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Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Visit to Florence - the City of my Dreams

Dr. Nihal D Amerasekera

I have always wanted to visit Florence having read about its history as a teenager. Almost five decades later came my chance to fulfil my dream. After the winter snow and storms spring must be the best time to see central Europe. I chose my time well to visit Florence in May last year with my friend and colleague Fida, an effervescent Jordanian. There were flowers in great abundance and the trees appeared a brighter green with the new foliage for the year. The people seemed happy to greet the warmth of the spring sunshine. 

Florence means flower. I couldn’t have described its beauty any better.  The city lies in the middle of the Italian peninsula and is the capital of the region of Tuscany. It is a city of half a million people living mostly by the Arno river.  We arrived at the sleepy Vespucci airport on a  warm Thursday afternoon. Despite the lack of urgency to process our papers and send us on our way there were plenty of smiles and politeness to make up for it. We arrived at the Grand Majestic Hotel which was neither grand nor majestic. But it was cosy and comfortable and the service was prompt and proper. 

The city was founded by the Romans in the first century B.C. After the excesses and decadence of the barbaric ages its resurgence began between the 11th and 15th centuries. The Medici family ruled Tuscany from the 15th century and transformed the city to its present glory in art, culture, politics and economic power. In 1860 Tuscany became part of the Kingdom of Italy.  Florence remained its capital and became the summer retreat and playground for the rich and famous European aristocracy.  

The survival of so many fine Gothic and Renaissance buildings is part of Tuscany’s immense appeal.  The shape of arches, doorways and windows give a clue to its style and when it was built. Tuscany has been at the forefront of the artistic revolution and record the transition from the stylised charm of medieval art to the pristine beauty of the Renaissance. The Medici family were responsible for commissioning some of the great works of Renaissance art and are remembered with much affection by the Florentines. 

The best sights of the city can be seen by foot as they are encompassed within a small area. The Cathedral forms the focal point to this historic city. Its eight sided Dome was designed by Brunelleschi. The sheer beauty and size of the frescoes on the interior of the dome took my breath away. The door on the east side of the baptistery was named by Michaelangelo as the Gate of Paradise and contains the detailed carvings from the Old Testament. There are numerous galleries and museums to vet the appetite of the occasional tourist and the seasoned connoisseur. My favourite  was the Uffizi. It was completed in 1580 as an office building but later assigned to display the Medici art treasures and is the oldest gallery in the world. There are ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and a vast collection of art from Gothic to High Renaissance. It took us a whole day to absorb the beauty of this marvellous treasure and would have taken us a lot longer if we allowed our emotions to take control. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Annunciation, Michaelangelo’s  The Holy Family, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch and the many works of Rubens, Van Dyke, Caravaggio and Rembrandt kept us busy and focussed. The sensuous painting of Venus of Urbino by Titian was my special favourite for its sheer artistic brilliance although it was condemned at the time for portraying a Goddess in such an immodest pose. 

Florence is a treasure trove of history art and sculpture. To appreciate its elegance one requires diligence energy and enthusiasm. Fida dealt with our flight plans  in his own inimitable relaxed style and I  took over the controls on the ground. There were times when the whole effort seemed overwhelming. When our enthusiasm failed we took to the Florentine cuisine. Fida is an orthodox Muslim and he looked for a menu without pork and alcohol. The many types of pasta and pizzas cooked in virgin olive oil suited him well. I kept to a cholesterol filled western carnivorous diet with lavish amounts of red wine to wash it down. I tossed a coin whether to refuse the brandy at the end. Fortunately my hotel was just a stones throw away from the gourmet restaurants. Fida most generously took part in the inebriated discussions about my jaundiced and light-hearted view of the world. I left the restaurant having solved the human problems that were fomenting since the beginning of time. 

The river Arno runs through the city. In the summer it is reduced to a trickle and its pollution rises  to unacceptable level. Its most famous bridge is the Ponte Vecchio. There are many goldsmiths at work here exhibiting their wares in the shops on the bridge. Built in 1345 it survived World War II. The bridge is specially attractive at sunset viewed from the embankment. The Gothic church of Santa Maria Novella  contains some of the most important works of art in Florence. The church has a marvellous fa├žade of inlaid marble.  

The local economy depends on tourism and industries like textiles, jewellery pharmaceuticals, glass and ceramics. Much of the jewellery is still produced in the Ponte Vecchio to be sold all over Europe. The Boboli gardens are not to be missed. It is an excellent example of Renaissance landscape architecture formerly owned by the Medici family. Its hedges with geometric patterns and the tall cypress trees show an unusual but pleasing contrast of shapes and sizes. 

