Tuesday, November 25, 2008
That morning my class room was flooded with packs of agricultural produce. They were brought by my students as gifts to me. Such produce was the only thing they could afford to offer.
It was the last school day of year 1973. This dry zone area in the Anuradhapura District of Sri Lanka is 170 miles from Colombo the capital. Agriculture flourished in this dry zone in this rainy season of the year.
The students were probably grateful to me for promoting them to the next grade. It could also be that they liked me very much. The packs contained dry zone produce such as raw chilli, lady’s finger, string bean, sword bean, winged bean, melon, cucumber etc. There also were a two foot high gourd and a large pumpkin.
I refused the gifts as it was unfair to accept the hard earned produce of these poor people. But the students were reluctant to take the packs back home. Even on coercion the least I could accept was the big gourd and a single carton containing assorted vegetables because of difficulty of transport.
The only thing to take home that I had in mind the previous day was a bushel of mustard I had bought. That amount of mustard would suffice for a family kitchen for decades. I bought it to benefit from the negligible price and also to make my relatives have a feel of the culture of these remote villages.
I knotted one end of a sarong, loosely filled the sack so formed with the mustard and knotted the other end. The loose sack was then inserted in a large empty suitcase to closely fit it converting the sack into a decent piece of luggage. For the vacation, I intended to go to my sister's place at Kohuwala which is a suburb of Colombo on the Piliyandala road.
So, the next morning, I had to carry home three pieces of luggage, the gourd, the box of vegetables and the suitcase full of mustard. I wished I had more hands than I had. The next morning the students loaded the luggage onto the bus for me and so far it was so simple.
However as I approached the Colombo bus stand after about twelve hours travel I was in a quandary as to how I could carry the three pieces of luggage from the bus. The solution would have been to let a porter carry the box to the queue for the Piliyandala bus which I had to board next.
But I was determined to avoid porters as they were said to be rude to customers who challenged their unreasonable charges. The long distance bus stopped in the busy Colombo bus stand for the passengers to alight. But just then a bare breasted porter jumped in and dared to unload the box without my consent. However I was not in a position to challenge him as I had no alternative.
The porter waited at the exit of the bus. A youth clad in a white sarong and a white shirt acting as if he was the master of the porter also waited for the owner of the luggage to give him further instructions.
The white sarong clad youth asked me where the box should be taken to. Planning to get rid as soon as possible of the porter and the youth, who were feared to be rude, I asked them to take it to a taxi. Drivers of taxis were supposed to be relatively civilized. It was wiser to deal with a civilized lot even if the taxi was more expensive for short distances.
The youth disappeared and the porter carried the box to a taxi closely followed by me. The porter placed the box in the taxi and disappeared too. When I was about to board the taxi the youth appeared from nowhere and asked for the charge. Inquired how much, looking very reasonable, contrary to the anticipation, he showed that he would be content with whatever amount I would pay.
I was happy with the proceedings so far and placed a rupee coin, which I thought would suffice, in his hand. But he frowned at it and showed discontent! I felt him return the coin into my breast pocket. Asked again how much he wanted he claimed two rupees which I paid promptly. This time, content, he vanished into the crowd.
I boarded the taxi with the gourd and the suitcase and asked the driver to take me to the Piliyandala bus queue about four hundred yards away. The taxi driver refused probably because it was the job of the porters according to their mutual understanding.
Having released the taxi I was left helpless with the three pieces of luggage. But to my astonishment and relief the white clad youth soon appeared before me. He learned what happened and offered to take the box to the Piliyandala bus queue for another five rupees. Then it was the turn of the porter to appear and the white clad youth to disappear.
The porter, closely followed by me, carried the box and placed it at the head of the Piliyandala bus queue, and as usual disappeared. I waited for about half an hour before the next bus arrived, but this time I was going to beat the porter and the youth.
When the bus approached I grabbed the box planning to load it first and then the gourd and the suitcase. But the porter was smarter. He showed up and loaded the box on to the bus and, complying with the 'rule', vanished.
To my delight the bus was just pulling when I was boarding it carrying the gourd and the suitcase. I had the five rupee note, the porter’s charge, still tucked in my palm. At last I was going to outsmart at least the white clad youth. But as I was about to ascend the last step of the footboard he showed up behind me and asked for the charge.
The youth vanished for good when I parted with the five rupee note but next the porter too appeared clinging to the footboard demanding his charge! Now that I was inside the bus among the fellow passengers to support me, I defied the porter and told him I had paid. He denied receiving it but before the matter was settled the bus gathered speed forcing him to jump off it.
I heaved a sigh of relief. Preparing to buy the ticket which cost fifty cents I rummaged in my breast pocket for the rupee coin I felt the youth had returned earlier to discover he had only pretended!