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Memories of a schoolgirl in Ceylon, 1960

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125th year celebrations of SACRED HEART CONVENT, Galle (1896 – 2020)

by Savitri de Alwis

(Vice Captain, Queen’s Own, 1970)

The echo of frenzied cheering ebbing and flowing like a wave from the open pavilion of the Galle esplanade fill my ears as if it were only yesterday. I can hear Rev. Sister Rosina, Mistress of Queens Own House. spurring me on fitfully on the loudspeaker in the open event cycle race. My spindly legs pedal furiously, perfectly navigate the tracks and breeze through the touch line to victory on an old rackety Men’s Raleigh bicycle, borrowed on the spot for the race from the school watcher! As I cross the winning line I look back at my competitors, way behind me like specks on the track doing a balancing act with their bikes! Indeed, not many girls cycled then nearly 50 years ago, with the exception of tomboys and the posh girls from Colombo who were sent to our boarding school for strict discipline under firm but kind Irish and Belgian nuns.

Yet oddly we were in awe of these posh girls from Colombo with their ‘mod’ hairstyles, a far cry from our tightly plaited hair doused in coconut oil! But moreover they spoke the Queen’s English like they owned it. This was 1970 and the unforgettable events of a sports meet indelibly etched in my memory as a school girl at Sacred Heart Convent in Galle, a leading private girls’ day/boarding school. Established in 1896, by the Sisters of Charity in Belgium, it was for the education of young girls in Galle. The school is entering its 125th anniversary this year, a great milestone in its unbroken record of unblemished service and duty for charity (love). My three sisters, my little brother at nursery and I were privileged to walk through the hallowed hallways of Sacred Heart Convent from its nursery and on to secondary school half a century ago.

The decade beginning 1960 was thrifty era in Ceylon yet carefree and laid back. It was the decade of Beatles, Elvis, flower power and bell bottoms! We were school girls embracing an unhurried lifestyle, footloose and fancy free. Our precious parents paid for our education with their hard-earned money. At the helm of the school as Principal was the much adored and celebrated Rev. Sister Adrian, a bespectacled young Irish nun with rimmed glasses which framed her porcelain countenance. Always immaculately dressed in a crisp white habit, with an angelic face, she was soft spoken but firm and her presence ubiquitous! The sprawling magnificent Victorian buildings of the school which spread extensively, exuded charm and grandeur. Their impressive long and open corridors decorated with imposing Roman arches harmoniously arranged around a quadrangle is where we hung out and had our daily ‘fix’. Yes, a daily fix of ‘achcharu’ bought for five cents from Mura-aiya’s kade below the staff room.

The solid stone wall chapel with ornate stained glass windows on the premises was an integral part of the school and the Catholic girls looked ever so sanctimonious therein with their dainty little face veils, twirling their Rosary beads. We wished we could be like them! The ‘Parlour’ adjacent the Chapel where the nuns took refuge was also sacrosanct with strictly no entry except during music exams when Trinity College Music Examiners arrived from England on a BOAC jet. I recall as a 10-year old, with much trepidation and awe, entering the sanctuary of the Parlour for the very first time ever for my music exam. The dark brown floors were pristine and shining; I could almost eat off the floor I thought! The slender white Ionic Roman columns decorated the verandah around an open courtyard with its brilliant flowers interspersed with clipped shrubbery were stunning. It was surreal and I, for a fleeting moment, felt like Alice in Wonderland falling through a rabbit-hole!

English drama and poetry were fundamental to our education. We loved the annual English Day celebrations enjoying Shakespeare drama, poetry, oratory etc. under the keen eye of Miss Orlene de Silva a doyen of English teaching. It was the skillful Senior School production of Robert Browning’s mythical Pied Piper of Hamlin that clinched us the first prize in the Galle District Inter School English Day celebrations in 1969. A bevy of charming teens narrated the poem animatedly as the mystical Pied Piper, the writer, stormed the stage for her pound of flesh; a thousand guilders! And as we played out the story with aplomb our parents watched us with pride at the Galle Town Hall. There were other triumphant productions we took on in our stride – Oliver Twist, Twelth Night and Pride and Predjudice. To to this day the thought of Ranmalie de Zilva’s perfect fit as a proper little Mrs. Bennet on and off stage evoke fond memories.

