I sat on the metal bar at the bus stand, reading my book, waiting for a bus after work. This lad was standing on the other side of the bus stop with straight hair and a necklace. I had seen him in passing before. I recognised him as someone from my suburb. He smiled at me, and with that invitation, we started talking, me still sitting on the metal bar and him standing. He was Nimal, Nimal Ranatunga.
A Route 132 bus heading to our hometown stopped at the bus stand a few minutes later. We got onto the bus, and Nimal paid for my bus ticket, the first move of a great friend-to-be. Sitting next to each other, we chatted throughout the bus ride. In the age of late teens, we were out to discover the world, and finding a like-minded buddy was a joy.
We met at our monkey bar, the bus stand by chance. Chatting with each other, we found many common interests in music and fashion. We had common friends. Nimal was so cheerful that I connected with him on a meaningful level. Life was full of fun for him. His glee was permanent. Nimal was a fine reward, and I wanted to be a good friend to him. All these I figured out during our first 45 minutes on a slow bus ride.
Before I got off at my stop, we arranged to meet again after work. Thus emerged the beginning of an incredible lifelong friendship.
Keeping my promise, I waited for my new friend Nimal to turn up at ear Duke Street after work, intentionally missing the passing buses. Travelling together after that chance meeting, our mateship flourished. Extending our emerging friendship, Nimal took me to his workplace, the Chartered Bank, a majestic building in the heart of Colombo in front of the country’s president’s home. He introduced me to his workmates. We went for lunch at ‘Green Café’ during our lunch breaks. After work, we hung out in the city in the evening, visiting bars. With both of us with zaggy, seventies-style hair, we were regulars at premium hair salons in the heart of the city.
Back at home, I cycled to Nimal’s house on his generous invitation. His father, a policeman, an athletic man for his age and his kind mother welcomed me with open arms. Nimal had many siblings, and among them were two younger brothers. Nimal’s elder brother was a police inspector. Nimal’s elder sister was studying to be a doctor at Lumumba University in Moscow, a rarity in Sri Lanka then. In addition, Nimal had a charming younger sister: she was beautiful. In one of their rooms was a home gym where his elder brother Sunil and Nimal worked out. A poster from the Woodstock music festival from 1969 was hung in Nimal’s room, espousing free love. It was a diverse and loving family.
Their home was on a large parcel of land adjoining a paddy field. The Ranatungas owned a few cattle. Every time I visited Nimal, his mum served fresh, healthy milk. At the back of their home was a water well where one could pull freshwater by hand and bathe. If it was mealtime, I ate at their large table next to the kitchen with Nimal and his siblings on their generous invitation.
Their home was a frequent hangout for Nimal and his elder brother’s friends. It was always open.
Taking our friendship a notch further, Nimal introduced me to his gang of friends, Asoka, Raja Rohan, brothers Mahil and Dayal, Sumith, Peter, Glen, Saliya, Parawahera and the young Azlaff, still a schoolboy. Some of them were homeboys I knew from my previous lives; Glen and I lived on the same street and attended Montessori together, Sumith and I attended junior school together, and Peter and I were in high school together. The new boy group was well-diversified, with some Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Burghers and Sinhalese. Incidentally, I did not notice this diversity mix back then.
I started hanging out with these new friends after work. Joining them occasionally were Asoka’s elder brothers, Sunil and Kalu. Basil, Mohan, and Marshall were Nimal’s elder brother’s friends. Suddenly, unknown to me, I had been inducted into another great set of friends inner circle. It was like a big open family, a significant cohort of open-minded youth.
Mixing with these new cool friends, I came to know their parents and siblings. Everyone was warmly welcomed in their homes. They hung out together at each other’s home in the evening, looking out for an adventure or planning the next one.
Among the friends, Asoka and Saliya had cars of their own, extending the mobility of our group. I and a few others had scooters and motorbikes. Going to movies, concerts, and cricket matches in Colombo became the norm within this social set.
My friends took their fashion seriously. They had a personal tailor, in highly talented Kalu Mahattaya. Kalu could turn out the latest designer pants, jackets and tops from any style we threw at him. There was no tailor in our hometown like Kalu. Since his introduction by Nimal and Asoka, all my fashion clothes came out of his skilled hands.
I raced with Nimal and his friends whenever we rode to the city. Sometimes we were so crazy in our dumb youthful bluster and recklessness that we rode on the wrong side of the road to beat each other.
I was so impressed with Nimal’s workplace, the Chartered Bank, that I applied for a role in the bank. The bank did not acknowledge my application, as fate would have it. More of that story later.
The Battle of the Maroons was our friends’ event of the year. It was the annual cricket encounter held in ‘The Oval’ stadium in Colombo in March. The old boys of the participating schools gathered to witness the match, join a singsong and enjoy a drink. Most of my new friends, Nimal, Asoka, Mahil, Dayal, Saliya and Parawahera, studied at Nalanda College, one participating school in the ‘big match’. They went to great lengths to prepare for the event; finely tailored denim jackets and jeans, and zaggy haircuts were a must. With a large collection of alcoholic drinks hidden in the car boots, we were ready for the ‘big match’ weekend.
Nobody went to the matches to watch cricket. Everybody went for the carnival-like atmosphere. The old boys and their friends drank and sang to music bands at the sports stadium. Their cars were decked with old school flags, some lads sitting on the bonnets as cars were driven to the stadium. Safety was not a concern for youth in the crazy seventies.