In the Academy Gallery the most famous sculpture is Michaelangelo’s David (1501). He is the person of David and Goliath fame. The anatomical detail of the sculpture is absolutely stunning. The size and proportions of this work of art shows his brilliance and genius. 

We walked the length and breadth of the city many times over absorbing the atmosphere and appreciating its ambience. By the end of the week the bricks and mortar made us claustrophobic and we decided to take a short bus ride to the Piazzale Michaelangelo at the edge of the city to get a panoramic view of Florence and the river Arno. That was indeed a breath of fresh air!! 

The public transport in Florence is good, clean, cheap and punctual. I did not see the massive traffic jams. There were no rows of vehicle standing still behind traffic lights spewing toxic emissions. The scooters and motor cycles were seen in great numbers zigzagging their way past pedestrians. We never saw the blue haze of pollution common in the big cities. The main train station opposite the Santa Maria Novella church is modern and computerised. I realised how cheap it is to travel by train compared to London.

During our stay we had remarkable good weather. The days were hot but not humid and the nights were warm enough for people to gather in the squares of the city centre to wine and dine and also listen to classical and popular music played by buskers and local bands. The Florentines seem to enjoy a wonderfully relaxed outdoor lifestyle. Many of them spoke English and were helpful. I never saw the infamous Latin temper. 

Florence exhibits unparalleled beauty and sophistication. There was no let up in the sheer richness we saw and experienced. A week would be the minimum time required to appreciate its vast treasures and the extraordinary beauty of its lush green countryside. We left the city with a sack full of pleasant memories and a heavy heart.

We took the return flight to London from Pisa which was an hours train journey from Florence. The trip past olive groves and vast acres of vineyards was a treat and gave us a cross section of life in Tuscany.  Some lived in small shacks in screaming poverty whilst others lived in plush palaces. Five thousand years of civilisation, religion, democracy, socialism, communism and even the European Union have failed to change this. We live in such an iniquitous world.  

The sheer physical sensation of being in Florence is powerful and exhilarating. Its splendour and its enduring charm will remain a magnet for travellers for centuries to come.

Creative Spot - "Nalavee sanasenne" by Mahendra (Speedy) Gonsalkorale

Speedy has sent this short introductory note and picture along with his latest contribution.
Sunil Santha,musician, composer and lyricist, and was Baddaliyanage Don Joseph John before he adopted the name Sunil Santha, was only 65 years old when he died. His musical accomplishments were phenomenal. He had an exceptional educational record being one of the brightest students among his peers. He became a Music Teacher and like many musicians of the day, went to Shantiniketan (in what was West Bengal), an University Town established by the famed Rabindranath Tagore, for further studies. He became well known when he did a series of recordings for Radio Ceylon in the late 1940s. Sunil Santha broke away from tradition by refusing to sing Sinhalese songs based on Hinustani and Tamil songs. He preferred lyricists such as Munidasa Kumaratunge and Fr Marcelline Jayakody. His tenure with Radio Ceylon came to an abrupt end when in the same spirit, he refused to audition for the Indian musician Ratanjankar. Following this, he ran into major problems with his finances but refused to compromise on his principles on pursuing a more pure brand of unadulterated Sinhalese music. In 1967, the Director General of Radio Ceylon, Mr Neville Jayaweera, invited Sunil Santha to come back to the service. Among his popular songs are "Olu Pipila" (the first song to be recorded at then Radion Ceylon), "Handapane", "Ho Ga Rella Negay", "Bowitiya Dan Palukan Vare", "Suwada Rosa Mal Nela", "Kokilayange", and "Mihikathanalawala. He is also well known for composing the soundtracks for Lester James Peries' “Rekava” and “Sandesaya” in 1956 and 1960.  He died of a Heart attack in 1981.

Dear Lucky,
Listen to my version of "Nalavee sanasenne". Hope you like it. As you see I am going through a  nostalgic mood for songs of my childhood (may be because it is my second childhood!).


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Malik Jaimon has passed away

I have been informed by Razaque that our colleague Malik Jaimon had passed away in Australia on March 26th. He was Razaque's wife Farina's first cousin. As most of you know, "Jaima" was ailing for some time. Please see Razaque's e-mail below.

