Women past their forties may remember the exotic block printed saris that could be bought at Kattankudi. They were not available widely, not even in Batticaloa, so one had to go to Kattankudi to get them, or coax husbands going on outstation work to the East to drop by at this little hamlet and buy a couple of saris – cotton, bright red or yellow or stark black with block printed patterns in one contrasting colour. So you got red with black patterns or black with a red design or yellow backgrounded with black prints, mostly abstract and BOLD. The saris were heavy cotton but draped well. They were dressy and one wondered who designed them.
In Batticaloa this past weekend, Kattankudi was definitely on the agenda with the promise that handlooms would be available, if not saris at least good sarongs. Imagine the shock to find no local handlooms whatsoever. Going to a shop, local handloom sarongs were asked for. Piles were shown but they resembled the Palayakat sarongs of Indian origin so the questions: "Are these from this area? Are they local? They don’t feel handloom." Affirmatives were given that they were handloom and local. When the label on them was shown as being Indian, the shop helper says: "Indian, local, what difference?" He deserved a good knock on his quibbling head. Mercifully in one shop there were some attractive single coloured sarongs with stripes in a darker shade and they were handloom, labeled: ‘Top 9. Product of Sri Lanka.’ Not Kattankudi though.
In spite of the disappearance of the Kattankudi saris, the town itself is excellently developed. A couple of years ago small shops huddled together on either side of a dust road. They are now transformed to smart shops with glass doors on either side of a wide, smoothly macadamized road with a broad centre strip with date trees (no less) flourishing. A conversation with a very polite, cell phone shop owner elicited the information that the handloom industry had died down completely due to the influx of Indian textiles which cost so much less for the importer and could be sold for less to the customer too.
The town was developed two years ago and credit was given to their Member of Parliament, M L A M Hisbullah. Though Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils are almost in equal proportion in the Batticaloa district, in Kattankudi there is natural segregation, mutually agreed upon, apparently. The stretch of road we shopped in was totally Muslim and the friendly shop owner said it was a stretch of two miles, on either end of which were shops and settlements of Tamils and Sinhalese. Of course they lived in amity, and were prosperous.
The date trees were stunning in their appearance and we were urged to go see tree 24 which was in fruit. We were at tree 16 and did not feel like the walk at 9.00 in the night after a heavy day of sight seeing and sea bathing at Kalkudah, though lights were blazing all around. Tree 16, we were told had been full of fruit, recently harvested ceremonially by Minister Hisbullah himself, Chairman of the Batticaloa District Coordination Committee and a Deputy Minister.
Business was good our conversationalist said. He urged us to visit the mosque down a lane in the vicinity where many had been gunned down by the LTTE while at prayer. Kattankudi, and Batticaloa too, were free of living commanding LTTE cadres but they occupied surrounding areas and would swoop down on occasional raids, the worst being the slaughter of Muslims at prayer in Kattankudi.
Like Jaffna, Batticaloa was a frequented holiday resort long ago for extended family stays. We got the Valaichchenai paper factory bungalow and stayed over for the prawn and crab and sea baths at Kalkudah and Pasikudah. People of the area were reticent but if approached, usually friendly. Coming back from a sea bath one evening, we had an unpleasant warning of what was to come. A bevy of nieces in the back of the hatch back vehicle, seated with legs dangling, waved at a couple of young men who were standing beside the road. A very innocent gesture. But then we heard the girls scrambling away from the open end and a whisper "Some boys are following us on their bikes. They seem angry." We speeded up and left the boys behind but later realized they surely were angry young future LTTErs.
What’s interesting in Batticaloa? It has its Hindu kovil – the Tiruchendur Murugan Alayam - which was decimated right in half by the tsunami of 2004 which damaged the area very severely. Near the kovil is a coconut tree minus its crown which we had to look up to. That was the height of the waves that dashed in, we were told. A new gopuram has been build; the old one, slanting about 45 degrees with one side buried deep in sand stands as a reminder of the awful December 26 disaster.
I was fascinated particularly by the statue of Rev William Ault beside the Gate that marked the lagoon quay for landing of small ships and boats during the Dutch era. He was one of seven Wesleyan Methodist Missionaries who left Portsmouth in two ships in December 1813 and arrived in Galle. While most of them stayed in Galle, Rev Ault traveled to Batticaloa in June 1814 to start the Methodist Mission in this town. The Kallady Bridge, aka Lady Manning Bridge is a beauty in its six spans but blocks traffic as only one large bus can be on it at one time. Hence the plans and material to be seen to build a broader bridge. We do hope the then longest bridge will be kept intact, at least to remember British bridge building and retain a distinct landmark of Batticaloa. The Fort is small and full of government offices, built by the Portuguese in 1628 and rebuilt by the Dutch in 1638.
Much has been written about the development of the Eastern Province. Certainly Kattankudi is very different from what it was and the change is for the better. But in Batticaloa I failed to see much improvement. A huge hotel is being built right on the beach in Kalkudah and we hear there is land grabbing in Pasikudah.
As I write this I am, as others, shocked by the recent vandalism of statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Baden Powell, Swami Vipulananda and Periyar Thambapillai right in the town of Batticaloa. I first thought it was a sneaky vandalizer with LTTE sympathies. Could it be the sign of an imminent rash of insurgency? Now I am more of the opinion it was the work of a gang of high spirited youth minus any sense of decorum or knowledge of even who Gandhi was. That is Sri Lanka and its people of now.