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Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
My 20th Century impressions of Doris Cottage and Nugegoda
By Dr. Nihal D.
In post colonial
Ceylon the 1950’s started the period of enormous transformation. The era of the common man
emerged as the politicians wooed the rural voters
in their quest for power. There was a frenzied riseof nationalismthat swept across the land. It was an irresponsible act of political vandalismthat created racial division.
This was indeed a dramatic turning
point in our recenthistory.
Political turbulence, rise of the trade unions and
strikes quickly followed.
education became widespread the farmers
who were the backbone of our economy
couldn’t convince their children to
till the land. Instead they left the soil to join the masses in the city.
They preferredto shuffle paper
around desks than toil in the fields. There was a tremendous rush
to the metropolis. As a result Colombo spread its wings to engulf the suburbs. A rapid growth in the population
accelerated the urbanisation of rural Ceylon. This is indeed a simplification of a complex process of population shift, which smothered and destroyed
the rural idyll of Nugegoda.
My emotional journey begins in
Nugegoda inthe late 1940’s. It wasthentrulyrural. Hundreds of vivid pictures of its pastoften fills my mind.
It was then a sleepy little town at the edge of the big
city, far away fromthe grime
and noise of Colombo. Nugegoda was
closer to a village in the jungle
than suburbia. Its charmlay in its
picturesque atmosphere. It prided
itself on its unique middle class appeal and the sheer good-natured generosity of its people. The community depended on
the Temple and the Church to provide
refuge and direction. The landscape
was green and its beauty touched us
with grace. The shady streets were
lined with tall flamboyant trees. It
was a paradise for birds. Woodpeckers bore holes inthe coconut trees. Parrots, barbets,
sparrows and golden orioles were a
common sight. Hundreds of bats took over the skies in the late evenings. Therewere
vast stretches ofuncultivated
green land through which ran a few narrow dusty gravel roads. There were hardly any cars. Heavy commerce and trade hadn’t arrived hereyet. There was little industry in and
around Nugegoda and jobs were scarce.
My grandparents belonged to different religions and grewup in different regions of the country. They met at Deltota hospital in 1918 where theyboth worked. It was love that brought
these two diverse but emancipated
personalities together. The marriage
lasted a lifetime. They brought up
their children during horrendously
difficult times of World War II, food shortages and rudimentaryhealthcare. In those dark days a sense of apocalypse dominated the lives of people. During the
colonial period there were
fewer rights and too many rules. The
Crown was God and always right!! Travel
by road or rail was expensive, timeconsuming
and at times treacherous.
My grandpa was an Apothecary and was a softly spoken, quiet, noble man from Kandy. From the time I can remember
he had grey hair. As a kid I
wondered if he was born that way. He took life easy but worked diligently. He
was much more, a philosopher, an
expert in country lore, an amateur
astrologer and an old character of a type that was endangered and nearly extinct. He was not interested in money
except the bare minimum to sustain his family. My grandma
was a qualified nurse. She was a firebrand from Kurunegala
with lots of courage and foresight.
She was a sprightly, intelligent woman
whose passion was for crosswords. She
helped to drive the family
forward through uncertain times. Her fearless spirit and kindness was well demonstrated by an act of bravery in 1958.
During the race riots our Tamil
friends’ lives were in danger. Grandma
asked themtostay with us until the danger has passed. As I peeped through
the window I witnessedthe angry
crowd that gathered outside our front gate. I saw the hatred in their eyes. She went out to themand refused to expose our friends to
danger. After much deliberation and fist waving the crowd gradually dispersed.
This was an act of raw courage and I have no doubt she saved their lives. The crowd seems to have recognised
and respected my grandpa as a man of the people and a goodconscientious doctor.
After living in Biyagama close
to Kelaniyafor many
years mygrandparents moved to
Nugegoda in 1945. It was to a quiet dignified house at 56, Church Street. The house was opposite the
Anglican Church of SS Mary & John. The large sprawling house had a tall roof and a spacious garden allround. The house made of kabook was of
solid construction. There was a wide spaciousverandah facing the north and west.