Dr. Razaque Ahamat

15:15 (11 minutes ago)
Dear Lucky,

This time it me the harbinger of sad news.
Maliq Jaimon --- known to all of us as 'JAYMA'  passed away in Australia on the 26th..
He was more to me and my wife, besides being a batch mate he was a member
of my community and the first cousin of my wife Farina.
I had the good fortune to have visited him twice in Australia. My wife too visited him
when I was in NZ.
Please pass on this message to the rest of our batch mates.
Kind regards,

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Creative Spot - "Handapane" A new version by Mahendra (Speedy) Gonsalkorale

Hi Lucky,

This is somewhat experimental. I took this old Sunil Shanta favourite "Handapane" and gave it a bit of Western "treatment" to make it sound a bit more inspirational. It is not quite perfected and I intend revising it later but thought I would send it hoping that some may come with helpful comments.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An Open Letter to Razaque

To Razaque Ahamat

If I have spelt your name wrong, I know you will forgive a senior citizen.

I hope the atrocious winter weather of snow and storms in Dundee, Scotland didn’t dampen your spirit. You live in one of the most picturesque parts in the UK near the Highlands and Islands much closer to the Arctic ice caps than anyone else in our batch. With your affable manner and charm I am not surprised you have made friends in your neighbourhood who would offer you a whisky and company. After all, you are  in the land of the amber nectar. 

It seems so long ago we were fellow daily travellers from Hunupitiya to Maradana by train with ‘Claude’ Bernard. We never had the privilege to give our seat to a pretty girl as we never had a seat ourselves in all the 5 years. 

We three studied together in a class room at St Anthony's,  Wattala. As I have mentioned in this Blog before, you were there with us for the chat, sandwiches and Lanka Lime. When it came to reading, you quickly disappeared into the night saying you had an important appointment. I was the only non-old boy at your old boys lunch at St Anthony's. The three of us had an undignified exit from the event as we were carried like corpses to lie in the lawn outside until we sobered up.  I had to weave a complicated story for my parents to explain my unsteady gait and disheveled look. 

Being a Malay household, we enjoyed enormously your mum’s cooking. Although you never fasted during Ramazan you celebrated the end of the fast – Eid-Ul-Fitr with a huge feast with friends and family. The irony of it all amused us no end. Whenever I have watalappan, I am reminded of those wonderful Malay feasts of long ago. 

I recall the many Block Nights and Colours Nights when we enjoyed the evening with Claude Bernadr’s in-laws providing the food and drinks. We loved the good life, friendships and the camaraderie enormously. Those years as bohemian medical students are priceless memories. Time passed swiftly and relentlessly. It all ended with the Final year trip about which much has been written.  I wasn’t sober enough to recall any of it.  We bade our farewells in 1967 and our paths never crossed until we met again in the United Kingdom in the mid 1970’s. 

Life was hectic in the UK caring for our families and carving up a career.  Studying and examinations were an enormous challenge with a young family at home.  We overcame the odds and you became a haematologist and I proceeded to a life in radiology. Our paths crossed again when we met at the London reunion of our batch in the 1990’s.  You looked more rounded with your Scottish Kilt and it was a great privilege to meet Farina. After that brief encounter we parted never to meet again in person. I last contacted you when you were on a Locum tenens in Auckland, New Zealand, ebullient and full of life as ever. 

I am sorry to hear of your health issues but hope the pump, the electrics and the plumbing are functioning better now. I admire your light hearted attitude to the many adversities you have faced recently. You are indeed an inspiration to us. I hope the National Health Service will provide the comfort and the care you richly deserve. Keep writing Razaque as we love to hear about your perils and pleasures. Meanwhile, mind your fingers and don’t let them stray !! 

With my very best wishes 

Nihal D Amerasekera alias ND



Monday, March 16, 2015

My Visit to Paradise - Penang

Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

During the harsh English winter months it’s been my ritual to gather tourist brochures in search of a place in the sun. This year I found a turtle shaped island off the coast of Malaysia which formed the northern gate of the straights of Malacca. It is the well known island of Penang.  The island covers an area of 285 sq. kilometres and is connected to the mainland by the 3rd longest bridge in the world. It's population of more than a million represents a happy mix of Malays 32%, the Chinese 59% and the Indians 7%. Penangites are known to be hardworking ambitious and creative.  Its tropical climate all year round has been a haven for western holiday makers for many decades. The months to be avoided are October and November when violent storms lash out day and night transforming the island temporarily into a dark demonic world. 

