“Kadugannawa”

Memories of Kadugannawa

Hi Sam
This is an article I wrote about my time in Kadugannawa as a child. I wrote this some years ago and have sent it to a newspaper which they published. You are welcome to post it if you think it would be of interest.
ND

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By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

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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!!!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“Weligama”

Hi Sam
Here is an article about my time in Weligama. It is specially for CJ who is from that beautiful town.
I am sure you remember it well too being from Matara.
Regards
ND

Untitled-1 By Nihal D Amarasekara

Weligama 

 

Revisted after 20 years

 The year was 1962. Those were happy peaceful days in my youth. Political turmoil and economic perils were just appearing in the horizon. Personally, life was full of hard study. During the long University vacation  I decided to travel home armed with some reading material. I can still recall the large black canopy of the Fort Railway Station and the smell of steam and burning coal. There was soot everywhere. The trains hissed and puffed and screeched incessantly. The 3 hour journey was uneventful but for a talkative young Englishman seated in front who began a long conversation. He indulged lavishly in the vadeys and pineapples sold by the vendors at the Railway Stations along the way. The sight of the stilt-fishermen, with their unique style of fishing from a perch on a sturdy pole 20-50 meters out to sea remain still in my memory.

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In 1962 my father was working for the Local Government in Weligama. My parents then lived on the outskirts of the town some distance away from the sea on the Akuressa Road. On either side were paddy fields, banana plantations and coconut trees. Across in the distance was the backdrop of purple mountains. Ours was a new house built on a hillside surrounded by tall jak, breadfruit and mango trees. It was an idyllic setting with a gravel path leading up to the house. At the edge of the property was a stream full of fish. At night the frogs made an awful racket. In the morning the dawn chorus was deafening.  During the day I walked in the garden and sat beneath the trees. Just a short walk downstream and I could see the village damsels frolicking and bathing in a muddy pool.

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In the warm afternoons I went out for a walk across the fields or through the forest. There were several hills, beautiful valleys and trickling streams.  Mealtimes there were the best in my memory. Every meal was a feast of mouth watering sea food with a pot of local curd and honey. The short walk to town was full of greetings from the friendly locals.  A retired Apothecary lived in a large mansion nearby. He was a quiet kindly man with a multitude of professional anecdotes. In the evenings we went to the old Rest House by the sea. It was beautifully located at the edge of the Weligama bay . The tall cylindrical columns of its long verandah and its architecture gave it a colonial feel. On many occasions I had sat on the rocks watching the waves roll in. It was very pretty at sunset to see the boats go out to sea and the shimmering lights appear across the bay in the far distance. Heaven and earth seem very near to each other.

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Off the beach is an extraordinary villa occupying a 2 acre island in Weligama Bay. It was built in the 1920s by the traveller and gardener Count de Mauny. The island was a  famous destination for many notables from different nations, including the novelist Paul Bowles. Its spectacular tropical gardens, and  octagonal-shaped house is breathtakingly beautiful. Its early colonial furnishings, large circular  verandahs make you step back into the 1930’s and is a travellers dream. Music from Noel Cowards “A Room with a view” wafts in the background giving it an “olde world” feel. The Count finally chose to live his eternal dream of peace and tranquillity close to nature ending his days in this paradise island. There was a busy main street of small shops and a fish market. The Railway Station was small and had a quaint grey picket fence typical of the old CGR. I still remember its Seth Thomas pendulum clock in the Station Masters Office. There was just the one doctor working in Private Practice – Dr Nugara, a kindly gentleman of immense grace and charm. He later left to settle in Australia. Sometimes we visited relatives in Kitulampitiya Galle and occasionally went to Matara to see the sights. After my vacation I said goodbye to my idyllic home to return to Colombo and a busy schedule of hard work.

 

I left Sri Lanka in 1974 to ‘make my fortune’ abroad. More exams and hard work filled my days and nights. Carving up a career took its time and toll. Years whizzed past and it wasn’t until 20 years later I returned to Weligama, the town that has haunted me since those days of my youth.

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I made the journey by car to save time. This was way before the Expressway from Colombo to Hambantota was planned.  The roads were narrow and busy and the vehicles had increased several fold. The result was mayhem with noise and pollution. Despite the busy traffic people, cattle and dogs cross the road in gay abandon. Weligama was unrecognisable. The popular landmarks had disappeared or covered and hidden behind newer and taller buildings. I found our former home with the greatest difficulty. The many tall trees that surrounded the house had gone perhaps ending up as furniture in a plush Colombo Hotel. The lovely gravel path to the house had become a muddy track left behind by lorries and bull dozers. The gushing waters of the stream was now a trickle without any life. Perhaps a casualty of intensive farming and the use of pesticides. Worse was yet to come. An old man seated on the steps of the house looked bemused but greeted us warmly. The property has been brought by developers and the house was allowed to decay. The front door creaked as it opened. My heart sank to see the long strands of cobwebs stretch from wall to wall. Wooden windows had perished and fallen away and the house was a haven for cockroaches and mice. In places the roof had caved in. The plaster had come off the rain soaked walls. Doom and desolation filled the air. As I moved from room to room I felt uneasy and claustrophobic remembering the life and the laughter and the happy times we have spent there. I spoke little and left the house heart broken to see my home in ruin and my memories shattered.

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Many of the neighbours had died and their children moved away. The main street was packed with people and full of life. There were many tourists bartering and moving in and out of the numerous shops. The astrologers and palmists made a quick trade.  The colourful billboards and the buzz of the place absorbed my attention for a while. Rest of the town looked prosperous too. Many of the houses had Televisions, Radios and VCR’s. They were well maintained with lovely gardens and cars in the porch. The people certainly  looked more affluent and healthy. With industrialisation we are losing touch with mother earth and the rich harvest it brings. The tourists bring us the valuable dollars to keep our country afloat. They also litter the countryside with the products of their own artificial lives. There have been new additions to the Rest House which was not in keeping with its colonial past. Snorkelling and speed boating had stopped for the day. In the evening I sat on a rock by the Rest House watching the sea and the waves roll in, just as I had done all those years ago. I was wrapped in my own  thoughts thinking of my parents and their love. There were Coca Cola cans and  polythene bags rolling in the breeze on the baked golden sand. I left Weligama with mixed feelings. Sad that my past has been desecrated but happy to see prosperity has reached that beautiful town of my dreams. After all I cannot allow the dreams of my youth get in the way of progress.

 

In writing these notes I have tried to give my moods and thoughts as it occurred. To me the last 60 years have been one rich gift amidst some misfortune. It is politics, politicians and the people that would decide what this Century would bring for Weligama.

