Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Our life in Sri Lanka

He Is the Lime Man for the County

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This man makes a probably meagre living from selling limes and sometimes mangoes, papayas and bananas. He is not a beggar. He has some disability in his legs and gets about in a wheelchair cum tricycle. (Don’t ask me why his legs work for pedalling but not walking.) He is out in all weathers trying to make an honest living from selling fruit. We have seen him out in the blazing heat and the pouring monsoon rain and cyclonic winds. Limes are available in many places (the best ones, the juiciest, come from our own garden) but we always buy from him. We never ask for change and sometimes give him much more than he asks. We buy him shirts and sarongs from time to time. He had an accident with his tricycle and could not afford the repairs. We paid. I say these things not to boast but to suggest that people who complain about beggars and street vendors being out to cheat everybody would feel much better in themselves if they changed their outlook on life. It is a selfish thing – ditch the begrudgery and give. You will enjoy it. We are not rich but it does not break our bank account to give the Lime Man a little extra. He feels better for our giving and we feel better too. Win win.

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Wednesday Morning 2 a.m.

I was having an unusually good sleep after a few glasses of California Red when i suddenly became aware that my wife was a wake. She had been woken by the activity of the puss Mimi (seventeen –year old Belle of Bellvelly).

I am used to springing into action to isolate rats in the bathroom and dispose of them into a box and out of the window before Mimi bites off their heads.

This time Mimi was more circumspect. Curled up on the bedroom floor- black cement flecked with white- was a black and white baby krait.

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Despite my befuddlement I opened the kitchen door, fetched a metal bin and brought a bread knife with which my wife flicked the serpent into the bin and I tossed it out of the back door.

According to Wikipedia: The common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) is a species of venomous snake of the genus Bungarus a member of the “big four”, species inflicting the most snakebites on humans in the Indian subcontinent.

It is known to take up residence in termite mounds, brick piles, rat holes, even inside houses. It is frequently found in water or in proximity to a water source. The common krait feeds primarily on other snakes, including: “blind worms” (snakes of the genus Typhlops); and cannibalizes on other kraits, including the young. It also feeds on small mammals (such as rats, and mice), lizards and frogs.

During the day, it is sluggish and generally docile. It often hides in rodent holes, loose soil, or beneath debris, so is rarely seen. It often rolls its body into a loose, coiled ball, keeping its head well concealed. When in this ‘balled’ condition, the snake allows considerable handling, but over handling often instigates bites. However, at night, the snake is very active and escapes by hissing loudly, or keeping still, occasionally biting the source of the annoyance. It is reluctant to bite, but when it does, it typically holds on for a while, which enables it to inject considerable amounts of venom. It may become aggressive at night if threatened.

The common krait’s venom consists mostly of powerful neurotoxins, which induce muscle paralysis. Clinically, its venom contains presynaptic and postsynaptic neurotoxins, which generally affect the nerve endings near the synaptic cleft of the brain.

Kraits are nocturnal, so seldom encounter humans during daylight hours; incidents occur mainly at night. Frequently, little or no pain occurs from a krait bite, and this can provide false reassurance to the victim. Typically, victims complain of severe abdominal cramps, accompanied by progressive paralysis. Once bitten, the absorption of the venom into the victim can be considerably delayed by applying a pressure bandage to the bite site (using about the same tension as one uses for a sprained ankle) and immobilising the area. This allows for gentle transport to medical facilities, where the venom can be treated when the bandage is removed. As no local symptoms present, a patient should be carefully observed for signs of paralysis (e.g., the onset of ptosis) and treated urgently with antivenom. It is also possible to support bite victims by mechanical ventilation, using equipment of the type generally available at hospitals. Such support should be provided until the venom is metabolised and the victim can breathe unaided. If death occurs, it takes place about four to eight hours after the krait bite. Cause of death is general respiratory failure, i.e. suffocation.

Often during the rainy season, the snakes come out of their hiding places and find refuge inside dry houses. If bitten by a krait while sleeping, a victim may not realize he has been bitten, as the bite feels like of an ant or mosquito. The victim may die without waking up. Krait bites are significant for eliciting minimal amounts of local inflammation/swelling. This may help in species identification if the snake has not been seen.

