The gypsy who stayed

Last week’s Sunday Times pictorial on the gathering of gypsy clans at Tambuttegama takes Tissa Devendra back in time

The plaintive whine of the snake-charmer’s flute, as he came down our lane with his brightly dressed monkey trotting beside him, triggered my memory back almost 50 years ago when I was a callow District Land Officer in Anuradhapura Kachcheri…..

It was an old two storey building and the approach to the Land Branch was by way of a creaking wooden stairway. I was beginning to get a hang of my files as well as the people and problems that lurked within each pasteboard docket neatly titled in the copper plate script of veteran clerks. These gentlemen were my faithful trackers through the thickets of Rajarata villages and customs unfamiliar to the townsman I was. With them I walked the wooded paths to straw thatched villages and the narrow uneven bunds of abandoned little tanks and held court (Division Days in officialese) in one-roomed schools with grizzled peasants scrunched on rickety infant chairs listening to my "words of wisdom''.

Every week the Kachcheri had a Petition Day when villagers from far and wide came to meet us armed with petitions, couched in the delightfully dated English of the 'petition writer' at the Kachcheri gate (This was before 1956 and English was yet the official language). They asked for land; permits for land illegally occupied; settling of boundary disputes; repair of neglected tanks and such matters. I gradually got to know a few perennial petitioners whose claims were difficult to settle and insisted on appearing almost every week. One was the distinguished Mr. B, who was the first and last man I saw wearing the once ridiculed “redda yata mahattaya” costume complete with felt hat.

Gypsy gathering at Tambuttegama

He kept on manfully trying to convince me that his ancestors were the rightful owners of vast extents of land which the government had grabbed and distributed to villagers. He produced bundles of fading and crumbling documents vainly expecting me to support his title and evict these villagers.

He was polite, but painfully persistent, and never gave up hope that I could restore him ‘his’ land. Another such character was Nagoor Pitchai, the sturdy old one-legged farmer from Harakweldamana (or was it Nagadaranewa?) whom I could identify as he hopefully stumped up the stairs on his wooden leg. He just could never understand why I could not give him all the acreage he had manfully cultivated after wresting it from the jungle.

The Gypsy

Gypsies were always around in Anuradhapura during Poson and Vesak when pilgrims flocked. Their women walked around tunelessly singing their signature song “Karuna moodey…. Naamu gileela…. (Whoever taught it to them?) And reading the palms of hopeful young things.

The men in their rakishly tied bright turbans entertained the children with their performing monkeys and their cobras dancing to the eerie wail of their flutes. As I drove out into the countryside on field visits I would occasionally overtake one of their little caravans moving to a new campsite on the outskirts of a hospitable village. A straggly line of gypsies, of all sizes, was strung out along the road accompanied by their little grey donkeys trotting along carrying furled talipot palms which were their tent-homes.

They never had anything to do with any government official and peaceably carried on their age-old way of life undisturbed by the rules and regulations that bound us less fortunate beings. I was, therefore, curious when I found a cluster of gypsies squatting together in the Kachcheri compound one Petition Day. I was more intrigued when their spokesman joined the short line of petitioners outside my room. My clerk, and adviser, a true-born son of Rajarata did not seem too happy when the old gypsy walked in nervously and bowed humbly before us to “make his submissions”.

He claimed that his group of gypsies had, for many years, maintained a more-or-less permanent settlement by a deserted little tank near Tambuttegama. His plea, on behalf of his tribe, was for their occupancy to be regularized by the issue of L.D.O Permits and they be permitted to cultivate paddy. My clerk was incredulous and prompted me to ask the gypsy some searching questions to establish his story. The old man stood by his story and pleaded with me to inspect their settlement. I agreed to do so - though more out of curiosity than conviction - and the gypsy seemed happy that he had found a sympathetic ear.

