Martin Wickramasinghe
Martin Wicramasinghe,  The Great Author of Nation
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Ape Gama

Madol Doova

Eve of The New Year

(From "Ape' Gama", translated by Lakshmi de Silva)

ONE day, during the season when Kiribaba did not go out to sea, I lay in wait for him as the went, net on shoulder, to the river.

“Oh do take me in the boat today” I begged him

“Goodness, don’t even suggest it to me, little master. If your mother finds out, there’ll be no peace for me”

“My mother wont get to know. Oh, please take me. If you like, I’ll run home and ask her for permission.”

“No, no I can’t. Go, now go away. If I take you out in a boat in the dark and some accident happens, I’ll end up on the gallows”

Ape Gama


“Nothing will happen. I promise. I can swim a little. Please. Take me just this once”

“You can swim?” Kiribaba smiled as he looked at me. “Some swimmer!” And with that sarcasm, he journeyed on with bowed head.

“ I can swim, and not too badly, at that. I’m not frightened. Oh, take me” Running up to him. I grabbed his palm and pressed a fifty cent coin into it. I did not accept it when he tried to return it, but continued to importune him.

Though poverty constrained him to accept the bribe, it was reluctantly that he agreed to take me. As we reached the bank, Kiribaba took the net off his shoulder, dropped it on the thwarts and took his oar in hand. “Get into the boat and sit down” he ordered me.

I crashed through a clump of Hambu reeds and climbed in. He bowed his head, gripped the cross poles which connect the beam of the out rigger and thrust the boat into the water. The little boat which he could with ease have lifted and carried, shot forward like the sheath of a coconut flower caught in the wind. He sat down opposite me at one end of the boat.

“Hold on tight. master” and he began to row.

After we had been on the river a little while, the moon rose, its rays streaming down over the river like a fall of silver dust. White clouds like swan’s-down embellished a sky like a blue canopy studded with golden star-flowers, making it seem a veritable fairyland to the eyes of a child. It may now seem like a conceited attempt in poetic elaboration to say that the tranquil river seemed a carpet spread under the dome of the sky, and the silver ripples of moon-light that shimmered on it, now here, now there were the airy veils of fairies dancing to charm the mind of a child. Yet it seemed to me then no more than plain description.

The heavy darkness which the moonlight dispersed as wind disperses black smoke, covered the trees on either bank, so that they seemed solid masses of darkness. Though a faint breeze stirred the treetops, the shrouded banks were so frighteningly still that were it not for Kiribaba's presence, it would have become an awesome sight. Kiribaba knew the names which the anglers had given the rocks which emerged here and there from the surface of the water. The top of one showed barely visible, a mile or so ahead of us, “That’s Bird’s Rock” he would identify it "And there, to the left, that’s Hat Rock."

Though the soft wind which blew wafting the fragrance of ripe kirala from the trees was cool, the breeze which blew by day, heavy with the smell of sun-heated moss and waterweed raised sweat on my body. The forest fringed bank seemed dark to me as I sat in the boat in mid-stream, yet it was visible like a silhouette drawn by an artist where dark shadows predominate.

The mysterious beauty of the river glimmering in the moonlight, enchanting mind and eye, filled me with wonder. Where Kiribaba’s oar struck water, golden foam bubbled up like milk frothing on the fire. Where the water, luminous with the moon’s radiance lay unshaken, it seemed like a stream of quick-silver held motionless by its own volume; but wherever a fish leaped up and fell back into the water like a disc of silver or the oar broke water, the golden foam would rise, gleam and vanish.

This sudden shimmer of golden froth when the moonlit water was stirred was something rare and wonderful, something I had never seen, or even heard of. It was this moon-touched glittering water which enthralled me, and made me feel that with Kiribaba, I had ventured out, not on the river but into fairy land.

Kiribaba picked up his net and rose. He crooked his right arm at the elbow, forming a sort of triangular frame, and stretched out the net. Then he grasped a fold in his left hand, swung his right arm backwards and forwards twice or thrice, and flung the net. It flew up, spreading out on the air, and its weights dragged it down with a loud splash as though a handful of stones had struck the water. Holding the drawstring, Kiribaba alternately pulled the net closer, and dipped it deeper, drawing it till it lay floating against the boat. He continued drawing and submerging it while it grazed the keel. This was to tighten the meshes so that the fish who were caught could not escape through them.. If there was a haul, those in the boat would know it when the net was tightened. They would hear the flappingof the fins and tails of the netted fish. Their death-struggles would make the meshes of the net quiver like veena-strings under the finger-tips of a musician.

Kiribaba lifted the net carefully into the boat, slackened the meshes, and shook out the fish that glittered in the moonlight. I did not know the names of some, so I questioned Kiribaba about them. Though at that time he found it a nuisance, as we rowed back with the catch he readily told me all about the fishes even before I could ask him.

Though Kiribaba’s beliefs as to the breeding, growth and feeding habits of fish were mostly the fanciful and mythical lore current among villagers, he also possessed a vast store of knowledge gained directly from experience. When her clutch of eggs matures, the crocodile comes to the bank of the river and lies there with her jaws agape. The little crocodiles which hatch out enter her maw and are promptly engulfed. It is only those who escape from either side who survive. Even though his verified experience contradicted this as mere fantasy, Kiribaba accepted this book-bred folk-lore as being more veracious than the knowledge he gained by experience. It never came into his head to doubt, question or confirm the statements of ancient sages who had seen past, present and future as clearly as they saw their own palms.

All that was book-begotten seemed to him like the pronouncements of sages endowed with divine insight. If his experience contradicted what was in a book, it never gave rise to the question “Which is right?” The knowledge he gained from his experience, and the lore which he held to be the wisdom of the sages remained as distinct as oil and water in the vessel of his mind. Because he did not know that his own factual knowledge about fish was more valuable than the legendary lore inspired by books, he always held the myths to be correct.
Although he also possessed a vast store of knowledge gained directly from experience, Kiribaba’s beliefs as to the breeding, growth and feeding habits of fish were mostly the fanciful and mythical lore current among villagers, When I questioned him about fish, he did not answer from his own store of knowledge, but always based his answers on what old books related. It was only by questioning him again and again that I succeeded in touching the fringe of his factual knowledge.

“What does one see, where the sea meets the sky?” I once asked him

“The outer universe” he replied. I had asked him that question because I had seen him sail as far as the horizon which we took to be the meeting point of the sea and the sky.

There were women who believed that squids were a species of creature who enter the sea from hell. They had acquired this marvellous idea by seeing some temple frescoes where the artist had delineated creatures resembling squids among the inhabitants of his painted hell. Kiribaba despite the sound knowledge he had gained regarding sea-fish adhered staunchly to this old-wives tale. On the one hand, it strikes me as a proof of Kiribaba’s humility and nobility; to give one’s experiential knowledge second place, and put the wisdom of the ancients higher should surely be considered a sign of humility that is indeed admirable.

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