Sumith and his family were waiting for a van that would take them from Puttalama to Eluwankulama. It would take them to an estate named Achchige Watte which means ĎGrandmotherís Estateí, where his father had found a job.
They had travelled a long distance. They had arrived in Puttalama from Kaluthara. First they had travelled from Kaluthara to Colombo and then from Colombo to Puttalama. The group included Sumith, his mother and father and his younger brother and sister.
The van leaving Puttalama turned off onto a deserted byĖroad. Vehicles rarely went down there. There were a few trees and houses on either side of the road and some thorny bushes here and there. Even the grass had turned to straw in the heat. They passed a few sheep with dirty coats and a few donkeys grazing on the dry grass.
As they went further, a large stretch of shining white fields appeared on the left. The terraced fields looked as if they were covered with snow. Men and women workers filled their baskets with the white stuff and emptied them in a place further away where it could be stored.
"Father, look there is ice!" shouted Sumith.
"No son, thatís not ice, thatís salt. Weíre passing the salterns of Puttalama," Piyasena answered.
"Is that what we use in curry?" asked Sumith.
"Of course, son," said Sumithís father, answering his questions patiently.
"But such a lot?"
"The whole country is supplied with salt by a few salterns like this one," replied Piyasena.
"My goodness! So much salt! How do they make it?"
"Thatís a very interesting job, son. When you fill the terraces with seaĖwater and leave it over for a few days, the water evaporates and the salt crystallises. Those men are breaking the crystals that are formed this way."
"Thatís a fine job. Donít you think so father?"
Sumith kept on looking at the salterns that stretched over about half a mile. The whole place was deserted except for a few men with covered heads. There were no nice trees except for the odd Suriya tree. The only other trees were thorny bushes.
The salterns disappeared from the scene after some time. Soon, there were only patches of forest, some thorny bushes on either side of the road and nothing else.
You could see streams and pools once in a while. The stagnant water in some of them had turned green.
It was a tiring journey. Sumith was afraid he would be thrown out of the rickety van as it swerved on all the bends, braking hard or trying to accelerate. Dust was another problem. The speed of the van made the thick dust rise high up into the sky, covering everything around them.
The noise scared away a group of monkeys sitting on a withered tree. They got off the tree, climbed another and disappeared. A huge monitor lizard crossed the road and crawled under a bush.
"Sixth mileĖpost, sixth mileĖpost!" the conductor yelled. There were only a few houses to be seen all the way from Puttalama to the post. But this village seemed to have quite a few people. Most of them were Muslims.
A few people got off the van and a few others got in. The van had been full, chockĖaĖblock all the way from Puttalama.
The area around the eighth mileĖpost was also quite full of people. There was a small school and a few mud houses with thatched roofs. There was a temple too, made of mud and whitewashed. A young priest squatted on the ground, weeding the garden.
Sumith and his family got off the van after travelling a short distance from the ninth mileĖpost. There werenít too many houses here either but there were a few large coconut estates on either side of the road. Most of the coconut trees were withered because of the drought. Some trees were already dead, their tops shrivelled up.
Piyasena walked ahead with the old suitcase and the bag containing the tackle. Sumithís younger brother, Upali, held on to his fatherís hand. Sumith was next. He carried the bundle of sleeping mats in one hand and the lantern in the other. His mother, Somalatha, walked behind them carrying their younger sister, Renuka, in one arm and the bag with the rest of the tackle in the other hand.
ĎAchchiís Estateí lay along a gravel pathway that turned off from the tarred road. As they reached the gate, a middle-aged man with a limp spoke to them.
"Are you the people sent by Master Ranasinghe?" he asked, speaking Sinhala with a Tamil accent.
"Yes, yes, we are," Piyasena replied.
"Come, come, we were waiting for you," said the Tamil man. As he spoke, he took out a bunch of keys that hung from his waist and opened the gate.
"You have to keep the gate locked at all times. Everyone going to the lagoon wants to cross the estate," he explained. "Letís go. Letís go." He closed the gate and locked it again.
"Sister looks tired. Let me take that bag," he said, offering to help Somalatha. They followed him. They were dog-tired carrying all the tackle this far and their faces and clothes were drenched with sweat.
Sumithís hands felt as if they would break under the weight. His forehead burned in the hot sun and he was dripping with sweat. He was so thirsty he could have swallowed his tongue but he decided to walk the rest of the journey with courage in his heart.
Piyasena walked ahead, talking to the Tamil man. He said his name was Muththaia. He walked sideways because of his limp. His leg was bent like a bow below the knee.
There were Tamils in Sumithís earlier estate too. He remembered the man they called uncle Nithynandan." How kind he was," thought Sumith.
When they were in Kaluthara, Nithynandan had helped their family in every possible way. Nithynandanís children were Sumithís best friends. He remembered Pushpawalli and Rathnavel.
"What must they be doing now?" he wondered. Sumith remembered the tears in their eyes when his family had left the estate. "They must still be sad that we left," he thought.
Muththaia took Piyasena and his family to a small mud house thatched with coconut leaves. The floor had been rubbed with cow dung. A boy about Sumithís age, who was cleaning a stick in the compound, left the stick and the knife there and ran into the house.
"Come, come right in," Muththaia called, tidying some of the things lying around. Piyasena put the suitcase and the bag with the tackle in a corner. Sumith put his load right next to it.
"No, Brother, we are alright here."
Piyasena sat down on a wooden bed. Somalatha sat on a chair with Renuka on her lap. Upali stood close to his mother as Sumith edged quietly towards Piyasena.
"How hot the sun is in this area!" Piyasena said, unbuttoning his shirt at the neck and blowing onto his chest.
"Yes, Aiya, there hasnít been a drop of rain for months!" Muththaia said in his broken Sinhala.
As Muththaia talked, Meenachchi peeped out of the door, smiled innocently at everyone and went back into the house. She was Muththaiaís wife.
The child who had run inside earlier peeped through a crack in the door. He smiled shyly, shuffling his feet. Sumith knew he was smiling at him but was too shy to smile back.
That day, all of them slept in Muththaiaís house. Sumith and the younger children called him Muththaia uncle. Sumith made friends with his son the day they arrived. His name was Sivaraj.
On the first day, they walked around the estate. Sumith couldnít believe its size. It was so huge. It was even bigger than the estate at Kaluthara.
