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Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
My Twentieth Century Memories of Kurana - Katunayake
Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
In 1956Kurana was a small fishing hamlet and just a speck in the map
below Negombo.It was as far away from
the cares of ‘modern’ life as one could hope to get. The tropical heat and the
sea breeze induced an agreeable form of torpor on its people. No one seemed to
be in a hurry.
My father worked for the Government and was
transferred every 4 years. Despite the rigors of this nomadic life we had the
opportunity to see the country.As I
realized much later, when working for the Government one is sandwiched between
the whims of politicians and the demands of the public. The upheaval of moving
house is said to be comparable to a divorce. We as a family with ‘no fixed
abode’ has survived its emotions and heartaches remarkably well. My reward for
this childhood ‘trauma’ has been the ability to live for 30 years in a house
which I now call home. Old habits die hard and there are times I get itchy feet
to move on!!
I recall the post independence wave of
ultra-nationalism that spread throughout the land. Everything foreign was hated
and despised. Politicians of every hue went along with this mass hysteria. The
greed for power was overwhelming. We needed a statesman to guide the people
into a new era of peace and prosperity. Without leadership we turned against
our own people and the dark clouds of ethnic conflict gathered in the horizon.
The war decimated our country. It
altered our idyllic lifestyle and changed our international profile forever.
Katunayake was then a small leafy middle
class town far from the madding crowd. It was a strong Methodist enclave with profound
prevailing attitudes about religion.There were 2 churches, Methodist and Anglican, to serve its small
community. Sunday was the day for worship and they all flocked to the Churches
for spiritual help. I was then a free spirit and sent kites and played cricket
on Sundays. The churchgoers often looked at me quizzically as if to say “you
should be punished, young man”.The
muddy cricket ball occasionally spoilt their Sunday best with red faces all
round. There are many profound conflicts between the demands of reason and the
call of faith. During my youth reason triumphed over faith. With the passage of
years I give equal credence to both.
Katunayake was already well known for its Royal
Air Force Base and its small airport called the ‘Aerodrome’. It was built by
the British in 1942 and was used to
supply equipment and personnel for their interests in the Far East. The Base was handed over to the
Royal Ceylon Air Force in 1956. Then our main airport was at Ratmalana.Good main road access to Colombo and a fine
rail link to the capital made Katunayake an ideal commuter town. The Royal Air
Force Base had its own electricity generator but the rest of the town had no
electricity. My father had the envious task of ‘electrifying’ the town. As I
look back what I remember most is the contempt Britishers had for the
“natives”. Having lived in England for 40+ years the British living in the
British Isles have a greater sense of tolerance, justice and fair play.
Tolerance perhaps doesn’t travel too well!!
I remember as if it were yesterday stepping
into an old elegant house by the lagoon
at Kurana Katunayake.It had a deep
verandah with elegant pillar and arches that stretched all around the house.
This became our cricket pitch on rainy days. The house faced the noise and fumes of the
Colombo - Negombo road. It had an elegant front lawn and a few steps to enter
the house. At its rear was a large coconut plantation stretching as far back as
the lagoon. At the edge of the property was the blue waters of the lagoon and
the mangroves with its pungent smell and bubbling black mud. There was a stunning view of the palm trees and the water from our lounge which took my breath
away.Acrossthe lagoon was the palm fringed beach of
Pitipana. The 3000 hectares of Negombo lagoon was a storehouse of fish, crabs
and prawns. It provided a livelihood to
many hundreds of fishermen and food for its inhabitants. The lagoon has been heavily silted for many decades and
plans are underway to dredge and clean up. Hopefully the relevant authority
will safeguard its unique habitat, mangroves and the estuary. They were there
before us and we owe it to the future generations to preserve it.
The nights were exceptionally dark. I have
watched the moon wax and wane and the stars move majestically along. This was well
before the days of televisions and transistor radios. With the darkness came
the silence and a feeling of utter loneliness. Crickets and frogs provided the
background noise until morning. The fishermen went out to the lagoon at night
and their flickering lights could be seen into the far distance. During the
monsoon season the howling winds and the storms kept us awake. When the sun
shone it was closer to heaven than any place else I know.
The De Silva’s were our neighbours. They
lived in a quaint 100 year old house with decaying beams and leaning walls.
Percy had an illustrious school career at Richmond College Galle winning the prestigious
Darrell Prize.After his degree from University
College Colombo he worked in the metropolis. Percy was a kindly, cultured man
and a voracious reader. He encouraged me to take books from his vast collection
which I did during the school holidays. Often we spent the evening with them
listening to his vast repertoire of 78 RPM records played on the HMV gramophone
with that unmistakable picture of a dog listening to His Master’s Voice. Percy
and Gladys had an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and they had few rivals as raconteurs.
