My 20th Century impressions of Doris Cottage and Nugegoda
by Dr. Nihal D. Amerasekera
In post colonial Ceylon the 1950’s started the period of enormous transformation.
The era of the common man emerged as the politicians wooed the rural voters in their quest for power. There was a frenzied rise of nationalism that swept across the land. It was an irresponsible act of political vandalism that created racial division.
This was indeed a dramatic turning point in our recent history. Political turbulence, rise of the trade unions and strikes quickly followed.
As free education became widespread the farmers who were the backbone of our
economy couldn’t convince their children to till the land. Instead they left the soil to
join the masses in the city. They preferred to shuffle paper around desks than toil in
the fields. There was a tremendous rush to the metropolis. As a result Colombo spread its wings to engulf the suburbs. A rapid growth in the population accelerated the urbanization of rural Ceylon. This is indeed a simplification of a complex process of population shift, which smothered and destroyed the rural idyll of Nugegoda.
My emotional journey begins in Nugegoda in the late 1940’s. It was then truly rural.
Hundreds of vivid pictures of its past often fills my mind. It was then a sleepy little
town at the edge of the big city, far away from the grime and noise of Colombo.
Nugegoda was closer to a village in the jungle than suburbia. Its charm lay in its
picturesque atmosphere. It prided itself on its unique middle class appeal and the
sheer good-natured generosity of its people. The community depended on the Temple and the Church to provide refuge and direction. The landscape was green and its beauty touched us with grace. The shady streets were lined with tall flamboyant trees.
It was a paradise for birds. Woodpeckers bore holes in the coconut trees. Parrots,
barbets, sparrows and golden orioles were a common sight. Hundreds of bats took
over the skies in the late evenings. There were vast stretches of uncultivated green
land through which ran a few narrow dusty gravel roads. There were hardly any cars.
Heavy commerce and trade hadn’t arrived here yet. There was little industry in and
around Nugegoda and jobs were scarce.
My grandparents belonged to different religions and grew up in different regions of
the country. They met at Deltota hospital in 1918 where they both worked. It was love that brought these two diverse but emancipated personalities together. The marriage lasted a lifetime. They brought up their children during horrendously difficult times of World War II, food shortages and rudimentary healthcare. In those dark days a sense of apocalypse dominated the lives of people. During the colonial period there were fewer rights and too many rules. The Crown was God and always right!! Travel by road or rail was expensive, time consuming and at times treacherous.
My grandpa was an Apothecary and was a softly spoken, quiet, noble man from
Kandy. From the time I can remember he had grey hair. As a kid I wondered if he was
born that way. He took life easy but worked diligently. He was much more, a
philosopher, an expert in country lore, an amateur astrologer and an old character of a type that was endangered and nearly extinct. He was not interested in money except the bare minimum to sustain his family. My grandma was a qualified nurse.
She was a firebrand from Kurunegala with lots of courage and foresight. She was a sprightly, intelligent woman whose passion was for crosswords. She helped to drive the family forward through uncertain times. Her fearless spirit and kindness was well
demonstrated by an act of bravery in 1958. During the race riots our Tamil friends’
lives were in danger. Grandma asked them to stay with us until the danger has passed.
As I peeped through the window I witnessed the angry crowd that gathered outside
our front gate. I saw the hatred in their eyes. She went out to them and refused to
expose our friends to danger. After much deliberation and fist waving the crowd
gradually dispersed. This was an act of raw courage and I have no doubt she saved
their lives. The crowd seems to have recognized and respected my grandpa as a man
of the people and a good conscientious doctor.
After living in Biyagama close to Kelaniya for many years my grandparents moved to
Nugegoda in 1945. It was to a quiet dignified house at 56, Church Street. The house
was opposite the Anglican Church of SS Mary & John. The large sprawling house had
a tall roof and a spacious garden all round. The house made of kabook was of solid
construction. There was a wide spacious verandah facing the north and west. The
whole building was painted magnolia yellow, inside and out, with a broad dark brown border touching the floor. The front garden had rows of colorful Cannas and Coleus with a circular patch of grass around a Jambu tree. It bore fruit in great abundance. At the back of the house was a garage and several coconut trees. We had a ‘billing’ tree on the side laden with juicy fruit all year round. The house was solid, austere and unobtrusive, just like its owners. My extended family of uncles aunts and cousins all lived here where I enjoyed a sheltered and privileged existence. It still amazes me how we could all fit into that house. I loved this communal life as there was never a dull moment. The wooden inscription above the front door read "Doris Cottage 1930".
