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Memories of Miss D. and Sweet Jenny

Tissa Devendra gallops back in time to the era of coconut husk-sellers, "muss-paan" and laundry women

"On Horseshoe street"

Author: Tissa Devendra

Published by Vijitha Yapa Ltd

Price Rs. 499/-


A great advantage a creative writer can posses is the god given gift of telling a good story, to capture the attention of his readers. I was strongly reminded of this as I read Tissa Devendra's "On Horseshoe Street", unable to put it down for days; here is a storyteller of rare excellence.

To begin at the beginning, we are acquainted with Devendra's school-days at Dharmaraja College, Kandy in the late 1930s; a time when life ran clearly on a quieter tempt and men and women went about their daily chores in a manner, unhurried and more relaxed; indeed, those scenes, those people, like the coconut husk-seller, the itinerant baker who carried his "muss-paan" and "bunnis" in a cylindrical basket with a conical lid, upon his head, the visiting laundry-woman and so on, are all gone forever.

It is said that autobiographies are difficult to write because the author is called upon to tell the truth, including his weaknesses; with unabashed honesty, Devendra writes about those visits he looked forward to, with his school friends to the Kandy Muslim Hotel for the occasional "Buriyani feeds" with drooling, slobbering greed!

Imperious time marches on; the Second World War...soldiers, army trucks, cafes, canteens, exotic brands of cigarettes... the country will never be the same again. A couple of more years later, in 1948, to be exact, Devendra is selected to enter University, Colombo, the only one at the time...before the floodgates of University admissions, from the Maha Vidyalayas and Central schools were opened and Universities were to proliferate and their sad decline was to begin.

Interlude in Colombo

The author names his time at the University as "Interlude in Colombo" and true enough, he does not take much time to write of his days at the campus, as one would have expected; even for an interlude it is very brief.

True, he reminisces even with some nostalgia, of those tempestuous, yet formative years, but speaks little of either lectures, lecturers or lecture-notes. But the readers of this interlude will not easily forget the intense but brief romance Devendra starts with a certain Miss D. In spite of all his hopes and dreams and faltering feelers tentatively extended for her circumstances tear them apart.

She recedes beyond his reach forever when she marries another even before she finishes university, to migrate to a distant land and die, leaving Devendra devastated, we are left with the "Letter" he purports to write to her beyond the grave, which acquaints us with something of the rapture and the grief. Leaving university, he loses no time before he launches upon a career as a fledgling land Officer in far away Trinco.

Again and again we would hear him saying that it was most ironic that he, coming from a family who did not have an inch of land to call their own, was now called upon to distribute land to others. This stint at Trinco was to bring, for the first time, the town-born, town-bred and English educated young officer into contact with the dry-zone peasant; he was to learn a lot that would stand him in good stead in the future when he is called upon to preside over their destinies, with sympathy and goodwill.

To bring down the curtain on Devendra's work as Land Officer, a small but touching incident deserves mention; while at Galle as District Land Officer, where there was not even a drop of state land to be distributed anywhere, a few tardy fisher-youth without land, were persuaded to accept land at Padaviya, in those early difficult years of the 1950s.

Some years later, perhaps in the time of the second generation of those early settlers, he happened to pass that way and was intrigued to see a colony named "Tissa Pura" and had asked some men gathered there, after which king, i.e Devanampiyatissa, Kavantissa or Sadhatissa...they had named their settlement; they had promptly replied, it was after none of those Kings, but after a young Land Officer, called Tissa who had given them the land! The now-greying former Land-Officer felt he was walking on air!

Sweet sorrow

But the reader would remember his earlier sojourn at Trinco for another reason... for his compelling story of a Scots girl, the Harbour Master's lovely daughter. Circumstances threw this young and personable Land Officer and this beautiful young girl together and a flaming romance developed, the initiate apparently, coming more from the girl and of course, a great drama was in the making, tender and rapturous... but alas not for long! They are torn asunder, as he says, "providentially".

He was transferred out, never to meet her again... or is it? If memory was not playing tricks this brief encounter was to have its echo heard years later when Devendra was seated on a bench in a London park, while he was exercising his grandson and Jenny, now grey-haired was doing the same with her own grandchild.

They part almost without recognising each other or do they pretend not to know?

There are several other stories here, equally absorbing:the story of the lame carpenter's beautiful wife from Anuradhapura, the stunning story of "Brumpy's Daughter" and last but not the least, the story of the elusive Pimpernel, Marusinghe, the fugitive terrorist leader, who gives the slip to everyone who hunted for him until the totally unexpected denouement comes in the last sentence and the reader could be floored with a feather! Clearly, this is O. Henry's method.

For all the wonders he creates Devendra's style is simple and direct; his method is the statement, at times meticulously detailed.

The sharpness of his articulated perceptions generate lasting neruo-sensory experiences in the reader continually. When it is relevant his language is closer to poetry, a reader sensitive to literary felicities cannot fail to notice that Devendra's writing at times, assumes a lyric quality when the mood demands.

Here is how he records his thoughts, while traversing a waterway at Trinco by ferry on a languid evening" The only sounds were the quiet splashing of the ferryman's paddle, a tired murmur of conversation and haunting cry of a Kirala as it flew across the darkening sky when stars began to gleam".

Then again that memorable evening when sweet Jenny, after her tea-party for Tissa, came to his car to thank him for coming; "Jenny walked up to the car as fireflies twinkled in the flower-scented dusk. Her hand rested lightly on mine as she murmured, " I am so happy you came!...It was a restless night".

This is excellent writing. Looked at from any angle, a most remarkable book...to read, to re-read and to preserve.

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