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 Post subject: Village in the Jungle by Leonard Woolf :
 Post Posted: Tue Sep 06, 2005 1:14 am 
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Village in the Jungle by Leonard Woolf :

A tale of the evil in man and the jungle


by Godwin Witane

Leonard Woolf's Village in the jungle is one of the few books that has been written on the life and conditions of the peasants in the remote jungle villages in the Dry Zone.

This story undoubtedly is interesting not only to the people of this island but also to people of other countries who would like to know the conditions of the people who were living in villages under British rule then, now long forgotten.

The author of this book Leonard Woolf who was A.G.A. Hambantota spent nearly three years of the seven years he spent in the island closely associating and working among the rural unsophisticated villagers in the arid jungles now nearly extinct except only the memory depicting out a trace of what existed then, a stump of a dead palm tree or a mound of earth where a hut had stood.

The whole area has now returned to jungle leaving a depression in the ground in places which had once been a village tank. The author in describing the life and the conditions of the people in one such village called Beddegama recalls that there were strange happenings about its surroundings and within this village.

Among the chief characters in the story Silindu and his two twin daughters Punchi Menika and Hinnihamy are disclosed as playing a melancholy role in their struggle against the powerful spirits of the jungle, the beasts that inhabited it and their unequal conflict with the evil representatives of the ruling authority, the Village Headman Babehamy and the cruel native doctor Punchirala, the evil of whom lurked deep down in their nature and demeanour.

The land in Hambantota District was flat and low and usually missed both monsoons making the climate very hot and dry. There the rainfall was as low as 25" a year and as a result even the water holes in the jungle ran dry when the jungle animals like deer and sambhur suffered the most. It is only the elephant that remembered the far off rivers.

The other animals smelling the sea breeze in the air wander about sniffing the air for days, their heads always turned towards the sea far away until they die of thirst and exhaustion. Even if they find a water hole the water is usually found very low that these animals cannot get down to it. They wander round and round it for days when they fall prey to predators.

The peasants did not have a settled form of agriculture and only when water was available in the form of tanks fed by the rain they resorted to agriculture and were less poor. Others resorted to chena cultivation utilizing the scanty rain that fell in those parts and lived in the jungles centred round groups of villagers living by these means. Malaria was the scourge that wiped out village communities.

The attitude to life in this small community had the note of fatalistic acceptance of a malevolence natural to the people of Baddegama. Sometimes the oft spoken phrase was "What can we do? What can we do? Always evil is coming to the house from the jungle? There are devils in the trees in the jungle".

No jungle was more evil than the jungle which lay about the village of Baddegama. The jungle surrounded it, overhung it and continuously pressed upon it. For the villagers life was a weary, ominous, permanent and pitiful struggle especially for Silindu. However, human effort were not always defeated. The villagers melancholy resigned to this sad fate.

The villagers though they professed Buddhism had a strange and more intimate relationship with the jungle deities than with Buddhism. Silindu's wife dies after the birth of twins Punchi Menika and Hinnihamy, Silindu brings his sister-in-law to bring up the twins.

When Punchi Menika comes of age the Headman's wife's cousin Babun marries her and the other girl Hinnihamy is married to a local Vedarala and Kattadiya called Punchirala.

A money lender from the town called Fernando fleeces the villagers and exploits their chena harvest. Fernando tries to lure Punchi Menika and the Headman too encourages it. Failing this proposal the Headman brings a false case against Babun and Silindu of house breaking.

They are prosecuted in Hambantota Law Courts and Babun is convicted on false evidence and Silindu is acquitted.

Evil and human suffering are symbolized in the story of Beddegama where the effort of man are small and defeated. The people of the village endured the suffering which is displayed by Punchi Menike who withstand alone until the parched jungle trust upon her.

Leonard Woolf the young Civil Servant arrived in Ceylon in the year 1904 and was posted in Jaffna where he learnt Tamil and after a short spell was stationed in Kandy. He learnt Sinhala there. In his third year of service he was promoted as A.G.A. Hambantota where he spent nearly three years.

The Government Agent of early British rule enjoyed more authority than his counterpart of today. He had close contact with the people whose affairs he administered in South Ceylon. Leonard Woolf was a keen person who had the power of human observation.

He projected an accurate picture of the peasants and the quality of living in the small community. He held a most influential and powerful position in Government.

The Civil Servants were the virtual rulers of Ceylon next to the Governor. They were entrusted with executive functions. They also had an important share in the judiciary. They were intelligent and able men. They did not favour any caste or community and their powers were not misused.

Leonard Woolf had enough leisure and therefore his contact with the people was more often immediate and personal. A story about an incident where a barber had harassed one of his customers in order to gain more money is related in Woolf's diaries.

An old man with one side of his face shaved and the other side unshaven rushed to the Government Agent and fell at his feet.

He complained that the barber in the bazaar after shaving one half of his face had refused to shave the other part unless he paid 50 cents.

The price of a shave at that time was only 5 cents. Immediately the barber was sent for and he appeared accompanied by a crowd of spectators. The decision was that if he cut the client's face carelessly he was to pay 50 cents to the client. The operation was completed under a coconut tree before a large crowd of spectators jeering at the barber who with a rouged face performed his action with the greatest care not to injure the customer. This incident had occurred when the G.A. was in circuit in the villages.

In 1911 Leonard Woolf went to England on an year's leave where he married Virginia an old school friend but at the end of his leave he resigned from the Ceylon Civil Service to devote his time in literary pursuits in England.

He became a writer, publisher and an editor. Woolf visited Sri Lanka in the year 1960 at the age of 80 and made a sentimental visit to Hambantota District where he had spent 3 years from 1908 to 1911.


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