The whole place was covered with thorny bushes. The ground was covered with Nerenchi, which had smaller thorns. All this was strange to Sumith but very familiar to Sivaraj.
Sumith tried to count the number of coconut trees around him. He was amazed at their height. "How could anyone climb them?" he wondered.
"A hundred trees, no, a thousand, no, five thousand. What nonsense, ten thousand," he went on adding.
Apart from the coconut trees, mango and cashew trees had been planted all over. Sumith was happy to see the mango trees though the little fruits were not ripe yet.
"This is a useless tree. The fruits it bears are not nice. We call them ĎKerosene Mangoesí. The fruits on the big tree are very sweet and the fruits on the tree near the house are nice too. Theyíre called ĎKarthaĖKollombaní," Sivaraj started describing the mango trees to Sumith. Although Muththaia was not fluent in Sinhala, Sivaraj spoke it very well.
Sivaraj was taller than Sumith and fuller. He was also darker and always had a lot of oil in his hair. With all that oil, it stood up straight, like the needles on a porcupine. Sumith was lean and fairer.
Sumith and Sivaraj returned from their wandering quite late in the evening. Sumithís mother and sister slept inside the house with Sivarajís mother and sister that night. Sumith, Sivaraj, Upali, Piyasena and Muththaia slept on the veranda. Piyasena and Muththaia talked about building a new house late into the night.
The next morning, they both got ready to go to the forest to fetch the wood they needed for the house. Piyasena held a long knife while Muththaia carried a rope and an axe.
"Can we come with you father?"
"Apoi, son, you canít walk in the forest," Piyasena said.
"Aney, uncle, Sumith likes to see the forest." Sivaraj was on Sumithís side.
"Let them join us, Aiya, arenít they going with us? We wonít go that far."
Sumith was thrilled when Muththaia agreed. Finally, all four of them set off for the forest. The trees there were mostly Margosa, Weera and Palu. There were also some Eraminiya trees and a few other thorny ones all over.
"This is an ebony tree."
Sivaraj pointed to another tree. "The trunk of the tree is a deep black. Even the planks you see once the tree is felled are black," Sivaraj explained. Sumith remembered the huge intricately carved black almirah in the estate bungalow in Kaluthara. "That must have been made of ebony," he decided.
"Letís go and pluck some wood-apples."
Sivaraj and Sumith went to the wood-apple tree. Sivaraj took some sticks and threw them at the fruits hanging from its branches. Sumith, a stranger to the jungle, stood aside and watched him.
Piyasena and Muththaia were close by so the boys could hear the timber being sawed quite clearly though they could not see them through the trees.
Sivarajís third throw brought down three woodĖapples. Sumith ran to pick them up. "Letís share them with our brothers," he suggested, biting into one.
"Of course, woodĖapples are a plenty. It wouldnít matter. Letís take some."
Sivaraj began throwing sticks at the tree again. Sumith collected some twigs lying around and gave them to him.
Having plucked some more fruit, they filled up their pockets and wandered around. Suddenly a lizard appeared from nowhere and Sumith screamed.
Muththaia called out to them through the jungle.
"Illei Appa," Sivaraj shouted back in Tamil. "Itís only a lizard. It frightened Sumith," he explained.
"How can you live in the jungle if youíre so frightened?" Sivaraj teased. Sivaraj feared nothing and that made Sumith feel ashamed.
The two boys walked on. A few minutes later they heard a moan from underneath a bush. Curious, Sivaraj took a quick look.
"Sumith, come quickly, look at this!"
"Look at that!"
"Isnít that a tiny fawn? Why does its mother lie there?"
"Aney, whatís happened?"
"What do you mean-?"
"People in the area tie guns to the trunks of trees to kill animals. One of those seems to have triggered off. It must have been tied by Jonathan uncle."
"What a sin! How will this little creature survive in the jungle?"
"Animals donít feel lonely here."
"Letís take him home and look after him."
"Thatís right. Thatís what we should do," agreed Sumith.
Sivaraj crept under the bush and came out, hugging the fawn. It was just like a human child. So innocent!
"Itís so scared it doesnít even cry," Sivaraj said.
"What will happen to his mother?"
"Jonathan uncle will soon come looking for the mother. Letís get him out before he comes."
Piyasena was surprised to see the sleeping fawn held close to Sivarajís chest. "Where did you catch him?"
"His mother had been shot dead. This fellow lay there crying beside her so we brought him with us. If Jonathan uncle saw the little one he would skin him too." Sivaraj said, stroking the fawnís head.
"That rascal does nothing but kill innocent animals from dawn to dusk. Sinner! Now, why did you catch this little fellow?" Muththaia asked.
"Weíre going to keep him, as our pet arenít we Sumith?" Sivaraj looked at Sumith. Sumith nodded his head in agreement.
"And since when did you start liking pets?!" Muththaia exclaimed.
"No, no. We really want to look after him. Donít we Sumith?" Once again, Sumith nodded his head in agreement.
While Sumith and Sivaraj had been exploring the jungle, their fathers had chopped most of the wood needed to build a small house.
"You canít take all the timber at once, so letís take some first and the rest later," Muththaia told him. Piyasena and Muththaia carried two heavy beams on their shoulders while Sumith and Sivaraj carried two smaller ones.
Sivaraj and Sumith continued their chitĖchat as they went along. "My father limps because of a gun-shot," revealed Sivaraj.
"Donít tell me!" said Sumith in surprise.
"When he went to the jungle one day, he got shot by a ĎtreeĖguní, straight on his knee. He has been limping ever since."
Sumith watched Muththaia limping along with the heavy load on his shoulder and felt sorry for the older man.
"What are these ĎtreeĖgunsí?" asked Sumith.
"It is a gun that people load with gunpowder and place on a forked stick. They tie one end of a string to the trigger and the other to a tree. When the animals trip over the string, the gun triggers off. If the police catch anyone trying such guns they are sure to go to jail."
"Did your father get shot like that?"
"Yes, even Jayasiri uncleís leg was amputated because of a shot. Some people have even died from a gun-shot wound."
"Do they tie guns all over the jungle?"
"No, not everywhere. Only in places where the animals come."
"I feel really scared when I hear all this."
"You have to be careful when you walk around in the jungle."
"It would have been better to stay on at the Kaluthara estate," Sumith thought, as he heard these horrible stories.