The whole building was painted magnolia
yellow, inside and out, with a broad dark brown border touching the floor. The
front gardenhad rows of colourful
Cannas and Coleus with a circular patch of grass around a Jambutree.
It bore fruit in great abundance. At the back of the house was a garage and several coconut trees. We had a ‘billing’ tree on the side laden
with juicy fruit allyear round. The
house was solid, austere and unobtrusive,justlikeitsowners.
My extended family of uncles aunts and cousins all lived here where I enjoyed a sheltered and privileged
existence. It still
amazes me how we could all fit into that house. I loved this communal
life as there was never a dull moment.
The wooden inscription above the
front door read "Doris Cottage 1930".
My cousins Ranjit, Nirmalene, Nissanke
and Lalini shared my pleasures at Doris Cottage. Wemade paper boats and paper planesand played cricket fromdawn to dusk. Our quarrels raised the temperature but our bonds always remained strong. The blistering heat of the mid
day sun and the torrential monsoon rains
didn’t seemto bother us and we spent
ourlives in the outdoors. We did our homework
on the dining table and recall chanting
the numerical tables
like a manthra. Cowboy comics and bubble gumpictures were the
craze. They inspired our generation.
It was a simple but good life. Ranjit now lives in Sri Lanka,
Lalini and I live inthe UK and
Nissanke is in USA. The forces of destiny have kept us apart. On the rare occasions when we meet it rekindles the closeness weenjoyed all those years ago. Nirmalene sadly passed away in 1975 aged
33yrs. This loss of a beautifulyoung
life broke ourspirit and its aching
sadness never really left us.
For us children it was wonderful to livewith grandparents. They preserved the domestic niceties and lavished huge affection on us all. We were always forgiven for our mischief.
In those days there was this strange
belief that a clean bowel was the prerequisite to a disease free existence. Wedreaded the annual ritual of taking an "opening dose".
This started with a fastin the
morning and the "runs" all day. Home
remedies were immensely popular. Grandma gave us "koththamalli"
for our coughs and colds. Grandpa did
the running repairs for our cuts and bruises. We
looked forward to our visits to the local cinema– Metro or Quinlon to see Laurel and
Hardy or Sinhala films with Eddie
Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi. We
were in the lap of luxury and those yearswere
a rich gift.
The mornings were magical as the light glowed on the green
leaves. The dew on the grass shone brightly. Gettingoutdoors was a priority for me. We had a lot of freedom and wandered
freely. We'd go off by
ourselves on long walksvisiting our
school friends. The Nugegoda landscape is flat as apancake. There was a
winding cycle path between Kandewatte road and
Kirillapone through deciduous woods and rock pools. We saw the sun only at
either end of this lonely dusty road.
The social networks were strong and
we knew every one we met on theway. Tall grass, ferns and wild flowers
lined our paths. We passed moss ridden culverts and trickling streams.
There were ponds with fish and water lilies
where kingfishers dived for their meals.
I remember a myriad of
dragon flies whizzing past our faces. It was so peaceful and lovely. Even recalling these heavenly memories
gives me such great joy. This is so far removed fromthe busy
uncertain world of today.
I have a clear memory
of our Sunday lunch. This was an important
family ritual. In the morning grandpa walked down to the market in his hard hat and white trousers. He bought fatty pork and some
curd and treacle. Grandma was a
fantastic cook. There was a hive of activity in the kitchen as she intently supervised the cooking. The
whole clan gathered for the feast. The men
finished the bottle of doubled
distilled before the meal was
completed. Grandpa was never a heavy
drinker but Sundays were special. He laughed a lot. Hilarious stories fromthe
past came in torrents. He was a fine
raconteur. When his face turned pink
hesoon retired for a well earned
The evenings were quiet and dull. There was no television. Radio Ceylon was in its infancy and the
programmes did not have much appeal.
