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
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
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
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!
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,
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.