Search This Blog

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Twentieth Century Memories of Kurana - Katunayake

By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera 

In 1956  Kurana  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.  Across  the 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 affection. 

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, effervescent  and 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 lagoon  and 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 competition. 

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 young.

May his Soul Rest in Peace. 

As I have done so often I reach for the wisdom of the Rubaiyat

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

--Omar Khayyam



  1. ND,
    This was a beautiful piece of writing, and I actually had time to read and relish it. It took me back to the "happy and carefree days of my youth" too, growing up mostly in Colombo with my four siblings. Most parents were quite comfortable allowing their kids to hang out with other neighborhood kids, unsupervised, unlike today. No search parties were deployed unless they didn't show up at dinner time! One incident I distinctly remember is walking down Rajasinghe Road, Wellawatte, with my siblings, a few cousins and some of the neighborhood kids to the beach at the end of the road. One of us had the bright idea of walking to Mt Lavinia, towards St Thomas' College, my brothers' school. We started heading in that direction (the group ranged in age from 8 to 14, I think) and along the way had to negotiate the beach shanties in Dehiwela, but we did reach our destination. Unfortunately, no one had thought of how we would get back to Wellawatte. We were too exhausted to walk back. Luckily, we knew several families in Mt Lavinia, so we managed to borrow enough bus fare for the group to get back on a CTB bus. It was quite an adventure! The house on Rajasinghe Road is now a parking lot. Progress has taken its toll on many of the landmarks of my youth as well.

    1. Sriani
      Thank you for taking the trouble to read a long essay and for the kind comment. When we were kids the population of SL was 8 million compared to 28 million now. We didn't see the mass of humanity we see now. It was peaceful then and we were free to roam unsupervised as you so rightly say. That walk to Mt Lavinia was a great story of just the things we got up to in those days. Please write those anecdotes and give us the pleasure of reading them and recalling our own childhood. So good to be in touch again after so many years.

  2. A note to ND: We have two colleagues with the same first name. But they spell it differently. Bunter is Srianee. The other is Sriani Dissanayake Basnayake. As you know, both are not only regular viewers of our blog who offer comments, but they themselves contribute a lot of interesting stuff frequently. I am sure you all will agree that the comments are as interesting as the posts. Besides, they go a long way in encouraging the contributors.

  3. My sincere apologies to Srianee and Sriani.

    As Alexander Pope so rightly commented "to err is human; to forgive, divine".

    "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet." From Romeo and Juliet

    Warm regards from a cold and wet London

  4. I do enjoy reading your reminiscences ND. You have an amazing talent and I do hope that long awaited book will materialise soon. I recall many childhood memories of my own but not in such great detail. As you noted, time marches on leaving behind a mixture of fond and sad memories, all of which adds to our life experience. Memories of the past become ever so more interesting and of importance as the old tempus does a fugit! My abiding recollection of the past is one of deep gratitude to my parents for their love and guidance. There is no doubt in my mind that they shaped our behavior, our values and our attitude to fellow human beings. My father was a government servant too but we did not have to endure the agonies and ecstasies of constant relocation. I do remember "perks" such as railway holiday warrants. When he was Principal of the Mihirigama Teacher Training a College, as a family we had perks such as free "film shows" and the use of college facilities such as woodwork and metal work shops, the typewriter (so what you may well ask but the TW was just magic to us!), tennis courts and vast grounds to play cricket and just muck around. We lived in Pitakotte then and my father came home for weekends and we went to Mirigama only during school holidays. Those were happy and carefree days! Thanks again for applying a stimulus on the memory button!

  5. Mahen
    Thanks for the kind comments. It is just my idle mind that retains such trivia in such great detail. Although I enjoyed the challenges of medicine it will not be in the short list If I am to live my life again. Its onerous routines and endless study and examinations are too much for just one life. I would like an easier life with less stress and much more free time. Well I have digressed too far and we can leave that discussion for another time.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.