We made our own entertainment and created our own plays and costumes. We
played card games like rummy and happy family
and laughed so much. Aunt Phylliswas a fine musician and played the Hawaiian guitar to a professional standard. She taught us to sing the old
English arias and the ever popular Sinhalasongs
of Sunil Shantha. Those vibrant, amateur
performances seemto consistently captivate our audience.
I still recall how quietand
dark the nights were. We heard the
eerie croaking of frogs and the din of crickets. The stars as theymoved
along majestically and inexorably
seembrighter and nearer then. The fire
flies always reminds me
of Nugegoda of the 1950’s . It was only the rumblings of the KV trains that punctuated the silence. Eight
o’clock was bedtime and we were soon
tucked up and snoring. In those days we had the early-to-bed, early-to-rise
culture for kids. Oh! how could I
ever forget the hordes of mosquitoes
that tormented us every night.
The Rev TAM Jayawardene was well known to us and lived in an old
bungalow opposite the church with his trusted servant. The good reverend provided spiritual support to his flock. We saw the Christenings, weddings and funerals in monotonous regularity. He was truly aman
ofGod. Tolling ofchurch bells
filled our senses. The Church managed the St. John’s
Girls and Boys schools. Being so close to our home on Wickramasinghe Place, I started school atthe kindergarten of the girls’ school in 1947. Mrs. Aldons (Sr.) was its Principal
and my class teacher was Mrs. de
Mel. Her daughter was in my class. I
a few names frommy class.
Lakshman Heendeniya, Athula Perera, Sujatha Perera,
Mohini Seneviratne and Sonia Wickramasinghe. I have often wondered how life
turned out for them.
Wickramasinghe Place went straight uphill and met
the road that joined High Level road.
At the top ofthe hill lived Vernon Botejue and several familiesof Seneviratnes. I have very little recollection of the Girls
School except the toilets were far awayfromthe Kindergarten and accidents
happened en route. Nugegoda was well endowed
with schools. There was Girton School, Anula Vidyalaya and St Joseph’s Convent.
The whole community attended their sports meets,
fetes and plays.
I remember Banda with his
long curly hair tied in a knot at theback.
He carried a white cotton bag and visited us quarterly, always in the mid
afternoon. His bag was full of jewellery. As he opened themthe gold, rubies, diamonds and emeralds glistened in the mid day sun. I can still picture myaunts wide eyed and mesmerised by the display. In those days the middle classes were a close knit community and were known to each other. He knew
the latest family gossip which he
disseminated lavishly and
asked searching questions for new information to pass themon. Listening to him was like watching a soap and the next instalment
was due at his next visit.
Views were expressed with
oohs! and ahs! and he finally got down to business. He
had a fine rapport with his buyers and always enjoyed a joke. Carrying
such enormous wealth in broad
daylight, unprotected, he wouldn’t
have survived even a day in the 21st century. Be it robbery, disease or death he suddenly disappeared fromour radar in the late 1960’s.
Many vendors brought their goods toour
doorstep. The fishmonger we
recognised fromthe smell. A Jaffna man bought our empty
bottles and old newspapers. A Chinaman came
on a bicycle with his expensive silks. We
were most excited by the buzz of the
when it came our way in the evenings.
Post and Telecommunication
These two modalities were inextricably
linked. In those days every man knew his place. The postman was a proud government servant and
served the people well. He arrived
in the morning in his rickety oldbicycle and rang the bell. He wore khaki
shorts and tunic and a broad smile.
He had a felt hat on his head, the
type worn by policeman of that era. The postal service was reliable and
efficient and fast enough for the mid 20th century. Home telephones were a rarity. We
went to the post office or a shop to take a call. Outstation calls (trunk calls) were connected by an operator at the main post office in Colombo Fort. These
calls were timed and cost a fortune. Urgent messages
were sent by telegram. They were charged according to the number of words used. We learnt to bebrief
– "Deepest Sympathies or Congratulations". These "wires" were pricey but popular and I believe were sent across by Morse Code.
In a rural community it was important
tobond with the neighbours.They shared the same problems of running
a home, buildinga career and raising children. The kids
were the primary focus. There was
always an outpouring of help whenever it was needed. It was a good life.