The recent history of Penang began in 1786, when Captain Francis Light negotiated a deal with the Sultan of Kedah and  acquired Penang Island for the British East India Company. In return Captain Light was to protect Kedah from its neighbours. The Captain did not keep his part of the bargain but kept the island and named  it Prince of Wales Island. He created its capital Georgetown in the name of King George III. Its malarial marshes were filled and the jungles cleared to make the island habitable. Soon it became a trading post for tea, spices and  rubber and a land of opportunity for Europeans and Asians alike. Along with Malaysia, Penang became an independent country in 1957. 

We arrived to the  warmth and sunshine of Penang in February this year and stayed in a hotel between Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi in the north-east of the island. I felt quite at home in the hotel by the sea which was comfortable and provided a friendly service. Each day we took the local transport to Georgetown. The city is an amalgam of the old and new and has a population of 400,000 people. Georgetown is a wealthy, bustling city with a busy port. It has a reputation as a lively, liberal, cosmopolitan place. The industrial free trade zone  of Georgetown is the Silicon Valley of the East, Its old heritage is still preserved in its narrow alleys and labyrinthine streets. The tallest building in the city is the 65 storey Komtar, a twelve sided geometric block near the main bus station. It houses many government offices and in its top floor is a plush Chinese restaurant with a panoramic view of the city and its surrounds. At night the shimmering lights of the city and its port is breathtaking. 

My wife who is a Hong Kong Chinese was quite at home in these surroundings. As we moved around in this paradise island I had an in-house interpreter and a navigator. The China Town area of Georgetown was established by immigrant settlers from mainland China in the 1800’s. Despite the passage of time it has maintained its old world charm. We were intrigued by the many clan houses, shops and temples that studded its streets. The most famous clan house is the Khoo Khonsi. This family house and temple was built by the rich Khoo family who were traders in the early 19th century. The exquisite ornamental wood carvings of the roof, walls and pillars reflect the art and architecture of ancient China. 

There is a thriving Indian community too and their enclave is famously called Little India. It now attracts heritage enthusiasts. Consisting mainly of South Indian settlers from way back a century ago they have maintained their culture and way of life There are many colourful shops selling sarees, garlands and stainless steel cutlery. Loud south Indian movie music greeted us when we went in search of Ananda Bhawan which served the best banana leaf rice and ‘stretched’ tea. They made fine authentic  thosai, Idli and Ulundu vadey. Built in 1883 the most imposing landmark in the area is the Sri Mariamman Temple. It has an ornate dome with multiple colourful figurines and a grand entrance. There is an unmistakable aroma of burning incense wafting through its front door. The area is littered with Indian Money changers, seated by their personal computers, giving the best rate of exchange for foreign currency. 

Fort Cornwallis is built where Francis Light landed in 1786. Originally a wooden stockade, it was replaced by a concrete structure in 1804. Today, an open-air amphitheatre, a history gallery, and a handicraft and souvenir centre occupies its interior. It also has a  famous Dutch cannon that arrived on the Peninsula in 1606 as a present from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor.  

 A day trip around Penang island is a must.  The island has a spectacular undulating landscape with silent green mountains and deep lush valleys.  I was quite at home with the islands fauna and flora which is almost identical to what we have in Sri Lanka. We got the opportunity to see a typical Malay settlement and to walk around and speak to the local people. Unlike in most other settlements there were no War Lords and no fortifications. They were friendly and welcoming and offered us fruits and green tea. On the way we stopped at a wayside boutique selling souvenirs, local tiger balm and nutmeg oil. We visited the famous snake temple probably the only temple of its kind in the world. There are many writhing pit vipers coiled around objects on the altar believed to be rendered harmless by the smoke of the burning incense in the temple. The devotees regard the snakes as holy. The snakes move in and out of the temple at will and have never been known to bite humans. 

Air Itam is a suburb of Georgetown and houses the Kek Lok Si Temple. Completed in 1930 it is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world and is built on to a hillside overlooking the town. The seven tiered pagoda has a Chinese,Thai and Burmese design and is known to embrace both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. On the hillside above the pagoda is the 30m bronze statue of the Avalokitesvara - Goddess of Mercy. 

The Kapitan Kling mosque is one of the oldest in Penang. It has a Moorish design and was built in the early 19th century by an Indian Muslim merchant called Muhammed Kling who was the headman of the local community . It has the most beautiful golden minaret. As the clear sunlight catches the dome it radiates a rich elegance inviting the faithful to prayer. When we wanted to see its inside there was a caretaker who took us to a young white American. He most kindly showed us around explaining its history and importance. The calmness, simplicity and serenity inside the mosque was extraordinary.