The few symptoms of the bite include: tightening of the facial muscles in one to two hours of the bite; inability of the bite victim to see or talk, and, if left untreated, the patient may die from respiratory paralysis within four to five hours. A clinical toxicology study gives an untreated mortality rate of 70-80%.

We wondered how the snake got into the bedroom. Did it fall from the roof? Did it come up a plughole?

 

My wife’s theory is that it came in a beer crate but this could be homonym confusion.

 

 

Haldummulla Mud Slide

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It is nearly ten years now since I was getting anxious phone calls and messages from people worried about what had happened to us when a huge tidal wave hit Sri Lanka on St Stephen’s Day 2004. I am touched once again by enquiries from people all over the world as they follow the news of the terrible events in Haldummulla. After many days of torrential rain, a mudslide descended on Meeriyabeddawatta around 7.30 a.m. with a deafening noise devastating an area of about 20 acres where 317 people had lived mostly in collections of line houses that is the normal accommodation for workers on tea estates. Badulla District Secretary Rohana Keerthi Dissanayake said that the slide destroyed about 60 line rooms, two houses and a kovil (Hindu temple).

 

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I am not reporting from the site of the disaster but I have gathered information and images from various sources. As I write, the situation is still confused with varying numbers of casualties being given in the Sri Lankan media. The UNP-led Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union General Secretary K Velayutham told Ceylon Today that “some 440 people have been buried underneath the earth slip. Children who went to school and some families who left the place and evacuated to other areas escaped”. The Island newspaper reports that 150 have been buried alive.

A deadly landslide hits village in central Sri Lanka

A joint rescue operation is underway with the army, police, air force and the district administration participating with all their resources in search of survivors. Security Forces Commander of the Central Province Major General Mano Perera said five bodies were recovered on October 29. The operations were hampered by continuing heavy rain. “In one line there were 100-120 houses housing about 50-65 families. It’s believed that 100 -160 corpses will be recovered in the coming days,” he said. Army Media Director Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera said, initially 200 Army personnel were rushed to the scene within 45 minutes of the disaster. “There were 500 Army personnel; including 50 Air Force personnel assisting the government officials, who are inspecting the scene to build temporary shelter for the affected persons as their houses were completely destroyed. He added that the Army will extend its support to the people and other officials assisting
the injured and displaced persons.

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Two camps were set up at Ampitikanda and Koslanda to provide shelter to people living in vulnerably areas close to the Meeriyabedda estate and some 100 people are being sheltered there at present.

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A contingent of more than 500 army soldiers have been  conducting rescue operations with the help of other agencies and moved sections of displaced people into two common halls in Koslanda, army said.

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They said the Army was busy preparing meals and other requirements of those affected at present.

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Air force spokesman Gihan Seneviratne said a BEL 212 helicopter was on standby in Nuwara Eliya because the adverse weather had made it impossible to get to Badulla.

 Wing Commander Seneviratne said a M17 helicopter was also on standby at the Ratmalana domestic airport for any emergency.

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There is a vivid video here: http://www.dailymirror.lk/emergency/55355

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that his ministry had issued warnings but the victims had not heeded them and there were two other mountains nearby prone to landslides. Perhaps they were afraid of losing their jobs. Cabinet Ministers WDJ Seneviratne and Mahinda Samarasinghe said they would investigate why the plantation company employing the workers who perished had the years not acted upon warnings given by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) with regard to landslides in the area. The Ministers said that a programme should be established to prevent such a tragedy from recurring and said that the government was preparing a national nation pinpointing areas prone to landslides.

Haldummulla is in the Badulla District of Uva Province. We also live in the Badulla district but our house is about two hours drive from Haldummulla. We pass through the town on our way to Colombo. Even when we first took the trip twelve years ago, Haldummulla knew about tragedy. There was a house that we passed on the way, which had been destroyed by a rockslide in which all the inhabitants had perished.

