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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Some Recollections of my Early Life

By Nihal D Amerasekera 

I was born in Kandy, that splendid city nestling in the central hills of Ceylon. In 1942, the World War was raging and peace must have seemed far away. It was Douglas Walbeoff Jansz who severed my umbilical cord and slapped my back to help take my first breath in an unsettled world. My grandma was eagerly waiting with her watch to time the birth to cast my horoscope, but had forgotten to do so in the confusion of the delivery room. By some strange coincidence, Jansz was a Lecturer in Physiology during my time at Medical College. Despite its magic and charm, Kandy was never to be my home. Even after all these years, when I visit this idyllic city my past connections remain a magnet for my soul.  

My earliest recollections are of Bogawantalawa at the foot of the Kotiyagala range. It was in the middle of tea country with many European Planters rushing on their motor bikes. Everyone wore  mufflers and sweaters and rain was never faraway. Then we moved to Kadugannawa near the Dawson Column living sandwiched between two railway lines. The steam trains huffed and puffed at all hours and how we slept amidst that mayhem still remains a mystery to me.  

In 1947, my parents decided I was of a ripe old age for schooling. My grandparents then lived in a large house at 56, Church Street, Nugegoda, just beside St John's Girls School. There I spent three uneventful years but for a slight mishap when my mother in her enthusiasm, sent me to school after a heavy dose of laxative with disastrous consequences. We lived opposite the Anglican Church and witnessed the baptisms, weddings  and funerals -  the full gamut of Christian life.  

I still recall our independence from British rule in 1948. Although I was too young to realise its importance, I do remember the joy and happiness in the faces of the people. They were now released from the shackles of bondage that held them down for nearly 500 years. With freedom comes the responsibility to unite and strengthen our country with hard work. We were swept by a wave of nationalism. There was an overwhelming desire for change and the British and Dutch street names became the first casualty. Overnight, the well known landmarks in Colombo lost their links with the past. It disorientated the older folk and disillusioned the young. Many still ask themselves whether this was ever necessary. The cost of this exercise was borne by our sagging economy.  

The early 1950s was a time of idyllic splendour and tranquillity in Ceylon. As a nation, it was our age of innocence. The Galle Face Hotel, the Queens Hotel Kandy and the Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya were the only hotels with any star quality. The affluent and the not so wealthy, indulged in a weekend flutter on the horses at the Race Course in Reid Avenue. The Parliament was by the sea and the breeze helped the politicians to think rationally and clearly- or so it seemed. During April, the rich went "upcountry" to Nuwara Eliya to escape the Colombo heat. Galle Face Green on a Sunday was packed with people sucking Alerics Ice Cream. 

Colombo in the 1950s was a city of contrasts with the beauty of prestigious estates with pleasant houses in some areas, and slums, shanties and tenements in others. The poor with large families lived in a single room in screaming poverty. The falling plaster, broken windows and fences, corrugated iron roofs were the hall marks of the poverty we saw. It is a scene straight from the annals of our urban life of that era. For many, the new found political independence did little to give them home or hope.  

For me, real life began when I started at Wesley College at the bottom of the pile. The journey to school on the narrow gauge Kelani Valley train with friends was exciting. I felt grown up carrying the money to buy my own ticket. All Railway Stations had that special smell of steam and coal which hung on to our clothes for days. My father was in Government Service and had to move from town to town every three years, what was then euphemistically called "transfers". In their wisdom, my parents decided to send me to the hostel, at great cost to themselves. It was to give me a stable life and teach me the social skills and discipline. I achieved their goals only to lose them in the rough and tumble of University life. 

Memories of life in the boarding can fill a book. I was lucky to belong to a generation inspired contemporaneously by great teachers and principals. They gave us lofty ideas, great inspiration, self respect, firm discipline and  anchorage. It was a sublime experience. The first day at the boarding was full of tears specially when wishing the parents goodbye. Nothing could have prepared me adequately for this trauma. It was the large frame of Mrs. Hindle, the Matron, who welcomed us. The loneliness and bewilderment was overpowering at times. All our possessions were crammed into a large metal trunk and the clothes had our name tags. In the first term, they all called me "new boy", a strict reminder of the pecking order.  

Needless to say, there was no television, no computers, and no mobile phones. We made our own entertainment and amused ourselves. Despite the hustle and bustle of life and the regimentation, we had time to put our arms round our pals and share in their joys and sorrows. We shared our secrets and exchanged stories about our parents, brothers and sisters. There was a certain closeness which was rarely seen in friendships later on in life. We talked about our dreams and aspirations for the future and assumed we will always be friends. It fills my heart with sadness to think many of us never met again as adults. It is a horrible reminder of our own mortality when we read or hear of the death of school friends who played, laughed, sang and fought with us all those years ago. For me they will always remain fifteen, healthy and smiling. It is hard to believe they will not be playing those elegant cover drives ever again or be ready for a pillow fight.  

