As an engineer in the Ceylon
Irrigation Department I had to pass an oral exam in both the Sinhaleses and Tamil
languages. At the time my wife and I were living in a three room mud walled shack in
the Northern Province, where I was in charge of the development of a 20,000 acre
project to convert jungle into farm land, irrigated by a large storage reservoir which
had been built.
The Tamil exam was not difficult. I practised with an old Tamil overseer who I took
with me to Colombo. The examiner, a cheerful European, told me in English what I
was to say to the overseer and all went well.
When it came to the Sinhalese exam it was a different matter, and my annual
increase of salary depended on my passing. To my horror the examiner proved to be,
not a friendly European, but a polite Sinhalese man, who greeted me with a flow of
speech which sounded like a soda water syphon exploding. I never even discovered
what he was talking about and quite soon he said in English, "Perhaps you had better
try again in a few months".
What was to be done? My salary increase hung in the balance. I memorised a
soliloquy in Sinhalese - a long one about rainfall, farming, irrigation - and as soon as I
sat down facing the same Sinhalese chap as before, I launched into my soliloquy
without giving him a chance to speak.
After about seven minutes he leant across the desk and said firmly, "For God's sake
stop", and added it would not be necessary for me to appear before him again.
I returned happily to my wife in our mud walled little home nine miles south of
Elephant Pass in the direction of Jaffna, and we continued our rather solitary life with
the usual bouts of malaria and the weekly beef box, which came from Colombo on the
railway line which ran through the jungle not far away. The main item in the beef box,
among blocks of ice, was a large joint of beef which had to be cooked every day to stop
it going bad.