Friday, March 27, 2015

Two Appa's, Umma and Wapamma

It was the best of times in the 1940s in Colonial Ceylon under British rule since 1805. Our parents married in 1943 and moved to #300 Galle Road at Bambalapitiya. Our maternal grandparents, Rasheed Appa & Ummu Thahira (Umma), together with our maternal uncles Zubair (JumMama) and Faiz (FaMama), and aunt Ummu Naseeha, also moved in with us. Our paternal grandparents, Sameer Appa & Wapamma, together with the rest of their unmarried children, our paternal uncles and aunts, lived next door at #298. The married ones had already moved to their own homes in Wekande in Slave Island and Lily Avenue, Wellawatte.

All three of us, Mumtaz, Fazli & Firoze, were born between 1945 and '50 . Growing up in the two sprawling mansions at Bambalapitiya was a truly memorable experience. The extensive land behind both homes stretched down towards the Indian Ocean and encompassed almost an acre. Coconut, fruits, flowers, and vegetables grew abundantly in the rich soil watered by the monsoon rains.

Rasheed Appa, our maternal Grandpa was a very striking human being with an extremely strong personality, kindness, and charm. He ran his own indenting agency business called "Kingston Agencies" from home and represented many famous European brands of food, clothing, soft toys, and other gadgets. All he had was a portable Remington typewriter on which he used to type and send out his mail to his principals in Europe and clients in Ceylon.

Appa, as we called him, was always nattily dressed in his buttoned up shirt, sarong, and jacket. His chiseled face sported a small beard and his hair was always neatly combed sideways. Often he used an umbrella since rains were always a feature of the city in the tropics. His shiny grey Austin A40 bore the registration plate number CN786.

The nature of his indenting business gave him the opportunity to meet and know many British heads of companies in Colombo with whom he had direct dealing in making sure their orders were executed by the principals he represented, overseas. Pearl Barley from Holland was one of his more lucrative products and our garage at the back was always stacked with crates of the stuff awaiting the importers to call over and collect.

It was related to us by Umma (Ummu Thahira), our maternal grandma, that Appa had visited Europe with a few of his friends and relatives sometime before we were all born and had many an interesting story to relate about his sojourn in England, France, Italy, and Switzerland.

On one occasion in the early 50's, one of his principals from Europe decided to visit Colombo. He had to hurriedly convert the front verandah and living room of our home at #300 into a makeshift office to entertain them. The sofas were moved around, writing desks were put in specific corners, his sons and a nephew, were nattily dressed and seated at the desks posing off as employees, and a sign was also put up at the front of the house. Rasheed Appa's maternal first cousin (mom’s sis’s son) Sir Razik Fareed, Kt, OBE, JPUM, who lived a stone’s throw away at Fareed Place in Bambalapitiya, also participated at the discussions. The visitors were extremely impressed at the posh mansion like office that was apparent.

A costly magazine from Switzerland called Europa Star, which depicted the top wristwatches which included Patek Philippe, Girard-Perregaux, Rolex, Omega, Jaeger-Coultre, Longines,  Blancpan, TAG-Heuer, Tissot, Titoni, Cartier, etc., and another issue depicting exclusive jewellery manufactured in Switzerland, used to arrive alternatively bi-monthly in a year. It is still received by his grandson, Firoze, at his present place of work. 

 Appa was also a very hot movie goer and didn't miss many of the films that were being aired in the cinemas in those times. Tamil movies were mainly his forte and he, accompanied by his sidekicks, Rahman uncle (aka MammaGhouse Uncle), Junaid Appa (JunAppa), and Samsudeen Uncle used to patronize the late night movies that went on till midnight very often.

Gardening was something Appa cherished all his life and he instilled this valuable trait into all of us by getting us to help him in watering, pruning, clearing, and maintaining the massive plantation that encircled the house both, at the front and back. It was fun and we enjoyed it very much and also learned the importance of plant life.

Animal husbandry was another key factor at #300. We had chickens, ducks, turkey, and even a pair of goats, one black and one white, named Laila and Majnoon. Rounding up the hens in the evening and making sure they were all locked safely in their cages, to protect them from the jaws of the polecat and bandicoot at night, was a task we had to deliver diligently every single day. We also had the glorious opportunity to see Laila & Majnoon have kids. Watching the birth itself was a sensational experience for us little kids. An event that will always remain in our minds. At #298, next door, they also had a pair of deer with whom we spent many a time in fun and frolic.

