09 June 2014

"PB" of Alutwela, Haldummulla: Farmer, king and shaman

Nestled below the Haputale hills, cradled by the rocky outcrops characteristic of the Uva-Wellassa, is a farm where the trees and the vegetable plots are tinged with a green uncharacteristic for a region in the throes of one of the harshest droughts in years. If the dismal browns of a dusty August is the signature of that region steeped in history and folklore and home to a tradition of unrelenting struggles for freedom, both against foreign invasion as well as hunger, then this particular place, even to the casual passer-by, would appear to have been touched by divinity. For water is the parent of any verdant landscape and water is the god that seems to have failed the people that populate that territory.

Alutwela, is a village made up of solitary families eking out a living through chena cultivation and, when the monsoons do arrive, paddy cultivation. It is situated about 6 kilometres off a place called Veherayaya, a bit north of Kuda Oya on the Thanamalvila-Wellawaya road. The dry winds of the South East Dry Zone relentlessly brush over this place. These fires are countered by the coolness that floats down from the central hills and through the waters of the Kuda Oya, the blending of the two producing a distinct ecology where literally anything can be grown.

The particular plot of land I referred to belongs to one Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Punchi Banda, "PB" to all the people in the area. I got to know about his through an old friend, Wasantha. Wasantha is a wanderer, a searcher, a deeply spiritual young man who has dedicated his life to understand those eternal verities that occupy the minds of the true shamans of this world. We ran into each other after a gathering of what our confused modernist social scientists call "native intellectuals". We talked about the state of the nation, the problems of "development" and discussed the pertinent issues associated with the eternal question which Lenin presented as a directive, "What is to be done". He suggested that it might be worthwhile visiting his friend PB.

PB is a man in his late fifties hailing from a farming family in Diyatalawa. He had been attracted by the revolutionary rhetoric of the JVP and had spent a year in prison after the insurrection failed in 1971. Whereas other JVPers chose to do their A/L exams while in prison, moving on to university careers, NGOs and newspapers, PB had learnt English. After being released, he had, together with 73 other young men, formed a farmer company and obtained land in Alutwela, two acres each. What they had moved into was a thick jungle, infested with wildlife.

Clearing the jungle, asweddumizing, dealing with disease, isolation and other hardships had not been easy. Many gave up and returned to their original lives. Some struggled on for longer. In any event, by 1977, only one person remained from the original 73 who had come to blaze new paths in that forbidding region. PB.

When we got there in the late afternoon, PB was on a hill with his family, his wife, three daughters and son. They were breaking pieces of rock to be used in the foundation of a new house he was planning to build. Recognising Wasantha, he stopped his work and started chatting, moving from subject to subject, interspersed with attentive silences as we asked questioned or expressed an opinion. Over the next two days he filled out many of the gaps in the deliberately sketchy story that Wasantha had related to me before we went to see PB.

He attributed his adhishtanaya to remain there while his comrades abandoned the place to the hard experience that is prison life. Endowed with a natural propensity to learn things quickly and to adapt, PB has, over the past quarter century turned the place into a veritable Eden.

Wasantha once told me that it is because people don’t understand the forest that they fear it, and because they fear it, they cut it down. According to him, the forest is actually a benevolent, living thing which protects and nurtures those who seek to understand it. PB’s ganudenuwa has been like that. He has walked every inch of the region. He has discovered caves with ancient rock inscriptions and archaeological remains, discovered the ways of wild life and how to live in harmony with the flora and fauna, how to give and take without hurting.

Hidden in the jungle, he found the remains of the hydraulic civilisation that had thrived in the area in the form of abandoned tanks, canals etc. He has renovated one weva and built another two small ponds in order to irrigate his fields and vegetable plots. The Kuda Oya, which carries the water that cascades down the Diyaluma to the Kirindi Oya, passes close to his piece of land. With great determination, PB had organised the villagers, lobbied local politicians and government officials, brushed aside red tape by offering to do the designing and the construction, and built a canal to take the water from the river to the paddy fields of their village and a couple of others as well. He has put in place over 9000 feet of pipes to divert water into his fields and his tanks. Even in the harshest period of the dry season, there is enough water to irrigate his vegetables and enough in the weva for the cattle belonging to the villagers and the wild life in the forest.

His homestead, is a lush green patch, shaded by a grove of coconut trees, Tamarind, Jak, and Kohomba. The well still has water. His wattle and daub hut, with its iluk laid roof is cool and comfortable. He has put up a solar panel which allows him to light three bulbs and watch TV.

"Some of those who came with me are now successful politicians. The boy who made tea in our wadiya is a big mudalali now. Had I too gone back, I might have ended up like that.
I am happy I stayed back." He was smiling as he explained. He was smiling most of the time. I have not met a more relaxed man in my life.

