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Sunday Island Features - Nov 30 2003

CGR - when the Burghers ruled the roost

By A. C. B. Pethiyagoda

In the years gone by little children played games such as olinda, pancha, drafts, guessing games etc. in the evenings when TV had not even been heard of and only a few in the towns owned radios. A common riddle was to name what the Anguru kaka Colomba duwana yakada yaka was. All players except the new comers shouted ‘ The Colombo train’ so Carl Mullers book titled Yakada Yaka left hardly any one guessing what it was about.

By 1871 the railway had been laid up to Kadugannawa from Colombo and year by year thereafter it covered the rest of the country thanks to the strenuous and consistent efforts of the English ruler. Of course, these efforts were not through concern for the local population but for the quick and cheap transport of produce from their plantations to Colombo for export. The produce at first was coffee, then tea and coffee and later tea and rubber. Passenger transport benefited the people and also contributed to Government’s revenue as the railways then was a paying concern.

Five or six decades ago the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) later Sri Lanka Railway and now Sri Lanka Railway Authority was a well managed service on par with that in England . It boasted of safety, comfort, reliability and punctuality. On long journeys three course meals with good crockery, cutlery were available to First Class ticket holders in a comfortable restaurant unlike today’s buffets which are a little better than pettikades on our pavements.

Up to about the early forties its drivers and guards by far were Burghers while the top administrative officials were English. Stations were mainly manned by the Sinhalese with a few Malays, in all parts of the country except in the Jaffna Peninsular where the Tamils were in a clear majority. Some of them opted to work in Colombo to send their children, particularly sons to Colombo schools to ‘better’ their lives while maintaining a base in the Peninsular.

In this hilarious book readers are treated to rib tickling story after story about the Burgher drivers, guards, their wives, sisters, brothers, in-laws, children and their life styles, habits, love affairs etc. etc. Most stories revolve round Sonnaboy a hard-working, harddrinking, devil-may-care driver who drunk or not physically beat up or tongue lashed anyone and everyone who risked standing up to him. They could be superiors, equals or neighbour in Railway Quarters which formed small townships in places such as Anuradhapura, Nawalapitiya etc.

However, he was good hearted, a popular partyman, relative and friend. The Tamils and Sinhalese rarely, if ever, joined the roistering Burghers because they worked hard, attended to extended family obligations and saved what they could while the Burghers ate, drank and cared less about tomorrow. It was the good life they pursued with little to regret later while members of the other two communities often had neither enjoyed their working lives counting pennies nor in retirement battling with rising costs of living on meager pensions.

According to Muller, Tamils in the service "regarded the Burghers as a vastly inferior race and checked out the minus points with smug self-satisfaction."

They, with perhaps Tamils and Sinhalese fellow workers agreeing, derided the Burghers because they never saved a cent, did not give their daughters dowries, did not go from one astrologer to another or pray to numerous gods for favours like good health and prosperity; with rare evidence of their pleas being heard! They were also shocked that the Burghers "spent freely, borrowed freely and spent whatever they borrowed just as freely." They disapproved of the Burghers for their hard drinking, permitting their children to do just as they liked with no respect for authority and gave no thought about their futures or those of their children. That was of course was partly because the Burghers knew their sons would find a places in the Railways, Police or Exercise Departments and daughters good jobs in commercial establishments, schools, the health sector and finally eligible men as husbands.

Of the Tamils, Muller says, "the north was their particular preserve and endured Burgher peccadilloes and disliked the way the drivers and guards swaggered around. Sonnaboy decided to liven up the sleepy Northern Stations. He knew the stationmasters well and ribbed them whenever he could". Two instances which one cannot help laughing at until almost ending in tears occurred at a station in the North. Muller says, "On one occasion Sinnathamby, the Tamil Stationmaster, had come to hand over the tablet to Sonnaboy comfortably attained in his verti, banian and slippers. Sonnaboy decided to indulge in a little jesting and exclaimed,

‘My God! You’re the stationmaster?’

