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Friday, January 9, 2015

Weligama after 20 years


by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera  

 

Those were happy peaceful days in my youth when life was full and in harmony with nature. During the long University vacation  I decided to travel home armed with some reading material. I can still recall the large black canopy of the Fort Railway Station and the smell of steam and burning coal. There was soot everywhere. The trains hissed and puffed and screeched incessantly. The 3 hour journey was uneventful but for a talkative young Englishman seated in front who began a long conversation. He indulged lavishly in the Vadeys and pineapples sold by the vendors at the Railway Stations along the way. The sight of the stilt-fishermen, with their unique style of fishing from a perch on a sturdy pole 20-50 meters out to sea remain in my memory still.

In 1962 my father was working for the Local Government in Weligama. My parents then lived on the outskirts of the town some distance away from the sea on the Akuressa Road. On either side were paddy fields, banana plantations and palm trees. Across in the distance was the backdrop of purple mountains. Ours was a new house built on a hillside surrounded by tall jak, breadfruit and mango trees. It was an idyllic setting with a gravel path leading up to the house. At the edge of the property  was a stream full of fish. At night the frogs made an awful racket. In the morning the  dawn chorus was deafening.  During the day I walked in the garden sat beneath the trees. Sometimes I did some fishing downstream and enjoyed seeing the village damsels frolicking and bathing in the muddy pool.

In the warm afternoons I went out for a walk across the fields or through the forest. Every meal was a feast of mouth watering sea food with a pot of local curd and honey. The short walk to town was full of greetings from the friendly locals.  A retired Apothecary lived in a large mansion nearby. He was a quiet kind man with a few professional anecdotes which he related over and over again. In the evenings we went to the old Rest House by the sea. It was beautifully located at the edge of the Weligama bay . The tall cylindrical columns of its long verandahs gave it a colonial feel. On many occasions I had sat on the rocks watching the waves roll in. It was very pretty at sunset to see the boats go out to sea and the shimmering lights appear across the bay in the far distance. Heaven and earth seem very near to each other.

Off the beach is an extraordinary villa occupying a 2 acre island in Weligama Bay. It was built in the 1920s by the traveller and gardener Count de Mauny. The island was a  famous destination for many notables from different nations, including the novelist Paul Bowles. Its spectacular tropical gardens, and  octagonal-shaped house is breathtakingly beautiful. Its early colonial furnishings, large circular  verandahs make you step back into the 1930’s and is a travellers dream. Music from Noel Cowards “a Room with a view” wafts in the background giving it an “olde world” feel. The Count finally chose to live his eternal dream of peace and tranquillity close to nature ending his days in this paradise island. There was a busy main street of small shops and a fish market. The Railway Station was small and had a quaint grey picket fence. I still remember its Seth Thomas pendulum clock in the Station Masters Office. There was just the one doctor working in Private Practice – Dr Nugara a kindly gentleman of immense grace and charm. He later left to settle in Australia. Sometimes we visited relatives in Kitulampitiya Galle and occasionally went to Matara to see the sights. After my vacation I said goodbye to my idyllic home to return to Colombo and  a busy schedule of hard work.

I left Sri Lanka in 1974 to ‘make my fortune’ abroad. More exams and hard work filled my days and nights. Carving up a career took its time and toll. Years whizzed past and it wasn’t until 20 years later I returned to Weligama the town that has haunted me since those days of my youth.

