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Selected Sri Lankan Short Stories Collection

September 2, 2009

1923 –1980; Vol. 1

SLAVES
By Martin Wickramasinghe

Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) is considered as one of the pioneers of Sinhala writing in Sri Lanka. He pioneered the art of short story and the novel. He has written 14 novels. He is also widely accepted as one of the earliest literary critics of the country. Wickramasinghe introduced realism into fiction and also introduced the short story as a medium of artistic expression. His first short story collection was published in 1924 and since that initial venture he has published 108 short stories. The short story in this volume is from his collection Vahallu (Slaves).

Handaya licked Upalis’ feet. Upalis opened his sleepy eyes Land looked with annoyance at the snout with its sagging jowls, as the cart-bull licked his feet again and looked at him with the moist eyes of an old man.

“Come, come closer,” he called out, his irritation giving way to feelings of compassion for the aging animal.

Handaya raised one foreleg onto the verandah where Upalis lay in his bed. With laboured effort the other leg followed. Exhausted as if he had climbed a steep hill, the aging animal dragged his hind legs and rear quarters onto the verandah.

Upalis stroked the face of the animal, who responded by licking his hands. Upalis’ long black hair was drawn tight against his head and knotted at the back. It had the gloss and neatness  of recent combing and oiling.

“That will do.”

Handaya licked the back of Upalis’ hand once more, and then looked at the front door as Upalis’ wife opened it and stepped out into the verandah.

“Go away, go back to the garden.” She put her hands on Handaya’s head and pushed him. Like an obedient child, Handaya turned back and stepped down into the garden. He stood still a while, looking up at the immobile Upalis, and ambled away. With a backward jerk of his head he swished his tail across his back, whence a cloud of tiny flies rose like wind-swept dust.

“Handaya is always disturbing your sleep,” complained Upalis’ wife.

“It can’t be all that early.”

“I can still hear the crows. It cannot yet be past six in the morning.”

Upalis’ wife listened to the echoing ‘kwoo’ of an emerald dove. The songs of birds were a medley heralding the dawn.

“Handaya comes here to lick your feet and disturbs your sleep every day. Why don’t we get rid of him by selling him to someone?”

“No, no! I will never sell him!” exclaimed Upalis.

To Upalis, his life was inseparable from that of Handaya. He was a carter, and Handaya was the second cart-bull he had bought. Over the years, it was with Handaya’s help that Upalis had managed to support himself, his wife, and their two children. Each day, early in the morning, Upalis would yoke the cart-bull to his hackery. The hackery could carry four passengers. Near the Pol-oya bridge, Upalis would regularly pick up three passengers bound for Galle town, either to attend to some business matters or, not infrequently, to go to the law courts in connection with litigation over property rights. Upalis would reach Kadawatha1, well before nine. That was as far as he would take his passengers. He never went beyond the Kadawatha bridge, as he did not possess the licence that authorized him to take the vehicle into Galle town. Unlike the hackery drivers who operated within the town throughout the day, Upalis did not find it worth his while to pay the extra licence fee. 1. Bazaar Except on Saturdays and Sundays, the run to and back from Kadawatha had been Upalis’ daily routine for the past twenty years. His earnings were rarely more than two rupees a day. On Sundays, he yoked Handaya to an open cart, and leisurely transported coconut-husks or coral lime-stones for the villagers. He did not put Handaya even to this light work, on full-moon days.

It was Handaya, even more than his children, that Upalis wanted to pet and pamper. He rubbed down Handaya with oil once a month to keep him free of ticks. He hunted down every gad­fly hidden in Handaya’s coat of hair, like an aborigine stalking game hiding in a jungle. He cared for Handaya like a mother for her child, and he never beat the animal. If he wanted to urge Handaya to quicken his pace, he would push the slender stick in his hand down between its hind legs to gently tickle its scrotum, and exclaim “Hurry up, son!” •

Upalis often pretended not to hear passengers who urged him to greater speed. There were times when a passenger would get angry over his lack of response, and scold Upalis. Upalis would smile, and bending forward to place one hand on Handaya’s back, urge him to quicken his pace saying, “Hurry up, son!” Handaya would quicken his pace, as if to please the irate passenger. Upalis would then try to allay the passenger’s anxiety.

“Sir, you must be wanting to reach the Courts on time.”

“Of course man. I have a litigation case that is coming up for a hearing today in the District Court.”

“There is plenty of time. I will drop you at Kadawatha before eight.” He would look up at the eastern sky. “It is not yet half past six.”

The experience of twenty years of this way of life had given Upalis the knack to read the time with uncanny accuracy by looking at the sky. A passenger who checked his pocket rarely found him to be wrong.

Upalis’ wife broke into his reveries.