No account of Penang is complete without a liberal mention of its hawker stalls. It is an interesting concept.  First look for a table and sit down. Each table has a number. Remember the number well. There are many hawker stalls serving Chinese, Malay and Indian food. Order what you like from the different stalls and give them the table number. Pay each time they bring a dish. Tipping is not required.  Penang is a  gourmet paradise and the smell of the food near the stalls and the noise of the sizzling pans was enough to make me ravenously hungry. Two well known hawker centers are Gurney Drive near Georgetown and the large hawker complex in Batu Ferringhi. Penangites are passionate about their food eating out in Hawker stalls almost everyday. Perhaps little cooking is done in their own homes as such a wide choice available at a knock down price. The stalls are under the control of the Department of Health and maintains good hygiene.

The Botanical Gardens is a short drive away from Georgetown and covers 30 hectares of prime land. With its peaceful surroundings is a haven for tourists and locals alike. Many joggers, walkers and those practicing Tai Chi use the park. We wandered along its narrow paths amidst colourful flowers and well kept lawns. Its beautiful layout and design and the many plant houses and nurseries must be a lure for enthusiastic gardeners. There are many groups of mischievous rebel monkeys who roam the gardens looking for unwary visitors to plunder their food and cause mayhem. They are a menace and all visitors are asked never to feed them. Despite this we spent a happy day close to nature enjoying the warm sunshine by a babbling brook. On the tourist trail is Penang Hill. It is 800 ft above sea level  and provides an excellent view of the island. The cable car takes half an hour to the top. There is also nature trails from the Botanical Gardens taking 3 to 4 hours to the top of the hill.

Penang is a shoppers paradise.with modern shopping malls, roadside stalls and night markets. The prices are reasonable and the quality is variable. Batu Ferringhi is famous for its night market selling designer clothes, DVD films and music CD’s. They are a fraction of their real price but are not authentic goods. Fake Rolex watches is their specialty. Batu Ferringhi has grown from an old fishing village to a tourist paradise. Sadly much of its greenery has been replaced by concrete. Although many tourists swim without a care in the world although the sea around here is said to be polluted. Stinging jelly fish is a problem and safe bathing areas are cordoned off by nets and orange coloured buoys. 

Island’s law and order situation is impressive, It is perhaps one of the safest countries in the world for tourists and locals alike. There is a conscious effort to maintain a green belt and for every tree that is felled, that needs government approval, another has to be planted. All refuse is recycled and no one is allowed throw waste except into a refuse bin. These good habits are taught in school and is now incorporated into their culture. 

We spent a happy fortnight in Penang. Its warm sunshine and the gorgeous food is a magnet for tourist from all around the world. The humid nights, the incessant screeching of the crickets and the many fireflies reminded me of my childhood in Sri Lanka. For us above all we enjoyed their generous hospitality which they offered with a broad smile. Back in the UK now my memories of Penang are largely intact. It often springs vividly into life in my dreams.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Creative Spot - More paintings from Lakshman Weerasooriya


Acrylic on canvas

In Memory of Arulnayagi Balasubramaniam

ND had come across this on the Internet. It's five months since Arul passed away. But not too late to post a tribute to a member of our batch.