They both made interesting company. Their son later joined my school and we
both were in the boarding together for many years. Percy sadly died in 1960
aged 49 after we had left Katunayake. Gladys passed away following a road
traffic accident in the new millennium. I remember them both with much
My other neighbour was an elderly spinster
living in an old dilapidated house at the end of a narrow twisting road. The
garden was overgrown with weeds. The house was surrounded by tall shrubs and
there were grasshoppers as big as humming birds. She lead a reclusive life and spoke
little except to her dog that barked and howled all day. For her, life seemed a
burden to endure. Loneliness born of circumstance and inertia seem to engulf
her completely. Her mango trees bore fruit in plenty which were for the birds
and the bees and the bats at night. She had no visitors and no one cared. I
have often seen her seated in the garden wrapped in her own thoughts. She
looked the type that could fly around on a broomstick. My only contact with her
was when the cricket ball went to her garden. She threw it back with a grin and
a growl. As the words tumbled out of her mouth I shrugged my shoulders as if to
say ‘I couldn’t help it’. It was a sad life and I hope she has found peace in a world that
knows no sorrow.
There were several young lads and lasses
living nearby. I recall the happy times playing cricket in the front garden. Kanthi
was a pretty girl and a good cricketer too. Despite our wily bowling she
managed a straight bat dispatching any loose deliveries over the mango tree and
across the road. Rajah came home to play with my chemistry set. We made the
most volatile, effervescentand colourful
mixtures, thankfully, without causing any explosions. Those were happy and
carefree days of our youth. Sometimes we rented bikes and cycled from Seeduwa
to Andiambalama visiting school friends. The road passed through wide acres of
green paddy fields and long stretches of shade of the coconut plantations. The bikes on
offer were far too big for us. As we rode we polished the seat and bruised our
buttocks. We loved the lagoonand swam
in its warm waters. Often we did some fishing too and caught prawns. I recall
the warm sunshine and the blistering heat and less of the punishing storms. My
friends in Katunayake came to our house daily. We played from dawn to dusk and
time passed rapidly and relentlessly.
In the evenings I went with my parents to
the beach by the New Rest House in Negombo.It was a fine old Colonial building, a relic from the days of the
British Raj. With its bright white exterior, high ceiling and elegant antique
furnishings I felt it was fit for Royalty.On its side was the raging turquoise sea. There was a long stretch of
broad white sand. The enchantment of sitting by the rocks watching the waves
roll in was therapeutic. As an only child I enjoyed and appreciated solitude. I
still remember the sun wobbling before dipping into the sea. Hundreds of brown
crabs frolicked on the sand creeping into their burrows at high tide. On
moonlit nights we often took our stringhoppers for a beach party. Its calmness
and serenity was a magnet for courting couples walking hand in hand.
I was fourteen then. Those were days filled
with beauty and enchantment. I appreciated the world so
completely. I was fascinated by the changing scene in music with its fast
rhythms and the irresistible beat. I loved to emulate the film stars and their
styles and mannerisms. The love of cricket was all consuming. I followed the school cricket and the Sara Trophy
games with much enthusiasm. Reading was
a part of me. I bought and borrowed books and newspapers and whatever else I could
find. At school the public examinations were drawing ever closer. My mind was
set on performing well. I wanted to be a
doctor knowing well its narrow and tortuous course and also its rich rewards.
Little did I know of its onerous routines, sleepless nights and the fierce
The place was rich in bird life. Of the
many hundreds of species seen about a third were winter visitors or migrants.
Kingfishers, golden orioles and blue jays were seen in great abundance. The
most ubiquitous were the house sparrows. The lagoon attracted many types of
water birds.It was a haven for herons,
egrets, cormorants, teals, and waders.
It took a good 2 years to electrify the
town. The electricity transformed Katunayake and entered the 20th
century. There was widespread jubilation with meetings and carnivals. We were
on the move again this time to Kolonnawa leaving behind our numerous friends
and many happy memories.
In 1995 I stayed in a hotel in Katunayake
and tried to locate my old haunts. The entire landscape has changed beyond
recognition and the place has been seduced by the material world. Our house and
that of our neighbours have been demolished and replaced with posh apartments,
curio shops and hotels. The countryside is peppered with exclusive developments
and the place pulsated with rich
tourists spending their Dollars. Prosperity has arrived there too and the vibe
is certainly different. The suffocating feudal air that strangled the poor has
been replaced by a wider new middle class. Many had televisions in their homes and
cars in their porches. They dressed well
and spoke with the confidence that came with affluence. As I walked to the
waters edge I saw a young man watching the sun go down. I was curious to get
some information about the place but he was an economic migrant from the deep
south and knew only his own patch. I returned to my hotel room saddened by the
loss of my old haunts engulfed in a myriad of memories.
It is now the home to a busy International
Airport. All around is a massive industrial estate supporting the Airport with
its own network of roads and traffic. The Colombo - Negombo road is a busy dual
carriageway. Life in Katunayake is hectic, noisy and stressful. Despite its
changes Kurana is still a place of astonishing beauty. I wish to remember it as
it was when I was young, an idyllic tropical paradise.
I often think of my neighbour of 60 years
ago, Percy De Silva. He possessed an unusual mix of intelligence, empathy and
humility. He was a socialist and a good one. His friendly avuncular manner and self-deprecating
charm made him a popular figure in town. I will always remember his sardonic
humour directed towards the opposite sex in general and his wife in particular.
She often replied with equal zest and vigour. This friendly banter amused us no
end. Percy had much to offer and was sorely missed when he left this world so
May his Soul Rest in Peace.
As I have done so often I reach for the
wisdom of the Rubaiyat