Extracts from the Book Accha House & Umma House
A Mixed Childhood in Sri Lanka
By Asiff Hussein
It was at ‘Accha House’, mother’s parental home that we spent the good part of our childhood. Accha House was not its real name. It was the name my siblings and I gave it, calling it after its matriarch – our maternal grandmother whom we called Accha. The actual name of the house was Chitrangi and it stood on an estate once occupied by a bungalow – as large houses were known then – named Villa De Lauris which went as No.79 Turret Road, Colpetty and was named after Lauris, the eldest daughter of Mohandiram Namunudewage Suasaris Fernando Wijeyesekera and Dewnuge Caroline Pedris. The lady was married to Hewadewage Samuel Fernando and the property went to their son Alexander Fernando who died childless, leaving his brother Stanley Fernando of Cooper’s Hill, Colpetty to serve as his executor and dispose of it, the proceeds of which were to go to his children, my grandmother Myra and her brothers Elmo, Justin and Kingsley.
Put up for auction in the 1940s it was purchased by some Vahumpura clansfolk of the Fernandos, chemical magnate Wewelwala Hewage Hendrick, and his wife Diunuge Dharmawati, a nouveau riche couple who had their roots in the Galle District in the southern part of the country. The couple would, a few years later, arrange the marriage of their eldest son, my maternal grandfather Buddhadasa to Stanley Fernando’s eldest daughter Myra which took place in 1945 – a clear case of an elite transaction, a ganu-denuvak as the Sinhalese would say, in the form of a matrimonial alliance, which it was thought would benefit both families.
Land at Colpetty back then was not as prized as it is today since much of the commercial development at the time was still focused in the Pettah or the downtown area just beyond the Colombo Fort, the Fort itself being a much coveted residential area of classy gentlemen and gentlewomen, many of them Burghers of Dutch descent. The spot even before the British takeover in 1796, is said to have had beautiful buildings with glass windows, a rare sight in the east at the time, though after the British victory it was stripped of the old winding walls that girdled it and divested of its moat and drawbridges, one of which could be approached from Colpetty. Colpetty, being placed not very far from the Fort had by the inter-war years burgeoned into a fashionable residential suburb of sorts, but could in no way compare with the Fort. The property W.H.Hendrick acquired encompassed a vast continuous stretch abutting General’s Lake Road and Turret Road in what was then a part of Colpetty (Colombo 3 ward). It was only in later times that the section facing General’s Lake Road came to be considered part of Slave Island (Colombo 2) and the section facing Turret’s Road part of Cinnamon Gardens (Colombo 7). Historically however it was all part of Colpetty.
Upon this vast estate stood an old building, perhaps vestiges of the older Villa De Lauris. This, Hendrick partitioned into two, gifting one portion of it to his eldest son, Buddhadasa who would call it Chitrangi and the other to a younger son Sumanadasa. Two more houses immediately to the north of Chitrangi were gifted to daughter Indravati and son Piyasena. The land the couple owned extended eastward as well, facing Turret Road, allowing two more daughters Bhadravati and Chandravati to build their homes. The rest of their ten offspring were gifted separate pieces of land broken up from the garden of their large estate facing Cotta Road in Rajagiriya to which they had moved to around 1945.
The couple themselves lived in a grand old house, a veritable manor at No.10, Cotta Road, Rajagiriya styled ‘The Hague’, an appellation which along with the family name of Hendrick, an old Dutch Name and the extremely fair skin of their offspring would give rise to a joke that the family hailed from Holland. The house served the family, including the married offspring and their children, as the Mahagedara or ‘Great House’ – as grand family homes where family members used to assemble on special occasions were then called. Following the death of the old couple – Hendricks in August 1971 and Dharmavati’s in November 1972- it was inherited by their youngest son W.H.Nimnasiri nicknamed Muni in keeping with Sinhalese custom. The practice, however unfair it may be, has, like the old European rule of primogeniture where the eldest inherits the family estate, ensured that many an old family property survives without being fragmented. Needless to say, The Hague survives to this day.
Chitrangi, our ‘Accha House’ at No.201, General’s Lake Road was occupied by Buddhadasa and his newly-wed wife Myra in the immediate post-war period, in 1946 or 1947. It was here that all the seven children of the Buddhadasa family, including my mother Padmini, grew up. The house was named Chitrangi, Sanskrit for ‘Charming body’ by my grandfather who probably thought much of her beauty. Though not very impressive from the front, being a single-storeyed house with a modest facade, it was nevertheless a large one that extended a long way backwards, with big airy rooms and tall ceilings.
A grill iron gate with ornate floral patterns much like fleur de lis and painted a light blue stood proudly between the outside world and Chitrangi of charming body. Though built of iron the gate could easily be scaled by any intruder and if nothing else it served as a sort of flimsy see-through veil to the beauty within. Her mouth, through which one entered comprised a series of steps on one side, polished or painted bright red as if she had like some amorous, nay lascivious maiden had stuck her tongue out beyond her almost dribbling lips in the rapture of a lover’s embrace. This led to a double door, painted milk white, rather like teeth, that opened in to her copious throat – the hallway which was quite large in comparison to the rest of the rooms that formed her innards.
For her eyes, she had a couple of windows at the front of the hall that looked out towards the road, the three or so white metal bars that secured it sufficiently spaced to give her a good view of the outside world and let in a fair amount of light and air. Further down, in the centre of the hall stood a sturdy circular wooden table with four legs. This was in a sense the heart of the house. It had stood thus for well over thirty years and still stood strong. In a way it symbolized the conservative spirit of those times, so unyielding to this thing we call change, to which eventually it would have to give way, losing its commanding position in the hall and a place in the house, but only when all its members had left it for good, never to return again. For it was only then, when there was no life left, that the heart of the house ceased to be.
The main hall opened out on the right to a large inner hall which had all the insignia of a decent Sinhalese family, including among others, some framed black and white family photographs including that of a man with a toothbrush moustache that looked very much like Hitler’s, but fortunately happened to be a great grandfather of mine going by the name of Hendrick; a cabinet of some really outdated tomes belonging to a grandfather named Buddhadasa; curios like a Geisha girl attired in red kimono which for some peculiar reason was placed under a round table which hardly anybody could see unless they bent low, as if kow-towing to it; a vintage tube radio embedded in a light brown wooden cabinet which covered all except the speaker set in the centre of it in circular fashion, a black dial-up telephone bearing a 5-digit number 26465 as was usual then and when television came, a box-like TV set or two. Here also stood on one corner a little table upon which a garish image of the Buddha sat in calm contemplation.
Passing the hall through a white double door paned with glass one entered the innards of the house; firstly, her stomach, the dining room which was frequented by gluttons and gourmands of every description, who, sedately seated along the length and breadth of its large table, gulped, gobbled and gormandized whatever they could get past their throats till their tummies could take no more. Aiding and abetting in the gastronomic orgy closer to the doorway in one corner stood a large enamel-coated creamy-white refrigerator standing ever so still that one might think it played no part in the unsavoury goings on here.
Facing the dining room were two spacious bedrooms, the one on the left occupied by our grandmother Myra and her grown up, yet unmarried brood, and the one on the right by father, mother and their three boys. Further down, a passageway opened out in the right to a pantry with rows of brightly coloured wooden cupboards placed against two sides of the wall while a door on the left led to a quaint old bathroom with a rather gritty floor furnished with a huge porcelain bathtub like the kind one might expect to see in old Victorian homes. Mounted on a wall above the tub was this disused gas geyser, a silly looking cylindrical contrivance fired by pipe-borne gas that had a decade or two earlier given the master of the house hot water for his baths. And if anybody didn’t like the look of the discoloured flush toilet with ceramic bowl, they were welcome to use the servant’s bog at the back of the house with its porcelain squatting pan permanently embedded on to the ground like a giant keyhole into which one could let go without much straining.
A series of steps at the end of the passageway led to the backyard, a large playpen of sorts with a flat concreted area dented with two large sandy squares, the one on the right verdant with a mango tree that bore fruit only in its later years and the one on the left usually bare but sometimes carpeted with pumpkin vines, green gram plants or the local variety of spinach with large leaves and purplish seeds we kids grew when we caught the green bug. A further flight of steps led to a still lower area clothed with wood ash out of which a patch of banana trees darted out, their droopy green fans dimming the sun, giving the place a rather haunted look. And as if that were not enough, a few paces to the right took us to a roofless four-walled structure which we simply called ‘The Garage’ as it was once a busy workshop run by uncle Suranjan, a motor maniac. We turned it into a hanging garden of sorts when we let run some bitter gourd creepers that trailed down from its roofless walls.
But that’s not all the playing space we had. Starting from the grill gate at the front was this long sandy passage running along the entire length of the house, quite broad nearer the gate but gradually tapering to a very narrow passage towards the rear of the house, the entry to which was barred by a wooden arched door. The musty beige or cream-coloured parapet wall on the left which separated the property from the neighbouring Ambawattes was often overrun with Bouganvillea blooms, papery bracts of pink or purple smuggled in by thorny vines that came scrambling over from the garden next door. Nearer the arched doorway leading to the backyard stood a shrub or two which was home to a legion of budding butterflies, for dangling from its leaves were these beautiful almost fairytale-like little silvery mango-shaped chrysalises of some species of Lepidoptera, the like of which I have never seen since.
And now to get on with the inmates of the house, a motley lot amongst whom we would grow up. Here lived who I might as well describe as the matriarch of the house, its chief occupant, our maternal grandmother Myra whom we kids simply called Accha, a slight makeover of the usual Sinhala term for grandmother Acchi. So matriarchal was she that we kids called the whole house after her – Accha House.
Grandfather W.H.Buddhadasa lived at Galle Face Courts close to the Galle Face Green. They had fallen apart after the birth of their seventh child Lalith. Rumour had it that she would not serve him as a good Sinhalese wife would, even when he came home after a hard day’s work; even a cup of tea she disdained making herself and if that were not enough had a servant serve him the tea rather than serving it herself. She had obviously not been privy to the kind of advice a wise mother once gave her daughter: To keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom. Grandpa needless to say moved to greener pastures not very far away, though maintaining the family even when they had grown up, to the extent of providing them with a regular supply of fireworks to welcome the New Year.
All of Accha’s brood lived with her except for one daughter Sunethra, who had migrated to Kenya with her Jaffna Tamil husband Karunagaran in 1974. Even her firstborn, Padmini, having married a Muslim and taken on the more Arabic sounding name of Sameera had moved in, bringing with her, her husband Wazir and three little boys.
This interesting cast of characters included the dowdy duo Nandani and Chandani, both younger to mother. So close were they to grandmother that the only word to describe them would be ‘mummy’s girls’. Grandma who needed servants at her beck and call, spoiled them rotten so that they ended up like Cinderella’s two stepsisters, hardly able to do even a simple domestic chore. We would always associate the two as both often dressed alike in spite of the fact that they were not twins. Both of them were also spinsters and seem to have had no desire to get married. They would have probably been better off in a nunnery, but they were Buddhists. Nandani the elder one we called Renday Aunty, why I cannot say, except that everyone else called her Renday. She was a bit slow on the uptake, slower even than your usual tubelight, which I am told was because she was starved of oxygen while in the womb. Chandani, the bandy-legged younger one was cheery at times and peevish at times, being prone to mood swings that could spin into temper tantrums such as one sees in a tiny tot of two or three and flaunting a priggishmess not seen even in aging Victorian spinsters, such as when one evening she dashed in a huff, to change the channel of a particular TV show we were watching just because it featured some women with long fingernails, which needless to say was too sordid an exhibition for her chaste eyes.
Then came Accha’s three boys, the eldest of whom Suranjan landed a job as a laundry boy at Oberoi Hotel (where the Cinnamon Grand now stands between Colpetty Junction and Galle Face) and stayed put, eventually going on to become its Laundry Manager. When we knew him at Accha House he was somewhere in the middle but nevertheless steadily working his way up the rungs of the laundry establishment. With time he would bring home a wife, Priyanthi, who in turn would bring forth another addition to the family, a daughter Lakmini nicknamed Toto but whom we simply called Shimpy as she had this Chinese look when she was a toddler, quite fair and somewhat slit-eyed. She would eventually blossom into a beautiful woman, but long after we had left Accha House.
Suranjan’s younger brother Chandana was not as stable as big brother. An easy going type, he never had a regular job, contenting himself with odd jobs of various descriptions, and if not so occupied tended to be the stay-home boy, helping his mother keep the house tidy. A tipsy fellow, he loved guzzling down cheap hooch like the locally produced arrack – strong stuff as far as I can tell from the peculiar smell he reeked with. He eventually settled down to a very brief marriage to a girl who one would have thought would sober him down. It didn’t work out, for it was like hitching a wagon to a dragon. Their marriage was so short that I am still unable to recall the name of his beautiful bride. She was beautiful nevertheless. Of that I am certain. A pretty face, after all, is hard to forget, even for a little boy.
And finally there was Lalith, whom we called ‘Lala Uncle’. The youngest of the brood, he was the ‘baby’ of the family and mollycoddled by the women of the house. Accha doted on him and garrulous as usual would mumble and bumble nonsense just to get his attention, to which he would respond rather dramatically and mantra-like in English “Don’t jabber ma, jabbering jabbering no end!”. A fairly good-looking fellow save for the large ears that stuck out of his noddle, he was, towards the end of our residence at Accha House, smitten by the charms of a Catholic girl named Cheryl Dawson whom he would later marry, adopting her Christian faith.
And then there was our great-grandfather Stanley Fernando, quite advanced in years, who was looked after by his daughter Myra. He usually slept on a hard red couch in the inner hall, rough riding for a man who had known some really good times. Stanley was, after all, a man born to luxury.
The son of very wealthy parents, Samuel and Lauris Fernando, he lived easy in a large two-storeyed house in Turret Road. His father was a partner in a very successful mercantile house known as N.S.Fernando & Sons established by his father-in-law N.S.Fernando Wijeyesekera. The man had been honoured with the rank of Mohandiram by then Governor of Ceylon, Sir West Ridgeway for his generosity and munificence. It was thanks to his largesse that the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital, a large building in Indo-Saracenic style near Lipton Circus saw the light of day. The company was probably the largest stationary provider in the island and also imported drapery from Europe and silks from India and Japan besides exporting tea and other produce sourced from its large estates in Kurunegala District and dabbling in native drugs such as musk, bezoar and camphor.
Stanley grew up a prodigal son, it is said, because of his mother’s sterling advice. She told him that since he had sufficient family wealth, he had no need to earn a living. A job was demeaning and below the status of her family. Stanley followed her counsel well and soon developed a penchant for the high life, squandering his inheritance on wine, women and song. Despite his immense wealth and landholdings in Colombo where he is rumoured to have had several houses in Forbes Road given on rent or lease, he never thought of owning a house, even after marrying his cousin Gertrude. He rented a house at Cooper’s Hill, a little lane off Turret Road facing the Colpetty Municipal Market before moving to 502, Galle Road, Colpetty (where Mc.Donalds now stands) which served as the family home for 15 years. It was there that he arranged the marriage of his eldest daughter Myra to Buddhadasa, eldest son of chemical magnate W.H.Hendrick, the wedding being held with much fanfare at the Sinhalese Sports Club then situated near Victoria Park.
Stanley had for his neighbour well known showman Donovan Andree, a Burgher impresario who introduced to the country such shows like Harlem Blackbirds, an Afro-American Dancing Troupe which featured swarthy, scantily clad cabaret girls at the old SSC grounds and Holiday on Ice where skaters glided blissfully on an ice rink at Victoria Park. Donovan’s sons like often came over to the Fernandos to play cricket with their boys Elmo, Kingsley and Justin. However Stanley was not far behind his neighbour Donovan in being a showman. Impeccably dressed, he had this black mask which he wore Zorro-style on certain occasions and even adorned his home with pictures of himself attired as such. He cruised around in a flashy grey Flying Standard 12 car and floated among luxuries only a few families of his day could afford like a large player piano, a pedal-operated piano that mechanically played music encoded as perforations on a piano roll and an HMV (His Master’s Voice) radiogram (Portmanteau of radio and gramophone) from Cargills, a leading departmental store.
Stanley even had a menagerie of sorts with deer, rabbits, guinea pigs and birds like mynahs and parrots, not to mention a Saint Bernard’s he specially got down for himself. He was also a great showman when it came to entertaining his elite friends like the Kotalawelas, buying them expensive liquors at the Sinhalese Sports Club, then located near Victoria Park or Price Park, Pettah and the Aero Club at Ratmalana. His kids too had it good, amusing themselves with costly playthings like British-made Frog aeroplanes, miniature band-powered planes with sheet metal fuselages and wings of card which had to be winded upon a fixture in a specially provided box and placed upon the ground, whereupon it would hedgehop for quite a distance, hence its name of FROG, widely supposed to stand for Flies Right Off Ground.
The family eventually shifted to Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, to a house they could call their own, but even this was not destined to last long as a family home, for following the death of Gertrude, Stanley disposed of it and moved to his daughter Myra’s house at General’s Lake Road, Colpetty. He never sobered down though and even in his old age was rumoured to carry a tot about in his trouser pocket. We kids would see him wobbling into the house in drunken stupor like a wizened old hobgoblin, so steeped in drink that he was not in a state even to pay his taxi fare which was paid without demur by his dutiful daughter.
If not sodden with drink, he was awash with vanity. He was narcisissitically vain, for I remember him dyeing his hair a cloying black, applying the murky cream from a saucer onto his hair and combing it backwards even in his most greyest of years when the wrinkles had kissed his cheeks, prompting snide comments from some of its younger inmates like my mother that old as he was he had not given up on his vanity.
Him we called pappa, simply parroting how grandma used to address him. Though we knew what papa meant, Grandma pronounced it differently, doubling the p between the vowels so that it never struck us that it meant father. That is until one evening when ambling down Green Path with mother we spotted the old man from a distance and called out loudly “Pappa, pappa !”, only to have mother tell us in a hushed tone “Don’t shout pappa, pappa, men, people will think he’s your father”. The thought of people thinking that the old codger was our father no doubt horrified her. We nevertheless stuck to the term till his dying day, and even then it was not in hushed tones that we addressed him.
Pappa passed away in the early 1980s, giving us our first lesson in death. His was the first – and the last – death in the house. They cremated him at Kanatte, that sprawling necropolis in Borella. Father was horrified at the prospect of cremation, used as he was to the Islamic way of disposing the dead by burial. When we were about to leave for the last rites, we heard him say, rather sadly: Burning a dead man, what a thing to do”.
Besides these regular inmates, we had Accha’s brother Justin dropping in and eventually settling down. We addressed him simply as Justin Uncle, despite his being a granduncle. The poor fellow we would often see hobbling in to the house with his characteristic limp, the result of loosing a foot in his youth. One day while cycling to work at a radio shop run by a kinsman near the Bo Tree Junction in the Pettah, he had just passed a handcart unloading some goods onto the payment when, out of the blues, a red double decker bus emerged from one side of the road and knocked him down, the front tyre running over his right foot.
In the early 1970s, about the time the Husseins had moved into Chitrangi, this Sad Sack like character found work as a watcher at Hendrick & Sons stores at Hulftsdorp run by his brother-in-law’s family and eventually settled down at Accha House, spending the nights there, sleeping on the hard red couch in the inner hall that had once given rest to his departed father, Stanley.
His wife, Nimala, a lean lady from Matara, and their children Chamira, Shyamali and Anusha visited Accha House during the school holidays and would spend a month or so. Although mother’s cousins, all the children were younger to us and made good playmates. We would often play a crude form of hockey with the boy Chamira or join the the girls Shyamali (or Chammi as we called her) and her little sister Anushi in more homely games like Snakes and Ladders or making sellam bat, a village pastime they introduced to us involving cooking rice in little clay pots.
And then there was aunt Sunethra, her husband Karu and children Rajiv, Kumeshi and Mirukshi then resident in Kenya who would visit us once about every three years during the long December vacations. With these cousins of ours we spent some wonderful times especially during the Christmas season, enjoying their company at Accha House and at our beach resort in Kosgoda. Over the years, they introduced many things which we thought to be exotic but were freely available locally, like modeling clay, crabs and marvel comics.
The fact is that despite growing up in a largely non-Muslim household, we were brought up conscious of the fact that we were Muslims. Needless to say, to the Muslim his staunchly monotheistic faith is an impenetrable fortress, brooking no intrusions from any other as it could dilute or even undermine its Unitarian character. Our names, so distinct from the Sinhalese names of our kinsfolk, the few prayers we learnt such as Al Fatiha, the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer and the rituals we followed such as fasting impressed on us that we were a bit ‘different’, but not distinct, from the rest of the household. Our frequent intercourse with father’s family who lived just a lane away further consolidated our Islamic identity.
Another feature that marked us apart was our somewhat westernized English-speaking upbringing. Not only did we speak among ourselves and our parents in English, but also to the rest of the household who were Sinhala-speaking but who addressed us in English, an arrangement that extended to the neighbouring houses where mother’s uncles and aunts lived. So it was with our father’s folk to whom we always spoke in English, though they usually spoke to one another in Sona Tamil, a dialect of Tamil widely used by local Muslims as a ‘home language’. Given our unique situation, speaking English was the ideal solution, for it did double duty, serving as both bridge and barrier. A bridge because it was a language everybody in the house, despite their vernacular background understood and could freely communicate in. This would not have been possible had we spoken in another language such as Sona Tamil. A barrier, because it served to stave off Buddhist ideas permeating into our small world, for had we spoken Sinhala, it could have opened up the doors for the ethos, mythos and pathos of Buddhism to seep into our lives, especially since we were growing up in a largely Sinhalese Buddhist environment.