‘Yes, yes. Vy you’re looking like that?’

‘Must be my eyes. When I saw you coming I thought an asparagus with a cap on. What, men, you’re saving so much money won’t even eat?.

‘Here the tablet. You take and go.’

‘Sonnaboy would smile and open the steam cocks and Sinnathamby would deftly hop out of the way. "If you come home," Sonnaboy calls as he glides away, " can put you in the bathroom to be the towel rack."

"Sinnathamby detested these smart-aleck Burghers and Sonnaboy in particular. He (Sinnathamby) was painfully thin, true, but that was his Tamil business in his Tamil station in this Tamil region. To demonstrate the Tamilness of his character he would always change into a verti in the evenings and, with a Jaffna cheroot stuck in his mouth, would do his duty. Railwaymen came to accept this as peculiar of the northern station staff. They knew the S.M’s and accepted that they stride their narrow worlds in verti or dhoti or whatever else the Tamils togged up in.

On another occasion returning late from Talaimannar, Sonnaboy leaned out of the engine to watch Sinnathamby trot up. The tablet was proffered. Sonnaboy folded arms. ‘Who the hell are you?’

Sinnathamby was taken aback. ‘Vat, brother, yam the S.M. no?’

‘S.M.? Who said? How do I know you’re the S.M.? Anybody come and give tablet and blow a whistle, you think I’ll just take and go? Who are? I don’t know you!’

Sinnnathamby goggled. This driver had to be drunk; or perhaps he was losing his eyesight. ‘Vat, brother, as if don’t know who I yam. Las’ week also you torking to me, no? Vat has happened today? Yam Sinnathamby. You know, no?’

‘No. I no know. How do I know you’re the S.M.?

‘As if you don’t know. Don’t delay the train, brother’.

"Sonnaboy climbed down to the platform. ‘Until S.M. comes I will wait. If S.M. won’t come I’m going to shut down steam and wait. Where is S.M.?’

‘But I yam S.M. !’ Sinnathamby bawled."

‘Sonnaboy shook his head. ‘I say, Martinus,’ he called to his apprentice, ‘ look at this b.......r. Saying he’s the S.M. You know who he is ?’

‘Martinus who is enjoying the joke, gives a bland ‘no’’

‘There, you see, nobody knows who the devil you are. If you’re the S.M. where’s your uniform? Where’s your cap? Only coming with whistle won’t do.’

‘But vart, brother, jus’ did a change. Yevening time put on something comfortable. That’s all.’

‘Can’t do like that,’ Sonnaboy insisted. ‘Have regulations, no? I also did exams and all. What is the rule for S.M.s on duty? Must be in uniform and always must have the cap on the head. You think I don’t know? If you’re the S.M. then go and put on the uniform and come like the S.M.’

‘Ho! Now you’re coming with rules? Rules I know. You don’t need to tell me about rules’.

‘Then follow the bloody rules,’ Sonnaboy snarled, ‘otherwise I’m going to stay the night here. Stationmaster must have his cap on at all times.’

Sinnathamby raced back to the office and returned with his cap on, verti flapping. He looked most peculiar. Sonnaboy accepted and checked the tablet. ‘Next stop Madhu Road, Good. God, you look like a scarecrow,’ and with a piercing hoot, yanked on the regulator. Sinnathamby stalked off fuming. The driver was right but nobody seemed to mind. Fellow was just being a nuisance. ‘Wait, will you,’ he muttered, ‘ vun day I’ll catch him doing something and then he will know hoo I yam.’"

Today the wheels of the Railway Authority’s rolling stock turn only up to Pandikulam (?) a village about two miles north of Vavuniya. But other wheels have turned slowly and surely in the North and the track and all station buildings from Pandikulam or wherever to Kankasanthurai have been found other uses by some of the grandchildren of many Sinnathambys . Are they recalling ‘Wait will you vun day .............’

Of course many of the grandchildren of the Sonnaboys are now ‘down under’ still partying knowing that tomorrow will look after itself.