My clerk was politely dismissive of the whole story and amused at my gullibility I asked him why these ‘Ahikuntakas’ could not be given land. He said that for centuries these ‘Koothandi’ (the Vanni term for gypsy) had been wanderers who lived only in temporary camps which they shifted from one village to another in an age-old cycle of travel. They never, ever, put down roots in one place as permanent settlement was abhorrent to their culture - and so was any agriculture. He told me of an old legend (remarkably like that of the Wandering Jew) where some deity had cursed the ‘Koothandi’ tribe never to settle permanently in any one place but to wander afield ‘as long as sun and moon endure’. Curiosity was neck-to-neck with official duty when I set off to inspect the alleged settlement some weeks later.

The Encampment

Having jolted along a rutty byroad, off the main Talawa road, I saw the usual cluster of Village Headman (VH), Overseer, petitioners and (of course) curious onlookers to lead me to ‘scene of the crime’. (Note: In the Rajarata a Village Headman’s Division was not called ‘wasama’ but ‘tulana’ - which irreverently reminded me of a then popular shirt branded Tulane). I headed a line of officials and villagers along a footpath bordered by thorny scrub and shaded by towering trees. Beside me walked the V.H in an ensemble now seen only in period teledramas - konday, coat and umbrella, which he kept trying to open over me (as a symbol of authority?).

At last we emerged from the forest shade into the bright sunshine of an abandoned tank bed. At one end was an encampment of talipot palm tents pitched in surprisingly orderly rows. The old gypsy who had met me in office and accompanied me to this camp now yelled out “Piyadasa!” I was intrigued as this was a clearly Sinhala name as distinct from traditional Kuravar (as gypsies called themselves) names as Vellasamy, Muttusamy. The sturdy short-haired youth who ran up looked no gypsy to me, The old man who spoke a rather quaint Sinhalese explained to me that Piyadasa was much more fluent and able to explain their problem. Meanwhile the whole encampment had been summoned by a piercing two-fingered whistle and they squatted round us in a quiet circle to listen to the exposition of their case.

Piyadasa lived up to his chief’s expectations in explaining the gypsies’ aspirations. Their tribe had, for countless decades, considered the area around Tambuttegama as the traditional site from which they began and ended their cycle of wandering. They had the most cordial relations with the traditional Sinhala villagers in their little settlements growing paddy below small tanks. As time went by the gypsies observed that their neighbours began to prosper with the generous distribution of government funds to restore their tanks, build better houses and improve village roads.

The gypsies met in traditional conclave, as is their custom, and the elders decided it was time for them also to have a permanent base and be entitled to some of the benefits that the government was so generous with. The environs of Tambuttegama seemed ideal. It was the traditional starting point for their annual wanderings, the neighbouring villagers were cordial and the forest around was scattered with many small abandoned tanks which could easily be restored for cultivation. Although paddy growing was not “in their blood” it was something they could easily acquire with the help of neighbouring villagers. In fact, some of them had gained experience as hired farm labourers when they wanted a break from their traditional wanderings. They were, after all, as Piyadasa stressed in his final argument, full-fledged citizens of this land from time immemorial. It was a superbly argued case.

The V.H had nothing against them except the entrenched folk-belief that Koothandi had been condemned to wander by a divine decree and that we (both gypsies and government i.e. me) were inviting the wrath of heaven if we violated it. The Cultivation Officer’s objections were more practical. He doubted whether palmistry and snake-charming were skills that could be transformed into tilling the soil. The nearby villagers were, surprisingly, not averse to this experiment in social transformation. For one thing - the tank in question was comfortably distant from their own villages.

Another thing was that for countless generations they had associated closely with these gypsies as seasonal neighbours and field workers. They showed none of the uneasiness that townspeople showed towards these snake-charmers and palmists. My mind was made up though I gave no such indication. With a judicious air I announced that I would make my decision known only after discussing it with the Government Agent, my chief.

