The French and Dutch in the Sri Lanka Police TodayJune 16, 2012, 2:40 pm
By Maheen Senanayake
Pictures by Thanuja Amendra.
I am 16.3 hands tall. My name is ENZO. I was born on April 28, 1992, and I arrived on this beautiful island from France on January 5, 1998. I am eager to tell my story and wait patiently for Maheen and Thanuja. For mine is a story I am eager to share. Me and my friends have come from far off lands and are serving in your country. For us this has become our adopted land and it is very likely that I will indeed die here. This is the story of the French, the Dutch and the Indians; my buddies on the Sri Lanka police force. Time is not on my side, and the scribe and photographer, have promised to capture my tale. I am impatient.
The Pettah is synonymous of TATA Vikings bumper to bumper. Loud music emanating from the door frame sized rows of little shops lining both sides of the streets, the haven of the payment sale, those plastic sheet covered fruit shops, elephant foot like translucent ‘boondi’ wrapped in polythene, the red variety being the most popular. The bargains from the street vendors mingling with the lottery draws beneath the layers of now popular baila remixes, coated in the pirith chanting, police whistles and chitter chatter from around Sri Lanka’s 24-hour domestic transit point. Just beyond, the market dedicated to Manning, another world in another life.
Closing one’s ears, each audible layer could be separated in my mind a three dimensional sonic plane layered to dissonant harmony. The orchestral maneuvers of the Pettah; life of the ordinary. Thanuja’s Red Indian motorbike shot this way, maneuvered around the yellow three wheeler with the self starter, avoided two young policemen with the odd looking white sleeves sans white Sam Brownes and stopped just in line with the pedestrian crossing.
We spotted our turnoff and no sooner had we turned in, the atmosphere transformed. As we negotiated the hill up Mihindu Mawatha, on a stretch no more than 50-feet very much in need of the Chintanaya’s Maganeguma, Thanuja guns the Indian towards our destination - the metamorphosis of our surrounding now complete. We were on time to meet the Frenchman and before us materialized, little Nuwara Eliya.
The policeman at the gate guided us to our parking spot and we walked through the gates. No sooner had we entered, we were transported across time and miles. The building on our right was raised. The architecture reminiscent of the colonial and a small flight of stairs lead us through two gigantic patches of summer flora. Without delay Thanuja who was already fixing and adjusting his gear and I were guided to our meeting.
Shaded by a jak tree beneath a bo, opposite a mango and kottan, we sat to listen to a story that we commit herewith to paper. Our host held nothing back.
"It was not too long ago that our buddies led Queen Elizabeth down Galle Face green to President’s house," he said adding "don’t forget to write that I was part of the group that lead Pope John Paul ll across the green. Me and my buddies still dare bring in that regal pageantry to many a state festival," he said, dropping his head for a second and then making a full skyward circle with its nose. ``I am 22-years old and retired. They look after me very well" he said adding "I get my regular exercise and I am fed as I have always been."And thus began the story of the mounted division of the Sri Lanka police, told from the heart of a stallion. And it would be the first time, I would pen a biography in one page. Thanuja stared at the tall creature, his heart going out when he saw the cataract in one eye, the white standing out against the darkness of its coat. As it related its tale, Thanuja for moment was lost in time, forgetting his task, reached out to place his palm gently on the creature’s head, the donkey fringe, a reminder of the caring attention of the men who ride them day in and day out. Its gigantic hoofs making the occasional clitter clatter upon the still original cobbled stoned section of the stable. For comfort it was filled with saw dust and sand.
The ones before us have told us that the stables were originally started for those gentlemen of privilege who used their horses for police duty. The original stables had been in Nuwara Eliya. But the ones we were at had been established way back. However, post independence this division was set up as a separate entity under the police department with three Lankan sergeants. In 1956 the division was manned fully for the first time by local officers. One Sub Inspector two sergeants and twenty two police constables were allocated to the division along with 22 of my buddies brought in from Australia." Today there are over 60 men in the division across the country.
"You know, we escort, visiting heads of state and ambassadorial appointees on their inaugural meetings with the President to hand over their credentials", Enzo said, noting "we also escort the President on national day, and on instances of inauguration of parliament."
