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Weligama then and twenty years later

by Dr. Nihal D. Amerasekera - Sunday Island Sep 21 2003
Consultant Radiologist (UK)
Those were happy peaceful days in my youth when life was full and in harmony with nature. During the long University vacation I decided to travel home armed with some reading material. I can still recall the large black canopy of the Fort Railway Station and the smell of steam and burning coal. There was soot everywhere. The trains hissed and puffed and screeched incessantly.

The 3-hour journey was uneventful but for a talkative young Englishman seated in front who began a long conversation. He indulged lavishly in the vadais and pineapples sold by the vendors at the Railway Stations along the way. The sight of the stilt-fishermen, with their unique style of fishing from a perch on a sturdy pole 20-50 meters out to sea remain in my memory still.

In 1962 my father was working for the Local Government in Weligama. My parents then lived on the outskirts of the town some distance away from the sea on the Akuressa Road. On either side were paddy fields, banana patches and palm trees. Across in the distance was the backdrop of purple mountains. Ours was a new house built on a hillside surrounded by tall jak, breadfruit and mango trees. It was an idyllic setting with a gravel path leading up to the house. At the edge of the property was a stream full of fish.

At night the frogs made an awful racket. In the morning the dawn chorus was deafening. During the day I walked in the garden sat beneath the trees. Sometimes I did some fishing downstream and enjoyed seeing the village damsels frolicking and bathing in the muddy pool. In the warm afternoons I sometimes went out for a walk across the fields or through the forest. Every meal was a feast of mouth watering sea food with a pot of local curd and treacle.

beautifully located

The short walk to town was full of greetings from the friendly locals. A retired apothecary lived in a large mansion nearby. He was a quiet kind man with a few professional anecdotes which he related over and over again. In the evenings we went to the old resthouse by the sea. It was beautifully located at the edge of the Weligama bay. The tall cylindrical columns of its long verandahs gave it a colonial feel. On many occasions I had sat on the rocks watching the waves roll in. It was very pretty at sunset to see the boats go out to sea and the shimmering lights appear across the bay in the far distance. Heaven and earth seem very near to each other.

Off the beach is an extraordinary villa occupying a 2-acre island in Weligama Bay. It was built in the 1920s by the traveller and gardener Count de Mauny. The island was a famous destination for many notables from different nations, including the novelist Paul Bowles. Its spectacular tropical gardens, and octagonal-shaped house is breathtakingly beautiful. Its early colonial furnishings, large circular verandahs make you step back into the 1930’s and is a travellers dream. Music from Noel Cowards "a Room with a view" wafts in the background giving it an "olde world" feel. The Count finally chose to live his eternal dream of peace and tranquillity close to nature ending his days in this paradise island.

There was a busy main street of small shops and a fish market. The Railway Station was small and had a quaint grey picket fence. I still remember its Seth Thomas pendulum clock in the Station Master’s Office. After my vacation I said goodbye to my idyllic home to return to Colombo and a busy schedule of hard work.

I left Sri Lanka in 1974 to ‘make my fortune’ abroad. More exams and hard work filled my days and nights. Carving up a career took its time and toll. Years whizzed past and it wasn’t until 20 years later I returned to Weligama, the town that has haunted me since those days of my youth. I made the journey by car to save time. The roads were no wider than before but the number of vehicles had increased several fold. The result was mayhem with noise and pollution. Despite the fast moving traffic, people, cattle and dogs cross the road in gay abandon.

Weligama was unrecognisable. The popular landmarks had disappeared and I found our former home with difficulty. The many tall trees that surrounded the house had gone perhaps ending up as furniture in a plush Colombo hotel. The lovely gravel path to the house had become a muddy track left behind by lorries and bulldozers. The lovely gushing waters of the stream was now a trickle without any life the fish and water plants being, a casualty of intensive farming with pesticides. Worse was yet to come.

An old man seated on the steps of the house looked bemused but greeted us warmly. The property has been brought by developers and the house was allowed to decay. The door creaked as it opened. My heart sank to see the long strands of cobwebs stretch from wall to wall. Wooden windows had perished and fallen away and the house was a haven for cockroaches and mice. In places the roof had caved in. The plaster had come off the rain soaked walls. Doom and desolation filled the air. As I moved from room to room I felt uneasy and claustrophobic remembering the life and the laughter and the happy times we have spent there. I spoke little and left the house heart broken to see my home in ruin and my memories shattered. Many of the neighbours had died and their children moved away.

The main street was packed with people and full of life. There were many tourists bartering and moving in and out of the numerous shops. The astrologers and palmists made a quick trade. The buzz of the place absorbed my attention for a while. Rest of the town looked prosperous too. Many of the houses had televisions, radios and VCR’s. They were well maintained with lovely gardens and cars in the porch. The people certainly looked more affluent and healthy. With industrialisation we are losing touch with mother earth and the rich harvest it brings. The tourists bring us the valuable dollars and litter the countryside with the products of their own artificial lives.

In the evening I sat on a rock by the resthouse watching the sea. There have been new additions to the resthouse which was not in keeping with its colonial past. Snorkelling and speed boating had stopped for the day. I watched the waves roll in as I had done all those years ago wrapped in my own thoughts.There were Coca Cola cans and polythene bags rolling in the breeze on the baked golden sand. I left Weligama with mixed feelings. Sad that my past has been desecrated but happy to see prosperity has reached that beautiful town of my dreams. After all I cannot allow the dreams of my youth get in the way of progress.

In writing these notes I have tried to give my moods and thoughts as it occurred. To me the last 20 years have been one rich gift amidst some misfortune. It is politics and destiny that would decide what the next 20 years would bring for Weligama. Many yesterdays of my youth lie buried in this beautiful country of my birth.

I wish to dedicate these memories to my maternal grandfather Dr. D. B. Weerasekera who accompanied me in the journeys to this idyll. He paid for my rail ticket, discouraged me from eating the vadais and pineapples from vendors due to fear of bacteria and held my hand when I crossed the road though I was a grown man. I wish I was there to hold his hand in his final hour.

Count de Mauny of Talvande & the Island of Taprobane