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Dr. Cholomondely de Silva, Chumley as the name is unreasonably pronounced, and Chummy to his chums was our family physician and friend, and was responsible for safely delivering me and the last two of my seven siblings into the world. My mother told me that I looked quite red when I was born, and three days later when the good doctor visited to check on me, he exclaimed “Good grief, this child has turned black”. This later lead to me being considered the black sheep of the family, and my sister Lalitha still calls me “ Kal” which is an abbreviation of “Kalu” which means black. My colour was not the sole reason for being considered a black sheep. Around the age of four I had been sick with several bouts of malaria, suffering high temperatures and fits of convulsion. We lived at the time on a coconut estate in Madampe where the Anopheles roamed along with the famous Deduru herd of wild elephants. In the throes of one of these bouts I overheard my mother admonishing my elder brothers not to tease me as malaria had addled my brain. This granted me a degree of license with my family, who have been always tolerant of my wayward behavior.
While convalescing I would be drawing and painting birds with school chalks crushed and mixed with gum. Dr. Chummy seeing my work, assured my mother that I had promising talent, and promptly gave me a box of water colours, a drawing book and a paint brush, for which I am eternally grateful. This, I believe, was the beginning of my life as an artist. I almost immediately came to grief, as the good doctor also enrolled me in an art class conducted by Stanley Abeysinghe a well known artist at that time. The class was held on a Saturday morning , when I usually would be swimming in the sea. Mercifully I contracted the measles a few weeks later and faded away from the art class.
Dr. Chumley was a well known paediatrician, had a wonderful resonant voice, and later became a professor. He wrote an excellent book entitled “ Mother, your child” which was a guide to bringing up a baby sensibly especially in villages where most people lived. That book was a bible to me when I was looking after a one and a half year old baby, my daughter.
Apart from being known as the black sheep, I also acquired the title of being the “bricklayer”. This was because I was apt to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. The first occasion I recall was when my father was “in hiding”, from whom or for what I knew not at the time. Some men were working on a manhole in the road and I suspected they were up to no good. So naturally I inquired if they had come to catch my father. This was overheard in the kitchen and soon relayed to my father, who exiled me under the bed, thereby confirming my fears that all was not well. He immediately disguised himself putting on false teeth fashioned out of orange peel, which presumably the police at Talaimannar ferry overlooked, and fled that night to India. “The CID was on our doorstep the next morning” my mother would tell us proudly. I was never sure if this was a reprimand or a boast. This may well have been the beginning of my life as builder.
I was thrust into the building trade, not through any fascination with architecture, but by circumstance. I was sixteen and had to decide whether to pursue further boredom in the University. I mentally dismissed the university out of hand as it did not possess a diving board or A swimming pool. My mother asked me “ now son, what are you planning to do to earn your living?” I said “ you know I am an artist” to which she replied “ yes, yes, we all know you are an artist but you are not going to earn your living from that. I know an engineer who can get you an apprenticeship to learn architectural drawing .” I thought , OK it’s to do with drawing and I can continue bouncing about on a diving board, so I went to work at an architectural firm by name of Billimoria and De Silva, Pieris and Panditharatne. I was paid Rupees one hundred and fifty per month, which I thought was a princely sum for someone who knew nothing about architecture. I soon found out that the rest of the staff who had been working for several years were being paid Rupees seventy five . I felt this was iniquitous and suggested that we form a trade union. I proposed I should be the president, as it would not be as serious if I got sacked since I had no dependents. Everyone agreed and we joined the Ceylon Mercantile Union and I was promptly sacked.
I feared my mother would not be very pleased after all the trouble she had been through to get me employed. On the contrary to my great relief she was proud of me, and felt I was carrying on the socialist spirit that she and my father had been espousing for a long time. She encouraged me to take the company to the Labour Tribunal and sue them for loss of employment. She was familiar with all of this having been a member of parliament. The case was heard at the Labour Tribunal headquarters in Vauxhall street. It was an old Dutch building and had a punkah hanging over the court table, with a long string that went out of the window to the toes of an old man who pulled it to and fro. A very feudal setting I thought. I won the case but the company preferred to offer me compensation rather than re-employ a red hot head. I was free to get back to drawing and painting birds.
Meanwhile I was doing drafting as part time work for a young architect Valentine Gunasekara. He had an excellent collection of classical music and I was introduced to architecture and music together and had a wonderful time. Valentine had been the captain of the Royal College cricket team and a stylish batsman. He was also an excellent teacher, and encouraged me and two friends who were working as draughtsmen to design buildings specifying site situation and conditions. He invited Geoffrey Bawa and Ulrik Plesner who worked with him at Edwards Reid and Begg, (the leading architectural company in Colombo in the fifties) to criticize our projects like was the practice at the A_A school in London from two of them had graduated.
Geoffrey had been impressed with my design idea and especially my style of drawing, and I was offered a place in their office. I worked and became friends with all three of these men. Valentine was cerebral and philosophical, a devout Catholic.
Geoffrey was a sybarite and a hedonist and subscribed to no philosophies or theories. A brief encounter with the legal profession as a barrister had disillusioned him about the value of logic. He was not a teacher and had no patience with students,
Ulrik was a very practical man and taught me how to draw in perspective without going through the tedious process one learned in draughting. I later used this technique in drawing old buildings in great detail. He also got Barbara Sansoni and myself enthusiastic about finding and measuring and recording old buildings, and thirty years of doing this resulted in a book called The Architecture of an Island. This proved to be the only academic qualification I have.