The elderly Jansz’s lived next door who managed a shop bearing
their name at the front of the house.
The Jansz’s died in theearly 50’s
and the house was sold. Just next door to this was a barber’s shop whichgave me
the number nought once a month. This cost me 75 cents for a 5 minutes
job. At the high level road junction was ParakumbaHotel(zerostars)serving the long distance bus travellers and lorry drivers with food and
drink. It was once owned by Mr. Saparamadu. I recall very little of him but remember
it wasn’t wise to be hisenemy. The Swastika was a haven for us kids
and served delicious Ice creams. Samarakoon
Studio was the place for wedding and
photos. Behind our house lived the Lobendhans and the A.R Silva’s. The
Lobendhan’s later emigrated to
England. The Silvas had two sons and
a daughter, Rani. One of the sons, Ranjit, died inhis early 20’s and
Kantha became the General Manager of CGR. The Reverend died in the late
Nugegoda was then managed by
the Kotte Urban Council. I still remember
the lamp lighters who cycled to
switch the streetlamps on, one by one. They used a long hook
which they balanced on their shoulders asthey
cycled. When night came the narrow streets were illuminated by these dim, flickering street
lamps. Power cuts and candle lit dinners were a part oflife. Some
thingsnever change !! There was no water on tap and we had a
well. A bucket was lowered using a pulley to fetch
water which was icy cold. It was
like having a bath in Siberia. Purple Lifebuoy soap washed away
our dirt. During periods of drought the UC sent large bowsers full of water for distribution. There were no
flushing toilets in those days and we
had bucket latrines. The Council
sent a special lorry to collect the contentsof the buckets and the whole of Nugegoda knew when the vehicle was in
town.We called it the Ice Cream
The Government Dispensary was
at the sideof Doris Cottage but
later moved to the top of Wickramasinghe Placeafter years of wranglingand
letter writing tothe
DM&SS (Director of Medical and
Sanitary Services). Itwas mostly for
the poor folk. Dr. Guy Paranavithana had his surgery by the main
bus stand and business was brisk. Dr. Olegasegarampracticed on High Level road.
Those were the days of mixtures, tinctures, balms and ointments. They don’tkill
you like the modernones do but
rarely make you better. The doctors knew their patients and their families well. We accepted
doctors advice as gospel.
Church Street and the town
The High Level road bisected Nugegodaon the way fromColombo to
Avissawella. The High Level Bus Company provided aprivate service onlimited
routes. The Church Street was a narrow
dusty road that ran downhill connecting the High Level road with the heart ofthe town with the bus stand, railway station
and the market. Along the way there
were many hawker stalls selling fish and fresh vegetables. It also
helped some beggars eke out a living.
There was a bakery selling oven fresh bread and gaudily decorated sweet
cakes. The achcharu ladies and the
peanut vendors made brisk business
fromthe school kids. A man pushed a small
cart full of pink ice lollies, known to us as ice palam.
I remember the National
Bookshop where I got my school requirements.
The two railway crossings at either end
of the station brought the meagre traffic toa
standstill several times
every hour. The steamtrainsof the narrow gauge KV line ran from
Maradana to Opanaike. The station was painted CGR grey and had a grey picket
fence. It was often said it is faster to walk than travel by these narrow gauge
trains. Buggycartswerestillinuseas were the rickshaws. The Renault Quickshaws had just been introduced as taxis. Without honking cars and
vans, there was a leisurely pace and
a village feel which has now disappeared forever. Church street with its name changed, is now an eternal traffic jam.
When I started schooling at Wesley
College I continued to stay in Nugegoda travelling by train to Baseline Road
station everyday. Although slow,
these geriatric steamtrains were
reliable and we had a happy band of schoolboys travelling daily creating mischief
and mayhemon the way.Rohan, Prasanna and Nimal Wijesinghe
lived on Kandewatte Road. Godfrey
and Godwin Roberts andRanjit and
Vernon Kulatunge lived on Station Road and we all travelled together . Often on
Saturdays we played cricket on Station Road. Ranjit and Vernon both died some years ago in England. Sadly, after
leaving school, our paths never crossed. Godwin worked as a Chemist
at the TRI Talawakelle and died after
emigrating to Australia. Rohan is now a retired reverend in Toronto.