Speaking English came naturally to us. Both our parents were English-educated since Colombo’s elitist schools where they studied at the time, Zahira and Bishop’s College, imparted a good English education. They always spoke to one another in English, perhaps not only because of their educational background, but also because father knew only a smattering of Sinhala at the time while mother’s Tamil was unspeakable. English was naturally the language of choice and this we inherited from them.
The fact that our home language was English also had other implications. Quite naturally we looked up to the West, which also meant that our respect for all things national suffered, including for the national language Sinhala which we did not show much interest in mastering. We knew basic spoken Sinhala, a result of the largely Sinhala-speaking environment we grew up in, but not much beyond that and positively loathed the literary language with its cumbersome grammar which we had to learn at school. Had we known at the time that Sinhala, mother’s mother tongue was an Indo-European language sharing a distant relationship with a good many European languages including English, our feelings about it might have been a bit different.
And when it came to faith, we could only gleefully compare our Islamic faith to Christianity. Christians, after all, held a special place in our faith. Had not our Holy Book, the Qur’an declared: “And nearest among them in love to the Believers wilt thou find those who say “We are Christians”. Because among these are men devoted to learning, and men who have renounced the world”.
Islam had much in common with the teachings of Christ, which we Muslims regard as a Divine revelation known as the Injeel or Evangel. The Almighty Creator whom we Muslims call Allah ‘The God’, Christians simply called God or God the Father. Our prophets were also the same. Thus the first man known as Adam to the Christians is Aadam to us Muslims, Noah is Nuh, Abraham is Ibrahim, Joseph is Yusuf, David is Dawud and Solomon is Sulaimaan. Jesus too we Muslims regard as a Prophet by the name of Eesa, but not as the Son of God. He we believe to have been immaculately conceived in the womb of Mary whom we call Maryam following an angelic visitation and he we believe will return to earth to usher in an era of just rule before the end of the world. We too believed in angels as the Christians did, calling Gabriel Jibreel and Michael Mikail. Man’s arch foe, that fiendish devil Satan we Muslims knew as Shaitaan, a horned evil being created from fire whose only desire was to drag men to his fiery abode. The Lord’s Payer had its equivalent in Surah Al Fatiha which is the opening chapter of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an and when the Christian says Amen at the end of his prayer, the Muslim says Aameen. We also shared a belief in the afterlife, the gardens of paradise for the godly and hellfire for the evil ones. Such similarities between our Islamic faith and Christianity we loved to stress.
Despite all this, our Sinhala Buddhist kin never once attempted to impose their views on us, not even clandestinely. There were the times when grandma hauled us to see the colourful, brightly lit pandals in the month of Vesak which narrated the life story of the Buddha and stories of his previous births as told in the Jataka tales – modern versions of the toranas or the gateways of the temples of old on which were carved similar themes. But that was it. They knew well the teachings of tolerance the Sage preached and followed it to the letter.
The only occasion when there was something of a ‘friction’ was when one day, Asgar and I suddenly got interested in a colourful cut-out of the sage that serenely sat in a corner of the inner hall to which aunt Chandani lit a little lamp and offered freshly culled flowers like the fragrant jasmine as part of her daily pooja. We were wondering who the handsome robed figure really was. Our curiosity had been aroused by the kindly appearance, finely chiseled features, top hair knot and most strikingly by the long pendulant lobes of the Sage which we took indicated that he wore earrings, and which we reasoned could only be worn by women. That was also about the time when we thought in all innocence that women were born with ‘holes’ – pierced ears.
Aunt Chandani who happened to be there quickly rushed to the defense of her master, snapping at us “Can’t you see he’s a man ?” or something to that effect. The words and the tone and tenor in which it was expressed dispelled any doubts we may have had of this whole ‘earring’ affair. Men too wore earrings in the olden days and noble men wore them most often. The Buddha, who was born into a powerful royal family, had in his great compassion for his fellow creatures, renounced the world and taken them off, becoming nobler still in the eyes of men.
The Buddha’s manliness is proverbial among good Sinhala Buddhists who call him Maha Purusha or ‘The Great Man’ and give him as many as thirty two signs of manhood including lion-like chest and black body hair curling clockwise. He had to be. After all, he belonged to the noblest Aryan warrior stock India could boast of. Whatever style he is depicted today does not do the great sage any justice, for as I would learn later in archaeology class, the representations of him we have today with soft features and peppercorn hair is the outcome of the Greek influence that reached North India in the days of Alexander and afterwards, as seen for instance in old Greek statues of Apollo.
‘Umma House’ as we called father’s parental home served us as ‘a home away from home’ in our younger days. It was once a thriving estate known as ‘Darlington’ with stables and even a circular horse track patronized by the elite of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, in the decades preceding and following independence in 1948.
Located at No.30, Alwis Place, Colpetty, in an area traditionally known as Polwatte or Coconut Garden, Darlington was the residence of an Englishman named Charles William Horsfall whose son Basil, a Lieutenant in the British army, died in action in France towards the end of the Great War in 1918, receiving the Victoria Cross for valour in the face of great odds. One of its daughters, simply known as Ms.Horsfall worked at the nearby Girls Friendly Society. Before long it had passed into the hands of the Hussein family – Seyyad Mehdi Hussein and his blue-blooded brood.
The house seems to have been named after the beautiful market town of that name in England famed for its Quaker heritage and old clock tower that thrived in the Victorian era. This magnificent manor-like single-storeyed house had a frontage quite typical of old Ceylonese houses that incorporated both native and European colonial manor type elements in that it had a roofed porch and verandah, not to mention two large halls and as many as six bedrooms. Its ceiling was of Burma teak and it was roofed with flat red Calicut tiles imported from India. The house itself was situated on a sprawling estate of about 2 acres bounded by the road in the front, Bishop’s College in the rear, the Mukthar manor on the right and the bank of the Beira Lake on the left as one entered it from Alwis Place. A gravelly driveway in semi-circular fashion led in and out of the porch which could accommodate a couple of cars.
Here stood the famous ‘Cottonhall Stables’, which at one time served solely to house the well known race horse Cottonhall which Mehdi Hussein trained, but in later times was converted to as many as eight smaller stables, four on each side with a pathway between them. Between the stables and the Beira Lake to its north was a large circular horse track where the horses were trained and which the denizens of Darlington, passing through a four-piece dark green folding door at the rear of the house could view at close range.
In this manor ‘Darlington’ lived the grand patriarch of the family, Seyyad Mehdi Hussein, his wife Rukiya, son Sharif and daughters Safiya, Zakiya, Haseena, Khadija, Hafi and Khatoon, not to mention some of their spouses and offspring who used to ensconce themselves there on a more or less permanent basis or drop in for a long holiday. Darlington was welcome to anybody who could claim kinship to its master either by blood or marriage. A large visitor’s room near the main hall served the purpose of a bedroom for those who wished to reside there for a couple of days or even several months. It was here that in later times the married daughters of the Seyyad who were living elsewhere would resort to after giving birth, spending a couple of months with their newborns in the grand old house, all their cares being diligently looked after by the lady of the house.
The denizens of Darlington were a happy family. Its undisputed head Mehdi Hussein lived a contented life as Ceylon’s best horse trainer patronized by the country’s elitist families who seemed to care more about horses than people. He had amassed a considerable fortune as an award winning world class trainer in the years leading up to and following independence in 1948, though his experience as a trainer went back to the inter-war years, especially the 1930s.
Mehdi Hussein was not a man who always had it easy. It is said that he arrived in the country from Lahore in North India as a young and budding jockey. The punters of the day, probably of the days shortly after the Great War of 1914-18 would observe him as if thinking whether he would deliver the goods, and he would gently stroke his chest as if to say his horse would be the best bet. The man settled down here after marrying a Moor lass from the upcountry still in her blooming teens and became so ‘Ceylonised’ that his offspring were considered Sri Lankans by all and sundry. Ceylon, like India, was then part of the far-flung British Empire and its residents subjects of the British Crown. The policy greatly facilitated the free movement of peoples and goods from India to Sri Lanka which no doubt was looked upon as a happy land to live in and do business. Many such migrants, attracted by the beauty and the opportunities provided by the country, chose to settle down here.
Seyyad Mehdi was a stout, strongly built man whose lineage went back to the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, hence his title of Seyyad ‘master’. His family claimed descent from the Prophet’s grandson Husayn who had espoused a Persian princess Shahrbanoo, the daughter of the last Sassanian emperor Yazdegird whose vast empire the Islamic Arab army overthrew in the 7th century. Their son Zain-al-Abidin given the title of Eben Al-Khiyaratain ‘son of the best two’, united in his person the Prophet’s bloodline, regarded as the noblest among the Arabs, and the bloodline of Persian royalty. Interestingly both these bloodlines could not be acquired in the direct male line, but rather through female personalities, on one side through the Prophet’s favourite daughter Fatima and on the other side through Yazdegird’s daughter Shahrbanoo.
Still the Seyyads traced their descent in the male line, from father to son. They also jealously sought to preserve their proud ancestry, often intermarrying among themselves to preserve their bloodlines, which is quite strange since they themselves originated from a mixed union. In fact it was almost unheard of for a daughter of a Seyyad, a Seyyidah, to be given in marriage to a non-Seyyad. That Sayyad Mehdi Hussein himself married a non-Seyyad woman and gave all his daughters in marriage to non-Seyyads would have been looked upon with askance by his blue-blooded clan. He probably could not care less. Mehdi Hussein was nevertheless proud of the blue blood he so fondly believed flowed in his veins. He would brag to his grandchildren that he never suffered from mosquito bites, gloating that the little vampires had so much regard for his blood that they dare not suck it into their unworthy bellies. He even had live caterpillars crawl across his forearm without irritating it in any way. Naturally, it was covered all over with hair, which needless to say, kept the critters’ bristles at bay. The little children of course believed the story.
Strangely, he could not acquire that uncanny knack when it came to that extremely proud breed of animal, the camel, who were perhaps even prouder than the most blue-blooded of Arabs. He had until his dying day a light scar on his nose which he got when as a little boy he tugged at the tail of a camel. The furious animal, not used to being mishandled, kicked him on the face, leaving a permanent scar on his nose. Little wonder he switched to horses. They gave him more respect, even the sturdy Arabian ones.
He was a devout man and regarded his headgear as an indispensable appendage of a proud Muslim. Though attired in suit or coat, he would like all good Muslim gentlemen of his day, never doff his headdress, a Red Fez or Black Jinnah cap, in public even on the most formal of occasions, even if it were in the presence of the Queen’s representative, the Governor General of Ceylon. His favourite, I am told, was a rather robust red skullcap done on the top with silver filigree work like the domed headpiece of a mediaeval Islamic warrior which he fondly called Dil Pasand (Favourite One).
Mehdi Hussein was best known as a horse trainer for Colombo’s racing elite. The 1950s had seen horse-racing emerge as a top sport in newly independent Ceylon with the Colombo Race Course opposite Royal College and the Nuwara Eliya Turf being among the best racecourses in Asia at the time. That is before horse racing died an untimely death in the early sixties as a result of growing nationalist sentiment, which came in forms such as restrictions on the publication of racing news, heavy import duties on thoroughbred horses and the takeover of the Colombo racecourse, perhaps the best in Asia at the time, for an industrial exhibition and eventually for the expansion of the Colombo University. It was only in the early 1980s that horse racing was revived by the Nuwara Eliya Turf Club.
Mehdi Hussein’s most notable achievement in the field was as the trainer of Cottonhall, Ceylon’s most famous race horse of the olden time. Legend has it that this chestnut with a white blaze on its forehead arrived as part of a consignment of thoroughbreds imported from England by the Ceylon Turf Club. Since little or nothing was known of its pedigree and it did not seem very fit, apparently having a spoilt hoof, the Turf club which could not find a bidder, had decided to sell it at a give-away price. This was when Mrs. T.G.Francis bought it for Rs.18,000, a princely sum even then, but certainly worth for a thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds after all make fine racehorses. The offspring of Arabian stallions with European mares, they typify the benefits of mixed breeding, taking after the virtues of both parents and the vices of none.
Although by itself the Arabian is a small horse, the infusion of its blood with that of the European mare makes the offspring larger and with a longer stride than either parent. It was due to Mehdi Hussein’s untiring efforts in nursing it back to health that the equine castaway became a legend of the turf, so much so that whenever it raced to victory, which it very often did, it became headlines in the national newspapers. Its trainer, it is said, loved it so much that he used to sleep with the animal in its stable while tending to its wound as if it were one of his own offspring. Curing a spoilt hoof after all was no easy task in a sport which clung to the dictum: No hoof, no horse! The concoction he is said to have employed to treat the creature was a blend of eastern medicinal herbs in which margosa leaves figured prominently.
The horse repaid him a thousand-fold, for many were the races Cottonhall won, among these the coveted Governor General’s Bowl at the hands of jockey Jack Raffaele, earning name and fame for its trainer who had so painstakingly tended to it in its most thorny days. It is said that when Cottonhall was taken to run in the Colombo races, Mehdi’s wife Rukiya would kindly address him in Tamil Cottonhall, vettitta vanda, na onakku carrot taruven! (Cottonhall, win and come. I will give you carrots !). The horse, having raced to victory, getting as usual a bad start, but catching on in the second lap and speedily overtaking the rest in the third and final lap, would proudly be conveyed to Darlington by the gudurakaran (horsekeeper), a fellow named Eedoo, who having reached the gates, would release the reins, whereupon it would rush to the porch to receive the promised gift from the hand of the lady of the house. On those rare occasions it lost, it would, walking sadly with head bent down, find its way to the stables. Such was Cottonhall.
The Seyyad loved his horses as much as his family. Both were, after all, high breeds. Such was the love Mehdi Hussein had for his horses that he was often seen patting them gently and even talking to them, addressing them by diminutives such as Baba’ baby’. The stables of Darlington located near the house were almost synonymous with the house of that name. This is where some of Ceylon’s finest race horses were trained. A large store room in close proximity to the stables was regularly supplied with horse feed by Moosajees Forage Works, a large firm run by a group of Indian Muslims. The feed which comprised of oats, corn and a grain known as kollu were stored in large square wooden or metal containers. The horse-keepers, turbaned Indian or Plantation Tamils bearing names like Perumal, Ramasamy and Mutthiah would mix the feed into a mess, adding vitamins to it for good measure before placing these in large circular pans with handles which were then conveyed to the stables for the hungry horses to feed upon.
In the late afternoons or evenings, usually around 4.00 or 5.00 pm the horses would be taken out for a trot, one behind the other, round the circular track facing the Beira Lake to the left of the stables. The horsewalk would be keenly watched by the little grandchildren of Mehdi Hussein seated on the rear steps of Darlington. However training horses called for much more than a mere trot or canter and this was especially so of the Arab horses got down from Iraq.
A proud, stubborn and unwieldy lot, they could not put up with a man on their backs and tended to throw him off. Their trainer had come up with an ingenious way of training the rustics, placing upon their backs a dummy while at the same time attaching a rope to the bridle. The horses would move about in circles while gradually getting used to a load on their backs. That was when the resident jockey, a man named Ramalan would get onto their backs displacing the dummy. The horses would get used to him and eventually be put to race.
Seyyad Mehdi’s love for horses was also shared by his son-in-law Faacy Ghany, my grandfather, who owned as many as three horses, namely, a thoroughbred named Tickle, an Arab named Hilal Ahmed and another named Fazly’s Pet named after his youngest son. Fazly’s Pet is said to have collapsed at the races and died then and there. Faacy’s wife received the news with shock and forbade her husband from naming any more horses after their offspring.
None of the Seyyad’s grandchildren would ever make it big on the turf, except for his eldest grandson Wazir, my father, who in later years went on to own a horse and a pack of ponies stabled at the Nuwara Eliya Turf Club. Grandmother used to say that whenever Seyyad Mehdi and Faacy Ghany went to the Grand Stand to watch their horses race at the old Colombo racecourse, father would supplicate to the Almighty while perched high up atop a guava tree in the backyard of the house, beseeching the Good Lord for grandpa’s horses to win, little doubt for the ice cream and other goodies that would come his way in case a horse or two won. This victory celebration of sorts with ice cream perhaps kindled his interest in horses in later life.
Darlington treated its horses well. They were meant to be ridden only for the races. That these well bred sturdy creatures could be used to convey humans for their day to day affairs was unthinkable. Outside Darlington was a rickshaw, a hooded two-wheeled cart drawn by a man trotting on all twos kept for the use of its inmates, especially the womenfolk who would liberally use it whenever traveling outdoors.
The only humans who seemed to have it better than the horses in the stables were the inmates of Darlington. Mehdi Hussein, needless to say, treated himself well, believing as he did that he was a mix of Arabian and Persian royalty. In a country that only knew of a British sovereign and a local landed Radala aristocracy he could not reasonably expect any right royal treatment from the powers that be and did himself that favour, at the same time dispensing with the trappings that went with it.
The queen of his house, and of his heart, the fair Rukiya, steady as a rock by his side, also lived a happy life, fattening herself on the fowl she reared in the premises of Darlington, conveniently feeding the gluttons with her husband’s horse feed to fatten them for the table. She also shared her husband’s love for horses as it brought her good money. The Seyyad regularly gifted her a number of aged or disabled horses unfit for the races. These she formed into a horse training school in a part of the estate that extended near the Beira Lake, taking as its caretaker the resident jockey named Ramalan. The dame earned good money from the venture, packing the dough into pillow cases. Muslims then did not bank their money as it meant taking interest which was forbidden by their faith, and instead saved it or invested it in land. She was charitable nevertheless and gave away part of her earnings to needy folk who would visit Darlington every Monday and Friday morning for the sole purpose of receiving some coins from her generous hands.
Mehdi Hussein’s firstborn, and only son Sheriff was himself an accomplished horse-trainer who had his stables somewhere between Green Path and Alwis Place. His second child, and the eldest of his daughters, Shafiya Bee married one Faacy Ghany, an astute businessman and social worker who eventually went on to become Deputy Mayor of Colombo. She bore him as many as ten children, seven sons, Wazir, Nazir, Ameer, Ashroff, Hyder, Mazahir and Fazly and three daughters Fairoze, Shafeeka and Shanaz. Her younger sister Haseena also married well, to a scion of a prominent Moor family of the south, Proctor Anwar, a handsome, well-to-do and yet down-to-earth gentleman who whisked his bride away to live with him at Brown’s Hill in Matara. Their five children, four sons, Akhtar, Saftar, Sharwar and Musharraf and a daughter Faizoona were all born in Colombo and spent their early infancy as well as much of their holidays at Darlington. Khadeeja, yet another daughter of the Seyyad married one Ariff, a dark, bespectacled lanky looking draftsman, through whom she had a daughter Fatima, their only child. The little family lived in Wellawatte, but moved into Darlington to spend a couple of years while Fatima was still a little girl.
If these three daughters of the house had it good, there were three more who were not so fortunate. Hafi, a daughter of the Seyyad who married a railway guard from Kandy named Kareem died in childbirth while giving birth to her son Jaufar. Another daughter Zakiya remained a spinster throughout her life. She was unable to marry as she was hunched a bit, the result, it is said, of cracking her spine when as a little girl she crept under a table and suddenly stood up, the force of the hard wood striking against her back, leaving her a bit bent even later in life. Despite being unable to marry, she fulfilled her duties as a daughter of the house in the kitchen, cooking for the rest of the household. She was fondly called Zaki Sacchi by her nephews and nieces upon whom she doted, despite being unable to have children of her own.
And then there was Khatoon, the youngest daughter of the house whose fate was a sad one. She lived a cloistered life as a cripple tucked away in a room at Darlington. It is said that when her mother was expecting her, she had attempted to pluck a bunch of bananas which came crashing down upon her belly. She came into the world, it is said, with swollen red eyes and blood clots on her arms, but otherwise seemed to be healthy. In fact as a little girl, she would, upon learning of her brother-in-law Faacy’s approach, run towards him, inquiring Macchan, ais kireem, ais kireem (Brother-in-law, ice cream, ice cream).
When she was about five years old, she began experiencing terrible bouts of epileptic fits, so intense that her elders had to hold her tight to control her till it subsided. It was on one such occasion, when they held her harder than usual, they heard a crack and discovered that she had broken a leg, crippling her permanently. She could not stand or walk or even sleep upon a bed as there remained the risk of her toppling over and further injuring her frail body. She was therefore kept on the floor upon a mat and supplied with all the essentials to live away her life in solitude and relative peace until God took her away.
Darlington also had a watchdog named Jimmy who watched over the horses like a sheepdog, so much so that if they ever tried to run away, it would bark out loud and catch hold of the rein. Jimmy was always kept outside the house as Islamic teachings held that angels would not enter a house where there were dogs though it permited the keeping of hunting dogs and watch dogs provided they were not taken inside the house. Besides letting faithful Jimmy watch over the estate like a sentry would, the Seyyad also had this penchant for shooting his shotgun into the air every once in a while as if to say to all those within earshot: No messing around here !
And so it was that the denizens of Darlington lived in relative peace and security under the guardianship of the man they all called Abba ‘father’ which included not just his children but also his grandchildren as this respectable term of address for the sire stuck, which is not surprising in such a patriarchal household. The little ones had it better than anyone else here, with ample space to play about in the house and garden and so many cousins as playmates. Though most of them were not permanent residents of Darlington they spent a good part of their childhood here, like in the school holidays, not to mention during the Islamic festivals of Ramazan and Hajj when the entire family would gather at the great house. Further company came from the Deutrom boys Peter, Ryan and Sean and their sister Zorina all of whom lived at Darlington Estate, in a large oblong building running almost the entire length of the Seyyad’s house which had been rented out or leased to this lovely Burgher family.
