The birds are gone, and the warm fields return no more

by Tissa Abeysekara

Continued from last week

Lake a strip of gangrene, the High Level Road began to disintegrate the flesh and the sinews of the ecological layout and the pastoral life-patterns of the valley. It was the ‘New Road’, so called by the people of those days to distinguish it from the spare network of roads before. These were the ‘Parana Paras’ — Old Roads. There were three of them leading from the city and moving deep into the Peak Shadow. One began near Nagalagam Street in Grandpass on the right bank of the Kelani River, and crossing the San Sebastian canal flowing into Kolonnawa - it was a tank then - moved along following the course of the river and almost at water’s level, through Sedawatta, Kotuwila, Wellampitiya, and past Ambatale to reach the heart of the Sitawaka Kingdom at Avissawella. This was the route taken by the Portuguese General, Jeronimo de Azavedo in his march to conquer Mayadunne’s ‘pirate’ kingdom when the conquistador’s army of over sixty thousand well armed and trained troops, were cut to pieces, almost to a man, in the sprawling rice paddies of Mulleriyawa, by a smaller force of Sinhalese led by the sixteen year old Crown Prince of Sitawaka, Tikiri Bandara (listen to the beautiful Ballad of Sitawaka, composed by Sunil Shantha for Lester Peries’ film ‘Sandesaya’).

The second road began at Borella, and for the first four miles was known as ‘Cotta Road’. It bifurcated near the Etul Kotte Junction with the branch to the left moving along the northwestern border of the ancient city of Sri Jayawardenepura, crossed the fabled Diyawanna Oya just before Battaramulla and proceeded via Malabe - circumventing the marsh where once the Diyawanna Oya spread itself into a beautiful lake, and now the site of the New Parliament Complex - where it skirted the western end of the Mulleriyawa fields, and then through Arangala, Athurugiriya, Habarakada, Panagoda, Godagama, all the way to Padukka and then moved beyond Moragahahena to meet the road to Ratnapura coming from the coastal town of Panadura. This road, broken up intermittently by more recent highways, and broadened beyond recognition, still bear traces of its ancestry along the way.

At the Panagoda junction there could still be seen an old plaque cracked by thick roots growing out of an ancient tree, marking the coronation of King George V. At Padukka, a major junction, where roads branch out to Horana on the west and to Hanwella on the east - where a historic ferry marked the boundary with the hermit kingdom of Kandy - there still stands an ornate street lamp of Victorian design with five hands - almost a replica of the one in Gasworks Street, Pettah, named ‘Gas-Paha’. Beyond Padukka, one goes past Moragahahena, an old pilgrim stop on the road to Sri Pada from the west coast, and there in a corner could be seen still, a road sign in English with an arrow pointing: Adam‘s Peak.


Separating itself from the road going left at Etul Kotte, ‘Cotta Road’ moved right, going through the ancient citadel and climbing up into the elevation of the now vanished ramparts and dipping into the bed of the drained moat - where the depression to the left of the road was filled to build the UNP headquarters, Sri Kotha - crested the ridge where in the interior the famous Kotte Rajamaha Viharaya stands. This was the Pita Kotte junction where an ancient ambalama - a pilgrim’s rest continues to struggle for its existence. Beyond this spot the road came to ‘Jubilee Post’ junction. ‘Jubilee Post’ is an insignificant stump of dark marble put there to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1885. Even as a schoolboy I had often wondered why the Colonial administrators of British Ceylon chose this way-out spot to locate a memorial for their beloved Empress. In later years as I began burrowing into the past of the valley that had nurtured me, I began to know why. ‘Cotta Road’ trespassed through the last great kingdom of the Sinhalese with colonial arrogance and was traced on the remnants of a previous Dutch road. It terminated here. Beyond that had been village tracks through homesteads facing the vast paddy fields of Nawinna, and Erawwala. There had been, from the point where ‘Cotta Road’ ends, a cart track to the right, which moved across the southern end of the Nawala paddy fields, to reach a tank. The cart track is now Pagoda Road, and the tank was where the Nugegoda town stands now. Even today this little town surrounded on three sides by a crescent of highland - Kandewatta on the west, Chapel Lane on the east, and the Jambugasmulla hill on the southwest - gets inundated during heavy showers.

Getting back to the ‘Cotta Road’ terminal at the ‘Jubilee Post’, the British had, somewhere in the nineteenth century laid a road from this point onwards skirting the picturesque valleys between the ridges and the rice paddies through the old Salpiti Korale, all the way to Kottawa. This road even today runs unfettered and unbroken from the ‘Jubilee Post’ up to Nawinna and the stretch is known now as the old Kottawa Road. Beyond Nawinna, it gets fractured by the High Level Road but stretches of it continue to exist, breaking away from the Alutpara and reconnecting itself intermittently to, what is now the main highway, right up to Kottawa. This old road was essentially for cart traffic coming from the heartland of the valley bringing its wonderful produce of fruits vegetable and grain to the city. Right up to the early fifties, as a child, I had woken in the early hours of dawn, to the sound of oxbells and the rattle of metal-tired cartwheels on the asphalt.