At the stadium, everyone unleashed themselves, drinking, joining sing-songs and meeting old-school friends. It was their annual gala.
At the lunch break, we exited the stadium and drove to Greenlands, a popular restaurant in the city. Many youths from the match were already there, half-drunk, continuing their singing and dancing in the restaurant’s limited space. Everyone was revelling. In that tight space, a friend’s hands unexpectedly struck a lad from another group. With alcohol in their system, a simple spark or an unsavoury look was enough to start a fight. An immediate fight broke out between the two lads. Within seconds both gangs got into fistfights with no qualms, not knowing who started it or the reason for the fight. Chairs were flying in the air against each other.
The restaurant’s workers tried to stop the fight but could not restrain the two warring parties. They then locked the front door and called the police trapping us inside.
Before the police could arrive, Asoka, our friend, forced open the grilled front door. Asoka brought his glittering sports car, a Borgward and Saliya, his Ford Prefect, to the front of the restaurant. We exited the restaurant from the jarred door, got into the vehicles super quick and sped off, avoiding possible arrest for rioting.
At the big match, everything was going hunky-dory until the rival gang returned to the stadium. Unfinished business from the restaurant had to be finished now. Both gangs continued the hastily interrupted fight. From nowhere, a police officer, an apparent friend of the rival gang, intervened and hit my friend Nimal. Fearless Nimal, without hesitation, hit him back, felling the cop to the ground with a thud. While we felt glad about the fallen cop, before he could regain composure, we went into quick action and vanished from that area, taking Nimal with us, surrounding him in cover.
The police were now looking for Nimal to avenge their shame and arrest him. One of our friends swapped his top with Nimal, thus making the identity of Nimal impossible. We stayed undercover and hurriedly left the stadium in our cars shortly after.
The cricket match continued for the second day. We returned to the Oval stadium, now Nimal in different gear in total disguise. This time, it was time for Mahil to pick up a fight with another lad. That lad happened to be a gangster from the stadium's surrounding area, notorious for street violence. The gangsters from the area took a lot of pride in their violent ways; no outsider was allowed to challenge them. So they converged, surrounded the stadium entrance and dug in to avenge their shame with metal rods. Even women from the area screamed at the stadium’s locked gates, trying to break in. Yet Again, Asoka and Saliya came to the rescue, and we hurriedly got into the cars and sped off, exiting the stadium. If we had stopped, we would have been massacred by those dangerous thugs outside the stadium. The vehicles would have knocked them if they had tried to block the cars. It was a hasty exit, fraught with danger.
These events at the cricket match became epic stories among our friends. Nimal was the daring guy who knocked a policeman to the ground. My friends became famous for hitting a gangster from Colombo and escaped to tell the tale. I am sure our parents, Nimal’s father included, never knew what their sons had been up to that weekend.
That was not all. Many things that Nimal and I had been up to could not be shared here, should I shock my dear readers. I enjoyed my cocky youth of fearless gusto with Nimal by my side. It’s no wonder that we were sealed to be lifelong friends.
Adventure begets adventure. I left for Dubai a short while later. I wrote to Nimal and my friends regularly. Nimal and friends visited my parents in my absence. My kid brother became a good friend to Nimal’s two younger brothers and was a frequent visitor to Nimal’s home, taking his elder brother’s place.
In Dubai, I was now working for the British-owned Chartered Bank, part of the global bank where Nimal was working for its Colombo branch. I was on an accelerated career path and wanted to help Nimal carve out a global career opportunity. I arranged with the bank’s management in Dubai for Nimal to be issued a job offer. Poaching fellow employees from its network had to be done with approval from the other branch. Unfortunately, Nimal’s ego-centric manager in the Colombo branch did not agree to release young Nimal. It was an opportunity missed for fearless Nimal.
A year or so later, Nimal. Raja Rohan, Asoka and Mahil left for Saudi Arabia for work. I wrote to Nimal in Jeddah from Dubai. They did not work in Saudi Arabia for long, returning to Sri Lanka shortly afterwards.
In the early eighties, Nimal got married to his sweetheart and, a few years later, left for Canada with his young family.
Old friends are golden, but nothing stays the same forever. They move away or have their time taken up by child-rearing or their careers. But Nimal and I have remained connected all our lives on a meaningful level. We have remained good friends for life. That is a fine reward.
Nimal continues to remain uber-positive, and I find it a joy to chat with him regularly. It makes my day when I speak to him. Not bad for a friendship formed from a chance chat that started in our monkey bar, the bus stand in Colombo, when we had nothing but a fearless and open attitude to life.
Where are my friends today?
Nimal lives in Toronto in retirement. Asoka lives in Sri Lanka, while Raja Rohan shuttles between Boston and Sri Lanka. Mahil lives in Los Angeles and his brother Dayal in Sri Lanka. Sumith lives in Toronto. Glen and Peter live in Melbourne, while Saliya lives in Edmonton. The young schoolboy, Azlaff, lives in Los Angeles.
Nimal’s elder brother, Sunil ‘ayya’ and his friends, Mohan and Marshall, live in Sri Lanka. Basil lives in Milan. Asoka’s two elder brothers, Sunil ‘ayya’ and Kalu ‘ayya’, passed away in Los Angeles and Sri Lanka.
I visit and keep in touch with all these awesome guys in all corners of this small world nearly fifty years later.
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Images and artwork belong to Denzil Jayasinghe.