British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by P.C.49
Saneepa Kohomada
Welikade Prison Gate
Advice in plenty was always freely available from those who had been through the hoop before you - for example, in the matter of passing local language exams on which depended your confirmation in appointment and promotion after two years' probation.

"The trick," they said airily, "when asking a prisoner about the misdeed which has landed him in Jail is to put your questions to him so that he answers in not more than one or two words. If you ask him why he did whatever he did, you will open the floodgates and you will drown miserably".

The dear old pundit who waited patiently every morning on the mess verandah for his pupils to appear after early parade and breakfast tried to instil the same technique. Unfolding his copy of the Dina Mina (Daily News) he would point to a suitable court report and guide one's hesitant tongue through the curley-cue lettering to an approximate understanding. Whenever a juicy case cropped up, his eyes sparkled and when, eventually, the stage was reached when you practised with real live prisoners in the jail, he could not suppress a shiver of excitement when a flesh and blood murderer was brought in for viva voce practice. They were remand prisoners who had volunteered to break the monotony of sitting around doing nothing whilst awaiting trial, by submitting themselves to interrogation by faltering language students, and certainly they enjoyed twisting our tails a little whilst simultaneously rehearsing their defence in court.

Why remand prisoners? Well, there was an old tale, probably mythical, that an officer from an earlier generation took great pains to familiarise himself with the case history of every convicted prisoner currently in custody, only to be confronted on the day of the examination by a new face. With complete sangfroid, he "confessed" to the examiner that he knew the prisoner's record, whereupon he was commended for his frankness, the stranger was marched out, and replaced by a familiar face. Whether true or not, in my time the floating population of remand prisoners was used for all official language exams, and no advance swotting was feasible.

So, every three months, until crowned by success, a small group of probationary officers presented themselves at the main gate of Welikade Prison and were directed to a waiting room. Next door sat the Examiner, accompanied by a Deputy Inspector General, and the official Interpreter Mudaliyar. (If the Examiner happened to be a senior European Civil Servant, woe betide you: he would expect to hear the fluent grammatical speech which he himself was capable of delivering to an audience of, say members of a rural co-operative. In contrast, a senior Sinhalese or Tamil Civil Servant always seemed to be pleased and surprised that you could utter any words at all in the vernacular.)

When the day came to take the second more advanced exam, I appeared at the appointed time and managed to translate without too much hesitation a crime report written by a village headman in Sinhalese characters. Then a prisoner was brought in for the oral examination. He was an elderly man, polite and dignified in manner, and he took time to settle on his hunkers as gestured by the Interpreter Mudaliyar. "You may ask him some questions, please", said the Examiner (a senior Sinhalese Civil Servant, to whom much later I became a devoted and admiring staff officer.)

Saneepa Kohomada
Taking a deep breath, I started off on the well-worn staple questions - Where do you come from? - What offence are you alleged to have committed? - etc., etc. I gathered that he was a peasant cultivator from Tangalle district in the rural south east of the Island, and that he had been accused of manslaughter. Thus far I was in control, although the prisoner had few front teeth and lisped through the gaps in the equivalent of a very broad Devon accent. I gather also that he had been digging in his paddy-field and that he had hit someone with his mammoty or hoe. So far, so good.

Then I made a crucial mistake: I asked, "How did you get into this fight?" He was off in a flash. There was mention of a dead man; mention of two other men; a fight; and yet another dead man. I floundered hopelessly and at this point the Examiner turned to me with a compassionate smile and said, "I think you had better come back and try again in another three months." As I withdrew, I heard him tell the interpreter to find out what had really happened, and the DIG, who had kept a straight face throughout, told me the rest later.

Even the Mudaliyar had difficulty in getting at the facts. The poor old fellow's story was this:-

He had been digging peaceably in his paddy-field when two men came along the bund separating his field from the next. They were carrying a dead body for burial: (Corpse No. 1). Our friend remonstrated and told them to take another route, so that the shadow of the dead man would not fall on his rice crop and blight it. The pall-bearers replied that they would be blowed (to put it politely) if he expected them to make a detour of several hundred yards just to oblige him and his superstitions. A furious argument broke out and developed into a fight in which the old man wielded his mammoty to such effect that one of the pall-bearers fell to the ground and died (Corpse No. 2). Meantime the second pall-bearer fled leaving Corpse No. 1 lying in the paddy-field. The local headman came and called in the Police, who (most unfairly) arrested him and charged him with murder. I hope the Judge was not too harsh on him.

Three months later, I managed to satisfy the Examiner and earned a second pip on my shoulder. And then it was back to square one for another year, learning basic Tamil.

Similar visits to the Prison followed, but with a very different type of inmate, mostly a scattering of rickshaw or dock labourers. My Tamil pundit was a purist who insisted on correct grammar, declensions and all, whether or no such high-flown speech was intelligible to humble illiterates. He was right. When in due course I appeared before another (Tamil) Examiner I passed without too much trouble. Whereas a young Tamil-born officer, who appeared for examination at the same time, addressed the prisoners in abominable vernacular (such as used daily by planters or by their wives in the kitchen). He was turned away ignominiously and told not to return before he had learnt his mother tongue properly.

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Originally Published
OSPA Journal 63: April 1992


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