The ‘Jubilee Post’ was where the road through the Kotte kingdom linked up with another road penetrating into Sitawaka, the domain of the warrior king, Rajasingha. These were the last bastions of Sinhala sovereignty of the bottomlands to fall for the colonial adventurer; and whoever who ruled that the memorial to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign should be located where the two roads met, certainly knew his history, and his geopolitics too.

All these old roads hugged the contours of the land; they wound and they dipped and they crested, in deference to the geographical twists and undulations. The Little Train arriving in 1904, seemed not an alien in the landscape. The steam whistle was like the cry of a lone bird, painful and sweet in turn, but always in harmony with the soundscape of the valley. The railway stations were picture postcards, with potted plants dripping bright blossoms and hanging from rafters or valance boards, sea levels marked on the boards bearing the place-names - Pannipitiya, where I lived as a boy was 72 feet above sea-level as marked in the station - and there was a smell, a mixture of charcoal and steam lingering always, and it hangs in my memory still. Little railroad towns lay behind or before these stations, and there was always a barbershop, a Tamil Boutique - Demala Kade, a Muslim Shop - Thambi Kade, a billiard room - Bola Maysay, and a couple of buggy carts waiting far clients — the bulls were always unyoked during the wait and the carters played drafts smoking smelly Jaffna cigars. The railway stations were almost always by the ‘old roads’; there was a kinship between the two modes of travel; the railroad in the valley - the narrow gauge line - almost held hands with the parana paras.

The old railway station at Nugegoda - still there but totally eclipsed by a monstrosity built in the ‘gold rush’ of the open economy in the eighties - endures in my memory. The place and all of the surrounding townscape is a collection of sepia-tone impressions engraved in the mind’s eye. It is, because my first school was there, Dr. Guy Paranavitane was there in his Dispensary to treat me when ill — which was quite often - and my heart stopped beating for the first time there - in love. An old road came from Kirulapona on the edge of the Big City, and went behind the railway station to meet what is still known as old Kesbewa Road, where there was a level crossing. Here the Little Train emerged from a breach in a ridge to reach the station. The old Kesbewa Road moved, and still does, on the right edge of this breach, and Chapel Lane, which began near the level-crossing, went along the left edge. Where Chapel Lane began, there was a bathing pond, enclosed, when I knew it, and perhaps it was there when the land beyond was a marsh skirting the northern end of the ridge along which Chapel Lane crested. I came to school by train, and as we came out of the breach on the ridge into the little town, the first thing I always noticed was a row of bullock carts parked along the road which went behind the railway station. The bulls had been untied and the carts were propped up by two crossbars at the yoke. Smoke was issuing from cooking fires and some of the carters were bathing at the pond across the road; some were bringing water in pails; these were the caravans coming from the interior of the valley and they always rested here for the night; this was the last stop before they reached the Big City. The Old Kesbewa Road continued a little beyond the level-crossing and turning right, joined the Pagoda road to proceed to Jubilee Post or continued straight, to cross the Nawala paddy fields; where the Open University is today, the road crossed a butterfly bridge spanning the Dutch Canal which came all the way from the Diyawanna Oya in Kotte flowing around a hill; the road to Narahenpita was on the left and it moved along the canal bank; Mother had told me that halfway down that road before it reached Narahenpita - a sprinkling of little boutiques with the Anderson Golf Links beyond, at the edge of which, near a house called ’Siripasiri’, which still stands, I could remember seeing, as a little boy, Sri Pada in the distance - there had been a ferry where boats from the valley came to deliver their cargo to the city; ‘Ramasamy Tkotupola’ they called it then, said Mother. Her mother had come along that waterway from Nawagamuwa in the old Sitawaka kingdom, bringing three siblings to live in the Big City. That’s another story.

Back at Nugegoda, before the Old Kesbewa Road reached the fork where it went two ways, there was the Quinlon theatre where I saw my second movie - the first one I saw alone - and where in the following few years, before I graduated to the cinemas in the Big City for English movies, I saw many Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi films, and began my long and troubled love affair with the moving image. At the end of that stretch, lined by a few boutiques and a tea kiosk called ‘Saumyasiri’ where they served an unforgettable cup of milk-tea - for me it was mandatory to have that cup after seeing a movie at the Quinlon- the old road, joined the long street going all the way to the High Level Road. At one point it crossed the railway line again at the other end of the railway station and beyond that the second half of the long street was called Church Street, because there was, and still is, the very old St. John’s Church on the right as you walk towards the ‘Alut Para’, the ‘New Road’. Before it reached the level crossing, the long street, as far as I could remember, had no name on this stretch, the street bordered a park, lined with magnificent shade trees, which burst out in red blossoms for the Sinhala New Year. This park was the space between the railroad and the long street running parallel with each other and the Old Kesbewa Road linking the two at one end; facing the long street and on the edge of the park, there was Model Bakery and it baked the best bread I have ever eaten anywhere. Facing it was a marsh; on the edge of that marsh and facing the street was a modest little one roomed shop: W. J. Gunawardene’s. On the stretch where the old church stood/stands, and on the side facing the church where the land sloped upwards to the Jambugasmulla heights, were dainty little cottages, full of roses, bougainvillaea, chrysanthemums and forests of exotically hued crotons. Church Street continued and crossing the ‘New Road’ reached Kohuwala. Running parallel was Raymond Road on the north and Melder Place on the south. All this was Burgherland, and from the lovely houses with manicured lawns and bursting with flowers in the garden, there stepped out or peeped from curtained windows the angels of our adolescence; we wooed them shamelessly, serenaded them, trailed them, and fought over them. (Two of these angels, Maureen Hingert and Shirlene de Zylva went on to become Beauty Queens. Maureen, was the more celebrated of the two, as she came third in the world contest, and settled down in Hollywood, having married Franco Zeffrelli, an Italian born art director at the time who graduated to film making later. He made a controversial movie version of Romeo & Juliet, with a nude scene, between the teenage lovers. Shirlene too became a movie actress, in Sri Lanka, briefly.)

After Church Street crossed the railway line and entered the charmed quarter-mile with the flower-filled cottages holding angels within, and before it reached the church, a little gravel road went up a hill in front of the station to come down on the other side, where the Old Kesbewa Road reached Nugegoda. At the highest point in this narrow lane, one could see across the Nawala paddy fields all the way to Narahenpita and on a clear day, to the vague outline of the sea beyond. I have stood on this spot one early morning long long ago, a nervous adolescent on a secret tryst, when a January mist lay thick over everything and what I saw was paradise or is it the association of this moment in my memory with the heady magic of calf love? That was Nugegoda, as it opens in my mind’s screen like the backdrop of a John Ford movie.

I have meandered temporally and spatially, perhaps, because that was how, like a wandering animal, I discovered the limits of my territory in the days of wayward youth. I have tried to recapitulate the scene as it was at the dawn of my memory. But the strip of gangrene had already begun by then, though the old-world still remained in its basic contour. It took many more years for the disfiguration and that happened before my pained eyes. The High Level Road had sliced through the landscape like a butcher’s knife. As its name implies, it moved on a higher elevation across the tops of the ridges, where once-upon-a-time, the woodlands were, holding back the waters of the monsoon rains to be released to the fields below during the dry season. The new road slashed through like a belt of prairie fire; on the heights where once the forests were, alive with the rabbit, the mouse deer, the jackal and eternally singing birdlife, there appeared, little towns; Wijerama, Nawinna, Maharagama, Homagama, Galagedra, Meepe, all the way up to Kosgama where the new road met the old one coming from Nagalagam Street, and that was when the mouse deer began losing its home. Life, which had faced the paddy fields for centuries, turned around and reached upwards through the woods where once the domestic cattle grazed, and the wild animals were at home. The new road also sliced through the network of old gravel byways that led to the villages and then to the fields beyond. I have walked along these lanes of the old valley, spoken to elders, who still remembered the Golden Jubilee of the Great Queen. But that was in the fifties and sixties. That generation was the last to hold the slender thread of living memory. They are gone. As I drive along the High Level Road, the way along which I brought Tony home, I see the fields vanishing. They are being constantly filled up. The green fields keep going, one by one, never to return. I tried to recapture some of that lost arcadia in my television series, Pitagamkarayo, and I did so with no bitterness. I don’t look back in anger. But somewhere like in Gray’s Elegy, there is a feeling of hurt.

Evocative book

I wish 1 could look back like Martin Wickremesingha. He was remarkably free of nostalgia and sentimentality in his remembrance of things past. In mid life he wrote a marvellously evocative book where he was in search of a grail, moving through the ruined cities of our past, recording some wonderful observations and insights with the intuition of a poet. In the end he returns to his birthplace, Koggala, the ‘Malgudi’ of his novels. It had just emerged from years of hibernation; during the War the whole place was taken over for an airbase for Mountbatten’s Far-Eastern Command, and declared forbidden territory. As it returns to normalcy after the war, the village had vanished, leaving behind a ghost land. Wickremasingha recreates his beloved Koggala through memory, but with no tears, and with no lump in the throat. The writing has a diamond sharp quality, a fine tension between emotion and intellect. The book is titled "Kalunika Seveema" — ‘In Search of Kalunika ‘. ‘Kalunika’ is a mythical plant, an herb. In folklore, you tie a chip of its bark to the foot of a pigeon, and the bird flies all the way to the Himalayas to return with musk from the white deer that inhabits the Snow Mountains. Take the musk and thou shall become immortal. There is a catch though; it can never be done, because, kalunika is not real, and pigeons don’t fly to the Himalayas. The title of Martin Wickremasingha’s book implies the futility of going back. The past is another country.

This memoir is for my daughter, Svetlana, with the wish that she may be in the years to come, what I could not be, in the years gone by.