Those People from the Past

It was while researching the genealogy of my maternal ancestors that I stumbled upon a burgher lady named, Ms Pompeus, who was supposed to have been the Governess who taught English, Reading, and Piano, to my maternal grandma’s father, MLMH Shareef, and his siblings, Sakeena and Haseena. The Marikar Haji family members belonged to the “Jemmi” ootar (family group) in those times. They were living down Messenger Street then, probably sometime in the mid/late 1800s. Families within the Moor community had nicknames that identified them since most of the Moor family names were very similar. Eg Marikkar, Lebbe, Sulaiman, Hassen (Ossen), Haji etc.

Discussing this interesting snippet of information that is so closely related to our progeny I thought it would be a great idea in trying to recall all those wonderful personages from the past, who had links with our families, that we could dig out and share.

Another burgher lady, Ms Speldewinde, was the governess for Sithy Fathima Ismail (Mrs Jabir A Cader) and her siblings who all lived in Colombo. She too taught music, reading, English language, and cookery.

Our large family home at Bambalapitiya, where we were born and raised since the mid 40s, was always inundated with visitors, both family and non family. Some were house help. Others were various people who had contacts with our grandparents since times gone by.

Beebee Datha, a short buxom lady, clad in her white lacy “thuppattee” (cloak), used to come to visit us all the way from Dematagoda, frequently. She knew almost every Moor family in Colombo and visited all of them regularly. This gave her access to inside family information about whos who and she evolved into a very successful marriage broker for many young people. Arranged marriages were the order of the day then.

She was also a very welcome guest at all the domestic events like kandoori’s, engagements, weddings, circumcisions, khatams (alms giving), etc. She was also a very valuable source of information about the local gossip in town. Yet, she was loved by all and a very lovable person to know although she was very strong of mind.

Musthafa Nana, an almost blinding old man, who hailed from the eastern province, was an amazing book binder. His sight issues didn’t deter him from turning out old books into almost new editions using his self-taught skills. He was a short man, who wore a sarong and shirt, greying hair, and used to flit about hither and thither across most Moor homes in Colombo. He was also extremely useful in lending a hand during events and family gatherings.

AaminaAmma, was a thin and tall lanky lady who used to prepare Moorish sweets galore and bring them over on a tray for sale. She was slightly deaf and had to be spoken loud to be heard. In turn she also spoke loud as she could not hear herself. She had a great spread of delicacies which we kids simply loved and grandma used to always purchase many items from her for us to relish. She too walked along the Galle Road, going house to house to sell her sweets and was known to most Moor families in Colombo. She also hailed from Dematagode Road like Beebee Datha. They probably knew each other well? Her tray was always filled with sweet pancakes, sweet kunafa, pineapple toffee, dodol, musket, cheenakka, sheenimaa, and various other sweets. As kids we were delighted when she set foot into our home. She later performed the pilgrimage of Hajj, travelling on the deck of a ship, using her earnings from the sweets she sold. An amazing lady. May she be blessed and rest in peace.

Pasthol”, was the name given to a big burly old man from Slave Island who used to bring delicious hot pasthols (extra large patty), filled with baabath (tripe), on weekend evenings. Weused to play cricket on Sundays at Grandma’s place, and the arrival of Mr Pasthol at 4pm during tea break was always welcomed by all.

Alvis, the driver, he hailed from the south. Grandpa hired him to live in with us and drive his Austin A40 in the 60s. He was a great artist who filled the garage walls with some fabulous works of his own creation. He was also quite a handyman around the house. He ended up marrying Nancy, who used to visit our home to assist Mum with the cooking. I believe they lived happily ever after.

Wilson, lived next door at 298, and helped with the gardening and other odd jobs. Later he was hired by the Chartered Bank to work as a laborer and spent many years there successfully.

Alice, worked as a maid in the house next door that belonged to Ms Spillers. She was an active middle aged lady who was quite vocal and outgoing in the neighborhood. No idea what happened to her after I left home in 1974.