Unlike at present, the students had no voice at all. Parents took decisions for us at home and the teachers did so at school. On looking back, we believed teachers wielded immense power and perhaps they did. But law enforcement was done with knowing restraint influenced mostly by their faith. Others depended firmly on the swish of the cane. Punishments at school were a necessity to keep the riff raffs on the straight and narrow. The types of punishment were brought to Wesley by the British Principals from English Public Schools like Eton, Rugby and Harrow. They were harsh and on looking back, unnecessary. There were times when I raged at the injustice of punishments. In this 21st Century of human rights, corporal punishment is looked down upon as demeaning and humiliating for which there is no real need. Reading the reminiscences from the first half of the last century, we get a glimpse of those hard times. It would be a mistake to apply the liberal values of this modern age to life at school 50 years ago. 

Sports dominated my life at school. Cricket in those days was played by gentlemen. Umpires' word was law. We congratulated the opponents’ achievements in the field. We walked away when we felt it was out though the umpires did not see . The spectators dissent and applause was confined  to areas beyond the boundary. No streakers, foul language or efforts to intimidate the batsman at the crease. When we lost, though crest fallen and frustrated, clapped the opponents back to the pavilion. Those injured in the heat of the battle were comforted by the captain of the opposite side. My generation grew up with peace. This gentlemanly behaviour on the pitch, merely reflected the peaceful and chivalrous times of our youth. In the 21st century, these seem rather tame as the cricketers have given up being gentleman for the high stakes they play for.  

The enchantment of the cricket matches of my childhood still haunts me. At school, Cricket was not only a game but a way of life. My lasting memory of cricket at Campbell Park is the sight of the setting sun behind All Saints Church and its lengthening shadows. The Church bell rang at 6 o'clock. As the bails were lifted, we all departed discussing the ups and downs of the day's play. Losing a match in those days was like the end of the world, but we always bounced back. It was certainly a good training to face the peaks and troughs of our own lives. The songs we sang and the friends I made, are etched deeply in my memory. After leaving school, I went for some matches in the following year. The magic and the aura of this extraordinary spectacle seem to have gone, not being an integral part of it anymore. Thereafter, life got too complicated  building  my own career. 

In common with the development of road transport worldwide, bus operation in Ceylon was pioneered by private enterprise. Private entrepreneurs Ebert Silva, High Level Bus Company and Ceylon Tours provided the service with many other companies whose names I cannot now recall. Demand continued to increase with population growth and the private companies found it difficult to change, invest and improve. The service began to crumble. The Government nationalised bus transport in 1958 and the Ceylon Transport Board was born. The red reliable British Leyland single and double decker buses then were a  part of the Colombo scene. Quickshaw Taxis competed for business with the Morris Minor Cabs. Rickshaws in the 50s were confined to Fort and Pettah. Trolley buses were popular for a decade in the 1950s, running between Borella and Pettah. Bullock carts were seen on the roads well into the 1970s. 

1955 saw the emergence of Rock 'n Roll music. The first Rock 'n' Roll record to achieve national popularity was "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets . I queued for hours in the heat of the day to see the film at the Savoy. Bill Haley succeeded in creating a music that appealed to youth because of its exciting back beat, its urgent call to dance, and the action of its lyrics. The booming base and the twang of electric guitars produced a foot tapping sound. Haley abruptly ended the ascendancy of the bland and sentimental ballads of the crooners popular in the 1940s and early 50s. I was then in the boarding, singing, clicking my fingers and gyrating to the music coming through the Rediffusion set in the Hostel common room. Music of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard and the Shadows was all consuming to us teenagers. The Colgate Hit-parade on Tuesdays was as good as watching cricket on a Saturday. I cannot believe nearly 50 years have passed since those exciting times in our youth. 

1956 saw the beginnings of the political decline of our country. We moved away from the Westminster style gentlemanly politics into an abyss. The jingoism and the ultra-nationalism was a recipe for division and disaster. It was Albert Einstein who said that Nationalism is an infantile disease and is the measles of mankind. The rapid abolition of English as the state language, drove many educated people away from the country. The Burghers who formed a colourful community and contributed immensely to the welfare of the island emigrated in their thousands to Australia, England and Canada. They had a tremendous love for life which they showed in the way they lived. I remember the sad goodbyes when my friends left. The first Dutch Burghers came to Ceylon four centuries ago, when the maritime provinces of the island came under the Dutch East India Company. They joined the legal, medical and teaching professions and played a major role in the fight for independence. During my time at school, the Burghers ran the CGR and did so most efficiently. The time keeping of the Ceylon Railways was second to none. Their departure coincided with the economic and political decline and saw the beginning of the ethnic divisions which ravaged the island. The politics of the country was in crisis and our coffers were empty. The many upheavals, disunity and the workers' strikes had brought the country to its knees. 