Besides the usual games kids of their age played, they had come up with a number of other unconventional forms of recreation from flora and fauna in the vicinity. Near the entrance to the house was a large and flamboyant Trumpet Flower tree that every now and then sent forth countless flared bell-shaped pink flowers that would, ruffled by the wind, drop to the ground like parachutes. The boys from the Ghany, Anwar and Deutrom families would compete with one another to catch the flowers before they made landfall, the one who caught the most number within the stipulated time, say an hour or so, being the winner. Another interesting game involved the large black tortoises that crawled up from Beira lake and found their way to the kitchen at night to nibble at the cabbage and other leaves that had been thrown away. Once they had their fill, the boys would light their own candles, stick them on the shells of the critters and watch them amble back to the Beira, keeping an eye for the one that made it to the lake first. This nocturnal pastime was not without its dangers, for one of Darlington’s daughters Haseena would recall to the young ones an incident when she and a sister had done the same, letting a tortoise out of their sight, only to discover the following morning that instead of finding its way to the lake, it had taken the opposite path, making its way to a heap of straw outside the stables and setting it on fire, roasting alive the unwitting arsonist.
Interesting encounters with the human kind also took place on occasion, sometimes scaring the wits off the younger ones. One was when the grandfather of the Deutrom boys, a fair Burgher of European ancestry would dress as Santa Claus for Christmas Day. Most kids would have found him fascinating, but not so Haseena’s little daughter Faizoona who was simply terrified at the sight of the old man dressed in the strange garb clowning about. The poor thing had been so scared that she would vividly recall it even after thirty years. One can only imagine how Santa’s monotonous drawl of ho,ho,ho,ho would have been met with a little girl’s shriek of eek!
The folk who lived here also recall encounters of a more mysterious kind. There had once stood in the Mukthar’s estate closer to the border with Darlington a huge mango tree bearing pol amba, large mangos almost the size of coconuts, that would in windy or rainy days fall over to Darlington estate to be immediately set upon by the little Ghanys and Anwars on one side and the Deutroms on the other, the first to grab hold of it being reckoned its owner. However a strange thing happened one night. That was when Haseeena was pregnant with a younger son, probably Musharraf and residing at Darlington as it was her practice to move to her parental home whenever she gave birth, which was always in a hospital or nursing home in Colombo. She was occupying a room facing the Mukthar estate when she heard a loud thud which she guessed was a falling mango that had hit the ground like a bombshell. She crept out the window and started towards the mango, only to find it rolling towards the stables whenever she attempted to pick it up. Suspecting that some unseen force was moving it away from her, she gave it up and returned to her room. Was it her imagination running riot, or was it a hungry jinn or two on the prowl claiming their spoils. These imps or goblin-like creatures who according to Islamic belief were created from smokeless fire are particularly active at night and are even believed to pilfer food from humans to satisfy their needs.
Haseena was particularly prone to strange visitations when she was expecting Musharraf who was fondly known as Baba or Baby on account of his being her lastborn. She once saw in a dream a woman with a deformed hand clawing at her belly, and strangely when the child was born one of his hands was kora, a bit disjointed, though it was eventually corrected.
The really good times at Darlington were soon coming to an end. The virtual ban on horse racing in the mid-1960s by the nationalist government of the day had deprived the Seyyad of his livelihood which was training the horses of the rich and famous. His favorite steed, Cottonhall was soon gone and its days of glory only a fleeting memory. The poor creature, neglected by its once proud owner, died, it is said, ‘a pauper’s death’ without care or nourishment and was buried in Nuwara Eliya. Once a wealthy landed proprietor, the Seyyad was by 1970, compelled to sell a good part of his front garden to survive the lean times.
Worse was to come his way- a string of deaths in the family. One of his daughters Hafi died in childbed to be followed by his only son Sheriff. But it was the death of his beloved wife Rukiya that affected him most. Though she had a long life – she was 72 years when she died – the man was inconsolable. A man who hardly if ever wept could now be seen weeping like a child.
On the fortieth day after her demise, when the family held a ceremony known as khattam in her memory, he temporarily lost his memory. One day when he took his gun out to renew the license, the fugue got him, and he was seen wandering about aimlessly in the streets. A Malay policeman named Tuan, recognizing the man, conveyed him home and warned its shocked residents never to let him out like that again. He did not have long to suffer the solitude, for he passed away a couple of months later. He was 86 years old at the time. It was 1972, the year that my twin brother Asgar and I were born. Father, who was living with mother shortly after our birth at Victoria Drive, Kandy, got the news from uncle Nazir. The telegram briefly read: Abba expired. Funeral tomorrow 9AM.
Abba ‘father’, an Urdu word of Syriac origin widely used by the Christians of the east in addressing their monks and even in the West in forms like French abbé was the name by which they all knew him. His children, his grandchildren, they all called him that. His surname of Hussein was even passed on to his daughters’ sons as their middle name with some members of the following generation being bestowed it as their surname. Needless to say this included me and my brothers, all of whom bear the surname Hussein, Arabic for ‘little beauty’.
Once the Seyyad had been laid to rest, the tongues, especially of the women of the house, started wagging. Some like Haseena thought that the inexplicable string of deaths was the result of an evil, perhaps in the form of a spirit of some sort, that had taken hold of the house after the destruction of a tree. There had stood near the entrance to Darlington a huge Pink Trumpet Tree which one of Mehdi’s sons-in-law Ariff never liked. Given to superstitious mumbo jumbo he urged the old man to chop it down as it was, he claimed, a ‘bad’ tree from whose wood coffins (ponampetti) were made and could be possessed by spirits (pey). The Seyyad, not wishing to fall out with his obstinate son-in-law got the tree cut down.
However, something strange happened the night after it was brought down. The Seyyad’s daughter Hafi, pregnant with her first child, had looked out of the window and heard this eerie sound, a sort of rumbling, as if somebody were dragging a heavy chain. She told her mother the following morning Umma, umma, dar marutta ilitita poran (Mother, mother, somebody dragged away the tree). Not much later she experienced a very strange dream where she saw herself picking up a paper, one of several that were falling down near her, only to be told by a mysterious voice that she would die in childbirth. The bad dream she confided in her mother, and certain of the premonition coming true, entrusted her child to her. The poor woman died in childbed.
Another explanation put forth by another daughter of the house Shafiya was that evil had befallen the family as a result of the bad mouth of a domestic named Alice who upon seeing the big happy family gathered together at Darlington for the Muslim festivals of Ramazan and Hajj would utter words such as Loku nonata, mekama eti (This itself is enough for big madam!) or Mekama eti ogollanta (This itself is enough for you’ll) to her mistress Rukiya. Now, Muslims like the Sinhalese believe in the ill-effects of the evil mouth, the kata-vaha or ‘mouth-poison’ where words of high praise heaped on somebody is believed to invite disastrous results irrespective of the intention of the speaker. If one should do so, he or she must say Masha Allah (As God wills) to prevent evil befalling the object of one’s admiration. Needless to say poor Alice was not aware of this and so was blamed for the family’s misfortune.
It did not end there. Akhtar, one of the Seyyad’s more thoughtful grandsons had come up with a more ingenious explanation. He felt that the deaths were the results of the grand feasts the family gave to the poor including their neighbours as part of the khattam ceremonies. The Muslims of those days, though not so much today, held on the fortieth day following the death of a family member, a function known as khattam which involved the recitation of the entire Muslim holy book, the Qur’an in one sitting, and entertaining family, friends and neighbours rich and poor for a meal, in the belief that the merit so acquired would pass on to the deceased in the afterlife. Akhtar’s reasoning was that the sumptuous meals given to the poorer residents of Muhandiram Road and other neighbouring areas had resulted in these folk praying that there be more deaths in the house, so that they could continue to have the free meals being liberally dished out by courtesy of the House of Hussein. Now that was some food for thought. That he was taken seriously is not surprising.
The Seyyad had died intestate and the family decided to sell Darlington so that all his heirs could be given their fair share. Fortunately for them, one of the Seyyad’s more enterprising grandsons, Nazir, who had by then amassed a considerable fortune, offered to buy the property at a fair price. Darlington was saved. The Ghanys could now come to roost in their old haunt which they had left a few years earlier for a large upstair house at Stratford Avenue Kirulapone. The entire family with the exception of the eldest son Wazir who was married, moved to Darlington, all thanks to the munificence of this young but wealthy scion of the family.
Nazir did not stop at that. He gave the house a facelift to keep up with the times, completely changing its façade by doing away with the pillars and roofed porch that stuck out of the house like the wide open jaws of an angry beast and rearranging its innards to suit his finer taste. He gave it a more Islamic touch, erecting at its entrance an arched doorway more like a gate, somewhat in the form of an onion dome in true Indo-Saracenic style. The see-through door had at its centre two hemispherical pieces of wood that joined at the point of opening to form a solar disc from which radiated ribbons of white mantled metal stylistically depicting the rays of the sun.
Thinking big as he always did, he also added to its front portion another storey overlooking the garden below, like the visor of a helmeted cop, giving it a very much more modern visage, and as if that were not enough, he also hollowed out from its frontal portion the two eyes of the house, a pair of large windows in the shape of ovals to see from and let in light and air, fortified in the lower part with railings attached to semi-circular pieces of wood from which rays of metal emanated as if representing the lower hemisphere of the sun, though it could also convey the image of an eye half veiled by an eyelid that seemed to wink. The spot commanded a splendid view of the garden below with its marigolds and sunflowers and pretty little flowers of various colours known to our Sinhalese friends as Japan Rosa but to our Muslim aunts as Dubaai Rosa.
It was this house that we would come to call ‘Umma House’ after the matriarch of the family Shafiya, the eldest daughter of its one-time owner Seyyad Mehdi and mother of its then proprietor Nazir Ghany, whom we addressed as umma or ‘mother’. The term, from the Arabic umm meaning ‘mother’ is widely used by local Muslims in addressing their mothers, but we used it to address our grandmother. We had gotten used to the term as her children addressed her as such and we simply took after them. Strangely, it was only her younger children who called her as such. The elder children called her, their own mother, data or ‘elder sister’, having heard from their very young days the word being used as such by their aunties, who were all younger to their mother. They simply borrowed it to address their mother and nobody thought anything about it. But then again nobody bothered correcting us either. At least we did not take after her elder children in calling her data. If we did it was a sure way of bridging the much talked about generation gap.
Curiously my earliest memories of Umma House are not of grandma after whom we had named the house, but of another woman we called ‘Coffee aunty’ because whenever mother in our very early years took us there for a visit, she would prepare for us little cups of coffee. I remember her as a pleasant kindly woman clad in a long gown, perhaps a kaftan. As I would find out later, this mysterious figure was Zakiya, an unmarried daughter of the Seyyad who attended to the cooking chores of the house till her last days. She breathed her last, heartbroken at being separated from her nephew Jaufar whom she had been looking after for several years following the death of his mother in childbed. She died seven days after the boy was taken away by his father. We were around four years old then which is why my memories of her are rather hazy.
Another obscure character I recall to this day was this rather pathetic looking figure, always seen lying on a floor in the gloom of an unlit room. She lay there under a pile of rags or cowering under a tattered sheet. Whenever we kids went that way, she would, aroused by the noise, stir, sitting up or popping her noddle out to rest her gaze upon those who had disturbed her repose. She would stare vaguely with blank, expressionless eyes as if there was nothing behind it like a zombie that had just woken up. Startled, and gawping with excitement, we would scuttle away in fright as if we had just seen a monstrosity, much to the amusement of our aunts. We had no need to fear, for she was frail and fragile, like a flower without sunlight.
She was Khatoon, the youngest daughter of the Seyyad who had in her young days suffered epileptic fits and a broken leg that immobilized her for life. Life had been cruel to her no doubt, but she always had somebody to care for her in her dark, dim, days, living in a dungeon of sorts from which she could not break away. Even though she was not confined as a prisoner would and could come out of her room if she wished, she never did. She cared not, she dared not, as if invisible walls were all round her; walls her mind had formed to immure her from venturing beyond, to what was a seemingly hostile, unfamiliar world. Her little cell was enough for her. She died young, when we were around six years old, though I can still vaguely remember the poor thing, lame and limp, in her little corner of the world.
The Angel of Death did not visit the rest of the inmates for a long long time and my reminiscences of them are as clear as crystal, slightly tinged no doubt with the roseate tint one’s mind’s eye acquires when looking back on those happy days. Grandmother, or umma as we called her, was a rather plump, pleasant-looking woman who loved having us around. A devout woman, we would often see her silently engaged in prayer. She always wore a saree well draped over her person with a little bit left over at the back to draw over her head when in the presence of strange men. It very often happened that when we visited her in the mornings, she would make us ‘egg coffee’, milk coffee to which she added a raw egg, a most wholesome and delicious drink almost filled to the brim which we quaffed with delight. The reason I suspect she had us indulge in the stuff was because she thought we were too thin and sought to give our little frames some bulk.
In later times, when we were ten or so, she had cultivated this generous habit of giving us a rupee each whenever we visited her, sometimes going to the extent of winkling out the coins from her large earthen till with the help of a kitchen knife. Very often she had no problem dispensing us the baksheesh, for she kept a particoloured purse made of reed in her person neatly tucked in between her breasts. Being an all too homely type, she was a bit naïve though, and readily believed what her few friends, gossipy old dames like the one we called Nona Sacchi from Slave Island, a fair crone with slit eyes, told her. One such fable she repeated to us was the existence of half-fish, half-woman creatures in the sea which she thought to be true. We were not impressed, having read that mermaids were the outcome of sailor’s imaginations running wild upon seeing dugongs, which is quite likely given the fact that they were without women at sea and were quite naturally sex-starved.
Grandma however had a keen insight into animal nature, for in one part of the kitchen open to the backyard through glass Venetian blinds was hung a tussock of black feathers as if matted or clumped together taken obviously from a dead crow, which she figured would keep the living ones out. Right she was here, for not one dared hop into the house. Local crows, despite being thick-feathered, are very sensitive creatures when it comes to any of their number, holding elaborate funerals for a fallen comrade with a sombre, incessant dirge, cacophonically cawing away kaak, kaak, kaak from boughs and treetops, loudly and very publicly lamenting their loss.
Like many Muslim women of her generation, she was given to two exotic habits even her daughters would eschew. One was chewing a mixture of betel leaves and arecanut which she pounded in a little stone mortar and mingled with chunam, a pinkish lime paste made of pulverized bivalve shells, before shoving it into her mouth. She chewed the mix till it stained her lips a blood red. What she got out of it I cannot say, except that it probably gave her some sort of pep. Another was sniffing mookkuttul or ‘nose powder’, a brown coloured snuff which she kept in a little container. A pinch of the stuff placed near the nose would result in a sneeze or hakis (atishoo) as we called it. The pious lady she was, she probably got a thrill out of it since her Muslim faith required that she utter the prayer Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God!) after every sneeze with everybody within earshot being obliged to respond with Yarahmakallah (God have Mercy on You!).
It was of course her culinary skills that earned for her a place in our hearts, for she could turn out a hearty meal from whatever she had, and this even mother, herself a culinary expert, would concede, saying that she had what they called ‘the hand’. Whether it be that rich rice dish known as buriyani or that delicious pudding known as vattalappam, or even a simple soft boiled egg in beef gravy, none could beat it the way grandma used to make it.
Grandfather, Faacy Ghany, we called vappa or ‘father’ because everyone else did so and we had no intention of being any different. A self-made man he preferred an independent life and disdained getting too involved in the family business Hijazia Press run by his father Cader Sahib Mohamed Ghany. He rose to become a well known social worker through the good offices of the Ceylon Muslim League of which he was a prominent member in the inter-war years, both as ‘propaganda Secretary’ whatever that meant, and later as General Secretary during which he played a major role in the Malaria relief campaign following the great epidemic that claimed the lives of thousands in the 1930s before it was virtually eliminated with DDT within a decade.
He eventually stepped into the political arena, contesting the Colombo Municipal elections as an independent and was elected Deputy Mayor of Colombo, a prestigious office given the fact that Colombo was then the uncontested capital of the country, Sri Jayawardenapura, Kotte taking its place only in 1982. In later years he ran a thriving transport business based in Old Moor Street, Hulftsdorp with a fleet of lorries named Ceylon Freighters whose job it was to transport goods from the Colombo Port to the Government Stores. In still later times, he was vested with the task of supplying nutritious ‘CARE” biscuits to school children all over the island which continued well into the 1980s, for I remember the stacks of biscuit boxes stored in the house which we liberally helped ourselves to. It was in the early 1980s that grandfather took a keen interest in helping the country’s vanishing Vedda community amidst encroaching settlement projects that threatened to disrupt their traditional way of life. He visited the aboriginal village of Dambana in the eastern hinterland that jealously clung to its old lifestyle and met Vedda chief Tisahamy and his son Vanniya along with Swedish anthropologist Viveca Stegborn to study the needs of the community and come up with solutions to their problems. All this at a time when the aboriginal communities here and the world over were still a neglected lot, well before any interest in safeguarding indigenous peoples and their cultures emerged in the 1990s.
Grandpa often struck me as a wily old fox which he somewhat resembled. He was renowned for his wit and many were those who tasted of his sharp, unfaltering tongue. Among them his wife’s young niece Faizoona who once asked him which of his two daughters, Fairoze or Shafeeka he loved most. She expected him to say Shafeeka!, as she regularly supplied him, often surreptitiously, with the dainties her mother made; surreptitiously because the couple was not on talking terms then. Pat came the reply: If I were to ask you which one of your eyes you loved, what would you have to say ? We too were sometimes at our wits end to provide a satisfactory answer to his querries. He once asked me: If you see two people in a fight, who would you help ? I puzzled over it before conceding I did not know the answer. He answered tersely: The weaker of them!
But none of it could beat what brother Asgar had to contend with when one fine day, he formed his hand into the shape of a gun with his forefinger pointing towards him and shot out: Vappa, surrender or die ! The repartee struck him dumbfound. He would later compose a poem about it Bang Bang published as part of a collection of poems entitled Termite Castle:
A child, I once aimed my forefinger
At my grandfather for fun
And told him ‘Surrender or die’
Calm as always, he replied
‘How can I surrender to someone
Who doesn’t know the difference
Between his finger and a gun ?’
The words struck like bullets
And I realized the power
Of a loaded tongue
Uncle Nazir, the actual master of the house looked very much like Yasser Arafat sans his keffiyeh and gun of course. Sadly he was away from home most of the time, in Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore negotiating business deals. When he did return, it was with a suitcase or two packed with all manner of things for his kith and kin, especially his sisters. He would, calling out to us raajaa ‘king’, present us with playthings like coloured racing cars and toy guns with silver bullets. For his little cousin Fatima whom he fondly addressed as Nona ‘Lady’ he brought pretty frocks and toy saucers and pans.
He always made it for the festival days of Hajj and Ramazan to play host to friends and relatives who visited Umma House that day, helping in the slaughter of a goat which let out a spray of blood in its final moments and entertaining the guests for a luncheon where its meat was served in a rich rice dish. Uncle Nazir was by then a leading entrepreneur. He had become rich importing cloth rolls, it is said, taking advantage of a ‘loophole’ in the law and went on to build the country’s largest shopping mall at the time Bang Bang in the heart of downtown Colombo. He even tried his hand in film making. That was in the early 1980s when he produced the Sinhala movie Samaavenna (Forgive Me) directed by Milton Jayawardhana that had Tony Ranasinghe and Vasanthi Chaturani in the lead roles. Umma House, which had until then shied from public gaze became one of the locations for the shooting. It was around this time, while playing upstairs that we kids stumbled upon some polythene packets containing false blood, obviously meant to be used for the movie in true tinseltown style. We found the packs more inviting than hungry vampires would and soon the thick crimson fluid was splattered all over.
Though he could not be a patron of the arts for long, uncle Nazir was a man of fine tastes and this was seen in his home. In the front portion of the house below the stairway was a large aquarium with one side of the wall as a backdrop adorned with natural scenes like a mango tree that grew out of the wall to shade the tank with a couple of overhanging branches. Even the fish in it had it good, being fed with tiny red bloodworms that came in transparent polythene packs. He eventually married the girl next door. The lucky lass Adilah was the only daughter of Bookie Baron Mukthar who lived in a maginificent snow white mansion with a lovely lawn adjoining Umma House.
The wedding was celebrated with much fanfare at the bride’s house as was the Muslim custom then, though the bridegroom’s house whence we proceeded to the wedding house was also gaily lit that night. Adilah, whom we addressed as Sitty aunty was a sprightly lady with a gift of the gab who never failed to create a sensation wherever she went. She felt we were a bit too naughty and threatened to pull our trousers down whenever we became too noisy, the threat sufficing to keep us quiet for a while. Unfortunately their marriage was a short-lived one.
Uncle Nazir had his sidekicks who stuck with him longer. One fellow, a small made Sinhalese chap whom everybody simply called A.D – after his initials no doubt – was a frequent visitor to Umma House. He blended well with the rest of the household, so much so that he was almost like a family member. He could be mischievous at times, such as when he once offered us a whitish coin, rather bleached and very light in weight, in exchange for a packet of chiclets, little pillow-shaped, peppermint flavoured, candy-coated, chewing gum produced by Cadbury Adams that came in yellow rectangular cardboard packets that uncle Nazir had brought home from one of his overseas trips. The piece, he had us believe, was a foreign coin while it was actually a local square-shaped 5 cent or a scallop-edged 10 cent coin made of aluminium which had only been recently circulated and which we were still unfamiliar with, the coins of such denominations circulating until then being made of a heavier copper alloy such as brass.