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On a more recent journey, in August, we noticed that the roads were littered with asbestos roofing sheets. These are very heavy and it would take a mighty wind to take them off a house and transport them many yards and break them on the road. We usually stop to buy fruit from a woman in the area. She was very distressed because the cyclone had destroyed her house and her business. Luckily, there was no injury to her or her husband or children. She became even more emotional when we gave her some money to repair her property.

In our immediate vicinity, there was a lengthy drought, which meant that people in the village had to queue up to collect their water from a government water bowser. For some time now we have been suffering from torrential rain every day. The irony now is that people are still without water despite the immoderate amounts coming from the sky. The very force of the rain is causing landslides and breaking channels and pipes that normally take water into homes. The embankment at the bottom of our garden collapsed and is blocking the drainage of our neighbours below. We immediately hired someone to fix this but work cannot start work until the rain stops- which it shows no sign of doing.

Our house is in the middle of a tea estate. We have often commented that the plantation company is risking erosion through the way estate workers cut and weed on the slopes. They are destroying the root systems that hold the soil together. Even without abnormal weather conditions there are often landslips along the main roads. Access to our home from the main A5 road between Badulla and Passara has always difficult because about a quarter of a kilometre of estate road has not been maintained. That road is now a river.

Our situation is not nearly as bad as those poor people in Haldummulla are suffering but if the rain does not stop, it could well become as bad. A level-2 warning has been issued asking the public to be alert to the possibility of landslides, rock falls and cut slope failures. The level-2 warning covered Badulla, Bandarawela, Ella divisional secretariat divisions and Ella-Wellawaya Road, Haputale- Beragala Road, Beragala-Wellawaya Road, Badulla-Spring Valley Road, Passara-Lunugala Road and Etampitiya-Welimada Road. We are on the Badulla-Passara road. The Railway Department said that the train service on the Badulla-Colombo track had come to a standstill after a massive mound of earth had fallen on a locomotive and the track between Ella and Demodara on Tuesday night.

Here are some pictures of conditions in and around our garden. It is not nearly as horrific as Haldumulla but there is still cause for concern. Duty Meteorologist Nadee Rupasinghe said that over 100 mm of heavy rains could be expected countrywide until November 1. “There may be temporary localized strong winds during thundershowers. General public is kindly requested to take adequate precautions to minimize any damages caused by lightning activities.” Strong winds are not unusual but one can never get used to them.

These are pictures I took in the last few days of the road we have to drive down to get food, cash and alcohol.

 

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Poddak Inna!!!!

This was written by my alter ego Thaddeus O’Grouch for Adoh magazine back in 2007.

 

There was a hoary old joke that used to be told against the Irish. It was probably concocted by the Irish themselves to get them out of doing any work. It goes something like this:

 

There was an international conference of philologists. During a tea break a Spanish philologist engaged an Irish philologist in conversation and asked, “Is there, in the Irish language, any word equivalent to the Spanish concept of manyana?”

 

The Irishman thought for a while and responded: “Well there are a number of Irish words that are vaguely synonymous with manyana, but none with the same sense of urgency.”

 

That story long ago ceased to convey an accurate impression of the real Ireland of today. Today a more accurate cliché is the remark that there is no phenomenon in the known universe quite as alarming as an Irishman on the make.

 

Ireland has discovered urgency in a big way and a lot of people have put some serious energy into becoming obscenely rich and unpleasant.

 

The joke might be adapted to fit more aptly the Sri Lankan national character. As I go about my daily doings I am constantly faced with the manyana syndrome.

 

Some examples: in my foolish desire to put something substantial between my golden locks and the incessant rain, I made enquiries about roofing materials. A well-known company of tile manufacturers agreed to send a representative to weigh up my requirements. At the appointed time of our appointment there was no sign of himself. I rang his mobile and spoke to him. He was in Ratnapura – about four hours drive away from my roofless abode.

