It gripped me from the first chapter, this novel which the author describes in his Foreword as "the story of the poverty-stricken, innocent, landless peasants of Wellassa". a place of which I’d not heard before. The hero, Kirisanda, who might perhaps more appropriately be called the victim, is the lone villager who resisted, vainly as it turned out, the might of "external forces that came in the guise of development" (to quote the author again). From time to time, the media carry news-stories about some villagers somewhere making a stand against a Government-sponsored or approved project that will alter their way of life. Like most of us who are city-based, I have seldom paid much attention to such news items. After reading Mr. Punchihewa’s book, I can never be indifferent again.
Kirisanda was a chena cultivator, as were his friends and neighbours. The only piece of land he owned was an allotment of two acres given to his father by the Government and inherited by him on his father’s death. Unlike most of his friends, Kirisanda had worked hard to develop his land to its maximum and he had reason to be satisfied with the results. His modest house, too, was better built and maintained than many other cottages in the village. But Kirisanda’s real means of livelihood came from the chena on crown land that he so assiduously cultivated, working on it by day and keeping watch over it by night against the depredations of wild animals. Although he knew that he could be dispossessed of it at any time, he cultivated his chena too with passion. Suddenly, he was in danger of losing everything because a big company in Colombo had its eye on two thousand acres of crown land for a big development project and the villagers faced the prospect of their claims to comparatively insignificant bits of crown land being dismissed by heartless officialdom, in the name of progress..
They rally under the leadership of Malhamy, President of the local Rural Development Society, to present a formal petition to their Member of Parliament and, for good measure, also to meet with the Government Agent and the Land Officer too. All their efforts prove futile because, despite the promises of the M.P, the decision to lease 2000 acres to the company had already been taken at Ministry level in Colombo. The influential city men who represent the company and are keen to start operations soon, are not intent only on making profits – they honestly think that the developments they plan will benefit the whole village. One by one, all the protesters have a change of heart and accept the compensation offered them for loss of their few acres, as well as the jobs awaiting them under the new dispensation. All but Kirisanda who holds stubbornly on, refusing to leave his small plot.
The story is told without any melodrama. There is no attempt on the author’s part to present a polished or dramatic piece of writing. Rather, he simply and almost starkly gives us the realities of life as lived by landless peasants, focusing on one particular man’s plight and character while giving us clear vignettes of all the other interesting folk who figure in the clash of urban and rural outlooks. There are the wily Gramasevaka and the astute `Gampaha Mudalali’, the not unsympathetic company directors from Colombo who yet give priority to having their accustomed comforts when they come to the village, the efficient and hard-working Company Manager who unfortunately sees Kirisanda as a a stupid and arrogant man, the M.P., the G.A. and other officials. With a few strokes of his pen, Mr. Punchihewa portrays the feudal attitudes that then prevailed towards those in authority and also the genuine concern some officials had for the welfare of the villagers. even when they did not push hard enough for measures that would alleviate the lot of these poor people.
This is best shown in the persistent indifference to the villagers’ appeals made time and time again to the authorities, to have the broken anicut across the Wavul Ela repaired so that the water from this ancient tank could be harnessed for their use in growing paddy But the powers-that-be in Colombo gave low priority to their request and no GA or Land Officer or DRO and not even their M.P. fully supported their cause and pressed for this practical aid that would have made a world of difference to those such as Kirisanda who toiled unceasingly and yet had to depend on the rains coming at the right time. While giving them fictitious names, Mr. Punchihewa says in his Foreword that "Most of the characters in the story are persons I have met in the course of my official duties at Moneragala." That’s what gives it the ring of truth.
The uncommunicative relationship between Kirisanda and his wife Etana, quite acceptable in our culture, is also subtly conveyed. Etana feels for her husband, but never dares to ask questions and maintains the respectful distance expected from a dutiful wife. Kirisanda alone, in all of Wellassa, refused to budge or to work for the Company which, in getting the tank restored, had flooded his chena and submerged it out of existence. He had to give up his paddy lands too. It was a battle that was lost before it was begun, but right throughout the telling of the tale of Kirisanda’s vain opposition to the forces of modernization and development, the inarticulate but deep attachment that bound him to his own patch of earth, makes an indelible impression on the reader. I felt a compelling interest in the final outcome and the suspense was well-maintained. "The Shattered Earth" has stirred my heart and given me a feeling of kinship with the type of villager exemplified by Kirisanda.