Siriwardene was the master tailor/cutter at Ms Spillers. He was much sought after by the Colombo elite for turning out ladies suits and dresses for weddings and other occasions. He ended up marrying one of the tailoring girls, Hema, and lived at the Spillers home for several years. Sadly, he died in a train-car accident that he was involved in many years later.

The Spillers home was a tailoring outlet where Mrs Spillers and her sister, Clementine lived with their staff, a whole host of domestics, drivers and a large number of dogs. The house was large and faced castle Lane, and had a huge backyard with lots of fruit and flower trees.

A whole bunch of women used to visit the house on a regular basis to assist in many odd jobs in the kitchen. There was AhmedUmma who was a specialist in preparing spices that were ground and mashed by hand. AdukaderUmma was the specialist to pound and prepare rice and other grains for making breads. Paalamma and Sandanam, were also another two women who helped with the cooking. They also went over to 298 next door and also to our aunts homes down lily Avenue in Wellawatte.

Ratharang”, meaning gold because he sported a gold tooth, owned as black bull and cat which he allowed to graze in our backyard. The cart was also parked in oir front yard for safety. He used it to transport goods which was a common mode of transportation in that era.

Richard Aiya was the local tough guy who lived across the street down one of the small alleys that went down eastward. He and his cohorts ran the New Wellington Sports club on the land side of Galle Road adjacent to Davidson Road. Here they played billiards and sbooker and also collected bets for English horse racing. There was also some moonshine being sold at the back. Many were the folks in the neighborhood who patronized the place. He had a huge eagle with wings spread tattooed on his back.

Jumping Jesus” was an elderly Burgher lady, who was mentally disturbed and used to hobble along Galle Road, hopping around, forwhich she got her name. Rufiya Beebee was also another lady with mental issues who walked up and down screaming four letter words at many families she used to know when she was sane. They both lived on the street and survived.

Dompe was a short and quiet guy who walked the Galle Road and visited our homes seeking some handout. He rarely spoke a word. Just stood there in silence until we gave him something and then he went away. We, as kids, were mortally afraid of the man.

The Book Man, was alays welcome in our home. He rode a bicycle with all his books stashed on the rear. He had a wide range of novels, comics, magazines etc which he sold and also gave us on a read and return basis for a small rental. We, truly, enjoyed his books.

MarthAkka, was the fish vendor from Moratuwa who never failed to drop in and serve my paternal grandma at her bedside. She carried all her fish on a basket which she kept on her head and travelled by bus all the way to Colombo every single day. I remember Grandma bargaining with her in “Shillings”. Three Shillings was Rs 1.50 then.

Fonseka was also another poor guy who used to pop in seeking a handout. He was also a quiet chap and we didn’t bother with him too much. The elders gave him something and sent him away.

MP Piyasena, a young man, hailed from the south and took over the old AMS Nadar grocery store in the 60s. His shop had everything from dry rations to newspapers. The owners of the Nadar shop left to India we were told.

Toffee”, clad in his red turban and sarong used to be the guy who delivered the lunch plates to school kids and officer workers in the 60s. His clearing house was located down Thurstan Road where all the delivery guys assembled and redistributed the plates according to destination. He got his name “Toffee” purely because he used to distribute sweets to the school kids as he went alog his daily routine. He was also called “Rathu” cos of the red color he sported.

The Milk Man used to cycle by the house each morning at 5am and drop off the bottle of fresh cow milk into the trap door that was set up at the back of our house. He carried asllhis bottles of milk in a saddle with long pockets that was spread across the bar of the bike.

The Pingo Man was the fruit and vegetable seller in our neck of the woods. He carried his wares in two baskets tied up to a long pole that he balanced on his shoulders and walked the streets selling them.

The Scrap Man (Bothal Karaya) used to call over to collect whatever iron, plastic, wooden, paper, glass and other scrap material that we owned for which we had no more use for. He used to weigh the stuff and pay us a price for it which we used for knickknacks.

The Bola Nool Man (Parana Coat) visited every home with a basket filled with metal and glass utensils that he exchanged for old clothes, shoes, and other personal items.