Rattan-weaving was another wonderful task that Appa taught us. We had several armchairs and lounge chairs that were made of wood and rattan. While the task was arduous and painful to the fingers we still enjoyed weaving the defective chairs as and when it became necessary.

Sometime in 1960 Appa decided to make the pilgrimage of Hajj by ship and we were all extremely excited about it. While we missed him tremendously when he was away, his return brought us great joy as he loaded us with so many goodies he had purchased from Makkah and Madinah. The Tahinah Arabic sweet was the most savored by the family. Others received "worry" beads, prayer mats, skull caps, and Zamzam water.

Hameed (deceased), aka Abu, who was almost my age, came to live with us from his village in Rakwana in the 50s. He grew up with us and Appa took care of him like his own grandson. His parents were employed in the tea estate and they had wanted a better life for their son in Colombo. He went on to become a professional electrician and started his own building contracting business, Island Electricals, located on the seaside at the top of Vaverset Place in Wellawatte, Colombo-6.

Abu's brother Sheriff (deceased), joined the family in Colombo and went on to live with Ummu Naseeha, Appa's youngest daughter, in Kiribathgoda. He went on to become a very popular Chef at one of the leading hotels in the North central Province.

Another brother, Zainudeen Marikkar Hassen known as Deen, also came down to Colombo and was raised by Appa until he too went on to join Island Electricals together with his older brother. Deen married a Moor girl from Panadura and moved south to live and run the business from there.

Alvis, our driver, used to work for S S Issadeen, GA at Matara, and had come to live and work for us after he was relinquished of his services there. He was a skillful artist and had some sensational drawings on the garage wall, at the back of the house, which he also used as his abode. He spent many years with us and moved on only in the early 1990s.

Umma, on the other hand was the most patient lady we have ever known. Quiet, unassuming, confined to her little space in the house, she ran the place like a CEO, managing the kitchen help and ensuring that food was always served on the table. She was Appa's first cousin and the family ties, from the "Shothian" family they both belonged to, were very close between the two of them.

During our teen years we were always bailed out by Umma whenever we needed some extra cash for a movie, ice cream, or other delicacy. She used to keep her cash knotted at the end of her Saree fall that was flung over her shoulder from back to front.

A very significant trait of Umma was that she woke up at 5 am every single day, offered her morning prayers and opened all the doors of the house, front and back. They never feared thieves, robbers, or intruders, in those times.

Under Umma's watch the lunch table was ready and served by 12 noon and we had to eat together with the family. In addition the food would be covered up with a large cane basket and left on the table till almost 4pm. During this time many visitors would come in to the house and partake pf the meal. That was her great delight to sit and chat with them while they ate. And then it was tea time. Biscuits and tea properly brewed in a pot. Served in tea cups with saucers. There were no tea bags then. We had to wash before we sat at the table, especially after a sweaty game of cricket on weekends.

During the Islamic month of Ramadan (fasting) Umma would command the house help to have the Cunjee, Dates, Savories, and Curries all prepared and ready by sunset. She even woke up early to cook the early morning meal of Suhur for the family that was usually served by 3:30 am.

Later on all of Mums siblings married and moved on to their own homes in Colombo and the emptiness in the house was most significant.

Appa passed away in the late 60s after suffering a stroke. It was a sad day for the whole family at #300. Umma moved on much later in 1979. They both had 13 grand children from their four children.

Rasheed Appa (Appa) & Ummu Thahira (Umma)

Right next door, adjacent to #300 and also attached to it by a common wall at the back, was #298 where our paternal Grandparents, Sameer Appa (Appa) and Raliya Umma (Wapamma), lived with their seven unmarried children. Three, including Dad, were already married and had moved to their own residences.

The oldest, Rameela Aunty (BigMaamee), had moved with her husband AWM Ghouse and their children to Wekande in Slave Island. Saleema Aunty (SmallMaamee), with her husband, MM Sheriff, and children had moved to her own home at Lily Avenue in Wellawatte. The ones remaining were Aunts Noor Jazeela, Sithy Ameena, Sithy Rahma, Khalisa, and uncles Ismail, Farooq and Sadiq.

