04 January 2020

Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane

The Jak tree behind Yasaratne's house
where a giant encountered a giant
There’s a human-elephant conflict to which various solutions have been proposed and implemented to no avail. There is a human-human conflict too. There are periods of relative peace and war and tenuous ways of coexistence. This is a human-elephant story and also a human-human story. 

Divulgane is a reservoir off the Galgamuwa-Moragollagama road. It is also a village. In this village lives a man named Porakara Mudiyanselage Yasaratne Banda, a prematurely retired teacher. ‘Yase,’ a friend I’ve known him for more than 30 years, lives among elephants who raid raid his and other neighboring villages, displaced as they are from their traditional homelands. Yase had an elephant story. This is the gist of what he said in Sinhala. 

‘There is a Jak tree behind our house. There was one fruit just a foot or so above ground. My wife wanted to cut it but I suggested that we let it ripen on the tree itself. Now one day an elephant came by. We told the elephant to go away. It didn’t. It had already consumed some of the smaller fruit and had broken off the one we had left for ripening. So I told the elephant that since the fruit had already been picked, it might as well be eaten. We went back into the house.

‘The following morning we saw the elephant’s work. It had split the fruit and had consumed one half. He had picked just the madulu and had left the seeds neatly by side of the half he had left behind. My wife and I pointed out to our children that they, unlike the elephant, throw the seeds all over and make a mess of things when they eat Jak.’ 

Not all elephants are as thoughtful, obviously. Some attack and kill villages. They destroy houses and ‘drink’ the paddy. And we don’t know if this particular creature understood what the humans who had encroached on the lands of its herd told him. Still, it was some story. 

Thirty three years ago when I first met him Yase told me that people in his village pay a nidi-badda (sleep tax) of two rupees a night. ‘For a mosquito coil,’ he said. He  always had stories to tell. And he always had things to give. We had stopped by on our way to Reswehera. It was around 9 o’clock in the morning. ‘Come back for lunch,’ he said, after giving us some boiled corn cobs for a snack. Our mutual friend, Thilak Bandara, who is from a close by village said ‘Keep it simple — some dhal and amunakola (referred to as angunakola in other parts of the country) would do.’ 

It was a feast. There was dhal, amunakola, fish, brinjals and papadam. ‘The amunakola and batu (brinjals) are from our garden,’ he said, adding that they didn’t use vasa-visa (chemical inputs).

We spoke about our lives (I was seeing him after 10 years), our children and friends. His son Tharindu loves to draw and his daughter Samadhi has chosen Tamil as one of her OL subjects. ‘She wanted to learn Japanese, but I told her that it would be better to learn a language that’s spoken in our country,’ said his wife, Indrani, who teaches art in a nearby school. 

As I said, Yase is generous. He gave us a sack of corn cobs. ‘There’s fifty there,’ he said. ‘We can’t eat all this!’ I said. ‘You can give it to your friends,’ he suggested. There were also four wood-apples. ‘Fresh from the tree,’ he remarked. 

He came up to the wicket fence to see us off. He was all smiles. And that was the most beautiful thing about that day. And the most heart-breaking too. For although he was smiling, he was looking somewhere else. 

The following incident would explain the sadness I felt. 

Ten years ago, a group of friends attending Thilak’s father’s funeral in Galgamuwa, decided to go see the mother of another friend, I.M. Senanayake aka Senevi. Senevi’s mother, then over 80 years old, had always been kind to us whenever we visited as undergraduates. She lived in Divulgane. Naturally, I inquired after Yase, who I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Senevi said he should be home but that he might not recognize me. I went over. 

He didn’t recognize me. When I mentioned my name, he smiled. 

‘I heard you had come with your friends. I am unable to give something to everyone, but I have something for you.’

He picked a sack of kurakkan and went to the back of the house where he had a make-shift grinder. I followed him. He groped on the wall to find the switch. And then I realized. Yase had lost his sight. Senevi said it had come (or gone) slowly: ‘Even in school, he held the books two inches away from his face.’ I didn’t ask him about it then and he didn’t tell me. It was not necessary. 

I wrote about Yase after returning home (A man, a pact and the earth-fragrance of Divulgane,’ published in the Daily News). He had made a pact with himself and the earth upon which he lived, I wrote. 

‘That place, Divulgane, has a fragrance about it.  No, it is not nostalgia-laced.  It is a goodness thing.  A kurakkan way of life, of being and sharing.  Of encounter and reunion. We all make covenants during our lives.  Some are mandatory, some unimportant. Some are sacred.  They are fragrant.  My friend Yasaratne has vacant eyes. His heart is full though.’

This time around, Yase spoke of his condition. 

‘I have written to Presidents. I even drafted a letter to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, before the election. It was about state employees forced to retire on medical grounds. Only the service period is taken into account when pensions are calculated. I suggested that the salary and other benefits be paid until the age of 60 or the pension be calculated considering a full tenure until the retirement age. I wanted the laws changed.’

There are for-and-against arguments of course. It hasn’t happened and it may not happen. 

Yase just lives. He picks the madulu and keeps the seeds aside neatly. He takes his half of things, he gives away the rest. He has a memory. He is an elephant and not one infected with marauding intent of some who belong to that saddhantha kulaya or giant tribe. He has lost his sight, but not his vision. 

‘This is how it is,’ he said. Simply. 

Yasaratne of Divulgane. A small man. Big heart. Empowered and empowering.  

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [December 25, 2019]

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