Childhood memories, the sea and steam rail engines | Sunday Observer

Childhood memories, the sea and steam rail engines

Steam engine, The Yakada Yaka! (Pic courtesy: J.F. Tours and Travels (Pvt) Ltd.
Steam engine, The Yakada Yaka! (Pic courtesy: J.F. Tours and Travels (Pvt) Ltd.

As the Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) expands its services, more and more new engines join the force to augment its commuter carrying power. Gone are the steam engines of yore. However, beauty etched in memory do not fade away easily. Therefore, we focus on SLR steam engines, today.

I was born in Mount Lavinia by the sea into the salt wind, sea sounds and rumbling steam engines. My father was an Advocate who made his family nest at Beach Road in a house procured for a princely rent of forty rupees per month in 1938. Born a weak child, with a bleak physical future the weather fortunes of the oceans and monsoonal rains and winds took its toll by way of constant illness, exacerbated by chronic tonsillitis. This however, built a natural resistance to all adversity which has stood by me through life embedded in my human frame and mind.

Rumbling, hissing hooting of the Steam Engines and the ‘clickety clack’ of the carriages plying the sea bordered rail track, disturbed my father’s work and our sleep at night. However, these sounds intrigued my child mind,touching the fire of imagination which is the birthright of every child. The magnitude of the power and dreadful noises attracted me to these Yakada Yakas a brilliant Sinhala substitute term for the Iron Monster.

Crawling or walking stages in infancy always drew me to the front door much to the consternation of my mother. I determined that I would step into life as an Engine Driver. The house has two open boxes at each end of the front doorway with large openings in front and the sides which facilitated my dreams of being an Engine Driver- practicing driving a Steam Loco in these boxes. As I was a scraggy and thin character my father said in typical legal sarcasm, “you will end up in the ‘Fire Box’ with the coal. This did not deter me. But alas the advent of the diesel engine heralded the downfall of the Yakada Yakas which were relegated to the graveyard of time only to be seen like falling stars on fleeting occasions. So my dreams of being an Engine Driver shattered and was relegated like the engines to the position of fading memories.

I can recall seeing the first diesel engine. As I was waiting for the noise of whistle and steam I suddenly heard a heavy rumbling noise from the sea side and beheld a huge engine in maroon colour on the railway track. I was flabbergasted. The driver was in a very elevated position and looked very small in the large cab. This I believe was the first diesel engine of such proportions in Ceylon - the M1. I viewed it as an insipid monstrosity and devoid of all the romance of the steam loco.

The only diesel engine that attracted me was the ‘Canadian Engine’, a smart blue and silver coloured loco with different names such as ‘Ontario’, ‘British Columbia,’ ‘Alberta’ and looked elegant with the small twin headlights and had a very natural look like a large insect- The M2. To this day when I see and hear these engines the Railway Spirit is kindled in me.

M2 the only Diesel loco that stole my heart.

It was countless times and hours by the track that gave me immeasurable joy as with childhood exuberance I waited in the hope of seeing an engine pass by, too impatient to know time tables. There were many activities available to satiate the burning childhood fire of expectation and desires. The most sedate but ultra pulsating was to watch the ‘Monster’ pass by at a distance of 25- 30 from the rusted barbed wire fence and taking in the terrible noise, heat, smoke, soot and charcoal dust sometimes getting into the eye, part and parcel of the total experience.


It took both the engine drivers, mostly burgher gentlemen in their Khaki ‘soot’ literally and the firemen sometimes bare bodied, virtually steaming with sweat, to keep the Yakada Yaka going on the track. The engine drivers were seated or standing, sometimes looking from a large vent placed at the sides of the engine,always looking through the glass or side constantly hooting to warn people of the approaching engine. The other was waving hoping for a response which was mainly a hearty wave or stared giving the message ‘who is this imp’ or completely ignored.

But I built up a rapport with these passing railway men by waving and smiling, hoping they would last till I became an Engine Driver. The more dangerous pastimes were running with the train or even in childish bravado putting stones on the rails hoping the train would topple or be derailed only to see my dreams and stones shattered to dust.

This placing of stones was a pastime of many who went to the sea and of some of the poor children derisively referred to as Welle Kollas . No wonder they who lived in cadjan huts on the beach hated the gentry. There were many of them, one particular chap who used to call out paan paan was named paan kolla by the people who disliked and saw them as hora kollas a threat to their dignity. But my mother, bless her soul, was kind to all the wella folk feeding them and admonishing them for some of their ways. This was natural to her with her background as a Methodist Minister’s granddaughter. Pan Kolla would be given two slices of bread with butter and sugar and sometimes on her good days even some strawberry jam, imported of course, in the tradition of the colonial days. This was a staple diet for us children before the wide use of good old parippu, which I was told came with the malaria epidemic to be distributed in the affected areas. Since Pan Kolla was my friend I would quickly prepare the bread with sugar and add some glorious Golden Syrup from the green and white tin which I remember had a Gold coloured picture of a lion. He used to give me loads of ‘pin’ or merit. Luckily for me, the Good Lord prevented me from being found out.

The rail track and the sea taught me even as a child to see death and life as inevitable facts of life. The sea on the one hand, having a great cross section of life in its birds, fish, turtles,jelly fish, fisher folk and their vibrant activities, people who sea bathed and lovers, the list goes on. A vibrant plant life, with a unique variety. All changing with the seasons. One saw death in the fish that were daily killed by drawing nets and fishing boats that had gone out to sea sometimes in the night and others in the day. The night fish catch was called Ra Mudu and there were the fish vendors who carried a variety of fish, crabs and lobsters. Turtle eggs were brought early morning to the house and gobbled up by us children with salt and pepper, oblivious to destruction of the turtles. The rail track had people, (Railway Party) the khaki clad railway workers, repairing, bolting, hammering, railing and waving green and red flags for the trains, a motley but garrulous lot. The various vendors of different wares like gram, pineapple Bombai Muttai peddling them to the folk especially the lovers in the wetakeya bushes who were forced to cough out money to avoid detection by others.


Death was seen in many ways. In the sea it was drowning of people of all ages and invariably a body or two washed ashore of the folk who did not bathe within the limits of the life savers. Sundays invariably washed up the most dead bodies, only to be watched by a curious mob. I cannot but recall an incident when I was about seven years. On Sundays our garden and adjoining lands were full of people who came to enjoy the sea and sand, most of them unable to swim. One Sunday there was much shouting and a big commotion facing a small rock that was about 200 yards from the shore. Several boats were put out from the shore, the fishermen straining at the oars to go at full speed and several lifesavers were swimming out to sea.

I too did the forbidden act, crossing of the rail track and saw a portly gentleman being carried to shore by the life guards to be given artificial respiration on the beach. After some time, the typical Volkswagen ambulance of that time arrived and took away the patient who was a Cabinet Minister. (During those days people loved them and did everything to protect their life). But unfortunately an engineer who was a father of a school friend and play mate of mine had also drowned. A true life incident of death this incident is deeply embedded in my mind even today.

(Continued next week)