 

Being the sort of fellow who likes to plan ahead I decided that once I did have a roof it would make economic and ecological sense to have solar panels fitted to it. A chap from a solar panel company agreed, somewhat reluctantly I thought, to come and have a look at the place where my roof should be. Fair play to him, he did turn up somewhere in the approximate vicinity of the agreed time and told an inspiring tale of the early hour at which he had risen from his slumbers in order to get to me. We had a pleasant chat over a couple of beers. Some months later, he sent a plumber who offered to bring me some prawns. He made a few leaks that had not been there before and disappeared never to be seen again. Two years later, I still have no solar panels.

 

Incidentally, I do have a new roof. I was always adamant that I would not have an asbestos roof on the sensible premise that I felt I was too young to die. The tile roofing people let me down. Various metal roofing suppliers failed to call back. One, after threats of violence, did turn up at my gate with an estimate but it was many times the GNP of some emerging nations. I now have a new (asbestos) roof but it leaks more than the old one.

 

Thwarted in my ambition to generate my own electricity through the power of the sun, I decided to ask the CEB to get me a more powerful supply for those little lacunae of contentment and illumination when my life-support system is operational between the power cuts.

 

CEB have notices in their office in three languages saying ‘The customer is king’. I tried to feel regal as I filled in the form handed to me by a sullen girl behind an ancient typewriter. My crown got a bit sweaty as I trudged a couple of miles to a bank to pay the required fee and then back to the CEB with the receipt. I waited several unroyal months for the work to be done. Innumerable phone calls elicited innumerable imaginative promises and excuses. No-one ever turned up on an allotted day. They often turned up when I was not at home.

 

I seem to spend a lot of my declining and rapidly diminishing years waiting in futile anticipation. Sometimes I feel I have lost the will to live. My complaints and pink-faced rantings are charmingly accepted with a shrug and a smile and the inevitable: ‘This is Sri Lanka, no?’

 

A European acquaintance long resident in Sri Lanka advised me that it would be detrimental to my general health and equanimity to try to learn Sinhala. I was told that I could never hope to be fluent enough to avoid being an object of merriment among the natives. Even if I were to become fluent, people would pretend to be unable to understand me in order to avoid difficult situations. Otherwise they would try to engage me in conversation which would not do at all.

 

In spite of myself, I have learnt a few phrases which have some limited use. Some of these phrases are too disgusting to commit to the pages of such a chaste publication.

 

One phrase, poddak inne, has proved useful in daily commerce. I am used to being on the receiving end, waiting patiently for nothing to happen as I slouch a little nearer to the lip of the grave. If someone agrees to meet me on Tuesday – poddak inne- I must stoically accept that they may turn up, unannounced, the following Sunday. Why worry? Watch that blood pressure!

 

But an extremely laid-back approach to delivering service is combined with severely limited impulse control when seeking services. The simple task of buying a stamp from a Sri Lankan post office is an acute test of my cardio-vascular system because everyone else is so impatient. One goes to the counter marked ‘stamps’. One asks for a stamp and is greeted by an expression of derision and redirected to the counter marked ‘postal orders’. One makes a lonely attempt to form an orderly queue but is buffeted on all sides by people with anxious expressions who try to climb over one and thrust their fenugreeky armpits into one’s face.

 

In Cargills, as I patiently wait at the checkout to pay handsomely for the cornucopia of bounty in my brimming trolley, there is always someone with one item like an ice cream or a single toffee or a mobile update who thinks that they can interrupt the inexorable totting up of my gargantuan bill and be on their way speedily. Poddak inne, my good fellow! This remonstrance can be combined with a faux clumsy backward step in my hobnailed boots crushing the fragile Bata- slippered toes of the interloper.

 

There is always a danger that I might run out of petrol because I have a phobia about petrol sheds. Filling up one’s tank is such a stressful operation because of the reluctance of the petrol-purchasing masses patiently to succumb to an orderly process. I am just about to be served when another motor-cyclist nips in front of me. If I ever manage to fill up I cannot get back on the road because I am surrounded by three-wheelers or the exit is blocked by mating buses.

