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Sunday, 21 September 2014

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Villagers too scaled the heights

The other day I read Goldsmith's Deserted Village in which he said ‘Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;

But a bold peasantry their country's pride
Once destroyed, can never be supplied,’

this prompted me to write a few lines about my own village. Today, we witness the last vestiges of fast vanishing villages. My village is no exception. The peasant and the temple which formed the nucleus of the village have lost their pristine glory.

The bhikkhu was hero-worshipped. His commanding stature made him the benefactor, arbitrator and the symbol of social cohesion of the village. In distress, people sought his advice and his prescription had a soothing effect on them.

Values

Apart from him, the Vedamatmaya (Physician) Kattanndiya (Exorcist), Gamey Ralahami (Village Headman) and Iskola Mahattaya (Teacher) were the most respected.

Values which bound the villagers together had a strong influence on their lives. The villagers, irrespective of differences in social life were simple, accessible and spartan. The unsophisticated villager had no pretension for doctorates from Harvard or Michigan and yet they succeeded in life.

Stress or hypertension were unknown to them. Their sturdy physique needed no physiotherapy or painkillers. As Buddhists, their lives were conditioned by the three major elements, Jathi, (Birth), Jara (Decay) and Marana (Death). They only seldom missed a Poya to observe sil. If a tragedy occurs, they would console themselves with a few words “Anichchey Dukkhe Sansaray” which basically denote impermanence in all living beings. Despite the religiosity there were those who resorted to violence for petty issues such as a disputed boundary or a fence. As much as the villagers were quiet, a sudden irruption might result in a single or perhaps even double tragedy.

Ignorance

The villagers probably due to ignorance believed more in the Kattandiya than Vedamahattaya in curing diseases. If one falls ill, the Kattandiya was promptly sent for instead of the Vedamahattaya, whose prescription was “noolak bendeema” - a process of propitiating the spirits to ward off the evil influence on the patient.

Three people, Dala Kattandiya, Emis Atha and Kalati Appuhamy who are dead, haunted my childhood memories.

They were part and parcel of the lives of villagers. Dala Kattandiya earned this nick name due to his irregularly positioned teeth. The miscreants called him ‘Dalaya.’ His authoritarian, yet friendly tone tells a different story – that he was the lord of all that he surveyed.

His successful career running into decades was blasted when he accepted a daring challenge to save a serious patient from imminent death. He made the relations of the patient believe that the power of his mantra could even resurrect a dead man! His prescription was that he would exorcise the evil spirit, the patient was possessed of.

In the midst of his devil-dancing around midnight, the critically ill patient after a few gasps breathed her last. Dala Kattandiya and his assistants were mercilessly beaten by the people.

A few hours later they heard someone beating a drum afar. They found the drum-beater who escaped the ordeal of beating was calling for help from a deep, abandoned well. This was poor Dala Kattandiya's waterloo!

The other person who adorned the village was Emis Atha who was still vibrant in his fifties. He was a wood cutter by profession.

His expertise lay in his correctly guessing the age of any tree. It was because of his ‘professionalism’ that he was nicknamed ‘Professor’ which he accepted as an honour for him. His two sons, ‘distinguished’ themselves as carpenters.

Like many others in the village, the two could not overtake their destiny and ended up as inveterate drunkards-one died prematurely, the paralysed till death.

He was always clad in amude, (loin cloth) which he dared to wear for any occasion, perhaps as a symbol of the dignity of labour.

At the end of the day's labour he went to Thotalanga to savour a bottle of toddy. After a couple of drinks he used to sing his cares away,

“Aala sula manchi nona saya sobana,
Puraya dala suda balanna thama beriuna”

Amis Atha's end was pathetic. His wife, disoriented between two world did not show a bit of care or affection for him. His two sons had no other interest in life than imbibing kasippu. It was a pity to see the one-time sturdy man with sinewy limbs now reduced to a frail body and confined to a bed.

As Thomas Gray lamented, “One morn I missed him.”

Pacha Matta, Begal Pedda, Kalati Appuhamy and Kana Charaiya played a role no second to that of Dala Kattandiya and Amis Atha. They were notorious for their wily craftiness.

Pacha Matta and Begal Pedda were professional liars. In the sophisticated art of lying, the two had excelled to be 'Primus Inter Pares’ - the first among the equals-in the village.

Many an educated person would have been astonished at their professional manner of concocting stories. If ever there was a land dispute, the litigants went in search of them to give evidence in support of them. Such was their expertise acknowledged by their peers. ‘Pacha’ and ‘begal’ broadly stand for lies in local parlance. People at the village tea kiosk were eagerly waiting for the two busybodies to listen to their yarns.

One day when the rumour spread that the village headman's cattle were stolen Begal Pedda bragged, “Nobody in the village could steal anything without our knowledge.” Within minutes, the headman realised Begal Pedda had a hand in this foul affair and had beaten him mercilessly until somebody pleaded on his behalf and the beating ceased.

‘Good riddance of bad rubbish’, the villagers consoled themselves.

Experts

Begal Pedda, Pacha Matta and their chum Kana Charaiya were experts in the local game of ‘daan edilla'. Early in the morning they would start the game and continue till late afternoon. Kana Charaiya was an ace conman who would indulge in some nasty but innocuous thing to earn a few extra rupees. He was a chain smoker and he would do anything for a cigarette.

One morning, he fell near the local bazaar pretending that he had fainted. When the people sprinkled water on his face to help him recover, he murmured in a feeble voice, “dumak, dumak...” meaning a cigarette. Such was his patent craftiness.

These were the people who ‘illuminated’ the village. Among the innocent and peaceful, there were the black-sheep too.

The last notable person in this bygone era was Kalati Appuhamy. Tall and scraggy and hungry looking with a special bent for pooh-poohing other religious faiths, he was an ardent Buddhist.

In his arguments with Christian friends, he would advise them to read Ven. Battaramulle Sri Vibbhuthi Thera's 'Durvadi Herdaya Vidharanaya. He was unlettered and harmless, yet the neighbours abhorred and never entertained him, as he was a homosexual – an indelible social stigma in the village.

He was an excellent organiser of Buddhist pilgrimages and of all places of worship, Kawatayamune, off Matale, was his best. After returning from one such pilgrimage, to the surprise of all he related how he saw a kohila yam (kohila alaya) laid as a foot-bridge across a small canal. In his own words ‘kohila alayak adantata dala'!

Somewhere in the corner of my village, a land-locked area conspicuous by its being cut off from the mainstream, was “Anda Manda Doopatha’ – the Andaman Islands. A few fast-diminishing poverty stricken families, not more than 20 lived there being somewhat ostracised for no fault of their own.

They were generally unclean and seldom bathed in the small well patronised only by their community.

Peaceful

Their lifestyles have no parallel. Marked by charcoal-black teeth caused by constant betel-chewing, these families were well-known for their soiled clothes.

Despite occasional irruptions between families the atmosphere was generally peaceful. Alliya, Vimale -nick-named ‘Dr.’ Wilison and Adau Goone were some of their names still fresh in my memory.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since then and today there is hardly any trace of Anda Manda Doopatha caught up in the surge of time.

“All, all are gone, the old familiar faces’ lamented poet G.K. Chesterton. The overpowering presence of poverty and stagnation took a heavy toll on these villagers’ lives. Lack of primary education, basic health care and social intercourse made the lives of these people miserable.

“Chill penury repressed their noble rage.”

- Thomas Gray

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