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Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Memories of Gampaha 1952 - 56

My Memories of  Gampaha 1952-56

By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera                   

The human memory is a miracle of nature. Like a time traveller, I am turning back the clock 60 years.  It is my wish these memories distil the spirit of an era now long gone. I was ten years old when my father was transferred to Gampaha. By then we had lived in Nugegoda for several years. After some deliberation, the decision was made to send me to the boarding at Wesley College, the school where I had settled in well as a day scholar. This changed my idyllic life at home where I enjoyed a sheltered and privileged existence.

The town

Gampaha is a town made by the merging of five villages. It was formerly called Henarathgoda. When Sir Edward Barnes paid a visit to the area in 1825, it was a dense forest.  He decided to construct a railway through the area and to have a station at Henarathgoda. This effectively ignited the interest in the area.  

In the 1950’s Gampaha was still a small town and amazingly peaceful. It could not boast of lush green mountains or a deep blue sea, but the air was clean and the people were friendly. It was a place of beauty, loveliness and enchantment. Its only claim to fame was the Botanical Gardens where Ceylon’s first rubber tree was planted. Its pleasant undulating landscape, rolling lawns and colourful hedges have mesmerised visitors for centuries. 

 Gampaha had a thriving community of middle-class landed gentry owning vast swathes of land as far as the eye could see. Well into the 1960’s they imagined they were still in the British Empire and emulated the English aristocracy.  This was a world apart from the lives of the simple rural folk. The poor knew their position and depended totally and completely on their rich masters for survival. They lived in humble dwellings of mud houses and thatched roofs. The rich showed some empathy and care for the less fortunate, but made distinctly clear who was boss. That was the way it was in Gampaha in the mid 20th century.  

I was then far too young to appreciate the vast political and social changes taking place around me. In retrospect, the political arena then was full of young lions jockeying for position. In the heat of the battle, honesty and equality became its casualty. The shimmering dawn of the era of the common man was visible in the distant horizon. When it came, the pendulum swung too far to the left too quickly and the economy suffered. We all now know its devastating consequences. The economic freeze had a profound impact on our lives and froze peoples' freedom and the ability to travel. I was happily oblivious to these changes but as I grew up, suffered with the rest of my countrymen. It is easier to be scornful of the past than of the present. But we needed change and the seeds of change were sown with the introduction of free education and healthcare. The power of the unions gave the workers a voice. 


I remember very little of the bricks and mortar in Gampaha. Lion House was an Ice Cream Parlour at the main roundabout and served delicious cones and ice lollies. For a ten year old, this was the closest place to heaven. I recall a beautiful tree lined street of elegant houses. There was a bustling fruit and vegetable market, noisy and full of people. On Saturdays, the market came alive with witch doctors and fortune tellers. It is a dramatic spectacle, if you can put up with monkeys and snakes. The unmistakable bus stand occupied the centre of town. The disruptive monsoon rains lashed heavily on the town and the low-lying areas flooded with disastrous results. During the warm dry months, the sweeping winds sent clouds of dust swirling into the air. Such are my memories of this sleepy town. I always felt comfortable in Gampaha where we were welcomed with courtesy. 

Our house

My parents found a house at 230, Colombo Road, Gampaha,  a splendid old house opposite the General Hospital. It was the ancestral home of Cyril Goonetilleke, a property tycoon, entrepreneur and socialite who had inherited tremendous wealth. Although born to a life of privilege, he endured perhaps more than his share of hardship.  The house had water on tap and flushing toilets, then a luxury anywhere outside the metropolis. He was a young wealthy landowner who spent lavishly on himself. Cyril was away in London studying for his law degree. He loved the good life.  During his absence, a close relative, Earle Dassanaike, occupied the house. Earle was a bachelor and was happy to let us take over the house while he used a room. Cyril had kept one room for himself which was full of his knick knacks. This was a treasure trove for us kids. Earle was a kindly man and was the Manager at the CWE at Jawatte.  His depth of kindness and thoughtfulness was obvious. His energy, generosity and mischievous humour knew no bounds. Every morning, he walked  a mile to the Railway Station  and returned late in the evening. He lead a quiet sedate life. At weekend, he often went to see his mother in a coconut estate at Katuwellagama near Negombo, an old sprawling Walauwwa with long verandahs and a spacious porch.  We sometimes went with him to his home in the country to spend a peaceful day.  


