Memories of Kadugannawa
By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
Returning to the past is wonderful if one doesn’t dwell on sadness and regrets.
Memories are best filtered. Although I was born in Kandy, that charming citadel in the hills, I never had the good fortune to live there. The nearest I got was when my parents moved to Kadugannawa. In 1946 it was a sleepy little town. Charming and at times beguiling, It prided itself on its unique middle-class appeal and the sheer good-natured generosity of its people. My father was in charge of the Power Station that supplied electricity to the town. That was an enormous responsibility and he was deeply aware of the overwhelming burden of duty. Throughout my childhood, my father’s work ethic of meticulous attention to detail wove a pattern which he encouraged me to emulate. I wish I did!!!
In colonial times many power stations were setup in towns and cities until we had adequate thermal and hydroelectric power for a countrywide grid. The power station at Kadugannawa was close to the centre of town. I still have images in my mind of the tall single storey building painted a drab ‘samara’ yellow. This edifice housed the huge Lister engine that generated electricity. I recall the large spinning fly-wheel and the constant chugging of the pistons. There was the unmistakable smell of grease all around. Despite the engine noise and mayhem there was a sense of calm in the way the workers set about their tasks.
We lived opposite the Dawson Tower in a large house rented from the Ceylon Government Railways (CGR). In 1820 Governor Sir Edward Barnes appointed Dawson to construct the Colombo Kandy road. Sadly, Dawson died in 1829 of a snake bite before the road was completed. Sir Edward Barnes’ great great ……… great granddaughter was a Consultant Physician in my hospital in the UK. When she asked me about Edward Barnes, I was embarrassed by my ignorance. He started the coffee plantations in Ceylon and to facilitate the transport of coffee and other goods he built a network of roads.
This was the “golden era” of steam trains. They were noisy beasts. As they chugged along they hissed and puffed steam and threw coal dust into the air. Just in front of our small front garden was the busy Colombo-Kandy railway line and just beyond that was the main Colombo – Kandy road. As the trains roared past at all hours of the day and night the earth shook. We had to get used to the noise and the rumble. The house was surrounded by a grey picket fence typical of the properties owned by the old CGR. My parents soon got used to the rhythms of life in this quiet outpost.
These were Colonial times and I wasn’t aware of the political ructions of the era. All I remember now is how quiet and peaceful it was. My parents knew of my fascination for “the good old days”. In turn they too loved to talk about old times and often filled me in with their descriptive narratives and recollections. My parents had a large collection of photos from the time they were married. Although discoloured and moth-eaten they captured the era perfectly. They brought to life the culture, people and events of a time now long gone. The styles and fashions of the day are interesting too. Men had hair short on the sides and back, long at the top with a side parting. They wore baggy trousers. Women had long hair tied at the back into a ball and wore saree. No one seemed to smile for the photos. Perhaps their faces mirrored their insecure and uncertain lives.
Those who worked for the Government were called ‘Government servants’. They were sent to different parts of the country for a period of about 4 years and then they were moved on. These movements were euphemistically called ‘transfers’. In Kadugannawa many started their lives as freshers in a new town. Loneliness can swiftly nibble into one’s soul. Soon the social circles engulfed them and they became part of a larger family. They often met up in the evenings for a chat. One person I remember well is Postmaster Rodrigo. Pleasantly old-fashioned he was a colourful raconteur, competent astrologer and a popular with the ladies. Although people accepted their fate unflinching as the unyielding force of destiny there was a tremendous yearning to know what was in store. The Postmaster’s caged mynah bird copied his master voice and reiterated his wisdom. People in those days visited friends uninvited. They were welcomed with open arms.
There was no television. The short-wave radio service was full of hiss and crackles. The only evening’s entertainment was by meeting friends. Families joined together for company. Some played card games. There was much helpful kindness on offer and social integration. It was fashionable for men to smoke and drink. As the evening wore on there was the propensity for the discussions to get heated and combative. Invariably there were misunderstandings and moments of awkwardness. Evening parties were a popular form of entertainment. It was Orange Barley or Lanka Lime for the ladies and children, booze for the boys and patties and cutlets for all. The large CGR contingent were well known for their drinking and socialising. Some were gifted musicians. When there was a party they arrived with their guitars and drums and entertained us singing well into the night. Growing up against a backdrop of alcohol and music, those bohemian habits were hard-wired into me from an early age!!!
