Seelan’s response to my posting on Lata Mangeshkar brought to mind very vivid memories of my dear friend Nihal Nagahawatte.
We called him Nihal, some times Nage or Naga or more often Nagahawatta which was unusual as most of us were called either by our first names or a shortened version of the surname. Though I was an ‘A’ and he a ‘N’ we were fortunate to have a shared life in Bloem. We both had rooms on the first floor and proudly called our ‘area’ Texas although we never thought of ourselves as Texans, the cowboy heroes of our childhood Westerns,
He shared a room with Nimal Senadipathi and I with Indragee Amerasinghe. Other batchmates in Texas were Wijesinghe, Charlie Pieris and Cossack Arumainayagam. It was anybody’s guess who was more hairy, Cossack or Indragee. We used to have great fun tickling each of them especially Cossack who couldn’t contain his laughter, his tall figure writhing and contorting into different postures to escape our tickling fingers. He never lost his cool but always accepted everything in good humour. I am lucky to keep in touch with him regularly from his home in Southampton. In contrast Nagahawatte had a complete hairless body.
Although Bloem was one large family of brothers living together we all had our separate lives in our separate sections, only venturing to other areas for combined studies or to scrounge a punt or more rarely a drink. Juniors in Texas were treated as ‘equals’ as long as they kept their distance.
Nagahawatta was special in Texas and probably in the whole of Bloem because of his handsome looks – we each thought we were handsome but had no feelings of envy in giving him the crown. More than his looks, his claim to fame was his voice, which was unique. He could render almost any song at any time at anybody’s request. His favourite singers were Mohammed Rafi and Victor Ratanayake. We spent hours into the night singing songs from the film Dosti which was a hit and running at the Ritz in Borella. Nagahawatte’s voice was accompanied by Charlie on the drums (desk) with all of us joining in chorus. Victor Ratnayake’s ‘Paave wala’ and ‘Sihil sulang ralle’ were other favourites. He would play his own interludes on his mouth organ. He could play the guitar as well although I think the guitar belonged to Tilak de Mel who lived in a floor above and would suddenly appear,uninvited, in Texas with guitar in hand and a punt between his lips. Tilak was full of advice on how to pass the exam ‘first shot’. He was joined in this endeavour by Kandiah (Kandos) and Marcus (Fonseka) who amongst them had plenty of experience in how to prepare for exams. They were very serious in their advice which was very cheap, only cost us a Bristol or a 4Ace.
Indragee deserved a medal for having lived with and amongst us without ever being tainted by any of our vices. No wonder he ended up as a Professor.
Nagahawatte’s voice won him many admirers amongst the Arts faculty girls during University strike. They would flock around him and we also ‘shared some of the spoils’. He went to extraordinary lengths to impress the girls as if his voice alone wasn’t enough. An example was we were once confronted by a cop who was armed with a rifle. Nagahawatte pushed himself forward towards the cop and bared his (hairless) chest and shouted ‘puluwan nam thiyapan’ (‘shoot if you can’). A singing hero for the girls.
An interesting story – Nagahawatte, Charlie and I were walking back to Bloem after a night of strike. Some girls were walking on the opposite side of the road. We all started whistling at them (Charlie had a piercing whistle). An armed cop appeared from nowhere and inquired what the hell we thought we were doing. Quick as a flash Charlie said ‘balanna Ralahami, baduwa enne na ne, Ralahamita puluwanda enna kiyanna?’ (See officer the girls are refusing to come to us, can you please get them to?)
The response from the cop was predictable – with raised rifle he chased us and we didn’t stop till we reached Bloem.
We used to be quite jealous of him being selected by Antho as a junior ‘surgical assistant’. To give Nihal his due he shared his earnings with us, usually at a Park View dinner. I remember a trick (which I feel rather ashamed about now) he played at Park View on two occasions. After a bottle of beer and more than halfway through the fried rice he put a few half crushed sea shells on his plate. Called the waiter and protested and for good measure claimed that he was a medical student and knew very well what damage it can cause inside his body if he ingested them. He would immediately be given a new plate of rice. On the second occasion it wasn’t sea shells but a tiny nail.
Biga, Nagahawatte, Charlie and I were a combo to try and see the first day first show of any Hindi film screened in Colombo. I remember we cut the afternoon lectures four days in a row to go and see ‘Jab Jab Phool Khile’ at the Gamini cinema in Maradana.
One night we were returning after a 9.30 show on two bikes. Nagahawatte was being ‘doubled’ by Charlie. It was near midnight and we were stopped by the cops – two offences, riding double and without lights. Nagahawatte always carried a torch which had no batteries just for show. When the cops asked him to switch it on he answered in English that we were medical students and the torch was ‘sterno mastoid’. The cop sent us on our way with a warning rather than show his embarrassment.
Those were the days when the title of ‘Medical Student’ carried some weight and was respected.
Nagahawatte was always a Romeo at heart, wooing any pretty girl in the finest traditions of Hindi cinema. There was a girl travelling to Colombo from Ganemulla who he described as looking just like Vyjayanthimala (his heroine). We were working in the wards at the time. He would drape his steth around his neck, walk to the compartment where she was sat, lean out of the door (we could open doors on the moving train then) with arm outstretched sing a song (yeh mera prem patra from the film Sangam). We later found out that the girl became a popular actress (Vasanthi Chaturani). Another romantic incident was at the Oval cricket ground. It was an open air show in honour of Vyjayanthimala who was visiting Sri Lanka. We (Nagahawatte, Biga and I) were in the same stand where Vyjayanthimala was sat with her husband Dr. Bali. Nagahawatte approached her and on bended knee declared that he was a medical student who had adored her all his life. Dr. Bali tried to wave him away with an irritated hand gesture, but Vyjayanthimala gave him her time.
Sadly we had to part our ways – he to USA and I to Nigeria and then UK.
I next met him at our batch get together that Kum organised at Warrington. We were sat at the same table and he was in his element with hilarious jokes. It was the first time he had met my wife Daya. That didn’t deter from cracking the most foul jokes at which we all had a great laugh. I can’t remember the details but there was a joke about a man who had a speech defect which made every word he uttered sound an extremely filthy Sinhalese word. Nagahawatte pinched his nose and twisted his mouth to get just the right sound effects for the words.
It was great for us to hear how well he did in the States as a Paediatric Neurologist. Then came the sad news that he became ill which gradually progressed to claim his life.
I and am sure all his friends are really grateful to Nelum and his daughters who looked after him with great love and care during the last few years of his life.
I am not sure where he might be now. But wherever it is I am sure he would be regaling the crowd there with his beautiful voice and very funny jokes.
I and all those who knew him would be forever grateful for his friendship and will treasure his memory till we breathe our last.