By Laksiri Fernando –
This happened when I was studying for the university entrance examination or HSC (higher school certificate) somewhere in 1963. If I remember correct, that was the last year that the HSC was held before it was renamed as GCE (advanced level). I had many friends who were doing the same examination, but Michael Pereira (Mike) perhaps was the closest with whom I liked to study together.
We often used to ‘exchange our notes,’ so to say. Studying alone was boring. When studying together, there were other advantages like chatting, gossiping or joking. Mike was excellent on those lines. Another advantage, closer to the purpose, was that he came from a different school to mine and some of his teachers appeared better than mine on certain subjects.
That morning, I decided to go and see him at his home. It was a Saturday. I wanted to discuss some matters with him or had an urge to talk. On road, his home was about one and half miles from mine. Otherwise it was just opposite over the Panadura river. To go to his place, I had to walk north to the Moratuwa bridge, cross the river, and then go south to reach his home. It was not along the main road but only two blocks inside. His sister, much older to him, was running a sub-post office at home, and there was a typical post-office nameboard in red indicating the directions from the main road.
When I entered the lane leading to his place, I could even sense an odd ambience. A dog was barking from the next door over the wire-fence, and the area was gloomy. Wire or wire-netting fences were the most common demarcations of property those days. The lane was unclean without sweeping the rubbish for few days perhaps. When I reached his house, the front door was closed. In the open veranda with half-wall, the chairs were helter-skelter, without keeping them in the usual order. It was clear that no one was home. Even the post-office section was closed.
Anyway, I knocked at the door. After several loud thuds, whom I knew as Mike’s eldest sister appeared behind the house and said,
“Mike is at the Village Council Courts.”
“Go, go and see him there.” Then she disappeared. Her tone was stern.
Of course, I knew where the Gamsabha Usawiya (village council courts) was held. I was civic minded from my toddler days. It was on my way to his place and only about three hundred yards before turning to his house. There was no separate building to the courts, but the hearings were held on Saturdays, at a primary school building. It was an unmistakable place, because along with the school name there was a board for the courts. Sri Lanka was very meticulous in name boards particularly during that time perhaps as a legacy of the British tradition. Perhaps there were too many name boards even confusing the public. Almost everything had a name board.
But why the hell Mike is in Courts? Is he arrested? Has he done anything criminal? I couldn’t see Mike’s sister anywhere to get replies to my questions. I have known her a bit, to be like Mike’s mother, and I was dead scared to ask those questions from her anyway. I instantly decided to go and see him.
When I entered the ‘sacred’ premises of the Courts, there were so many people. I have never seen a Court in session before. Many of the people were clad in white, spoke in soft voices and were moving back and forth; some were leaving and some were arriving. There were few lawyers-like people in black coats and also policemen with brave faces and no smiles. The matters appeared to be quite serious than I first thought. The time was around eleven o’clock now. The court sessions were held in a small class room. The building was in fact a ramshackle, quite unsuitable to the glory of the business. I was there at the right time by accident and the case is being now heard.
Luckily, Mike was not in a cage or shackles. Instead, a poor looking fowl was in a pen.
I sneaked inside the ‘court room’ or rather the ‘class room.’ It was a familiar terrain. There were desks and chairs, and a head table. In fact, the black board also was there and a policeman, like a school master, was writing things on the board. When I tried to reach a chair behind a desk, a policeman tried to stop me. Then I saw Mike’s elder brother dressed in immaculate white, a long sleeve shirt and a black tie, making a gesture to the policeman. I was allowed to sit. I sat next to Mike.
I have known Mike’s brother as a newspaper reporter but not a lawyer. But he appeared or pretended to be a lawyer in this case appearing on behalf of the complainant. He in fact was working for the prestigious Lake House newspapers at that time. Even Mike was wearing white, only exception was me. It was a case about a neighbouring woman steeling a fowl from Mike’s sister. It was done apparently in revenge for their neighbourly quarrels. It took some minutes to start the case, but it appeared a very long time. There was dead silence. The Judge or the Chairman of the Court was looking at some papers attentively. Then he suddenly raised his glasses and even elevated his voice and asked,
“Whose Fowl is this?” pointing to the wretched looking creature in the birdcage or pen.
Then two women, Mike’s post-office sister and another, apparently their neighbour, simultaneous got up and said,
Then there was mild laughter and amusement in the court room. Then the Judge chuckled and asked,
Then Mike got up or rather his brother pulled him up. I was so excited that my good friend has become a witness in a serious court case. I was proud. Then suddenly the Judge dismissed him when the policeman prompted that Mike was his sister’s brother! Incidentally, Mike’s brother later claimed that the policeman was bribed by ‘that woman.’ That is exactly how he said: “Oya Gani” (that woman).
The Judge then asked pointing to the two contesting women “how could you prove the Fowl is yours?” Mike’s sister said,
“When I say Ba Ba, it comes.”
Then the contesting woman also retorted sternly,
“When I say Ba Ba, it comes too.”
There was a peculiar gesture on her part. There was laughter.
The police told the court that the fowl would not respond to anyone now and it is terribly sick. Apparently, the fowl had been in the ‘police custody’ (perhaps remand prison!) for three months pending the hearing. The case was dismissed but the Judge triumphantly declared that Fowl would be immediately auctioned. I heard the policeman saying in rather soft voice that ‘the police had to spend thirty rupees for feeding the fellow for three months and that should be recovered.’ The Court went into a recess and the Judge was munching something with a banana in the next room and the auction started.
The auction started from one rupee. Now the two women started bidding for the Fowl to prove the ownership! It was like a prestige struggle. No one else was involved. Apparently, the Fowl didn’t worth a cent by now. It looked haggardly with lost feathers and the colour worn-out. It could not stand straight. It was difficult to believe that the police had at all fed the fellow. Now we were having fun amounting to animal cruelty. The bids were going up and up and the ‘other woman’ was rather furious in competing with Mike’s sister.
Mike’s brother was very appreciative of my presence and I pointed out to him that the rupees thirty might be finally added to the bidding price. That is how the police operated – just stealthily. He promptly stopped his sister bidding for the Fowl. The ‘other woman’ took home the Fowl for rupees twenty-four plus thirty. In those days, even a healthy young fowl would not cost even fifteen rupees.