Ratnavali Balika Vidyalaya  was two doors next to us. Living opposite the hospital, we got to know the DMO Dr. Maheswaran. He was a bachelor and lived like a Prince next to us in a small house well hidden from the main road. I envied his bohemian life style. He was a typical old style young medic who inspired me enormously and perhaps motivated me to take up a career in medicine. He wasn’t averse to a drink in the evening and invited his friends for a sing song. Police Sub Inspector Von Hart was a regular visitor playing the piano accordion with others with drums and guitars. Von Hart had a wide repertoire of Sinhala music and entertained us well. I was completely entranced by this musical extravaganza.  Drinks flowed freely and the music often went on deep into the night. No one dared complain about the young DMO. 


During the holidays, my cousins kept me company. We played cricket from dawn to dusk except when a serious disagreement halted the game. Umpiring decisions were a nightmare and we learnt to bend the rules to suit our game. The days seemed sunny and endless. Behind the house was a large coconut plantation with cashew, mango  and guava trees. We spent many afternoons plucking fruits enjoying the freedom of the open spaces. There were many ponds and streams scattered in the neighbourhood. I recall our fishing expeditions spending hours with the hook, line and sinker waiting for the big one which never came. All the while, we kept a close eye on snakes and monitor lizards that shared the space with us. 


The de Sarams lived about 400 yards from our house . Their house was on a hill at the edge of a coconut plantation overlooking a long stretch of paddy fields. The swallows had a made a nest at the back of their house and we saw the planning and the construction of this remarkable dwelling with mud and saliva. That was the closest I have been to nature in my short life. They respected our privacy as we did theirs.  

We walked to the de Saram’s to play with the kids. Lal the eldest was about my age and his brothers Sanath, Jaliya and Rohan joined us too. They were amiable friends. We played cricket in the dusty streets avoiding the occasional vehicle that crawled past giving us a friendly wave. Always impeccably dressed, Mr Bobby de Saram had a suave 1920’s look and was one of life’s great charmers. He was of medium build with hair combed back and resembled the Hollywood depiction of the ‘Godfather’ Don Vito Corleone. Of course he was no gangster but an honest and kind soul. Bobby de Saram was a charming and charismatic Insurance agent for Sunlife Assurance able to sell a freezer to an Eskimo. Mrs. Gladys de Saram was a gentle, kind devoted housewife who showed remarkable patience to put up with our mess and mayhem.  

We had no sense of fear and trudged miles into the picturesque countryside of meandering waterways and acres of paddy fields. I recall walking on an endless dusty road to the Ketawala anicut , an irrigation dam and reservoir. This was a bewitching place of breath-taking beauty, many many miles away from our homes. The reservoir sustained the paddy fields and remained a paradise for birds and butterflies. We heard the screeching of the parrots and the knocking of the woodpeckers. Golden Orioles, red vented bul buls and kingfishers flew fearlessly over our heads. Everyday was a new adventure fuelled by our insatiable curiosity. Barefooted, we walked brazenly into the network of footpaths across paddy fields, forests and villages and thought this blissful existence would never end. Soon we became the best of friends. Their cousins were girls about our age. We played with them too, but we didn’t like girls then!! I just remember Neela, the prettiest of them all.  

In the evenings the sky took on crimson glow before hordes of bats took to the air. The nights were quiet when an eerie silence pervaded the entire countryside. 


Gampaha has been the natural home of the tribe of Dias Bandaranaikes. Horagolla is a stones throw away. SD Bandaranaike was then the sitting MP for Gampaha for many decades. He was a charismatic politician and an eloquent orator who appealed to the masses. He preached of a better future for the poor.  

My parents became friends with another avuncular country gentleman, Wilfred Dias Bandaranaike. He had an irresistible magnetic personality and lived at Kirikongahena Estate on Yakkala Road in a typical country Manor House. The old house was quiet elegance and quaint charm. Dinner with him unfolded a grand spectacle of the glory of English aristocracy. Everything was polished and pristine. Wilfred DB was a graduate from the Poona Agricultural Institute and was the creative influence for his immaculate garden with an outstanding layout and design. It had colourful borders, exotic flowers, broad hedges and decorative monuments. He remained a constant fixture at social gatherings of the great and the good in Gampaha. On such occasions, he was seen in neatly pressed light summer suits with a bow tie and a Panama hat which conjures up images of Great Gatsby.  