Wapamma (our maternal Grandma) suffered from acute Arthritis and was confined to a bed or wheel chair as far as we can all remember. Yet, she was the live wire of the family and ran the home all by herself with the assistance of her unmarried daughters who lived at #298. Street vendors used to call at our door each morning and Wapamma entertained them in her bedroom, selecting fish, vegetables, and fruits, that were required for the day. Her enthusiasm to make typical Ceylon Moor sweets on a regular basis was relished by one and all. Kalu Dodol was the hot favorite even though it required a massive logistical effort, in terms of preparation, to deliver. Other delicacies were Sheenakka, SurutAppam, Ada, Takbeer Sweet, Awal Cunjee, and Sego Muscat.

Sameer Appa (aka Appa), our paternal Grandpa, used to work as The Chief Clerk at the Colombo Municipality under the British Raj. On retirement he spent most of his days at home involved very seriously in researching Ceylon Moor history, culture, and genealogy. His works have been published by the Moors' Islamic Cultural Home where he was an extremely active member throughout his life.

Appa used to walk us along Galle Road with his black umbrella held high above us, to Wellawatte, and down to Lily Avenue, opposite the market, to Ms Poulier's Nursery School, when we were very little. His oldest daughter, Rameela (Big maamee) lived right next door to the Poulier's, so he spent the rest of the day there until school was over at 11 am. Then, we walked together along the beach back home to Bambalapitiya watching the trains pass, the birds in the sky, fishermen, vendors, and people. many were the questions we had and he answered them all so very patiently and honestly. The lessons learned were invaluable.

Later on, when we started schooling at Royal Primary School, he used to accompany us by rickshaw every morning to school and back.

A significant activity of his was the monthly trek to the CMC to collect his pension. Usually one of his grandsons would accompany him on this venture as Wapamma was very concerned about his safety and also the safety of his pension. The bus ride to the Town Hall was always a very illuminating one where he would relate many an interesting story about the streets, places, homes, buildings, and businesses that we passed along.

At the CMC, Appa had the grand opportunity of meeting with many of his old colleagues from his working days and enjoyed the chit chat very much. After collecting the pension we would take a bus to the Pettah and go straight to M D Gunasena & Company Ltd. where he would purchase all his stationery needs for his work. Foolscap paper, carbon paper, pins and clips, gum, and other items were his needs. Then we would trudge along to The Bombay Sweet Meat Mart down Keyzer Street and enjoy a cool drink of Faludha while we ordered a whole selection of sweets, Muscat, Halwa, Rose Syrup, Jaggery, and other delicacies for the home. Lunch was always at Pilawoos in he Pettah. The trip back was always by taxi as we had to carry all the purchases and it was also more safer even if it was costlier than the bus ride. I forgot to mention that Wapamma would always give Appa a huge safety pin to attach the pension envelope to his inner jacket pocket for safety, so that pickpockets lurking in the bazaar areas of downtown Colombo wouldn't be able to grab them easily.

On returning home, Appa would give the whole of whatever remained from his pension to Wapamma to manage the domestic expenses. He didnt need any money until his next pension. Their relationship was most exemplary and they lived a grand life until the end. Wapamma was the first to pass and Appa wept like a baby. I can never forget that moment. He moved on a few years later.

Sundays were always family day when all the children and grand children of our grand parents used to gather at #298. We played a game of cricket during the morning while the gals prepared kidu lunch which was always served on long banana leaves on the floor. Sunday Choice in the afternoon was always blaring on the Radio and dessert was Elephant House Family Block Ice Cream. The uncles used to engage in playing cards till the late evening when tea was served with Murukku, Pakkoda, and spicy mixture from Ramjee Lodge, the vegetarian restaurant across the street.

The efforts that Appa executed in researching Ceylon Moor history and genealogy was extensive. Towards the latter stages of his life it was us, his grandsons, who helped him out with the typing as his ageing fingers were getting weary. All his research was neatly typed out on his massive Olivetti typewriter and filed methodically in named archives. Appa and Wapamma had 34 grand children from their ten children.

Sameer Appa (Appa) & Railya  Umma (Wapamma)
It is interesting to note that one of the grandsons, Fazli, has carried on Sameer Appa's genealogy research, after his demise, and all of the data is now available online on the internet in the Sri Lanka Genealogy Website.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Accha House & Umma House

Extracts from the Book Accha House & Umma House
A Mixed Childhood in Sri Lanka
By Asiff Hussein

Umma House

  ‘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.