Prasanna is a priestin
Sri Lanka and Nimal works in Scotland.
They were called servants. This is rathera derogatory termthese
days. We had two orphaned teenage girls. They were literate and did the household chores of cooking, cleaning and
shopping. They looked after us kids with much
kindness and showed great loyalty to their employers.
Kusumawas the elder and was always thoughtful. She lived in her own superstitious
world. She was given in marriage by my grandparents but the spouse
turned out to bean alcoholic. She
returned to us with her son but left again and lost contact. Lucy was an impetuous, volatile young woman who found her own man and ran away fromhome. He was a scoundrel who was in and out of prison. She had a
string of children and had a hard life. I saw her once at Doris Cottage in the
70’s. She looked wizened and haggard far beyond her age. My grandparents continued to help her. She
diedof kidney failure in the late
1980’s. We as kids had all the
opportunities to better our lives.
Our maids’ lives were doomed
right fromthe beginning. Life is so
unfair to so many. We live in such an iniquitous world.
My grandparents had eight children. The eldest was Muriel who
took on the mantle of the senior member of thefamily and cared for the rest. She died aged
86 a couple of years ago. My mother,
Iris, is the second inthe family
and is very much alive and well. The tragedies began very early on.The youngest to die was Sweenitha at the tender age of12
ofmeningitis in 1940. The deathrocked the family
severely. Then it was aunt Beatrice
at the age of 31 of arare autoimmune
disease in 1962. Aunt Enid died in 1971 fromsurgery for gall stones. Ifelt
this was a pointlessdeath at the
age of 47 and wondered if there was medical
negligence. This tragedy left a
husband and two young children under the age of ten in total despair. These sad events and the ravages of time took its toll on my grandparents. It
broke their spirit but carried on as
there were still unfinished responsibilities.
The loss of agranddaughter in her
prime caused them indescribable pain.It is true that a family never recovers from the loss of a child and
they never did.
success, achievements and prosperity
of their two sons brought them great joy. Neville qualified as an engineer and
had a very successful career in the
Oil Industry in the Middle East. Walter
became a psychiatrist in Toronto, Canada. In their 70’s my grandparents travelled
to Torontoand saw for themselves the affluence
and elegance and also the decadence of the western world. They had many stories, photos and fond memories
of that trip. My grandparents had a
sense of humour with anecdotes
fromreal life situations. What
I recall most of all istheirfun,laughter and happiness.
A brief return
My father was in Government
Service and had to move fromtown to town every three years. In their wisdom my
parents decided to send me to the
hostel, at great cost to themselves.
It was to give me a stable life
and teach me the social skills and
discipline. I achieved their goals only tolose
themin the rough and tumble
of University life. After having entered Medical
College in 1962 I returned to my
grandparents in Nugegoda. There had been acomplete
transformation of the town in the intervening years. Itwas big, bustling and busy. The network
of telephone and electricity cables formed
an aeriallattice reflecting the changing
Place was now called Samudradevi
Mawatha. Rev.Wickramasinghe helped the community
enormously and built the schools. It was sad to see themerase from memory his life’s work.
At Doris Cottage every roomtold
and every picture and piece of furniture seemed laden with memories.
My grandparents had aged gracefully and their faces reflected the joys and
hardships of theirlives. They had
gradually become less and less mobile.
Their love, wit and humour remained undiminished. Grandma told me
stories that I hadn't heard before,
of her life and times where she
grew-upnear Batalagoda in the
Kurunegala district. A strong sense of family persisted as always. I lived in
Nugegoda for a further two years before
moving to Wattala with my parents.
Time passed swiftly and
relentlessly. During those years and always my
grandparents had the respect and love of the extended family. Their eyesight
and the hearing gradually failed. They became
mostly confined to home. I visited
themfrom time to time and saw the
decline. Whenever we metthere was always much to discuss.