He was the quintessential Englishman with tall good looks, upper class conceit and arrogance. Wilfred DB was an endearing and enduring relic of the British Raj and spoke proper English (with a toffee in his mouth). His expressions and mannerisms were British. He had a certain aura about him which left people in no doubt he belonged to the ruling class.  I respect him enormously for his dignity and decency. Wilfred DB was an aristocrat caught up in a time-warp at the turn of the last century and often elegised a bygone Ceylon. Despite his remarkable wealth, he travelled in his buggy cart and never owned a car. He was always incredibly kind to me and remained a valued family friend during and well beyond our stay in Gampaha.  

The return

I remember the day Cyril Goonetilleke returned to Ceylon. Those were the days of steamships and the journey from London took 8 weeks. He came to Gampaha in a brand new red MG -TD Coupe. He spoke with a strong British accent and the drawl was difficult to decipher. Cyril occupied the 3rd room in our house and became our guest. The young Cyril had expensive tastes and added some spice and sauce to a reserved and old fashioned way of life in Gampaha.  He was remarkably polite and was always seen in the company of beautiful girls. I remember he once took us kids with a large group of girls and boys to play softball cricket at the Botanical Gardens. It was a good days fun for all. Most of all, we enjoyed the trip in his shiny red car with the open hood. Cyril was a businessman and became the sole importer and distributor of Tennent’s Lager in Ceylon. It never took off. 

Tempus Fugit

Indeed, time does fly. The years passed swiftly and relentlessly. The ebb and flow of my fortunes brought happiness and despair in equal measure. Meanwhile, the river of life has run on and youth passed into middle age. I had stepped on the treadmill to carve myself a career and raise a family. The stress of exams, tiring work routines and the inevitable pleasures and heartaches of family life seemed to have passed with the blink of an eye. They are all behind me now. During those years, I was seduced by the material world. Thankfully, now, calmness prevails and gaining wealth doesn’t have any priority. As I look back, I cannot believe more than 60 years have passed since those happy days. I have written frankly and fairly about the people I had the privilege to meet and remember them with the greatest regard and affection. I have spoken vaguely and indirectly of the politics and social aspects of the day as I was too young to grasp its complexities. It is often easier to criticise than to understand. 

The people

I never returned to Gampaha town or the house ever again. The house was later bought by a doctor who razed it to the ground and built a 2 storey Surgery for his practice. Earle Dassanaike left our house to be married. He raised a family and lead a happy and contented life. He left this world about 20 years ago. Although I never met his wife and daughters, I saw him briefly many times and reminisced at length. Cyril became a businessman and married his sweetheart, a girl who played cricket with us at the botanical gardens. I met him once in Kurunegala in 1968. He was much subdued and we spoke of those happy years. I am told his marriage sadly did not survive the rigors of life. He too died 13 years ago of a massive stroke.  

We kept in touch with Wilfred Dias Bandaranaike. His sunset years were bedevilled with poor health until finally he succumbed to a stroke. He remained a posh ‘British’ gentleman to the very end. I am reliably informed Kirikongahena estate still exists, but the house became derelict and the garden engulfed by weeds.  

Mr Saram passed away at the age of 90. He lived in Nawala with Sanath who managed a bakery. Mrs Saram predeceased him by 15 years. Lal de Saram sadly died in his early 60’s of an inoperable brain tumour. Jaliya worked for a Travel Agency in Colombo and died suddenly of a heart attack. Pretty Neela entered the Arts Faculty in Peradeniya and completed her degree. I know she got married but died young of ovarian cancer many years ago. I have no news of Dr Maheswaran or Sub Inspector Von Hart and hope life treated them kindly. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met them on my journey through life. Loss of childhood friends do leave an echoing void. As my thoughts drift towards Gampaha of the 1950’s, I am overcome by a deep sense of nostalgia and homesickness. 

The mist of time cannot erase the memories of those happy years. Thinking of the days gone by is at least for a short while a blissful escape from reality of the present. Despite the storms and tempests of life, I have often found a safe harbour protected from the fury of the winds. I have often spoken of the awesome force of destiny in my life. Destiny always has the last word, if not the last laugh. 


As I end my egotistical narrative of my journey through life, I must recall the part my parents played in my life in those days. Being an only child, I was always at the forefront of their thoughts. Nothing was ever done to hinder my progress through life. My mother has always been by my side through thick and thin. Mother's love for a child is ever so special and no words can describe it adequately. Although she lived 6000 miles away in Sri Lanka, I could always feel her presence. It is a wonderful feeling of love. I owe them everything.  Both my parents have now passed on. I dedicate these notes to my parents for their infinite love which sadly I could never fully reciprocate.