With the wood from the jungle, the two men laid the foundation for a small house. Both Somalatha and Meenachchi chipped in.
Meenachchi collected a bundle of dried coconut leaves woven like mats for the thatching on the roof. Muththaia worked very hard to build their house. Sumith and Sivaraj helped in their own small way.
When the beams in the walls were covered with mud and the roof was thatched with leaves, it looked like a very nice house indeed. The floor was covered with cow dung, turned into a cementĖlike paste. Mud for the walls, was kneaded with water from the Mohotte Tank. Two big barrels belonging to the estate were taken to the tank in a cart and filled with water. Whenever the cart was taken to the tank, Sumith and Sivaraj walked beside it.
Sumith and his family have now settled into their new home. It is near the gate leading to the estate while Sivarajís house is at the other end.
Sumith attends the school at the tenth mile-post. Both Sivaraj and Sumith are in grade two. On the first day Sumith is surprised by the number of children in his class, there are only ten!
In fact, the whole school has very few children ó not more than a hundred in all.
"How different this school is from the one at Kaluthara!" he thinks.
There are only four teachers in the whole school. Kindergarten, grade one and grade two have only one teacher. Sumithís teacher teaches in his class and in other classes at the same time. The school is just one building. There arenít enough desks and chairs for everyone. Children up to grade five sit on the floor.
His new school is about a mile from the estate but Sumith never feels the distance because he has Sivaraj for company.
Both Sivaraj and Sumith go to school and come home together. They come back home in the hot sun, which melts the tar on the road and turns the sand next to it red-hot. When Sumith and Sivaraj walk back, their feet burn in the hot sun. Most children here are poor and have no sandals or shoes. Both Sumith and Sivaraj walk barefoot.
When their soles burn, they run into the shade of a tree. After resting their feet a while they move on a little more, then again they look for shade.
They do this day after day on their way home from school.
As they reach the gate, Kira runs up to them playfully. Kira is the fawn they are bringing up and both of them are thrilled to see him after their long walk home.
Sumith is now familiar with both the estate and the tenth mile-post. Whenever he leaves the estate he asks Sivaraj to come with him. He is not afraid to go anywhere as long as Sivaraj is there.
They go to school for five days of the week and canít wait for Saturday. On holidays they play to their heartsí content. When they get home from school every day, they make plans for things to do on the weekend.
This Saturday they have planned to go into the forest but this time they will go into an area they havenít been to before.
Though Sivarajís parents didnít mind, Sumithís parents never allowed him to go beyond the estate.
The jungle holds untold danger. One never knows when a gun may go off. Jonathan uncle sets most of the ones that do. He sets up two or three at different spots every evening. Come dawn, he creeps into the forest looking for the animals that have died. If none have, he just leaves the guns there and goes home.
Apart from Jonathan uncle, Sadiris and Sethupala hunt animals with treeĖguns too.
In the jungle, Sumith was startled by a sound in a bush. "Whatís that noise?"
"Itís a ghost!" Sivaraj looked at Sumithís face.
Sumith felt his body freeze. "A ... a... a Ghost?"
"Yes, Muniyandi was shot here. Now, Muniyandi haunts this place."
Sumithís heart pounded. "Letís go, quickly, Iím frightened!"
"Why should you be frightened when I am here?"
"But what if the ghost comes?"
"Nonsense! My father says thereís no such thing as ghosts!"
"Then what was that sound?"
"That was a bird, didnít you see the birds under the bush?"
"It doesnít matter! Letís go home."
"Chee! What a coward!" Saying that, Sivaraj turned back. Sumith still felt the fear in his heart. He was afraid to walk ahead of Sivaraj and afraid to walk behind him. It was only after they had walked for a while that he relaxed.
"Sha, look, a weaverbirdís nest! Itís beautiful!" all of a sudden Sumith was excited.
"Why, there are so many of these nests in the jungle!"
"Weíll take one to our new teacher!"
"To our new teacher? What for?"
"Heíll be thrilled to see a nest like this. Iím sure they donít have nests like this in his village. Donít you remember, he asked us about the birds in this area?"
"Thatís right! Letís take one for him. But how do I get it down without crushing it?"
"What if there are any babies in it?"
"There arenít any. Theyíve left the nest."
"How will you get it?"
"I know how! Iíll go up the tree and bend the branch downwards. Then, you take it off gently."
Sivaraj climbed up the tree and bent down the branch that held the nest. Sumith stood on tiptoe and took it off the tree.
The two friends went home, dying to present the birdís nest to their new teacher. They knew he would be very pleased.
The two friends woke up earlier than usual and started off to school.
"Let me carry it." Sumith took the nest and held it carefully. They continued their chitĖchat on the way.
"Who will give the nest to Sir?"
"Youíd better give it to him because youíre the one who suggested it."
"Then letís both do it."
"Iíll come with you, but you must present it," said Sivaraj.
The distance to school seemed longer than on other days. They were in a tearing hurry to get there.
Seeing the nest, some children approached the two friends.
"Ha, why are you carrying a nest to school?" asked Kumari, the girl who always spoke with airs.
"We are taking it to our new teacher."
"What does he need such rubbish for?"
"Letís see if he thinks its rubbish!" Sumith replied angrily.
They were early and their teacher had not yet arrived so they stood on either side of the nest, standing guard.
They couldnít play as they did every day. They were afraid that someone would break the nest if they left it there.
Soon, the bell rang. Sivaraj and Sumith walked into the assembly hall long after everyone else had.
After ĎPansilí, the principal started his long speech. Sumith was impatient and so was Sivaraj. Sumith stood on his toes anxiously and looked out to check that the nest was still safe. He didnít hear a word the principal said. Both boys were distracted. All they could think of was their nest.
After the speech, the principal told them to leave the assembly. Sumith ran out at once. "You, boy, Sumith, come here!" the principal shouted. Sumith stood there mesmerised. Seeing the principal frowning at him, he froze.
"Where are you running to, like an animal without a yoke?"
"No, no, Sir."
Sumith started to stammer.
"No, Sir," he repeated.
"How did I ask you to return to class?"
Sumith kept quiet.
"Speak up!" his headmaster thundered.
"Single fi ... le?"
"Is this the way to go in a single file? After this, be careful. Now, go to class!"
Sumith was lucky to escape a public caning. With the headmaster watching, he inched his way slowly into the classroom.