Many yesterdays of my youth lie buried in this beautiful country of my birth.

 

 

OER- A Tribute

Hi Sam
I wrote a tribute to Prof Abhayaratne whom we all got to know and like. I do hope it is a satisfactory tribute to a great man.
Regards, ND

 

Professor O.E.R Abhayaratne  – A Tribute

By Dr Nihal D Amarasekara

Prof. Osmund Edwin Randolph Abhayaratne had his early education at Royal College Colombo. After an outstanding career at the Ceylon Medical College he received the diploma of Licentiate of Medicine and Surgery.  He began his first job in the Health Service in 1933. After holding several key posts in Public Health and Preventive Medicine he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh for postgraduate training

 

He later obtained the Master’s Degree in Public Health at Harvard University with First Class Honours. In his long and illustrious career, he won many prestigious National and International awards. In Sri Lanka he held the position of President of several Learned Societies and Associations including the Sri Lanka Medical Association. He was called upon to act for the Vice Chancellor on numerous occasions for Sir Ivor Jennings and for Sir Nicholas Attygalla. The Prof made a significant personal contribution to his commitment to education by being an active member of the Governing Boards of several prominent schools in Colombo and Kandy.

The phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’ is often attributed to the Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, circa 1500.  Its wisdom wasn’t acknowledged until we were well into the 20th century. In 1949, Dr O.E.R Abhayaratne was appointed the first Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Ceylon. Being a man of outstanding ability and intellect, they couldn’t have chosen better. He was at the forefront of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at a momentous time when we were developing and expanding our Health Service. With his devotion to Preventive Medicine, he kept his speciality in the spotlight publishing scientific papers and review articles. He was hugely influential in the shaping and development of the Public Health Services in Ceylon. He became the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1953 and remained so until his retirement in 1967. The Prof has been notably responsible for the establishment and recognition of the second Medical School in Peradeniya. Away from the bright lights of academia, he was the Vice President of the Sinhalese Sports Club.

The Faculty of Medicine had its fill of eccentric, colourful and prickly characters. There were a plethora of high-profile academics with huge egos. The political milieu of the institution was a veritable minefield. By his dignified personality, charm and good humour Prof Abhayaratne helped to create stability and a convivial atmosphere in the organisation. He was the voice of reason and highly regarded and considered as an approachable colleague. His opinion was much valued. His authoritative yet gentle manner instilled confidence and hope. Many anecdotes abound of his helpful kindness and generosity to young lecturers finding their feet in the faculty. The genial Prof was a tremendously wise and perceptive colleague, able to identify deficiencies and deal with them appropriately.

 My first encounter with Prof Abhayaratne was not a happy one. It was at a viva voce examination, prior to entry into the faculty of medicine. This was held at the austere Senate House of the University on Reid Avenue. Half a dozen wizened old men with staring eyes were seated round a shiny table. They fired volleys of questions that unnerved me. I felt like a gazelle cornered by huntsmen. Then fate smiled on me. The Prof realised my discomfiture. He changed the ferocity of my ordeal with a friendly smile and questions about philately and the history of postage stamps. I have remembered his kindness to this day that ended well in a lifelong career in medicine!!

Many students from my era will remember fondly the great man arriving every morning in his chauffeur-driven black Mercedes and getting off at the Kynsey Road entrance to the faculty. He was no stranger to the finer things in life. In a good mood, we often saw him walking the corridors of power whistling a happy tune.  It was a morning ritual for Prof O.E.R Abhayaratne and the Medical Officer Dr E.H.C Alles to arrive at the canteen for a tea and a fag. Dressed in his dapper beige suit there was an air of sophistication although it had lost its creases aeons ago. They enjoyed a joke and a smoke. I do not know if it was through fear or respect, we just avoided eye contact with them.

The Dean, with his silver hair and large frame was naturally imposing. He filled any room he entered bringing authority and gravitas to his position as the Dean of the faculty. The Prof. had a distinctive gruff and husky voice. He occasionally barked commands that would have frightened the boldest. But then again with his kind avuncular manner he acquired a cult status in the institution that endeared him to the students. They feared and respected him in equal measure. Beneath that intimidating and fearsome exterior was a kind and considerate man. He led by the force of his personality. During those glorious years of the 1960’s his character and easy-going style were imprinted on the life and workings of that great institution.

Teaching was his life and he gave his all to his students. Professor Abhayaratne was an outstanding teacher and an altruistic mentor with a passionate interest in medical education. The Prof had a unique talent to teach. His Public Health lectures were light entertainment in memorable English prose laced with rhyming poetry. Malarial mosquitoes bred in tins and cans and pots and pans. The corrugated tin roofs were hot during hot weather, cold during cold weather and noisy during rainy weather. His cyclostyled notes (including all his jokes) were available for Rs.5.00 courtesy of the ‘Marker’ in the Men’s Common Room. His superb lectures from sewage disposal to water treatment and squatting plates to the control of communicable diseases were delivered with such elegance they entered our memories and stayed there.

The Professor loved the century-old heritage and the unbroken traditions of the Ceylon Medical College, with all its imperfections!! He wanted students to enjoy their undergraduate years and took great delight in giving his unstinting support to a multitude of events. All the student events of the Faculty were organised by the Medical Students’ Union (MSU). As I heard from a former president of the MSU the Prof’s moral and financial support for the Union was legendary. The MSU organised several evening parties in the Men’s Common Room. This broke the monotony of the hard grind of medical education. There were more drinks than food. The music was provided by our own talented musicians. We sang and danced and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Occasionally on those evening we often saw the lone figure of the Prof standing by the canteen door nearest to the lobby, perhaps after a late evening meeting. He had that familiar stance as he stood at ease with both hands on his hips and his coat open widely. He was hearing the limericks and the rugby songs he had heard many times before. It was like a father seeing his children at play.  We saw his smile of approval as he departed. Held at the University at Reid Avenue the Annual Block Concert took pride of place. The Prof was given a seat in the front row, with the great and the good. His welcome presence at the concert never subdued the effusive spirit of the artistes nor their performances. He found it equally hard to maintain a straight face as wave upon wave of youthful antics with sexual overtones hit the deck. It must be said some of the provocative dancing and the racy dialogue would have made a sailor blush!!

As medical students in the 1960’s we lived in an interesting and exciting bohemian whirl.

 

Prof. Abhayaratne was affectionately known as ‘Pachaya’. It is a term of endearment in Sinhala for a person who is known for being economical with the truth. Perhaps he earned this fanciful sobriquet. This was aptly demonstrated during the cross-examination and interrogations we had with the Prof in the aftermath of the chaotic Law-Medical match. He announced that every photograph taken will be closely scrutinised with a photo-electron-microscope to identify every offender. We feared the worst. It was much later we got to know that no such instrument ever existed.

