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Revisiting Batticaloa and reviving memories

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by Dr. Sarath Amunugama

When the Secretary of our Party, Maitripala Sirisena, asked me whether I would like to join the party’s reorganization campaign in Batticaloa district, I had no hesitation in accepting. It may not have been a very rational decision considering the fact that my Labugolla Farm in Hataraliyadde is on the border of Sabaragamuwa district where a similar party reorganization campaign was in progresss. It would have been very convenient for me to opt to visit a nearby electorate like Rambukkana, Mawanella or Kegalle.

I am glad that I selected the more difficult assignment. The Eastern Province holds some wonderful memories for me of the early seventies when we could move freely in that beautiful countryside and could interact with the kind and considerate people of Koralai Pattu.

The Koralai Pattu which was then administered by a Divisional Revenue Officer based in Valachchennai, was one of the most scenic parts of Sri Lanka including the beach fronted Kalkudah and Pasikudah. We had housed ourselves in the small thatched roofed Kalkudah Rest House, so close to the sea. I remember that with every meal we had fresh fish of all varieties, lobster, prawns and all sorts of tasty sea food.

But then the war intervened and our visits to the East stopped. During the tsunami of 2004 the placid sea that we knew so well turned ferocious, swept ashore and obliterated the old Kalkudah Rest House. Today nothing remains of this building. Many of the younger people do not even know that it existed.

What brought us to the Eastern Province in the early seventies? We had launched a communications strategy project for family health which had begun under Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and had been continued with equal enthusiasm under the J.R. Jayewardene regime.

Until the Sirima Government adopted the Family Health Programme, Sri Lanka had one of highest birth rates in the world. Economists had projected that if this trend continued the country would be overpopulated with dire consequences for the economy. Poverty levels which were already too high, would rise to impossible levels and the economy would further deteriorate. During this period all sorts of state-owned enterprises were being set up. Nearly all of them ended up as employment agencies which were squandering public funds. There was a state corporation even for collecting gunny bags; corruption was rampant. The uprising of 1971 was a wake up call by the JVP to the government that unless the economy could absorb the new class of youth passing out of rural schools and were demanding employment, there would be social tension followed by island-wide violence.

Fortunately, Mrs. Bandaranaike who had the sense to listen to good advice, backed the Family Health Programme. Since Mrs. Siva Obeysekere was the Deputy Minister of Health in charge of this subject, it became one of the most dynamic pro-growth activities of the Government while in other areas, thanks to the theories of the leftists, enterprises which brought money to state coffers, were expropriated leading to a rapid loss of revenue. “Golden brains” with their doctrinaire policies were driving the economy down to chaos.

The Family Planning Communication project which was funded by UNESCO was designed to convey the message of “a small and caring family”. It was quite successful and with the practical efforts of the Family Planning Association, today we see decreased birth rates which help in stabilizing the economy.

The Eastern Province created much interest among family planners. For one it showed a unique mix of the three main ethnic groups in the island. Muslim and Tamil villages lay side by side. The Sinhalese were mainly in the bazaars and in Amparai district where cultivation schemes such as Gal Oya had drawn many Sinhalese villagers. The Tamils were divided between the old residents and the Jaffna born Tamils who had moved to the Eastern Province and had set up businesses. For instance the M.P. for the area, Mr. Kanagaratnam, came from a Jaffna family. His father, who was a PWD overseer, had settled down there and become a paddy land owner and businessman. His sister was married to a senior civil servant, Tom Pathmanathan, who worked with us in the Ministry of Information. Mrs. Pathmanathan later succeeded her brother as MP.

To get ahead in time, it was the assassination attempt on Mr. Kanagaratnam in his Colombo residence by Uma Maheswaran and his “boys” that marked the escalation of violence by Tamil terrorist groups.

We were specially interested in Kattankudy which had earned a reputation as “the most populated spot on earth”. A BBC film had given Kattankudy this dubious honour and after that many sociologists and family health advocates began to visit this small village which was then known for its handlooms, particularly the Kattankudy sarees and sarongs. Our visits confirmed the fact of overpopulation in this village where most of the men left on business to all parts of the country. They returned to the village occasionally to improve their houses, give money to relatives and impregnate their wives. Hundreds of infants and little children were always to be seen there with women of all ages, their faces covered with saree ends, scrambling after them.

There were two main roads to Kalkudah from Colombo. One was via Dambulla, Habarana, Polonnaruwa, Welikanda, Punani and Valachchenai. This was a scenic route which took us over the old Manampitiya bridge which accommodated both the rail track and the road. It was always a scary crossing because an oncoming train could pulverize us. The other was from Mahiyangana through Maha Oya which brought us to the Valachchenai junction. Both routes went through “elephant country” where we would encounter herds at all times of the day or night. Night rides were particularly risky because we could not see the herds crossing the road in the darkness till they were caught by the headlights of our van.

