my first Kachcheri
When I stepped into the old Dutch building of the Trincomalee
Kachcheri, exactly fifty years ago on June 1, 1953, to begin work
on my very first job as a District Land Officer, little did I imagine
that this unique, exasperating and most human institution would
hold me in thrall for most of my working life.
old records I am amazed both at the cool formality of the appointment
procedure and at the speedy service of the old G.P.O. No Minister
handed over appointment letters with fawning acolytes and press
photographers in attendance. The Public Service Commission posted
my letter of appointment by Registered Express Post on May 20, promptly
followed by a letter from the Land Commissioner on May 25 assigning
me to Trincomalee, 160 miles from home, on June 1.The question of
palavering an MP to get another station was inconceivable.
My mother meticulously
packed my sailor grandfather's cabin trunk with loving care and
gave me instructions about dhoby accounts, polishing shoes etc.
I had never, ever, lived away from home on my own. We drove up to
Trinco on May 31, made landfall at the Resthouse and looked around
the town I was to call home.
In 1953, two
distinct Trincomalees existed side-by-side. One was the old town
of narrow streets and winding byways, of houses crammed together
with quaint low doorways and steep roofs, crowded bazaar, jostling
fish market and dusty 'maidan'. Occasionally the distinctive architecture
of a kovil, mosque or church stood out from the general huddle.
Two unsightly corrugated iron structures 'graced' the town. One
housed a lumbering old fire engine. The other was the 'Lord Nelson'
Cinema. A loud, asthmatically wheezing generator powered the town's
Royal Navy dominated the other Trincomalee. The harbour, Dockyard
and Fort Frederick were exclusively theirs, except for hundreds
of civilian pen pushers and menials who trooped in every morning
and checked out every evening from these enclaves. RN trucks, jeeps
and staff cars of naval top brass, White Ensign fluttering, whizzed
through the narrow streets. Impressive battleships rode at anchor
in the harbour.
It was eye-opening
to experience the limitations of the Independence we claimed to
have won in 1948.
My first Kachcheri
had many features in common with all other such institutions. To
begin with, it was housed in a musty old colonial building. Old
cupboards separated its many branches, filing cabinets and desks
piled high with files. Clerks and staff officers scribbled away
to clear 'In' trays into the 'Out'. Organizationally, a Kachcheri
was like a ship - one tight unit with an unquestioned captain, sharing
discipline, loyalty and comradeship, especially in crises such as
disasters and elections.
The head of
the Trinco Kachcheri was designated 'Assistant' Government Agent,
as he was nominally under the jurisdiction of the Government Agent,
Eastern Province, in distant Batticaloa. He was A.R. McHeyzer a
hearty Burgher ex-serviceman, always in khaki shorts. When I recall
the sartorial informality that prevailed in Kachcheris right up
to the mid-1970s, I do not know whether to feel sorry for, or laugh
at, today's officers togged up in ties, like salesmen, tagging along
behind Ministers on field visits.
The next several weeks I followed the AGA on inspections, 'Division
Days' and 'land kachcheries' where he dispensed justice and/or land
allotments to peasants. I absorbed his commonsensical approach to
problems and began to feel the good earth beneath my feet - a far
cry from the cloudy abstractions of university studies that had
so engaged me only a short year ago.
A car and
the Kachcheri way of life was the purchase of my first car. A few
days after I had sat at my desk I was taken under his wing by the
E.O.A (Extra Office Assistant) the benevolent Mr. Amirthalingam.
"Do you have a car?" he asked me. "No." "This
can't go on. How can you be a D.L.O. without a car to go on circuit?
Just fill up these forms," he said producing a set of application
forms for a loan to purchase a car. Filling them up I hit a snag.
I had to provide a guarantor, but I had just arrived in Trinco and
knew nobody. "No problem," said Mr. A "Just a minute."
In a jiffy he turned up with a gentleman who was introduced as "Mr.
Chinniah of the Police Office next door. He has agreed to stand
as your guarantor". I never knew what arm-twisting Mr. A had
done to conscript Mr. C, but he signed up without a murmur and slipped
away, never again to be sighted by me. Not long after I was the
proud owner of a spanking new car and ready to embark on my first
'circuits'. Amirthalingam and Chinniah have long since entered 'moksha'
but I always remember with gratitude the unquestioning trust they
reposed in my callow self.
a car involved the opening of a bank account. And this I did with
the (to me) pretty large sum of Rs. 250/- at Trinco's only bank
then, the Bank of Ceylon. The genial Manager Mr. Munasinghe shook
my hand and gave me my first cheque book, together with a snappy
button down plastic cover (which, interestingly, is the only token
I ever received from this institution where I have banked for fifty
in Love Lane
My first 'home away from home' in Trinco was in Love Lane,
Uppuveli, in a 'chummery' run by Captain Albert, an ex-soldier now
turned into a not very successful, building contractor. My address
caused great amusement among my friends, and I had to assure them
that I had not shacked up in Trinco's red-light area. ("Love"
had been a long gone British Admiral.)
deteriorating "cash flow" brought about a corresponding
deterioration in creature comforts and cuisine quality. In desperation
I deserted his establishment and sought refuge at the Resthouse.
This cool old
place beneath a spreading banyan was a most interesting hostelry.