In those days women’s lives were mostly domestic. Education and public life were confined to men. There were maids to cook and do many of the household chores. When at a loose end the wives found pleasure in frivolous tittle tattle. The family gossip that brightened up their lives also had the propensity to darken theirs too. Personal quarrels, fraying friendships, love, marriage and romantic liaisons became big news and took pride of place in their daily talk. In retrospect it amazes me how impervious people were to the extraordinary everyday sexism women encountered in those distant days.
There was the overriding perception that the British Crown was not accountable to the people. Unlike today people didn’t complain about the government as they felt no one listened. Jobs were scarce and they feared the consequences. In those dark days a sense of apocalypse dominated the lives of people. Very few owned cars. Public transport was slow, costly and inconvenient. Safety and security on those journeys were never guaranteed. Healthcare was poor and people died young. The schools established by Christian Missionaries glorified British rule. The British way of life pervaded the lives of the upper and middle classes in Ceylon.
When the CGR wanted our house back for their Station Master we found a lovely, old house called Roydon on Alagalla road. It had large glass windows all round. The sun came streaming in all day. The locals called it the ‘Glass House’. This cosy house had the strains of old colonial nostalgia with the architecture resembling an upcountry estate superintendent’s bungalow. We were now far away from the town and it was ever so peaceful. Our house was on a hill and had stunning views of the blue mountains of the Alagalla range. There was a winding dirt track by the house that took us to the bottom of the hill. This was a heavenly journey. Tall grass, ferns and wildflowers lined our paths. We passed moss ridden culverts and trickling streams. In the valley below there were vast stretches of uncultivated green land. The large pond had fish and water lilies. The place was a haven for birds. The soft wind whistled through the tall grass. It was ever so peaceful. Even recalling these heavenly memories gives me such great joy.
I still remember how quiet and dark the nights were at Roydon. There was a distinct chill in the air. In the stillness of the night we heard the eerie croaking of frogs and the din of crickets. Our garden was full of fireflies that lit up those dark corners. Nature can be a work of art. The bewitching magic of the full moon created a wonderland illuminating the landscape with its mellow silvery light. When my parents went away to meet their friends I sometimes stayed home with our maid. She had a store of stories. I recall with much nostalgia those tales of long ago beautifully embellished with her lavish descriptions.
My real love affair with Kadugannawa began many years later. I read about its strategic significance, fascinating history and its many places of interest. The Balana pass was the doorway to the Kandyan Kingdom. Strengthened by the Fort and the tall Alagalla mountains, Balana remained an impenetrable natural defence for the Kingdom. We often travelled to visit the 14th century Gadaladeniya temple. The bone rattling journey was perilous on narrow mountainous roads. It was surrounded by thick jungle. The pristine beauty of the temple and its splendid south Indian paintings and architecture seemed hidden away from the public. The 200 year old quaint ‘Amabalama’ near the hair pin bend on the Colombo-Kandy road was constructed by the British. This was a popular stop over for horsemen and merchants and is still kept in good repair. The famous Kadugannawa tunnel created by boring a hole through solid rock is a tribute to the British engineer W.F Davidson who designed it. The Dawson Tower will remain a monolith for the great man and also the blood, sweat and guts of the labourers who toiled day and night to make his dream a reality.
India became independent in 1947 and our politicians too were agitating for freedom. After 500 years of foreign rule our people wanted to be free. Few of our friends were concerned about breaking away from our colonial masters. They weren’t sure if we could govern ourselves with that same fairness and efficiency.
Kadugannawa was my holiday resort. I had to get back to school. There was wailing and floods of tears when my parents left me with my grandparents in Nugegoda. My father left Kadugannawa in 1948, the memorable year we got our independence. I was far too young to appreciate the enormous significance of the 4th of February. We have remained a democracy giving every countryman the vote to elect a government of the people, by the people and for the people. When things go wrong there is no one to blame but ourselves. It is for us to judge if we have used our vote wisely and if those whom we have elected have helped us achieve our goals. Sadly, politicians worldwide just enjoy the power they have over us and prescribed for us what they thought was good enough for us.
I remember Kadugannawa most fondly of a happy time in my life and of the people who made it so special. Including my parents, none of those adults are alive today but they and their way of life will remain in my memory for many more years to come.