Their class teacher got off the bus from Puttalama. He entered the office carrying his bags. The children in the classroom waited impatiently.
Then, the teacher entered and the children stood up and greeted him.
Everyone sat down. Sumith and Sivaraj turned to each other not knowing what to do next. Would he shout if they took the nest to him, and make Kumari and the others laugh at them?
They waited and worried.
"Sir ... Sumith and Sivaraj have brought a nest!"
Lal, who sat in the second row, broke the news. Sumith and Sivaraj quaked with fear.
"Let me see it!"
As the teacher spoke, Sumith looked at Sivaraj. "Letís go."
"No, no, you go ahead. You wanted to bring it."
"Thatís okay. Let us both go."
They walked to the teacher with their gift.
The two children felt proud and happy as their doubts and fears melted away. With all the other children watching them, Sumith and Sivaraj looked around the classroom like two young heroes.
"There are many nests in our area, too," said Lal.
"So why didnít you bring any?"
"They are in the jungle," replied Lal.
"We got ours from the jungle, too," Sumith told Lal, as if they had done something truly heroic. Their teacher inspected the nest carefully and looked at both Sivaraj and Sumith. Then, he turned to the class.
"Well done! This is the first time Iíve seen a weaverbirdís nest. You donít find them in our villages."
The teacher hung the nest from a nail above the blackboard for everyone to see.
That day their Sinhala lesson was about the birdís nest. The teacher gave every child a chance to say what he knew about the weaverbird. Lal offered to tell everyone an interesting story.
Whenever the teacher was absent he told the class stories which the children liked to listen to. Kumari usually listened with her eyes wide and her mouth open. Lal usually made up his story on the spur of the moment.
Lal was good at telling the same story again and again, always adding a few new things as he went along. In Lalís stories, tigers and bears could drive tractorsÖ and the monkeys rode bicycles!
Soon, the teacher asked if anyone knew the story of the weaverbird. Immediately, Lalís hand went up.
"I know, I know, I know it, Sir!" The teacher asked him to stand in front of the class and tell them his story, loudly, so that the whole class could hear. Lal came forward trembling with stage fright and started.
"Once upon a time, the king of birds called all his birds to him to tell them how to build nests. The BirdĖKing was the eagle. He began to teach them how to build their nests.
"The cuckoo thought to himself: ĎIs building houses such a big thing? Is there so much to learn about it?í and he went away. A little later, the crow thought to himself, ĎIf I can begin a nest this way, I can build the rest as I want, what am I wasting my precious time for?í He flew away, too. Then all the birds started thinking like that and flew off. The only bird that waited until the end was the weaverbird. That is why this is the only bird who knows how to build a complete nest.
"Since the cuckoo left the earliest, it still hasnít learnt how to build a nest. It lays its eggs in anotherís nest. Since the crow only learnt the first lesson, its nest is only half-complete. Only the weaverbird learnt the whole lesson and it builds its nest so well that even a fly cannot enter. It keeps the entrance to the nest on the underside so that no animal can enter it either. Thatís the story." The shy Lal started fidgeting nervously again.
The children had listened attentively and were thrilled. Even the teacher was pleased. He praised Lal and Lalís shy little face filled with happiness.
That day, the children wrote an essay on ĎHow the Weaverbird Builds His Nestí. Sumith really enjoyed writing on that topic.
Sumith and Sivaraj felt wonderful. All these things had happened because of them, because they had taken the weaverbirdís nest to class. After school, the teacher took the nest to the house where he lodged.
It was a Sunday, so Sivaraj and Sumith decided to go into the jungle. When they first came to Achchige Watte, Sumith used to be afraid but now he is very fond of walking there. Sivaraj knew it inside out so there was nothing to fear.
Watching the birds and little insects as they roamed the forest together was so interesting. He loved to tour the jungle, creeping under thorny bushes and resting under great big trees. Thanks to Sivaraj, Sumithís fear of the jungle had lessened. He had learned to avoid danger and enjoy its beauty because of him.
Today, it was Sumith who suggested that they walk in the jungle. This time Sumith suggested that they go into the part across the tarred road and Sivaraj agreed.
Once you cross over, a short walk leads to the railroad. Beyond it was a forest full of huge trees.
The railroad ran from the cement factory in Puttalama, through the forest to Aruakkadu. All it did was transport lime that was used to make cement.
Trains ran to and fro about ten or twelve times a day. Sometimes faint sounds of a moving train could be heard at Achchiís Estate. The jungle on either side hid the railroad from the tarred one.
A pathway across the railroad led to the forest. The two friends followed it.
"Iím not afraid to walk in the jungle anymore."
"But you have to be careful when you do," Sivaraj warned.
Agitated by their voices, a huge squirrel tried to jump from one tree to another with its baby and fell off. But before it reached the ground, still in midĖair, the mother squirrel grabbed her baby and leapt onto another tree.
"Aney, Sivaraj, letís catch that small fellow. We can take care of it," Sumith pleaded, staring after it.
"My goodness! Donít even try! These squirrels have teeth like razor blades and itís never easy to catch them. Besides, my Appa doesnít like to put animals into cages. He says itís a sin. See how much freedom they have in the jungle and so many fruits to eat," said Sivaraj.
"Thatís right. Even the young priest in our Dhamma school taught us not to harm innocent animals. He told us that putting animals into cages is a way of harassing them," Sumith agreed.
"Whatís that loud noise? Isnít it a gunĖshot? Must be one of Jonathan uncleís or Sadiris uncleís guns!" Sivaraj followed the direction of the sound, his eyes filled with curiosity.
"Do you think it was an animal?"
"Letís go and see!"
"OhhÖ I donít knowÖ." Sumith shivered in fright. "Thereís no need to be frightened now. The gun has already gone off."
"It wonít go again?" a worried Sumith followed him, terrified that he or Sivaraj would step on a string tied to a gun.
"Please Sivaraj, be careful. There may be other guns," Sumith kept on warning Sivaraj.
"Iím careful enough. You be careful," Sivaraj replied over and over again.
Creeping, under thorny bushes, Sumithís body was covered with scratches. Eraminiya thorns stick to the skin if you rub against its tree and then, when you sweat, your skin burns, but Sumith and Sivaraj took no notice.
"I think the sound came from there," said Sivaraj, pointing to a particular area.
"I canít imagine where!" Sumith exclaimed.
