By Laksiri Fernando –
I was in serious trouble when I tried to buy a piece of land to build a house to live at Peradeniya. That time I was working at the University of Peradeniya and had some money at hand after coming back from my first academic sojourn in Canada. This was not immediately after my return, but after two years. At the beginning, I or we didn’t care for having our own house being somewhat ‘socialist minded.’
Why do you need to accumulate money or property? That was our thinking. But when we were in Canada, we made it sure that we save enough money at least to bring a good car. All the ‘socialists’ in the university system used to have very good cars. A good car was an ‘intellectual symbol,’ but a house a ‘bourgeois deviation.’ We were rather comfortable in our university quarters.
Things changed dramatically after the open economy in 1977. There was a mad rush to buy land and build houses and our juniors were more prone to this indulgence than our generation. Our seniors were more ‘socialist’ than us and many of them died even without a house and rather destitute.
Let me make the long story short.
No sooner than I passed the message that I am looking for a piece of land somewhere in Peradeniya, Wimaladasa approached me. He was a ‘hall servant’ so to say. Because of our working-class sympathies, we knew them very well. One Saturday morning he was at our door step. He was holding a file.
“Sir, good piece of land, Sir.”
I even didn’t have time to ask “where?” he gave me the location. It was not far from the Peradeniya junction on the Colombo road. The exact locality is called Kiribathkumbura, literally meaning ‘milk rice paddy field.’ I was again about to ask the price even before the size, but he said,
“Only fifty thousand Sir, I can get it for forty Sir.”
Two three days after, Wimaladasa came with an old lady and another youngster, whom I could vaguely recognize as someone working in the landscaping in the Campus. His name was Dickson. The youngster was supposed to be that old lady’s son-in-law or prospective son-in-law. I came to know the old lady’s name as ‘Sisilin Nona’ later through the documents; who was the owner of the land. She was a very pleasant submissive woman wearing ‘cloth and jacket’ and munching betel all the time and of about fifty years of age I suppose. The deal was in principle agreed upon for forty thousand rupees. Those days it was a big some.
My wife was not very happy for an unknown reason. She was sceptical throughout the deal and even thereafter. But didn’t oppose. She only once went to see the place and kept silent about the whole matter thereafter.
The land was excellent with a small house in which Sisilin Nona lived just above an abandoned paddy field off the Colombo road. The extent of the land was forty-five perches more than enough for a luxurious house and a garden. The only disadvantage which I considered to the contrary was the hilly terrain behind the house which prevented a bigger garden. Instead there could be a ‘rock garden’ of the Japanese style. Looking from the Colombo road I could even imagine a new house on the background of a rock with excellent tree coverage. Sisilin Nona also owned eight perches from the paddy field – later I came to know owned collectively with her sister – through which I could built the road way to the house.
When we went to see the land, I remember that there was a small house along the Colombo road bordering our path way to the land but no one could be seen. I didn’t realize at that time it was ‘enemy territory.’ All hell broke loose only when we went to fence the property.
Sisilin Nona’s present house also was a unique one, although dilapidated, built with raw bricks or ‘mud bricks’ (mati gadol) as they were called, and Kandyan roof tiles. Most impressive were the doors and windows in hardwood. It was perfectly rectangular structure facing the north. With the entrance, there was a narrow but a long veranda throughout the length of the house. Through the veranda, the house opened into a sitting/dinning type of a room and on both sides, there were two large bed rooms. The Kitchen was separate from the house on the backside and then there was a ‘water well’ on to the west. The lavatory was far behind on to the east on a slope. In designing the house, perhaps at least half a century ago, it appeared that all the environmental principles had been taken into proper consideration. Some of the old furniture revealed a past glory apparently now vanished.
There was no man at the house, except the supposed to be son-in-law, Dickson, who in fact accompanied me to see the place with Dharmadasa. They were friends. But there were countless young women and female children, some appearing from the front and others from the back and small children giggling and vanishing from windows. I was told that Dickson was planning to take the whole family to his village, where I didn’t know or cared to ask. Perhaps a good part of the ‘forty thousand’ of the deal must be his dowry.
It was after Sisilin Nona and clan vacated the place that I went to fence the ‘territory.’ The surveyor that I hired was the same surveyor of the ‘partition case.’ I forgot to mention that Sisilin Nona’s ownership of the land was by a partition case at the Kandy District Court. That is why my lawyer friend told me that the deeds were to be ‘pure’ and ‘clear.’ To my little knowledge of the law, I also considered it to be perfectly true.
We went there by ten in the morning. My surveyor, Tissa Udurawana, had his ‘gang’ to undertake measuring and placing boundary stones and I had two labourers to put up the fencing posts. The idea was to fence the compound with barbed wire initially and then build a parapet wall before building the house. Although I asked Dharmadasa to come, he didn’t turn up. We started from the back side and there was no problem. When we approached the front side, the hell broke loose.
