(Excerpted from Senior DIG (Rtd.) Edward Gunawardena’s memoirs)
Colombo Division was hectic, but it was good fun. All Three of us new ASPs, Brute Mahendran, Cosmo David and I were resident at the Officer’s Mess, Brownrigg Road. Today it is the Senior Officer’s Mess, Keppetipola Mawatha This is because during the JVP insurrection of 1971 the Inspectorate of the Police were equated to officer ranks of the armed services; and the Inspectors’ Mess became the Officers’ Mess. The Sergeants and Constables were also designated as Junior Officers and a Mess was established for them on Chaitya Road, Fort.
The Mess was housed in a substantial two storey building. It was in fact one complete unit of a C’ type twin bungalow. The ground floor consisted of two verandahs in the front and the rear, the ante room with a billiard table, a large dining room with a table for about twenty, the kitchen and pantry, outhouses for servants, a large garage and a stable for one horse.
The walls of the ante-room were studded with hunting trophies – heads of wild buffaloes, trunks of elephants, antlers of deer etc. Photographs of past Inspectors – General and group farewells to retiring Senior officers adorned the walls of the dining room. In a large antique glass almirah were silver trophies and other valuable silverware.
The heart of this entire set up was indeed the bar that was housed in a small room adjoining the dining room. A remarkable feature was that this bar was always well stocked with the best liquors and well patronized by the members. Other than on special occasions outsiders were seldom seen there. The main reason why it was well patronized was because all senior officers were encouraged to drink at the mess and not in other public places. There were no cash sales with transactions being strictly on credit.
The Mess Rules had to be strictly observed by all members. If the necessity arose the senior most officer present had the power to enforce discipline. Jamis, the Butler, also enjoyed certain powers even to the extent of cautioning errant officers and reporting them under the Mess Rules. A committee of officers was responsible for the day to day running of the mess, with the Hony. Secretary bearing most of the burden. In later years, at different times I held the offices of Hony. Secretary and President of the Mess.
Unlike today the Mess servants were paid on the profits made by the bar; and there were only three of them including the Butler. Nimalasena assisted Jamis whilst there was just one cook. Today an ASP has taken the place of the Butler while there are several sergeants and constables as bar tenders and kitchen staff. To cater to the needs of the times an eatery also functions within the Mess premises called Bobby’s restaurant. This modest food outlet has proved to be a boon to many officers.
Of a total of six rooms for residents one room was always kept vacant for officers from the outstations who visited the city for official purposes. Apart from the three of us, there was only one other resident member in 1958. He was a bachelor ASP who had come up from the rank of Sub-Inspector. An old Trinitian, T.B. Dhanapala was a fingerprint expert. His younger brothers were Ian who was with me at Marrs Hall in Peradeniya and Jayantha, an illustrious foreign service officer who brought honour to the country.
A visitor who came regularly to see TBD. was a Trinity friend of his, Col. John Halangoda. They were both excellent conversationalists. Whenever possible, it was with pleasure that I joined them in a chat. Sometimes we would talk for hours on Kandyan history, customs, the aristocracy, families and even the manner of cooking and special foods, sipping just one bottle of Beck’s beer!
Dhanapala was a man of erudition and culture. He epitomized the quality of men who joined the police as Sub-Inspectors at that time. Simple in his habits he was scrupulously honest. Once he confided in me how a multi-millionaire businessman who had even been officially honoured by the government had approached him when he was the Registrar of Finger Prints (RFP) to get his past criminal record destroyed. He had taken special precautions for the safety of these documents. It is ironical indeed that this man with a criminal record for stealing a brass garden tap as a collector for an old metal dealer reached the top of the business world. Dhanapala merely faded away. But he will be remembered as a man of honour.
Apart from being the focal point for official functions and social get-togethers, the Mess was the common meeting place for officers. With the Police grounds and the tennis courts situated in close proximity, this was the place where one could bathe, have a change of clothes etc. It was particularly well patronized during week-ends. It was common to see several officers and their guests play bridge and billiards or snooker.
Officers who regularly played bridge were C.C. Dissanayake, Bede Johnpulle, Jebanesan and Lionel Jirasinghe. R.E. Kitto who had been All-India and National sprint champion spent hours at the billiard table. The officers I remember who played with him were R.A. Stork and Royden Vanderwall.
Lord Soulbury the first Governor General had been an occasional visitor to the Mess as the guest of the Inspector-General. As related by Jamis the butler, the Governor-General had also been a keen billiards player. He had been quite proficient too; and like most others he had enjoyed a drink whilst playing. His preferred drink had been Gordon’s gin and tonic with a dash of bitters.
Soulbury’s usual opponent in billiards had been the young and brash Robert Ebenezer (RE) Kitto. The latter was such a free conversationalist, unafraid to use English slang, even the Queen’s representative had begun to enjoy his lively company. A story that went the rounds about Soulbury and Kitto is worth being repeated over and over again.
Playing a game, the former standing on his left leg had stretched his right leg on the green baize and prepared himself to play an intricate shot. Kitto who had downed several arracks had loudly remarked, ” Excuse me, Your Excellency, only three balls on the table”! Soulbury according to Jamis had laughed heartily and shaken hands with Kitto.
Those who did not play bridge or billiards also enjoyed themselves engaged in light conversation, relating jokes and often laughing loudly. The voice of Allen Flamer Caldera was loud and distinct. Frederick de Saram was a real live wire. He was for some reason or another also called. Kukul Saram. It was his daughter, Sirimanie, who married Lalith Athulathmudali.
In fact Kukul usually came with his wife and two daughters. Mrs. de Saram, I remember, was coaxed to play the piano for the husband to lead the singing. He had a baritone voice and his favourite songs were, “I’ve got a loverly bunch of coconuts”, and “Arapiya Lucia dora”. Allen Flamer Caldera’s daughter Jilska who was one of the finest women athletes of the time, also played the piano once in a while for her father and his friends to unwind. Jilska as I remember was a pleasant and beautiful girl.
There were two special days at the Mess during the Christmas Season. One was the day on which the carols were held on the Police grounds and the other was the Children’s Christmas party.
The Christmas Carols organized by DIG C.C. Dissanayake was an admirable event. The Police Band provided the music and representatives of all ranks including the women police dressed in uniform formed the choir. A remarkable feature was that the personnel of the band as well as the choristers were all not Christians. They belonged to all faiths and sang loudly and lustily.
Even at casual get-togethers Brute Mahendran, a Hindu, sang Christian ditties such as “Swing low sweet chariot” and “Steal Away” with a lot of feeling. The spirit of Christmas entered the lives of all at that time. Even after colonial values had rightfully faded away, it is a matter for satisfaction indeed to see that carols have today become a national cultural feature in the form of ‘Wesak Bakthi Gee’. There was a time when people spoke of Wesak Carols!
The singing of carols did not end on the Police Grounds. It was customary for the senior officers to walk across the grounds to the Mess. Wives and children also joined. And the carols continued with everybody around the piano. Of course, it did not take long for the carols to be replaced by the usual party songs. Fred de Saram, Allen Flamer Caldera, Leslie Abeysekera, Cossy Orr and Stanley Senanayake eventually led the singing to the immortal melodies of Sunil Santha & P.L.A. Somapala. Before breaking up for the evening everybody including the wives and children joined in the Baila singing and dancing.
The Childress’ Party.
The childrens’ Christmas party was the most important event in the annual year-end celebrations. It was a social event looked forward to by the families of all members. For the children of all ages up to 12-years, the event from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. was three hours of screaming fun. The massive Christmas tree was an exceptionally large branch of pine brought from Nuwara Eliya. Decorated to especially suit the taste of children, attractive toys dangled from all parts of the tree. Different groups of officers and their wives organized games for the children. Numerous varieties of short eats, sweets and ice-cream all supplied by Elephant House were freely available.
The highlight of the childrens’ party was the arrival of Santa Claus sharp at 5 p.m. In fact it was his arrival that signaled the commencement of the proceedings. A remarkable feature of this party was that members and families irrespective of religion joined in the fun. Apart from Buddhists, Musafers, Bongsos and Mahendrans have also played the role of Santa Claus. Shelly Salvador was an officer who reveled playing this role over and over again.
It was the manner of arrival of Santa Claus that provided the kiddies party with the desired kick-start. Minutes before five the sound of jingle bells was heard in the distance. Children and adults awaited his arrival anxiously. Amidst the sound of crackers and the release of hundreds of balloons Santa emerged in his traditional dress.
The sensation was in Santa’s mode of transport. In my early years in the Police I have seen Santa arrive in decorated Jeeps, in a buggy cart, on horseback, on a bicycle , on a motorcycle with a side-car etc. I too was Santa once in the early sixties. My senior at St. Joseph’s Hubert Bagot who was the head of the Police Mounted Division had improvised for me a horse drawn chariot out of a bullock cart!
The annual officers sit-down dinner
This annual dinner which is also called the “First Aid Dinner” is the most important official social meeting for the gazetted officers in the calendar of events of the Senior Officers Mess. This dinner follows the commemoration parade of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade which in Sri Lanka is made up almost entirely of the police. During my resident days at the Mess, the commandant of the St. John’s Ambulance brigade was Col. Dr. Rockwood. With the Queen as the patron, this was undoubtedly a prestigious honorary post.
In the fifties and sixties it was compulsory for all officers to attend this dinner. Mess dress had to be worn. This dress consisted of black vicuna trousers with overlaid black silk braids, white dress shirt and black bow, white waist-coat and a mini dress jacket. Black shoes, small black epaulets and miniature silver insignia and buttons completed the outfit.
All officers had to be present by 7.30 in the evening. Never have I seen late comers. The special guests, the Governor-General and the Prime Minister arrived by 7.40 p.m. piloted by police vehicles. The IGP and the DIGs who also arrived by 7.30 p.m. received the special guests. By the time they arrived all the officers had studied the table plan that was exhibited on the billiard table. At 8 O’Clock sharp the police band under the baton of Inspector Gerry Paul played “Roast Beef of Old England.” This was the dinner call.
The special guests who also included Col. Dr. Rockwood were all escorted to their respective seats by the IGP and the DIGs. All other officers occupied their seats in an orderly fashion. The dining table was long and extended beyond the rear doorway. A raised platform accommodated the rear end of the table. The table — cloth was of immaculate white and the cutlery, crockery, glasses and serviettes meticulously arranged.
Although the catering manager of Elephant House was present it was Jamis the butler with all his experience who with authority supervised the table arrangements. It was also under the supervision of Jamis that the Elephant House waiters filled the wine and water glasses. As for the IGP and the special guests, Jamis was in personal attendance.
The menu at this special dinner was perhaps the best that Elephant House could offer; and Elephant House was at that time the sole importer of meats, fruits and vegetables. The meats arrived as whole carcasses to be stored in the large cold rooms. I remember being introduced by my father, who was Assistant Manager at Fountain Cafe, to one Mr. Young an Englishman who was the butcher. His job was to carve the carcasses of cattle and sheep to parts. Elephant House also imported the choicest of hams, bacon, butter and cheese.
The menu in 1958, for example, served by Jamis and his liveried assistants, started with a shrimp cocktail followed by steaming Consomme Royale, the soup. The main courses that followed consisted of braised turkey and ham in cadjunut and early pea sauce; and baked seer in mayonnaise with lobster thermidor A desert of Knickerbocker Glory and cheese was followed by strong black coffee. Jamis was constantly on the move topping up the glasses with cognac, cherry brandy and creme de menthe.
The gavel that had been placed on the table in front of the IGP was indeed a rare piece of furniture. It was an exquisitely turned out wooden hammer. Sharp at 9.30 the IGP tapped the table thrice with this gavel and got up with a glass of cognac in his hand. The others too got up simultaneously with glasses in their hands for the evening’s first toast, ‘to the health and happiness of the Queen’.
This was followed with a toast to Ceylon. After these toasts, in an informal tone, the IGP announced, ‘Gentlemen you may smoke’. Many pulled out their own packs or cigarette cases while even the usual non-smokers too helped themselves from the silver cigarette boxes that were being taken round Once the IGP and the guests got up and moved to the ante room other officers too gradually followed.
The proceedings thereafter were informal with the Governor-General and Prime Minister chatting freely even with junior officers. The Probationary ASPS invariably had a special place. It was a part of their induction into the Senior Officer culture of the Ceylon Police with colonial values.
I wonder today whether this special mess function continues to exist. During the late seventies and eighties when I was in service I cannot recall attending a ‘First Aid Dinner’ Perhaps with the extraordinary police commitments during the years of the terrorist war this traditional event had to be done away with. Even if it has ceased to exist it is certainly not a matter for regret. Being an extravagant British Colonial legacy, wholly incompatible with the times, the demise of the ‘Police First Aid Dinner’ had to come sooner or later.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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