And yet, this relaxed man is also hard working. One morning Wasantha and I took a walk into the jungle. After walking along a jungle path for about an hour, we stumbled on to the river. We walked up until we came to place where a weir of sticks and stones had been put up so that water could be diverted along an irrigation canal. There were three men in the river bed just below the pool that the "dam" produced. They called us and wanted us to help them shift a large rock. Apparently they were looking for an illama. Gem mining is done in the area, but not extensively. When inquiries revealed that we were friends of PB, they treated us with tea, offered us ganja and told us not to tell him that we met them. On the way back we ran into PB, his son and another young boy. Apparently someone had accidentally cut the pipe that carried the water to his fields. The entire morning was spent repairing the damage and attending to other repairs.

The respect that the gem miners had for PB is understandable. Wasantha told me that PB is a king for all practical purposes, not in the arrogant way of the modern day monarch who is badly named as President or Prime Minister, but in the mould of trustee which was the original role for the leader. A couple of years ago, the government had sanctioned a German company to grow babycorn in 5000 acres of land in the area. The villagers protested, arguing that it would cause irreparable damage to the environment, producing a tragedy the same proportions of that which resulted from the ill-fated and still ongoing disaster that is sugar cane cultivation. PB was the natural leader of the struggle. He went around to all the politicians in the area, all the relevant officials, produced reports, did an inventory of the flora and fauna in the area and made a comprehensive argument against the project. He remembers with gratitude the help he got from Krishna Wijebandara of that newspaper who helped champion his cause in that newspaper. Together they stopped the Germans.

"Just look at the Kuda Oya, it is almost dry. If they had sunk tube wells, it would have destroyed the water table. This drought we are witnessing would have been thousand times worse."

Even today, PB is busy gathering relief for the most seriously affected drought victims, running around talking to people, organising relief and making sure that racketeers don’t hijack the contributions of good hearted people.

PB is an unassuming man, but well versed in the rough and tumble of power politics. He is courteous to every politician who passes by, and everyone with any ambition in these things makes it a point to visit him regularly. He never commits himself one way or the other. During the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya time, a group of young men had come to ascertain his loyalties. They had chastised him for having given up on the revolutionary idea. He has said "Ithin umbala mava marapalla. Mamath me inne merenna one vela" (So you can kill me, after all I am waiting to die).

"One day a Buddhist priest came by and I took him around, explaining to him the dharma of this region. He told me that he is convinced that in a previous life he had been a monk or a king in the area. I am convinced that I used to rule this land." He still does, clearly.

Over the years PB has taught himself the secrets of curing snake bite victims. He is also an accomplished eye specialist. He has devoured countless Ayurvedic texts and tested their worth in practise, making his own medicines from the herbs that abound in his garden and in the surrounding jungle. While I was there I was suddenly seized by a stomach ailment. I complained about the malady and he first suggested coffee as a remedy. A few more questions and he diagnosed my discomfort as a kidney ailment resulting from the different density of the water. He brought me some red onions and a glass of water. "Peel these and chew on them while we talk" he said. Within 10 minutes, I was cured.

"I have treated over 300 snake bite victims. In a couple of instances they were brought to me late and the victims died. Sometimes they are beyond my help and I ask the relatives to take them to the hospital as soon as possible." In addition to this, PB also lectures the commando trainees at the Kuda Oya camp about survival in the jungle. These lectures are not just about survival but speak of a broader logic of the natural world and the appropriate engagement with it.

In his garden there are all kinds of vegetables, some of which have not taken root as "natural" vegetation. Thus for the most part he engages in "Do-nothing" farming, the technique that was perfected in many parts of Asia and popularised in Japan in recent times. In addition, due to the particular climatic conditions, he is able to grow beetroot, cabbage and other upcountry crops as well as the traditional Dry Zone crops. Recently, he had decided to grow katuwelbatu, a plant used in a lot of Ayurvedic medicines. 

Katuwelbatu is imported from India and PB might well be the first large scale cultivator of this important plant. Through Wasantha’s contacts he has arranged to supply the Ayurvedic "shop" at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, and together they have already transported some 40 kilograms and made arrangements to supply a further 200 kilos, all at 80 rupees per kilo. But perhaps his success as a farmer is best demonstrated by the fact that PB has enough stocks to last his family for over 5 years!

Amidst all these engagements with the physical world, PB is a deeply spiritual human being. In fact his farming, his medication and everything he does, is coloured by a deep understanding of the Dharma of this world, a logic that is heavily laden with Buddhist philosophy. He has practised meditation, attends to all the religious matters of the village with the same intensity that he gives his time and energy to make the local farmer organisation work. His dream is to establish an aranyaya for bikkhus and lay persons who need the peace and tranquillity to engage in meditation. "There are enough caves in this area. I can clean it up. I believe this place used to be a aranyaya for such people. All the signs tell me this. Who knows, maybe one day I will also give all this up and devote myself to such pursuits."

As is his custom he treated us lavishly with food and conversation and invited us to visit him again. I have read a lot about sustainable agriculture, traditional knowledge systems and a different kind of world view that is less arrogant and less damaging to the natural cycles. I have met experts and other advocates of such doctrines. I have also heard tell that an ounce of practise is worth a ton of theory. In PB’s case the practise comes in tons. And typical of such people, it is written only his smile and his gentle eyes.