Friday, June 23, 2017
Amigos Para Siempre
By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
In the 1960’s when we were toiling in medical school there was great political unrest in our island paradise. The coup d’état of 1962 was successfully crushed but its ripples were slow to clear. Ethnic tensions after the riots of 1958 never quite settled. With the country's economy in dire straits there was an embargo on imported goods. There were bread queues and food rations. Workers strikes filled the news. Tighten your belts was the political slogan. It was austerity for the masses and prosperity for a select few.
Friendships are natures great gift to the human race. Ones made in our youth had a certain closeness which we could never replicate later on in life. Even now those friendships remain close despite the passage of years and the oceans that separate us. They seem priceless and have lasted a lifetime.
We had just finished our 2nd MB and the dust was settling after a gruelling 2 years and a tough examination. It was our love for billiards that brought Nalin and I together. He took me home on his red shiny Moto Guzzi where I met his parents. They lived close to the Kirillapone canal in Havelock Town. The Nanayakkara’s were a close knit family. Nalin’s parents treated me as a member of their tribe. I still remember the love, generosity and kindness they showed me. I cannot think of a kinder lady than Mrs. Nanayakkara for whom I have the greatest respect and affection.
After the 2nd MB examination Nalin Nanayakkara and I began to study together and we became close. Owning a Moto Guzzi was much like having a Harley Davidson, an icon of youthful vitality, strength and toughness. This was his pride and joy. His love affair with motor cycles has continued to this day. We didn’t wear crash helmets and injuries after accidents were serious. But in Sri Lanka in those days traffic moved slowly and there were fewer vehicles.
In 1965 it was Nalin’s brilliant idea to do a motor cycle journey upcountry during the faculty holidays. In those days it was hard to reach friends and relatives living upcountry as snail mail was painfully slow and phone calls were too pricey. Calls had to go through the Post Office Switch Board. We overcame those difficulties and made our arrangements. I shared his enthusiasm for travel. It is also a good way to enjoy a journey out in the open.
We started our journey just after sunrise from Nalin’s home in Havelock Town Colombo. We had no riding gear and none were needed. We just wore long trousers and T-shirt. It was hot and sunny. This changed as we went along when it got rather cloudy and cool. Traveling with the wind on the face was exhilarating. There was the occasional smell of smoke from the 4 stroke engine along the way. The loud regular beat of the engine was an expression of its raw power. Out of the city the pace was leisurely and we were able to appreciate the magnificent scenery. We stopped in wayside stalls for a cup of tea and a stretch. Until Avissawella the High Level road was straight and the landscape rather flat. Then the climb began rather gently at first up to Ratnapura. The road got more windy with steep hills. The scenery was spectacular. We chatted all the way as we climbed steadily higher passing through many small villages and endless tea and rubber plantations. Our destination was a tea estate managed by my cousin Nimal Amerasekera. He was the superintendent of Balangoda Group. We reached there around 5pm. He had a beautiful bungalow up on a hill with breath taking views. It was luxury to sit outside and enjoy a beer after a hard days ride. Nimal had invited his brother Gamini to join us. We spent a happy 3 days at Balangoda enjoying great company, good food and plenty of liquid refreshments. During the day we visited places of interest and in the nights we chatted enjoying the freedom drinking late into the night. One evening we went to see the Bond film ‘Dr No’ in the local cinema in Balangoda. Both Nimal and Gamini were wonderful hosts. I remember their kindness, generosity and companionship with much nostalgia. Nimal is a sober guy who did everything to a moderation unlike the rest of us. Nimal is now retired and lives in Mount Lavinia. He still loves the outdoors and visits upcountry estates as an agent of the plantation industry in a supervisory capacity. Gamini emigrated to New Zealand and had a son, Kavan who is a solicitor in Sydney, Australia. His marriage broke up and lived on his own in New Zealand. He sadly died of a heartache while visiting his son in 2010.
We set off early morning with a stiff cool breeze. We were on our way to Bandarawela for lunch through Belihul-oya and Haputale. It was a ride through pine forests and wild and desolate countryside. There was not a soul in sight for miles. The long journey, uneven road surface and the bone shaking suspension of the Moto Guzzi gave us both a spine crushing experience. Nalin was more used to it than I was. We took regular breaks to take in the clean air, straighten our backs and improve the circulation in our legs. The landscape in Bandarawela is unique with vast lush green valleys surrounded by tall treeless mountains covered with grass. The beauty and solitude made for excellent riding which I enjoyed immensely.
We arrived at Chelsea Estate, Bandarawela around midday where we were expected for lunch. The superintendent was Majintha Perera who was married to Charmaine, my cousin from Kegalle. We had a drink and a chat and wonderful meal. Then off again on our way to Queenstown Group, Hali-Ela near Badulla. We experienced tough but beautiful terrain all the way. On one side the road hugged the mountains and on the other side were steep drops into deep ravines. It was dangerous as it was beautiful. This is truly great biking country with amazing scenery. Majintha retired and lived in Nawala. He passed away in 2015 in Colombo of a heart attack. Charmaine lives with her eldest daughter in Colombo and we speak occasionally recalling the good old days.
We arrived at Queenstown Group late in the evening. Mohan Seneviratne who is married to Nalin’s sister Damayanthy welcomed us warmly. Mohan was from Wesley College, my old school. It is such a small world. He had a butler and several servants who looked after our every need. We spent a week in comfort and luxury. He was a wonderful host. I still remember his warm and generous hospitality and the delicious cuisine. During our stay in Hali-Ela Mohan drove us to Badulla where we saw a rugby game and visited friends in the medical house officers quarters. After a week of luxury we were sad to leave Mohan and the comfort of his home.
