Liyanage Amarakeerthi in Himal Southasian. Liyanage Amarakeerthi is a lecturer in the Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya, and the author of Atawaka Putthu (Half-moon Sons).
I was born and raised in a little community in Kuliyapitiya, a typical agricultural area with three small tanks (wewa), which watered paddy fields, within walking distance on three sides of my house. Of course, there were also three Buddhist temples, almost within walking distance from each other. It was a typical village in the North-Western province, a part of which is known as bat kooralee or ‘rice province’. Where there were no tanks or paddy fields there were coconut plantations, big and small. Not surprisingly, much of the ‘coconut triangle’ is also in this province.
Ethnographically, it was a unique village because a considerable number of Sinhalese Christian families lived there, contradicting the conventional wisdom that Christians lived mostly in coastal areas. The village was unique economically too, with a semi-industrial character due to the three coconut-fibre mills in the area. Two of those were less than a mile from my house. If you did not have paddy or coconut land, you could make a living working at those mills. In that sense, the village was atypical. But this ‘self-sufficient village’ was destroyed within five years of political violence.
My village had an intersection, where three roads met. Within a quarter-mile radius of this intersection, or handiya, were three stores. One of the richest men in the village owned the first store. It was called maha kadee (big store), simply because it was the biggest of the three. Its official name was Maheswari Stores.
Now history enters the picture. Maheswari is a Tamil name. Yes, the owner was Tamil, and he was rich: he had quite a large house, a good coconut business, three lorries, a coconut-fibre mill and some land. His name was actually Ramayya, but he was also known as Maheswari mudalali (Trader Maheswari). Maheswari is a woman’s name. How did this man acquire it? The answer was simple: he had a daughter named Maheswari. My father and Ramayya were friends, but Maheswari and I were not. She was Tamil and rich, and she lived in a big house surrounded by a high wall. But I remember her well because she was beautiful, and I was fourteen. More