I saw an old woman approaching us in a hurry with another young woman following from the small house near the main road which I previously called the ‘enemy territory.’ I first thought it was Sisilin Nona as she was exactly like her. The manner and temperament however was different. This was an aggressive type. She raised her hands and raised her voice and said:
“Don’t do it, don’t do it.” (Oka karanna epa, oka karanna epa).
She screamed and shouted saying,
“These are our land, our land” pointing her right hand to her chest.
I quietly approached her and tried to calm her down saying that I have bought the land. It did not work. I first thought that perhaps she didn’t know about the transaction but that was not the case. Then the young woman came to me and said,
“We know everything, Lokku Amma didn’t have any right to sell.”
The two women made quite a scene; grumbling, shouting and crying. I didn’t know what to do. It was at this juncture that the surveyor Udurawana intervened and called the old woman by her name and said in an authoritarian voice,
“See, Asilin Nona, this sir has bought this land from your sister, now don’t make any fuss, otherwise this sir will call the police.”
Mentioning of the police seemed to work for a while, but only for a while. Then they protested about the landmarks and also claimed that they have their ‘road’ way to their land next to us through our land and it was ‘their right.’
The whole affair was extremely exhausting. I have not seen such a thing in my whole life before. Thereafter, during my visits to the place, two of my hefty young colleagues, now professors, used to come to defend me or my property in turn showing their physical prowess. Dealing with the two women also was difficult. I was born and brought up at Moratuwa, an urban area, but never experienced any land dispute such as this before. Only thing I remember was a story about two brothers disputing over their ancestral land and one brother at night now and then moving the fence by few feet encroaching into the other one’s compound. This story was related in lighter vein and no one knew whether it was true or not. It was rather invented to ridicule the elder of the two who was considered a scrooge.
The whole incident reminded me of a book written by Robert Ardrey, titled The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations. I first read the book when I was in Canada. Ardrey defined territory as “an area of space, whether of water or earth or air, which an animal or group of animals defend as an exclusive preserve.” He argued that this inward compulsion of animate beings to possess and defend such a space is common to humans as animals. He also said that not only males but also women “bear an inherent drive to gain and defend an exclusive property.” It must be the same instincts that drive many conflicts and wars in the world today, including in the Middle East.
Let alone that theory, my encounter with the two women was most intriguing. The young one was of my age, attractive and supple. She had a difficulty to see me eye to eye for some reason. As she appeared to be educated, I tried to explain matters to her. She was not ready to listen but repeated what the old lady was saying. Whenever she encountered my eyes she flushed. I was not sure whether that behaviour had anything to do with animal instincts that Ardrey talked about.
After all, the fence was erected and when I was coming back a young man named Lionel stopped me and related a long story. He was actually the son of Asilin Nona. Although he was at home at the time of the whole commotion he or his father did not want to interfere for one or the other reason. What Lionel tried to tell me was that I had done something terribly wrong. This is their ancestral ‘homeland.’ He even hinted although politely that I am a person from ‘low country.’ They are ‘up country’ or Kandyan people and their customs are different. He very clearly said,
“Sir, you must be an educated person, but this is our land.”
The next incident occurred when I demolished the old house. I asked Dharmadasa to coordinate the job. This time he came because it gave him money. The job was contracted and the people who came to demolish the house were asked to take everything out and for the building material they agreed to pay me an amount. I feared that if I leave the house vacant somebody might occupy it. My fear was reasonable. I only went to see the job completed at the end of the day. The job has been completed quite well and the land appeared more spacious now.
When we were approaching the Kandy-Colombo road suddenly Lionel appeared and attacked Dharmadasa who was behind me with the work-gang. The two fought for a while and within seconds a lot of people gathered around us. I was completely confused as what to do. If I leave the place, I may appear to be a coward. If I stay, I also might be attacked. It was at this stage that that curious young woman approached me and asked or rather pleaded me,
“Sir, go to your car sir,” which I instantly did.
She was apparently Lionel’s wife and Asilin Nona’s daughter in law. Perhaps she felt something terribly unreasonable in the whole affair.
That day even I had to go to the police and make a statement. The main complaint was from Dharmadasa. Lionel also came to the police station (or he was brought in by the police) and made a counter statement. I was there when he made the statement and it was basically about a long lament about the ‘partition case.’ The policeman listened but did not record the whole story. What he basically said was that there was injustice when the land was divided between the two sisters. Sisilin Nona was given the better portion with the ancestral home and Asilin Nona was left with a makeshift hut and a small portion of land. Apparently Sisilin Nona was the elder sister and according to the surveyor, both were given equal portions except the ancestral house. Dharmadasa apparently was an uncle of Lionel and a cousin of both Nonas, Sisilin and Asilin.
I didn’t mention the whole incident to my wife. Her instincts about the property was right from the beginning. The time passed by and we decided to sell the land to another party. The broker again was Dharmadasa and the price I got was thirty thousand. I was happy nevertheless, to get rid of another person’s territory. After losing twenty thousand (and plus) in the whole bargain, I again became a ‘socialist.’