In our team was the late Anura Gunasekera who was the Director of Information and Kumar Abeysinghe who was Director of the Government Film Unit. Occasionally we would by joined by Flore Rozario–Braid, a Filipina expert in communications and Cyril B Perera, poet, dramatist, critic and above all, undisputed ‘guru’ of young Sinhala dramatists gathered round “Apey Kattiya”. Cyril was going through one of his celebrated alcoholic binges. He would get progressively inebriated throughout the long journey and began to tell us about the time he was suddenly called to Delhi by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who urgently sought his help in solving Indo-Lanka issues.

Since Cyril had earlier worked as a translator at the Indian High Commission he could give full play to his genius in mixing fact and fiction. Of course it was this self-same uncontrolled imagination that made him a respected art critic for the Sinhala media and win him devoted followers like Sugathapala de Silva, GW Surendra and Tony Ranasinghe. Finally, far gone by the time we reached Kalkudah, he began to lecture on the effect of “Anamalu” bananas on Sinhala literature. After the lecture he devoured the banana, peel and all. Who said that we had no spectacular eccentrics among the Sinhala intelligentsia?

On these trips we took our families with us. The three sets of children – they are adults now – grew up together. Their favourite person of course was Anura who in addition to being a very tolerant father was a good singer and guitarist. In order to shut down Cyril B’s monologues we asked Anura to lead us in a sing-song. His favourite was baila king M.S. Fernando’s song about a parrot in a gilded cage. (Looking back now it seems a not inappropriate “theme song” for Directors of the Information Department!) It was also the firm favourite of the children who repeatedly asked for further renditions of the “girawage sinduwa”.

My journey to Kalkudah two weeks ago was very different. The carpeted road from Kurunegala to Dambulla and Habarana and beyond was like an American highway. The trip from Pasikudah to Polonnaruwa took only one and a half hours. As we drove past Welikanda we could see elephants in the distant villus. The drought had brought them to the waterholes even at noon.

We sped past the new Manampitiya bridge which is a spectacular American type construction with large reinforcing arches. By its side was the old Manampitiya bridge which has figured in many peoples’ memories from colonial times. The new road took us through Punani which is famous for its leopards, as described by Christopher Ondatjie in his “Man Eater of Punani”.

Then came the busy intersection of Valachchenai where the Maha Oya road meets the road from Polonnaruwa. Valachchenai is a hub for the region’s paddy cultivation. In the days of Mrs. Bandaranaike a massive paper factory had been set up there to make use of the large amounts of straw available. It was twinned with Embilipitiya which was supposed to gather straw from the Udawalawe and Chandrikawewa areas.

Thus Koralai Pattu in the East and Girawa Pattu in the South were envisaged as great paper manufacturing centres by Minister T.B.Subasinghe. What he forgot was that straw was only one ingredient in paper manufacturing. All the other ingredients had to be imported. The paper manufactured in these giant plants could not be used as newsprint as the new rotary machines simply tore this product apart. Today after much needless spending they are “white elephants”; testimony to the inefficiencies of socialist planning.

From magical sounding names like Valachchenai and Chenkaladi it is only a few kilometers to Kalkudah and Pasikudah. The RDA was busy putting the finishing touches to the road to Pasikudah Tourist Resort. This magnificent project is the first mega tourist resort development after the Bentota project. The East coast has always been the best in our country for “sea, sand and sun” tourism, which is the Sri Lankan ‘forte.’

Seventeen hotels are to come up in the Pasikudah resort. Of them “Malu Malu” is in operation with its incomparable sea front, safe bathing, superb service and delicious sea food. Other hotels are being built and no doubt in a few years Pasikudah will offer all the facilities now available in the Maldives and perhaps much more. Credit must be given to my friend from Paris days, Chandra Wickremasinghe, who has created a great ambience as he had done earlier with his hotels in Dambulla and Kandy.

In the 14 Grama Sevaka divisions assigned to me I decided to walk with no security. Not for a moment did I feel that there was a threat even though the war was concluded only three years ago. In my area was Chief Minister Pilleyan’s personal home and Deputy Minister Karuna Amman’s ancestral home in Kiran. We could well imagine that this area may have been part of the LTTE heartland. But if it were so, there seems to be a sea change and there was genuine warmth among the people, irrespective of ethnic differences.

