Schooling at Poppitiya in early 1940
Chena cultivation is done annually and this cultivation period is an additional vacation for the students of Poppitiya School. The children too accompany their parents to the chena. It’s an outing for the children and the parents. The entire family occupies the chena hut until the harvest. Even the dogs and cats at home accompany them.
A plot of land from the closest Crown forest is earmarked and the trees with small shrubs are cut and allowed to be dried for about a week or two. The area so dried is set on fire. The main growth of Kurakkan is sown after about 7 to 10 days on the cleared areas. Bada Iringu (Maize), cucumber, pumpkins, and chilies were grown where there is no growth. Chena hut is a must for the family to reside and specially to safeguard the growth from wild animals such as hare, deer and wild boar. The cultivation has to be protected from the adjoining cultivators especially from thefts, evil mouths and evil eyes, as they very often speak of. In the nights a huge fire is lit in front of the hut to scare the wild beasts and to avoid attack from little flies. These cultivators apply a local medicinal preparation on their legs to avoid from tick bites. These chena cultivators continuously recite Pelkavi in the nights to keep them awake and to make adjoining cultivators to be aware of their presence.
My father too cultivated a chena with the villagers; I presume it was for him to be in company with them but he used hired labor. He never spoke of any monetary gains, but the kurakkan thalapa and rottee were frequently prepared continuously at home after the harvest for some period and the apatite for these still remains even at this old age. The kurakkan Talapa with dadamas (wild meat) is a delicious meal.
Poppitiya is a village in the Minipe Electorate situated about 10 km away from Uda Dumbara (formerly Madugoda). All this distance had to be done on foot then. When I visited this village towards the latter part of 1970, to reminisce the childhood memories, walking distance had been reduced to about 6 km. as a distance of 4 km.was motorable due to a connected road that had been constructed to Kalugala from Uda Dumbara. I wonder whether this village is motorable even today.
Poppitiya School in 1940, where I had my primary education was surrounded by thick forests. The chirp of birds like sparrows minas, parrots cuckoos, pidgeons were heard continuously throughout the day. The roaring noise of sambur, deer, and wild boar were heard in the night. Not even a thatched hut was in sight in the vicinity. The sound of the calves of normal cattle (ela harak) and buffalos continued day and night. The school where my father was the Head Master and my mother the only additional teacher had less than 50 children. There were classes only up to 5th Standard. The school had a small hall (it appeared as a large one when we were there), roofed with ca1icut tiles. The Head Master’s quarters had three wattle and daub rooms and an annexed kitchen.
This was during the second World War. The Temmitiyana Army Camp (an Army camp that was constructed about 5 Km. away from Uda Dumbara, towards Mahiyangana) was about two Km. (as the crow flies) away from the Poppitiya school premises that was on a lower elevation. One day, the villagers were in a panic and rushing towards Rass Ella (a waterfall in the Ma Oya, a stream running along the boundary of the village.) with Bath mull (lunch packets) in their hands. The children too were accompanying the elders. My father inquired about their errand to find out the details of their sudden and unusual behavior. "Loku Mahattaya, Temmitiyana Army kamp eken ada bombyak danawalu. Api yanawa bomben hengenna Ras Ellata." (The Army is to bomb the area today. So we are running towards the Rass Ella falls to hide). My father tried his best to convince them that the Army would not bomb and harm the villagers unnecessarily. But they were not ready to listen to him. Some school children opted to remain in school. The villagers returned to their houses in the evening as nothing had happened as expected. Later, my father had come to know that a test was to be done within the camp premises on this particular day. A village lad, an employee in the camp, had brought this message to the village. The purpose of this false message to the villagers by the minor employee may have had some motive, as I feel now.
The Ma Oya , mentioned above, that was on the boundary of the village had a suspension bridge. During weekends we accompanied our father to have a bath. The oya is about 3 Km away from the school. The eerie sound of the flow of water can be heard within about half Km. away from the oya. (This sound may not be the same to us as adults now). We were very scared of this noise as I and my younger brother were very young then and we clung on to mother until we reached oya.