Above all he was a committed family man. Without his ever-supportive wife, May, he would not have been able to contribute so much time to healthcare and to academic life. He was the first to recognise this. They had two daughters and a son. The youngest, Rohini, was in my year in medical school. Despite her privileged position she had no airs and graces and remained one of us.

Prof Abhayaratne was the Dean of the Faculty at a time of tremendous political change and anxious uncertainty. He steered the ship into safety through stormy seas and retired in 1967. Although he richly deserved a long retirement, he passed away suddenly in 1969 of a heart attack. The Professor will be remembered for his personal qualities of kindness, integrity, warmth and humanity. Now I realise the sheer scale of his vision and his professionalism. Many of us have been greatly enriched by having known him and being his students. Our thanks go to one of the greats of our time and one of the finest to walk the corridors of the faculty. He truly was a credit to our profession. He left the world a better place and left the faculty of medicine up there with the finest institutions in the world. We will forever keep him in grateful memory.

He was sustained by an unflinching Christian faith that was central to his life. A regular church-goer, the Prof was the Warden of St Michael’s Church Polwatte for 7 years.

May his dear Soul Rest in Peace.

 

“FACULTY”

Sam
Memories of the faculty are too numerous to mention but there are a few things that will remain in our lives forever. Each of us will have a different memory of events but a few will be common to all. Here are some of mine. These memories are gradually fading as we age. See if you think it is worthwhile to publish in your Blog
ND
 
Untitled-1   Dr. N D Amerasekera

My memories of ,

 Colombo Medical Faculty,  60 years ago

Faculty Edit-

It is so wonderful to return to the Faculty of Medicine even in our dreams. The quiet Kynsey road, the familiar façade of the grey administrative building and the sentinel Clocktower stands unchanged. I am simply mesmerised by the elegant sweep of those majestic buildings. In that dreamy state it is so easy to be enchanted by the constant whirr of the Vespas in the dusty parking bay behind the Milk Booth and be overwhelmed by the smell of smoke that fills the air. In our mind’s eye the faculty will always remain as we left it all those years ago.

Entry into the Faculty was the culmination of years of toil and sacrifice. There was such a great sense of myopic optimism, we lost ourselves in the adulation. We dreamed it was our passport to fame and fortune. The idyll soon faded as the harsher truths of real life intruded. Life being more like a game of snakes and ladders, always has ways to end that utopian vision and bring us back to reality!!

The Faculty was our Temple of Wisdom and also our gilded cage. There was an air of confidence and a touch of vanity which came from being a medical student. Life then was a dream. I developed a sinister arrogance and an assured sense of entitlement. I dreamed of living happily ever after. It was not long before part of that charm and fantasy began to wear thin.

The common room was the social hub of the Faculty. It was housed in the drab grey administrative building of the Faculty of Medicine in the shadow the Koch memorial clock tower. The tall tower with its colonial elegance was built in 1881 in memory of Dr E L Koch, the 2nd Principal of the Colombo Medical School. The Milk Booth with its red and white stripes gave a bit of colour and provided the medical students with sustenance and cigarettes. Smoke and noise filled the ‘dust bowl’ behind the booth which was the parking space for a multitude of cycles, scooters and motor bikes that entered and left the area with monotonous regularity.

Kynsey Rd entrance from inside the GHC, 2012 copy

My first encounter with the common room wasn’t a pleasant one. It was the baptism of fire in the infamous rag week. I needn’t elaborate on the psychological vandalism of this archaic practice, a remnant of British rule given a psychopathic oriental twist. That is how I see it now from the sanitised world I live in. But I must confess I didn’t see it that way at the time and considered this as yet another hurdle on the way to fame and fortune.

The common room merged into the canteen and the two were inseparable. Many preferred to take their tea-punts to the common room. The cigarette was a fashion accessory and smoking was rampant in those days. The canteen and common room were full of smoke all day long. The common room had a radiogram with numerous records ranging from classical to jazz and popular music. The table tennis was keenly contested. Perched on his ancient wooden chair ‘Marker’ controlled the billiards corner. He had his “potha” the exercise book which gave us the order of play for billiards. For some students billiards was not only a game but a way of life. Some veterans played their entire game with a cigarette precariously perched on their lips, just like a scene from a 1930’s Hollywood movie. There were several Carrom boards ‘greased’ with talcum powder and in constant use. It amazes me still how the Bridge players found time for their hobby as the games went on forever. There were guys poring over the chess board often seen in deep thought ruminating on the last move and fretting over the next.

In those days feminism was a profanity. Although called a common room it was common only to men. Women were not officially barred but whenever they arrived there were wolf whistles and cat-calls reminding them plainly and unequivocally it was a men only area. I have witnessed this spectacle with many girls running away in extreme embarrassment. Girls were often seen in the canteen with their friends and partners.

The common room was a very special place for us medical students. It was our own retreat and shelter from the storms of faculty life. Our teachers never used the common room and we were left to our own devices. We gathered there to chat and socialise. Racy jokes and saucy humour filled the air. Those friendships made and firmed within those walls have a special closeness that have lasted a lifetime. The common room was also a cauldron of emotions and a place of refuge. Those who have had a tough time at appointments or being repeated sat down alone in a quiet corner or stood with friends to be comforted. Posting of the examination results on the notice board and our desperate search for our names, is a ritual I can never forget.  I have seen the despair in the faces of those who had failed.  They were consoled by friends. The sheer relief and joy of those who passed often spilled out of the common room to rendezvous at the Lion House or Saraswathy Lodge.  Those who failed too quietly drifted in late to drown their sorrows. The common room must retain many memories of the agony and the ecstasy of life in the Faculty.

The days in the ‘Block’ were tough. Detailed study of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry filled our days and nights. We were weighed down by signatures and revisals that generated a toxic atmosphere. But there were the Colours Nights and Block Nights to imbibe the spirit of the swinging sixties and liven up our lives. Those 2 years just flashed by.

Then we embarked on our journey from the dissection rooms to the ward classes and clinical appointments across Kynsey Road. My abiding memory of those years are the long walks along those airy hospital corridors in search of patients and knowledge. We strolled like a ‘peacocks’, swinging those knee hammers and proudly wearing the stethoscopes around our necks. Meanwhile in the 3rd and 4th year we had a profusion of subjects to comprehend. I still convulse thinking of the sheer volume of facts we had to commit to memory.