Sivaraj seemed puzzled, too, and looked around more carefully. Suddenly, he stopped. Standing stock-still he whispered to Sumith.
"Can you hear that noise?"
Sumith listened, more carefully this time.
"Itís someone groaning!" Sumith said, still alert. "That canít be an animalís cry!"
"Isnít it a man?"
"Iím sure it is! Letís go closer."
Sivaraj went first.
Even the birds seemed to wail in agitation. The monstrous forest surrounded him on all sides. Sumithís skin broke into goose bumps.
Both of them were alert, filled with a mixture of curiosity and fear as they walked towards the sound. At last they saw a man lying under a bush, groaning with pain.
"My God! Itís Jonathan uncle!"
"Hasnít he been shot?" Sumith asked. There was no answer from Sivaraj. The two friends turned to Jonathan.
"Jonathan uncle!" Sivaraj whispered.
"MmÖ.mm....... Ah ... Ah..." After a long groan which took a lot of effort, Jonathan opened his eyes. "I got shot .. a..y... boys."
The shot had hit him below the knee. Blood gushed out from the wound. After another long moan, his eyes closed. The two friends looked at each other and shivered.
"Did he die?" Sumith asked.
"No. I think he fainted. Tell you what? You stay right here while I go call father."
"Okay, but hurry!"
Sivaraj disappeared under the bushes. He ran, creeping through them and avoiding the dried sticks and branches, which were deadly.
Sumith was terribly afraid. "Itís so scary to be with an unconscious man in the middle of the jungle," he thought.
Jonathan had still not regained consciousness. "Or is he already deadÖ? Am I standing next to a corpseÖ?!"
Sumith was frightened, afraid that a tiger or a bear would jump on him any minute. He imagined monstrous faces of wild beasts surrounding him. He didnít know what to do. He didnít know where to look but he tried hard to calm the fear in his heart.
Half an hour later, Muththaia and Piyasena came back with Sivaraj. The first thing Muththaia did was to examine the gun that had gone off. It seemed to have gone off while Jonathan was still trying to set it.
"Itís not a gun that is often seen. See this string...It isnít even tied yet," Muththaia explained.
"He came here to set up the guns totally drunk!" said Piyasena, smelling him. "He reeks of Kasippu, I canít bear to go any closer to him."
"Letís carry him on our shoulders," suggested Muththaia.
Piyasena and Muththaia lifted him onto their shoulders with difficulty. The two skinny men found it very tough to carry a heavy man like Jonathan. They had to keep bending down and straightening up again through the trees and under bushes until they got their load out of the forest, balancing it carefully all the way. Sumith and Sivaraj followed.
Although Jonathan was a cruel man, the two friends couldnít help but feel a little sorry for him.
As they reached the road, Gunapalaís van came along. The van pulled up as soon as Gunapala spotted them.
Jonathan and Gunapala were close friends. Gunapalaís van transported the poacherís meat, which was then sold illegally. Gunapala was shocked to see Jonathan in this condition.
He jumped out of the van, slamming the door shut with a bang.
"Isnít this our Jonathan? What happened to the devil? How did he get shot? Is he drunk? Where did he get shot?" Gunapala asked a string of questions.
"These children saw him lying in the jungle and told us."
Not waiting for answers, Gunapala turned to the people in the van. "Can everyone in the front seat move to the rear so that we can put the sick man in front? Quick, come, move, put him in!"
With great difficulty, Piyasena and Muththaia put Jonathan onto the front seat.
"Iíll take him to the hospital. You stay here." Saying that, Gunapala jumped into the van and started off. Piyasena and Muththaia were reluctant to go with him, as they werenít wearing the right clothes ó they were in their work clothes.
The two of them went back home with Sivaraj and Sumith. The two children were scolded for roaming around in the middle of the jungle. Muththaia blamed Sivaraj for taking Sumith into the thick of the forest. The two children said nothing.
Jonathan came home from hospital in less than a fortnight. The wound was not a very serious one. Less than two weeks later, he was back to his usual job.
Kira is a big fellow now. He comes running out of nowhere when his name is called. At first, the two friends were afraid that Kira would go back to the jungle when he was old enough but now they are sure that Kira will never desert them.
Earlier, Kira preferred Sumithís house. Now he likes both. Both homes treated him equally well. Though Sivarajís dog, Kalu, didnít like Kira in the beginning, you often see them playing together now. Everyone enjoys watching them play.
When the two boys start off for school, Kira goes with them.
"Kira, you have to stay home till we come back. If you follow us, the principal will beat us," the two friends pleaded with Kira, petting his head gently. Leaving him behind is no easy task.
The two boys save some of the biscuits they get in school for the folks at home. Sumith keeps some for his mother, sister and Upali and some for Kira too. Sivaraj does much the same. It is Kira who gets the most in the end: one from Sumith and another from Sivaraj.
The two friends love to feed Kira biscuits. When a biscuit is put into his mouth, he munches it noisily, then eagerly asks for another. Then, they give him some more. Kira finishes that, too, and asks for more again!
"Thatís all for today little one. Weíll bring you more tomorrow," they say, petting his head.
One day, the two friends started off to school as usual. Halfway through, they were surprised to see Kira following them.
"Look at that, Kira has followed us. Can you believe it?"
"He must have slipped away from Malli and followed us."
"But how did he find the way?"
"Theyíre not like us. They have instincts," Sivaraj concluded.
That day, Kira went to school with them. He even crept quietly into a classroom and wandered around the whole building.
The two friends were scared that they would be shouted at for letting Kira come into the school, but the children and the teachers thought it was great fun to have a tame fawn around.
Ever since that day, Kira goes to school with his friends. He plays in the nearby jungle all day until school is over. During the break, he comes back to the school garden, where he is given biscuits.
One day Kira even went into the principalís office. The principal gave him a few biscuits. Kira munched them noisily.
The two boys go to school with Kira in the morning and come home with him in the evening. Knowing that Kira is tame, no one tries to hurt him.
The drought is so severe that even the forest has dried up. All the trees seem to be looking up to the sky, waiting for a drop of water to quench their thirst. They have all started to droop, all but a few like the Tamarind and the Margosa.
This drought has gone on for over a month. Sumith and his family first came to live on this estate during a similar one.
There is water only in the deepest part of Mohotte Tank and even that is too polluted to use. All the other places that once held a bit of water have dried up and are full of cracks.
