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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Memories of Kolonnawa in the late1950s

By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

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.

The factory

Kolonnawa cannot boast of tall mountains  and 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 and  anchorage. 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.

The house

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 grace.


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 Anandians  and 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 spent  preparing 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 the way. 

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 life  has moved on I often hark back to the lost world of probity, unselfishness and old fashioned courtesy which  the 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.

Ah ! those were the days and how time flies.



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