Western music and singing were also high on the school’s agenda. The very first school percussion band was formed very modestly by our gracious Miss Malini Senanayake around 1969 with half a dozen melodicas and two accordions. One accordion was played by the musically gifted Priyadarshani Keerthisinghe and the other, attempting to emulate her wizardry sheepishly, was the writer. Helene Dias Abeysinghe had the shoulders to carry the huge bass drum and keep the beat stylishly like her effortless Shot Putt throws she did with a twirl! The excitement and novelty of being in the school band made us unconsciously audacious. loving to parade in our tartan skirts and berets and march the length and breadth of the Galle esplanade blowing our horns!

It was Miss Malini who trained and entered us to compete in the All Island Schools’ Singing Competition at Royal College, Colombo having won the first place in Galle Inter Schools’ Singing competition. The choir classic ‘Happy Wanderer’ in four part harmony was sung exquisitely by the school choir. Sports too were an integral part of the curriculum. We were gluttonous for a 20 cents Aleric’s Popsicle that the tuck shop sold, and Nandanie Rajapakse, my beloved Games Captain, smothered us with Aleric’s’ ice cream when we played like Trojans and brought the netball trophies home. It was fascinating too, to watch our fine athletes. Consy Rodrigo, Beatrice Bandara and Deidre Senanayake were like flying machines dominating the track and field events near the grotto of Jesus, Mary and Sacred Heart at the rear of the school.

The boarders had a habit of climbing the grotto to a vantage point to peek at the road beyond Kandewatte canal to check if the boys from our brother school. St. Aloysius College, were hovering around like helicopters. But the nuns were too sharp for their little theatrics! Life was uncomplicated. There were no mobile phones, social media or TV, period! We played outdoors avidly and immersed ourselves in hand me down books. It was ‘Robin Blue’ that made our uniforms dazzling white and a heavy charcoal fired smoothening iron pressed our uniforms. These were turned out at home on a hand sewing machine and oh so frugally using the material bought after queuing at the Co-op due to rationing. There were no fancy trainers then, only canvas shoes cleaned with pipeclay dripping like fresh cream! We learned to be creative and innovative and if a shoe gave way with the endless walking, jumping and running, we’d pretend to have an injury on that foot, slapping a plaster on it and slip on a flip flop as we walked to school unabashedly with one shoe and a flip flop. A bandage was sometimes used for effect! We almost always got away with it, dodging the hawk eyed Miss Padmini de Silva.

School days were happy and hauntingly memorable as are our beloved teachers who made all the difference. This is dedicated to them and to all my schoolmates scattered throughout the globe, remembering the good times we shared in the spirit of unity in that once in a lifetime incredible journey with, as our motto reminds us, ‘Cor Unum, Anima Una’ – One heart, One soul. May it be always so!

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The uncommon touch at ‘The Commons’

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by Malinda Seneviratne

On the face of it the name of the small, cosy and friendly restaurant on Ernest De Silva Mawatha, Colombo 7, sounds pretentious. ‘The Commons’ after all refers to ‘land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community.’ The restaurant is not common property. The onus, one would think, is on the owners to ensure ‘belonging.’

That’s about good service, mostly.

Now I’ve not bothered about the labels for I’ve dabbled enough in the advertising industry to know what’s what and what’s not. I’m old enough to focus on substance and leave it at that.  For example, Sooriya Village, formerly a restaurant which was ‘surrounded’ by a practice studio, recording studio, bookshop, hangout place for anyone in any of the arts and a location for interviews, weddings, book launches etc., was not a ‘village.’ There was sun but not always, and anyway shade was what I preferred. There was warmth and like any village, there was a sense of belonging amidst multiple ways of differentiation.

The Commons. That’s what this is about. I’ve been here hundreds of times, literally. Sometimes I’ve ordered a coffee, sometimes food. Sometimes it’s been, much like Sooriya Village, an office of sorts. People meet me here. I ask them to come. Most days though, I just sit somewhere and write. Always received with a smile. No questions asked, except if I wanted some water. Indeed, sometimes, the water is served even without the question.

You could put it all down to familiarity and general Sri Lankan hospitality. After all, I’ve not surveyed others who sit here and hardly ever order anything.

This morning, Thursday January 14, in a Covid-19 encumbered world, I realized that it was not just about familiarity. Here’s my story.

I walked in. My way was partially blocked by what I thought was a television crew.

‘Are you shooting a film?’ That’s what I asked.

‘No, it’s a shoot,’ I was told.

So I went to the open space at the back of the restaurant, sat down as I often did, opened my laptop and started to type.

