The ‘Jungle’ in
The Shattered Earth by P. G. Punchihewa,
P. G. Punchihewa’s “The Shattered Earth” deserves to be placed alongside Leonard Woolf’s classic Ceylon novel, “The Village in the Jungle”, as a novel worthy of becoming a school text and eventually the subject for a feature film. Both Woolf and Punchihewa were Government Agents (GAs), Woolf during the time of the Raj, and Punchihewa after the Raj had gone. The many differences and similarities between the two books make a fascinating study.
It is said the jungle never changes, and this is the leitmotiv running through Woolf’s turn-of-the-century book, but conditions have changed radically since Independence, and up to the late Sixties, the time frame covered in “The Shattered Earth”. The government of the day is permitting unscrupulous businessmen with the right connections to buy up vast tracts of jungle. These wheeler-dealers are felling valuable trees, selling off the timber, and - central to Punchihewa’s gripping narrative – displacing the peasant farmers and turning them into common labourers.
As a GA, the author was responsible for a vast tract of land, almost 3,000 square miles, the island’s second largest administrative district. However, medical care was rudimentary and restricted to a single district hospital with one director, two pharmacists and no nurses. Most of the population relied on chena cultivation, and it is the fate of these chena workers that is the heart and soul of the story. The opening lines of chapter one are pure poetry, and surely a match to Woolf’s memorable opening lines in “The Village in the Jungle”.
“When Kirisanda woke, the sun was already up. He thought he didn’t hear the familiar sounds of cawing crows or the yammering birds as he had fallen asleep fairly late in the night. It was two weeks since the full moon day of Duruthu, but even after the sun had risen, it was still cold. He remembered covering himself from head to foot in the night with loosened sarong. This time the Maha rains had set in late. It seemed the cold days would last longer than usual. He blew out the hurricane lamp which was still burning and cursed himself for letting the kerosene oil go waste. Climbing down the ladder from the tree-hut, he remembered his dream just before he woke up. He knew that one’s dreams in Duruttha, the cold month, should not be taken seriously. However he faintly recalled that it was ominous.
(“The Shattered Earth”)
“The village was called Beddagama, which means the village in the jungle. It lay in the low country or plains, midway between the sea and the great mountains which seem, far away to the north, to rise like a long wall straight up from the sea of trees. It was in, and of, the jungle; the air and smell of the jungle lay heavy upon it - the smell of hot air, of dust, and of dry and powdered leaves and sticks. Its beginning and its end was in the jungle, which stretched away from it on all sides unbroken north and south and east and west, to the blue line of the hills and to the sea. The jungle surrounded it, overhung it, continually pressed in upon it. It stood at the door of the houses, always ready to press in upon the compounds and open spaces, to break through the mud huts, and to choke up the tracks and paths.”
(“The Village in the
Kirisanda, the central character in Punchihewa’s novel, supports his family by cultivating a chena at some considerable distance from his home. The reader is plunged into the central drama of the novel when Kirisanda encounters the village headman leading a party of strangers who turn out to be the directors of the company intent on destroying the peasant’s ancient way of life.
The background of the novel, which sometimes becomes the foreground, is the jungle itself, with its mythical past and the aralu, bulu and nelli trees said to have been planted by the ancient Sinhala kings. The erosive “slash and burn” techniques of chena cultivation have been banned, and land cultivation is under strict government control, a policy that has led to a huge decline in the rural population (a parallel development was seen two centuries earlier in England, with the Industrial Revolution).
Punchihewa has woven history into his fictional narrative so well that the finished tapestry is seamless –a story, yes, but what a story!
At a villagers’ co-operative meeting it is announced that the government has sold off a large tract of land set aside for chena cultivation.
The new owners plan to cut down the trees for valuable timber. The machinations of politicians, at both local and national level, are gradually revealed to the reader. One of these corrupt politicians is the self-seeking local Member of Parliament.
What we see is the yawning gap between the honest, hard-working but largely illiterate peasant farmers and the corrupt wheeler-dealers. The local MP is pictured as flabby and pot-bellied, with a fat face that masks the lean look he once had. He claims to have tried hard to save the land, sending memos to various ministers. He promises to keep writing letters, but all is in vain. This is the story of the felled tree that will never grow again.
The encounters between the villagers and the government officials are described in realistic detail. The contrasts between those with power and those without are very well articulated.
The GA knows how deforestation will lead to soil erosion and ultimately to floods, droughts and serious ecological damage. Meanwhile, the innocent, unsophisticated peasants are the losers. They do not need roads, electricity or radios. What they need is a piece of land, paddy and water. More than anything, they need to be left alone.
The corrupting effects of power and the triumph of those with power are revealed as the story unfolds.
The company put in place by the government to develop the land is headed by a wealthy doctor who runs a big private hospital in Colombo. Together with his apparatchiks, he moves the pieces on the chessboard to wipe out the opposition.
Meanwhile, the peasants live in the naïve and vain hope that the government, which they believe to be great and good, will eventually come to their assistance.
All the villagers, except Kirisanda, give up their chenas without a fight. Kirisanda bravely carries on alone, but is thwarted at every stage by the ruthless, unscrupulous company. Finally, the company succeeds in isolating Kirisanda’s chena on company-owned land, and prevents him from working it by erecting a “Do Not Trespass” sign.
Meanwhile, we learn that there were once other plans for the land, which would have benefited the peasant population of the area. The Wavul Ela was earmarked for development, so that the surrounding lands could be well watered for rice cultivation. Because of so-called “costs”, the plan was shelved, doomed to remain forever on the drawing board.
Finally, in despair, Kirisanda packs his meagre belongings and leaves. His brother-in-law has found him a place to live, far away.
The book has some fascinating minor characters, of whom Mudalali, shopkeeper and survivor, is the most interesting.“The Shattered Earth” is a historical narrative underpinned by an in-depth analysis of the economic and demographic processes at work.
This is a book to read and treasure.
(The reviewer is a UK-based writer and publisher)