The Medical Students Union (MSU) wielded great power and prestige. The distinction of being its President was a special honour. The selection was through a democratic election. There was extensive canvassing and the candidates reached out to every medical student with promises and pledges.  After the election the MSU hosted an evening party in the common room.  It was a lavish bash and the booze flowed freely.  It began with speeches by the President of the MSU giving assurances and promises to keep those pledges and make our lives better. The vows and commitments were soon forgotten just like in politics worldwide. One of my enduring memory of this great event is Deva Iriyagolla singing that Mohideen Beig favourite “Tikiri menike ambula genalla” with such sensitivity and feeling. It saddens me to think he died so young while being the DMO at Padaviya in the North Central Province. My meagre contribution was to dance on the bridge table much to the annoyance of the bridge players. Some kind soul took me home to sober up. How I coped going back to my grandparents in Nugegoda that night I will never know. Drinking molasses in such large quantities must have been like placing a lighted stick of dynamite in the liver. Those parties were indeed nights to remember and remain deeply carved in my memory of the happy and carefree time in the Faculty.

We were immensely fortunate to belong to a generation taught by a plethora of dedicated and gifted teachers. Like us many called it the Golden Era of Medical Education. Under their influence and tutelage life was not always a bed of roses. In the ward classes and teaching appointments, there were some exchanges too painful to recall. Although a tad egocentric, they inspired us. They gave of their best to the students. We remember with affection and gratitude the dedication and commitment of our clinical teachers, professors and lecturers.

Then like a never-ending storm came the Finals. Seeing the name on the notice board was an iconic moment to savour. We congregated in the common room, the lobby and the canteen to say our goodbyes. I recall the warmth of feeling that day and the sadness that followed as we left the premises. For some it was my last goodbye as I never saw many of them again. Success was also our liberation and the passport to freedom. From the glowing embers of those undergrad years a new era was born.

Universities are places of endemic change. Every year new students join and those who have left go farther on life’s journey. As all good things must come to an end so did our sojourn in medical school. Those five grueling years brought us closer together. Perils and pitfalls and the blissful euphoria of those years will long be remembered.

 “Go West young man” was the mantra that appealed to many. The political turmoil and the perilous economy of our motherland did not give us much faith or hope. One of the greatest triumphs in life is to pursue one’s dreams. Many dispersed far and wide in search of work and opportunity. Those who left the country entered the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest.  Amidst the fierce competition for the plum jobs, there were the many unwanted prejudices to contend with. The many who remained in Sri Lanka reached the top of their careers in the fullness of time. I acknowledge the patriotism, loyalty and resilience of those who remained in the motherland to serve the country. They lived through some difficult times. The émigrés too played their role professionally to serve society and the communities wherever they lived and worked. Those who lived abroad made donations to a multitude of Sri Lankan charities. They also provided financial support to Medical institutions and Medical education back home.

I hope very much this account will take you back to those times in our youth and help you recall people and events. As we reminisce we are made aware of the fragility of life and the many who have now departed this world.  Now the faculty is a ghostly relic of former times. After the passage of half a century the lively and vibrant common room with its unique ambience can only exist in our memories.

“Eye Hospital”

Some wistful memories of the Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital

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By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

Sam
I wrote a piece about the Victoria Memorial Eye hospital and a version of this was sent to the Sri Lankan newspapers last year which they published. I wonder if you think it will be of interest to your blog which has a worldwide readership. I will send a drawing which I did of the hospital as a JPEG
Regards
ND

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The Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital with its imposing architecture is an iconic landmark in Colombo. It faces the Lipton Circus, the roundabout named to remember Ceylon Tea that became famous all around the globe. This is now called the De Soysa Circus named after the philanthropist and entrepreneur Charles Henry De Soysa who also has the De Soysa Maternity Hospital named after him. The Victoria Memorial hospital established in 1906 was named to honour Queen Victoria and her Diamond Jubilee that was celebrated in 1897.

This red-brick colonial building was designed by Edward Skinner a British born Architect who emigrated to Ceylon circa 1894. The red bricks used in its construction gives it a grand and distinctive appearance. The history of red bricks dates back to the 12th century in Central and North-Western Europe. Many of the famous 19th century hospitals in London were made of red bricks like the University College Hospital and the Moorfields Eye Hospital. Skinner designed several recognisable buildings in Colombo including parts of the Galle Face Hotel, Cargills and Co, Victoria Masonic Temple, Wesley College, Lloyds Building in the Fort, and St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk in Galle Road Colombo. Although the Gothic Revival in Western architecture survived into the 20th Century, Edward Skinner most appropriately, decided on an Indo-Saracenic model for the hospital. The design and construction of the domes are reminiscent of the architecture of the Mughal period. The doors and windows have neat and stylish polychrome brick arches. Architecturally it can more than hold its own against the best of that period in the world.

The wife of the British Governor of the time, Lady Ridgway, laid the foundation For the Victoria Eye Hospital in 1903. It was opened for business with great optimism 2 years later. The cost of the building was divided equally between the government and the Anglophile general public. In 1905 it was considered the best in the colonies. It is now part of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka.

My earliest connection with the eye hospital was in 1952. I was far too young to appreciate its formal beauty. The world was a totally different place then. The veteran politician Dudley Senanayake was our Prime Minister. The doyen of cricket, F.C de Saram, captained the All-Ceylon team. I was then a scraggy kid in the boarding at Wesley College. Cricket occupied much of my mind and a great deal of my free time. I couldn’t read the blackboard in class and complained to the school Matron. She sent me with a chaperone to the Victoria Eye Hospital. I recall a young doctor’s questions about my vision. It amused him no end when I said I couldn’t see the blackboard nor the cricket ball. From then on, I began to wear glasses. Although I could read the blackboard, it never improved my cricket.

I saw the Victoria Memorial Eye hospital everyday when I was a medical student in the 1960’s and this exemplary building is now deeply rooted in my memory.  By then the Ophthalmology Services had moved to the brand-new hospital just around the corner from the old. The New National Eye Hospital of Colombo was established in 1962 to cater to the growing demands of the 20th century. Everything was moved to the new site, lock stock and barrel. In the melee the new relegated the old to near obscurity. The old Victoria Memorial Hospital, although parts of it were allowed to be derelict, continued to provide a service.  There was an ever-increasing demand for space in healthcare. In 1967 the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake opened the Accident Service in the Victoria Memorial Hospital.

When I worked at the Central Blood Bank in Colombo in the early 1970’s the Victoria Memorial Hospital housed the Accident Service of the General Hospital Colombo. it was a part of my duties to cover the Blood transfusion work of the Accident Unit at night when the full time Medical Officer was away. I remember there was an ornate wooden staircase with beautiful carvings leading up to my office. The Office was a single room with high ceilings and two large windows in front facing Ward Place. There were lovely views of the red Leyland buses and the slow traffic that chugged around the Lipton Circus. I could see Peking Hotel which was beautifully lit which has now given way to Rajya Osu Sala. The rear wall had beautiful decorative wood panelling and I did  my work in Victorian splendour.

My sojourn at the Accident Service was an enjoyable one as most of the doctors who worked there were known to me. We were all young and idealistic. I soon got used to the buzz and the rush of adrenaline with the arrival of the ambulances. In those distant days the sirens and the flashing lights were less conspicuous. At times there was a sense of dread, and an expectation of a life-defining situation. I saw for myself the tragic drama that unfolded day after day and the weeping and the wailing that followed. It was a most humbling experience. We were in the habit of chatting away late into the night when there were gaps in the busy workload supported by multiple cups of coffee and tea. I look back on those years with great nostalgia of the friendship and the warmth that prevailed despite the sleepless nights.

Typical of Victorian buildings the hospital was a rabbit warren of narrow corridors and a multitude of rooms and recesses. At night much of it was dark and unlit. in the gloom they become ominous passageways. There is a strange belief which is universal that most old buildings were haunted. There were stories abound of mysterious happenings at night. Some believed the hospital was haunted by ghostly figures. The doctors who slept in that building have heard strange noises and others spoke of seeing humanoid figures appearing through closed doors. I slept in a dimly lit room in the Blood Bank. In all my years I never saw or heard anything untoward except the occasional cries of pain or screams of despair from the Accident Service which was right below me.

The Victoria Eye Hospital was built when architects created buildings for its elegance and beauty while making it functional and fit for purpose. On my occasional visits to Sri Lanka, I was appalled by the disdain shown to this landmark building in later years. There were large advertising billboards and hawker stalls covering the grandeur and the magnificence of its redbrick façade. The splendid entrance gates and the elegant porch are not in use anymore. Disuse, disrespect, and decay seemed everywhere and I feared may even destroy this forever. I am reliably informed and delighted to hear that the hospital remains a part of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka and has a Burns Unit, Surgical Theatres and also some Neuro Surgical Services.

As a medical student in the early 1960’s I had the good fortune to learn my trade in the new eye hospital. The post-World War II era is known as the age of brutalist concrete when beauty gave way to the cheap and cheerful. The 1960’s however was a time of enormous socio-political change which was reflected in the architecture of the time. Even if the designs were not pleasing to the eye they were practical and functional. Although the New Eye Hospital looked a huge block of concrete it was a state-of-the-art hospital with a modern layout and the very latest of facilities. With large wards, better lighting and fine operating facilities this was a far better working environment for the healthcare professionals. The design enabled the seamless interaction between clinicians, patients and students. The spacious waiting rooms and large airy areas dedicated for Out-Patient Clinics made it so much better for the public. I remember with affection the dedication of the eye surgeons and the high quality of the care they provided.

I am overwhelmed by a heady rush of history when I see the old hospital now. The Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital indeed is a part of our colonial past. Time catches up with all, but the past will always be present in our lives. Although well over a hundred years old, even now when the sunlight catches the paintwork the building looks a masterpiece. The hospital should be listed and preserved for posterity.

Edward Skinner was a brilliant architect. His wisdom and designs won him the admiration of the City and was popular and much sought after in Ceylon. He had his offices in the Colombo Fort. When he was recently married, he had a cycle accident and suffered with concussion from which he never fully recovered.  Sadly, Edward Skinner took his own life by hanging in his own office in the Colombo Fort on Boxing Day in 1910. The stunning designs he created in prestigious buildings in Colombo will remain as monuments for his superb architectural ability. Part of him will forever remain in the Victoria Memorial Eye and Ear Hospital. He died, far too young, at the age of 41 years when he had so much to offer this wonderful world.

Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

 

“General Hospital”

A brief history and my memories of the General Hospital Colombo

                                     nd       By Nihal D. Amerasekera (Batch’62)

Kynsey Rd entrance from inside the GHC, 2012 copy

 

My first encounter with the General Hospital Colombo (GHC) was as a patient age 7. Having a tonsillectomy wasn’t a pleasant experience for a child.

My future experiences with the GHC were much more pleasant. Three of those years (1964-67) were as a student burning the midnight oil and a further 4 years (1970-74) as a doctor. It was much later I had the time to delve into its rich heritage, its glorious past and the colourful personalities that made the institution great.

 

As I look back I have tremendous affection for the GHC. It was my medical school, university and workshop where I learnt my trade. This note is not only a tribute to my former teachers but is also an appreciation of the efforts of the many who helped to plan and build this magnificent hospital. The General Hospital Colombo will always remain as a permanent monument to all those have worked in this institution since its early days. They all have done it proud.

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Colombo’s first modern hospital was established in 1819 in Prince Street Pettah.  The 100 bed hospital soon became overcrowded and the decision was taken to build a new hospital away from the dust and grime of the fast expanding Pettah. In 1864 Governor Henry George Ward set aside a princely sum of £3000 and acquired the land around Longden Place. This area has been a cinnamon plantation since the Dutch occupation. Soon a hospital was built on this site for the people. The government recognised the need for doctors and a Colombo Medical School was established in 1870 in a female surgical ward. This moved to its present home in 1875 helped by the philanthropy of Mudaliyar Samson Rajapakse, who owned the land. De Soysa Lying-in Home was built in 1879 by the donations of a well known philanthropist Sir Charles Henry De Soysa. Lady Havelock Hospital was started in 1885 later named Lady Ridgeway Hospital. Victoria Memorial Eye hospital opened in 1903 with the money donated by Muhandiram N.S. Fernando and the OPD started in 1910. The ‘White House’ is the magnificent building that meets the eye when one enters the GHC through the Kynsey Road entrance. That was the old administration block which was commissioned in 1904. It also housed many wards in the upper floors. The present 5- storey administration complex was built by SWRD Bandaranaike in 1958 and has several wards, operating theatres and sterilisation units. A private home in Ward place was commissioned to become the Dental Institute. The Radiology Department began in the administration block in 1925. Dr. William R. Kynsey was the Principal Civil Medical Officer from 1875 to 1897.  He contributed much towards the Ceylon Medical College in its formative years. In 1900 The long road between the Colombo Cemetery and the GHC was named after Dr Kynsey.

 

Many of the private wards were built to serve the British. William Henry Figg donated the money to build the Merchants’ Ward which was opened by Governor Manning in 1918. It  was an impressive ornate building with an elegant porch, high ceilings and manually driven lift. This and the Seamens’ ward, Planters’ Ward, Skinner- Gnanasekeram ward and Matapan ward were for private patients. In later years at the east end of the main east-west corridor was the house officers quarters in the old  ‘White House’ and at the west end was the Ragama section of medical wards. Those wards were airy and basic with rattan slats to prevent rain beating in during the monsoon storms. To the north and south of the main corridor were the surgical wards. As I haven’t visited the hospital in nearly 40 years I have used the past tense in my descriptions not knowing how much has changed.

 

When the GHC had difficulty in recruiting nurses, the government requested the services of the nuns of the order of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.  They began work in the wards in 1886 and lived in St Peter’s House in view of the ward later managed by Professor Rajasuriya.  The nuns served in the great tradition of Florence Nightingale showing tremendous compassion for the sick and the suffering. They provided excellent care to the patients.  I recall seeing them working all hours in the hospital. Their services were discontinued in 1964. Sadly they made a hurried exit from the island being caught up in the wave of nationalism that swept the country after independence. Since the Nurses Training College was established in 1939 we had our home-grown nurses who were excellent and filled the void with great skill and expertise.

 

To all medical students of the Colombo faculty, crossing Kynsey road to start clinical work is happiness beyond belief. This brought an end to the ceaseless study of the theoretical basis of medicine, or so we thought. Now we were expected to be civilised as ladies and gentleman. This wasn’t an easy transformation for many. Armed with an Allan and Hanbury stethoscope and a knee hammer I had a spring in my step as I crossed the road to enter the hospital.  Although I hoped that traffic will stop for me to help me save a life I had no such luck!! All through my clinical years I may have covered a few hundred miles on the long corridors that crisscrossed the grounds of the hospital. Friendships were made and firmed during those ceaseless journeys. The images of the buildings, lawns and the hordes of students, doctors and nurses that thronged the corridors are still etched deep in my memory.

 

After the University of Ceylon was established in 1942 the GHC became its teaching hospital in 1946. We honour its original teaching staff, Professors Milroy Paul, PB Fernando and GAW Wickremasuriya in Surgery, Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynaecology respectively. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

 

The 1960’s was the golden era of medical education in Sri Lanka. The visiting physicians and surgeons who served the hospital were clinically some of the best in the world. The orthopaedic surgeon Francis Silva was a Hunterian lecturer, a prestigious award conferred by the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Professor K. Rajasuriya was a Registrar at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London when very few foreign doctors were allowed in its precincts. The physicians and surgeons took on the task of tutoring students seriously and gave of their best. We benefitted enormously from their clinical skills and teaching. Despite their busy schedule of ward rounds, clinics and private practice they found time to teach us clinical methods. They took great trouble to find interesting patients with multiple clinical problems.  I was mesmerised by their formidable powers of analysis, mastery of detail and ability to penetrate to the core of a complex problem.

 

Every medical student maintained a little yellow book of the lectures and appointments they had to complete. There were several 2 month medical and surgical appointments and numerous ward classes where we were taught clinical medical and surgical skills. They were committed to make certain we learnt our trade well before being released on the general public. Many of the clinical visiting staff gave us the impression they were invincible and wielded great power. Their wards were their kingdom which they ruled with an iron fist. It seemed to us they never got on well with each other perhaps due to professional rivalry or their enormous ego. Many never believed in 2nd opinions or took kindly to their diagnoses being questioned. Some of their teaching methods depended on creating an aura of fear. In the process they humiliated students and at times reduced them to tears. Having said all that It would not be fair to judge our former teachers with the attitudes and values of the 21st century. I still have a deep sense of gratitude to all of them.

 

Darrel Weinman, the neurosurgeon, was a superb teacher. He had a special room for his ward classes which was always full to capacity. He was a showman ‘par excellence’ and taught us the whole process from history taking to examination, diagnosis and treatment  with great aplomb. He was a kind man. It was a sad loss to Sri Lanka and to medical education to see him give up neurosurgery to become a GP in Australia. In the same breath I recall the teaching of George Ratnavale. His teaching and tutorials were master-classes in clinical neurology. The surgeons who constantly deal with blood and guts had a macho image. Prof Navaratne, was a notable exception. He was a kind person and never showed anger to his students. We were never terrorized or intimidated by him. Dr Austin commanded and demanded respect as if it was his divine right. He took great trouble to teach us well. Dr Anthonis showed kindness to his patients and was such a fine teacher. He was well known for his interesting anecdotes supposedly from real life.  Dr Niles had a volatile temper towards his patients but was kind to us all and was a fine tutor. His clinical classes were full of humour. He had this great ability to see the funny side of day to day clinical problems. Dr K.G Jayasekera had a fearsome exterior but taught us well. Dr DF De S Gunawardene was a kind man who spoke softly and was a great teacher. I am ever so grateful to the Visiting Physicians of the Ragama section of the GHC for teaching me medicine. Dr Wijenaike, Dr O.R Medonza, Dr D.J Attygalle, Dr Ernie Peiris  and Professors K Rajasuriya and R.P Jayawardene were excellent teachers. Dr Peiris had a subtle and sophisticated sense of humour. Once a pretty girl from my batch presented an interesting clinical case in a rather soft tone and people standing at the rear could hardly hear. Dr Peiris named her whispering pectoriloquy. Many of the clinicians called the students out for  dinner with drinks at the end of the appointments. Those were wonderful and memorable occasions. My first clinical appointment as a medical student was with Dr Thanabalasundrum. In that firmament of shining stars Dr. T  was the one that shone the brightest. In the De Soysa maternity hospital Professor Ranasinghe was a great teacher but had a quick temper. Dr Viswanathan was greatly loved by the students for his friendly manner and excellent tutorials. In the Lady Ridgeway Hospital Professors CC De Silva and Priyani Soysa were excellent teachers as was Dr Stella De Silva. I remember Dr W.J Gomes who took great care to teach us the basics of paediatrics.

 

The 2-month clinical appointments were invaluable tutorials. In those days the pathological investigations and radiology were pretty basic and much depended on the history taking, clinical observations and examination. Those basic clinical methods we learnt from our teachers. It makes me shudder when I see the 2 line histories on patient’s notes nowadays. Now so much depends on the scans and other investigations when they can get to the diagnosis faster without breaking into a sweat.

