Not everyone would have the lavish luxury of spending time with their grandparents from their birth. I have been one of those very fortunate ones who was able to enjoy the best part of my youth, until I was almost 20+ years old, with both sets of my grandparents, paternal and maternal. In fact I even had the wonderful opportunity of living with my maternal grandparents while my paternal ones lived right next door in two sprawling mansions located on the seaside of the Galle Road, at Bambalapitiya.
Life, as kids was beautiful at Bambalapitiya.
My paternal grandfather, Muhammad Sameer, son of Ismail, was born on 7 March 1890 at his parents’ home at No 111 New Moor Street, Colombo 12. His father, I L M Haji Ismail Effendi was born in 1854 and married his mother, Haleema Umma Ahmad Ali (Seevatamma), in 1886 at 107 New Moor Street, Colombo. Great Grandpa Ismail passed away on 18 Jun 1931.
Gramps, affectionately known to all 32 of his grandchildren, as “Sameer Appa”, was educated at St. Thomas’ College and entered the Colombo Municipal Council clerical service in 1910.
He was employed as Chief Clerk under an Englishman named Orr and won acclaim and affection from Civil Servants such as, H.E. Newnham, H.P. Kaufmann, and W.L. Murphy.
He married Grandma, Raliya Umma, daughter of A.C.Noordeen in 1911. They had four sons and six daughters. The oldest son was Muhammad Thahir (1914-1989), my Dad, a surveyor by profession, who held the position of Superintendent in the Municipal Engineer’s Department at the Colombo Municipal Council. Dad passed away at the ripe age of 75 in 1989. Two of the other sons of Gramps, my paternal uncles, Muhammad Ismail (1919-1993) and Ahmed Farooq also took up the surveying profession and practiced it successfully. Muhammad Sadiq, the youngest son, a bachelor, decided to seek his pastures in the United Kingdom in 1958, and spent almost 45 years of his life in England, and returned to settle down in Sri Lanka and passed away in Colombo after a brief illness in 2003.
Gramps Sameer passed away on 24 May 1972 at No 298, Galle Road, Bambalapitiya, where he lived for almost 30 years..
Learning the ropes
As a four year old, in 1952, I still remember Gramps, dressed in his best, colonial style, beige suite, jacket and tie, gold pocket watch dangling on its chain into his breast pocket, his black Lion Brand umbrella rolled up to protect us from the sun, taking me by the hand and walking me along the sidewalk, on the seaside of Galle Road, all the way to the Wellawatte junction, then taking a right turn towards the sea down Lily Avenue in front of the market, where I attended a nursery school run by a wonderful old Burgher lady called Ms. Fay Poulier. Ms Poulier was an ex teacher of St. Lawrence’s School, Wellawatte, where she was very popular with the staff, students and parents for her commitment and dedication to the education of little children. She was the spouse of a retired Railway gentleman called Mr. George Dick. The school was housed in her garage and we had a bright bunch of youngsters attending class there. Ms. Poulier was such a wonderful lady who cared so much for all of us that she made us feel so much at home away from home at her cosy garage school. Sadly enough I cannot remember a single student in that class today.
Right next door to the nursery school, at No. 45 and No 43 Lily Avenue, lived two of my paternal aunts and their families and Gramps used to go over and rest his limbs there, sipping tea and chatting with his two daughters until my school was over.
After that, I remember him walking me back home along the railway tracks by the beach. I used to ask him a thousand and one questions which he answered diligently and truthfully. The trains, the railway station, the ocean, the Wellawatte bridge, the canal, the rocks, the waves, people, fishing boats, the Kinross Club. Who wouldn’t want to know about the trains, the trees and the ocean, even at age 4?
My dad was an old Royalist, even though Gramps was a Thomian, and, come 1953, when I was five years young, I was marched to my very first interview in life at Royal Primary School for entrance to Class 1C English Medium. For my good fortune the Daily News reporter clicked a picture of me being interviewed and there I was in the next mornings news answering my interview diligently, shorts et al. Dad had saved that picture and it still remains in my files somewhere deep within my humongous documentary archives.
I remember every single face and name in that class even until today, which is a very nostalgic and wonderful memory for me. The majority of the class comprised Muslims and Burgers on account of the medium of instruction being English. The Muslims had the free choice of opting any of the three languages and my dad appropriately chose English. Our teacher was Ms. Croning. Wow! wasn’t she a toughie? It was sad to hear that she had passed away recently as I found out from an obituary in the local press. She sure must have lived to a ripe old age.
Some of my closest associates were Allan Ebert (Dr in Aussie now), Philip Stork, Graham Koch (Hotel Management specialist migrated to Australia and working on a massive hotel project in Peking now, 2005) Brian Lieversz, Maurice Chapman, (both migrated to Aussie), Mazher Fazleali, Mohammed Iqbal Najmudeen, (passed away in 2003), Mohammed Hassim, Premasiri Guruswamy, Jezley Hussain, (passed away), Jeremy Pereira, Nigel de Kretser, (both migrated to Aussie), Arooz Sheriff, (LA, USA), Imthiaz Jaffer, William Solomons, (Aussie), Ramlal Gunewardena, (passed away in 2002), Aubrey Willis and Rodney Vanderwall, (both in Aussie).
Other names I can still remember are Alwyn Anthonisz, Dallas Grenier, Cedric Ernst, Michael Gray, (all in Aussie), S.T. Aziez, S.J. Bahar, (Brunei), Nihal Canagasabey, Monty Cassim, (USA), Suren Chitty, Bryce Fernando, (Geneva), Eardley Foenander, (Aussie) and Anthony Walpola.
Gramps Sameer used to take me to Royal Primary by rickshaw and stay at school in the huge cage like structure erected for waiting parents, guardians, and maids, until it was time to go home. I still remember peeping out of the class and calling out to him “Appa, Appa!”, the Tamil equivalent of “Grandpa, Grandpa”, to the screeching of Ms. Croning shouting at him to go away and not spoil his grandson. They have both passed away. May God Bless them.
The two houses, where I lived on Galle Road, were very old villas built sometime circa 1900. They were located between Castle Lane and Sagara Road on the seaside of Bambalapitiya and the one we lived in was named “Sukhasthan”. We referred to it as “300” being the assessment number given by the Colombo Municipality. The adjoining house, bordering Sagara Road, a mirror image of #300, where Gramps and two of my paternal aunts lived, was referred to as 298 for the same reasons.
It was narrated by my maternal grandpa, Muhammad Rasheed, that the houses were built by the grandfather of my maternal Grand Uncle, Sir Razik Fareed, who was then famously known as Wapchi Marikar Baas (Baas is the Sinhalese word for builder, contractor, mason etc.) with the rubble and remnants of a building he had to demolish in the Fort where he was contracted by the government to build the General Post Office which still stands tall as one of the majestic old buildings in the city of Colombo. Wapchi Marikar Baas also built the Colombo Museum, Customs Building, Galle Face Hotel, and many other famous old sturdy structures in Colombo that still stand tall and proud to his name and dedicated workmanship. The Governor of Ceylon at that time requested him to seek any favor during the opening of the Colombo Museum and the humble Wapchi Marikar Baas had requested that the place be closed on Fridays so that the members of his community would not spend their time in there and concentrate on their weekly Friday prayers at the Mosque.
The Colombo Museum is closed on Fridays until this day.
Most of the outer walls of 298 & 300 were made of Kabook (a large rectangular shaped brick made of small red stones and sand). They were the abode of many a termite colony during our stay there and we used to enjoy watching the little white headed insects carrying on their masterly work of building and moving particles of sand to and fro within their nests. Each house, shaped like an L stretching far down to the backyard, had three large bedrooms, a verandah, Hall, Study, Dining Hall, Store Room, and two kitchens located at the far end and a pantry. There were only two toilets, one in the center of the house, at the intersection of the “L”, and one at the far end which was used mainly by the servants. The roof was spread with local (Sinhala) tiles and stood high above the floor unlike many homes of modern times. A wooden ceiling shielded the tiles and coconut rafters from the inside. Windows were all wooden with glass panes and fan lights in the bedrooms.
The gardens at 298 & 300 were a place full of joy and wonders that one has to personally experience to understand. I used to dream of being buried underneath it someday after I pass away.
The serenity and calm it provided beneath its shade was something out of this world. The backyards had their wondrous share of fruit, vegetable and nut trees. Guava and mango were the main delicacies. It was quite a trauma keeping the bats away at night and the urchins away during the day. Jak and Breadfruit were also mouth watering delicacies that our garden grew. Both Grandmas were always fond of the delicious pomegranate fruit that she claimed had great medicinal value, especially for expectant mothers. A sprawling umbrella like Jam Fruit tree adorned the center of our front lawn at 300 adjacent to a tall and magnificent Sapodilla tree that was always attacked by passers by for its fruit. Coconut and Tambili (King Coconut) were sprinkled all across the estate, mainly in the back yard. Two monolithic Tamarind trees stood side by side somewhere about three quarters of the way down the backyard and
I still remember the tone of the old Owl hooting from its lofty branches. All kinds of old wives’ tales, based on devils, demons and ghosts, were wound around these magnificent plants to keep us away from the garden at sunset and after dark. A sprawling Kottang (Almond) tree was located almost at the left hand corner of the end of the garden bordering the fence that separated the yard from the neighbors on the Castle Lane side.
We used to go picking almonds each morning from what the poor bats had missed out the previous night. Banana trees, of varying flavors, were also waving their shady arms across most part of the garden. All in all it was a beautiful shady grove for any form of relaxation and slumber. A small Paradise called home.
We had a cow and two goats named, Laila and Majnoon. We also had hens, roosters, ducks, Muscovy ducks, and a whole host of geese, all meandering through the garden in freedom and splendor. With a couple of elephants and lions the place could have easily been classified as a mini zoo. Grandpa and Dad used to have a whale of a time trapping the bandicoots and mongoose that used to come sneaking at night to dine on the chickens.
The twin houses stretched far back into Sagara Road to almost halfway down to the sea and bordered many neighbor9ing homes on the other side of the street who used to join us in enjoying its splendor and fun.
Royal Primary School
Royal Primary School, from 1953 to 1958, was a world full of joy and wonders that lingers sweetly in my memory for all its beautiful moments and times. The boys in the class comprising mainly of Burghers and Muslims carried on together for six wonderful years as mates through some of the best times of my life. My first teacher was Ms Croning of 1C, followed by Ms Pereira, Ms Dissanayake, Mr Pinkamage, Mr David, and finally Mr J E de Silva. The annual Sports Meet was another memorable occasion that everyone of us enjoyed. The school magazine was a pride to take home and the Headmaster and teachers were people to be truly proud of and cherish for all times. A quick game of cricket during the lunch break or strolling around the large grounds was a daily routine for most of us after having enjoyed an ice lolly or some gram from the vendors, Bella, Achi or Kadalay (the gram seller) at the gate.
Moving to College in 1959 was a tremendous change for everyone. Some of the Burgher boys were in the process of migrating to Australia with the Sinhala only policy coming into place. Some didn’t make it having failed the entrance test. New guys joined us from various other schools. We had a batch of over 200 in the first year at Royal College in 1959 spread out into seven classes classified as Form 1A to Form 1F. I was in 1E and my class teacher was Mr Justin de Silva, affectionately known as “Abraham Lincoln” for his tremendous love and respect for the former American President whom he used as a role model in every possible way. He even sported a beard and tried to look like old Abe in the best of his own inimitable style. 1A was taken by that wonderfully dynamic teacher Capt. MKJ Cantlay renowned for his activities and contributions with the Scout Troop and the Cadet Corps. I also remember Mr MM Alavi taking one of the classes in Form 1. My Form 2 class master was Mr Sivalingam, Mr JH de Saram taking Form 3, Ms Samarasekera taking form 4 and then Mr Canegaratne also taking Form 4 as I had to spend another year in the same form in 1963 on account of an eye injury I suffered while playing “Elle” or Rounders (the local version of baseball) and had to spend six difficult months warded at the Colombo Eye Hospital from June to December 1962. The one whose bat hit me on the face was KC Fernando and it was the last “pitch”of the day before the bell rang to end the lunch interval. I was rushed to the Accident Service in an unconscious state after having been taken to the hostel for immediate attention to the cut above my left eye that subsequently had to have three stitches implanted to close the gaping wound.
Returning back to Royal in 1964 I was able to move through my GCE (O) Levels with six credit passes and one simple pass (Sinhalese Language) offering all three streams of Mathematics (Pure, Applied & Advanced), Physics, English Language, & Islam. I flunked Chemistry, the bane of all my academics. Never liked it. Never still do.
Having attained proficiency in all three maths the trend was to move towards engineering sciences and Dad was very keen that I follow in his shoes.
Moving to the upper echelons of Royal in the Lower and Upper Sixth Class was a very prestigious era in my life. Life was rather serious, filled with studies and extra hours in making sure I could get over the hurdle of University entry. Appeared for the GCE (Advanced) level examination in 1966 and came out successfully with two credit passes (Pure and Applied Mathematics) and one ordinary pass (Physics) obtaining a large enough aggregate mark to get entry into the University of Ceylon, Colombo Campus, for a degree course in Physical Science.
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