Little did we know then that the government of the day -that was around 1978 – had commenced minting coins out of aluminium instead of brass due to increasing reports of people melting 5 or 10 cent coins for the metal as its value exceeded the face value of the coin itself, a result no doubt of increasing inflation. Another good thing that came out of it was that it was lighter on the pocket. The downside was that it got defaced within a few years of use. The chiclets we then so gladly parted with gave better value for money than these almost worthless pieces of inferior metal and would have probably lasted longer had they remained undigested, so that we ended up having a pretty raw deal.
And then there was uncle Ameer just younger to Nazir who bore a certain resemblance to him, in that both were sturdily built and curly-haired. One trait however marked them poles apart, for while uncle Nazir was fair-complexioned, uncle Ameer was as black as a Nubian, being the darkest member of the Ghany family. Being an Elvis fan, he had formed his curly crop of hair into a bump and grew sideburns. He was a very lively character and a showman of sorts, who even on his wedding night, held at his bride Misiriya’s residence at Quarry road, Dehiwala in mid-July 1977 put up a ‘magic show’ just to entertain us kids.
Uncle Ashroff, a more businesslike character, loved taking the kids on a ride, either piggyback perched on his sturdy shoulders or on a joyride in his car. An independent man, his presence in Umma House was less marked than his siblings. And then there was uncle Hyder whose real name was Farook, but had been bestowed the nickname Hyder, meaning ‘Lion’ by his maternal grandfather Seyyad Mehdi Hussein. The Seyyad gave him the name as it was the epithet of his forefather Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and fourth Caliph of Islam, also known as ‘The Lion of God’.
A moral luminary, he thought of us as a bit too worldly-minded and I can still remember his sagely counsel to us in our very young days when we were pestering mother for something or other: I cried for a pair of shoes till I saw a man with no legs. He was also a visionary of sorts. Once while we were discussing how hard maths was, he prophesied that very soon there would be no need to work out sums with pen and paper since electronic calculators which were then coming into the country, would render it obsolete. He was right, except that at school we still had to do our math with pencil and paper. Besides well meant avuncular advice, however, he did not give us much else, except for some Rufia banknotes he had brought home after a stint in the Maldives.
Uncles Mazahir and Fazly were inseparable like Laurel and Hardy to whom they bore a certain resemblance as far as their body sizes were concerned, one being lean and the other rather burly. In fact, being the youngest males in the family and obviously spoilt they often banded together to do some mischief or other when occasion arose. Like when their wealthy but somewhat niggardly father took along with him his daughter Shafeeka and her cousin Faizoona for the occasional treat of a buriyani at Majestic Hotel, Bambalapitiya. The duo, sensing something was up, would find their way to the hotel by bus before the old man and the two young ladies stepped into the place, whereupon he would treat them as well, but not without a grumble. Uncle Mazahir, whom we always called Maji uncle, eventually got serious and found his way to Iraq, then under strongman Saddam Hussein, to work there for a couple of years, eventually returning with some toys and a set of colourful stickers of the flags of all Arab countries, kingdoms, emirates and republics, which he proudly presented to us. Uncle Fazly always remained the stay-at-home boy known for his carefree and easy-going attitude. A jovial chap he had ample time to play cards with us kids and regale us with his jokes. Besides he was a man of many parts. He once pulled out what we thought to be his mop of hair to reveal a bald head and on another occasion casually took out his entire set of teeth. I am still left wondering why he wore wigs and dentures at that young age.
And then there were our three aunts Fairoze, Shafeeka and Shanaz who along with their mother took care of us whenever we were left over at Umma House by our parents when they were busy at the auctions. An adventurous lot, they often took us out in the evenings to the Galle Face Green and on one occasion to the cinema to watch The Jungle Book. It was also from them that we received our earliest religious instruction, at about the age of four. They would have us sit cross-legged on the floor and utter Allalla, Allalla with our eyes closed, and as we continued with the recitation, a 5 or 10 cents coin would fall from above, a reward for our prayer. They had us believe that it came from the heavens, from the Good Lord Allah Himself.
Aunt Fairoze, the eldest and prettiest of the lot, married her namesake, an engineer from Kandy named Firoze, the wedding being held on a grand scale at Umma House in 1977. Those were the days when Muslim weddings were still held at the house of the bride, though even at that time the custom was gradually changing in favour of having the wedding at a hotel. In this sense, aunt Firoz’s wedding was more in keeping with tradition than those of her two younger sisters both of whose weddings were held at leading hotels in Colombo. When the big night came, it was one great party with Umma House well lit and gaily decorated so that passers-by would have probably thought that it were a little carnival. I even recall a makeshift stage erected in the front garden where a live musical band was playing. They were The Three Sisters, Sri Lanka’s top all-female Sinhala pop group comprising of the three sisters Mallika, Indrani and Irangani who were especially got down by uncle Nazir for the occasion. The wedding of aunt Shafeeka to lawyer Imran Hassan, though held in grand style at Hotel Ranmuthu in 1982 never had the kind of ambience aunt Fairoze’s wedding had, and still less so was aunt Shanaz’ s wedding to Dr.Abu Thahir. The good old days of celebrating weddings at the bride’s place were all but over.
Also contributing to the fun at Umma House were the members of the Anwar family who were cousins to the Ghanys. They often visited and stayed at the house as if they owned it, a throwback to the good old days of their grandfather Mehdi Hussein who made everybody feel at home at Darlington. Little wonder they cultivated a sense of entitlement to it. Especially memorable were the antics of the threesome of Akhtar, Sharwar and Musharraf who we often saw clad in flamboyant shirts and bellbottoms as was the fashion then. They were a fun-loving lot obsessed with Bombay, often singing the song Bom bom bom bom, Bombay meri hai and even joking that my twin brother Asgar who had a slight squint was Bombay looking Calcutta going!
Their little cousin Fatima, the daughter of grandaunt Khadija who lived at Wellawatte also visited Umma House and made a good playmate, being only a year or two older to us. With her we played some silly games like Hide and Seek, Hopscotch, Mulberry Bush or London Bridge is falling down though sometimes we found occasion to send her to Coventry, only to be chided by mother who had a soft spot for her.
There were of course some things we loved doing together, like cracking open the kottang, the nuts of the Ceylon almond we found scattered by the roadside of Alwis Place near the turn to Muhandiram Road or in the little lane separating the Mukthar’s from Umma House. The tree grew in the Mukthar premises but strewed its nuts all over. We cracked these open with a stone or grandma’s heavy iron pestle which she used to pound her arecanuts and betel with. It would, like a pearl oyster, reveal a starchy kernel with a light brown coating resembling an almond which we popped into our little mouths. There were nevertheless occasions when Fatima had to pay a price for our friendship such as when one day she informed me that a beggar was at the gates. I promptly gave her an aluminium 1 cent coin to be given to the ragged old fellow, only to have the poor girl, visibly annoyed, tell me a while later that the ingrate had spat at her and gone away fussing and cussing and muttering all sorts of obscenities for giving him such a trifle. She was quite cross with me and to think I had done her a favour. I should have known better; beggars, in spite of their slothful temperament, haggard appearance and tattered garb tend to have great expectations, fondly imagining being at the receiving end of things we would not deign conjure up even in our wildest fantasies. Nothing after all is so wild as the imagination of a beggar.
Living in the same premises, but in a little rickety timber cabin made of wooden planks and roofed with crinkled tin were Ramalan, the family horsekeeper, and his wife Vimala. The superannuated jockey could not shake off his thralldom to the house he had served for so long and was permitted by its mistress to build his log cabin in the precincts rent-free. The old couple continued to be dependents of the house, doing all sorts of odd jobs for grandmother every now and then. We often saw Ramalan, a thin, swarthy balding old fellow with two little tufts of hair on either side of the head near the ears crouching on his haunches near Umma House looking much like a giant bat while Vimala, quite frail looking, would regularly run errands for grandma.
Their sons Razik and Farook were accomplished jockeys with the elder serving millionaire industrialist Upali Wijewardena and the younger serving father during the great horseracing days of the early 1980s. Facing Umma House at the turn from Alwis Place to Muhandiram Road was this rather elongated house known simply as ‘Malay House’. Here lived a Malay family, the Ibrahims, whose forbears little doubt hailed from the Indonesian archipelago or Malayan peninsula about three centuries ago when the Dutch were ruling our maritime districts. With their daughter Zeenah we would play now and then, though she always payed more attention to our bonnie little brother Altaf who was fairer of skin than me or my twin, much to our chagrin, the green-eyed monsters we were then, which to digress a bit, was precisely why we did not like Russian folk tales where the youngest of the trio of brethren, the ubiquitous Ivan is invariably portrayed as the hero.
Park and Prom
Whatever is said of rustic village life, there is no doubt townies have it better, and none have it as good as Colpetty people. Here is where life is, plentifully pregnant with possibilities to get away from the hustle and bustle of it all. Be it a stroll on the Galle Face Green, a ramble round the Beira Lake, an outing with the family at Vihara Maha Devi Park, shopping at the Liberty Plaza or a visit to the Liberty Cinema, Colpetty folk do not have far to go.
Galle face figured prominently in our outings as it was not very far from home, providing us ample space to gambol about amidst the balmy breeze and sea spray. This large esplanade with a nearly mile-long promenade fronting the Arabian Sea to the West seems originally to have been cleared by the Dutch to give their cannons a clear line of fire to keep away invaders from their prize colony which they called Ceylon. The unusual name for the spot Galle Face, however, has Sinhalese antecedents, as it seems to have originated from the Sinhala name Gal-bokka or ‘Rocky Bay’ which originally referred to the coastal stretch to its north which was well provided with natural rock. The Portuguese called it Galle Boca and the Hollanders who succeeded them, taking the Lusitanian usage to mean ‘mouth’ which in the Portuguese language it actually meant, called it Galle Faas or Galle Face which the English adopted, passing it down to us.
The British, whom the big guns of the Dutch could not silence, did much to develop the place as a recreational spot. The Galle Face Walk along the sea-wall, a long promenade about a mile in length was commissioned as far back as 1856 by the Governor of Ceylon Sir Henry Ward in “the interests of the ladies and children of Colombo”. Horse races were also held here until about 1892 when the Havelock Racecourse in Cinnamon Gardens took its place. It also became a venue for evening drives, musical bands and even games of Polo, a tradition that died out when the British left our shores.
Pleasant were the evenings we spent as children on the picturesque turf; frolicking on the patches of grass that carpeted the place and gave it its sobriquet of green, and strolling along the walkway on the sea-wall that faced the lapping waves which then as now swarmed with happy families and merry makers. It was not only our parents who hauled us over to the green, but also our aunts, father’s then unmarried sisters who itched for an outing once in a while chaperoned by a brother or two or even us little ones, in stark contrast to their arch conservative mother who preferred to remain at home tending the hearth. Curiously, mother’s Sinhalese kin never seemed to have had a fascination for the spot in the way our Muslim aunts did and I cannot remember even one occasion going to the green with them. For some reason Muslims seem to gravitate more to this kind of place, so that even today, a foreign visitor, beholding the concourse, might easily get away with the impression that Muslims are a majority here.
The invariable treat a visit to the green brought was an ice cream cone, and in our very young days we would casually comment to one another about an ice cream van being here or there to get mother’s attention, hoping she would get the hint. We would say in a roundabout way “Hmm, there are a lot of ice cream vans today”. Not to be fooled, she would pretend that she did not hear us as she thought that buying us the cones then and there might spoil us, preferring instead to get us the cones a while after the racket had died down.
The Alerics ice cream vans then parked in the kerb between the road and the green did a brisk business selling cones. Anybody could make them out by their distinctive logo which had the word Alerics in red capped by a snow white layer as if topped with ice cream. We were almost always bought vanilla, our parents’ preferred flavour which they foisted on us as well. At the time Alerics was the leading ice cream manufacturer in the country. Established by Alerics De Silva it rose to great heights in the 1960s and 70s, and even set up the country’s first ice cream parlour, Picadilly Café in Wellawatte, an exclusive hang-out patronized by Colombo’s upper crust.
The area nearer the sea wall was occupied by a few see-through hand-pushed carts with glass windows which with sundown would be lit with glowing lamps or lanterns, displaying an array of crunchy savoury snacks like cassava chips loved by both kids and grown ups. Also plying their trade here were small-time vendors peddling their wares-tinkiri karatta, miniature toy carts craftily turned out of discarded tins of condensed milk that when trundled about with a string gave out a rattling tuck tuck sound, and red or multi-coloured paper flowers made of wax paper that rested on a pin fastened to a stalk and whirled with the breeze like a little windmill.
Kite flying was another popular pastime at Galle Face and many were those who found their way to the green just to show off their rustling paper belles. These would dance, caressed by the lusty winds wafting from the waves to the west, sometimes with such ecstasy that their masters had a hard time keeping a grip on the line that bound them, as if trying to hold on to a dog gone mad on the leash. Kites galored then as now at the green and even national kite festivals where kites of all shapes and sizes vied with one another for beauty and grace were held there annually. There were the usual diamond shaped ones made of oil paper and bamboo pieces and the longer serpentine ones that billowed in the breeze.
Even the veil of night here could not hide its charms, for the wide expanse of star-spangled sky the esplanade opened out to at nightfall seemed as if the celestial vault so manifest in the day like an etherial dome had been split asunder to reveal a planetarium of sorts. Lying on one’s back on the grass, spreadeagled, as father often did, one could gaze at the nightly heaven in all its splendour with countless little stars twinkling high above that simply refused to melt into the night. Distinct and aloof they stood in all their arrogance as if looking down on us puny earthlings.
One such occasion when we paid the green a nocturnal visit was when we tagged along with mother, her auction assistant Zameen and her young nephew Afzal who was about our age. Having seated ourselves on the grass under a starlit sky, Afzal, the great storyteller he was, regaled us with a fascinating tale from the film Star Wars, and all this well before it actually showed on the big screen here. We would listen to him with wide, intent, open eyes, for it all seemed so real under that stellar setting.
Another interesting feature of the green were the battery of grand old cannons towards the north with their huge barrels aimed at the sea, as if some sea monster were lurking nearby. These were probably mounted by the British artillery replacing the older guns the Dutch had installed at the site to keep their maritime enemies, including the Brits at bay. Passing these big guns, we would find our way to the lighthouse further north with which we were equally fascinated. The beacon, set up to warn ships entering the shallow bay very appropriately called gal-bokka or ‘rocky belly’ had been built in the 1950s, replacing the older British-built one that crowned the clock tower near Queen’s House, now the President’s House at Janadhipati Mawatha, Colombo Fort.
And then there was Victoria Park, which we called by that name, despite its having been renamed Vihara Maha Devi Park well before our time. The park, originally called the Circular Park after its shape had been renamed Victoria Park to commemorate the British Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 at the same time no doubt boosting the crone’s already inflated ego, ruling as she did, an empire on which the sun never set. The park was renamed again in the 1950s after the mother of the well known Sinhalese national hero Dutugemunu, Vihara Maha Devi who lived around the 2nd century BC, reflecting an upsurge in nationalist sentiment at the time. We stuck to the Victorian name as our elders did.
Here we resorted to every once in a while with our grandma, Accha and our duo of spinster aunts, Nandani and Chandani, walking all the way as it was a very short distance from home. True, the park had many things to boast, but it were the swings that attracted us the most, and I remember swinging to and fro with such force that there were moments I thought I would go under the board through a 360 degree course. Among the other interesting features of the park was a tree house built of wood, prettily perched atop a sturdy tree, a tall tower-like slide which one climbed from the inside as well as a gigantic tortoise made of concrete upon whose back we would sit as if for a ride.
And then there was the Beira Lake, which like many other landmarks in the city had colonial antecedents. It seems to have been known since Portuguese times, since the very name Beira itself means in the Portuguese language ‘brink or bank of water’. It covered a much larger area in the olden days and even had an island where Negro slaves were housed by the Dutch colonialists after being ferried across the lake after their day’s work, a shameful past still reflected in the place name Slave Island given to the Colombo 2 Ward. It got a better reputation in early British times when pleasure barges, skiffs and ferry boats operated by the Boustead Brothers sailed the lake and overflowing families picnicked on its grassy banks.
A part of the lake formed a body of water close to our two family homes much like a gigantic pond. Unhappily, it had turned a sickly bilious green. This abomination father thought was the work of mercenary firms that had introduced it with the ulterior motive of getting government contracts to clean up the mess. His theory could have met its match with the one that held that the scourge was introduced by the British in the days of World War II to camoflague the lake so that Jap planes sent to bomb the city would not be able to identify the spot at night. Needless to say, both hold no water. The lake had simply been overgrown with blue green algae that fed on the wastes dumped by the shanties near its banks.
Shanties then flourished on both sides of the lake, in the Navam Mawatha area, which is today a thriving commercial quarter famed for plush business offices, and in the area of Perahera Mawatha which was then occupied by about a hundred shanties made of timber. It was called koriyava (Korea) on account of its many closely built dwellings, but not for long. A fire around 1980 swept through the entire area and within as little as an hour had reduced the wooden huts to charcoal and ashes. Its residents, who had begun squatting in the area a few decades earler when a portion of the lake facing the present Jansz Playground was filled and had gained notoriety as thugs and prostitutes, were relocated and the wide roadway today known as Perahera Mawatha built.
All this was a far cry from the balmy inter-war years of the thirties when the Lake Road that went past the Beira was lined with elegant Royal Poincianas with their flamboyant flourish of scarlet orange blooms, so conspicuous that they were reflected in the placid blue waters of the lake, not to mention the teeming animal life it supported like tortoises, pond herons and the infamous lake flies that would, during a certain season, storm the nearby Bishop’s College in such numbers that they fell into the soup served for dinner to the boarders who would take it in good spirits, jokingly calling it ‘fly soup’. It was very likely this pool of life that rubbed off on the environs of the school which included a rare gold beetle that haunted the giant Madras Thorn trees that fringed it on almost all sides.
In the middle of the lake was an island even the denizens of Darlington could see. Here lived a couple who grew leafy vegetables for a living. The wife who was nicknamed Doopatay (from the island) would row an oruva (canoe) over to this side of the bank to supply Darlington and neigbouring houses with the leaves. At night my paternal kin who lived in Darlington could see a lamp faintly burning in the wooden hut on the lake, making a lovely picture amidst the glistening waters of the lake grizzled with silver from the street lamps along General’s Lake Road.
There was even a bathing place simply known as Totupola (Ford) by the locals near the Slave Island area which a few members of my paternal clan like Hyder and Akhtar used to visit when they were little. It had these huge steps that led to the lake. The boys would ask the bathers to catch them the little fish known as Beira Batto. They would push the water with their hands towards the steps and the boys would take their pick, the crows carrying away the rest.
This spot, being almost a stone’s throw away from home, we took for granted until our teen years when we resorted to the Colpetty Grand Mosque for Subah, the Islamic dawn prayer. Having prayed with the congregation which included about a hundred godly souls or so, we would saunter along to the banks of the Beira and tarry a while to allow the blush of the breaking morn to smile on our faces. In our earlier years, it was the Navam Mawatha area close to the Beira Lake that we frequented, not for the ambience, but to skateboard the sloping road that skirted part of Beira Lake. The place was then a far cry from the mini city it is today with its lofty buildings and corporate offices.
There were at the time only a few modest-looking houses and the road was not at all a busy one except for the occasional car or two whose right of passage we dare not hinder.
Here we would resort to with our skateboards accompanied by our neighbourhood friend Hilal who shared our love for adventure and take our stand at the elevated portion of the newly tar macadamised road at the turn from Navam Mawatha to Uttarananda Mawatha whose gentle slope provided the perfect launch for the skates.
The right foot firmly on the board, a gentle push or two with the left foot would lunge the board forward to a splendid ride though some maneuvering was necessary to navigate the winding road that sloped downwards towards the left. The skateboards, one of which was a rainbow-coloured fiberglass board depicting a flock of geese in flight and the other, a thicker blue plastic cruiser with a slightly elevated tail, never failed to disappoint us. Firm and hardy, they would survive even thirty years later in almost the same condition we knew them in our younger fun-loving days.
Shows of colour, shows of valour
Sri Lankans if given a choice between bread and circuses, would go for the breadunlike the citizens of Rome who would have probably cried out for more and more circuses just to let their greedy eyes feast on the blood and gore that coloured the arenas of yore. Sri Lankans are a people more concerned about their stomachs than anything else. It is no surprise then that in the immediate open economy era of the late 1970s that encompassed our childhood, bread was plentiful following the free import and supply of wheat at subsidized prices that went into its making, but not so much circuses.
Circuses then came only once in a blue moon, for the swinging sixties when that enterprising impresario Donovan Andre dominated local showbiz with teaseshows like Haarlem Blackbirds and wrestling champs like Dara Singh, Ali Riza Bey, Angel Face, Hooded Terror and King Kong were long gone. But when they did, they enjoyed immense popularity, like the Apollo Circus that rolled into Havelock Park and which due to popular demand went on for several months until December 1979 or thereabouts. The circus troupe of Indian origin was quite popular not only in India, but other parts of Asia as well, having started from Bulanshahr in Uttar Pradesh in the late 1950s. All I can recall of it is enjoying it with our parents one evening quietly seated under a sprawling tent with vague recollections of some sort of breathtaking trapeze act and a caged lion whose arrival on the stage was met with a hushed gasp by the audience.