My cousins Ranjit, Nirmalene, Nissanke and Lalini shared my pleasures at Doris
Cottage. We made paper boats and paper planes and played cricket from dawn to
dusk. Our quarrels raised the temperature but our bonds always remained strong.
The blistering heat of the midday sun and the torrential monsoon rains didn’t seem to bother us and we spent our lives in the outdoors. We did our homework on the dining table and recall chanting the numerical tables like a manthra. Cowboy comics and bubble gum pictures were the craze. They inspired our generation. It was a simple but good life. Ranjit now lives in Sri Lanka, Lalini and I live in the UK and Nissanke is in USA. The forces of destiny have kept us apart. On the rare occasions when we meet it rekindles the closeness we enjoyed all those years ago. Nirmalene sadly passed away in 1975 aged 33yrs. This loss of a beautiful young life broke our spirit and its aching sadness never really left us.
For us children it was wonderful to live with grandparents. They preserved the
domestic niceties and lavished huge affection on us all. We were always forgiven for
our mischief. In those days there was this strange belief that a clean bowel was the
prerequisite to a disease free existence. We dreaded the annual ritual of taking an
"opening dose". This started with a fast in the morning and the "runs" all day. Home
remedies were immensely popular. Grandma gave us "koththamalli" for our coughs
and colds. Grandpa did the running repairs for our cuts and bruises. We looked
forward to our visits to the local cinema – Metro or Quinlon to see Laurel and Hardy
or Sinhala films with Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi. We were in the lap of
luxury and those years were a rich gift.
The mornings were magical as the light glowed on the green leaves. The dew on the
grass shone brightly. Getting outdoors was a priority for me. We had a lot of freedom and wandered freely. We'd go off by ourselves on long walks visiting our school friends. The Nugegoda landscape is flat as a pancake. There was a winding cycle path between Kandewatte road and Kirillapone through deciduous woods and rock pools.
We saw the sun only at either end of this lonely dusty road. The social networks were strong and we knew every one we met on the way. Tall grass, ferns and wild flowers lined our paths. We passed moss ridden culverts and trickling streams. There were ponds with fish and water lilies where kingfishers dived for their meals. I remember a myriad of dragon flies whizzing past our faces. It was so peaceful and lovely. Even recalling these heavenly memories gives me such great joy. This is so far removed from the busy uncertain world of today.
I have a clear memory of our Sunday lunch. This was an important family ritual. In
the morning grandpa walked down to the market in his hard hat and white trousers.
He bought fatty pork and some curd and treacle. Grandma was a fantastic cook.
There was a hive of activity in the kitchen as she intently supervised the cooking. The whole clan gathered for the feast. The men finished the bottle of doubled distilled before the meal was completed. Grandpa was never a heavy drinker but Sundays were special.
He laughed a lot. Hilarious stories from the past came in torrents. He was a fine
raconteur. When his face turned pink he soon retired for a well earned sleep.
The evenings were quiet and dull. There was no television. Radio Ceylon was in its
infancy and the programmes did not have much appeal. We made our own
entertainment and created our own plays and costumes. We played card games like
rummy and happy family and laughed so much. Aunt Phyllis was a fine musician and
played the Hawaiian guitar to a professional standard. She taught us to sing the old
English arias and the ever popular Sinhala songs of Sunil Shantha. Those vibrant,
amateur performances seem to consistently captivate our audience.
I still recall how quiet and dark the nights were. We heard the eerie croaking of frogs
and the din of crickets. The stars as they moved along majestically and inexorably
seem brighter and nearer then. The fire flies always reminds me of Nugegoda of the
1950’s . It was only the rumblings of the KV trains that punctuated the silence. Eight
o’clock was bedtime and we were soon tucked up and snoring. In those days we had
the early-to-bed, early-to-rise culture for kids. Oh! how could I ever forget the hordes of mosquitoes that tormented us every night.
The Rev TAM Jayawardene was well known to us and lived in an old bungalow
opposite the church with his trusted servant. The good reverend provided spiritual
support to his flock. We saw the Christenings, weddings and funerals in monotonous
regularity. He was truly a man of God. Tolling of church bells filled our senses. The
Church managed the St. John’s Girls and Boys schools. Being so close to our home
on Wickramasinghe Place, I started school at the kindergarten of the girls’ school in
1947. Mrs. Aldons (Sr.) was its Principal and my class teacher was Mrs. de Mel. Her
daughter was in my class. I remember a few names from my class. Ranjit Heendeniya, Athula Perera, Sujatha Perera, Mohini Seneviratne and Sonia Wickramasinghe. I have often wondered how life turned out for them.
