08 January 2020

Where’s your ‘One, Galle Face’?

‘Have you been to the biggest studio in Sri Lanka?’ The question was asked by Susantha Kumara, three-wheel driver, milk-delivery man, occasional caterer and old friend. ‘Studio?’ I thought to myself. There are all kinds of studios. Places where they record music, edit documentaries and take pictures. Susantha was thinking of the last. Before I could answer, he said, ‘Why, “One, Galle Face”!’ 

‘Lots of people are going there to take selfies and post them on FB!’ 

We laughed. 

‘I want to take pictures of my favorite the-kade and post them on Facebook saying “this is my One, Galle Face!”’ I told him. 

We laughed again.

For me there is more than one ‘One, Galle Face’ actually.  There’s the ‘Sirisanda’ that is nothing like its name but serves a plain tea that serves purpose. It’s on W.A. Silva Mawatha, known as High Street to those of an older generation. There’s ‘Sea Lord’ on Fife Road. It’s nowhere near the sea and I’ve never seen any lords there. However, nothing compares with a small boutique that’s on 27th Lane at the back end of a property owned by Anil De Silva. It doesn’t have a name, but many in the area as well as regular customers would call it ‘Nihal Aiyage Kade.’ 

I didn’t know the name when I first got there. I didn’t know the name of the person behind the counter. I heard people refer to him as Nihal Aiya and I just followed suit. That’s how it became Nihal Aiya’s Kade for me, as it probably was the case for others. 

It wasn’t always ‘Nihal Aiyage Kade’. Well, the actually name is ‘Nihal Stores.’ It was ‘Seeman Stores’ before that. Maddugodage Seeman was Nihal Aiya’s father. Seeman had first been Ananda De Silva’s driver and according to his son Nihal, used to take Ananda’s children, including Anil, to school. Ananda, like Anil, probably a very giving human being, had rewarded Seeman with a vehicle when he retired and also allowed him to set up this humble retail shop opening into 27th Lane. Nihal eventually took over operations almost 35 years ago, two years before his father passed away. 

In the half century that has passed since the shop was opened the architecture of Colombo has changed drastically. What used to be  a mere pathway of concrete slabs covering a drain is now a road where two vehicles can pass each other. Older residents and customers might remember what house stood where, whether there were walls or fences or just open lots. ‘Space’ is a never-ending story. 

Even ‘Nihal Aiya’s Kade’ hasn’t stood still. Different products and promotional material. A fresh coat of paint now and then. I’ve seen a half-wall come up. A bench, recently, to supplement a concrete slab that served as seat for tea-drinkers, who may or may not know each other’s names but will exchange smiles, nods and words of recognition. And a few years ago, Nadun Hashantha, Nihal Aiya’s son, started helping his father.

Newcomers become regulars. Regulars grow old.  ‘Nihal Aiya’ must have been ‘Nihal Malli’ or just ‘Nihal’ a few decades ago. Now he’s ‘Nihal Aiya’ to some but ‘Nihal Uncle’ to others. One day, perhaps, Seeman’s Stores, which became Nihal Stores, would become Nadun Stores and might very well come to be known as ‘Nadu Aiya’s Kade’ one day. 

There are times during the day when there could be a dozen people at the counter. Nihal Aiya or his son or both would be busy, serving shorteats, lunch packets, drinks, sweets or a dozen other things, either from the counter that opens to the road or through a side door for neighbors and regular customers. Never an impatient word. Nothing testy from either of them. They know faces. They know needs. They know who wants what, most times. 

There’s nothing fancy about Nihal Aiya’s Kade. It’s a one-of-a-kind place to me on account of visiting the place several times a week for a cup of plain tea after dropping my children at school. It’s my ‘One, Galle Face’. Great ambience. A fine breakfast spread. Things you won’t find in places like that grand place by the same name located about a kilometer away.  A place for conversation with random people. A place to get lost in one’s thoughts. 

I haven’t seen anyone take selfies at Nihal Aiya’s Kade. Maybe it’s not something great enough to share with friends and family. I wouldn’t know for sure. 

But I am pretty sure no one says ‘I was there’ about places like that. We are there, though. And we are known, remembered and treated really well. It’s not a place for selfies and yet, although without a name board or number, is still an unmistakable address. 

I have Nihal Aiya’s Kade. Susantha probably has his. What’s your ‘One, Galle Face’? 

This article was first published in the Daily News [January 1, 2020] 

Other articles in the series titled 'In Passing...' published in the 'Daily News'