The well dug in the bed of the tank is also drying up fast. No one is allowed to use the water in this well for washing or bathing. To do that, every one has to go to Kala Oya, a river that is far away. Water from the well is only used for cooking.
The Water Resources Board distributes drinking water in a tanker. When the tanker arrives, people bring their waterĖpots and fill them. People go to the Kala Oya, about seven miles from the tenth mileĖpost, to bathe and wash their clothes but the poor cannot even do that.
The severity of the drought has forced people to work in welfare camps. Here, people are asked to clear the roads or mend tank walls. In return, they are given wheat flour. It is with the relief aid given to them that people feed themselves during the drought.
Sumithís mother and Sivarajís mother go to these camps. On the way home from school, the boys often meet people coming back from the welfare camps. Even people living as far as Wijayapura and the eleventh mile-post stop at the Mohotte Well to get a pot of water. They are forced to carry the pots on their heads as they walk back long distances to their homes. The drought has become a great menace to the people of the area now.
People live a very difficult life during droughts. Some children bear their hunger and attend school. Some children donít because they had nothing to eat for breakfast.
If biscuits are to be given to them at school the children do not stay away. But when schools run out of aid and fail to provide them with biscuits, attendance drops quickly. On days like that, children who come all the way from the eleventh mile-post do not attend school at all.
The August vacation is only a few days away so schools hold their termĖend tests. During the tests children donít have to carry all their books to school. Sumith, Sivaraj and others in their class write answers on papers torn off from their exercise books. They cannot afford to buy foolscap papers so their teachers have told them to use exercise book paper instead.
One day, as Sumith and Sivaraj reached school, they met some children who were already going home. One of them, Soma, said in a knowĖitĖall voice. "Its no use going to school. Today is a holiday."
"Youíre nuts! How can it be a holiday? Today is only Wednesday!" said Sumith.
"Go if you want to. But youíll get a pug." said Soma.
As Soma walked past them, Sumith and Sivaraj looked at each other in surprise.
"Soma is a lieĖmaking factory. Letís go and ask our teacher."
Both of them walked on quickly. Kira followed them, playing around and then sniffing his way ahead.
All the children who had reached school early were now going back.
Two teachers, Shelton Sir and Reggie Sir turned them away. "Children, go back home. We donít teach today," Shelton Sir told them, standing in the doorway.
"Why is that, Sir?" Sumith asked.
"Thereís some trouble in Colombo. Because of that, all the schools are closed. You all better go home now," Reggie Sir, who was standing in the school garden, explained. Sumith and Sivaraj turned back.
"Why are they closing our school because of the trouble in Colombo when our school is so far from Colombo?" Sumith wondered. The two of them were talking about how pointless it seemed.
"We studied so much for nothing! I hope theyíll reĖopen day after tomorrow."
They could not understand the situation that had arisen. Later in the day, a news broadcast stated that the Sinhala people in Colombo had troubled the Tamils. The news spread like wild fire. The Sinhalese had attacked all property belonging to the Tamils ó shops, houses, factories had all been burnt down. It was said that the Sinhalese were making trouble for the Tamils because the Tamils in Jaffna had killed a group of Sinhala policemen.
"So why should they kill the Tamils in Colombo for that?" Sumith silently wondered. A later news broadcast said that an allĖnight curfew would be enforced and that schools would be closed until further notice because of the state of emergency in the country.
That night, while Sumith and his sister and brother were having their meal, a mob armed with torches entered Achchiís Estate. They were shouting at the top of their voices.
"Muththaia, get out, we are going to get you!"
"Muththaia,You pariah Tamil!"
"Your dogs killed our men, you will have to pay!"
With these awful words, they jumped over the closed gate and entered the estate.
Piyasena was not at home at the time. He had gone to meet someone at the eighth mileĖpost.
Sumith started shivering from head to toe. Somalatha bundled the children into the house, closed the door and ran to Sivarajís house to warn them. Sumith didnít know what was happening. He shivered again as he pictured these men hurting Sivaraj and his family.
Jonathan uncleís voice rose high above the others as they passed Sumithís house. You could also hear Somalatha speaking.
"Aney, Jonathan, Aiye, why do you want to bully those innocent people? Go back, Aiye, please go back, please donít do anything to them, Aiye!"
She ran after the mob, pleading with them. Sumith wanted to run after them, too, but how could he leave his brother and sister alone?
The whole area is pitch dark. When Jonathan shakes his leafĖtorch to and fro the fire seems to burn with a new energy. The men with him were Sadiris, Sethupala and two more boys from the twelfth mileĖpost. They carried long kattys and clubs.
"Are you supporting this Tamil bunch? Weíre going to kill them because their dogs killed our people!" Sumith heard Jonathan shouting.
The gang entered Sivarajís home. With one kick, Jonathan sent the door crashing into the house.
There was no one there. Somalatha had warned them just in time. Sivarajís family had enough time to go and hide in the jungle.
Angered by their absence, the crowd started shouting slogans again and again, waving their torches wildly. They looked around the house for someone they might find. Jonathan let out a loud hoot and held a burning torch to the thatched roof.
"Aiyo, Amma! They set fire to Sivarajís house!" Sumith shouted unwittingly.
The roof, dried up by the long drought, turned into a ball of fire. It lit up the whole estate. Sumith felt his heart catch fire and burn up in an instant.
"Muththaia, come out from wherever you are! We want to finish you!" Jonathan raved like one possessed. Huge tears rolled down Sumithís cheeks. The two younger children were crying too. Then, Jonathan moved towards the little shed behind the house, brandishing his torch. Sumith suddenly remembered that Kira was inside. Having seen the house on fire, Kira got out and started to run. Sadiris gave him a huge blow on the head with his club. Sumithís blood turned to water. He ran towards Kira in the thick darkness, knocked against a stump of a tree and fell down. He got up and with his lips bleeding, started running again.
"Aney, Jonathan uncle, donít kill Kira, heís mine!" Sumith cried out but it was all over by then.
"Get out, you son of a dog! Iíll kill you in just the same way!"
Saying this, Jonathan uncle started skinning Kira with the help of his friends. Sumith couldnít bear it any longer. He screamed, loud enough for the whole world to hear, but no one even spared him a glance. Sumith cried louder still but there was no one there to hear him.
