British Colony of Ceylon: The Hidden Gem in the Mousepad

I’m pleased to say that the story has a happy ending. Down on the road we found the Mudaliyar, muddied, very indignant, but fortunately unhurt. Apparently he had landed in some bushes which had cushioned his fall. 

by Stewart Sloan

Several years ago I spent some time working in an NGO. Initially, I was employed on a part-time basis, and it was probably due to this I was given the oldest PC in the organisation. It was probably the oldest PC in existence, and my mouse pad consisted of a small booklet.

The work was erratic, I would work non-stop for hours on end on one occasion, and spend hours twiddling my thumbs on another. It was in one of these thumb twiddling occasions that I decided to examine my ‘mouse pad’.

It turned out to be a photocopy of a booklet written by a retired Sri Lankan Catholic priest some years ago. The stories covered, not only his career as a priest, but also his early days as a student in Sri Lanka, which was then known as the British Colony of Ceylon. 

One story in particular stood out, and I am reciting it here from memory:

When I was a student (he wrote) I lived in a small village on the outskirts of the town. I was fortunate in that I was able to attend school and even at that early age, it was my fervent desire to join the Priesthood. Every morning I would pack my school bag and the food, which my mother had prepared for me, and travel the four miles into the town to attend classes.

In those days the buses doubled as cargo vehicles. Apart from the seats inside, they also had a luggage rack on the roof. Greedy operators would allow additional passengers to sit up there with the baggage, and very often the livestock, in order to earn extra fares.

I was also fortunate in that I always had a few extra coins in my pocket to pay for transportation, when it was available, and one particular day as I was walking along the road I was able to wave down one of these buses. As the seats were all taken I was ushered up onto the roof, and there I found something unusual. Apart from the chickens and sacks of grain one would expect to find on such a vehicle, there were two men delivering a coffin!

I found a place near the edge where I could hold onto the roof rack to stop myself from falling off as the bus went over the bumps and potholes. After a few moments a heavy drizzle started and one of the coffin men, no doubt not wanting to get wet, climbed inside the coffin and pulled the lid almost completely shut.

It was then that we were joined on the roof by two more passengers, one of whom was a portly Mudaliyar, a minor government official.

(A note of explanation: The rank of Mudaliyar was appointed by the government. It was a practice started by the Portuguese and continued by the British when they took over the country. The following is taken from Wikipedia: All Official and Titular appointments of Mudaliyars were made by the Governor of Ceylon. Appointments were non-transferable and usually hereditary, made to locals from wealthy influential families loyal to the British Crown. To see more please click here )

This gentleman, obviously considered himself a person of rank, and he was not at all pleased at the thought of having to travel on the roof along with the ‘rabble’. I remember wondering at the time, as I am sure the other passengers also wondered, why he was traveling on a bus in the first place. Mudaliyars were generally from well-to-do, land owning families. He squeezed in next to me and sat there, avoiding everyone’s eyes and maintaining a displeased silence. 

Then, the inevitable happened. The fellow inside the coffin decided to see if it had stopped raining. Without warning, he suddenly pushed back the lid and sat up. The portly Mudaliyar gasped, clutched his chest, and, before I could grab him, rolled backwards off the roof.

This, of course, caused shock and horror and was reported to the driver, who stopped the bus, climbed up the ladder to the roof rack, decided that somehow, we were all responsible for the mishap, and ordered us off onto the road.

I’m pleased to say that the story has a happy ending. Down on the road we found the Mudaliyar, muddied, very indignant, but fortunately unhurt. Apparently he had landed in some bushes which had cushioned his fall. He was ushered onto the bus and made comfortable in one of the seats that had been vacated, especially for him.

As for the rest of us, we were left on road side as the bus drove off. I was glad that the Mudaliyar was unharmed, but not too pleased at the thought of having to walk the remaining two miles to school in the rain.

Note: The author went on to join the Priesthood some years later and in his late fifties and early sixties started writing inspirational booklets for his parishioners. My ‘mousepad’ was one of them. So, if you are ever in a situation where your mouse pad consists only of a small booklet, don’t be discouraged, there might be a hidden gem inside it. 

The writer is an editor and tutor. Visit his blog at  https://stewartgoeswalkies.com/

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