The Army Tatoos, stunning displays of military skill we also enjoyed as any child would. Held at the Sugathadasa Stadium and commencing around 1978, these shows of valour attracted a great number of people from all walks of life, spectators both young and old who would revel at the sight of the ‘war shows’, a sort of raid or attack with a lot of action and daredevil motorcycle stunts among other incredible feats performed by our service members.
These tattoos continued for a few years, but were later discontinued, no doubt due to the escalating conflict with Tiger terrorists in the north and east of the country, being revived only after the defeat of terrorism thirty years later. The curious word tattoo used for this sort of show has an interesting history. It seems to have its origins from the Dutch word taptoe ‘beat of drum’ or may well be a corruption of an old Dutch command Doe der to tap toe ‘turn off the taps’ issued by a drummer ordering innkeepers in war zones to cease selling liquor to soldiers so that they could return to their quarters by nightfall somewhat still in their senses in preparation for battle the following day. The call seems to have evolved into an army musical show before being beefed up with bold displays of military might to become what it is today-a popular spectacle for the general public.
Among the few sports events we attended were the motorcycle races held at Katukurunda, an abandoned World War II airstrip not far from Kalutara which had been converted into a motor racing circuit. This circuit meet venue with its many bends ideal for motor racing had been discovered many years before by an avid racer Andrew Mirando. The Ceylon Motor Cycle Club he formed was soon into organizing races here, not just for motor cycles, but also for cars where man and machine merged as one in the race to be ace. It naturally attracted young blood like our uncles Suranjan and Chandana.
It was at one such grand event held in early 1981 with its line up of over 30 racing events that uncle Chandana participated with his Suzuki 200 cc in no less than three events. And there we were amidst the maddening crowd. As the riders zoomed past with their high pitched screams and the crowds cheered, mother would cry out “There’s Chutti Uncle!”, all to no avail as we had great difficulty making him out at that distance. At any rate he was not a man who stood out from the crowd, small made as he was, even on his machine.
Then there was the Navam Perahera, a colourful procession in honour of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha that went past our house towards the Beira Lake on the night of the full moon in the month of February. The Perahera, conceived by Galboda Gnanissara who was fondly known as Podi Hamuduruvo or ‘Little monk’ was held for the first time in 1979 when we were about seven years old and thereafter became a yearly event organized by the Gangarama Temple in Hunupitiya. The vaudevillian parade which featured traditional Sinhalese entertainers drawn from far-flung rural areas, would with time rival the famous Esala Perahera of Kandy that had gone on for centuries, ever since the days of the Kandyan Kings.
Accha House and the neighbouring houses peopled by our kith and kin faced a broad throughfare that lay in the path of the procession as it made its way to the picturesque Beira lake to its north. This was General’s Lake Road, perhaps an extension of the red sandy Lake Road that once skirted the placid waters of the lake and took its name from one General Lawrence who had his bungalow there.
It did not take our folk long to evolve a tradition whereby we could watch the colourful proceedings in comfort seated on chairs, oblivious to the plight of thousands of others who had begun to throng in from late evening and had to stand, sometimes for hours, to watch the procession that would come their way like a gargantuan millipede, from head to tail. Our elders would sequester the pavement area closer to the kerbs in front of our houses with chairs when the night drew nigh, while we little ones, restless as we were, preferred to watch the spectacle standing or seated on a low rampart-like wall built in the front of our house as a form of protection much like the face mask of an American football player.
The parade would soon roll down our street, a train of man and beast, some real, some unreal as if drawn from another world, one after the other, marching past in waves in almost endless succession; a hotchpotch of the sacrosanct rites of an ancient oriental faith promiscuously blended with an ever so surreal menagerie of monstrosities fit only for a Victorian peep show; a kaleidoscope throbbing with life in all its hues and shades; a tapestry tumbling into life and rumbling with a roar; an ever so unreal hallucination after an acid trip; call it what you will, no words suffice to describe this great pagan pantomime.
It would commence with the kasakarayo, the whiplashers, soundly walloping the road with their long whips which not only gave out a thunderous din but also sometimes seemed to emit sparks of fire upon hitting the tar; it was they who cleared the way for the rest of the procession, the torchbearers who flared up the night with their crude flaming torches, fire jugglers who twirled and swirled fire to form a blazing vortex; majestic, gaily caparisoned tuskers prodded on by their mahouts, stilt-walkers known as boru-kakul-karayo or false-legged ones who strode the road with pomp and who towering so high up seemed to us little ones like Gullivar’s Brobgingnagans, and yakku, furry, dark-brown monsters somewhat like long-snouted sloth bears that seemed as if they had just popped out from some mediaeval bestiary, a rather fearsome sight, especially at night.
Other shows then were few and far between though there were also some regular events we attended, but very rarely. One such was the St.Margareth’s Day Fair held once a year as part of the Bishop’s College Calendar. The fair was held, as it still is, at St.Margareth’s Convent along St.Michael’s Road, Colpetty, not far from Bishop’s College and was one of the few links that still connected the school to the Sisters of Saint Margaret of East Grinstead, England, in whose care it had remained for many decades until as late as the 1950s.
In those days the fair had for sale a variety of items from books and foodstuffs to cloth dolls ingeniously turned out by Miss Margareth Dias, the Matron of Bishop’s College. It is said that the good old matron used to collect the bright red seeds of the Madatiya (Coralwood tree) then strewn all over the front garden of the college to use as boot button eyes for her soft toys. The lady is also said to have been an expert in making bonbons. Another regular feature of the fair then as now was the merry-go-round. The only occasion I recall visiting this eventide fair was when we were around five years old while still studying at the Bishop’s College Nursery, though all I could remember of the visit was being given these lovely red, deliciously sweet marzipans which we fancied were real strawberries.
Fasts, Feasts and Festivals
The moon plays a big role in Muslim religious life, determining when we fast and when we feast at our festivals. This is because the Islamic calendar is a lunar one with 12 moons from new moon to full moon making a year, simple enough even to a very primitive mind.
There is one hitch though, that is, there are no fixed seasons like we find in the solar calendar so that a given lunar month may fall on a summer in a particular year and on a winter after several more years. As a result, even the events associated with them are not fixed, but rather rotate throughout the year, based as it is upon the sighting of the crescent or new moon at night.
Islamdom has only two festivals, both based on the lunar calendar, the Ramazan festival and the Hajj festival. The former celebrates the culmination of the Ramazan fast and the latter the conclusion of the Hajj pilgrimage, both of these being duties binding on every Muslim man and woman, just as much as the Shahadah or Declaration of Faith, the Salat or Prayer and the Zakat or Alms Tax, all of which constitute what are known as the Five Pillars of Islam.
The moon-long fast in the Islamic month of Ramazan when Muslims have to abstain from food, drink and sex is no easy task for the worldly minded, but once one’s mind and body is attuned to it from one’s very young days, it doesn’t prove to be so difficult after all. It increases piety, inculcates patience, instills discipline, stimulates empathy with the poor and leads to good health – not a bad prospect after all.
Like most Muslim children we were taught to fast from our very young days, at about the age of seven or so. Our parents would wake us up in the wee hours before dawn broke to partake of a meal known as sahar or savar. I still wonder how they managed to get us up at that time; perhaps an alarm clock did the trick. In the olden days though, before we were born, there were fakeer mendicants with hurricane lanterns who would do the rounds in local towns, knocking on the doors and shouting a mumbo jumbo “Otto Bawa Otto” to wake up the faithful for the last meal before the fast, a tradition still found in certain parts of the Arab world where a wake-up call man known as Misarahati appearing as if mysteriously in the dead of night and shortly before the break of dawn, and holding a lamp,would sing and beat his little drum to wake up people, sometimes even calling out their names; a Wee Willie Winkie of sorts, only with the roles reversed, for he woke up people, not ensured that they were asleep.
We would not have anything to eat or drink till dusk set in, when we would break our fast, usually with dates and water in the tradition of our beloved Prophet, though after this we freely indulged in some well deserved delicacies like samosas, triangular pastries filled with minced beef and gulab jamoons, ball-shaped cakes soaked in sweet syrup, washed down with faluda, a refreshing drink made with milk and rose syrup. This last was almost out of the world; nectar, elixir, ambrosia, all in one, so relieving to a parched tongue.
My favourite were the gulab jamoons, an item of Indian origin we got from Bombay Sweet House in Colpetty. So much so that once when our Islam teacher at Mahanama College Sitty Miss inquired what we had for our pre-dawn meal or dinner I blurted out ‘gulab jamoons’ without giving it much thought. Quite taken aback she advised me that we ought to take something more substantial. “You must take rice!” she told me matter of factly. I wouldn’t ever forget that piece of sagely counsel, or that shocked look on her face, perhaps imagining us spoilt brats greedily stuffing our little bellies with these gulab jamoons, slurping and burping till we could take no more.
Some of our fasts we broke at home and some we broke at father’s family home Umma House to which we resorted to once in a while. The folk there had it as good as us or even better, given grandma Umma’s culinary skills, including that invigorating gruel known as kanji she used to make with rice, coconut milk and garlic with a generous quantity of beef bones and flesh thrown in for good measure. This regimen would go on for a month, or rather a moon of about 28 or 29 days before it would all end with the Ramazan festival the very next day.
On that day we would resort to Umma House clad in our finery, new clothes mother had sewn for us, and instinctively cluster round a large table that groaned with goodies of all descriptions. Liberally spread out on the table that day were a variety of sweetmeats Umma had herself prepared, so numerous that I am not even able to recall what they were except that they included sanja, a firm jelly made of seaweed cut into square or diamond shapes and coloured red or green, sooji, a soft yellow confection made of semolina, margarine and sugar and ambarella dosi, a juicy brownish fruit preserve made by boiling hogplum in sugar syrup.
The luncheon that followed in the afternoon that day comprised of an exceedingly rich and delectable rice dish known as buriyani of grandma’s own making, ably assisted by her faithful accomplice, an elderly Muslim woman from Slave Island we called Nona Sacchi. What went into it was of course no secret. The rice, usually the long-grained basmathi, was cooked in a very large aluminium vessel in the kitchen along with ghee or clarified butter, perfumed with rose water and coloured yellow, varying from grain to grain, from a deep yellow, almost orange to a lighter yellow. It was spiced with various condiments and embellished with chunks of beef or mutton. The meal was served on a platter upon a large rectangular table in the inner hall with its usual accompaniments of chicken curry, mixed pea, cashewnut and liver curry, mint sambol and slices of pineapple.
In keeping with local Muslim custom, it were the males who ate first. The master of the house, uncle Nazir, would be seated with his kith and kin, sidekicks and stooges around the long table as if in a sumptuous banquet the likes of which we saw only in our Asterix comics when the Gauls feasted after the return of their hero, only that it was without the wild boar. We kids were always or almost always given a place in the table at the very first serving as uncle Nazir loved having us around. The womenfolk would have their meals after the men had partaken of theirs. It was the law of the lion here. The aromatic rice and meat meal we would indulge in to our fill, and as if that were not enough, would be served at the end of it, a cup of vattalappam, a soft brown pudding studded with little pores that oozed with sweet syrup which grandmother had prepared earlier in the day by steaming in ceramic or aluminium bowls a mixture of coconut milk, beaten eggs, palm sugar and cardamoms. Later in the day, before we took leave to return home, some of our elders, grandma and uncle Nazir particularly, would force into our hands notes of money which they called perunaal salli (festival money) to do with it as we wished.
The fact however is that living in a largely non-Muslim tropical isle, we kids missed out on much of the revelry and merriment that characterizes the Ramazan festival and even the moon-long evenings and nights after breaking the fast seen in Islamic countries, particularly in the Arab world where it is considered the most joyful of months with happy families picnicking in green areas like parks and zoos when breaking their fast, a custom that has only recently emerged in our country when whole families would resort to scenic spots like the Galle Face Green to break their fast picnic style, but one which we never saw in our young days.
As part of the festivities in these countries which unlike ours has evolved over time, getting merrier and merrier as people partook of the cheer of the good season, one finds the streets and shops gaily decorated with brightly lit lights often in the form of crescent and star, lucent lanterns of white and myriad colours and even golden and silver tinsel decorations, again of star and crescent which is widely considered the symbol of Islam ever since the days of the Ottoman Turks. And when it all crescendos in the day of the festival, little children would be gifted with beautifully decorated gift bags of toys and candy or money to spend time at amusement parks, while towards the evening and night, people in festive mood would gather to enjoy communal meals with cookies for the little ones filled with nuts and coated with sugar, musical plays and even fireworks, all of which dwarf the Christmas celebrations of the West. But all this we in our little country missed.
The Prophet of Islam, despite his abstemious lifestyle, was no killjoy and always had the happiness of people and especially of children in mind, so much so that one day when an over-zealous companion found some little girls singing in the Prophet’s house and cried out: “Musical instruments of Satan in the house of the Messenger of God!”, the Prophet rebuked him “Leave them alone, Abu Bakr, every nation has a festival, and this is our festival”. This was somebody from whom even Oliver Cromwell and his roundheads – who in their puritanical fervour banned Christmas celebrations in England – could have learnt from, at least for the sake of the children.
The Hajj festival was celebrated much like the Ramazan feast except that it was not celebrated as grandly and involved the sacrifice of a goat or sometimes a bull, a ritual going back to the days of the patriarch Abraham. The sacrifice we were told was reminiscent of the times when Abraham, the friend of God and forbear of the Arabs was told in a dream to sacrifice his son Ishmael. If that were the Will of God, then it should be done said the brave boy, when his father told him about his dream. As Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, a ram appeared as if from nowhere and Abraham was told to sacrifice it instead of his beloved son. God had indeed been merciful to Abraham and his son who had passed the test the Almighty wished to try them with, the test of devotion to God even at the cost of parental love. The boy, Ishmael, whom Abraham had fathered through an equally strong-willed Egyptian woman named Hagar would go on to sire a great nation, the Arabs from amongst whom the final messenger of God to mankind, Muhammad, would emerge. Little wonder then that it was a cause for celebration.
In the morning of that festive day, we would come across the sacrificial animal, usually a billy goat, in the front garden of Umma House tethered with a rope tied to a tree or a stake in the ground and fed on leaves which it ceaselessly munched as if it had nothing else to do. It just seemed as if it was meant for the table. Before long it would be conveyed to the backyard of the house to be slaughtered by the butcher in a ritual known as Qurbaan. We kids would watch the sacrifice wide-eyed from the kitchen window that opened out to the backyard and could see the blood from the goat spurting out as if in a spray, almost like a fountain of deep red water, only thicker and moving hither and thither as the animal momentarily struggled to give out its last gasps of life. The cut at the carotid artery which supplied blood from the heart to the head which is an indispensable part of the ritual had triggered the spray and though it would continue, the brain of the animal would have by this time been deprived of blood, sending it into a state of permanent anaesthesia. The carcass would be skinned and cut up into chunks of meat to be cooked for the household and distributed to kindred and needy. This was a day the poor looked forward to, not least because of the chunks of fresh meat that would come their way.
Late that evening or the following day, a heavy shower of rain known as the Haj mala ‘Rain of the Hajj’ would fall from the heavens, cleansing the earth of the blood of the sacrificial animal – little doubt a Sign from God that He was pleased with the sacrifice.
Keeping the Faith
As Muslim kids brought up in a largely Sinhalese Buddhist household, we realized that we were a bit ‘different’ quite early on. We were told when quite young that we were something called ‘Muslim’ though back then I did not know what it really meant except that it had something to do with being a bit different from the rest in what we believed in or the way we were expected to behave. It did not at any time mean that we were an altogether different kind of people.
In fact throughout my early childhood I could not even comprehend the difference between race and religion, for I imagined then that all people were divided on the basis of what they believed, in other words religion and not race, that is until I digested the contents of our earliest factual work the Hamlyn Boys and Girls Encyclopedia by Jean Stroud at about the age of eight or so. This colourful well illustrated work graphically brought out the differences between the primary races of man, the fair-skinned fine-featured Caucasoid, the straight-haired, slit-eyed Mongoloid and the dark-skinned wooly-haired Negroid.
These obvious differences in men were until then lost on me for some reason and even after this basic grounding in anthropology I could not quite understand how Sinhalese and Muslim differed; they all basically looked the same, somewhat like the Caucasoid type illustrated in the book. This was perhaps the result of a mixed childhood where whatever little perceptible differences of race paled into insignificance and only what one believed in really stood out.
Besides matters of belief, certain cultural peculiarities marked us out from the rest of the household – names for instance. The country’s Muslims like others elsewhere are extremely fond of Arabic or Persian names, rather European sounding really, and more continental than English like Ashroff that sounds so Russian, Hussein more like German and Firoze somewhat like Italian. Father’s name Wazir with its z and my own name Asiff with its f sounded rather outlandish when compared to the vernacular Sinhala names that lacked the f or z. Though our maternal clan had no difficulty pronouncing our names due to their familiarity with these sounds which were found in English, there were those more conservative folk connected by marriage who could not, for instance aunt Priyanthi, uncle Suranjan’s wife who had this bad habit of calling my name out as Asip.
It was our frequent interaction with our paternal kin that really defined our identity as Muslims, for not very far from Accha House was father’s family home. All we had to do to get there was cross the road, walk down Boyd’s Place and turn right to Alwis Place. The house at No.30 served us as a home away from home where we were kept when our parents were busy at the auctions.
It was here at Umma House that we were really intiated into our Islamic faith. Islam means ‘surrender’, in a religious sense ‘surrender to the Will of God’ and so there we were submitting to His Will. God is generally known among Muslims by his Arabic name Allah meaning ‘The God’ as if to stress his Divinity. This is the same name even Christian Arabs such as those of Palestine, Syria or Lebanon use to address Him.
To us little ones he was introduced as Allalla, a sort of duplication of the proper divine name which our father’s folk probably thought would appeal to us better as kids are known to be fond of repetitive sounds such as mama and papa. We were hardly four or five years old, when while stationed at Umma House, we were instructed by our aunts Fairoze, Shafeeka and Shanaz to sit cross-legged on the floor, close our eyes and reel off the words Allalla… Allalla… While at it for a minute or so, a brazen five or ten cents coin would suddenly fall at our feet with a clink as if from heaven. This, our aunts would exultantly tell us was a reward for praying to Allalla. He had been pleased with our prayers and had sent down the coins from the heavens.
We did not grudge them though, after all it was all in good faith meant to instill in us a belief in God, especially since we were growing up in a largely Buddhist environment. Though these small-time worldly inducements had only a limited effect in introducing us to our Creator Lord, it was not without its benefits, for by now we had some vague idea of whom this god whom we called Allalla was – some sort of transcendant being who lived up on high and who looked after people.
More was to come with the Arabic classes grandmother ‘umma’ had us attend when we were around seven years old, not at some madrasa or little seminary attached to the mosque as most Muslim boys and girls are used to, but at her house which we had to attend after school or in the weekends. Here we were taught the basic creed of our faith by one Saleem Lebbe, a tall bearded man attired in white shirt and sarong with a white skullcap perched on his head.
The man had earned a reputation as a lebbe or religious teacher and quickly set about teaching us the Kalima or Declaration of faith ‘La-ilaha-illallah, Muhammad-ur-rasulullah’ (There is no god but God. Muhammad is the Messenger of God) which was followed later by lessons in the Arabic script in which the Qur’an is written. The primer he employed for the purpose sufficed to teach us the entire Arabic alphabet with its profuse bows and dots which looked like little stylized crescents and stars, so beautiful to behold.
We then thought of Arabic as a sort of sacred language taught to man by God Himself for the purpose of revealing His Word to mankind. Little did we know then that it just happened to be a language that existed among a people known as Arabs even before Islam was brought to them 1400 years ago. It was a language like any other belonging to a particular group of people, but one which God had chosen to reveal his final revelation, His very own Word, the Qur’an, which in Arabic simply means ‘The Reading’. And so it was that Saleem Lebbe taught us the Arabic alphabet with its 28 characters beginning with the first two letters – Alif and Be. A couple of years later we were thrilled to find out that these two characters Alif and Be were related to the first and second letters of the Greek alphabet Alpha and Beta which in combination gave the English language the very word Alphabet. Both Arabic and Greek had derived its alphabet from the ancient Phoenecians, a hardy sea-faring people who had first developed it.
The lead came from our Hamlyn Children’s Wonderful World Encyclopedia, a compendious illustrated work which mother purchased for us when we we were about ten years old. A graphic in the book very much in the form of a golden tablet very beautifully traced the evolution of the Roman characters A and B used in modern English to the Phoenecian hieroglyphic forms based on an image of an ox and house, the Hebrew forms of which were given as Aleph and Beth in which our inquisitive minds saw a close resemblance to our Alif and Be, especially since there were others that showed a similar pattern, as for instance Hebrew Daleth for door, Lamedh for whip, Caph for palm and Shin for teeth which closely resembled our Arabic Daal, Laam, Kaaf and seen representing the sounds d, l, k and s. We were correct, for Arabic like the Hebrew had derived its alpabet from Phoenician and shares a close relationship with it, not only alphabetically but also because both are Semitic speeches originating from a common tongue spoken as far back as the days of Abraham over three thousand years ago. That their speakers are constantly at loggerheads with one another and sometimes at each other’s throats is another story.
Adding to our religious knowledge were the regular Islam classes at Mahanama College Colpetty where we schooled. These were handled by a fair chubby lady we simply called ‘Sitty Miss’ to whom all the Muslim boys of a particular grade were brought for Islam lessons. The first day of the class stands out in my mind for an interesting incident that took place that day. Here stood Sitty Miss surveying the little boys and not so little boys, for some of them who hailed from Slave Island were notorious failures compelled to do time in our grade.