The Schoolmaster’s Boy

As we sat in the shade of a tree sipping warm ‘oranjenbarley’, I called young Piyadasa to my side and asked him how he became so fluent in Sinhalese and skilled in argument. It was an interesting story. He was a true-born gypsy - son of a snake-charmer and a palmist. While he was a little boy and his tribe was encamped somewhere near Balapitiya his mother fell seriously ill and was admitted to the local hospital where she died. Her husband and little son were with her to the end - but the tribe had moved on to fresh fields. A school teacher’s wife had also been warded in hospital at this time. She was deeply moved when she saw the distraught and helpless gypsy father and little son. Generously she offered to take over the child and look after him. She struck the gypsy as being a genuinely caring person and he handed over his son to her, promising the little boy he would visit him whenever he could,

The school teacher and her husband proved to be genuinely affectionate foster-parents who treated him as one of their own. They named him Piyadasa and educated him in the same school where both of them taught. He was a bright student and debated in the Literary Society. His father stood by his word of honour - as all gypsies are bound to do - and visited Piyadasa and his foster family twice a year in his cycle of wanderings. The father spoke to him of his people and their customs and even taught the little fellow some conjuring. The gypsy spark in him never lost its brightness in spite of the everyday world of a Southern Sinhala village school and surrounded him. Whenever he heard the plaintive ‘native wood notes wild’ of his father’s flute Piyadasa longed to accompany him and tread the gypsy’s carefree path. The school teachers were most understanding. They knew they could never keep a wildfowl caged. So they let Piyadasa go with his father when he had reached his late teens. Father and son left with love and gratitude to follow the siren song of their gypsy blood. Every year they visited the school teachers with gifts of wild honey and rare medicinal herbs - grateful tribute from their jungle home. That was how “Piyadasa” became the spokesman of the Tambuttegama gypsies.

The rest of the story is almost prosaic. The decision to settle these gypsies as ‘L.D.O. Allottees’ was confirmed. Some weeks later I visited the now cheerful gypsies to enact the ritual of a ‘Land Kachcheri’ - the time-tested process of an open court at which allottees for land were selected in the presence of their peers. The gypsy traditions of respect for their elders and the resolution of conflicts in open assembly ensured a trouble free selection of - perhaps - the first ever gypsies, since time immemorial, to hold title to government land. I cannot now remember whether I had the good fortune to sign their permits before I was transferred to Nuwara Eliya, leaving behind the dark forests, little tanks and straw-thatched huts for the pine woods, hilly tracks and stone walled cottages huddled on misty mountain tops.

Time Present and Time Past

When the snake-charmer and his monkey were at our gate I invited him to entertain my grandson and granddaughter. Growing up in the sterile city they were wary of the dancing cobra but could not resist the monkey’s somersaults and other tricks. When the show was over, I offered the gypsy a cup of tea, and a banana to the monkey, and asked him whether he knew the Tambuttegama gypsy settlement. His eyes lit up, as this was his home. I told him how I had been involved in its beginnings forty-five long years ago and inquired as to its present condition. It had been subsumed within the great Mahaveli Project. The gypsy settlement, however, had retained its unique identity though the old settlers had now been given larger fields, bigger houses and been predestinated ‘colonists’. My friend Piyadasa was now a respected elder and responsible for insisting that all gypsy children attend school. Their age-old traditions, however, held firm. Yearly they yet hold their great conclave to settle their problems, plan their journeys to come and celebrate their marriages under the stewardship of their traditional chief. I bade him good-bye and sent him on his way with my good wishes to Piyadasa.

Looking back across the gulf of years that distances me from my youthful self, I wonder whether by my decision to settle land on the gypsies of Tambuttegama I had, unwittingly, dissolved that ancient curse condemning their tribe to roam the highways, byways and forest paths till the end of time.

(From his book “On Horseshoe Street”)

Tissa Devendra's latest book 'Quest for Shangri-La' will be launched early in March.

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