Wickramasinghe Place went straight uphill and met the road that joined High Level road. At the top of the hill lived Vernon Botejue and several families of Seneviratnes. I have very little recollection of the Girls School except the toilets were far away from the Kindergarten and accidents happened en route. Nugegoda was well endowed with schools. There was Girton School, Anula Vidyalaya and St Joseph’s Convent. The whole community attended their sports meets, fetes and plays.
I remember Banda with his long curly hair tied in a knot at the back. He carried a
white cotton bag and visited us quarterly, always in the mid afternoon. His bag was
full of jewellery. As he opened them the gold, rubies, diamonds and emeralds
glistened in the mid day sun. I can still picture my aunts wide eyed and mesmerised
by the display. In those days the middle classes were a close knit community and were known to each other. He knew the latest family gossip which he disseminated lavishly and asked searching questions for new information to pass them on.
Listening to him was like watching a soap and the next instalment was due at his next visit.
Views were expressed with oohs! and ahs! and he finally got down to business. He
had a fine rapport with his buyers and always enjoyed a joke. Carrying such enormous wealth in broad daylight, unprotected, he wouldn’t have survived even a day in the 21st century. Be it robbery, disease or death he suddenly disappeared from our radar in the late 1960’s. Many vendors brought their goods to our doorstep. The fishmonger we recognised from the smell. A Jaffna man bought our empty bottles and old newspapers. A Chinaman came on a bicycle with his expensive silks. We were most excited by the buzz of the Aleric’s ice cream van when it came our way in the evenings.
Post and Telecommunication
These two modalities were inextricably linked. In those days every man knew his
place. The postman was a proud government servant and served the people well. He
arrived in the morning in his rickety old bicycle and rang the bell. He wore khaki
shorts and tunic and a broad smile. He had a felt hat on his head, the type worn by
policeman of that era. The postal service was reliable and efficient and fast enough for the mid 20th century. Home telephones were a rarity. We went to the post office or a shop to take a call. Outstation calls (trunk calls) were connected by an operator at the main post office in Colombo Fort. These calls were timed and cost a fortune. Urgent messages were sent by telegram. They were charged according to the number of words used. We learnt to be brief – "Deepest Sympathies or Congratulations". These "wires" were pricey but popular and I believe were sent across by Morse Code.
In a rural community it was important to bond with the neighbours. They shared the
same problems of running a home, building a career and raising children. The kids
were the primary focus. There was always an outpouring of help whenever it was
needed. It was a good life.
The elderly Jansz’s lived next door who managed a shop bearing their name at the
front of the house. The Jansz’s died in the early 50’s and the house was sold. Just next door to this was a barber’s shop which gave me the number nought once a month.
This cost me 75 cents for a 5 minutes job. At the high level road junction was
Parakumba Hotel (zero stars) serving the long distance bus travellers and lorry drivers with food and drink. It was once owned by Mr. Saparamadu. I recall very little of him but remember it wasn’t wise to be his enemy. The Swastika was a haven for us kids and served delicious Ice creams. Samarakoon Studio was the place for wedding and family photos. Behind our house lived the Lobendhans and the A.R Silva’s. The Lobendhan’s later emigrated to England. The Silvas had two sons and a daughter, Rani. One of the sons, Ranjit, died in his early 20’s and Kantha became the General Manager of CGR. The Reverend died in the late 50’s.
Nugegoda was then managed by the Kotte Urban Council. I still remember the lamp
lighters who cycled to switch the street lamps on, one by one. They used a long hook
which they balanced on their shoulders as they cycled. When night came the narrow
streets were illuminated by these dim, flickering street lamps. Power cuts and candle
lit dinners were a part of life. Some things never change !! There was no water on tap and we had a well. A bucket was lowered using a pulley to fetch water which was icy cold. It was like having a bath in Siberia. Purple Lifebuoy soap washed away our dirt.
During periods of drought the UC sent large bowsers full of water for distribution.
There were no flushing toilets in those days and we had bucket latrines. The Council
sent a special lorry to collect the contents of the buckets and the whole of Nugegoda
knew when the vehicle was in town. We called it the Ice Cream van!!
The Government Dispensary was at the side of Doris Cottage but later moved to the
top of Wickramasinghe Place after years of wrangling and letter writing to the
DM&SS(Director of Medical and Sanitary Services). It was mostly for the poor folk.
Dr. Guy Paranavithana had his surgery by the main bus stand and business was brisk.
Dr. Olegasegaram practiced on High Level road. Those were the days of mixtures,
tinctures, balms and ointments. They don’t kill you like the modern ones do but rarely make you better. The doctors knew their patients and their families well. We accepted the doctors advice as gospel.