Coconut oil was sold in large cylinders placed on bullock carts in the 60s. The man used to ring a bell in order to make us aware of his presence within the street and we collected the oil in bottles or jars from a tap affixed to his oil barrel. Keresone was also sold in a similar manner.

The Bombai Muttai (cotton sugar candy) Man was always welcome in his cart where he churned out huge helpings of the sweet for a few cents.

Another favorite of ours was the Godamba Roti (thin flat foldable bread) cart Man who set out in the evenings in time for dinner. Everyone relished his plain and egg roti’s.

Boiled Kadalay (Chickpeas) mixed with coconut pieces and chillie was another favorite that was peddled in carts along the streets of Colombo.

The Pineapple Man went around, door to door, dishing out his sliced pineapple laced with chillie and salt. He carried his fruit in a basin, which he placed on his head.

Veralu Achcharu (Olive Pickle) was another favorite of ours that we relished from the street vendors who sat at the entrance of schools and public places.

Ms Kelaart visited my wife, Shirani Ibrahims place, to teach piano. She was a very strict yet kind lady. How many times she had to repeat “Fur Elise” to get it spot on.

Mr Karunaratne was our Sinhala Language tuition master who came over on his mo-bike in the evenings to drill the second language into our heads.

The Elephant House Ice Cream Man came along on his tricycle and dished out tubs and cones to the kids in the neighborhood. Our favorite was the Family Block which came in three flavors then.

The Broom Man plied his trade in a cart filled with brushes, mops, brooms and other cleaning material along the streets of Colombo, every single day.

South Indian vegetarian fast food was a huge favorite with people in Colombo. Two of the most popular places which served them are Greelands Hotel, down Shrubbery Garden’s, and Saraswathie Lodge on Galle Road, both in Bambalapitiya. The hot favorites were Idli, Dosa, Vadai, with chutney and Saambhar.

Simon hailed from the south and worked as a railway guard on the up country Bandarawela line. He was known to the family from the early 60s and always visited us at home with a huge basket of fruits and vege’s from the mountains. I still remember his smart blue jacket with its silver buttons.

Mariam Datha was a buxom middle aged lady who was an expert cook who was called in to cater to most of the big events that were held at home. She lived down Vihare Lane in Wellawatte and someone had to be sent to pick her up and bring her over whenever she was needed. Her food was simply awesome and all the guests relished her menu.

Uncle Zachariya, always with a cheerful smile on his face, was a frequent visitor to our home since the 60s. He lived down Clifford Place, round the corner from our home, and remained a bachelor all his life. Grandpa used to love chattingto him in the verandah in the evenings. The youngest son of MBM Cassim and ALM Ummu Hany, he hailed from a very prominent and famous Colombo Moor family.

The two South Indian vege restaurants, Ramjee Lodge and Asoka Lodge were located right in front of our home, on the land side of Galle Road. They served the most delicious sizzling hot Vadai which we relished in the evenings. The one armed bandit inside their store was also a great attraction to us young kids.

Podi Singho’s Auto Garage was located adjacent to Ramjee Lodge and he, together with his sons, was a specialist in motor bike repairs. Later he upgraded to fixing cars too and was a very popular figure in the neighborhood. 

Comments from readers:

Master Chef Mamma Ghouse. Specialist for all big & small occasions. Biriyani, Stringhopper Biriyani, Wella (White) Biriyani, Naaladi Sheer, Samoosa, special Cutlets, Thakkadi, etc. He used to cook for 100-5000 guests together with his golayas (helpers), ZainulAbdeen, Aman, Fowzy, Adam, etc.

His father was a great cook, and also his mother was my grandmother Ayesha Umma’s (wife of Notharis Abdul Rahman “Poona Kan” – Cats eye dealer in Gems) chef. The Family of Mamma Ghouse were living with my paternal grandmother. His sibling is Fowzy, who did most of the household chores marketing, etc. After my grandparents they were living at my uncle ARM Mukthars place.

Mamma Ghouse later moved to Azhar Ameen’s place at Ward Place.

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