Our journey then took us to Nuwara Eliya and the beautiful Hakgala gardens. The wind was cold and we needed our sweaters. It was such a joy to be in the gardens where we spent several hours enjoying the colourful flowers, tree lined paths and the breath taking scenery.
Then we were back in the saddle on the downhill journey through to Kandy. It was a difficult ride with bumpy roads negotiating several hairpin bends. The traffic was light and the road surface reasonable. We spent a couple of hours visiting the Temple of the Tooth and walked along the promenade by the lake. The Kandy-Colombo road was busy as always but we had a smoother ride on a fine surface. It was a long but uneventful journey home. I realise now the extent of the loyalty the Moto Guzzi has shown all through our long and winding journey in such difficult terrain in some of the bumpy rural roads.
Nalin emigrated to the USA and qualified in Obstetrics and Gynaecology settling in Corona, Los Angeles California. When we visited him and his wife Damayanthy in 1994 we enjoyed his wonderful hospitality and the comfort of his mansion with its own orange grove and beautiful landscaped garden. We were treated to a sumptuous lunch. We had a dip in his pool with graceful cascades and gorgeous fountains. They were such lovely hosts.
Mohan and his wife Damayanthy live in Apple Valley, California. They left Sri Lanka during the unrest in the plantation sector in the 1970’s. It was such a pleasure to see them on my visit to Nalin and also to keep in touch by email for so many years. Wesley College smoothness has rubbed off on Mohan and remains a gentleman and a fine product of my old school.
The trusted and loyal Moto Guzzi was sold before Nalin left for the USA. Many years later he tried to trace it to buy back but sadly it remains untraceable. He assumes it has been broken up and sold for parts. A sad end to an icon of the time.
I am still unaware how much our parents knew of our journey. My parents knew we were travelling together but I didn’t tell them it would be in a Moto Guzzi. My father feared motor bikes. He once owned an Enfield in his youth and had seen some horrendous accidents. They just assumed it would be in Nalin’s trusted family VW Beetle. All is well that ends well!!
As the weeks and months passed our friendship grew stronger. Nalin visited my home and my parents got to know and love him. Revo Drahman too joined us on many occasions when we started to prepare for the examinations together. I still recall how focussed Nalin was on his academic work when Revo and I had other ideas.
Although we prepared well for examinations there was a certain willingness to accept some divine assistance. Nalin’s mum was keen we should invoke the blessings of the Gods at Kataragama. So she organised a trip and we all travelled together. We stayed in Walahanduwa, Galle in a grand old mansion owned by Nalin’s relatives. The house was in a huge coconut plantation and had a charming central courtyard and a myriad of rooms. During our stay I too was a part of their family. The next day we set off before the break of dawn and reached Kataragama about mid morning. Mrs Nayakkara had prepared all the necessary ingredients for the ritual ceremony and gave us instructions as to what needs to be done. We mingled with the crowd and happily waited for the ceremony to begin. The Chief Priest was taken in a procession to the sound of drums and the wailing of an oboe. We all danced the Kavadi entranced by the occasion. Then the pooja began in the temple. There were massive crowds that clamoured for a part of the action. We burnt incense and made offerings to the Gods. On looking back it was an enjoyable ritual despite the blistering heat, clouds of dust and deafening noise. The job was done. Mission accomplished we returned back to Galle late at night and then to Colombo the following day.
On my many visits to Nalin’s house I met his cousin Jardi. I got the impression he managed his family estate and lived in Walahanduwa, Galle in that mansion we stayed on our trip to Kataragama. We visited him several times in Galle and spent our time touring places of interest and enjoying some glorious food. Once Jadi borrowed his brother’s posh Singer Gazelle coupe and took us on a journey to Hambantota and Tissamaharama. Traveling with the lowered hood was thrilling. Jadi drove at break-neck speed and raced other cars and we all had a jolly good time. I distinctly recall Jadi racing the Tissamaharama-Colombo night bus driven by a maniac. We had the hood open and had no seat belts in a car travelling at 90 mph. I am here to tell the tale. By now I had got to know Jadi well and we became close. He was a gentle person and a good and loyal friend. He had such a wonderful sense of humour.
As we completed our medical degree Nalin left the country soon after internship. When I was working in Colombo I visited Mr. and Mrs Nanayakkara as often as I could. After checking the blood pressure we took great pleasure in talking about old times. On those visits she was so happy to see me. I lost contact after leaving Sri Lanka and was deeply saddened to hear they both had passed away. She had succumbed to coronary artery disease in 1980 and him a year later. When I met Nalin in London at the batch Reunion of 1992 I was so overwhelmed with grief to hear that Jadi too had died in 1983 leaving a young family. I am saddened I never knew he died in London from complications of Myeloid Leukaemia. I would most certainly have gone to see him at the Royal Marsden Hospital. With his friendly enthusiasm and playfulness he was a delight to be with and his demise a sad loss.
Nalin was one of my closest pals in medical school. Bringing up families and caring for them while managing our careers consumed our time. During those years it was hard to keep contact even with the closest of friends. We managed an occasional email. After the children left the nest we took the foot off the peddle and continued to work until retirement. In this digital age it is so much easier to be in touch. I have never attended batch reunions in Sri Lanka. Hence I have missed many opportunities to meet friends from my batch including Nalin. As the years pass I do hope we could meet again. Meanwhile I will hold on to those happy memories located in a secure corner of my brain.