“Handaya is very old now,” she said. “The flies swarm round him. He does not get enough to eat. They all yoke Handaya without any consideration to get their work done, but they never think of giving him a feed of poonac. The poor animal cannot fill its stomach even by grazing throughout the day. His bones stick out and make him look like a rickety fence.”

She watched Handaya flick his tail over his back as he walked across the garden.

“We should not sell him for those very reasons. He worked for twelve years to help us to earn a living. It is because of him that we are able to live even like this.”

Upalis recalled his narrow escape from death. He had been driving his cart to Kadawatha eight months ago, when the foot he had placed on the shaft to balance himself slipped and he fell before the wheels of the cart. The cart stopped dead in its track. Had it not, its wheels would have run over Upalis’ chest. Upalis realised that Handaya had heard his cry of ‘apoi” as he fell, and halted instantly. Upalis had injured his spine in the fall, and suffered intense pain for over six months. Even now, it was painful to sit up or walk. But despite the pain, he insisted on hobbling to the backyard, leaning heavily on a walking-stick, whenever he needed to answer a call of nature. He would never allow his wife or any one else to help him in this. Many a villager would have died rather than seek the help of his wife or children to answer a call of nature.

Handaya wandered away from the garden and began to graze by the road that ran through the village.

“There is no grass for Handaya to graze, because of this drought,” said Upalis’ wife. “He has to feed on dried leaves and people grudge him even that. There! Someone is trying to lead him away!”

“Ask that man not to take him away,” said Upalis.

Upalis’ little daughter ran behind the man.

“Father asks you not to take Handaya away.”

“Why not?”

“Let him graze today. He has not had a feed of poonac for four days. We have no money to spare to buy him even a little poonac.”

“I will give him some poonac. I have to cart my coconut husks to the river today,” replied the middle-aged man.

“Please Ando-aiya, get another bull for the work.”

“I have not yoked Handaya to my cart even once during’the past two months. Thepanis gets him to cart his coconut husks at least two or three times a week, and the others make as much use of him. They don’t give him a drop of water, leave alone poonac.”

The man tied a noose round Handaya’s neck.

“But you have money, Ando-aiya. You can hire a bull to do the work, can’t you? Juanis blames us for letting Handaya wander about. He says he cannot earn a living because of Handaya. He complains that the people of the village take work out of Handaya as if he is a charitable bull provided for their use by us.”

“Everyone in the village knows that Handaya belongs to Upalis. Doesn’t the merit gained by Handaya revert to Upalis?”

“How can there be merit to us if people harass Handaya. Please don’t yoke him to your cart, Ando-aiya,” she pleaded.

“I will release the animal within an hour. I have to cart just three hundred husks. Here, take this.” He gave her a ten cent coin. “Buy two pounds of poonac and feed the animal this evening.”

The girl knew from past experience that even if Ando-aiya should let him go, within an hour some other villager would take him. As a result Handaya had often to resort to browsing while it was yoked to the cart. As soon as the villager halted his cart, he would push his snout into the clumps of grass by the road and starts to graze. Whenever he was released from the cart, Handaya would bend his legs at the knee to sprawl on the ground and chew the cud, like an old man chewing betel. Even at a distance one could see his champing jaws, moving like grinding stones. The swollen veins would expand and contract. While thus engaged, he would suddenly flick his tail and then jerk his head over to butt himself in a particular spot. A gad fly would then creep under the hair, away from the sharp horn seeking to dislodge it.

However, it was not often that he was allowed to rest for long. Little village boys, when they found him resting, would crowd round him and struggle for an hour or more to lift Handaya onto all fours in order to ride on his back. Handaya was accustomed to their game. To persuade him to get up, the urchins gripped his horns and pulled and stretched his fore-limbs which were flexed beneath him. All this he bore passively. But when someone dared to tug at his tail, he would snort and threaten to butt the boy nearest to him. He deigned to get up only when the pushing and pulling and raucous shouting became unbearable.

Upalis was happily surprised that day to see Handaya come back earlier than he was accustomed to. The aging cart-bull was in the front yard, resting on his stomach and chewing the cud, moving his jaws with deliberation.

Upalis reminisced that before he injured his spine, he had been accustomed to bathe Handaya in sea water every week. He picked the ticks off the animal’s back and threw them into the sea. Handaya would stand motionless when he was thus receiving Upalis’ attention. But from time to time he turned his head to look at Upalis, like a deaf-mute trying to express his gratitude.

“Who will tend to you when I am not here?” Upalis would murmur to Handaya.

Upalis’ daughter had dissolved pieces of the poonac she had purchased with the ten cents given by Ando-aiya into a watery paste in a large earthen urn. She carried the urn and placed it before the prostrate Handaya, who lowered his snout into the bowl and noisily sucked in mouthfuls of poonac without bothering to get up. He suddenly jerked his head back. Drops of poonac dripping from Handaya’s snout splashed onto the girl’s jacket as well as the animal’s own back.

