of government policy

Both authors being senior public officials and intellectually alert cannot help but bring in an area of public policy under scrutiny in their novels. At the higher echelons of the public bureaucracy persons do not simply carry out public functions relating to their office in a mechanical way. They also rationalize and try to reconcile (with varying degrees of success) their official activity with a personal value system. It comes as no surprise thus to see such rationalization projected on to their narratives. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, who makes only a fleeting appearance in his creations, our two authors have opted to play significant roles in their respective dramas: Woolf plays the role of Magistrate and Punchihewa the familiar role of Government Agent.

Woolf’s concern was with the judicial system that was introduced with the Colebrooke - Cameron reforms, especially the Charter of Justice of 1833 which Cameron himself helped to draft. Its stated objectives were a uniform system of justice, equality before the law, pleadings to be in open court, testimony to be subjected to cross-examination and importantly, abolition of stamp duties and court fees so that the services of courts are made available regardless of the economic standing of the litigants. Cameron’s intention was not only to provide a cheap and accessible avenue of justice but also to prevent the judicature from being employed as an instrument of perpetuating injustice. His political objective was to use Ceylon as a pilot project "to plant the germ of European civilization" from which it would spread to the rest of the British dominions.

Woolf’s courtroom drama was a refutation of Cameron’s pious expectations. The central plot was the miscarriage of justice. The whole case against Silindu and his son-in-law was a fabrication, ab initio. Based on false testimony that was used as legal currency, the judicature was in fact employed as means of perpetrating an injustice. The judicial process observed legal procedure pro forma, without making it its concern to seek out the truth.

The policy area examined by Punchihewa was private (business) sector participation in food production that was encouraged during the 1965-70 administration. Vast extents of crown forest were leased to private sector firms for mechanized farming in order to boost food production, especially crops other than paddy. The firms were provided with tax incentives and other facilities like import of vehicles and machinery on consessional terms. Critics pointed out the abuses of this scheme and condemned it as a sellout to the business sector in return for electoral support.

The author approaches his task with due circumspection. He acknowledges the hardships that this scheme imposed on poor villagers and the deprivation they had to undergo as a result of appropriation of their traditional chena land, which they wanted safeguarded for the use of future generations. The transformation of a poor but independent farming community into a gang of agricultural labourers is well documented.

However, Punchihewa also projects the positive side. The anicut across Wawul Ela, which had been relegated to a low priority due to lack of public funding, gets done through private funding and will bring an additional two hundred acres under the plough. The villagers, whose income earlier was insecure, are assured of continuous employment on the Company farm, albeit as labourers. The private Company establishes a government dispensary on its farm, bringing a basic need closer to the village. The road to the village gets done, mainly because it serves as access to the farm. The Company Directors have clout in the corridors of power in Colombo and this is recognized by the MP as a leverage to obtain benefits to the area.

The finale

The endings of the narratives show a marked contrast. Woolf has not hidden the fact that he left this country and the Civil Service a disappointed man, who could not gain any satisfaction in his job. The ending he chose for his story was also gloomy. At the beginning the contestants were the "evil" jungle and the primitive villagers. One by one the villagers die off (or are killed) or are forced by circumstances to leave the village. Finally, only Silindu’s daughter, Punchi Menika, remains - physically wasted, too frail and weak to even gather something to eat. Her end comes when a wild boar gores her to death. Fulfiling a prophecy held out in the opening paragraph of the novel, the jungle creeps in and blots out the village.

The ending chosen by Punchihewa is positive. Kirisanda is a broken man no doubt, but unlike other villagers he declines wage employment in the Company farm. He prefers to retain his traditional employment, tilling the land as an independent farmer. He chooses to uproot himself from his native home and migrate with his family to a colonization scheme in Uda Walawe. In this we see him coming to grips with reality, adapting himself to changed circumstances and boldly venturing out in search of a new life. The author endorses this realistic approach to life and ends the narrative describing Kirisanda’s departure from the village thus: "After a long time he was feeling happy.... He peeped inside the cart and saw the three children fast asleep. They gave him fresh hope".

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