 

The inability to wait is also manifested on the highway itself. Elsewhere in the motoring world there is a recognised code of conduct for letting people through, rules of precedence and right of way. When these rules are followed in a civilised fashion the traffic flows smoothly. In Sri Lanka the rule seems to be ‘aggressively lay claim to every inch of road and don’t give way to anyone’. This short-sighted impatience leads to lengthy blockages. When I try some of my foul Sinhala phrases in such situations the result is usually a friendly smile and “you are from which country?’ In England if you transgress the code or look at another motorist in the wrong way you will probably get shot in the head.

 

Often I am driving along in my usual impeccable fashion when a pedestrian looking the other way flings himself in front of my vehicle even though the road behind me is totally devoid of traffic and he could have crossed safely had he waited one pico-second.

 

Advancing white vans on the wrong side of the road will horn at me ordering me to vacate the highway so that they can get past me immediately. As soon as they succeed they pull up and park. What was the urgency?

 

This toxic combination of lethargic unreliability and psychotic futile urgency is enough to test the patience of even such a saint as myself.

 

Wait, already!!!

 

Jak of All Trades

A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan Airlines.

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We have ten jak trees in the garden of our Sri Lankan mountain retreat. Without any contribution from us, the trees maintain a miraculous eco system.

Parrots and hornbills, their harsh cries belying their beautiful appearance, roost in the branches. From time to time, hooligan gangs of langurs swarm in from the jungle to vandalize the fruit and to fight with each other and our dogs. Bushy-tailed rock squirrels busy themselves leaping from tree to tree maintaining several homes to deceive predators. Wild boars come on high-heels in the night to indulge their passion for jak nuts and wreck our fences if we don’t put an adequate supply of nuts outside for them.

The jak tree is a wonder of nature and a boon to humanity as well as other animals. It produces perhaps the largest tree fruits on earth. The tree is extremely versatile.

The botanical name is Artocarpus heterophyllus of the family Moraceae (the amazingly diverse mulberry family). In Sinhala it is called kos; in Tamil pila; in Chinese bo luo mi; nangka in the Philippines and Malaysia; in Thailand, khanun; in Cambodia, khnor; in Laos, mak mi or may mi; in Vietnam, mit.

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The jakfruit adapts only to humid tropical climates. It is sensitive to frost in its early life and cannot tolerate drought. It flourishes in rich, deep soil, sometimes on deep gravelly soil. It also does not like “wet feet”. If the roots touch water, the tree will not bear fruit or may die.

In Asia, jakfruits mainly ripen from March to June, April to September. Fruits mature three to eight months from flowering. A good yield is 150 large fruits per tree annually, though some trees bear as many as 250 and a fully mature tree may produce 500.

jakhighThe tree is large and can grow as tall as 70 feet. The leaves are dark green, elliptic and leathery in appearance with lateral veins with parallel intercostals. The flowers are cauliflerous (developing directly from the trunk) and cylindrical.

The fruit of the tree is large, limey-green to yellow in colour, and bulbous and spiky. The fruit grows in an alarming fashion suspended from the trunk of the tree. If you had never seen one before you might think it was from another planet.  The fully-grown jakfruit may be as much as three feet long and can weigh as much as 110 lbs.

The fruit itself has a wide variety of culinary uses. The fleshy part can be boiled or made into a curry or mallun (shredded like cabbage with grated coconut and turmeric and served with rice to counteract spicier dishes).

The flesh when young is called polos. The first time I ate it, the appearance and texture reminded me of tinned tuna fish chunks. Depending on how it is cooked, it can also resemble beef stroganoff. I find it particularly tasty stewed with tomatoes, garlic and lime juice.

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Inside the fleshy segments there are oval, whitish seeds (endocarp) or nuts covered by a thin white plasticky membrane (exocarp). These remind me of Brazil nuts. There may be up to 500 nuts in a single fruit. The nuts can be dried, roasted and pounded to make flour, which is blended with wheat flour for baking. They can be included in a curry. The nuts can be fried, roasted, sun-dried (atu kos) to be eaten as a savoury snack. Preserved in brine, or cooked in tomato sauce they can be canned. Sometimes they are preserved in syrup and served as a dessert.