His head bent and its tail flapped a slight neigh emanated in flat slow rhythmic release. It moved its body adjusting and shifting its weight on to a differing limb. Thanuja clicked incessantly. His media card full. "It’s the first time" I heard him say as I also heard him click clack fumble through his haversack, fish for another card, slide it out of its case and magazine it into his machine, all in one seemingly fluidic motion.
Enzo quenched his thirst. The attendant nearby came over. "You know the officer in charge of this section is I P Heenbanda. He has been here for many years. Did you know that he used to be a coloursman and has won accolades on the track?", he asked. ``He used to compete in the 1,500 metres and five mile events, both of which he won. And it was then that he was summoned to join the mounted police. "He is such an unassuming person. From Bogahakumbura near Welimada, he claims he hadn’t seen a horse until he joined".
I looked around and saw that the mounted division was a unique institution. There was a sense of connection between this group of men who each rode a different animal on any given day, rotating man and animal daily. They were two units in one. The French, the Dutch and the Indians one group and the Sri Lankans the other.
Watching the policeman wiping and caring for the animals being readied for the evening ride for traffic control, we were unperturbed by the smells of the stables. Thanuja was motioned off as he tried to capture the policeman wipe the horse in the adjacent stable. "Why ?" , I intervened.
"That is a job for the labourer, and our officers are not meant to do this.’’
"Do you think it would be demeaning?" I asked
"No, it’s just that, we have labourers for it," the sub-inspector in semi casuals reiterated.
I understood. So did Thanuja. "They just care too much", Enzo summed it up for us. The bond between them was unique. No words could ever capture that. According to Enzo, the stables at Nuwara Eliya and Kandy are also similar, and their officers equally bonded to these magnificent creatures. We watched as one police constable carefully wrapped a knee guard on the readied horse and insisted the attendant polish the horses hooves.
"There are plans, we have heard of two more stables being set up", Enzo’s sources were Grade A. It was later confirmed that plans are indeed underway to set up stables and mounted divisions or sections in Tangalle and Anuradhapura. SSP Ranmal Kodituwakku, the Director of the Mounted division was not available due to the fact that he was engaged on a training programme.
According to I P Heenbanda "the only officers in the police outside the mounted division, who have the privilege of learning to ride are the directly enlisted ASPs". Anyone else requires the green light from the IGP.
At the recently held first ever Asian Beach games, the mounted police secured nine medals. The police constables who were responsible for these accolades are PC 44772 GMD Gajanayake, PC 44789 PA Dharmadasa, PC 35448 R G Senanayake and PC 36856 Sarath Kumara.
Enzo was pensive. "We have heard that our fellow K9s are ranked", he said. But that is not the case with us. "In a sense we are all equal here", he added. "I do miss my family, and I miss my girl friend. But I have my brothers. We have heard that they may bring in some young girls. Hope to take a glimpse before I pass out, you know. It’s been a long time" Enzo said.
According to Mr. Heenbanda, they are exploring ways to set up a breeding facility. Currently plans are in motion.
The bell rang reminding me of school. It was time to prepare the horses for the evening crowd and traffic control. As the readied horses were guided out to their riders and partners, Enzo looked on with pride; the veteran, knowing all and content. The administration of the day to day affairs had pomp and pageantry ingrained. Man and animal in a strange place for a strange cause.
The regalia upon the magnificent animals gives them an air of regality. Once mounted the police officers too became part of that proud and arrogant form. And as the five horses and their horsemen led by IP Heenbanda first walked and then moved into a slight trot out of the quarters, Enzo, Thanuja and I couldn’t help feel the pride in their gait; prancing with ears straight forward, nostrils flaring, tail up, head pointed downward on arched neck, against the thuds of the hoofs on soft soil and then as they moved downhill on Mihindu Mawatha, the clip clop, clap against the asphalt.
We bid goodbye to Enzo. The air suddenly seemed morbid, and both Thanuja and I knew, that these creatures from far off lands, had heavy hearts, yet served us Lankans for years with dedication and devotion and remained loved by the men who rode them in the name of duty. This was indeed a strange place nestled in the heart of Pettah.
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