After skinning Kira, the crowd left the estate, singing victoriously.
When Sumith saw the mob leaving the estate, he walked to Sivarajís house. It was turning into one big heap of ash. HalfĖburnt ribs of thatched leaves falling from the roof crackled brightly as they touched the ground. Only the walls still stood erect. The beams above burned redĖhot before they turned to black.
Very slowly, Sumith walked up to the place where Kira had been killed. Kiraís head, skin and intestines still lay there. His eyes were open, a hint of tears around them. Sumith sat there and cried for a long time. "Why was Jonathan uncle so wicked? When Jonathan uncle lay in the jungle, shot in the leg, how Muththaia uncle had helped him! Who took him out of jungle?" he asked angrily.
After a while, Piyasena came to Sumith. His eyes were filled with tears and he gave a long sigh. Sumithís eyes were still flooded with tears too.
"Letís go home, son," Piyasena said. Piyasena held Sumithís hand and took him home. Sumithís mother sat in the veranda, crying.
"The dogs didnít burn the house because they had any love for the Sinhalese! They were waiting to take revenge on Muththaia. They couldnít steal coconuts from the estate as long as Muththaia was there. Sethupala was once caught redĖhanded." Piyasenaís voice echoed his pain and anger.
Sumith realized that his mouth was bleeding. He had broken two teeth when he had stumbled against the tree stump. There was blood on his chin and tummy. He wiped it off with a piece of cloth.
All night, Sumithís mother and father talked about Sivarajís plight. No one knew where he and his family were hiding. There was no way they could go looking for them now either. "Where can we find them? How could they sleep in the jungle, quaking with fear?"
Sumith couldnít sleep. He could not get over the shock. He sat next to his mother and decided to stay awake but, without realising it, he fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning.
At daybreak, Piyasena crept into the jungle looking for the place where they were hiding. Sumith wanted to go along but his father didnít take him. As soon as he could, Sumith went to the burnt house. He could not believe the damage done, all in just one single night. Some of the timber was still smoking. All the furniture inside the house had turned to ash. Sumith knew that the clothes and the books would be ash too.
He saw ants crawling all over the place where Kira had been killed. Tears filled his eyes once again.
"How can we go to school without Kira? How cruel it is to kill such an innocent animal!"
It was not just Sumith and Sivaraj who loved Kira. All the children and teachers in school loved Kira just as much. Sumith couldnít bear to think of the frisky little Kira who had skipped along to school with them. "That innocent Kira who followed Sivaraj and me home from school. How sad!"
Sumith dug a hole close to their flowerbed and buried Kiraís remains. He made a mound, planted a Jasmine tree in it and watered it carefully. Piyasena came home around 9 oíclock and told them how hard it had been to find Sivarajís family in the jungle.
Somalatha made roti with the flour they received as relief aid. She also made a sambol to eat it with. She filled a can of water and gave it all to Piyasena. This time Sumith went to the jungle with his father. They looked around carefully before they entered it. Sivarajís family was hiding in the middle. As soon as he saw Sumith, Sivaraj ran towards him.
"See what happened to us?" his eyes were filled with tears. Piyasena gave the packet of roti to Meenachchi. They hadnít eaten anything last night. The mob had come looking for them just as they were getting ready for dinner.
"Aa ó Sumith ó have some," Sivaraj broke off a piece from his roti and gave it to Sumith.
"No, go ahead. I had enough before I came."
Sivaraj started to eat as Sumith kept fussing.
"Those devils burnt your house down." Sumith told him in a voice racked with pain.
"Yes, we watched them from our hiding place." Sivarajís face turned pale.
"The devils killed Kira!"
"Aiyo, what a sin!"
"I begged them not to, but they were a pack of devils!"
Tears poured down Sivarajís face. Sumith couldnít control himself. He broke down too.
"Where are you going to live now?"
"My father wants to go to India."
"India? India is another country ó abroad?"
"Yes. My father says that this is why the Sinhala people harass us."
"Who told you this?"
"My father did. We are supposed to be Indian Tamils. My mother and father came here from a tea estate in Kandy."
"But if you go Iíll be all alone here!"
"What can we do Sumith? My father received a letter from the government a few days ago asking us to get ready to leave for India."
"Donít go Sivaraj ó Iíll tell your father not to go."
"Itís useless telling father, Sumith."
"But then, at least you can stay behind with us."
"How can I do that? My father wanted to become a Sri Lankan citizen and stay on. But now that the Sinhalese have started to harass us, my father wants to go to India."
Sumith returned home with a heavy heart. He knew he was going to lose his friend just as he had lost Kira. Sivaraj and his family stayed in the jungle for about a week, afraid that the mob would attack them again. Piyasena took them things to eat and mats to sleep on.
After a week, Sivaraj and his family returned to Achchige Watte. They all stayed at Sumithís house though Sumithís house was tiny and couldnít really fit in two families easily.
Even though the August vacation had begun, the two boys were in no mood to play. Sivarajís family lived in constant fear.
When the third term started, Sivaraj did not go to school. He had neither books nor clothes for that. They had all been burnt in the fire.
In the new term, Sumith went to school all alone. There was no Sivaraj and no Kira to go with him. The journey there and back was unbearably lonely.
The teacher noticed Sivarajís absence and asked Sumith about it.
"Sir, Jonathan uncle and others set fire to Sivarajís house. All his books and clothes got burnt. Thatís why he is refusing to come to school."
"With what heart do people commit such crimes? I am very sorry about what happened to Sivaraj. Ask him to come to school. I will find him books."
Sumith was touched by his teacherís kindness. He gave Sivaraj the teacherís message but as they were getting ready to leave for India soon, Sivaraj thought there was no point in going to school.
The teacher was very disturbed to hear that Sivaraj had given up school. He was even more saddened to hear that they were leaving the country. He discussed the issue in detail with his class.
"Although we speak two languages we are all equal. We all feel sadness, pain, happiness and love in the same way. This land belongs to both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. It is the motherland of all these people. It is true that Sivaraj belongs to the up-country labour force. It is true that they are not citizens of this country. But their ancestors have been working on our tea estates for a long time. They are the people who have worked so hard to earn the most money for our country. Tea is one of Sri Lankaís three major incomes. We should not consider them low. If we do, then we lack gratitude and are no longer good human beings. We have no right to say that Sri Lanka does not belong to people like Sivaraj."
