Kalutara — An Odyssey
By Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
If you are looking to buy one book during this festive season, pick Bradman Weerakoon’s Kalutara. It is a winner — a wonderful collection of history, folk-lore, sociology and literature all combined together and presented accurately, logically and nostalgically to satisfy anyone’s absolute reading pleasure.
The narration extends from the vulnerable outlook of a young boy, the son of the Kalutara District ASP to the mature expertise of the supreme civil servant who served eight Heads of State in Sri Lanka. The book is vast in character and descriptive of location, a rich parade of people of major and minor relevance jump out of the pages to give a distinct Kalutara colour to the story. Events span from anything to everything that happened in the area; local patents such as how ‘jaadi’ is made and stored is told along with travel stories where people walked vast distances resting in ambalan.
The bullock cart era is highlighted in transportation, the river riding ‘kollawa’ catamaran gets mentioned and the almost forgotten Swarnapali bus of yesteryear is ‘born-again’ describing how it carried passengers from Panadura to Moneragala bisecting the Kalutara District. There is a variety of subjects available like a sumptuous buffet to suit the pallet of any literature lover, a history buff or simply someone who wants to know how things happened in various hamlets of Sri Lanka at a more innocent time.
The local “Don” is now 80 years old. When lesser batsmen have retired and are resting, this Bradman bats on and that too in cavalier fashion creating a fascinating book that has every possible stroke of the pen and a lot more of his own creation. Snippets are many and assorted, adding matter and meat to each page.
Pahiyangala story is mentioned, of the 4th century Fa Hsien’s cave. Appended to that is the annual pilgrimage by people following the footsteps of the ancient Chinese monk who walked from Bulathsinhala to Adam’s Peak. Then the advent of the Muslims in the 8th century is described, Beruwala and how the name originated when ancient seamen from Aden picked the monsoon winds to sail latitudes across the Arabian Sea to the fabled land of Serendib. The Dutch – Portuguese battle in 1656, another forgotten significant skirmish is recalled accurately. How General Hulft marched from Maggona and fought the Portuguese in the vicinity of the Panadura Moya Kata is chronicled in detail, including the number of soldiers who died on the southern Moratuwa beach. Ibn Batuta takes his place among the visitors to the district and for more modern times Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara comes on stage on his visit to Yahalawatte to see how rubber was made.
Didn’t I tell you the characters in the book are fascinating?
The author gives a vivid explanation of Portuguese names that became a commonality on the western seaboard, the Fernandos, Silvas, the Pereras and the many others that took root among the Sinhalese. He cleverly places his research on how Casado settlers were directly related to this phenomenon contrary to the belief that it was only the conversion to Christianity that brought about the name change. The author makes his point here not as an authority but as a man who speaks with logic.
That concept is clear throughout the book, a point of view of a learned man on subjects that raise arguments and not a declaration of a ‘know all’ who is preaching from an infallible pulpit. In one breath he talks about ‘rulan viskotu’ at Monis bakery which has become a pit stop in Maggona for Galle Road travellers and changes direction to quote from the ‘gira sandesaya’ and narrates the sad ‘seepada’ voiced by plumbago miners in their underworld hell and the kavi often heard on river banks recited hauntingly by weary sand diggers pole-driving their laden paru in the shallows of the Kalu Ganga.
Yes, everything is in 200 pages, covering an area bordered in the north by Moratuwa and south by the Bentara Ganga, and the circa goes as far as the mention of the Balangoda man and related events to the happenings in 20th century where Rosemary Rogers pours her childhood love for hometown Panadura. Along with the renowned Rosemary come anecdotes of flamboyance variegated by the vernacular of Kassippu Kamala and Ganja Padmini and the bucket shops that took rupee bets in village corners for horses that ran in Epsom.
This certainly is a book worth reading and storing for the generations to come as it is timeless in appreciation.
How great it would be if other districts too were brought into record in the same manner as the Kalutara Odyssey?
That would be fascinating historical literature, a must for a place like Sri Lanka where a thousand tales of people and places pass from generation to generation without being properly recorded, only to be buried in the sands of time and lost forever.
Yes, there must be more books like Kalutara, but the problem would be to find another Bradman to bat for us.
That would certainly be a big problem.