Obituary for Arulnayagi Balasubramaniam

Niskayuna - Arulnayagi "Arul" Sivaguru Balasubramaniam, MD, 71, passed away peacefully at home, on Wednesday, October 14, 2014. She succumbed following a courageous battle of cancer. Arul was born on August 26, 1943 in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, the daughter of Thialnayagi and Sivaguru, her father being the superintendent of examinations for Sri Lanka. During her childhood in Sri Lanka she attained several academic honors, excelling in both mathematics and science. She was the prettiest and most admired girl in her class. She attended medical school in Colombo, Sri Lanka, graduating in 1967 and married her life's love, N. Balasubramaniam, in 1969. Upon emigrating to Schenectady with her husband and first son in 1973, she undertook training and subsequent fellowship in pathology at Ellis Hospital, from 1975 to 1979, achieving American Board of Pathology certification in both anatomic pathology and cytopathology. Following her training, she became an attending pathologist at Ellis in 1980, until her retirement in 2012. She remained a steadfast physician and supporter of Ellis and the Ellis Hospital community. She was a member of the Schenectady County Medical Society, New York State Medical Society, American Medical Association, College of American Pathologist and Association of Clinical Pathology. During her 41 years in Schenectady she enjoyed exercising at the Sunnyview Hospital Wellness Center where she made several friends, including Lois Wagner and daily walks around Iroquois Lake in Cenral Park year round, and at local malls. A gifted and caring homemaker, Arul enjoyed preparing elaborate Sri Lanka meals for friends and family, receiving repeated accolades for her tomato and eggplant curries. She was a talented seamstress and demonstrated her caring by giving gifts of handmade baby clothes to the newborns of friends and family. She was an avid traveler, having visited dozens of international destinations, as well as the Arsha Vidya spiritual retreat center in Pennsylvania, where she began and deepened her practice of yoga and other spiritual disciplines, which came easily to her keen intellect. Arul was devoted and caring towards her extended family and shared a special bond with her sister in London, Sivanayagi (Thevi). She supported and cared for her family, friends and community in many ways, and regularly put others needs first. Arul is survived by her husband, Nadarajah Balasubramaniam, MD; her two sons, Sanjeeve Balasubramanaim, MD, MPH (Washington DC) and Rajev Balasubramaniam, MD (Los Gatos, CA); her sisters, Sivanayagi (London) and Suntharanayagi (NY) and brothers, Sivarajan Sivapalan, and Sivaraman (all of London) and Thangavelan (NJ); two grandsons, Adithyaand Vedanth (DC); daughters-in-law, Bhararthi (DC) and Vinodha (CA); brothers-in-law, Nadarajah (UK) and Nallainathan (NY) and sisters-in-law, Sakunthala (UK), Raji (UK), Ananthi (UK) and Sharmila (NJ). Funeral service will be conducted on Saturday morning 9 to 12 p.m. at the Daly Funeral Home, Inc., 242 McClellan St., Schenectady. Calling hours Friday evening 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturday morning 9 to 11 a.m. at the funeral home. A cremation to take place at Park View Cemetery. The family wishes to thank the staff that cared for her from Community Hospice, with special thanks to Jessica Thomas and staff at National Institutes of Health; Dr. Voleti, Dr. Thomas Goodman and staff, as well as Indira, Susan, Marcella, Ratna and Heidi. Memorial donations may be made to Ellis Medicine Foundation, 1101 Nott St., Schenectady, NY 12308, Community Hospice Foundation, 295 Valley View Blvd., Rensselaer, NY 12144 or the Central Park Rose Garden Restoration Committee, to commorate Arul's life of devotion, intellectual brightness and caring.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Creative Spot - Yet another gem from Zita Perera Subasinghe

Zita writes........

Dear Lucky,
I submit the following  for the Creative Spot. You can see that it has received the Mahen Gonsal treatment. I must add that Mahendra's advice, encouragement and  technical help have gone a long way in this presentation just as in others. He is such a generous, helpful person and we are lucky to have had him as our dear batch mate. I keep saying 'May his tribe increase!'
And may I thank you again for your expert management of our blog. I always look forward to reading it and I look out for new  contributors sending in their efforts. 
With kind regards,


Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Pictorial Sequel to "Doris Cottage and Nugegoda"

Having read (and re-read) ND's article entitled "My 20th Century Experiences of Doris Cottage and Nugegoda", I hasten to add my two cents worth, as I found it to be so very interesting.

I was a frequent visitor to "Doris Cottage" in the years between 1962 and 1967 as I too was a resident at Raymond Road,  Nugegoda  during my medical student days. Apart from ND and myself, other members of our batch who were Nugegoda residents at that time were Sanath de Tissera (Railway Avenue), the late L.G.D.K. Herath (Dilrukshi Place off Old Kesbewa Road), Mahendra Collure (Dewala Road), Chirasri Mallawarachchi (now Jayaweera Bandara) and Malik Jaimon  whose homes were at Melder Place. However, it was only Sanath, ND and myself who met frequently in Nugegoda during holidays and in the evening hours.

ND's article being a lengthy one, I thought of restricting the text of mine and including a few photographs instead, to depict how Nugegoda has changed since the era described by ND. These photographs were taken specially for this blog post and hence I have focused on some of the spots highlighted by ND.

Please left click on picture to enlarge further.

