An alarming incident in the Far North of Sri Lanka - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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An alarming incident in the Far North of Sri Lanka

The following is the true story of an alarming incident in the Jaffna Peninsula, in the far north of Sri Lanka, in early autumn 1955 when I had just passed my 20th birthday and when Pete Patrick and I were halfway round our tour of the island. I submitted the story as an exercise for the Regent Institute correspondence course in journalism I was engaged in at the time. My tutor considered it 'too political' for publication. By the standards of the 21st Century some of the language I used is certainly not 100% politically acceptable. I assure readers that I meant then, and mean now, no disrespect to any ethnic group. This, then, is my original text unedited.

The motorbike belonged to my companion, another wireless fitter at RAF Gangodawila called Pete Patrick. I hadn't learned how to ride a motor bike so I spent the entire tour on the pillion seat. Talk about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun. Much of the route from Colombo northwards crossed a vast desert - the very desert where the film The Purple Plain starring Gregory Peck had recently been filmed. We took three or four days to drive up the Great North Road, across the desert to the Jaffna Peninsula. En route we called in to visit the many historic Buddhist tourist attractions and we stayed the nights in excellent, and cheap, government rest houses.

Jaffna was inhabited mainly by Tamils. Originally they came from South India and they are easily recognised because they are much darker-skinned than the indigenous Sinhalese. The Tamil language is quite different from Sinhalese. Tamil is composed of rather angular characters that hang downwards from straight line tops but written Sinhalese looks rather graceful and curly. The two are totally incompatible - few Sinhalese could speak Tamil and vice versa. English was an official government language but it was quite difficult to find English speakers, other than officials, outside the capital, Colombo.

Although Sri Lanka had gained independence from Britain in 1948, we Brits were still unpopular in the 1950s, especially in the north of the island. I suppose, with the enthusiasm of youth, Pete and I didn't consider ourselves in any danger - not, that is, until we came across the dead Tamil lying in our path.

We had spent the previous night in a guest house at Kankasanthurai - KKS as it was known to the locals - a small village on the extreme northern coast of the Jaffna Peninsula not far from Point Pedro. We had set off early as we had done each day to avoid the worst of the midday heat. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves as we pottered along at a leisurely 30 miles per hour or so down a deserted winding road through semi-jungle when suddenly, as we rounded a corner, Pete saw a body stretched out in the middle of the road. He had no choice but to steer the motor bike into the shallow monsoon drain at the edge of the road. As the front wheel dropped into the drain, I sailed through the air with the greatest of ease and landed, shocked but completely unhurt, in the undergrowth. Pete and the bike ended up actually in the monsoon drain but, fortunately, neither he nor the bike was damaged. Good solid bikes those side valve BSAs.

We hurriedly picked ourselves up and dashed over to the body. It belonged to a young Tamil lad, probably in his mid-teens. He was completely naked apart from a minuscule loincloth. There was no visible sign of injury but at least he was breathing. I remember gently pulling back one of his eyelids - I was sure that was the thing to do but I couldn't deduce anything from my findings. As we were wondering what to do next, a grossly-overloaded bus rattled round the corner, pulled up within inches of us with a screeching of brakes, and rapidly disgorged fifty or so passengers. They quickly surrounded us and jabbered away in Tamil - we recognised the language but understood not a single word.
In no time at all another bus, from the opposite direction, pulled up and the two lots of passengers started exchanging views about what had happened with much finger-pointing in our direction. To them it was, presumably, only too obvious what had happened. Here was one of their own lying apparently mortally injured in the middle of the road. It was obvious to them that we had knocked him down with our motor bike which was still lying in the monsoon drain making hissing noises. The situation was beginning to look ugly. No-one would admit to speaking English so we were unable to explain what had happened. It was amazing how what had been an empty jungle road just a few minutes earlier, had become a seething mass of angry people.

Then a lorry pulled up - one of those wheezing, garishly-painted lorries that one finds in all parts of Asia. The driver, a Sinhalese, jumped down and came across. Instantly he assumed command of the situation - that was the way things were between the Tamils and Sinhalese. In any case, he could speak all three languages so that made him a very important person.

"Hello", he said to Pete and me in excellent Peter Seller's English. "You two seem to have got yourselves into a jolly fine pickle, isn't it?"

Gratefully we explained what had happened and he then translated for the benefit of the ever-growing crowd of Tamils. The lorry driver knew of a doctor's surgery a few miles down the road. He offered to take the boy to the surgery as long as we accompanied him in case of trouble with the authorities. And so I climbed into the lorry's front seat alongside the driver while willing hands passed the still unconscious boy up into the cab and draped him across me. It was all rather undignified. Others helped Pete recover the BSA from the monsoon drain. It started with the first kick and soon we were all on our way, one of the buses leading the convoy.

The surgery turned out to be a cottage hospital in a cool, shady, jungle clearing. A couple of porters quickly transferred the still unconscious Tamil from my lap to a hospital bed on the front veranda. The other patients, apparently making remarkable recoveries from whatever afflictions had been confining them to their beds, crowded round to get a good view. The doctor was summoned, he was Sinhalese inevitably, and he expertly examined his latest patient - he even did the pulling-back-the-eyelids procedure. Then, obviously enjoying playing to an audience, out came his stethoscope and, with much appreciative muttering from the crowd, he examined the boy's chest. Finally he stood up, carefully folded the stethoscope into the pocket of his immaculate white coat, stroked his chin thoughtfully and nodded wisely. Suddenly, he leaned forward over the body again and tickled the boy in the ribs. The effect was astonishing. The boy leapt vertically upwards from his horizontal position on the bed and then collapsed in a fit of uncontrollable giggles.

Over a refreshing cup of tea, Ceylon tea of course, the doctor explained in excellent English. The Tamil boy had run away from home some weeks earlier. He had no money and no prospects. That particular morning, being by now half-starved and thoroughly depressed, he had decided to place his life in the hands of his God. He had lain himself down in the middle of the road on a blind bend knowing that there was a fair chance of being run over and killed. That would have ended all his troubles in this life. On the other hand, if his God wanted him to survive, then he would be picked up and taken to hospital where he hoped the recently created Ceylon National Health Service would look after him free of charge for a day or so.

"So what will happen to him now?" I asked the doctor. Pete and I felt rather stupid at being so easily duped, but we also felt immensely sorry for the boy.

"Oh, we'll keep him under . . . well, under observation for a few days to feed him up", replied the doctor with a smile. "But then I'll have to discharge him. We need the beds for real patients."

As Pete and I left the hospital a few minutes later to resume our holiday, I saw the Tamil boy on his bed smiling sheepishly in my direction. I went over and slipped a 10 rupee note into his outstretched hand - that was sufficient to feed him for two or three weeks. Of course, I never saw him again but I'll never forget him.

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