During rainy days, the children on the other side of the river had no option other than playing hide and seek as the boulders disappear due to the overfloor of water in the oya. However, when suspension bridges without planks are shown over the TV, I still recollect the shivering attitude of us then.
The school hall was a huge one and the play ground was like the Agiriya stadium, as I remember. When I grow up, I must make a visit and see myself, I thought and I arranged to visit this village as a Senior Presiding Officer in one of the Elections in 1970.We could travel only the 4 Km. mentioned above, by jeep. The jeep was left with the driver and we walked the balance distance. When we reached the school it was about 5.00 p.m.There was no difference in the structures of the school hall and the Head Master’s quarters. New quarters for the Head Master had been constructed elsewhere, but it was not occupied. We were happy that we could stay the night in the quarters. But to our dismay, it had been completely dirtied by bats with their dung. The dream world of seeing a spacious hall and a large playground was only a dream of childhood days. The playground was a small compound and the hall was only a room to have two or three classes.
The Mee trees were available in the forests around the school. During a certain period of the year (I cannot remember the exact period), bats had musical shows in the school hall during the nights. They bring Mee fruits and have their noisy music dirtying the hall with their dung. About a half gunny bag of Mee seeds could be collected in the morning. At the end of the season, my father made Mee oil out of the seeds so collected and sold them. Mee oil is applied on areas of the body where there are rheumatic pains.
The caravan consisted of ten bulls were engaged for transport of the requirements of provisions, cloths and kerosene oil to the villagers from Hunnasgiriya. Kaluwa, Suda and Somary were names given to the bulls. The smallest was Podiya. My father being the Manager of the Co-operative Stores employed this caravan for the transport of the requirements of the stores. He opened the Cop-operative Stores only after school. This caravan moves to Hunnasgiriya passing Uda Dumbara, a distance of about 15 Km every Friday morning so that my father could attend to his requirements on Saturdays.
Bells were tight around the necks of caravan bulls. Some bells were made of brass and others were locally made out of empty malted milk tins. The ringing of these could be heard for a distance.
We, specially my younger brother (he was 6 years and I was 7 years then), and I were so thrilled to hear the coming of the caravan with the ringing of the bells by about 7.00 or 8.00 in the night. The unloading of the bags from their back and how the bulls were tied to the trees in the school land with the help of hurricane lanterns were a real sight for us. This primitive way of transport by employing bulls was inhuman behavior, we thought then.
Ukkubanda was employed by my father to transport 50 coconuts from Uda Dumbara for home consumption. Every occasion he brings coconuts, he brings one nut less. When questioned, his reply was that the seller may have made mistakes in every occasion and thereby he gains a nut in addition to his normal fee.
Mekkappu was the gold smith’s son and he was about 40 years then. He came to the school limping. As a small boy I asked him why he was limping. "I have a wound and and I cannot walk properly." He showed the wound to my mother. The wound was badly festered.
We had a cousin sister who was about 15 or 16 years as an aid to my mother. Once, she fell sick and she had high fever. The nearest hospital was at Udadumbara. The only way of treating her was to carry her to Udadumbara. In the evening, a local Vedamahattaya came with a bottle of some oil. He warmed the oil with a piece of a pot kept on the hearth. Then, the warm oil was applied at several places of her body with the aid of ambul dodam fruit. The following day she was cured.
One day, we saw a fleet of aircrafts flying in formation for the first time at about 5.30 a.m. Later I came to know that this particular day was Easter Sunday in 1942, the day the Japanese bombed Colombo.
I only have a fair memory of the General Election of 1947. My father had a photograph of the 1947 Cabinet framed and hanging on the wall. With the granting of Independence to the island, we left to Kandy from Poppitiya.
(The writer is a retired Survey Draughtsman)