Over the lunch table I came to know some of the town's young lawyers
and police officers - with whom I remain good friends till today,
or till they passed away.
the ex-MP, a former Vanniyar (Rate Mahatmaya) and his buddy the
Urban Council Chairman to enjoy their tipple and the non-veg cuisine,
both taboo at their orthodox Hindu homes. They treated me with avuncular
concern and filled me up with useful local lore. Burly Alwis, the
launch magnate, occasionally deigned to spin me a seaman's yarn.
A couple of months after I had settled down in Trinco, the
'Great Hartal of 1953' took place and even inspired some of my university
friends to go on a Quixotic march, only to be tear-gassed by Police.
not a ripple bothered the even tenor of the Kachcheri in our faraway
little town where the daily newspapers arrived only late in the
evening. Our information was gleaned from the 'Daily News', which
predictably assured its readers (with its customary sycophancy)
that the Hartal was a total flop.
I only realized
the overwhelming political impact of the Hartal when I was back
in Colombo on leave. It all goes to show how remote the Trinco of
yore was from developments in the nation's capital.
was fascinated by the fact that travelling on inspections in Trincomalee
District involved crossing rivers by ferries and the sea by launch.
The coastline roads leading north and south of town were criss-crossed
by broad rivers, which had to be forded by ferries. The volume of
traffic in that era did not warrant the construction of bridges.
Driving up the
ramp of a cumbersome ferry, already loaded with traders, farmers,
women and children was a delicate task in which I acquired useful
skills in both man and clutch management.
For me, the
most unforgettable experience was being on a ferry as dusk fell.
The only sounds were the quiet splash of the ferryman's paddle,
a tired murmur of conversation and the haunting cry of a 'kirala'
as it flew across the darkening sky where the stars began to glimmer.
Bay by launch to Mutur, Allai Colony and Seruwila was literally
an overseas adventure. These rickety boats were loaded to the waterline
with sweaty passengers, bulky merchandise and squawking poultry.
It was all so familiar to me, fresh from studying Joseph Conrad
on tramp steamers in the South Seas. My official status won me a
perch on the cabin roof, sunburnt and windblown as the launch chugged
along in the indigo-blue sea passing towering battleships, snappy
torpedo boats, the graceful bellying sails of rice cargo boats and
schools of frolicsome dolphins. Once in a while the engine coughed
to a halt in mid-sea. The launch tossed silently while the boatmen
muddled around with rusty spanners and greasy rags, and the passengers
watched with customary stoicism. To a giant sigh of relief the engine
sputtered back to life and chugged on to our destination - the shaky
pier on the vivid green waters of Mutur's mangrove swamps.
The experience of constructing wartime barracks in the jungle
left an indelible mark on peasant colonization schemes. Treeless
expanses, arrow-straight gravel roads, dull and boxy government
buildings and cottages strung out, each standing forlorn in the
middle of a desolate holding. Settlers rapidly imposed a welcome
disorder on this dreary uniformity. Relatives crowded in and built
cozy huddles of huts on hitherto bare allotments. Government built
'commercial centres', geometrically planned on drawing boards in
Colombo, were soon abandoned to stray cattle while clusters of little
shops sprang up where people really needed them. Colonization schemes,
in real life, developed into living organisms very different from
the sterile barracks planned by 'experts'.
The nerve centre
of every new colonization scheme was 'The Camp'. In addition to
government offices, it housed the staff of the Irrigation and Land
Development Departments responsible for irrigation and construction.
It was an enclave of privilege - comfortable houses, tennis and
badminton courts, clubhouses and circuit bungalows. It bustled with
official activity by day. By dusk tennis, cards and conviviality
ruled the clubhouses.
Centuries-old villages were a pleasant contrast to the new
colonization schemes and I will never forget my first visit to Gomarankadawela.
A few government buildings were on the outskirts - the dingy line
rooms of PWD workers, the Village Tribunal on a hillock, the rural
hospital embowered in flowering bougainvillea and the tin-roofed
school whose pupils ran out to wave madly at this rare intruder.
We were now at Gomarankadawela's very heart. A well-trodden 'plaza'
of clay with a few sleepy cattle, ringed by pleasant straw-roofed
cottages of mud-brick. Old men on string beds and young men sipping
tea on a 'kaday' bench glanced at us with idle curiosity while little
children stared shyly at me. We parked at the doorway to the Village
Headman's house, his signboard yet emblazoned with the British Crown.
As I stepped out I was welcomed by an aroma, which, so many decades
later, yet haunts my senses - compounded of cow-dung, straw, clay
floors wood-smoke and a faint whiff of tank mud - the essence of
the Vanni village.
Six months later I was transferred from Trincomalee to yet
another Kachcheri, a pattern of movement that was to take me to
eleven more such institutions.
T.S. Eliot had
it right when he said, "In my beginning is my end
Almost twenty years later I came back to Trincomalee, with my wife
and children, to spend six of the happiest years of our lives. My
first Kachcheri was, thus, my last.
Half a hundred
years (!) now distance me from that green youth stepping hesitantly
across the threshold of his first Kachcheri and lost beyond recall,
in the mists of fading memory, is that somnolent, peaceful Trincomalee
so hospitable to him.