There was Hikkaduwa, my dearest picturesque seaside birth village, and then there was Galle. “I am going to Galle, anyone coming?” My father would holler while shaving in the kotu midula. We’d scurry, yelling yes, yes, yes in return – being a child then was enjoying every moment that came your way. His call usually was made on a Saturday – never mind we might be only going to the barber’s, but smart dresses, matching hair ribbons and our best Clarke’s shoes were the dress code. While dressing my sister and I would start arguing which corner we wanted to sit in the back seat of the car. No one wanted to sit in the middle. I wanted seaside as I never tired of watching the sea but she wanted it too – so we’d settle – one on the favoured side going to Galle and the other coming back. My father would ask for his two white handkerchiefs – one for each pocket and we’d be off. Prasanna, my brother would sit on my mother’s lap, leaving my sister and I the back seat. Prasanna would do ghost driving holding an imaginary steering wheel imitating my father. My mother would forget how fastidiously she draped that saree that morning and exchange knowing smiles behind his back with my father. My sister would ask for oxtail soup and brain cutlets for dinner. There was no butcher in Hikkduwa, and beef had to be bought in Galle. So a trip to Galle meant beef would be on the menu that night.
My father, ever the story teller would invariably spin us a story of Ratgama or Galle, historical or funny anecdotes of family members, friends or a historical yarn – my favourite was of the Portuguese landing in 1505 in Galle, eating bread and drinking wine and the winding road the “parangiyas” [as the Portuguese were known by the locals], were taken to meet the King of Kotte. The locals were used to many traders but this was a new lot they interpreted as a savage group of men, who ate white stones and drank blood. We heard also of how the words paan for bread, lensuva for handkerchief, janelaya (window); sapaththu (shoes); kalisam (trousers); almariya (almirah); and oralosuva (clock) entered the vocabulary along with customs manners and dresses.
Galle lies some 72 miles from Colombo, and is the most well known seaport- a heritage site. Galle’s historical importance was a result of its harbor. The changing trade winds threw up a flotsam of traders and seafarers and some ships got wrecked in storms. The ones who made it to terra firma were instrumental in changing not only Galle but the island’s history. The fleet of Portugese vessels commanded by Don Laurenco de Almeida too thus arrived driven off course by the weather and landed in Galle in 1505. Many dates I’d learned in history lessons are forgotten but this sticks. This was a decisive moment for little Lanka and had repercussions for centuries to come.
Galle the name itself is interesting. Some say the name came when the Portuguese heard a cock crow and called it “Punot de Gale”. The others say the name Galle came from the Sinhalese word “Gala” meaning an enclosure for cattle and maybe for the bullock carts that were the transport “containers” of yester years. The British used a corrupted form “Point de Galle.”
Galle as a fort came into being when in 1588, King Rajasingha I of Sitawaka laid siege on the Portuguese and they withdrew along the coast to settle in Galle. The Portuguese got the Sinhalese to take names they could pronounce easily and so the de Silva’s, Fernando’s, Perera’s, Almeida’s etc crept into Sinhalese family names. I’ve read that the word “Singho” is a corruption of the word sinno or senhor. Apparently heads of local households had to queue up and the Portuguese would allocate names. When they closed shop for lunch they would say “Cooray, Cooray” meaning go away but the unsuspecting Sinhalese clans thought that was their name and so took it on.
The Dutch wrested power from the Portugese and constructed the present 90 acre fort of Galle. We could not pass through the thick walls of the gate without noticing the coat of arms and the huge VoC – “Vereenigde Oost Indische Compaigne” – Dutch East Indies Company crest with two lions on either side and a cock perched atop on a rock . It bears under it the date 1669. As teenagers we hunted for old coins with this VoC crest on them when we heard these were valuable.
Often we’d get dropped off at the portly barber Edwin’s hairdressing saloon inside this fort. Edwin would come out to greet us dressed in squeaky white, a thick leather belt holding his neatly folded sarong. My father would handover his brood with short instructions “Give them short haircuts above the ears.” We loved Edwin’s high chair, the smell of shaving lotion, the spray of water, the smell of eau de cologne that was smacked on the cheeks of men after a shave and the dusting of baby powder over our necks after the haircut. Everything was squeaky clean, the shiny bottles, the long blade they used to give men a shave and you could look through the mirror to a more images in the mirror at the back. There were no ladies then in his saloon – only men and children. Edwin was a genial kindly man and who was as fond of us as we were of him. It was easy for me to plead and cajole him to leave my hair a tad longer over the ears but my wish to keep a longer fringe coming down to my eyes was not looked upon as something healthy for my eyes. Afterwards, we’d run around the cobbled back streets of Galle and come in when we heard the horn of my father’s car, often none the worse for wear. Father would treat us to cool milk shakes in the café across the street from Edwin’s.
If we were going to see the grand uncle in his posh house by the ramparts, we had to take our report cards. My parents hardly glanced at our report cards at the end of term, but not the portly foxy lawyer grand uncle. He’d scrutinize the reports and give us money 20, 10, or a 5 rupee note, depending on whether you came 1st 2nd or 3rd in class. If you got high marks for maths had to be anything above 90%, the dole out got better. This was our incentive to stay within the top 3 and score high for maths. My sister, brother and I would next day, troop into the Hikkaduwa post office and buy savings stamps and paste them in our savings book. That was our first introduction to savings and embedded this archaic postal savings book with my spidery signature are heaps of memories. Grand Uncles’ house we thought was a mansion. It had tiled floors and faced the ramparts. Once the ritual of paying respects to elders and collecting our dough over, we’d scamper off gleefully to run around on the ramparts and the giant great sea wall.
Ramparts was a treat in itself – this was the high point of the visit. We could peer cautiously over the edge, see the lighthouse and the quaint Moorish houses, and the bearded traders. We would pretend to be nonchalant and try our best not to stare at the Muslim ladies wearing the saree in a different way but I was dying to meet them and their children who waved to us peaking behind half open doors.
Galle retains in parts, this quaint charm, the aura of being a special place. Muslim ladies are still there and now I am brave enough to stop and talk to them. Much has changed, and has been built back — like the tsunami devastate bus stand. Many of the Dutch buildings have been restored and have become boutique hotels with solid wide janeleya’s, even more solid doors and boasting of replicas of Dutch furniture.
I’ve peaked into many boutique hotels, stayed at two, waited on by obliging hotel staff, slept in rooms with four poster beds and pseudo antique furniture, letting my imagination wander, stepping back in time. Out on the verandah overlooking the courtyard a waiter arranges blue lotus flowers at the alter and prepares to light the evening oil lamps. Edwin, my Galle relatives with tortuous pasts, the Portuguese soldiers, their lady lovers in crisp dresses, ships laden with trading goods, would play in my mind’s eye an elaborate tableau. I’d leave my body on the planter’s chair. My avatar steps into the tableau to mingle with them, laugh with them, cry with them. It’s fun being damnably sentimental.