“Is this what I get for feeding you poonac?” asked the girl, as she slapped the animal’s cheek.

Handaya immersed his snout in the poonac once more, and sucked it in, only to suddenly toss his head back again. He then snorted and blew out a spray of water and particles of poonac that drenched the girl’s jacket, before lowering his head again.

“Are you trying to butt me, you mean old rascal?” She ran and picked up a thin stick and hit Handaya on its back. She looked sternly at Handaya and said, “They say that even the timid goat will tilt its chin at someone who is helpless.”

“Don’t hit him, daughter,” called out Upalis. “He was not trying to butt you. A gad fly must have bitten him. When he saw you, he lowered the head that he raised to butt the fly.”

A little before midnight it began to rain heavily. Upalis’ wife opened the front door and spoke to Upalis.

“Come inside. It is chilly out here. Come, you can sleep in the house for the night.”

“No I don’t feel the cold. I have got so accustomed to sleeping out here that I cannot fall asleep inside the house.”

“The blowing is not good for you. Please come and sleep inside the house. It is better, even if you cannot fall asleep.”

As Upalis would not go inside, his wife brought out a sheet of coarse cloth and covered him from neck to foot.

“It is not four months since you started getting chest-pains. The native physician says that you must take good care of yourself. I think it would be better if you come into the house,” persisted Upalis’ wife.

“No, I will be all right. You go back to bed. I feel comfortable, now that I am well covered.”

The howling of the wind as it swept through the trees waxed and waned. Upalis heard a stray dog clamber warily on to the verandah. Village dogs were not allowed into the house, but Upalis did not have the heart to shoo it away. The animal shook its body and flapped its ears. In his mind’s eye Upalis could see it bending its head, legs and tail, and curling itself tightly, in its attempt to remain dry and warm. He heard the animal whimper from time to time.

Upalis heard the moaning sounds raised by the storm outside as it beat on the roof, the walls and the trees, like a thousand lashing whips. The fury of thunder-storms and gales and the darkness of the night held no terrors for Upalis. He had been accustomed to sleeping out in the verandah of the house for a long time, long before he had become a cripple.

Handaya had moved away to the rear yard of the house. He stood there on all fours waiting for the dawn. As the dawn broke, he moved as usual to the front verandah and began to lick Upalis’ feet. Upalis did not wake up. Handaya licked his feet several times, and then climbed on to the verandah, without waiting for Upalis’ customary invitation. He licked Upalis’ head, but receiving no response, Handaya went on to lick Upalis’ hands, and then his cheeks.

Handaya gazed pensively at the unresponsive Upalis. He then turned his head to look at the front door.

Awakened by the sound ofHandaya’s hoofs on the verandah, Upalis’ wife, opened the door and stepped out.

The smell of the earth and the moist air tickled her nose. The foliage of the trees swelled and rustled in the gentle breeze like birds blowing out their wet feathers.

The cawing of the crows and the chirping of the birds suddenly had a hollow, desolate quality. Like an animal that instinctively senses danger, she turned towards her husband’s bed. She drew close to his prostrate motionless form. Her eyes dilated in agony, and seemed to move forward from their sockets.

Translated by Ranga Wickramasinghe

Other Stories include:
# THE CATSEYE by W.A. de Silva # MOTHER by G. B. Senanayake # A SCHOLARSHIP FOR MY SON by Gunadasa Amarasekera # A LATRINE FOR US TOO  by K. Jayatilake # THE MACHINE GUN   by Nandasena Ratnapala # THE FISHING EXPEDITION by Madawala S. Ratnayake # HOUSE OF DEMONS by Tennyson Perera # WATER by Ajith Tilakasena # TALE OF A LOWER BEING by Simon Nawagaththegama # THE GIRL by Sita Kulatunga # THE STORY UNTOLD by Sunanda Mahendra # COME IN SEARCH OF ME by Arawwala Nandamithra # LET ALL STOP HERE  by Asoka Kolombage # THE AWAKENING by Somaratne Balasooriya # THE BALLET RECITAL by Ediriweera Sarachchandra # THE FAITHFUL WIFE OF A POLITICIAN by A.V.Suraweera # WORLDS WITHIN WORLD! by Sirilal Kodikara # TODAY MY SON COMES HOME by Karuna Perera # THE BRIDGE by Gunasena Vithana # THE SAW by Minuwan P. Tilakarathne # UNDER THE LIGHT HOUSE by Ranjith Dharmakeerthi # THE PAWN BROKER by K.P. Nihal Nanda # THE HUNTER’S DILEMMA by Indrakeerthi Siriweera # THE THEATRE by Madurasinghe Gunatilleke

© 2003 Godage International Publishers
ISBN 955-20-6239-X

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