What impressed me most was that the images projected in the media, which is Colombo dominated, of Tamil “Amazons” armed to the teeth appears to be a figment of imagination of people who had never visited these parts. Like people everywhere these girls (and boys) were more concerned with attending to the minutiae of their lives.

Though Muslim villages were close by, my assignment was to interact with the Tamil villagers. These were earlier the crucial camps of the LTTE. How are they now? As a social scientist and also a politician, I was intrigued.

What were the striking features of the change? The first was the manifest religiosity. Hinduism is an eclectic and adaptable religion. It finds relief to the day to day problems of worshippers. During the war, some of the kovils had been damaged and now every village was rebuilding new edifices, with a confidence that the times of armed conflict are over and they are safe. Even during the war it appears that people still observed their rituals in small makeshift kovils, often made out of zinc sheets. But the traditional rituals were carried on as before with lots of people, particularly old women, gathered near the sanctum, seeking the god’s blessings.

In Koralai Pattu I found that the Pattini cult was widespread. Actually the original cult figure is Kannagi and her paramour is Kovalan as shown in the Silappadikkaram of Ilango Adigal. This has been transformed as the Pantis Kolmura in the Pattini cult among the Sinhalese. Both versions are similar and it is ironic that warring Sinhalese and Tamils were making offerings to the same goddess for fertility and good luck.

One of the villages we visited was called Kannagipuram. Many of the Kandyan Buddhist rituals are clearly influenced by Hindu practices. Many years ago there were Alatti ammas in the Dalada Maligawa whose ritual roles were the same as the Devadasis. In every village we went to there were requests for assistance to rebuild kovils. Where the villagers were somewhat affluent grand structures were coming up through public donations.

The Koralaipattu is full of NGO offices. Through the war and tsunami many NGOs have established themselves in the area, channeling foreign funds into villages in a way which is not seen elsewhere. Many of those NGOs are of Christian groups. Even before the war, Christian American missionaries like Rev. Miller had large extents of land in Kalkudah. But now they are gone. What was striking was that there were no Sinhala Buddhist relief operations here though the people were in great need of assistance.

Sinhala Buddhist were nowhere to be seen. The commitment of other groups is not matched by them. It was somewhat disturbing for me to see that vocal groups who make such a noise about territorial integrity in the comfort of their Colombo middle class homes and temples have missed an ideal opportunity to extend a hand of friendship to people whose lives were ravaged by a war not of their own making. How many scoundrels flourish among our publicity conscious ‘patriots’?

The next category of issues relate to agriculture. This area is a “rice bowl”. But collecting and distribution of paddy, as has been noticed in other parts of the dry zone, is far from satisfactory. For instance there is no collection point at Valachchenai and farmers are short changed by middlemen. With the expansion of the fertilizer subsidy there has been a rapid improvement in yields but post-harvest problems remains. Add to this an indifferent bureaucracy, a village level party leadership which is lethargic and social distress results. I must add however that the new Government Agent, Mrs. Charles, is making a valiant effort to change this situation.

The investment in infrastructure in the East has been spectacular. Roads, bridges and power lines have been modernized. A good symbol of this is the new state of the art Manampitiya bridge. With the Pasikudah Tourist Resort this area will become a magnet for tourists both local and foreign. The Coconut Cultivation Board has replanted a large extent of land in Pasikudah, in what, if I am not mistaken, was part of Rev. Miillers estate. But the people have hundreds of personal problems as they come out of a vicious and frustrating war.

As they sat cross legged in the sand under the margosa trees that dot kovil premises, poor people freely articulate their grievances. The road repairs in their villages undertaken by the Provincial Council are not working. Every time it rains their compounds go under water. Some others want to go back to their old villages which were taken over by the army. Those who have been resettled in new, barren areas want a bus to call at least once a day, so that they could visit relatives in their old villages.

Some complain that they have no drinking water. Young boys who would have all been LTTE fighters if the war continued, want a job training centre so that they can look forward to jobs in the tourist industry. Some of them want to go to the Middle East. Suprisingly there are many girls and boys who have learnt Sinhalese. Some girls had married Sinhala boys, but their husbands have gone back to their villages. Now their young wives are afraid to join them in the South.

I am reminded of films by Dharmasena Pathiraja, Asoka Handagama, Tusitha Jayasundera and Prasanna Vithanage, which have moved us emotionally by highlighting such human tragedies. But perhaps because they have survived, perhaps because they have come through after infinite hardships, these young women affirm their humanity to us with a haunting smile, a giggle and, surprisingly, a cry of “Budu Saranai” from Vasanthi and Ranjani, as our jeep moves slowly forward to take us to yet another village.

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