 

Interns, SHO’s and Registrars ran the hospital with the expert advice and supervision of the Visiting clinical staff. Doctors worked from 8am to 12 and 3pm to 5. Interns life was never easy clerking patients and doing the onerous on-call duties. The SHO’s supervised the interns and were 2nd on-call. The registrars were occasionally called in but the Visiting physicians and surgeons were never called after 5pm except perhaps in surgery. The registrars oversaw the work of the juniors and presented the patients to the Visiting physicians and surgeons on ward rounds. All this seemed to proceed seamlessly and like clockwork. The junior doctors lived in the hospital quarters within the GHC or in Violet Cottage or Regent House. It was such great fun living together and being an integral part of the GHC community. Life then was good despite the hard grind. We played cricket in the back garden. There was never a shortage of alcohol and chit chat in the evening and at weekends.

 

The GHC in those distant days had 3000 beds and at least 500 patients sleeping on corridors on mats and at the far end of the wards. As students we scoured the wards day after day in our endless search for ‘good case’ until we completed the final examination. Whenever there was a ‘good case’ that patient was questioned and prodded endlessly until they got weary and grumpy. The Patients too were a cross section of Sri Lankan society. Some understood our plight and complied. Others were annoyed and refused to take part in the ritual. The majority submitted without question. A few even saw the benefit of a thorough examination done by several would be ‘doctors’.

 

It is only when one works in the hospital one becomes aware of its soft underbelly. Most of its patients were poor and many were from far away villages. To them hospitals were unknown places synonymous with hopelessness, heartache and suffering. They were fearful of doctors and operations. There were unscrupulous and deceitful people who preyed on these gullible and vulnerable patients and their relatives promising accommodation, better treatment or even help to become private patients to get privileged care. Many were duped into parting with their cash. The undertakers too had their henchmen like vultures riding the thermals and descending on the terminally ill and the bereaved touting for business.

 

My final fling with the GHC was in 1973/74 when I was a Registrar to Dr U.S Jayawickreme. He took over the ward from Dr W Wijenaike. Dr USJ was a fine clinician and a dignified gentleman. Always immaculately dressed he showed tremendous kindness to his patients and to the staff. In turn he received great loyalty and enormous respect. He showed us how to conduct ourselves calmly and with dignity in the ward. His patients adored him. His work ethic and bedside manner had a tremendous impact on me. That was a fine finale for my clinical years at the GHC.

 

The General Hospital Colombo became the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in 1995. It now serves the people from cradle to grave. With a compassionate and caring staff and its fascinating history it will always remain at the forefront of healthcare in Sri Lanka and close to my heart for evermore.

 

Life at “Jeewaka”

My Life at Jeewaka

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                                                        By Dr. N.D. Amerasekera

“Jeevaka” was the most celebrated doctor in India during Buddha’s time. He was Buddha’s physician. Hence Jeewaka is a great name for a Buddhist Medical Hostel.

Spiritually, all through my adult life I have been a drifter and a nomad, born under a wandering star. I first saw life as a Christian in a family not too enamoured with the rights and rituals of religion. I was, thus, allowed to roam free to choose my own path and philosophy. I began to question the presence of a supreme creator reading the origin of the species by Charles Darwin as a teenager. As a young medical student when I saw the suffering of the masses in the General Hospital Colombo, that was the final straw. This nomadic drift should not be confused with a lack of respect for values and beliefs. Despite all this I have the greatest respect for Christianity for teaching me how to lead a good and righteous life as a kid growing up in a rapidly changing world. Even now when I sit in a Church it gives me a warm feeling of love for humanity as we all walk this long and tortuous journey we call life.

Living at Wattala I travelled daily from Hunupitiya to Maradana by train with a happy band of medical students. The journey during the height of the rush hour had standing room only. It was both tiring and time consuming. Chatting with other medics made the journey bearable. In my wisdom I convinced my parents I should move to the Jeewaka Buddhist Hostel in Turrett Road to allow more time for study. They agreed too easily. There was then no formal application process for Jeewaka. I made my intentions clear to my friend RN de S Amarasekera, then an honourable senior. I think at the time there were 20 students at Jeewaka. My informal application was rejected out of hand as they didn’t want Christians. Although dejected and disappointed I never gave up hope. I explained to RN de S my complex spiritual existence and my philosophy being closer to Buddhism than any other. I am grateful he had the belief and the courage to accept my word. He fought hard with the Jeewaka hierarchy to allow my entry into the brotherhood.

There was a resurgence of our heritage and values after independence from British Rule. A small band of Buddhist Medical Students, circa 1962, approached Prof RP Jayawardene to provide a safe haven for Buddhist students. Unlike at Peradeniya students from far away who joined the faculty had no hostel accommodation. With determination, tenacity and perseverance their dream was realised and the Jeewaka Buddhist hostel was born. The good Prof became its first Warden. The pioneers who founded Jeewaka were:

Dr L U Abeyasiri, Plastic Surgeon, UK
Dr R N D S Amarasekera, GP, UK
Dr D P Athukorale, Consultant Cardiologist, Sri Lanka Dr Hema De Silva, USA
Dr L C De Silva
Dr Ubhaya Dias,, New Zealand (Passed away 2002)
Dr Titus Dissanayake, Consultant Geriatrician, UK
Mr Sumith Fonseka, Thorasic Surgeon, UK
Dr G R W Godakumbura, Consultant Surgeon, Sri Lanka

Dr H P Gunawardena, Psychiatrist, USA
Dr D V J Harischandra, Consultant Psychiatrist, Sri Lanka Dr Herath, USA
Dr A K C A Jayasena, UK
Dr Karunapala, Consultant Psychiatrist, UK
Dr Bernie Peris, Former GP, UK (Passed away 1999)
Dr Rajapakse, Sri Lanka (Died ….)
Dr Ajith Silva, Radiologist, Australia

We salute them. The hostel was housed in a large two storey building opposite the Liberty Cinema. A short distance away was the busy Galle Road and the deep blue waters of the Indian ocean.

When I stepped into that house I felt at home instantly. The hostellers were a friendly bunch. To my good fortune several of my batchmates – LPJM Wickramasinghe, Sanath de Tissera and Upali Wijeratne (alias Cunningham) joined the hostel about the same time. Now our batch showed a strong presence and we became a force to reckon with. The hostel was managed by the students and for the students. There was a President , Secretary, Treasurer and a Committee. We took turns to place food on the table. This was an onerous task given over to the “buthmaster”. We took on the burden for a week at a time. Here we learnt to provide a good balanced diet within the confines of the budget. Mealtimes were a minor ordeal for the hapless “buthmaster”. Criticisms, comments and acerbic remarks flowed freely. At times this required a thick skin and broad shoulders. Much of it was done in jest with occasional hurtful comments done in the hope that high standards will be maintained. Despite our youthful exuberance, civility and good manners prevailed. We employed a young male cook who gave us excellent food.