Church Street and the town
The High Level road bisected Nugegoda on the way from Colombo to Avissawella.
The High Level Bus Company provided a private service on limited routes. The
Church Street was a narrow dusty road that ran downhill connecting the High Level
road with the heart of the town with the bus stand, railway station and the market.
Along the way there were many hawker stalls selling fish and fresh vegetables. It also
helped some beggars eke out a living. There was a bakery selling oven fresh bread
and gaudily decorated sweet cakes. The achcharu ladies and the peanut vendors made brisk business from the school kids. A man pushed a small cart full of pink ice lollies, known to us as ice palam.
I remember the National Bookshop where I got my school requirements. The two
railway crossings at either end of the station brought the meagre traffic to a standstill several times every hour. The steam trains of the narrow gauge KV line ran from Maradana to Opanaike. The station was painted CGR grey and had a grey picket
fence. It was often said it is faster to walk than travel by these narrow gauge trains.
Buggy carts were still in use as were the rickshaws. The Renault Quickshaws had just
been introduced as taxis. Without honking cars and vans, there was a leisurely pace
and a village feel which has now disappeared forever. Church street with its name
changed, is now an eternal traffic jam.
When I started schooling at Wesley College I continued to stay in Nugegoda
travelling by train to Baseline Road station everyday. Although slow, these geriatric
steam trains were reliable and we had a happy band of schoolboys travelling daily
creating mischief and mayhem on the way. Rohan, Prasanna and Nimal Wijesinghe
lived on Kandewatte Road. Godfrey and Godwin Roberts and Ranjit and Vernon
Kulatunge lived on Station Road and we all travelled together . Often on Saturdays
we played cricket on Station Road. Ranjit and Vernon both died some years ago in
England. Sadly, after leaving school, our paths never crossed. Godwin worked as a
Chemist at the TRI Talawakelle and died after emigrating to Australia. Rohan is now
a retired reverend in Toronto. Prasanna is a priest in Sri Lanka and Nimal works in
They were called servants. This is rather a derogatory term these days. We had two
orphaned teenage girls. They were literate and did the household chores of cooking,
cleaning and shopping. They looked after us kids with much kindness and showed
great loyalty to their employers. Kusuma was the elder and was always thoughtful.
She lived in her own superstitious world. She was given in marriage by my
grandparents but the spouse turned out to be an alcoholic. She returned to us with her son but left again and lost contact. Lucy was an impetuous, volatile young woman who found her own man and ran away from home. He was a scoundrel who was in and out of prison. She had a string of children and had a hard life. I saw her once at Doris Cottage in the 70’s. She looked wizened and haggard far beyond her age. My grandparents continued to help her. She died of kidney failure in the late 1980’s. We as kids had all the opportunities to better our lives. Our maids’ lives were doomed right from the beginning. Life is so unfair to so many. We live in such an iniquitous world.
My grandparents had eight children. The eldest was Muriel who took on the mantle of the senior member of the family and cared for the rest. She died aged 86 a couple of years ago. My mother, Iris, is the second in the family and is very much alive and
well. The tragedies began very early on. The youngest to die was Sweenitha at the
tender age of 12 of meningitis in 1940. The death rocked the family severely. Then it
was aunt Beatrice at the age of 31 of a rare autoimmune disease in 1962. Aunt Enid
died in 1971 from surgery for gall stones. I felt this was a pointless death at the age of 47 and wondered if there was medical negligence. This tragedy left a husband and
two young children under the age of ten in total despair. These sad events and the
ravages of time took its toll on my grandparents. It broke their spirit but carried on as there were still unfinished responsibilities. The loss of a granddaughter in her prime caused them indescribable pain. It is true that a family never recovers from the loss of a child and they never did.
The academic success, achievements and prosperity of their two sons brought them
great joy. Neville qualified as an engineer and had a very successful career in the Oil
Industry in the Middle East. Walter became a psychiatrist in Toronto, Canada. In their 70’s my grandparents travelled to Toronto and saw for themselves the affluence and elegance and also the decadence of the western world. They had many stories, photos and fond memories of that trip. My grandparents had a tremendous sense of humor with anecdotes from real life situations. What I recall most of all is their fun, laughter and happiness.
A brief return
My father was in Government Service and had to move from town to town every
three years. In their wisdom my parents decided to send me to the hostel, at great cost to themselves. It was to give me a stable life and teach me the social skills and
discipline. I achieved their goals only to lose them in the rough and tumble of
University life. After having entered Medical College in 1962 I returned to my
grandparents in Nugegoda. There had been a complete transformation of the town in the intervening years. It was big, bustling and busy. The network of telephone and
electricity cables formed an aerial lattice reflecting the changing times.
