Not In Their Stars:
Visit With A Former Fortune Teller
Once they were fortune tellers, snake charmers and gypsies. But now they live in poverty, and stay in one place. The Catamaran meets an ex-soothsayer in Aligambe.
On the banks of the canal flowing through Aligambe village stand two women. Both hold fishing rods and after some time, one of them raises her line, happily expectant. But there is only an empty hook dangling at the end of the fishing line. She looks sad at the result so far.
She baits the hook again and throws it back and again, after some time, she raises the line. This time success: A silvery fish dangles there. The woman smiles. But then returns to work, because she knows that she needs many more such victories, small as they are, to survive.
When the gypsies would turn up somewhere unannounced, there were suspicions that they were spies for the Tamil Tigers.
“People don’t ask us to tell the future anymore,” says the woman whose name is Walliama. “We return empty handed many times so we have taken up fishing instead.”
Walliama is a distant descendant of the Telugu people, a group classified as such because they spoke the Telugu language, the majority of whom were originally from the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Long-time residents of Sri Lanka, the group were known for their gypsy lifestyles, with the women telling fortunes and the men training monkeys to do tricks and charming snakes for a living.
During the country’s civil war, it became difficult for Walliama’s people to rove around as much. Many of them speak Tamil now and when they would turn up somewhere unannounced, there were suspicions that they were spies for the militant organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, that was waging war against the government.
Additionally, Sri Lankan society has changed: Not as many locals believe in fortune tellers any more. Ordinary Sri Lankans can switch on the TV to hear their fortune being told.
There has also been intermarriage with local Tamils, which has seen the gypsy lifestyle cast aside for a more traditional island life.
“The few people who still ask us to tell fortunes can only pay us with a small quantity of rice, or a coconut and a dress,” Walliama explains. “So, we live in hardship.”
Meanwhile the menfolk go to work in nearby rice paddies on a casual basis. The men who can, travel for several days and then work for several days before returning home to the village, which is about 45 kilometres away from the nearest big town, Kalmunai.
Although the former gypsies now live in poverty in one place, they do have one thing: The right to vote.
“The politicians love us a lot when there is an election coming up,” Walliama says. “They promise to build us houses after the election but of course, we never see them again.”
Walliama explains that her daughter lives with her, as does her grandchild. The daughter’s husband has gone off to work in the paddy fields and Walliama’s own husband is deceased. But until her son-in-law returns there isn’t much food in the house – that’s why she is here trying to catch small fish in this canal, she says.
“This will do, this will feed the three of us,” Walliama says, packing up her small fishing rod and her bag. “My granddaughter would have woken up by now.” And with that she begins walking down the road back toward Aligambe village. She is out of sight soon enough.