Sleepy Trinco, my first Kachcheri

By Tissa Devendra
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.

Glancing through 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.

Trincomalee in 1953

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 lights.

The British 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.

The Kachcheri

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 a bank

Typical of 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.

Purchasing 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 years!).

Lodgings 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.)

Captain Albert's 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.

Evenings brought 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.

Hartal erupts
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.

Interestingly, 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.

Ferries and launches
I 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.

Crossing Koddiyar 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.

Colonization scheme
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.

Gomarankadawela village
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.

Departure and arrival
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.

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