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The sweet, fragrant, ripe fruit, varaka, has a flavour somewhat similar to pineapple, but much more subtle and understated and less astringent. This is eaten as a dessert and cleanses the palate like a sorbet after spicy curries.

Tender young fruits may be pickled with or without spices.

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Westerners generally will find the jakfruit most acceptable in the full-grown but unripe stage. At this stage, it has no objectionable odour (the odour is not like durian – even when the fruit is rotting on the ground after the monkeys have discarded it, our garden is permeated with a not unpleasant fermenting smell somewhere between vinegar and alcohol) and is cooked like breadfruit or plantain. This stage of the fruit is cut into large chunks for cooking, the only handicap being its copious gummy latex which accumulates on the knife and the hands if one does not use oil as a preventative. It is difficult to clean the sticky gumminess from pans and hobs.

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A labourer might breakfast on such a repast and the complex carbohydrates consumed would sustain him for a whole day.

The leaves are used as food wrappers in cooking, and they are also fastened together for use as plates.

I have not tried this myself, but it is said  that jakfruit nuts and pulp can cure a hangover.  The Chinese find it a cooling and nutritious tonic “useful in overcoming the influence of alcohol on the system.” The seed starch is given to relieve biliousness and the roasted seeds are regarded as aphrodisiac. (I have not conducted a controlled experiment.) Ulcers are treated with the ash of the leaves burned with corn and coconut shells and mixed with coconut oil. Abscesses, snakebite and glandular swellings are treated with dried latex mixed with vinegar. The roots are used for skin diseases, asthma, fever and diarrhea. Heated leaves are placed on wounds and the bark is made into poultices.

In some areas, jakfruit is fed to cattle. The tree is even planted in pastures so that the animals can avail themselves of the fallen fruits. Surplus jakfruit rind is considered a good stock food. The leaves are used as cattle fodder and are thought to be fattening.

The latex serves as birdlime, alone or mixed with Ficus sap and oil from Schleichera trijuga. The heated latex is employed as household cement for mending chinaware and earthenware, and to caulk boats and holes in buckets. It contains which can be used in varnishes.

The hardwood of Artocarpus heterophyllus is used in construction and for making furniture. It is currently quite expensive in Sri Lanka. The grain and texture of jak timber has been likened to mahogany but it is yellow when new. It changes with age to brown or dark-red. It is termite-proof, resistant to fungal and bacterial decay. It seasons easily, and is superior to teak. Jak wood is also used for masts, oars, and musical instruments. Palaces were built of jak wood in Bali and Macassar, and the limited supply was once reserved for temples in Indochina. Roots of old trees are used for carving and picture framing.

The sawdust of jakwood is boiled with alum to make a dye containing the yellow colorant, morin, which is used to color silk and the robes of Buddhist monks.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that this miracle tree grows abundantly just about everywhere in the non-urban areas of the country and even in some city gardens. It makes a major contribution to Sri Lankan life. Because the jak tree is so productive and so useful to the community there are legal restrictions on the felling of the trees and transportation of the wood.

The tree of life – but you wouldn’t want a fruit to land on your head!

 

 

My Dog Tosca

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Some people have pets thrust upon them. Although I did not have much experience of pets as a child, now I am surrounded by animals. A misguided aunt gave me a tortoise called Cuthbert whom I was too young to understand or appreciate. It seems that I killed him trying to wake him up not realising he was hibernating. As Dorothy Parker said on hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, “How could they tell?”

We briefly had budgie that my father won in a raffle. It was very cranky, refused to speak or sing and pecked us whenever we went near it. One day we found it at the bottom of the cage, toes curled up. Perhaps its depression was induced by an identity crisis – he was called Paddy, as was my father (whose real name was Jeremiah), my uncle, my cousin and my goodself. I was too young to understand how cruel it is to keep a creature of flight in a cage. As William Blake almost wrote: “A budgerigar in a cage/Puts heaven in a rage”.

I tended to avoid animals after that but in later life they started coming after me . I was once sleeping with the windows open during a hot Wimbledon summer when I woke to find a black cat on my chest. This was Charlotte who had crawled across the roof from next door. After that, she often used to come through the back door and sit on my lap watching TV. Charlotte was particularly fond of football – one could see her head moving from side to side as she intently followed the flow of the play.