1958- I remember it well as the year when the sport of Kings - horse racing that began in 1922 was banned in Ceylon. I am no punter and it had no effect on me personally, but a Saturday ritual of many, rich and poor, was suddenly taken away. The bookmakers and the customers went underground and business flourished. The beautiful Reid Avenue Grand Stand and its spacious turf was left to decay and wither.
1958 also saw the race riots, a tragedy which remained to haunt and destroy us until the end of the 20th Century. 

The 6th Form years at Wesley were some of the best of my life. It is indeed a wonderful experience to look back on one’s life 50+ years after leaving school.  I was 18 then, life was beautiful and saw the world in vivid technicolor. Disagreements, disappointments and the heartaches seem to be all forgotten. All I can remember now are the pleasant memories of happy times. I recall the sunshine and the warmth and not the monsoon rains. Anecdotes and images appear at random. The innocence of the fifties gave way to the cynical and raucous sixties. Beatles and Elvis Presley were still riding high in the Hit Parade. The hippy culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll were making the headlines and setting the pace.  

At Wesley, we had the large expanse of the Welikada Prison just opposite our front gate. Every morning, the  prisoners wearing white were taken along Baseline Road by the guards in khaki shorts. Being so close to the prison for over a decade, I had often let my mind wander about the life of those in jail. For many of us even now, prison is almost an unknown place and very few knew what happened behind those grim gates that swallowed the convicts. We imagined that its inhabitants were desperate people and dangerous criminals. In our minds, the place was associated with isolation, humiliation and suffering which were all part of the punishment. Sometimes, the sheer lack of privacy and at other times, the loneliness of solitary confinement, must be soul destroying. Time then is not a luxury but a burden to endure. A few had the benefit of work and exercise. I would hate to think of what food they received and of the many who walked out free, how they faced the world again. 

In those days, for anyone studying the Sciences, the choice was rather limited, being confined to Medicine, Biological Sciences, Agriculture and Engineering. There was a belief that entry into Medical College was a passport to Nirvana. That was just an illusion which for a few, turned out to be a nightmare. It was only the beginning of a long struggle with busy days and sleepless nights. I hope this popular misconception has now been properly addressed. If I am allowed to be cynical - it is no more a noble profession but a kind of business. As I look around the various professions, their nobility has been eroded by the pressures of modern living. As a 6th Former in the sixties, I wasn't to know all that. 

I left school in April 1962,  a day I will never forget. Nostalgia is my great sin, and I remember with a sense of loss a kinder, gentler world which disappeared forever as I left school. The most painful of all is the disappearance from my life the people who meant so much to me, friends, teachers, chaplains and Principals in all those years at Wesley. I stepped on the treadmill to carve myself a career and raise a family. Now having reached the end of my working life, I still yearn for those days at school even though more than half a century has passed me by. 

A professional career with its disruptive routines and untold strain on my time and leisure, has invariably taken its toll.  As a 6th Former at school, I would never have imagined life would turn out this way. Call it destiny or the will of God, good fortune has been on my side most of the way. 

I dedicate these memoirs, firstly to my parents who provided the encouragement and paid the bills.  Secondly to my teachers who educated me beyond the call of duty, and thirdly to my mates at school and medical college who by their friendship, enriched my life.








  1. Another gem from ND. This chap MUST write a book! I hope ND does not mind if I point readers to the website he runs for Old Wesleyites. It is not the official Wesley College website but he is the Webmaster who started it and maintains it. It is worth visiting and I would urge readers to click on the link and be transported to nostalgia with analgesia! . I was at Royal and went through similar experiences to ND although I was never boarded. Strangely enough, like him, I spent 2 years at St John's girl school in Nugegoda, probably an year or two after ND. I learnt needlework among other things! I recall a girl called Gowrie who was a sort of "girl friend" in the most innocent way. Yes, ND, life changed from straightforward "black and white" to "shades of grey" and finally glorious technicolour! Right and Wrong was easy as was Good and Bad, and Ugly did not exist. How innocent we were as kids! Looking forward to more contributions fro ND and others. Speedy

    1. This comment has dual purposes. Firstly, I must say that I have made the same suggestion about writing a book to ND. He is such a good and prolific writer and all his talent will go waste if he doesn't do that in his retirement. Secondly, I want to show that the comments made under each posting on this blog are being looked at.


  2. Thank you Lucky and Mahen for appreciating my writing. I am doing what all you guys can do and perhaps even better as Lucky has shown with his autobiography. I remember 2 teachers from St John's, Mrs.Wheelbarrow, a tyrant, and Mrs.De Mel. Mrs Aldons was the Principal, a kindly portly lady.

  3. Just an addendum to my recollections: The name Douglas Walbeoff Jansz is recorded in my birth certificate as the H.O who did the delivery. He was a Lecturer in Physiology in Peradeniya in 1962/63. I wish I made an attempt to see him but was put off by uncorroborated reports that he was rather eccentric with a short fuse. I thought that was a requirement to teach at Medical College. We were by then quite used to being sledged and barracked at signatures and revisals and a bit extra from Jansz wouldn't have mattered much. Meeting the man who ushered me into this world would have meant a lot to me. He has a lot to answer for !!