Wickramasinghe Place was now called Samudradevi Mawatha. Rev.Wickramasinghe
helped the community enormously and built the schools. It was sad to see them erase from memory his life’s work.
At Doris Cottage every room told a story and every picture and piece of furniture
seemed laden with memories. My grandparents had aged gracefully and their faces
reflected the joys and hardships of their lives. They had gradually become less and
less mobile. Their love, wit and humour remained undiminished. Grandma told me
stories that I hadn't heard before, of her life and times where she grew-up near
Batalagoda in the Kurunegala district. A strong sense of family persisted as always. I
lived in Nugegoda for a further two years before moving to Wattala with my parents.
Time passed swiftly and relentlessly. During those years and always my grandparents
had the respect and love of the extended family. Their eyesight and the hearing
gradually failed. They became mostly confined to home. I visited them from time to
time and saw the decline. Whenever we met there was always much to discuss. They
loved to retell old family stories and amusing ones. Grandma kept touching
mementoes of our family like photographs and paper cuttings, which she cherished
immensely. To her every photo spoke volumes. Grandpa died in 1983 aged 89. I was
then in London and felt the loss deeply. After his death, for grandma life became an
ordeal. She lead a quiet life and remained fit but frail. I have often seen her sitting
alone wrapped in her own thoughts. Memories of the past stared at her from every
room, photographs and family occasion. The great void in her life could never be
filled. Thankfully she remained in good health to the very end. Grandma passed away in 1986 at the age of 86. I will always remember grandma’s diligence, energy and enthusiasm and grandpa’s calm reflective kindness. To us it was an end of an era.
Some six decades have passed since I first set foot on Nugegoda. During the past 35
years I have lived in the UK and visited Sri Lanka from time to time. On my visit last
year the changes that greeted me were astonishing. Now I feel a stranger in Nugegoda with the people I knew gone and the landmarks disappeared forever. It is the Church, St Johns School and the Railway Station that helps me to get my bearings in the town where I spent my childhood.
As I saw in the fading years of the 20th Century prosperity has come to the town too.
There are better shops, super markets, wider roads, better communications and
transport. The many bars and restaurants offer every kind of cuisine from cholesterol laden steaks to sizzling Chinese prawns. This is to be applauded. Many had cut adrift from the peasant outlook, dressed and lived better. Some had cars, hifi and television to brighten up their lives. Bristling billboards and signposts line the roads. The streets are crammed with consumer goods and it’s money that counts. Buses and trains are still over filled with people and getting on them is a survival skill. Pop music of ghetto blasters compete with the screech of car horns. The roads are an obstacle course of animals and exhaust spewing traffic. The town which was a middleclass suburb now shows both great wealth and appalling poverty. Many of the old houses have been pulled down. The few that remained look like relics from a lost civilization.
What is preserved is pricey. The nouveau riche prefer to live in large detached houses,
behind high walls and security gates.
Growth of a town is inevitable but sadly it has taken place randomly, unchecked and
without a plan. Nugegoda is now bleeding from the wounds of this devastatingly
rapid, unsympathetic expansion. The industrial and residential areas are mixed with
office space. There is no designated green belt to preserve as an area for peace and
relaxation. It’s the age old gangrenous plague of bribery and corruption. The result is
a cauldron of light, noise and environmental pollution, a serious health hazard. This is what remains of the once austere, puritanical Nugegoda of the fifties. Its past elegance lay buried under layers of asphalt and concrete.
The house died with my grandparents. It was divided and given to two daughters.
They have in turn handed it over to their daughters. One half has been sold and this
we never see due to a high wall. The present occupant took over recently and had
little choice. The numerous renovations have made the house unrecognisable. It looks squeezed, twisted and tortured by the buildings around it. Nugegoda has lost a slice of social history of the 20th century. The Doris Cottage of my childhood only exists in a secure corner of my memory.
I have rambled on and revived ancient and half forgotten memories of a town with its own personality, heart and soul. Although the magic of the old Nugegoda still haunts me the loveliness and enchantment of that peaceful town I knew, is now a distant memory. Within the time frame of a single generation it has changed beyond
recognition. It hurts when I think about its former glory and the people who made it
As I look back what amazes me most is the awesome force of destiny that controlled
and fashioned our lives, of which we have so little control.
I dedicate this narrative to the memory of my grandparents. They both gave us life
and hope. It is only now I realise the depth of their influence on my life. Their love,
warmth and encouragement will be remembered, always.
May they Rest In Peace
‘Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days
Where destiny with men for pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays
And one by one back in the closet lays.--
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam