A Requiem for "Lion House"
by Tissa Devendra
The deathknell rang for Lion House when the University abandoned Colombo for Peradeniya in 1952 depriving this once legendary tea-shop of the undergraduate clientele who gave it life, colour and custom. As those of us who remember it quietly limp into ‘lean and slippered’ old age it is amusingly appropriate that a shop selling slippers and shoes now occupies that corner at Bambalapitiya Junction where undergrads once chattered endlessly, and aimlessly, over cold cups of tea.
When my ‘cohort’ entered our one and only University in 1948, "Lion House" was already well rooted in undergrad lore. Oral tradition and ‘Flybynight’ Vitachchi’s columns had infused it with an aura we looked forward to basking in. We took a few days to get to know each other, the geography and the customs of ‘College’ as our seniors, with inverse snobbery, called the University. We sauntered beneath the green arches of Thurstan Road and the pillared corridors leading to K. G. Hall. Seated at the cigarette scarred tables of the Tuck Shop, with pretended sophistication, we evaluated the shy little clusters of brightly sareed ‘Misses’ tripping along, past the tennis courts, towards the baroque splendour of the Library at Villa Venezia. Simple ‘coming of age rituals’ of a long lost era.
At last we felt comfortable enough, as undergrads, to visit the Lion House we had heard so much about. Cycling along Queen’s Road, past the forbidding splendour of a Colonial banker’s residence we were amused by the remains of a wartime poster yet embedded in the grooved bricks of the surrounding wall. "Looting will be Punishable by DEATH" it warned, in English, under the fond assumption that these law breakers could read their ruler’s language! Parking our bikes in the rickety wooden cycle stand in front, we stepped into Lion House at last. At first glance its ambience seemed hardly different from that of the University ‘tuck’. Senior undergrads sat around linoleum topped tables in a haze of cigarette smoke talking University politics or evaluating lecturers and female talent. A few office workers were around for their tea/’bunnis’. Occasionally, bus travellers came along with their shopping "mallas" to refresh themselves while waiting for the next bus.
Little gaggles of women undergrads shyly sidled in, generally accompanied by a male – who had already decided on which one was to be his lady love, but hadn’t yet persuaded her to slip away from her protective convoy. But it didn’t take too long for these groups to evolve into coy twosomes, murmuring with their heads close together, in a more tolerant atmosphere less likely to attract the envious glances and sly barbs than the ‘tuck’.
The food at Lion House had a greater variety than the meagre fare at the University. But it was a far, far cry from ‘cordon bleu’. As soon as a table was occupied the waiter, hopefully, plunked down a dish of the traditional stand-by ‘menu’ – buns, plantains [as bananas were yet called in that ‘goday’ age], ‘muss paans’, rolls, patties, sponge cakes and ‘kimbulas’. In that era, just emerging from wartime austerity, most of us had very little spending money, most of which was spent on tea and cigarettes. However we did our best not to disappoint our hosts by munching on a few of the proffered items, duly grateful to the tradition of the house that undergrads were allowed to dawdle indefinitely at their tables talking endlessly of matters great and little.
Peering through the mists of uncertain memory, it is hard to recall what exactly we spoke of. I must confess that very few of our conversations ever dealt with matters of great import. I remember some verbal skirmishing between those of Trotskyite persuasion [generally from Royal] and their Stalinist opponents [from Ananda/Nalanda]. We savoured the wisecracks and analysed the films seen at the old Majestic across the road, passing judgement on the vital statistics of long-forgotten stars such as Pier Angeli, Moira Shearer and Anouk, to name but a few. But much of our conversation was ‘trivia and trash’ – the rehashing of University gossip and trading of friendly insults. In retrospect, I believe that what held us together, other than those who fell willing victims to feminine charms, was our post-adolescent [we would have recoiled at the word] need for the rituals of male-bonding, moving around in a like-minded group.
Apart from the all-embracing and dominant Union Society, the University suffered from a surfeit of Societies, each representing some Faculty or Department thus giving great scope for ‘post-hunters’ keen to pad their CVs for the CCS viva. What a fruit salad it was! The Mela, Curia Historica, English Literary Circle, the Political, Philosophical and Dramatic Societies and the Nomads - much envied for their wide ranging excursions with ample opportunity for bacchanalian revels – and many more. Garnering of votes came, inevitably, at a price. Thus every election ended up with raucous victory celebrations at Lion House at the victor’s expense, of course. Although Lion House served no liquor, it never banned tipsy undergrads from vociferous celebration of election victories there. These were the only days when cash [the winner’s!] flowed more freely and voters were treated to dinner – invariably stringhoppers, "fowl" curry with wattalappan for dessert.
Dinner was followed by a stampede to the Majestic, across the road, for the late show. The management quailed before the onslaught of this crowd of revellers while staid filmgoers scuttled out surrendering the hall to this horde of singing, hooting barbarians. Before we entered the hall, while the winning candidates struck a deal with the manager to pay for tickets and recompense damage, the crowd performed a frenzied war dance at whose centre was Deka Bodinagoda, in a travesty of Arab costume, belting out his signature song "Boum! Boum! Boum! Abdul Hamid" with the rest of us joining in full throated chorus. The film never mattered to this audience which made rude remarks at the action, traded insults, burst into song or danced in the aisles. A tolerant Police were discreetly out of sight.
Later, unrepentant revellers limped back to Lion House to fill themselves with egg hoppers and black coffee before cycling their unsteady way back to the University hostels – Union, Brodie, Catholic, the decaying mansion "Emildalene" and even less reputable boarding houses.
The Passing Scene
Across the road was a large vacant lot [now occupied by a petrol ‘shed’] which was a popular location for political meetings, generally Leftist. Comrade Colvin was a great draw and whenever the tea drinkers of Lion House heard him roar, we crossed the road to swell the smallish crowd that gathered there. Those of us in the English Department smirked to ourselves to listen to Comrade Doric fulminating against the UNP government using language very, very different from the unsullied English of Tennyson and Pope on which he had lectured to us a few short hours earlier. In retrospect, it is interesting that much of this oratory was in English – and we accepted this as perfectly normal!
Beyond this open lot lay a rather dilapidated building which housed the Twentieth Century Club, reputed as the chosen venue where the sharpest intellects of the LSSP honed their wits at bridge. I seem to remember that this building, or another quite close by, carried a signboard announcing itself as the "National Institute of Higher Education" – or some such high falutin title [dime a dozen today, but rare then]. It was really a cram shop for aspirants to University Education and a University lecturer, who was a shareholder, had inveigled some of his young graduates to teach there. The poor chaps had laboured for months without pay. At last when they confronted their elusive one-time lecturer he soft- talked them into accepting share certificates in a maritime salvage company he had floated. It sank not long after!
Lazily watching the passing scene through Lion House’s fly-blown windows we vaguely fantasised about what cars we’d buy when [there just was no question of ‘if’] we got our first job. The limited models then available soon made this a pointless exercise and we consoled ourselves with the time-honoured male hobby of bird watching, regretfully aware of the limited talent that thought fit to traipse the pavements of a Bambalapitiya yet devoid of classy shops. But, whizzing past occasionally was a wonderful apparition daintily balancing herself on Ceylon’s very first Vespa. This voluptuous near-Gina Lollobrigida was the Italian beauty Lydia Montagna. Here I must confess we never knew her name – till, a few years later when I was working in Trincomalee, I met her father the brilliant engineer of the ’Montana Tunnel’ at Kalaweva. We also glimpsed a tanned ‘suddha’ with a Tarzan like mane of blond hair cycling along with a spear-gun slung across his back. This was the German Gerd Von Dinklage, much pursued by gentlemen of a certain inclination.
A shabby old chap reputed to be ‘Cap (t?) Silva‘ who prowled the pavement was reputed to be a paedophile [then an unknown word – we used something earthier]. But I believe he was just a sad and lonely old guy that we in Lion House had decided to glamourise with unspeakable vice. Then there was the Tip Top man, a strange figure in a frowsty top hat and tail coat, strangely reminiscent of a well-known statue. He carried a battered suitcase from which he attempted to peddle little jars of Tip Top Tooth Powder . But Lion House’s beloved star of the performing arts was ‘Kukul Charlie’. As dusk fell he emerged from whatever coop he lived in and went from table to table rendering the most realistic renditions ever of a rooster’s cry. He never went unpaid – and he earned most during the victory bashes of University Societies where tipsy undergrads attempted to outcrow him – and inevitably failed.
To conclude this tribute to a shooting star that briefly sparkled across the firmament of University life may I quote Master Shakespeare:
"Our revels now are ended. These our actors **** Are melted into air, into thin air ***
And like this insubstantial pageant faded.
* * We are such stuff
As dreams are made on ***.
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