My good lady wife suffered from a similar kind of animal magnetism, initially with cats. Bumble was dominating her household when I first met her but I understand Socks had preceded him as an uninvited guest. Bumble expired but soon Lucy, Uncle Monty and Maurice took up residence.

Throughout our married life we have found that there is some kind of feline equivalent of Facebook which allows the animals to know when a space has become available. We took three cats with us to Ireland. When they departed in various ways, three Irish cats arrived to replace them. We brought those three with us to Sri Lanka. In Ireland, three disreputable dogs came to the house every day to take us for a walk.

Since coming to Sri Lanka, we have been inundated with dogs through no fault of our own. I had thought about writing something called “Reigning Cats and Dogs” but found that someone had already used that title.

We first lived in rented accommodation in Bandarawela. The owners claimed to be animal lovers but threatened to poison a couple of street bitches that hung around the place and ordered their workers to beat them. Those people have since gone to their heavenly reward.

I noticed Tosca on my way to the kade. She had a horrible abscess hanging out of one eye but had a very benign expression. Dogs are not supposed to smile but she seemed to do so, beatifically. She seemed to take to us and, somewhat nervously, started approaching our house. One night, we noticed her sleeping in a drain near the house and she was not alone. A female companion, who later became known as Daisy, was huddling with her for warmth. We gradually, in the face of disapproval from the owners and the neighbours, adopted these two as our own, although we could in no way believe that we owned them.

Unfortunately, Tosca, in particular, became prey to the rampaging males of the area and was often subjected to gang rape. One rather timid fellow we named The Suitor, was doing the business when Hendrick, a disreputable one-eyed old roué who lived on the estate and considered he had prior rights, urinated on him in mid-coitus.

The result of all this attention was a litter of pups. One very small one died soon. Two of them were later found homes and given the names Lucky (a bad choice) and Sando. More of those later. Silky remained with us and remained with us in our new home until she died eight years later in March 2013.

When the pups were first born, Tosca was perhaps not an ideal mother. One got the feeling that she thought a different kind of life was her due. She remained rather plump after the pregnancy and she reminded me of one of those 1950s blonde pneumatic movie stars like Mamie van Doren or Jayne Mansfield (I’m showing my age here, readers). She would often abandon the pups and come to hide from them with us in the sit-out. The little monsters always managed to find her and squawk and bite and scratch at her abused undercarriage.

Luckily, we knew a good vet who was able to perform surgery at our home to remove the abscess from the eye and to sterilise her. A lot of veterinary attention was needed. On one occasion she seemed very ill and was hiding in the bushes. The vet thought she might have been poisoned. We took her to the Veterinary Faculty at Peradeniya where she was admitted for observation.

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Tosca loved motor travel. In fact, she demanded to get in whenever we went shopping. Children looked in and told their parents there was a beautiful dog in the car. She serenely took such compliments as her due. If she saw another dog passing by she would bark at it imperiously.

Tosca clearly did not think the accommodation at the Veterinary Faculty was up to her standards. When we went to collect her after six days she was very huffy and walked briskly to a white car and demanded to be let in. Unfortunately, it was not our  car.

When we moved to our own house, Tosca, Daisy, Hendrick and Silky came with us. The intricate social dynamics of this ménage, particularly the antics of Tosca and Daisy in their lesbian love nest, must be the subject for another article (or scholarly thesis or porn movie).

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Tosca continued to enjoy her status as motor-mutt with the plus of long walks through the tea estate and mud-baths, the dirtier the better. She is no longer with us. Like most street dogs she once had a home with humans who abandoned her. She endured with dignity. She survived a long time after being diagnosed with mouth cancer.

I am not ashamed of appearing sentimental when I say that I hope we added something to her life.

In the New York Review of Books, Catherine Schine reviewed an animated movie version of JR Ackerley’s wonderful memoir My Dog Tulip. “What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestionably to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or ‘put to sleep’ without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches?’

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