The turn off to Wickramasinghe Place (now renamed Samudradevi Mawatha)

Same place from a different angle

High Level Road Junction with the flyover

Samarakoon Studio as it stands today

Church Street (now called Stanley Thilekeratne Mawatha) as seen from the HLR Junction

S de S Jayasinghe Mawatha leading to Kohuwela Junction

Anglican Church of SS Mary & John

Wickramasinghe Place with Church Street at the far end

Probably the exact spot where Doris Cottage was. A dentist Dr. Ranjith Weerasinghe has his clinic there

Busy Church Street

The turn off to Railway Avenue

Nugegoda railway station and Station Road

Nugegoda Supermarket

National Book Shop referred to in ND's article

Nawala Road Junction as seen from Church Street

A train crossing Church Street

The rail tracks with a train visible near the station

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My 20th Century impressions of Doris Cottage and Nugegoda

By Dr. Nihal D. Amerasekera

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 rise of nationalism that swept across the land. It was an irresponsible act of political vandalism that created racial division. This was indeed a dramatic turning point in our recent history. Political turbulence, rise of the trade unions and strikes quickly followed.
As free 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 preferred to 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.
Early days
My emotional journey begins in Nugegoda in the late 1940’s. It was then truly rural. Hundreds of vivid pictures of its past often fills my mind. It was then a sleepy little town at the edge of the big city, far away from the grime and noise of Colombo. Nugegoda was closer to a village in the jungle than suburbia. Its charm lay 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 in the coconut trees. Parrots, barbets, sparrows and golden orioles were a common sight. Hundreds of bats took over the skies in the late evenings. There were vast stretches of uncultivated green land through which ran a few narrow dusty gravel roads. There were hardly any cars. Heavy commerce and trade hadn’t arrived here yet. There was little industry in and around Nugegoda and jobs were scarce.
My grandparents belonged to different religions and grew up in different regions of the country. They met at Deltota hospital in 1918 where they both 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 rudimentary healthcare. 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, time consuming 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 them to stay with us until the danger has passed. As I peeped through the window I witnessed the angry crowd that gathered outside our front gate. I saw the hatred in their eyes. She went out to them and 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 good conscientious doctor.
After living in Biyagama close to Kelaniya for many years my grandparents 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 all round. The house made of kabook was of solid construction. There was a wide spacious verandah 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 garden had rows of colourful Cannas and Coleus with a circular patch of grass around a Jambu tree. 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 all year round. The house was solid, austere and unobtrusive, just like its owners. 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. We made paper boats and paper planes and played cricket from dawn 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 seem to bother us and we spent our lives in the outdoors. We did our homework on the dining table and recall chanting the numerical tables like a manthra. Cowboy comics and bubble gum pictures were the craze. They inspired our generation. It was a simple but good life. Ranjit now lives in Sri Lanka, Lalini and I live in the 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 we enjoyed all those years ago. Nirmalene sadly passed away in 1975 aged 33yrs. This loss of a beautiful young life broke our spirit and its aching sadness never really left us.
For us children it was wonderful to live with 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. We dreaded the annual ritual of taking an "opening dose". This started with a fast in 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 years were a rich gift.
The mornings were magical as the light glowed on the green leaves. The dew on the grass shone brightly. Getting outdoors was a priority for me. We had a lot of freedom and wandered freely. We'd go off by ourselves on long walks visiting our school friends. The Nugegoda landscape is flat as a pancake. 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 the way. 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 from the 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 from the past came in torrents. He was a fine raconteur. When his face turned pink he soon retired for a well earned sleep.
After dusk
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 Phyllis was 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 Sinhala songs of Sunil Shantha. Those vibrant, amateur performances seem to consistently captivate our audience.
I still recall how quiet and dark the nights were. We heard the eerie croaking of frogs and the din of crickets. The stars as they moved along majestically and inexorably seem brighter 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 people
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 a man of God. Tolling of church 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 at the 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 remember a few names from my 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 of the hill lived Vernon Botejue and several families of Seneviratnes. I have very little recollection of the Girls School except the toilets were far away from the 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 the back. He carried a white cotton bag and visited us quarterly, always in the mid afternoon. His bag was full of jewellery. As he opened them the gold, rubies, diamonds and emeralds glistened in the mid day sun. I can still picture my aunts 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 them on. 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 from our radar in the late 1960’s. Many vendors brought their goods to our doorstep. The fishmonger we recognised from the 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 Aleric’s ice cream van 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 old bicycle 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 be brief – "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 to bond with the neighbours. They shared the same problems of running a home, building a 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 the early 50’s and the house was sold. Just next door to this was a barber’s shop which gave me the number nought once a month. This cost me 75 cents for a 5 minutes job. At the high level road junction was Parakumba Hotel (zero stars) 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 his enemy. The Swastika was a haven for us kids and served delicious Ice creams. Samarakoon Studio was the place for wedding and family 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 in his early 20’s and Kantha became the General Manager of CGR. The Reverend died in the late 50’s.