She now started throwing out questions to test our religious knowledge and the very first question she shot out was Apey Nabituma Kavuda? (Who is our Prophet?). All the boys looked on stone-still, silent as lambs, as if pondering over the question and there I was plucking up some courage to show off the little Islam I knew. The question rang out again Apey Nabituma Kavuda? That was when I managed to blurt out Muhammad, for that I was quite sure was the name of our Prophet. The fair lady looked at me and then at the others reproachfully “Ogollanta Taama danne nedda apey nabituma kavuda kiyala?” (Don’t you’ll know who our Prophet is?) in such a scornful tone that the boys looked down shamefaced. Not that they didn’t know the answer, they had been dallying simply because they were too scared of the teacher.
Whether it was her roly-poly form draped in saree, or her rosy, somewhat porcine mug sitting on top of it, or the short pixie hair sprouting from it, so different from the homely kind of ladies these lads were used to seeing, I cannot say. Whatever it was, it certainly had the lily-livered bunch petrified as if they had just seen Medusa. Had she covered her hair with the end of her saree in keeping with the standards of female modesty required in Islam, these lads from conservative Muslim households would probably have felt more comfortable, but then again she was not obliged to do so, even by her religion, in front of these pre-pubescent males. We eventually got used to her and she made a good teacher, dwelling on the teachings of Islam based on the textbooks issued by the Ministry of Education.
Another important work which we often read at home was an English translation of the Islamic Holy Book, the Qur’an which Muslims regard as God’s Word. This lovely green-covered paperback with its text printed on light green paper had been published by Dar Al Shoura, Lebanon and was issued free by the Islamic Call Society of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya. It made fascinating reading, relating as it did God’s Commandments to man; His Glory and Grandeur, Mercy and Munificence and His Omnipotence and Omniscience which was said to be closer to us than our very jugular veins; the duties of His heavenly winged messengers, the Angels; the stories of his chosen earthly messengers, the Prophets; parables of various sorts and even beautiful poetic verses that speak about time, natural phenomena such as the night and the glorious morning light and heavenly bodies such as sun and moon. These were after all Signs of God, Signs by which humans could know Him; Signs to be found in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and day; in the sun and the moon; in the beasts of all kinds He had scattered through the earth and in the variations in the colours and languages of men, in the mates He had created for them among themselves. Of all this the Qur’an spoke about in beautiful verses which even in translation did not lose its profundity.
And so we learned more and more about our faith and particularly about our God of whom a clearer picture was now being formed in our young minds. We learned that God was our All-Powerful Creator and Sustainer, who despite all our efforts, was the One who actually provided us sustenance and that too according to a measure He had alloted to each one of us. He nevertheless desired the best for His Creation and particularly for man whom He elevated above the rest of creation. He desired that man whom He created in His Image be just and fair just as He was all the more, but most of all He desired that man be wise enough to believe in Him through the signs He had created and humble enough to worship Him, bowing and falling prostrate before Him at least five times a day; to this transcendant Divinity up above the heavens we could not see but were nevertheless required to believe in. What we could not figure out was why God had left us earthlings in seeming charge of ourselves without as much as offering a glimpse of Himself to instill greater faith in us. But then again, who were we to question Divine Wisdom. Faith was, after all, not about seeing, but about believing.
Father loved to stress how Islam was not only the the newest of the great faiths, but also the most modern. He went on how the Qur’an described the growth of the foetus in the womb of its mother from a leech-like clot long before such knowledge became known to Western science, which he took as a remarkable prophesy. This he probably picked up from somebody discussing the findings of eminent French surgeon Dr.Maurice Bucaille, author of the book La Bible, Le Coron et La Science. Little did we know then that there were much more details in the the Holy Book that agreed with modern science, including among others, the creation of all life from water; the orbit of the celestial bodies, each swimming along in its rounded course and even the idea of a Big Bang when the heavens and the earth were a single entity before being split asunder to form that which we call the universe.
And so it was that our faith was strengthened in our God and in the other articles of our religion including belief in the Angels He had created, the Prophets He had sent, the Scriptures He had revealed and the Afterlife He had promised. These bore a remarkable likeness to the teachings of Christianity which we were becoming increasingly familiar with through the books we read at the Children’s Section of the Colombo Public Library including the stories of the prophets and the parables of Jesus as well as some of the programmes on the life of Jesus we watched on television, especially during the Christmas season. They had to be, they were after all from the same source.
We loved to compare Islam with Christianity. We had come to look upon it as a civilized religion which like Islam was devoid of the kind of idols we saw for instance in the gopurams of Hindu temples, colossal termitarium-like structures whose gaudy sculptures of various deities and demons in various postures seemed rather scary to our untrained eyes. Nor were we alone in feeling like this, for even some of our paternal kin such as uncle Hyder shared our sentiments, taking pleasure in comparing Islam with the older faith brought by Christ, not to mention our parents’ auction assistant, a cheery young Malay woman named Zeenia who would gleefully compare even something as trivial as the Christian Amen with the Aameen uttered by us Muslims at the end of the Fatiha or Islamic Lord’s Prayer.
What little we learned about Christianity seemed so much like Islam. This was especially so since we thought at that time that the God of the Christians was One like our God and that Jesus was simply a messenger sent by this One God. That most Christians believed that God was One of Three or Three in One, God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost was lost on us, for such a grotesque doctrine as the Trinity is not even taught to Christian children for whom the books we read were meant. Little did we know then that what we supposed to be Christianity with its Unity of the Divinity was professed only by a miniscule number of Christians known as Unitarians whose beliefs are very much like those of Muslims. The Christianity we knew as kids had been dealt a severe blow in the Council of Nicea over 1500 years ago when the Trinitarians prevailed over the Unitarians. Little wonder the Qur’an which was revealed a couple of centuries later urged Christians to say One instead of Three.
Generally however the Qur’an spoke favourably of Christians, calling them the closest in love to the believers in contrast to the Jews whom it condemned as the foremost foes of the faithful. Indeed there could hardly be any love between Jew and Muslim and this we learned very early. I distinctly remember my paternal grandfather Vappa dismissing the Jews as a cursed people while in later times while residing at Umma House for a while in my youth I recall grandmother Umma expressing a great admiration for Hitler, calling him a strong man. Unlike some Muslims today, I never heard them rue that Hitler had not finished the job. I could n’t imagine they would condone the Fuhrer’s plan to exterminate Jewry, but there was ill-feeling nevertheless. The reason for the hostility was perhaps the stories of Prophet Muhammad’s own treatment at the hands of the Jews, like when he and his small group of followers were betrayed by them after taking flight to the town of Medina.
The Jews who fondly believed themselves to be the ‘Chosen People’ had not only rejected and sought to kill Jesus who had been sent by God to reform them and do away with their devious practices like usury, but even when given a second chance to accept the message of Islam brought by their Arabian cousins, the offspring of their forefather Abraham through a different mother, had spurned it in their racial arrogance.
Also deeply troubling to them no doubt was the emergence of Israel, the Jewish state that generation had witnessed being implanted upon a Muslim country once known as Palestine. They had probably heard or read how the Zionist state had been founded by Jewish terror groups like the Irgun and Stern Gang who massacred in cold blood innocent Palestinian men, women and children and even the unborn in the wombs of their mothers, to enable the Jews to return to their ‘Promised land’ after a nearly 2000 year exodus as a result of Roman rule.
Prominently hanging on a wall of Umma House was a framed colour picture of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem with its beautiful golden cupola which had come under Israeli occupation following the Six Day War fought in 1967, an aide memoire that this third holiest mosque after Mecca and Medina, the one from which the Prophet had ascended spiritually to the heavens, would always remain dear to Muslim hearts. The Jews were now claiming the site as their own on the grounds that their holiest shrine, the Temple of Solomon, long destroyed by the Romans had once stood there. But nay, the picture on the wall, like in many other Muslim households, was a compelling reminder that Muslims would not allow it. The holy land would have to be liberated, if not in our times, certainly before the end of days. Islamic tradition had it that Jesus would descend to earth before the Last Day to usher in an era of peace and justice. The Muslims would throw in their lot with him and they would fight against the Antichrist and his Jewish bandwagon, wiping out the entire lot!
Among other beliefs which we shared with our Christian friends was the belief in angels, winged beings created from light, among them, the archangel Gabriel known to us as Jibreel, the angel of revelation who had announced Jesus’ birth to Mary and brought down the Qur’an to Muhammad. There were others we learnt about, for instance Mikail known to Christians as Michael. Then there was Izraeel or Azrael, the Angel of Death who took away the souls of those God had willed to die and Israfeel or Raphael who was bidden to blow the trumpet that would extinguish the lives of all creation on the Last day, after which the Almighty would resurrect them for the afterlife. These four archangels we learned about from our textbooks, but there were others I was not aware of. One such was Rilwaan, the Keeper of Paradise after whom a Muslim classmate of mine had been named. I once happened to remark to grandmother that this chap had a funny sounding name that sounded more like a rilava, a type of light brown furred monkey commonly found in the country. She promptly corrected me, admonishing me not to say such things, for to put it in her words, it was an angelic name. Grandma, despite her Tamil speaking upbringing, knew her English well and put it to good use especially when instructing us on religion.
Unlike Accha House, Umma House had no dogs as they were believed to keep the angels out. However there was one angel whose advent was often taken to be indicated by the howl of a dog. The folk at Umma House held that whenever a dog howled incessantly especially at night, a death would very likely take place in the vicinity, since the creature could make out the frightening form of Azrael, the Angel of Death as he hovered around, waiting to take the soul of a dying man or woman.
It was mainly from an English translation of the Qur’an and of course uncle Firoze that we imbibed the stories of the prophets, belief in whom was another important article of the Islamic faith. The Qur’an named only 25 prophets from Adam to Muhammad, but according to long accepted Islamic tradition there had been over a hundred thousand prophets. There had to be, for had not God sent them to every nation at different times to invite people to Godliness and warn them to keep away from evil. Adam’s mission had been confined to his immediate descendants, that of the later Hebrew Prophets like Moses, David and Solomon to their people and the final mission of Muhammad meant for all mankind.
Our English translation of the Qur’an sounded somewhat like the Bible when it spoke of these Divinely inspired messengers of God. The story of the first man Adam it dealt with at length with man’s arch foe Satan being brought into the narrative. God, having decided to create a vicegerent on earth commanded the angels to fall prostrate before Adam after He had fashioned and breathed into him his soul. They all fell down prostrate before him, except Iblees, a Jinn or Genie created from fire who refused saying: “I am better than him. You created me from fire and him you created from clay”. Since then, this Iblees, also known as Shaytaan or Satan had been the arch enemy of man telling God Himself that he would mislead and arouse in men false desires, ordering them to slit the ears of cattle and change the nature created by God.
God created for Adam whom we call Aadam a wife Hawwa or Eve and let them dwell in paradise, at the same time warning them not to eat from a particular tree. Satan who was up to mischief whispered to them that God had forbidden them the tree only because they would become angels or immortals and so misled them with the promise of a kingdom that would never waste away. They ate of the forbidden fruit so that the shame of what was hidden from them, their private parts, became manifest. They sought God’s forgiveness and He forgave them, but banished them to earth to live and die and to propagate their kind. The Holy Book also told the stories of many other prophets, but these stories, profound as they were, were scattered over its many pages and not as easy to make out to our young minds as the way uncle Firoze related it to us in his simple language in the course of the casual, yet intellectually stimulating conversations we had with him.
So it was that we learned about the story of Noah and his Ark which conducted to safety a pair of every species of animal after the great flood so that they could propagate their kind once the waters had subsided; the story of Abraham who had discovered God amidst all the idolatry around him and who was even willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael to Him after seeing a dream, only to find near the sacrificial spot a sheep being sent to take his beloved son’s place; and even the story of his contemporary and kinsman Lot who was sent to reform the people of Sodom but to no avail, whereupon God rained down fire and brimstone on their city. He was cautious not to go into too much detail, simply telling us in all innocence that these folk were ‘bad people’ but not dwelling on what he meant by it. After all we were too young to understand what a Sodomite or for that matter a Bugger really meant.
Belief in an afterlife we were also agreed on, with the godly entering heaven and the devilish falling into hell following the Great Judgement when the Almighty Himself judges them, questioning and penalizing them on matters even as seemingly trivial as taking the life of a bird for no cause. I could only imagine that Day of Judgement as a vast horde of humanity with God passing judgement this way or that on each and every one of them who would then be commanded to cross a bridge as thin as a hairline. The godly ones would have no difficulty crossing over to paradise while the evil-doers will simply not make it, falling over somewhere midway into an abyss of hellfire where they would suffer torment upon torment.
Paradise on the other hand, we were told, was a beautiful place before which all the bounties of the earth would pale in contrast. Here was a place where all that one desired would be fulfilled in an instant. For instance if one longed for an apple, he had only to wish it and presto it would appear right away in our hand. This was perhaps a bit overdoing it, but nevertheless sufficed to show us what paradise could be like. About the only splendour of paradise we were not told about then were the houris, fabulously beautiful heavenly nymphs whom no man or genie would have touched before.
Besides our belief in God & c, what would also define us as Muslims was the service or prayer we offered Him, not once, but five times a day. Yet it would not be proper to do so with our foreskins intact, especially at our age when it was still not retractable and when the urine after a pee tended to stick on to it. Urine and such unclean bodily emissions are considered by Muslims najis or polluting to the extent of invalidating one’s prayer and a Muslim child was expected to commence his prayer when he was only ten years old. In our younger days, it had served a protective function, protecting our little penises and especially the glans, the erogeneos warhead-like part, from harm or injury in the process of birth itself and even in later times when we would have been running about naked, besides preventing any urine dribbling after a pee soiling our pants; but now it had outlived its use and had to go. And so it was that we were deprived of our little prepuces at about the age of ten in a little surgical operation our folk simply called sunnat ‘the way’. The procedure not only purified us for prayer, but also physically marked us out as Muslims.
Within a year or two, urged on by grandmother, we were learning to say our daily prayers, getting used to it by attending the weekly Friday congregational prayers at the nearby Colpetty or Devatagaha Mosque and studying a book entitled ‘Let’s Pray’ issued free by a foreign Muslim missionary organization. The manual proved to be an easy one to follow as it was well illustrated, depicting all the movements of prayer with the Arabic words one had to utter neatly printed below in Latin text with its English translation. We had by this time already learnt what would go on to be the main body of the prayer, the Fatiha or Islamic Lord’s Prayer and a couple of other surahs or chapters of the Qur’an that would figure in our daily prayers. These short surahs were three in number; Surah Ikhlas which affirmed the Oneness of God; Surah Falaq where one sought the protection of the Lord of the Dawn from the evil He had created, from the evil of the darkening night and of witches blowing on knots, and Surah Nas where one sought refuge in the Lord and Cherisher of Mankind from the evil one who whispered in the hearts of jinn and men. These we had by-hearted when quite young, well before we were circumcised, reciting these at night shortly before going to bed to earn our Lord’s favour.
And so there we were praying to God day and night in the peculiar form of Islamic prayer with its cycles of standing, bowing, kneeling and prostrating – the most active form of prayer prescribed in any faith. Particularly elevating to both body and mind was the prostrating posture where after dropping on one’s knees one placed the forehead on to the ground in an act of utter humility and submission to the One True God, the blood gushing in to the brain imbuing to the head a feeling of tremendous exhillaration that one sometimes felt like keeping it that way for as long as one could. The prayers we sometimes offered at home and sometimes at the mosque, making it a practice to walk all the way to the Colpetty Grand Mosque for the dawn Subah prayer which we would pray in congregation, after which we would find our way to a scenic spot at Navam Mawatha overlooking the Beira Lake to enjoy the cooling breezes as the day broke.
Our grandmother we constantly saw at prayer in her bedroom and grandfather often found his way to the Colpetty Mosque, on one occasion even chiding us when still quite young for trying to accompany him to the mosque wearing shorts. Even children had to be well attired without their thighs showing in order to visit God’s House and this he impressed on us very early. However father nor mother offered their daily prayers, though father never missed his Friday prayers and whenever possible took us along with him. They were not alone. Many Muslims of that generation seemed to think that the Friday prayer alone was compulsory much like Sunday service in church and took their daily prayers lightly or neglected them altogether.
One could hardly blame them. They lived at a time when much of the Islamic world following the fall of the Ottoman empire had succumbed to colonialism, socialism and petty nationalisms that banished religion to the rural backwoods except for a few lucky ones who had kept the faith. However that was changing in the 1980s when we were growing up and entering our teens. A sort of Islamic revival was underway and it told in many things, and not just prayer.
This was seen in other more external aspects like dress, particularly of the women, so that now instead of looking like any other local woman in saree and uncovered head of hair, they were clad from top to toe; the fairly orthodox among them with their colourful headscarves looking like red riding hoods; the strictly orthodox with their hooded heads and long gowns like Christian nuns and the ultra orthodox with their black veils with only a slit for the eyes like Japanese ninja warriors, a strange and outlandish sight for the uninitiated.
Before the revival some seemed not to be aware even of the basic teachings of the religion against idolatry, the greatest offence one can do to God. For instance, reverence for some saintly persons known locally as awliya or guardians had degenerated to such a low level among certain sections of local Muslims that they were used to posting pictures of these persons on the walls of their houses and praying to them, beseeching them to intercede with the Almighty to grant the humble supplicants their very worldly wishes.
This we saw even in our own home in our young days when mother used to hang upon a wall in the pantry of Accha House a framed picture of a local saint named Thalayan Bawa, a barebodied fakeer clad only in a sarong and seated on the ground cross-legged much like some Indian guru, a pose perhaps taken after the seated Buddha familiar to most Sri Lankans. She would pray to the saint for favours while holding under the framed image an incense holder as if the fragrant fumes it belched would reach him in some distant spiritual abode. Mother used to say that the easiest way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, but now she seemed to think that it was through his nose. Her prayers, needless to say, went unanswered though it took some time for the sanctified image to fall from grace.
True, the image concerned was not an idol in the strict sense of a graven object made of wood or stone nor was it, strictly speaking, bowed down to; nevertheless the very act of giving it a hallowed place and praying to it as a medium between man and God, was in itself anathema to the faith, since the Almighty is supposed to be prayed to directly, not through an intermediary of any sort, especially the picture of a dead man.
Despite its unflinching attitude towards idolatry, Muslims generally do not regard photographs even of living creatures to be prohibited in their faith as they are a mere reflection of an existing created object much like a mirror image and not a product of one’s own imagination as a statue would be. Nor for that matter are playthings for children prohibited, for had not the Prophet, upon beholding a doll belonging to his young wife Ayisha which she probably kept as a keepsake and inquiring what it was, merely laughed when he was told it was a winged horse and that King Solomon had them.
There were nevertheless occasions I thought that the penal laws of Islam, though not applicable to us here, were rather harsh. For instance, when the CBS television series Kane and Abel was aired on local TV in early 1987 towards the tail end of our stay at Accha House. The series named after Adam’s two sons Cain and Abel known to us Muslims as Qabeel and Habeel told the story of two men, worlds apart, one a privileged US banker and the other a Polish migrant who no sooner they meet, fall apart, with one later finding that the other who had passed away, actually had a soft spot for him, a nicely woven tale no doubt, but one that also depicted Islam in a very bad light. A part of the plot had the Polish hero Abel giving the slip to the Germans and Russians in the days of the Great War and finding his way to the Ottoman dominions. Here, out of hunger he grabs an apple when the salesman refuses to accept his obsolete banknotes. No sooner he walks away, taking a bite from it, he is apprehended by Turkish guards who take him to the executioner to lop his hand. In the nick of time he is saved by a diplomat who conveys him to the Polish consulate whence he migrates to the United States to start life anew.
It was much later that I would find out that the tale was an absolute travesty of facts, for no Ottoman who knew very well the laws of his faith would cut off the hand of a man who stole out of hunger or something as insignificant as an apple. Further, the act itself as portrayed in the series was not theft but misappropriation which does not invite such punishment. True, Islamic law lays down that the hand of the thief, male or female, must be cut off from the wrist, but many conditions apply before such punishment could be carried out. For instance, it could not apply to a child, a lunatic or one who steals out of hunger, or in a famine or a war or in the case of public property. The item stolen must also have a considerable value, worth at least a little over a gram of gold, besides being deliberately removed with the intention of stealing from a place of safekeeping like a safe or locked house, which by extension means it cannot apply to those sharing a common residence, or even an employee, servant or guest. Thefts in public places even when no one is looking around will not incur the punishment, so that it will not apply even to shoplifting or pickpocketing; nor will appropriating an item by seizing it or running away with it since an element of stealth such as seen in burglary should be involved. And to cap it all, the victim could pardon the thief by gifting the stolen item to him or her before he or she is taken to the judge for redress. These and many other conditions like the requirement for two witnesses seeing the thief in the act itself make the prescribed punishment for theft a most difficult one to implement, which was of course not what I saw in the series. In fact, it made me feel rather ashamed that a man should be so punished for an offence as trivial as getting away with an apple simply to satisfy his hunger.
What I would later find out was that the punishment portrayed in the series reflected not the state of affairs as it existed in Islamdom, but rather of mediaval Europe and even of pre-eighteenth century England when even a teenager could be put to death for stealing something as little as a loaf of bread out of hunger, let alone pickpocketing or petty shoplifting, which went even beyond Jesus prescription:“If your right hand sins, cut it off”, a few of over 200 individually defined capital crimes the English had at the time.