Dinner time was a welcome break from the books. There was an unwritten rule that dinner was served at eight and all were expected to take part. This was a time for some light banter and a time to bond. Many had stories to tell and anecdotes to relate. Medical College was a hotbed of gossip and there was never a dull moment. We had our own court jester to lighten the proceedings. He said: a pharmacist mistakenly put some GUANETHIDINE tablets into a bottle of BENDROFLUMETHIAZIDE. The THIAZIDE was greatly offended and said to GUANETHIDINE “I say you are very ISMELIN”. After dinner an eerie silence descended on Jeewaka which extended far beyond midnight. This was prime study time. The silence was only broken by an occasional whisper, a silly giggle or a noisy snore of a lad overcome by tiredness.

The Buddhist hostel was no mini ashram or a monastery. Non of us were vegetarians. It was a lively house of boisterous medical students with the same desires and passions as anywhere else in the world. No alcohol was allowed within the premises. Jeewaka wasn’t a bohemian playground. Life was serene but never boring. Those of us who cared for a drink visited the bars and taverns at weekends, but discreetly, and learnt to behave ourselves when we got back. So alcohol in the stomach acquired outside the hostel was okay. There was a strict hierarchy based on seniority and a strong sense of mutual respect. We all cared for each other and shared our books and knowledge. The camaraderie and companionship

brought us together. There was a certain enduring calmness that existed at Jeewaka very different from the other medical and university boarding houses we all know.

Whenever we returned from our trips home it was a tradition to bring some sweets biscuits or cakes to share with our friends. There was a guy from Galle called “K” who didn’t like the idea of sharing. He brought eats which he hid in his suitcase and brought king coconuts which he kept under his bed. Once a guy brought a long LP needle and 50 ml syringe and pierced the eye of the king coconuts and syringed out the fluid until all of them were bled dry. Later we heard ‘K’ cursing the vendor who sold him the dud coconuts.

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“Sing Song”

(Photo credit to Jeewaka archives)

Saturday night was music night. Mohanlal Fernando is a fine musician and played his piano accordion with Esiri Karunaratne on the drums and we all joined in singing the favourite songs of CTF, Chitra and Somapala and Sunil Santha etc. The belted out the song that was a hit amongst us “Magey Pale Andura Nasanna”. When my mood takes I still listen to that song to remind me of a very happy time in my life. These ‘sing-song’ sessions were most enjoyable and we often looked forward to Saturday nights to exercise our vocal cords.

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Blackie  in 1965

Blackie the black mongrel was our mascot. He was calm as the morning sunrise and never barked but had some disgusting habits lacking the finesse and the polish of some of the dogs I know. Despite this Blackie was treated like royalty being a pioneer member of the institution and a close associate of its founder members. I think he knew it and took advantage of his prestigious position showing off his filthy habits, much to my utter chagrin.

We had great fun at Jeewaka which was a happy place. We examined patients late into the evening and were returning back to the hostel, cycling along Turret Road. My borrowed bike had a lamp but Cunningham’s cycle didn’t, but he carried a torch (used to test the pupils). A policeman stopped us and asked Cunningham about his cycle lamp. He then showed him his torch. The Policeman said” The lamp must be attached to the cycle”. Cunningham in his cheek said “ The torch is attached to me and I am attached to the cycle. So the torch is attached to the cycle.” Those were the days when a doctor could do no wrong. Cunningham displayed his stethoscope relating his exploits in the emergency room. The Cop listened with bated breath. Cunningham was let off with a gentle caution.

There was an annual hostel trip when we travelled the country in a coach visiting old Jeewakites who treated us most lavishly. Music and fun went with us wherever we went. Jeewaka organised an annual marathon. We all took part pounding the roads of Colpetty. After much practice and panting, on the day Upali Wijeratne won the marathon. There was the Jeewaka dinner and dance when the present hostellers invite the past Jeewakites and their partners. It is a magical evening when we all dress up for the occasion and dance to the music meeting old friends at dinner.

With all the fun and the frolic which was endemic at Jeewaka, poring over books remained our main pastime. The intensity of the friendships and the genuine goodwill between us helped enormously to tide over the stress and strain of constant study. During those months Sanath de Tissera was my constant companion. His calm demeanour and Buddhist philosophy radiated wisdom essential for a peaceful and fulfilling existence. After a full days study we often walked to the sea to watch the waves roll in while the sun went down.

He talked about Abhidhamma and the teachings of the Buddha and I was mesmerized by its relevance to real life. Once after a thoughtful discussion we turned back to return home. I was still deep in thought. The noise of the wind and the crashing waves drowned the roar of the oncoming train. As I was about to step on the rail track Sanath pulled me back with an almighty heave saving me from certain death. This event changed my life forever. Since then I have always considered life as unpredictable and uncertain at any age. Life is as fickle as a dew drop at the tip of a blade of grass swaying with the wind in the crisp morning sun.

Exams came and went and soon it was time to say goodbye to a life I knew and loved. As I reflect on my life now, those 18 months I spent at Jeewaka were some of the best years. Having lived together I became incredibly close to the students. I still remember them, as I saw them last, with their young impish faces and mischievous smiles. It is sad when I think that many of them, I never saw again.

I dedicate these memoirs to my parents, who provided the encouragement and paid the bills and to fellow Jeewakites who by their friendship enriched my life. I am alive today but for the mindfulness of Sanath de Tissera. Sitting on the rocks at the Colpetty beach seeing the sun go down is an image I will never forget.

Jeewaka Buddhist Hostel has survived the turbulence of a multitude of political upheavals, the turmoil of an economic downturn and the anguish of an uncertain future. They had great difficulty finding a permanent home. After Turrett Road they made several moves before finding a home at 124, EW Perera Mawatha Colombo 10. The present Warden Prof Harsha Seneviratne has helped Jeewaka remain afloat despite all its perils. To me personally Jeewaka has lived up to its principles. Long may its ideals and values survive.

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Editorial Note: When I received this post from ND, I spent some time scouring the internet and social media to locate some images relative to Jeewaka. I found 3 shown above. Images were in bad shape. I purchased a software program (Gigapixel AI) which I used to rejuvenate old photographs using artificial intelligence. I am very pleased with the results.

Quiz: Can you identify the 6 Batch’64 comrades in this last photo? State the names and locations in your comments.

Our special thanks to ND for joining Batch’64 blog as a contributing follower. I loved your self portraiture art work as well!

Sam

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