Urban Council
Nugegoda was then managed by the Kotte Urban Council. I still remember the lamp lighters who cycled to switch the street lamps on, one by one. They used a long hook which they balanced on their shoulders as they cycled. When night came the narrow streets were illuminated by these dim, flickering street lamps. Power cuts and candle lit dinners were a part of life. Some things never 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 contents of the buckets and the whole of Nugegoda knew when the vehicle was in town. We called it the Ice Cream van!! 
The Government Dispensary was at the side of Doris Cottage but later moved to the top of Wickramasinghe Place after years of wrangling and letter writing to the DM&SS (Director of Medical and Sanitary Services). It was mostly for the poor folk. Dr. Guy Paranavithana had his surgery by the main bus stand and business was brisk. Dr. Olegasegaram practiced on High Level road. Those were the days of mixtures, tinctures, balms and ointments. They don’t kill you like the modern ones 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 Nugegoda on the way from Colombo to Avissawella. The High Level Bus Company provided a private service on limited routes. The Church Street was a narrow dusty road that ran downhill connecting the High Level road with the heart of the 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 from the 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 to a standstill several times every hour. The steam trains of 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. Buggy carts were still in use as 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. 
My friends
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 steam trains were reliable and we had a happy band of schoolboys travelling daily creating mischief and mayhem on the way. Rohan, Prasanna and Nimal Wijesinghe lived on Kandewatte Road. Godfrey and Godwin Roberts and Ranjit 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 priest in Sri Lanka and Nimal works in Scotland. 
The maids
They were called servants. This is rather a derogatory term these 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. Kusuma was 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 be an 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 from home. 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 died of kidney failure in the late 1980’s. We as kids had all the opportunities to better our lives. Our maids’ lives were doomed right from the beginning. Life is so unfair to so many. We live in such an iniquitous world. 
The tragedies
My grandparents had eight children. The eldest was Muriel who took on the mantle of the senior member of the family and cared for the rest. She died aged 86 a couple of years ago. My mother, Iris, is the second in the family and is very much alive and well. The tragedies began very early on. The youngest to die was Sweenitha at the tender age of 12 of meningitis in 1940. The death rocked the family severely. Then it was aunt Beatrice at the age of 31 of a rare autoimmune disease in 1962. Aunt Enid died in 1971 from surgery for gall stones. I felt this was a pointless death 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 a grand daughter 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. 
The joys
The academic 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 Toronto and 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 tremendous sense of humour with anecdotes from real life situations. What I recall most of all is their fun, laughter and happiness.
A brief return
My father was in Government Service and had to move from town 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 to lose them in the rough and tumble of University life. After having entered Medical College in 1962 I returned to my grandparents in Nugegoda. There had been a complete transformation of the town in the intervening years. It was big, bustling and busy. The network of telephone and electricity cables formed an aerial lattice reflecting the changing times. Wickramasinghe Place was now called Samudradevi Mawatha. Rev.Wickramasinghe helped the community enormously and built the schools. It was sad to see them erase from memory his life’s work.
At Doris Cottage every room told a story 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 their lives. 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-up near 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.
Tempus fugit
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 them from time to time and saw the decline. Whenever we met there was always much to discuss. They loved to retell old family stories and amusing ones. Grandma kept touching mementoes of our family like photographs and paper cuttings, which she cherished 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. Memories of the past stared at her from every 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 remember grandma’s diligence, energy and enthusiasm and grandpa’s calm reflective kindness. To us it was an end of an era. 
Nugegoda revisited
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 from time 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 landmarks disappeared 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 childhood.
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 from cholesterol laden steaks to sizzling Chinese prawns. This is to be applauded. Many had cut adrift from the peasant outlook, dressed and lived better. 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 on them is a survival skill. Pop music of
ghetto blasters compete with the screech of car 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 from a 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 bleeding from the 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 environmental pollution, a serious health hazard. This is what remains of the once austere, puritanical Nugegoda of the fifties. Its past elegance lay buried under layers of asphalt and concrete. 
Doris Cottage
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 have made 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 secure corner of my memory. 
I have rambled on and revived ancient and half forgotten memories of a town with its own personality, heart and soul. Although the magic of the old 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 its former glory and the people who made it so special.
As I look back what amazes me most is the awesome force of destiny that controlled and fashioned our lives, of which we have so little control.
I dedicate this narrative to the memory of my 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-board of 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