This blog is about new entrants to the Colombo Medical Faculty of the University of Ceylon (as it was then known) in June 1962. Please address all communications to: firstname.lastname@example.org.You may bookmark this page for easier access later.
Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
It was 1958, the year when our ethnic conflict first began. My father
then worked for the local government. Like all servants of the state he lead a
nomadic life being moved every 4 years what was then euphemistically called
transfers. It is said that moving house is as stressful as having a divorce. It
surprises me even now how we survived it all throughout his working life and
emerged sane!! I can recall as if it were yesterday the move to Kolonnawa and
the wave of excitement it generated.
Kolonnawa cannot boast of tall mountainsand green valleys but has an undulating landscape. Wellampitiya, being
in a valley flooded with the monsoon rains. The government factory that occupied
15 acres of its valuable land gave it the look of an industrial town. Established
in 1849 its tall chimneys bellowed thick black smoke 24 hours of the day. We
could see the factory from our verandah and lived constantly under a cloud of
pollutants. The factory had a tall fence around it and its business was steeped
in secrecy. I thought it belonged to the Public Works Department. There was
intense security at the gates as if it stored gold bars for the Central Bank.
As a town , in those days it did not have a good reputation. There was a
general belief it was a place for thugs and violence. The Ceylon Turf Club
murder and robbery was executed by criminals some of whom came from Kolonnawa
and Wellampitiya. I wonder if this notoriety gave it a poor reputation. In my 3
years in the town I didn’t find it any worse than other towns. People were
friendly and helpful and many of them were deeply religious too.
The school boarding
I was then at the boarding at Wesley College. Hostel life in those days was
harsh being confined to the school grounds. The lack of freedom to a teenager
was like being in prison. There was strict regimentation and all our actions
were guided by the bell. The food was appalling. I enjoyed the mealtimes more
than the meals. The many friends I made and the camaraderie made up for it all.
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 will
never meet again. It is a horrible reminder of your own mortality when you read
or hear of the death of boarders 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. 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 andanchorage. Despite
its rigours it was a sublime experience. I joined the boarding as a child and
left as an adult.I left with mixed
feelings. Sad to leave my friends with whom I shared six long years but glad to
regain my independence and some good food of my own choice. My new home was to
be just 2 miles away from the school.
We settled in at number 3 Gunatilleke Road which was an old house
renovated to give a new look. The owner was Walter Gunatilleke, a kindly man
working for the Water Board. His brother Newton lived in the sprawling house
next door. The lane was a gravel path that ended on our doorstep. At the edge
of the property was a tall perimeter fence of the Kolonnawa Oil Installation.
For the next 3 years we lived next to this time bomb which could ignite any
minute with devastating consequences. In those days we believed the Crown was
always right and worked for the benefit of the people. We live in a more
cynical society now.
The house was rather small but adequate for our small family. It had a
rather low roof and the kitchen did not have a chimney. When food was being
prepared smoke filled the house which was not pleasant. There was a little
thicket behind our house which attracted centipedes, scorpions, large spider
and even snakes. We were always on the lookout for these uninvited guests. We
complained little in those days and took the good with the bad with amazing
The start of Gunatilleke Road was by the Kolonnawa cemetery. We saw the
cremations and burials on a daily basis. The lamps burnt by the graveside late
into the night. At first I was terrified to walk home after dark. The slightest
rustle made me take to my heels On occasions I have run the full length of the
road to the amusement of some onlookers. Attending the many functions at school
I had no choice.. After months of practice I got used to it and felt less
threatened. Never did I see anything to alarm me in all those years.
Terence De Zylva was then a prominenet citizen of the town. He was a
left wing politician and had great support at Kolonnawa where he was involved
in Local Government politics. He was a Councillor for the Kolonnawa Urban
Council for many years. There he is remembered as a philanthropist for starting
a school in Kolonnawa for the local children, now called the Terrence de Zylva
School. The clever children of that school gained a place at Wesley with his
support and I recall one such student who entered the Medical College Colombo
and is now a General Practitioner in London. He is more famous for his part in
the “Suriyamal Campaign” during the heady days of the LSSP.
