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Galle road take me home!

by Aditha Dissanayake - Daily News, Sat Mar 2, 2002

I am sure every migrant Southerner hears what I hear now and then, the roar of the sea calling me home. When the yearning to get back to the place identified by the Portuguese and the Dutch as Galle, from Latin "Gallus" a cock, becomes irresistible, I find myself in Pettah, wondering what mode of transport to use.

At Rs. 24 a ticket, by train it will take the whole morning for me to reach my destination. A ticket in an A/C bus costs Rs. 70, in a normal non-A/C, Rs. 36. I choose the last because there would be no grubby curtains in them, covering the shutters, hiding the view and the sea breeze.

By the time the bus reaches Induruwa, I am gulping down the salty air greedily and staring at the sea as if I am looking at a long lost friend. The lace edged waves, closer to the shore, seem to be grinning at me, welcoming me home.

In the town I find the buildings are bigger, newer and taller than what they had been when I was a kid. But to my great relief I find nothing has really changed. Galle will always be Galle, with its beloved slumbering homeliness.

Towers may fall, wars may end, but in the middle of the town the Galle Fort, will continue to stand almost as it had done at the end of the 18th century. Of the two entrances to the Fort - the city gate built by the British, and the old Fort Gate, built by the Dutch, with the cock of Galle symbol in the inside, and the British lion on the outside, I use the latter, pretending I am Ibn Batuta. Admission, is of course, free.

I make my way to the south of the ramparts, in search, once more of the sea, to gaze at the water and to imagine how things would have looked in the past, when, young Dutch mariners would have stood where I am standing right now, probably yearning for home, their parents and their beloveds.

I gaze at the lighthouse, said to be the oldest in the island and, recall how my father had said that when the Colombo Observer had inaugurated its "pigeon post", from Galle to Colombo, the carrier pigeons, carrying news brought from Europe and America by streamers, were released from the top of the lighthouse.

The wind caresses my cheeks. The rays of the sun are still too young to make me sweat. I walk around trying not to disturb the lovers and ignore the boys playing truant from school. I am overwhelmed by the massive and imposing clock tower, but find much of its grandeur is deflated by the stench of stale urine. The time on the clock, built in 1881, reads ten-twenty.

Not having a watch on my wrist, I do not know if it is correct or not. The "pepper-pot" towers with their grey granite rock, remind me of the "castles" on a board of chess. I stare at the Queen's House, now called the "New Oriental Hotel (NOH), from outside, until I realize someone who may or may not be the doorman, staring at me with the same fascination I have for the building.

Though a cup of tea would have been nice, recalling what the fox said about the grapes, I leave convincing myself the place must be haunted by governors and their wives. On the narrow streets the small snack bars advertising "sortees" have only sugar buns which seem to date back to the time of the Dutch itself. But the houses, with their long verandas, lofty ceilings and massive pillars are attractive.

I peer through the doorways of some wondering how the interiors look, but never get a chance to find out. The Muslim ladies inside most of the houses glare at me, and before they can question me, I walk off.

At the central bus stand, where I board a bus to Karapitiya, the conductor asks me "Maru Nathei?" (have you no change?) I know I am on home ground when I hear that "ei", at the end of the sentence. Oh the Southern dialect, how sweet it sounds to the ear! My destination is my father's ancestral home, on the outskirts of Galle. Being a Wednesday only my grandma is at home.

I find her seated on a low bench in the kitchen, holding a knife between the toes of her right leg, shredding a bundle of green leaves. She stares at me as if she has seen an apparition.

" Did you come alone?

Yes

Did you come by bus? Does your father know?

Yes. Yes.

I tell her brazenly as I dump myself on a chair. She gets up slowly and continues with her questioning. "What made you come so suddenly like this? Shouldn't you be at work? "I just thought I'd come and see you. I decided to take the day off"

"When are you going back?

Today. I should be leaving at about 12.30 She thinks I am half crazy, but doesn't say so, orders me to have a wash and makes me a cup of tea. Non can avoid grandma's commands. In a way it feels good to be treated as if I am a six year old. "You should have telephoned and left a message at Pala's kade. I could have made a polos curry had I known you were coming" she says as she continues her interrupted cooking.

When she lays the table for lunch I count six dishes altogether. I marvel at her efficiency, but try to dissuade her from serving me. Grandma never remembers the scientifically proven fact that people stop growing after the age of eighteen. "Growing children must eat" she says with authority, piling my plate with food, that would have seen me through one whole week, back in Colombo.

The grandfather clock in the sitting room strikes one stroke. One O' clock. Time for me to leave.

I turn my head to look at grandma before I turn the corner. She stands in her long cotton dress with her hands on her hips, still shaking her head with amazement at what I had done. But grandma who had lived in Galle all her life does not know what it is like to miss "home".

My trip back to Colombo proves to be an anti-climax. I had wanted to see a beautiful sunset over a golden coloured beach. But at three in the afternoon the red ball of fire is still high in the sky.

But my mind is at peace. I had seen the sea. Heard the roar of the waves. Tasted the salty air on my lips. I had been to Galle. I had gone home