They loved to retell old family
stories and amusing ones. Grandma kept touching mementoes ofour family
like photographs and paper cuttings,
which shecherished immensely.
To her every photo spoke volumes.
Grandpa died in 1983 aged 89. I was then in London and felt the loss deeply.
After his death, for grandma life became an ordeal. She lead a quiet life and remained fit but frail. I have often seen her sitting alone
wrapped in her own thoughts. Memoriesof
the past stared at her fromevery room, photographs and family occasion. The great void in her life could never be filled. Thankfully she remained in good health to the very end. Grandma passed away in 1986 at the age of 86. I will always
diligence, energy and enthusiasmand grandpa’s calmreflective kindness. To us it was an end of an era.
Some six decades have passed since
I first set foot on Nugegoda. During
the past 35 years I have lived in
the UK and visited Sri Lanka fromtime to
time. On my visit last year the
changes that greeted me were astonishing. Now I feel a stranger in Nugegoda with the people I
knew gone and the landmarksdisappeared forever. It is the Church, St
Johns School and the Railway Station that helps me to get my bearings
in the town where I spent my
As I saw in the fading years of the 20th Century prosperity has come
to the town too. There are better shops, super markets, wider roads, better
communications and transport. The many bars and restaurants offer every kind of cuisine fromcholesterol laden steaks to sizzling Chinese prawns. Thisis to be applauded. Many had cut adrift fromthe peasant outlook, dressed and livedbetter. Some had cars, hifi and televison to brighten up their lives.
Bristling billboards and signposts line the
roads. The streets are crammed with consumer goods and it’s money that counts. Buses and trains are
still over filled with people
and getting onthemis
a survival skill. Pop music of
ghetto blasters compete
with the screech ofcar horns.
The roads are an obstacle course of animals and exhaust spewing traffic. The town which was a middleclass
suburb now shows both great wealth and appalling poverty. Many of the old
houses have been pulled down. The few that remained
look like relics froma lost
civilisation. What is preserved is pricey. The nouveau riche prefer to live in large detached
houses, behind high walls and security gates.
Growth of a town is inevitable
but sadly it has taken place randomly, unchecked and without a plan. Nugegoda
is now bleedingfromthe
wounds of this devastatingly rapid, unsympathetic expansion. The industrial and residential areas are mixed with office space.There is no designated green belt
to preserve as an area for peace and relaxation. It’s the age old
gangrenous plague of bribery and corruption. The result is a cauldron of light, noise and
environmentalpollution, a serious health hazard. This is what remains of the once austere, puritanical
Nugegoda of the fifties. Its past elegance lay buried under layers ofasphalt and concrete.
The house died with my
grandparents. It was divided and given to two daughters. They have in turn
handed it over to their daughters.
One half has been sold and this we never see due to a high wall. The present occupant took over recently and had little choice. The numerous renovations havemade
the house unrecognisable. It looks squeezed, twisted and tortured by the buildings around it. Nugegoda has lost a slice
of social history of the 20th century. The Doris Cottage of my childhood only exists in a securecornerofmy memory.
I have rambled
on and revived ancient and halfforgotten
of a town with its own personality, heart and soul. Although the magic
of theold Nugegoda still haunts me the loveliness and enchantment
of that peaceful town I knew, is now a distant memory. Within the
time frame of a single
generation it has changed beyond recognition. It hurts when I think about itsformer
glory and the people who made it so
As I look back what amazes me
mostis the awesome force of destiny that controlled and fashioned our lives, of which wehave so little control.
I dedicate this narrative to the memory ofmy grandparents.
They both gave us life and hope. It
is only now I realise the depth of
their influence on my life. Their love, warmth and encouragement will be remembered, always.
May they Rest In Peace
‘Tis all a chequer-boardof
nights and days Where destiny with men
for pieces plays: Hither and thither moves, and mates
and slays And one by one back in the closet lays.-- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam