Monday, July 30, 2018

The DEHIWELA where I grew up

By Nalaka Devendra - July 14, 2018,

We used to hang on the half-wall which bordered the premises and watch, until our parents came and dragged us away, by our ears. To make matters even more interesting, the owners expanded their business activities and introduced "hostesses" who lived on the premises. In the evenings, these employees would cycle up and down the lane in various revealing attire. To say we came of age and became very worldly, long before we should have been, is an understatement!

To get to our nameless small lane, one had to turn off Allen Avenue into "Atapattu Pedesa" sandwiched between the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens (the Zoo) and the main water purification and distribution centre for the area. Commonly known as the 'water tank', it was fed from the waters of Kalatuwawa. Little did we realise that the main feeder line went right under our lane, until it started leaking from a broken gasket. As water seeped to the surface there was great delight in this new spring! Alas! We were soon disillusioned.

Since the Zoo adjoined the road it was not unusual for us to see camels (single and double humped) and giraffes peering over the wall and looking at us, in quiet curiosity. From time to time (particularly after a heavy rain) parts of the retaining wall would collapse. Then we got an even better view. I remember seeing the Zebra enclosure, quite clearly. Once, while I walking early morning on my way to the busstand, I heard a muffled 'thud' behind me. When I turned back and looked, part of the wall (where I have just walked by) had collapsed. The lion's roar early in the morning was almost like an alarm call to us.

The old lady, her brood

and other animals

I went to school in the Ananda College school bus. It was a double-decker which commenced its journey from the Ratmalana Depot, came up Hill Street, thru Karagampitiya junction on to Allen Avenue. There were several of us who got into the bus from our unofficial busstand, opposite the water-tank. This was around 6:10 AM. We were at the bus-stand much earlier and had a long jaw with the others until the bus arrived. Just by the spot where we waited for the bus, lived a small family comprising of an old grandmother and her two small granddaughters. Their home was a small wooden enclosure on wheels. It doubled as a small 'petti-kade' from which, the old woman sold various knick-knacks and food. Her clientele were those who visited the Zoo, daily. The whole structure was no more than 5ft x 4ft. And cramped at the best of times. Behind it was a makeshift area where they cooked and ate. The three slept inside the wooden shop. They had no pipe-borne water. The old lady used to walk across the road to the street water tap and collect water in vessels. I am not sure how often she did this each day. It must have been very hard work. She used to wake up the two grand-kids and get them ready for school. There was an empty plot nearby which was their bathroom. I wonder what happened to them and their little petti-kade.

Another strange, and daily, event was the night-soil collectors. Most houses did not have cess-pits and buckets were used to collect the waste matter. The Municipality had a set of workers (probably who's olfactory senses must have been kaput) who went around emptying these buckets into a trailer pulled by a tractor or into hand-carts which were pushed. The hand-carts went where a tractor could not go. We who were unfortunate to stand (waiting for the bus) early morning, smelt the tractor or hand-cart arrival long before it arrived and much longer after it passed our way ! The pong, was terrible. Those poor Municipal Workers should have been given the Victoria Cross.

Free access to the Zoo

The inmates of the Zoo (the feathered kind) occasionally wandered (flew) off the reservation. While waiting for the school bus, I have seen an Ostrich, a Cassowary and an Emu being walked back by a Zoo-worker firmly grasping its neck ! While people came from far and wide to see exotic animals, we the lucky ones, saw them while waiting for the school bus. In later years, I was a member of the Young Zoologists' Association (YZA) and had free access to the Zoo - even outside normal visiting hours. A privilege we highly valued. I have had the pleasure of petting and feeding a lion cub, a leopard cub and several otters. I will never trade those experiences for all the gold in the world.

Every Sunday we visited the Sunday Pola at the Karagampitiya Junction. While there were about twenty permanent shops, on Sunday, the whole place came alive with vendors selling all manner of vegetables and fruits. The permanent shops were built, surrounding the Karagampitiya Bus Terminus, home to buses plying the 132, 118 & 176 routes. As the number of nomadic sellers increased, they set up stalls along Allen Avenue and sometimes, as far as the Central School, near the water-tank. There were no pavements. So road traffic moved at snail’s pace. But no one complained. It was a way of life and life itself, was not fast paced.

Adding colour to the vegetable and fruit vendors, there were various 'vedha mahatthayas' selling a fascinating array of magic cures for every ailment from the common cold to cancer ! Some of them even had live reptiles on display as a marketing aid. I used to love watching them in action and listen to their tall stories. As an impressionable boy, I must admit, I believed in some of their stories.

I still remember listening to one vendor displaying a bottle of capsules (black and orange) and being told that it would cure all manner of ailments. He told us that the main ingredient was a dust brought from the moon. He called this magic 'karal' Beeoliyo. Later that day, when I told my father about this magic cure – making a case for buying some - he roared with laughter and told me, that those pills were Vitamin-B capsules ! What can I say? ..... I was young !