Sumith saw the truth in his teacherís words clearly, but he wondered why people like Jonathan could not understand it.
Much to everyoneís surprise, Jonathan uncle suddenly disappeared. The rumour going around was that he went into the jungle to set his guns two days ago but had not been seen since. His friends searched the jungle but for four days there was no sign of him. A few days later his body was found under a bush in the jungle. The only clue to his identity was the sarong he wore. His body had already started to rot when it was found and had been mauled by animals. It was said that crows surrounded the body when it was found.
Though people had identified it, the body was in no shape to be brought home so it was buried in the jungle. The gun in a gunĖtrap set for a stag had gone off and shot him. The bullet had gone through his stomach. When his wife heard the news, she rolled on the ground in her grief.
"How many animalsí lives had he destroyed by setting gun-traps? How many times had he bullied the innocent? His setting fire to Sivarajís house was a crime even mother earth would find hard to forgive," still, Sumith felt sad about his death.
After that, the use of gunĖtraps lessened. People were afraid that Jonathanís ghost haunted the jungle.
When the news reached Muththaia uncle he was very distressed.
"That man set traps for animals not realizing that he, too, was destined to die. The irony is that he died because of a trap that he had set for another animal. How sinful!" Muththaia uncle said sadly. That day, Jonathan uncle was buried.
Muththaia uncle had got almost everything done and was all set to leave for India, Sumith heard him telling his father. They would have to leave before December. Sumithís days were filled with a sadness that words could not describe. Sivaraj was sad too.
"How many more days do we have together?"
"After you go to India we may never meet again."
"I will come back when I am big enough."
"Will you go to school when you get there?"
"Of course, how would I learn otherwise?"
"But what if there arenít any Sinhala medium schools?"
"Then, Iíll go to a Tamil one."
"Yes, youíd better study hard and become like our teacher."
Sumith and Sivaraj lay on their sleeping mat, talking. Since two families lived in the house now, both of them shared a mat. On most days they talked late into the night.
Sumithís father and Muththaia uncle also spent their nights talking about many different things. Most of the time however, their topic was the trip to India.
Though their journey had been carefully planned they had nothing left to take with them. All that they owned were the clothes they wore. Preparations were being made and they were nearly ready.
They knew they had to go but did not really want to leave their own country. "Still, when people said that the country they were born in did not belong to them, how could they stay on?" Sivaraj wondered. They didnít know a soul in India and leaving Sumith was what hurt him the most.
The day before they left, Sivaraj went to school with a sheaf of betel leaves. All his friends told him how sad they would be after he went away.
His teacherís eyes filled with tears. When Sivaraj went down on his knees to salute him, he held on to his teacherís feet and sobbed. He also saluted the other teachers, Mr. Shelton and Mr. Reggie and the principal. They all said they were really sorry that he was leaving.
"Wonít you come back to Sri Lanka?" his friends surrounded him, asking all sorts of questions.
After school, Sivaraj came back home with Sumith. This was the last time that they would come home from school together.
At dawn, Sivaraj and his family got dressed to leave. Sumithís family gave them some of their own clothes since Sivarajís family had nothing to wear on the journey. Sumith gave Sivaraj two suits from the best three suits he had. The trousers were a bit tight for Sivaraj.
Sumithís mother gave Meenachchi a saree and Sivarajís sister got two dresses which Sumithís mother kept at the bottom of her suitcase. His father gave the sarong and the banyan he had bought for New Year to Muththaia uncle.
Just before they set off, both families said goodĖbye, crying their hearts out. Sumith and his father were going to Puttalama with them. As Sivarajís family was leaving, Sumith could feel Achchige Watte come alive to bid them farewell. The estate itself was sorry that Muththaia uncle was leaving, someone who had looked after it for such a long time. The wind blew soft groans through the treetops as if mourning the separation. As he reached the road, Muththaia uncle turned back to look at the estate one last time and sighed deeply.
As they waited, a bus headed for Karathive went by. Then the bus from Eluwankulama rumbled along and pulled up. Sivarajís family, Sumith and his father got into the bus. Sumithís sister, brother and mother walked on sadly. The bus started towards Puttalama. Sumith and Sivaraj sat in front.
Sivaraj was not just saying goodbye to the estate and Sumithís family. He was also leaving the people at the tenth mile-post, the children at school, the teachers, this uncle who drove the bus, the bus to Karathive, Gunapala uncleís van, these trees that seemed to walk backward as the bus picked up speed, all the houses and the people inside them. Sivaraj would not see any of these things again.
Sumith sat lost in thought. Sivaraj didnít want to chat either.
Sumith noticed that even the birds and the monkeys sitting in the trees seemed sad. Even the bus seemed to move towards Puttalama very reluctantly.
The bus reached Puttalama town. The salterns, the line of shops, the town, the MaraĖtree, the bank, the post office, the bus station, the sports grounds. All these, Sivaraj would never see again.
The bus reached Puttalama. After today, Sumith would never meet Muththaia uncle and his family on the estate. His heart was heavy with sorrow.
They waited a long time for the bus to TalaiĖMannar. It would take them from Puttalama to TalaiĖMannar. From there, Sivarajís family would go to India by ship. What a long distance Sivaraj was going to travel! They had to go across the ocean. Then they would land in a country that they had never seen, never been familiar with: a strange land.
Would Sivaraj be afraid in the middle of the sea? Would the ship be in danger? Sumith trembled at the thought.
The TalaiĖMannar bus coming from Colombo stopped at the Puttalama bus station. It was very full. Muththaia Uncle bought tickets for everyone and they all got in.
Sumith and his father watched them as tears rolled down Sumithís cheeks. Sivarajís eyes filled too. In a moment, Sumith would never see Sivaraj again.
"My beloved friend, Sivaraj."
Sumith remembered him saying he would come back after his studies were over.
"Tring.. Tring.. Tring."
The conductor rang the bell and the bus started off. Sivaraj waved. Sumith tried to raise his hand but it seemed paralysed so he tried again. Then, Sumith raised his hand to wave. The bus drove on. Sivaraj watched it sadly. The bus moved further away. Sumith couldnít see Sivaraj any more, but he couldnít stop waving.
The bus disappeared.
"Sivaraj has left us," Sumith whispered, tears still flowing down his cheeks.
"Letís go home, son," Piyasena said, taking his hand.
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