I made the journey by car to save time. The roads were no wider than before but the number of vehicles had increased several fold. The result was mayhem with noise and pollution. Despite the fast moving traffic people, cattle and dogs cross the road in gay abandon. Weligama was unrecognisable. The popular landmarks had disappeared and  I found our former home with difficulty. The many tall trees that surrounded the house had gone perhaps ending up as furniture in a plush Colombo Hotel. The lovely gravel path to the house had become a muddy track left behind by lorries  and bull dozers. The  gushing waters of the stream was now a trickle without any life being a casualty of intensive farming with pesticides. Worse was yet to come. An old man seated on the steps of the house looked bemused but greeted us warmly. The property has been brought by developers and the house was allowed to decay. The door creaked as it opened. My heart sank to see the long strands of cobwebs stretch from wall to wall. Wooden windows had perished and fallen away and the house was a haven for cockroaches and mice. In places the roof had caved in. The plaster had come off the rain soaked walls. Doom and desolation filled the air. As I moved from room to room I felt uneasy and claustrophobic remembering the life and the laughter and the happy times we have spent there. I spoke little and left the house heart broken to see my home in ruin and my memories shattered. Many of the neighbours had died and their children moved away. The main street was packed with people and full of life. There were many tourists bartering and moving in and out of the numerous shops. The astrologers and palmists made a quick trade.  The buzz of the place absorbed my attention for awhile. Rest of the town looked prosperous too. Many of the houses had Televisions Radios and VCR’s. They were well maintained with lovely gardens and cars in the porch. The people certainly  looked more affluent and healthy. With industrialisation we are losing touch with mother earth and the rich harvest it brings. The tourists bring us the valuable dollars and litter the countryside with the products of their own artificial lives. In the evening I sat on a rock by the Rest House watching the sea. There have been new additions to the Rest House which was not in keeping with its colonial past. Snorkelling and speed boating had stopped for the day. I watched the waves roll in as I had done all those years ago wrapped in my own  thoughts. There were Coca Cola cans and  polythene bags rolling in the breeze on the baked golden sand. I left Weligama with mixed feelings. Sad that my past has been desecrated but happy to see prosperity has reached that beautiful town of my dreams. After all I cannot allow the dreams of my youth get in the way of progress. 

In writing these notes I have tried to give my moods and thoughts as it occurred. To me the last 50 years have been one rich gift amidst some misfortune. It is politics and destiny that would decide what the next 50 years would bring for Weligama.

Many yesterdays of my youth lie buried in this beautiful country of my birth.

I wish to dedicate these memories to my maternal grandfather Dr DB Weerasekera who accompanied me in the journeys to this idyll. He paid for my rail ticket, discouraged me from eating the vadeys and pineapples from vendors due to fear of bacteria and held my hand when I crossed the road although I was a grown up man. I wish I was there to hold his hand in his final hour.

(Author's note: This article appeared in The Island newspaper nearly 2 decades ago).

9 comments:

  1. Another beautifully written post by ND in his own inimitable style. My own excursions to that part of Sri Lanka was to Hikkaduwa to visit my father's relatives. I have been to Galle, Unawatuna and Matara but not as far as Weligama. My recent visit to Hikkaduwa was a similar experience and I had great difficulty identifying childhood landmarks. The stretch of beach whee we used to go sea bathing cannot be recognised at all and the charm of unspoilt beach and greenery on the fringe with fishing outrigger boats in a line are all a thing of the past. Change of course, is inexorable, whether for good or bad. Memories... they do mean a lot.

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  2. Mahen
    Thanks for that positive comment. It is the comments that help contributors to keep the Blog alive.
    ND

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  3. I know ND. The apparent apathy is very disheartening and a times I feel like the proverbial man "hitting a brick wall" . Bust as Disney said, "it is kind of fun doing the impossible"!

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  4. Mahen
    That's the word - disheartening. What you see is what you get!! My gut feeling now is that things are not going to change. But let us continue as we are and keep in touch and contribute as long as we can. It is a great forum with not a harsh word in sight despite the turmoil in a troubled world.
    ND

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  5. Oh man! Speedy seems to have forgotten the geography of Sri Lanka. To get to Matara, one has to pass Weligama. The photograph that I published with ND's article is that of Taprobane Island which is today a flourishing tourist destination (the complete villa in this boutique hotel on this privately owned island costs just US $ 2250 per night during the Christmas season!). It was first discovered by Count de Mauny-Talvande (a descendent of one of Napoleon's Generals) who named it Taprobane because of the similarity in shape to the island of Sri Lanka.





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    1. My mistake Lucky! I must have meant as far as Galle but not to Weligama! At least that is the only explanation I can think of for my "howler".

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  6. Amidst others Geography is a casualty of forty years in exile. To me the known landmarks, SL politics and the current language have suffered enormously. When I left SL we never had a President. Katunayake was a small airport - a remnant of the British RAF. One thing hasn't changed and that's the love we all have for the country of our birth.
    ND

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  7. Thanks, Nihal! This is an excellent article, evoking wonderful mental pictures of a quaint southern town. I want to congratulate you on your style.To me it brings back memories of my visits to Weligama when I worked in Galle for two years. I visited Weligama hospital, a charitable gift from abroad. But I missed much of the hidden beauties you speak of.
    Zita (Perera Subasinghe)

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