Going, going gone!
Auctions are nothing new to Sri Lanka. They were probably introduced during the period of Dutch colonial rule in the island three centuries ago. The Sinhalese word for auction vendesi itself has its origins in the Dutch word vendutie. These early auctions were possibly what are known as Dutch auctions where the auctioneer starts with a high asking price, gradually coming down, until a bidder decides the price is right and shouts out his acceptance. Being the first bidder to do so, he gets the goods.
That it was the Dutch system of auctioning that prevailed in the country is borne out by the fact that until as late as the 19th century auctioneers in Galle were heard to urge the crowd mayin kiyapan (Say mine!). This implies the existence of a Dutch auction since “Myn” (Dutch for mine) could only be uttered by the bidders when the auctioneer himself is stating the price and the prices are descending. Be it as it may, in later times it was thankfully the English form of auctioning that prevailed, where the auctioneer starts with a lower price, with bidders competing with one another and offering increasingly higher bids till there are no more takers, the bidder who bid last bagging the item for that price.
What inspired father to be an Auctioneer I cannot say. Maybe it was his antiquarian tastes, for he loved old things, Another motivating factor would have been the closed economic climate of the mid-1970s when he commenced his auctions. The left leaning United Front Government led by Madame Sirimavo Bandaranaike strongly discouraged and even clamped down on imports in pursuit of its vision of utopia – national self-sufficiency. Although an unpopular move as it led to much privation, it was not without its beneficiaries, for it created a great demand for foreign goods of various descriptions including the more luxurious items like antique furniture which figured prominently in the auctions of the time. Just as the era of prohibition in the US, when alcoholic drinks were totally banned in the 1920s created a climate conducive for bootleggers to thrive, so did the era of the closed economy create the ideal environment for auctioneers to prosper, and prosper they did even years after the economy was opened up with the victory of the United National Party which pursued a laissez faire policy.
Father was already familiar with auctions when he embarked on it in the mid-1970s. His earliest exposure to it probably came when he got into the used refrigerator trade based at his family home ‘Darlington’ when old fridges were repaired and painted all over to give it a fresh look by his helps Peter and Somay before being put up for sale at the Auction Rooms run by Auctioneer Earle H. Nicholas opposite the Maliban Kreme House along Galle Road, Colpetty. The man meant business; he had as his symbol a crown with two gavels on either side.
The name father chose for his business was 555 Auctions after that well known brand of smooth taste cigarettes manufactured by British American Tobacco, a brand that is quite popular in Asia, mainly, it is said, because the number is thought to be lucky. What intrigued me was why father, a strict non-smoker who could not even brook the butt of a fag chose it as the name for his auctions, unless of course he was banking on the number bringing him luck.
Father was one of the few auctioneers of those days, among other leading names being Dunstan Kelaart, Earle Nicholas and Schokman & Samarawickreme, not to mention Alexis Auction Rooms run by Alexis Siriwardhana of Killarney, Colpetty. He never thought of any of them as a threat, He had immense trust in himself and even went to the extent of declaring open S & A Auctions run by that aspiring duo of auctioneers, Nimal De Silva and Herbert Amarasinghe, in spite of the popular belief that opening a venture one was already in could bust one’s business.
Father’s earliest auctions were held at the grand hall of the Girls Friendly Society in Green Path, Colombo 7 on a more or less monthly basis, and this would, even in later times, continue to be the favoured venue. Besides GFS hall, he also held a few outstations like at the Galle Gymkhana Club inside the Dutch-built Galle Fort to which he would resort to by motor bike, his underlings Somay, Joseph and Velu reaching the town with a lorry jam-packed with the goods to be auctioned off. Later times saw him having some of his auctions at the Municipal Cricket Club premises opposite St.Bridget’s Convent and CNAPT Centre next to the Colombo National Museum. A few auctions were also held at the YMBA Hall, a sturdy rectangular building that lay by the road opposite the Savoy Cinema in Wellawatte. Its rear portion overlooked a canal and on the other side of its bank we could see what looked like crocodiles basking in the sun.
It was the GFS hall, almost a stone’s throw away from home, that was the most common venue for the auctions. The hall possessed an old world charm of its own, having a wooden floor and even a stage at the back facing the entrance while a little doorway further back led to a spooky looking place reputed to have been haunted, for it was said that if one slept upon a bed there, he would find himself on the floor the following morning.
Behind the building, in a little room attached to it much like an annex lived lonely old Miss Lockhardt, a fair Burgher dame with close cropped pixie hair. In the sunset of her years and on the brink of slipping into that long, long night, she would welcome us into her cosy home to keep her company, enticing us with her little brown cookies which she kept in a jar. The quaint, enchanting chamber, though small and snug, looked very much like the home of an elf or fairy, as it seemed somehow to exude a golden effulgence, the result no doubt of the bright yellow glow of the tungsten filament of an incandescent bulb acting on the little, amply furnished room, suffusing it with an amber tint.
To the right in a ramshackle little house lived the caretaker, a lean, mustachioed character named Simon and his family of one wife, two sons and three daughters. The elder boy Sunil, a bespectacled fellow in his teens was a Bruce Lee fan who very realistically regaled us with the stories of his hero including one where he plucked out an opponent’s heart, while the younger boy Jayantha was a less imaginative happy-go-lucky sort. Between the hall and the hostel for the old girls, formerly a palatial house known as ‘The Tent’ was a bare ground which when when we dug a few inches revealed thickset sago worms, the whitish grubs of the Palm Weevil, which I imagined were the kind the Chinese used to shove live into coconuts to fatten them up for the table, perhaps another of Sunil’s yarns.
The auctions here were like no other. Greeting bidders at the gates was a well manicured hedgerow of dark green bushes with little red berries the size of mustard seeds which led to the beautifully canopied porch of the hall. One might have even supposed the road took its name from the two hedgerows on either side that led to the hall forming a sort of crescent driveway – but not really. The street name was in fact an English rendition of the Dutch Groene Weg “Green Way’ so called by the Hollanders of an earlier age who used it to convey the much prized cinnamon harvest from the nearby Cinnamon Gardens to the Colombo Harbour. The lofty hall was paved with hardy wooden floorboards and this formed the auction floor – the scene of the day’s proceedings. A few items also to be auctioned that day would be prominently displayed outside in the front lawn, between the two hedgerows, among them tents firmly pegged on the ground as if a family of gypsies had camped there.
The auctions drew a considerable crowd, for father touted it well, getting posters pasted prominently in the parapet walls of the city and taking advertisements in the leading Sunday newspapers of the day. The posters were pasted on the city walls by some of father’s stooges or hirelings the night before the auctions by smearing it with paappa, a crude glue produced by adding flour to hot water, though there were occasions when we too helped out in the nightly chore. The Sunday newspapers too carried black and white advertisements with some choice wordings. Here’s a sample of one placed in the Weekend newspaper: Grand Auction Sale of Household Novelties, Niceties and Necessities. You name it, we have it ! Almost anything from the verandah to the kitchen. It was of course very short notice, for the auctions were held that very day, beginning at 9.00 am. Depending on word of mouth for publicity was of course not a good idea, for potential buyers preferred minimum participation, since more participants meant more bids which in turn could undermine one’s own bid.
The auctions were usually held on Sundays, with Saturday the day before being kept for ‘on view’ when potential buyers could come have a look at the items to be auctioned off the following day. When the big day came, not all were really welcome, in spite of a banner at the entrance proudly proclaiming 555 Auctions. Another grand sale again! Entrance was not free, but by admission tickets priced at Rs.2.00, not so much for the money, but to deter the riff raff from taking it as a form of entertainment. In fact one of the ads taken in a weekend newspaper frankly put it: As usual to avoid undesirables. Admission by ticket Rs.2/.
Nay this was serious business, and father intended to keep it that way. Simon, the caretaker of the premises was assigned the job of selling the tickets under a large umbrella, though it was not always easy going for him since there were the occasional upstarts who made him feel the heat in spite of the shady canopy over his head. One, I remember, almost came to fisticuffs with the poor fellow. And to think there was a time I thought father made his money selling the tickets. It was only later that I learned from mother that he kept a tidy sales commission, as much as 15 percent, for every item sold.
And when it all started, the auction floor was one big marketplace, only that the activity, rather than being dispersed all over, gravitated at a particular spot at a given time before moving on to the next nearest item to be sold so that the entire length and breadth of the hall and all that in-between experienced similar activity, the entire proceeding being like a set of dominos tumbling upon one another in pre-determined order. Father would move from place to place, showing off to the bidders the item to be auctioned and describing its merits in great detail before calling out a starting price, which would be successively raised by each bidder.
The final bid needless to say was the last one. If there were no more takers, the item would go to him or her that bid last, but not before father had uttered the parting words: Going once, going twice, going, going gone! and struck the object with his gavel, a hammer with a hard black triangular piece of plastic stuck on to a steel handle. It sometimes happened that before he could say gone! a buyer made another bid, spurring a further flurry of bidding.
It was of course in father’s interest that the item in question get the highest possible bid, for the higher the bid, the higher his cut. In later years, when the auctions were not doing that well – the result, little doubt of cheap imported goods flooding the market – uncle Fazly had got into the habit of making superficial bids to up the previous bid, which he sometimes overdid, for father could sometimes be seen glowering at him oblivious to what the people around might think of it. He very well knew that the overly keen bidder, the stay-at-home-boy he was, could not afford the goods and that he would have to pocket it out.
The auctions brought together a lot of people who seemed to enjoy bidding against one another. A bid usually superseded another by ten Rupees, but there were those rare exceptions, one such being from an Iraqi embassy official who rather than bidding for an item at the usual 10 rupees had this habit of increasing his bid by a mere 5 rupees. Father found the haggling rather irritating and took a potshot at the fellow: “What Mister, you come from a country with a lot of oil !”. Unruffled, the Mesopotamus shot back: “Mr.Wazir, do you think every Iraqi has oil in his backyard ?
Father had a knack for swaying the crowd. Standing tall above the sea of heads – he often used a chair to stand upon, the better to be seen and heard – he would throw his voice about to tout his wares. His flair for the English language he put to good use, sometimes even stretching it a bit too far in his characteristic style of grandiloquence. His descriptive power was remarkable, so much so that he could describe an antique in such detail that one would have thought he were a seasoned arts connoisseur. He would also throw in some humour for good measure, cracking a joke or two to liven up the folk huddled around him so that it sometimes seemed more like a razzle dazzle showbiz stunt than your usual auction sale.
Added to this was his stentorian high timbred voice that never seemed to go hoarse despite almost an entire day of verbal fire. During the short intervals he would rejuvenate himself by gulping down copious quantities of King coconut water, an energizing and cooling beverage that possibly had a refreshing effect on the area about the vocal chords that took most of the strain.
The people around him also mattered a great deal. By his side, but somewhat lower down, stood mother, diligently taking down the names of the successful bidders and the price they had settled for, sometimes helped in her task by her assistant, a Muslim lady named Zameen. And then of course there were the auction workers who did most of the heavy work, unloading and arranging the furniture into the desired order.
The foursome Joseph, Somapala, Sena and Velu were a motley lot. Joseph, by far the most senior amongst them was a dark, gaunt old fellow, rather tall, with straight grey hair who often wore shorts, usually of a khaki colour. He spoke excellent English despite hailing from the upcountry estates, which gave him a cutting edge over the rest of the crew. He was, in a sense, the leader of the pack; Somapala whom everbody called Somay was a more humble chap despite the fact that he was the first among them to come into father’s service. A willowy fellow, he had sinewy limbs that could take some really hard work; Sena was a small-made, almost inconspicuous little wisp of a man with whiskers and Velu, a towering, balding figure with a high forehead and a complexion that could be best described as pitch black.
The four served father well, for he placed much store on loyalty. Prominently hung up on the walls of the auctions office at General’s Lake Road was this glass-framed black and white board that captured the wise words of Elbert Hubbard: If you work for a man, in heaven’s name work for him. If he pays you wages which supply you bread and butter. Work for him; speak well of him, stand by him and stand by the institution he represents. If put to a pinch an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. If you must vilify, condemn, and eternally disparage, resign your position, and when you are outside, damn to your heart’s content, but so long as you are part of an institution, so not condemn it. If you do that you are loosening the tendrils that are holding you to the institution, and at the first high wind that comes along, you will be uprooted and blown away, and probably you will never know why.
What was most memorable about the auctions was the vast variety of items put up for sale that day. These were spread out higgledy piggledy or sat calmly cheek by jowl with one another. So much so that even a veteran museum curator popping in on the day before the auctions, when it was open to the public to view, might have been entranced with the array of goods on display, for it were as if an entire museum representing different eras and realms had been put up for sale on a piecemeal basis. Here were long stately beds and tall majestic cupboards; regal grandfather clocks and placid-looking gramophones; rickety rocking chairs, sedate night lamps and sparkling crystalline chandeliers; glassware, brassware and silverware; cutlery, crockery and camping gear; Chinese porcelain vases and ornate Persian carpets; pricey curios and cheaper knick-knacks and bric-a-bracs of various substances, shapes and sizes and on occasion even vinyl music records and well illustrated books – all for a price of course.
Since the auctions were held in the weekends, we kids often made the most of it, inspecting and admiring the stuff that interested us most and sometimes even conspiring to coax mother to purchase those that caught our fancy. Among the few items we acquired in this manner were some Walt Disney books and imported packets of seeds of flowering plants. Some of the books came as huge lots to be auctioned off probably from some embassy official or expatriates of European origin. Some were in German including a couple of hard cover Walt Disney story books like Mickey Maus and Donald Duck, while at least one, a black and white comic book of Popeye was in Dutch. These had a story behind them as well. It happened one night that we espied the stuff sitting cosily in a large coffer at the GFS and informed mother about it. She told us very plainly it was not in English, but in some other lingo.
We would not budge, maintaining that they were in English, since when seen from above about a couple of feet away that’s what it seemed like. German and Dutch, like most other Western European languages are written in the Roman script just as English is, and this we would learn when mother got the lot for us. In the days and months that followed, we tried to unravel the stories by avidly going through the pictures, but without much success. We did have a series of German language primers titled Familie Baumann which father had bought in the times his tourist resort Sihina Beach Village was doing well, but we did not have the patience to study the language just to make out the stories.
As for the imported seeds which came in flimsy little colourful packets, we were certainly captivated by these and anticipating a bloom in blossoms sowed these in a specially prepared bed in our backyard, only to discover that they would not as little as sprout even after a week or two. The seeds were either not suitable for our climes or had expired. The truth is that much of the stuff that found its way to the auctions were outdated, and indeed this was one of the draws, especially for old timers who clung to the notion: the older the better. Thankfully foodstuffs, even those of foreign provenance, did not come under the hammer, for had they, father would likely have lost a lot of his hard-earned money settling fines for selling food unfit for human consumption, or still worse, fighting lawsuits from victims of food poisoning, which could have been very, very damaging to his reputation.
With time, 555 Auctions gave way to what was called ‘Alties Auctions’ named after little brother Altaf who happened to be father’s pet and after whom he also named a pony called Alties Girl. An auction like any other held on Sunday mornings at the GFS in the early 1980s, offering among other items ‘household furniture of the very highest order for every nook and corner of your home sweet home’, it gradually lost its steam, being affected in no small way by the influx of imported goods that were flooding the market at very competitive prices.
It eventually shifted to the rear portion of a commericial premises down Green Path becoming a more or less permanent feature, in other words a showroom where items were sold at a fixed price, before dying a slow death as customers, now drawn to the newer imported stuff to be seen in almost every shop, became increasingly scarce.
Tourism was booming in the early 1980s. That was before the ethnic riots of July 1983 and the scourge of terrorism unleashed by the Tamil Tigers that followed in its wake for nearly three decades. Needless to say, the industry, hinging as it did on the tranquil image the country portrayed to holidaymakers, suffered terribly as a result of the war.
Prior to 1983 Sri Lanka was a peaceful country that had all the ingredients for a successful tourism industry- friendly people, golden sun-kissed beaches and a rich and diverse culture. Foreign tourists, especially from countries like Germany had begun to stream in and increased in numbers over the years, especially in the wake of the liberalization of the economy in 1977. Supply catered to the demand and many saw an opportunity to cash in on the upswing by setting up tourist hotels and resorts. Father happened to be one of these aspiring entrepreneurs of a new order.
The auctions were doing well and now was the time for empire, beginning with a foray into that burgeoning and very happening industry of the day-tourism. But father in his characteristically unconventional style wanted to do it differently. Foreign tourists, he figured, had seen enough of concrete hotels and longed for something more natural. It could not cost dear though. He did not have the kind of money the bigwigs had.
What better way to house our dear visitors from overseas, he thought, than in the most natural looking houses one could think of – cabanas made of coconut thatch and straw, so archetypally primitive that one might easily imagine Adam and Eve living in one. Before long, father had set about achieving his dream, becoming in a sense, the pioneer of eco-tourism in our country. That was in 1980, well before anybody else in our little island ever thought of such a unique concept.
He could n’t have got a better piece of land for building his dreams upon than the beachfront stretch at Mahapalaena, Kosgoda in the South Western coastline he purchased from a local. Abutting Galle Road at the 44th mile post, the plot was idyllically situated between two ancient rocks, the Naya Endu Gala to the South and Arangala to the North, offering a relatively secluded almost virgin beach extending about 400 yards to the left and an equal distance to the right, from which point it was cut off by the two large rocky outcrops, one of which almost kissed the sea and the other which actually jutted into the sea, giving an impression of a bay.
Here he set about building fourteen beach cabanas with the help of the man who had sold him the land, an influential chap from the area known as Thomson. About ten to fifteen village hands supervised by a kinsman of Thomson named Jagath were put to work and within as little as three months these hardy men of the Haali caste had put up over a dozen of the cabanas from material sourced from the area including dry woven coconut leaves for the walls and Alastonia wood obtained from a tree known locally as Ginikooru gas (matchstick trees) as supports for the high sloping roofs. The roofs themselves were made of woven coconut leaves which were covered over with straw obtained from the paddy fields of Induruwa. The stretch of land surrounding the cabanas was carpeted with green grass that came as clumps from the interior while the flimsy fence that served as a barrier between the cabanas and the roadway was made of cinnamon wood and bamboo sticks laid out in criss-cross fashion.
The cabanas were set in two rows of seven each with a pathway in the middle whose entrance was lit at night by a couple of old incandescent ornamental lanterns on high white stands that gave out lambent light – an almost fairy tale setting. Natural light here shone even at night, for near each cabana were placed what were known as Bunker Lamps, a hardy lamp with a thick wick made of gunny sack fibre whose flame was fed by kerosene, so resilient that it could be used even while fishing in storm tossed waters. Also hung inside each cabana was some sort of hurricane lantern known locally as Herikal Lampu with a glass covering inside of which burnt a flame fed again with kerosene. A vintage car, dark green in colour and beautifully painted with a scene of the resort, and an old man-drawn rickshaw added further beauty to the spot. To cap it all, on the southern end overlooking the vast Indian Ocean, he put up a lovely circular restaurant- the crown of the resort.
Father aptly called his dream resort Sihina Beach Village, from the Sinhala word sihina meaning ‘dream’. In fact, a handout in German billed it as a ‘Traum-Dorf’ (Dream Village) and proudly quoted what a German tourist guide on his first visit to the resort had written about it to a friend, perhaps subjected to a bit of poetic embellishment: “This dream village by the beach is wonderful, a first of its kind in Sri Lanka. You can throw yourself in extreme peace and privacy to the tanning rays of the bright sun on the golden sands of the clean virgin beach. The village faces the beautiful blue sea, cool and calm. You can also dine in a rustic restaurant overlooking the mighty Indian Ocean. The seafood here is excellent. At night the music of the waves drives you to a deep sleep for which this romantic place is most unforgettable”.
Our visitors were no doubt happy doing time in these first of its kind one-roomed cells with attached bathroom. The breeze from the sea wafting through the doorway or the movable thatched window on the high sloping roof ensured they got plenty of fresh air. Imbuing further life to the resort were father’s three or four ponies including a beautiful white pony which he raced in Nuwara Eliya, but which at other times were stationed here under the care of a jockey named Farook. This dark podgy fellow with a squint lived with the rest of the resort staff in a little house opposite the cabanas, on the other side of the Galle Road and would take resident tourists for a ride on the ponies around the little beach village.
There were quite a few regular visitors to our little village by the sea. One was a German brunette named Gertrude who sallied forth from her fatherland during the winter season to be here, sometimes accompanied by her son and his wife and grandson David, a bubbly little fellow a few years younger to us. This happy family introduced to us a few Western fads including that delicious chocolate and hazelnut spread called Nutella and jellied fruity chews that came in various shapes and colours. We were quite fascinated by these white families basking under the tropical sun and even wondered whether not the sand in those countries was like our sea sand, lighter in colour than our brown soils that seemed to match the skin colour of a good many of our locals. We might as well have pondered whether not the blonds on the beach got their gold locks lounging under the sun so long as to bleach their hair to a sunny hue.
We also had our share of eccentricities. In one of our earliest visits to the resort, we learned one night that a resident tourist had made a hue and cry about a monster in his cabana. Big, big, he had described the brute, excited and animated. Upon investigation the blighter was found to be a mere cockroach probably on the lookout for a mate with wings outstretched.