The ‘crew’ moved to where I was. A camera on a tripod and a photographer. A young man was seated at the table. A young woman appeared to be arranging things. Food was served to a nicely laid table. I realized they were photographing the food.

‘Are you going to shoot the entire menu?’ I asked.

They smiled and affirmed it was so.

‘He won’t be able to eat all the food — you might as well give me some!’ I said in jest.

They shot. I wrote. A few minutes later, the owner, the legendary Harpo, arrived. He saw me and greeted me with that inimitable smile of his, brought his hands together a la Covid-19-induced greeting protocols and said ‘hi.’

I responded and repeated my observation: ‘if they are going to photograph the entire menu, you could distribute the food among all of us.’

In jest. Didn’t think twice about it. Went back to my work.

Fifteen minutes later, Prasanna, one of the waiters, came up to me with a platter of wraps. Cheesy eggs and bacon tortilla wraps with some dip that I couldn’t identify. Prasanna didn’t know that I didn’t eat meat. There was a hint of dismay in his eyes so I said ‘I will remove the bacon and eat the rest.’ I avoid eggs too, but I indulged. Great stuff. Lunch, for me. On the house.

I didn’t need that to feel at home. I’ve always felt at home. I don’t own ‘The Commons’ but I was always convinced I belonged here or rather that it belongs to me. Everyone, from the security guards Kingsley and Sudakaran, to the waiters (the long-standing ones and the students doing internships or side-jobs), the managers and Harpo himself never once said or did anything to make me doubt this.

I don’t recall having seen Pravin Jayasundere, a student at Law College who has been doing photo-shoots on the side for a few months now, and Rajeev Coltan, the ‘model,’ at ‘The Commons.’ I don’t know what they feel or how they’ll ‘see’ this place if they became visitors as regular as I have become. I don’t know if they’ll secure common ownership, so to speak. I don’t know if they’ll feel as ‘belonged.’

I can’t speak for others. This is my place, and I don’t mind others owning it, Harpo included. It’s common property in the middle of a high-end residential area of Colombo. Pretty uncommon.

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Tastes and flavours from around the world

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Plates is a 24 hour muilt cuisine restaurant bring the best of World cuisines together. Ou can embark on a journey of culinary discovery form around the globe.

by Zanita Careem

Having always been a trailblazer in epicurean experiences, Cinnamon Grand Colombo continues that momentum with the launch of Plates, its 24-hour gourmet dining venue with an unparalleled collective of tastes and flavours from around the world. The restaurant will be open to the public from Saturday, 16 January.

Plates is all about experiences: the experience of friends and family dining together, the experience of enjoying multi-country multi-cuisine dishes at any time of day, the experience of having a gastronomic tour of global cuisine in a single venue and the experience of enjoying the tropics in alfresco dining or seated within the contemporary sleek interiors in air-conditioned comfort. It also boasts a unique range of beverage options, specially crafted with local ingredients. The unusual, yet satisfying blend of components will give guests a wide variety of beverages to choose from, to complement their meals.

Cinnamon Grand Colombo General Manager Kamal Munasinghe, commenting on the new restaurant, said, “Plates offers a place for guests to come together and experience a multitude of international cuisine, 24-hours of the day. The ambiance and décor have also been done to support togetherness, and an environment where food can be enjoyed on many levels, in different types of ‘plates’. The fresh new look, as well as the unique offerings in both food and beverage, which have been developed with intricate detail, are aimed at giving guests the finest culinary experiences.”

Plates’s interiors hold a modern colour palette of white, blue and copper, with a contemporary look and feel intended to compliment the view of the pool, with its blue hues encircled by verdant greens. This tropical canvas is seen through large French windows which open onto a deck and outdoor bar for the perfect alfresco dining ambience. The delightful tropical weather which Sri Lanka has can be enjoyed at any time of year due to the retractable awning that sits atop the deck of this alfresco space.

The essence of Plates is all about togetherness, echoing the axiom that “the fondest memories are made gathered around a table”.  Add the multiple plates of Continental, Indian, Asian and Sri Lankan into the gastronomic recipe and food does bring people together. 

Whether it’s the decadent buffet spreads for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a special children’s menu, all day A la carte dining or an extensive range of beverages including wines and cocktails. The night snack menu includes hand-picked selections from the À la carte menu.  Curated music styling accompanies each gourmet journey adding to the unique ambience.

The buffets have always been legendary at Cinnamon Grand Colombo and Plates is heaven on a plate.  While the international breakfast buffet includes continental, American, Sri Lankan, Indian and even a Japanese corner, the lunch and dinner buffets add Far Eastern, Mediterranean, Arabic, carveries, pasta station, live pizza oven, a salad bar, a healthy corner and desserts with an action station, promising to pile those plates high. 

For lunch, guests who wish to enjoy a light and healthy lunch can enjoy the salad-and-dessert-bar only option. And memories of blissful Sunday brunches are brought back to life at the Sunday Brunch Buffet which has all of the above and more, including a surfeit of seafood from oysters, mussels, jumbo and lagoon prawns, shoe lobsters and salmon, Shawarma and Mongolian counters, an extensive range of carveries and grilled meats and a delightful chocolate fountain adding to the desserts.

Adhering to stringent COVID-19 guidelines as directed by the Government and the Ministry of Health protocols, Plates has a total seating capacity of 163, with the deck area seating 41, while all guests are subjected to strict health and safety protocols. More details are available at www.cinnamonhotels.com/cinnamon-care.

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“Selling the Family Silver” and India-SL bilateral relations

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by Dr Sarala Fernando

A remark attributed to the US Congress that “Sri Lanka is a valuable piece of real estate” had made the news here hinting at the strategic value of our island location while some had connected the remark to the MCC, an economic project integral to the US pivot to the Indo Pacific.

This sudden interest in Sri Lanka’s land assets made the headlines after Harvard economists in 2016 advised on the incorporation of a land project under the MCC to address constraints to national growth by a re-survey, re-valuation and deed grants on lands around the country. Local experts argued that such a programme would lead to pressure on smallholders to sell land to more powerful entities for commercial exploitation increasing rural poverty, environmental and wild life destruction and water scarcity.

The Harvard economists and the MCC have come and gone. However, it seems the spirit of their view of land as a commodity is still alive judging by recent government decision to release nearly 1.5 million acres of other state forests to be repurposed for development work. This has become a hot topic of discussion and environmentalists have filed court cases to revert to the previous protection provided to unrecognized forest covers.

The silent constituents, the trees and the animals have felt the brunt of this decision with the increased deforestation and destruction of mangroves, the killing of large mammals like elephants and even our prized leopards and most recently hundreds of birds found dead, probably poisoned, off Wilpattu. Are there criminal gangs behind the sudden spate of shooting of tuskers and snaring of leopards, questions still not answered by the authorities? The government focus on land has extended to the urban areas where long standing wholesale markets, social and sports clubs have been taken over by the UDA with scant explanation of the reasons behind the seizures and plans for redevelopment of these valuable lands (urban housing/recreation for the public?). Selling lands, the equivalent of the proverbial “family silver” is to be expected in these extraordinary times where Sri Lanka has heavy foreign debt obligations.

However since the government land acquisition strategy remains opaque, without consultation or explanation of any business plan, public protests are now spreading even to non-agricultural foreign investment proposals ranging from allocating the ECT terminal in Colombo port and the KKS port to India, to mining of titanium from sands in Mannar – a water scarce area – to an Australian company . Land issues came to the fore early when the Tourism authorities set up a one-stop shop for new hotel construction despite the crisis in the hotel industry with the Covid epidemic and drying up of tourist flows. In other countries, empty hotels are being taken over by the government and converted to new uses like urban housing; however our authorities seem more concerned about allocating land in water shortage areas like Kalpitiya and Mirissa for 600 room hotels, so called “foreign” investments promoted by local barons.

In Yala, a new foreign managed hotel has suddenly emerged and is said to be destined for those “high spending” East European tourists irrespective that Yala is suffering from over-tourism and the animals are more in need of food and water. Added to the confusion, in parliament it was announced that the source of the second wave of Covid infection had been traced to a Ukrainian pilot and now the public is in a panic over the pilot project to bring in hundreds of Ukrainian tourists.

Public protests are spreading in agriculture areas with the Mahaweli authorities demarcating lands for large scale foreign investment taking from forest reservations and commons, dislocating animal feeding grounds and overriding even the demands of the local villagers for protection of their rights to customary land and forest use.

A recent news item featured the Agriculture Ministry offering Rs 700 million to local farmers to grow fruit for a foreign multinational company which will provide the plants and drip technology and presumably buy the fruit cheap and retain the export earnings for its own profit! What will be the value addition for the government if they have also provided tax concessions for the foreign investor? Even more serious, what will be the negative impact of these tasteless new hybrids on our heritage varieties of delicious local pineapple and bananas? Once the valuable land is allocated, the promised foreign money transfer may not even take place, the foreign investor’s preference usually being to bring in little foreign exchange and to borrow from local banks. Thus, when there is trouble, the “footloose” foreign investor gets away leaving local banks and insurances saddled with non-performing loans.

From the time of the Greek civilization, people have been lamenting over the vagaries of weather and other threats invariably faced by agriculture, which makes large scale operations a risky business. The problem is that tax concessions are being offered today to promote large- scale agriculture without the safeguards to prevent expensive failures. Even local large plantation companies are finding it difficult to operate today with all their experience, given the issues of soil depletion, non use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer and rising labour costs. Yet it seems an intrepid developer with more experience in seafaring than agriculture had demanded 40,000 acres to grow maize – (mind you he may not have heard about the fallworm crisis). Fortunately those in charge of the Mahaweli lands had allocated only 5,000 acres for a trial project but still this is hardly a good example of due diligence which should look for experience in agriculture rather than the usage of prison labour, as announced by the entrepreneur.

Before it is too late, we should learn from the experience of our neighbour India. I recall a lecture by the eminent Dr M. S. Swaminathan many years ago at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (then Sri Lanka Institute of International Relations) where he prophesied that the intensive agriculture “green revolution” would eventually render barren productive areas of their country due to heavy chemical applications degrading the soil. In India today, they are returning to traditional farming practices to revive the soil, re-foresting and trying to connect the farmer to the markets.

Instead of cattle grazing on open land, sheds are being constructed within the village and herders encouraged to bring feed to the cattle. Should we not even now look to small, smart and more sustainable practices to make small farmers more independent? Talking with farmers growing organic high value rice varieties on their lands in Wellawaya with support from Jetwing, it seems they still have faith in traditional practices, calling the mechanical harvester “boothaya” and preferring to bring down buffaloes from Bandarawela to the tractor! Bangladesh is tapping the Indian experience in elephant conservation which is a new area of their bilateral cooperation. Private sector investors in India have recently set up a hospital for treatment of sick domesticated elephants with ultra modern equipment.

Here in Sri Lanka, despite the interest of private philanthropists, the government appears unwilling to give land for an elephant sanctuary or “soft” release area for translocated bull elephants. A central question is why, as a Buddhist nation, Sri Lankans have not included into the Constitution, the protection of animals and living creatures as illustrated in every step of the Gautama Buddha’s life journey and his preachings? Even today, many proposals to strengthen the environmental safeguards and ethical treatment for animals have been sent to the Committee to prepare a new Constitution, but no one has even received an acknowledgement! By contrast, the Indian Constitution is way ahead of us, Article 51-A (g) which deals with Fundamental Duties of the citizens states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.”

Our land endowment also includes the small islands, over 100 around the mainland, enabling extension over expanses of territorial seas. Instead of pushing only commercial fisheries, should the government not think about declaring a marine sanctuary zone all around our island, a domestic security Zone of Peace with proper management safeguards for national land and maritime resources? Sri Lanka received too many multi-day boats after the tsunami, several of which have been converted to nefarious purposes like illicit immigration and smuggling.

Furthermore, why prioritize investment in commercial fisheries at a time when global attention is being called to clean

ing the oceans, replenishing fish stocks, restoring coral reefs and mangroves affected by rising sea waters and ocean temperature rise? Protecting our seas and coastline should be given high priority since our island is in the vicinity of some of the busiest sea lanes in the world and vulnerable to disasters such as New Diamond oil tanker which caught fire off the East Coast.

Cooperation with India has been vital in this regard throughout the years as they have access to both expertise and stocks of fire fighting foam which can be quickly deployed.

While enhancing cooperation with India in addressing marine disasters and security issues such as smuggling, illicit immigration and terrorism/criminal related activities of mutual concern, as a small state with no pretensions for offensive power projection, we should feel free to disagree with India on the imperatives of high defence spending and partnering with the US on security manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean with their latest weaponry.

The recent Malabar naval exercises by the Quad in the Bay of Bengal and naval sonars are believed to have impacted the unprecedented beaching of some 100 pilot whales in Kalutara around the same time, rescued after a marathon effort by our navy and volunteers.

(Sarala Fernando, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and her last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Her Ph.D was on India-Sri Lanka relations and she writes now on foreign policy, diplomacy and protection of heritage).

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