A Lesson they didn’t teach in school

A Lesson They Didn’t Teach in School

(A true story) 

It was 1948. The Great War among the imperial powers was now over and, for the second time in the century, the Western Powers had triumphed. Ceylon was about to gain independence, with some strings attached, from her colonial master, Great Britain, for having enthusiastically supported the British in the war. India, which opposed the war, with their leaders preferring jail rather than support for their colonial master, had got independence the previous year.

We were a group of about a hundred schoolboys from one of the most prestigious schools, aged twelve to fourteen, in classes classified as Forms 2, 3 and 4, on our way on board the up-country train from Colombo to the boarding school in distant Bandarawela. During the Great War, all Colombo school buildings were requisitioned by the government for housing military facilities. Ceylon was the staging point from which the British South East Asia Command, under Lord Louis Mountbatten, was to despatch troops to re-capture their South East Asian colonies from the Japanese.  So a branch boarding school was also set up in the distant hills of the Uva province. It was recommended to parents as a place with clean mountain air that was good for the health of their boys.

If you thought it was a great holiday resort for us, you would be mistaken. We were going from our comfortable modern middle-class homes in Colombo with our loving Mamas and houseboys and housemaids who did all our chores to a rather miserable boot camp run by two frustrated middle-aged men who could not forgive the authorities for sending them to this isolated place where their professional advancement and social life would be constrained. Apart from these two house-masters, the other teachers lived in houses away from school with their families and were distinctly happier and friendlier people to be tutored by.

The school was a large one-time tea estate bungalow atop a hilly elevation, cut off from the poverty stricken villages of the region. This family home was too small for the school population. Beds were cramped together in rooms and corridors with small lockers for clothing. The lavatories were based on the type in use in temporary army camps, small partitioned wood closets each containing a small wood box with a hole in the centre. The British Army called these “thunder boxes”. The droppings fell into a bucket which was cleaned daily by traditionally low-caste Tamil latrine coolies. At four thousand five hundred feet above sea-level, it was cold and often foggy in the mornings. Wake up time was sharp at six o’clock. Then it was time to jog around the school perimeter for half an hours, wash in the icy cold water of the garden taps and dress for breakfast by 7.30 a.m. By 8.00 a.m. we were walking to the classrooms. Corporal punishments were readily meted out for every infraction of the many rules, both with canes and fists. But small boys do not complain of physical hardship when they are with their peers. It is against the macho culture they are taught to accept. Only evening games and a week-end sing-song sessions enlivened our rather bleak lives.

In the train compartments, boys gathered in different carriages keeping strictly to their age groups. One year of seniority meant superior status and a younger fellow had to keep away from bullying seniors. Our group of thirteen year olds started off by boasting to each other of their exploits during the holidays. But it was a long five hour journey with the train engines straining up steep mountain sides overlooking deep valleys lush with vegetation of the brightest hues of green, interspersed with terraced rice paddies and the distant tiny brown huts of the local villages. Tiffin boxes were opened and lunches prepared by loving Mamas were eaten and shared. After the initial outburst of energy, fatigue was setting. Even gazing out of the windows was not much fun for boys who saw nothing appreciative in the gorgeous scenery which could proudly adorn a European travel poster.

Barely noticed by us, a young village couple had entered our half-empty compartment and were seated as far away from us as possible near the windows overlooking the steep valleys. The man was dressed in a pressed sarong and shirt and the woman in a new green cotton sari. The young couple were perhaps newly married as the woman kept her head down, averting her eyes from the husband seated opposite her. They were clearly in their best suits and bound from one small village to another, perhaps for some important family event. But they had no interest for us. They were the type of people from whom our families recruited their ill-paid domestic servants whom we treated like lower level humans. It was unseemly to fraternise with such people. Or even look upon them with any interest.

But something quite unusual was now happening. We were very slowly passing Nanu Oya, one of the highest points on the line, with the engine noisily powering to take the strain of this steepest part of the journey. Three men were seen slowly moving along the narrow train footboard outside the carriages, holding onto the hand rails and window sills, peering into the compartments. Below them, the steep valley looked down a thousand feet. They were very respectably dressed in the manner of affluent village folk: palaykat sarongs, hitched with the traditional broad black elastic belt with its little leather money pouch, long sleeved shirts and a coat of the type that went with the business suits worn by upper-income men for work. Physically handsome, they were clearly not people who laboured in the fields but looked like affluent rural businessmen. They had climbed the train as it slowed down at this stretch.

Looking into our compartment, one man thrust his hand though the window and opened the door for the trio to get in. Once the door was closed and locked, they sat near the young village couple and began earnestly playing a card game called booruwa (donkey) or asking/hitting. It is a game only favoured by the hoi-polloi unfamiliar with more respectable middle -class card games like bridge or poker. Each person in turn calls a card before the dealer deals a card to each player. Every player puts in an equal sum of money. When a player holds the winning card, he scoops in all the money. It is man’s game. Women never play it. But now we were watching this game discreetly but with interest.

After seemingly enjoying a few rounds, the men turned to the young man and invited him to join them. His wife shook her head in quiet disapproval. But it must have seemed an honour to this village yokel to play with such men. Hesitantly, he placed a ten rupee bet and surprisingly won his first round. The men encouraged him. It must be his lucky day. They asked him to place a bigger bet. He pulled out the last ten rupee note in his pocket and added it to his winnings. He won again. Elated, he now placed his winnings on the table for the next round. And he lost it all. He was now downcast. But his fellow players encouraged him. Your luck will come again, they said. It always does. He said he had no money. They looked at the 24 carat gold ring on his wife’s finger, her wedding ring. They said that would suffice for cash and they would increase their own bets. The young man pulled the gold ring off his wife and placed it on the pile of cash put in by the others. The air was now very tense. All of us boys were now alert to what was going on. The stakes were high. The men started to play very slowly and deliberately. And then it was over.

One of the outsiders won. They scooped in the cash and the ring and put these in their coat pockets. They got up and without any parting farewell to the young couple opened the door and climbed on to the foot rest of the train. As the train started slowing down again near an approaching station, they nimbly leapt off and disappeared.

The young man was wooden faced and expressionless. His young wife was quietly sobbing into the end of her sari. We were speechless spectators to this human drama. The sobbing young woman’s face remains etched in my memory after all these years.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

05 April 2014.


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