But it was not only our overseas visitors who enjoyed staying here. We too loved it and often visited our dream village over the weekends or in the holidays, sometimes taking with us our favourite story books like our bumper Richard Scarry’s and Sesame Street books which we enjoyed reading under the shade of the Pandanus trees that grew near the cabanas, with their hydra-like candelabrum branches and reddish orange pineapple-like fruit hanging like strange ornamental lanterns. Interestingly a little book we took to our beach village, a Ladybird hardback on Islands even had a picture of the Pandanus fruit we were so familiar with besides other scenes characteristic of island beaches such as giant turtles and sailors on the beach bludgeoning to death those big birds known as Dodos that once lived in the island of Mauritius but are now extinct, an episode that gave rise to the English simile As Dead as a Dodo and may even well be the origin of a little known local word Doedoo meaning crazy or stupid.
The lure of the sea right in front of our little village was too strong to resist and there we were morning and evening taking a dip in the ocean as the rolling waves came tumbling down with a roar, bathing the shore with water and foam. There were occasions we ventured further out to sea but only when equipped with the orange-coloured inflatables the resort stocked itself with for the use of foreigners to beat the billows. We reasoned that the gear, which bobbed with the waves, would keep us afloat even if we were dragged out to deep sea, giving ample time for a grown-up to rescue us from the clutches of the ocean or the sea demon known as diya-rakusa who would have been lurking nearby. When we were safely back on terra firma, we would build sand castles, moulding with our little hands the sodden sea sand,
The circular restaurant was the centerpiece of the resort. A good part of it was open to the breeze as it was only the lower portion that was walled with the roof capped with straw. It served some appetizing meals such as fish and chips, lobster, prawns and even barbequed meats on occasion, much of it prepared in the attached kitchen by a local hand named Sarath, the kokiya (regular cook) of the restaurant who doubled as the gardener, tending the little flower gardens near the cottages.It was here that much of the mingling took place. Foreign guests played games and talked sweet nothings. Father invited friends and family over for the weekend or a brief vacation. He even hosted uncle Nazir and his wife Adilah for lunch after their wedding in keeping with the local Muslim custom of virundu, a repast given in honour of the newly married couple. The luncheon was attended by both their extended families numbering about fifty souls or so and concluded with father in his characteristic show-off style mounting his pet son Altaf on his white pony and sending him off on the stretch of beach between the sea and his dream village. It took off, throwing its rider on to the soft sea sand. It was obviously not used to taking such light weights on its back, used as it was to hefty whites weighing a couple of hundred pounds. It was father’s little cousin Fatima who saved the day by joining Altaf on the beach to build a multi-tiered sand castle that got progressively smaller as it rose upwards.
Among other notable visitors to the place were father’s old friend Mutthiah Devaraj, a well known national cricketer and his Sinhalese wife Neela, one Doctor Vamadevan and another Doctor Wijenayagam and their families and of course Uncle Karunagaran, aunt Sunethra and their three children Rajiv, Kumeshi and Mirukshi with whom we had the fortune of sea bathing and playing on the beach in those balmy days of peace. Karu uncle, as we called their father, had made for his two daughters, still not quite grown up, little bikinis of cloth. So impressed was cousin Kumeshi with the place that she thought her Hussein kinsfolk were very, very rich. Little did she realize that our resort by the sea was not a very costly affair and a far cry from the big hotels of the time.
Our frequent visits to the place and somewhat long stays brought us closer to the thriving marine life of the area. It was after a very early visit to the place that I brought home a rather bumpy pale brown starfish. It had probably been taken from a rock pool low down on the shore or given to me by a fisherman who had hauled it up from the seabed with his catch of lobsters. It may have already been dead as it did not move an inch, but taking it to be alive I brought it home and kept it in a basin of water, only to find a couple of days later that it was giving out a rather bad smell. I took it for dead and put it away. Little did I know it then, but starfish need salinity to survive so that the water from our bathroom into which I had so innocently placed it could have actually killed it.
Sometime later during a longer holiday I found the beachhead invaded by an armada of Portuguese man-o-war.
These were jellyfish-like creatures of the sea with a lucent cock’s comb-like sail floating on the surface of the water; they were also armed with stringy bluish tentacles whose sting could kill or paralyze little fish. They came, riding on the back of the billows in droves, but were initially imperceptible as they blended beautifully with the water with a camouflage even a modern soldier could not match. One fine morning while wading in the waves near the shore, I was stung in the hand by a rather bellicose critter keen on flaunting its arsenal. The sting sent a sharp piercing pulse of pain that reached my arm and lasted for several hours before wearing out. The invasion did not last long and was soon over, never to repeat itself again. Sometimes landing on to the shore like castaways were little whitish mussels that clung on to pieces of driftwood that washed up on the beach. The tiny bivalves would stubbornly stick to the wood anchoring themselves by means of some sort of mooring gum.
Turtles also made landfall to lay their eggs in Kosgoda beach. The strip of beach where our resort was located was a favourite rookery for turtle nesting. The shy creatures would find their way to the sandy beach they themselves were born decades earlier for the sole purpose of scooping out a nest with their hind flippers to deposit their eggs, after which they would head back to sea perhaps never to return again. The young ones, when hatched, would instinctively rush to the sea, fanning out to increase their chances of surviving lurking predators.
One night father was told that a turtle had made its way to the beachfront a few hundred yards away towards the south to lay her eggs. Taking us along with him, he hurried, torch in hand. From what little I could make out in the dead of night, some men, residents of the area, were stealing the eggs. I gathered that father was not too happy about it judging from the look of his face. It was not only an inhuman thing to do, but turtles were also an endangered species. Unfortunately many of the locals back then did not take conservation too seriously. Turtle eggs were in high demand, especially given the belief that consuming these made one exceedingly strong. It was commonly believed that taking turtle eggs made one’s muscles taut and rigid, so much so that if one were given an injection the needle would break.
Fishermen in their canoes were a common sight then as now since a patch of the beach to the south of our little village served as a sort of mini harbour to put out to sea. One evening we helped haul in a catch of fish caught in a madel or seine net. The large net had been cast into the sea by a boat and we joined the men in pulling it back onto the beach in front of our resort. We were rewarded with some fingerlings with yellowish fins, very likely the young of the Parav or Trevally which we gifted to our restaurant.
While on a long holiday at the resort we noticed one morning that the sea had rushed deep in to the beach, receding and leaving in its wake a large pool of water in a depression in the sea sand. We lost no time wading in the water which was up to knee level or even higher at certain spots. As the water pool got smaller and smaller over time as a result of getting absorbed into the sandy ground and evaporated by the heat of the sun, we noticed this wiggly little fish that had been trapped in the pool and caught it with a bucket. We were quite excited with our catch, especially since it was a beautiful fish with yellow fins, more like an ornamental fish, though it might have well been a young Trevally. Having taken it back to the resort we were wondering what to do with it, thinking of a way to safely convey it home if possible. That was when saner counsel prevailed, for father, who had a soft spot for dumb creatures like this, bade us take it back to the sea and release it, which we promptly did. It quickly made a dive and was gone.
Also strewn on the beach were countless seashells, cockles, cowries, mussels and topshells, the dead denizens of the ocean the bowels of the sea, unable to digest the calcified remnants, had vomited onto the shore. Particularly charming were the cowries, the remains of sea snails, little humped thick shells with a flat undersurface having a narrow opening at the centre.
We learnt from a little book on coins we had that these cowries were so dear in the olden days that they were used as currency by certain people. There was also the occasional cuttlebone, the porous calcareous internal shell of the cuttlefish which helps it control its buoyancy and hover above the ocean floor like a submarine. The cuttlebones, which looked like mini surfboards, only bright white in colour, we would often pick up in the course of our rambles on the beach before the golden orb of the sun which had already imbued the cerulean sky with a blaze of red and yellow sank into the ocean yonder.
On the coastal stretch to the north of the resort stood a group of black boulders piled one atop the other known as Arangala. The rocky portion closer to the sea was constantly engulfed in water. It was garbed on the lower surface with slimy bright green seaweed and studded further down with prickly sea urchins, living crowns of thorns that revealing themselves at low tide, looked rather like the golliwogs of the stories we read with black spikes sticking out from their equally black bodies, doggedly clinging on to the rock for support and to feast on the smaller aquatic creatures that had found their way there.
The folk here harvested the purplish mussels that clung on to these boulders. When boiled these would open like a duck’s bill to reveal a lump of edible flesh though whenever we climbed up the rocks we could not find any as they had already been scraped off by local folk who greedily gulped them down or sold them for a fast buck. Here in the rock pools formed by the sea water that cascaded over the dimples in the boulders were little fish that darted hither and thither that we loved to watch but simply could not make a meal of, though bigger fish fit for the table swarmed in the sea nearby. Towards the west, surrounded by shallow seawater were a few more similar rocks crawling with lobsters.
To the south of the resort lay another group of black boulders near which a limpid stream from the hinterland emerged to empty its waters into the sea, but not before forming a shallow pool in which we occasionally bathed and frolicked. This pool of water appeared rather like a cul de sac formed by the seawater that found its way there with black brown rocks on almost every side except the western side facing the sea, but actually the water it contained seems to have flowed in from a rivulet known as the Kalugal Oya to its east through a subterranean channel under the Galle Road though seawater at high tide could have also found its way there on occasion. The large red boulder to its south, surrounded below by smaller black rocks was known as Naya Endu Gala or ‘The Rock upon which the Cobra cried’. Legend had it that the rock had been the abode of cobra which lost a gemstone in its possession and cried till it split into two, its blood dripping down the boulder as a large red streak seen to this day.
The dream was not to last long, for the nightmare that was war though fought far from the scene now took its place, leaving in its wake a stub of what was once a beautiful little village, the result of the downturn in tourism the island was experiencing in the aftermath of the 1983 riots and father’s own disillusionment with the turn of events. Unable even to maintain it, he stripped it off of its more costlier furniture including its lovely antique almirahs and abandoned it to the elements, which within a decade or so had whittled it down to its very foundations, so much so that there would come a time when we would not even be able to make out the spot where it once so proudly stood, all that remains of it now being some old photographs, handouts, advertisements and of course the happy memories it gave us.
Playing with fire
December 31, the night ushering the New Year was celebrated by our household and the neighbouring houses in grand style with fireworks of various descriptions occupying a prominent place in the celebrations. True, these did not come in the variety they did in the fifties when fireworks like Golden Rains, Silver Fountains, Mines & Stars, Fire Balloons and Jolli Bombs could be procured from places like Fireworks Palace in Pettah, but still they came in a considerable variety even thirty years later, for there were besides the ordinary Firecrackers, Sky Rockets, Roman Candles and Catharine’s Wheels all set for an orgy of fire – A feast for the eyes of ordinary folk and porn for the eyes of pyros.
Grandpa who lived away from the family in Galle Face Courts, was in principle against fireworks. “It is like burning money” he would say, and I couldn’t but agree with him now. He nevertheless saw to it that a large quantity of fireworks of various descriptions was delivered to Accha House a day or two before the grand night. He simply could not help but provide the household with the works, or else he risked alienating his brood, particularly his more restless son Chandana who obviously did not share his old man’s view that lighting fireworks amounted to burning money. He certainly couldn’t, for he was a regular smoker of premium cigarettes like Bristol and Gold Leaf which more or less amounted to the same thing, the little money he made doing odd jobs going up in smoke.
The arsenal sat prettily on the dining table till the big night came, when it was taken outdoors to wreak havoc on the otherwise clean environment and disturb the peace of the night. Our uncles, particularly Chandana whom we called ‘Chutti Uncle’ were the main perpetrators of this incendiary racket, especially with the ratigna, firecrackers or squibs with a fuse which when lit would explode with a loud noise. The two most popular brands then were Alidon and Hanuman which came in flat paper packets or circular paper boxes.
Also joining in the fun were many of mother’s cousins from the neighbouring houses; grandaunt Indra’s older boys Athula and Anil and granduncle Piyasena’s boys Harendra and Piyal, not to mention granduncle Sumanadasa’s son Gihan who eagerly looked forward to opportunities like this to express himself best- with a bang. The womenfolk, who stuck closer to their homes on account of the noise, hardly figured in the action, simply enjoying the proceedings from a distance.
The young fellows took their stand on both sides of the street, turning it into a carnival of fire with noisy Firecrackers with fuses kissing one another so that they exploded in tandem like rounds of machine gun fire; sleek skyrockets that made their way to the heavens with a swish, only to burst high up and light up the night sky; Roman Candles, cylindrical bars like dynamite sticks with a fuse which spewed out glowing balls of fire; and Catharine’s Wheels, spiral things resting on a pin, which when lit, revolved madly, spinning hither and thither like a crab on fire. We kids, while inching closer to the theatre of action, were still afraid to light crackers as a result of the scary stories of burn victims mother had told us and contented ourselves with Wire Sparklers that one held with the hand, lighting it at the top so that it effloresced, sprinkling bright starry sparks like a flower of fire that broke into a shower of golden rain before it hit the ground.
The fun was over within an hour or so, leaving in its wake the heavy sulfurous odour of gunpowder and thousands of tatters of paper from the exploding fireworks that now littered the deserted street. We would quietly rummage through the paper rubble hoping to stumble upon a few unexploded squibs from whose bowels we would extract the gunpowder for our very own pyrotechnics. But this we would save for another day- for tonight we had seen enough!
Books Maketh a Man
Books, it is said, maketh a man. Mother certainly knew their value in shaping young minds and had this knack for selecting the right books for us at the right age. I have no regrets, for both my twin brother Asgar and I became authors in our own right.
We literally grew up with books, keenly poring over the pages for hours and hours. The only creatures that would have matched our taste for books at the time would be hungry termites, which left to their devices could devour a good book in a matter of days. Fortunately, we did not have any of the vandals approaching Accha House. The bibliophiles probably knew better than to take us on.
The main bookshops we patronized were Lake House Bookshop, Gunasena’s or KVG’s in Colombo Fort, Malee Book Centre in Colpetty and on occasion the musty second-hand bookstalls lining Mc.Callum Road (D.R.Wijewardane Mawatha) in Maradana that hoarded an assortment of books of almost every vintage. Our collection of books grew year by year so that by the time we were 12 or so, we had no less than 200 titles in what we called ‘Our Library’, a wooden bookcase with three or four shelves that stood in our parents’ office, in a section nearer the main hall, separated by a curtain.
Our love for books began quite early, and though these were in our earliest more or less fairy tales like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs they little doubt influenced our moral values and understanding of the struggle between good and evil. Indeed, many of the types of characters we find depicted in these tales so painstakingly recorded for us by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, we meet even today, the do-gooders and the mischief-makers. True, they are more often in black and white than in grey, but still they reflect human nature to a good extent, certainly enough to help us judge what kind of people the world is made up of.
Our Islamic faith would eventually take its place and still we would meet with some of the characters we had known in our fairy tales in a somewhat different form, such as the angels known as malaika, winged messengers of God created from light bidden to do good to man and who somewhat resembled the flying fairies of the stories we read; and the evil women known as naffasa who blew on knots as a form of witchcraft, the devil’s handmaidens from whose mischief the Qur’an tells men to seek refuge, and who, again, resembled another type of fairy tale character, the wicked witches, green skinned crones with hooked noses notorious for weaving magic spells. Curiously, much of the imagery of the fairytale books then, depicting as they did medieval European culture, closely resembled Islamic habit than they did modern Western fashion, like the head geared or red bearded men, dwarfs, kings and others, whose likes one may still come across in the elderly henna-bearded Muslim men seen walking the streets even today or the modestly clad women with long robes and hooded heads, queens and even common women, who so closely resembled Muslim women attired in traditional headscarves.
Other than the fairy tale stories, the earliest story book we had, when we were about four years old, was The Wealthy Hippo by Froebel Kan. The story stressed the virtues of faithfulness through a lovely little moral tale woven around Mr.Hippo’s visit to Animal Valley. Another early book we had was M.J.Arnalot’s The Balloon Seller which told of Billy’s attempts to sell balloons to Crower the Cock who proposed a swap for a cap which would never fit him (little doubt on account of his large red cockscomb which was depicted larger than usual for us kids to get the idea). A couple of Enid Blyton’s story books also figured in our collection, including in our very early years this delightful hardcover book on The Three Golliwogs, showing the threesome Golly, Woggie and Nigger in front of a pretty little cottage with yellow walls, blue gate and honeysuckle growing all over it. These dark woolly-haired characters, often up to some mischief or other, would in the years to come, be phased out amidst concerns that they gave Negroes a bad name, The Three Bold Pixies taking their place in the era of political correctness. Needless to say, the name of one of these characters, Nigger, is actually a pejorative term for blacks.
We also had a few books featuring Jim Henson’s famous muppets of Sesame Street fame, among others the Sesame Street 123 Story Book and the Sesame Street ABC Story Book, not to mention one titled See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Smell no Evil which came with as many as eight fragrance labels for one to scratch and sniff, its cover featuring Oscar, the green monster in the garbage bin happily commenting This book really smells, heh, heh. The ABC Story Book contained a good many interesting picture stories based on the different letters of the alphabet, as for instance, ‘An A Story’ which shows Queen Agatha summoning the knights of her kingdom and telling them that she loved all things beginning with A, and that whoever could bring her something beginning with the letter A would be handsomely rewarded. Sir Bird, rushing to the Royal Zoo, and passing many things beginning with the letter A finally succeeds in bringing her an alligator with whom she falls in love, she herself being an alligator. She rewards Big Bird with a lifetime’s supply of birdseed and makes him Ambassador to Antarctica! The 123 Story Book was as fascinating, such as the story for No.6 called Six Monsters in the Restaurant, which depicted six very hungry monsters visiting a restaurant; when the waiter gives them a table with six chairs, and taking a notebook, asks them “Ok, now….what do you want to eat ?”, they all shout Table!!!!!!
One of the most memorable was of course our Richard Scarry’s Best Story Book Ever with 82 wonderful Round-the-year stories and poems. It contained among other stories Pierre the Paris Policeman, Pip Pip goes to London, Good Night, Little Bear, Mr.Hedgehog’s Christmas present and Is this the House of Mistress Mouse? It had a number of interesting features. One, on Animals, had humorous captions accompanying the pictures. One captioned ‘Some animals are beautiful’, showed a hideous looking warthog holding a mirror on to its face; another titled ‘Some animals hate to take baths’ showed three little pigs hiding while mother pig waited with soap in hand to get them into the tub; yet another that read ‘Some animals live in houses’ depicted a worm in an apple house and a spuds bug in a potato house.
We also had a few small square-shaped paperbacks, including Dean & Son’s Tim the Airman and Jane Pilgrim’s Blackberry Farm and The Adventures of Walter. Sandle Books’ The Magic Pen, Animals Holiday and The Sheriff of Texanville were even smaller than these. Somewhat later, when we were around eight years old, came the fascinating Little Golden Book series with its characteristic golden border at the spine, which included among others, stories like Peter and the Wolf, The Gingerbread Man, The Pink Panther in the Haunted House, Tom and Jerry in the Mini Olympics and Donald Duck in America on Parade. Still later times, when we around twelve or so, saw us with the classics, not the originals, but the abridged versions Ladybird had condensed for children such as Swiss Family Robinson, The Three Musketeers, A Tale of Two Cities and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
The fact however is that by this time, we had outgrown fictional stories and could n’t be bothered with the more serious genre. It was the factual stuff that now interested us for the simple reason that we could do things with them.This included the How and Why Wonder Books on a plethora of subjects, including among others, Birds, Butterflies and Moths, Coins, Dinosaurs, Dogs, Electricity, Exploration and Discoveries, Horses, Kings and Queens, Reptiles and Amphibians, Rocks and Minerals, First World War and World War II; Ladybird Books on Ants, Aeroplane, Arms and Armour, Coins, Stamp Collecting, Exploring Space, Flight, Inventions, Islands, Rocks and Minerals, Rockets, Spiders, Stamps, Trains and Nature’s Roundabout; Just Look books on Aeroplanes and Balloons, Houses, Trees and Prehistoric Animals; Dean & Son’s Quiz Me Books on Coins, Dinosaurs and Planes and Pilots; and Hamlyn’s Insight Books on Ships and Aircraft. Among other favourites were our Piccolo Picture Book of Flags, Purnell’s Aeroplanes, Macdonald’s Superbook of Cars and Blandford’s Mini Guide on Rocks and Minerals.
We were besotted with dinosaurs and had no less than four books about them including a large one with outlines of the creatures and sketches of the surroundings. It came with a set of colourful vinyl stickers of the dinos that had to be pasted on the outlines. These we divided into ‘good fellows’ and ‘bad fellows’. The good fellows were the clumsy plant-eaters like that gentle giant, Brontosaurus while the bad fellows were the ravenously fierce meat-eaters fitted with sharp craggy teeth for maximum flesh-ripping and bone-crushing action like that scary-looking fellow, Tyranosaurus Rex! Some others like the three-horned Triceratops or the heavily-armoured Stegosaurus we could not judge and therefore avoided labeling them. We also had a number of comic books including a good many Marvel Comics dealing with superheroes like Captain America, Spider Man and the Incredible Hulk and even supergroups like the Avengers, Invaders and Defenders, and a few Harvey Comics including Sad Sack, a hilarious comic on the life of a low ranking private in the army, Richie Rich, the Poor Little Rich Boy and Caspar the Friendly Ghost. We had most of the Tintin series by Herge and much of the Asterix series by Goscinny and Uderzo. Though set in different eras, both these works had one thing in common- A young hero, a loyal friend and a faithful little dog.
The Tintin series, about a young Belgian Reporter’s heroics in many parts of the world like America and fictional countries like Syldavia captured our fancy like no other, influencing both me and my twin brother Asgar in choosing journalism as a career later in life.