By the perimeter fence was a row of tenements. I particularly remember
one family who lived there and contributed to the background noise of the
place. They used language which would make a sailor blush. Having lead a
sheltered life thus far with a conservative background I often looked for a place
to hide my face. The old man did little work but found money for his drinks at
night. Their daughter was a buxom young woman with many husbands some as
temporary as a few hours. She had a string of children. The lass thought she
had a voice like Rukmani Devi singing her songs an octave lower avoiding the high
notes while having a bath at the well. This ritual occurred just outside my bedroom
window and gave me an earache every night. It was more like a bird singing for
a mate. They were a law unto themselves and formed the social underclass who
contributed little to society. The tenement community helped each other in
times of need despite their constant quarrels and arguments. I realise now some
spoilt rich people have questionable morals too.
Walter Gunatilleke had 2 sons Nihal and Sarath. They were both
Anandiansand some years younger to me
but were keen cricketers.The straight
gravel road which was free from through traffic was an ideal cricket pitch. We
played every evening and occasionally Walter and Newton joined in too. They
were ultra competitive to give me attacks of migraine. During the school
cricket season they took me to see the Ananda Matches. I think cricket kept us
out of mischief but I had important public examinations and occasionally had to
hide away in by study. I have lost contact with Nihal but was deeply saddened
to hear Sarath died many years ago leaving a young wife. Despite the passage of
years I still dream of those cricket matches on the dirt track. Although
surrounded by houses never did we break a window in all those years.
I recall my visits to the Kolonnawa temple with school friends. It had a
large compound. The tall trees with the leaves rustling in the wind gave it an
austere feel away from the cacophonous traffic outside. It was a place of
vitality and dignity. The Kolonnawa Urban council was an impressive building
with a beautifully manicured lawn with colourful flowers. The main street
through the town was narrow and always busy. I remember the tangled mass of
telephone wires and electricity cables lining the street full of potholes from
the recent rains. Cattle and traffic competed for space.
Often I prayed for rain when my father took me by car to school. At
times my neighbour gave me a lift or I took the CTB which was overflowing with
people. Often I walked back from school and on looking back wonder how I did it day after day returning
for a game of cricket and a long study well into the night.
Time passed quickly. Soon I was sitting for the all important University
Entrance examination. All my time was spentpreparing for this. The examination came and went like a bolt of
lightening. Soon after this my father was again transferred this time to
Weligama. When the results were posted we were a 100 miles away from Colombo
between Galle and Matara. I had given instructions to the post master at
Kolonnawa to forward my letters but it never arrived. All my friends were
celebrating when I was thoroughly dejected. In a couple of days I had recovered
enough to collect my books again for another assault. I had by then left school
and went to see the teachers when they congratulated me for my success. The
Post Master has forgotten to forward my letter.
I will always remember Kolonnawa for the success I had with my
examinations. Entering the university is indeed a meal ticket for life but not
a passport to happiness. The latter is a hand dealt by destiny of which we have
no control. I have had my misfortunes but have had lady luck on my side most of
Memory is a wonderful gift unaffected by the storms and upheavals of the
present. We are a product of our past. It is now more than 50 years since my time at Kolonnawa. I had to
clear the cobwebs of my mind to see through into the distance. I look back on
my life with my parents with much nostalgia. What I am now is mostly due to
their dedication to their parental duties for which I feel immense gratitude. My
parents generation now have mostly slipped away. As lifehas moved on I often hark back to the lost
world of probity, unselfishness and old fashioned courtesy whichthe sex drugs and rock and roll culture of
the swinging 60’s took away from us. Sadly bombs and bullets became the symbol
of our new age.
I dedicate these memoirs to the Gunatilleke family who were our landlord
and neighbour at Kolonnawa. They were kind, considerate and always helpful but
kept a distance without smothering us. May they who have now departed this
world attain the ultimate bliss of Nirvana.
I never had the opportunity to visit Kolonnawa again.