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One cent toffee seller
Daily Mirror Fri Feb 5 2004

It was the early sixties.

The “princely” sum of thirty-five cents given to me by my parents as the allowance for lunch at school was more than enough for a sumptuous meal. The St. Joseph’s College canteen had a money’s-worth of food. Two slices of bread with seeni sambol cost seven cents; an oven fresh fish bun or a beef roti was also seven cents; a cup of limejuice five cents.

But my aim was to save even those few cents, so I could buy a novel or a magazine like Sports and Pastime from a mobile bookstore situated in front of the Maradana Railway Station at the end of the week. The Sports and Pastime, an Indian publication, which was the only sports magazine available in town, was a hit in Sri Lanka. The postcard sized photographs it carried of childish faced Rohan Kanhai, leg-glancing Neil Harvey, Veda-Mahattaya-type-spectacle-wearing Alf Valentine; sweater-wearing Hanif Mohammed or the long final stride of Wesley Hall or Fred Trueman had their due places in our scrapbooks. For the purpose of saving a few cents to buy this mag or for any other book I needed, I would prefer to have a stroll towards Mariakade area and back via Maradana during the lunch interval. But on some days, especially on school cricket match days, I was tempted to spend a few cents on buying some toffees. That was when the “One Cent toffee Seller” was at our College grounds.

Almost forty long years have lapsed since the days of this toffee seller but whenever a new schools cricket season commences, for me, the picture of him emerges through the pages of score cards of the inter-collegiate matches.If you were a spectator at the school matches in the Colombo North area during the early years of the sixties, certainly you would have been a customer of our hero - the one-cent toffee seller.

He was big made, wore a dusty white sarong and a coat. A broad black belt around the tummy kept his sarong neatly in place while the Hitler type moustache painted signs of toughness on his face. Yet his appearance was impressive. He was a regular visitor to the school grounds on match days. Armed with an old leather bag filled with toffees, he mingled with school children saying aloud “one cent toffee - - - one cent toffee”.

He was here, there and everywhere during a match and was keenly followed by scores of his admirers, the school children. The sweetmeat he sold was brownish in colour and was neatly wrapped in a tissue paper. Although the toffee was rock hard, it was nice and tasty. Five cents worth of toffees, I mean five pieces of his sweetmeat, would be enough to keep you busy during a session of play, noon to the milk interval, or milk to tea interval as the play kept going those days.

I must admit that although most of the schoolboys were not very much keen on his product, the toffee seller’s mere presence was very much looked forward to. He was a crowd puller, not for his toffee selling business, but for the cricket stories he carried with him. He was a storehouse of cricket information. Without television, without proper cricket publications, we were then solely relying on what used to appear on the sports pages of our newspapers and occasionally on the wireless cricket commentaries on a test match abroad, which sounded more or less like the waves of the sea.

Therefore our hero’s cricket talk had extra appeal and was eagerly listened to. His assessments on the strength of other school teams were of pinpoint accuracy. He would tell you, that your school would find difficult against a particular team; a batsman of another school would definitely cause a run havoc against your school; or one of your bowlers would be the match winner in another match.

He was well conversant with the statistical aspect of the game too. He was a walking Wisden to us at a time when the famed annual was beyond our reach. “Do you know what happened in Australia last week?” he might ask us. We the cricket- mad schoolboys would be tight lipped. “The Aussies who lost the second test to England by 7 wickets, this time, taught cricket to their age-old opponents. You know this time they have won by eight wickets”. And as he always did, he went through the name list of his favourite Australian team, Lawry, Simpson, O’Neill, Neil Harvey, Peter Burge, Booth, Davidson, Ken Mackay, Benaud, Mckenzie and Barry Jarman. Instantly, his favourites became our heroes as he went on telling about their heroic deeds. Whilst listening to him, we felt the joy of reading a cricket article, the joy of listening to a cricket commentary and the joy of witnessing a “Test” match (at the time, Test status for our country was not even dreamed of). And he was the one who taught us to see the real beauty of this fine game.

Whilst all these were happening he was on his business, selling a toffee after toffee to the curious listeners. And at the end, he would count his income in front of us, sometimes distributing the left overs to the children and promising that he would come another day with much more cricket stories provided we give him a pledge of buying more toffees.

Sometimes we would find him at another school venue holding their flag high. But when confronted later, he would have all the tricks in his pocket, deviating our attention to his favourite cricket story, the story of the tied Test. In our own imaginary world, we would wonder how Joe Solomon’s throw hit the stumps; the stupidity of Davidson, Grout and Meckiff to get run out; the leadership of Frank Worrel. After all our one cent toffee seller had made all these cricketing giants as if our own, and had made the scene as lively as an unfolding movie.

Like winter had given way to spring and spring to summer, one cricket season after another season, became a past era in the calendar. By the time the mid sixties dawned, one-cent toffee seller’s visits to our College grounds faded gradually. And in one season, we found him missing. No more one-cent toffees; no more cricket stories. No one knew what had happened to him and no one cared even to look for him. And by then, the five-cent bus ticket from Wattala junction to Elakanda had increased to ten cents.Could you expect to have a toffee for one cent any more?