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SRI LANKA: A nostalgic and autobiographical essay....
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The Haunt Of Medical essay on life as a medical student in the late sixties...and aahh! the nurses!

Punchi Borella (Lit: Small Borella) is technically just a small junction (fourways) in the city of opposed to the big junction of Borella (fiveways) nearby. Punchi Borella was near the Medical School and in fact one could say that the Medical School was at Punchi Borella. This is probably Punchi Borella's main claim to fame. As far as medical students were concerned this was, in some ways, the Piccadilly Circus of Srilanka!.............. There were no neon signs...just sodium vapour street lamps and oil lamps! There were of course the smells! Pleasant or otherwise!...In a society rapidly losing their olfactory skills perhaps it is best if I leave this aspect largely untouched...but do think of a combination of Sandlewood, hot coconut oil and blocked drains!

Although there was another Medical School (at Kandy) the Medical School at Colombo was considered to be THE Medical School! Most of us have fond memories of Punchi Borella for a number of reasons and are proud of our Medical Degree....officially MBBS(Ceylon) but unofficially and affectionately MBBS(Punchi Borella)!.

The name Borella
Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Sinhala language would know the origin of the name (but remember that this page has an international readership!)
BORA means "muddy" and ELLA means "stream". So, literally Muddy River

If you pronounce Borella with a pseudo-western accent it sounds almost posh! (i.e. with a stiff upper lip and slurring the words..sounds even better if you pronounce the the "LLA" as "YA" in Cockney Colonial mum was.. and is.. good at that!)
In fact, if my memory serves me right, BORELLA was so POSH that at least three Prime Ministers lived at Borella: Solomon Bandaranaike, his widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake (all in or around Rosmead Place)
I have been unable to identify the actual stream that gave its name to this area because Borella is (and was) a heavily built up area.
"Punchi" of course means small (the U should have an umlaut by the way, but we Srilankans... with the possible exception of my mum don't need such aids to pronounce our own language correctly !)


Punchi Borella itself was just a crossroads at the centre of which stood a sacred Bo tree and a small shrine. The main attractions at first sight could said to be a rather seedy tavern, several rather unhygienic-but-low-budget roadside food establishments, medium budget restaurants and assorted roadside hawkers. However, just yards off the main road was the Medical School, The Colombo General Hospital, The DeSoyza Maternity Hospital, The Morgue, The Nurses Home, The Lady Medical Student's Hostel (the "Hopper House") and two Men's Hostels (including the infamous Bloemfontein Men's Hostel.)

In fact Punchi Borella was the sort of place where you could be born, baptised, grow up, go to school, go to the cinema, go to church, enter medical school, get drunk, work as a doctor, marry a nurse, get drunk, have children, get drunk, have major cardiac or neuro surgery, and eventually end up in the morgue! --all within a radius of half-a-mile! The cemetery was just about a mile or so away (Kanatte Cemetery)

There were loads of Mara trees("Flamboyant Trees") with their bright red and yellow flowers sadly cut down (hundreds of ominous-looking crows roosted in them at sundown).

There was of course the Saint Thomas Aquinas University College (or simply "Aquinas" or, affectionately "the Ack") through which most of us had entered Medical School. The Bishop's Palace (Palace! HA!They live in PALACES!) stood between Aquinas and the Medical School...both good refuges at times of adversity! Then there was Campbell's Park, a favourite haunt of young couples.... and the Church of All case you were spiritually inclined!...(just before exams, perhaps!..when all else had failed perhaps.!)

There were a couple of girl's schools as well but by this stage in our lives we were more into nurses than into schoolgirls.

During "Rag" week most of the ragging took place around Punchi Borella.


P unchi Borella only really comes to life after seven o'clock at night and never really goes to sleep. There were no MacDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken....A good thing too! Roadside food vendors did brisk business. The fare ranged from boiled and stir-fried chick peas (Kadala) through roasted peanuts (Rata Kadju) and Vaddai to stringhoppers and hoppers. Tamil "Thosai" establishments (Saiva Kade) were there as well. In the relatively "hygienic" restaurants one could get filled rolls, the famous Malu Paan and a cup of tea or the famous Orange Barley Water bottled by Ceylon Cold Stores (the so called Elephant House.) A cup of tea cost 10 cents those days. My daily allowance as a medical student never exceeded 50 cents!

If there were any tarts plying their trade they never bothered us (impecunious) medics. The nurses finished their shift at 7 P.M. and medical students would spill out into the streets about the same time after the obligatory hour or so of "cramming" for exams....mostly to clear their conscience.... not to acquire serious knowledge! Female Medical Students were of course a different lot and rather serious but this was a good time to chat them up as well. The Medical Library closed at 8 P.M.. The girls were the last to leave, most men having left long before.

The area was safe even for women, although a number of flashers used to stand under lampposts outside the Nurse's Home and the Lady's Hostel. No one was ever accosted. Still the presence of these perverts gave us a good excuse to offer escorts to the nurses and lady students that we fancied!

Frequent bus services operated through Punchi Borella which cost all of 5 cents to Borella and 10 cents to the Pettah and the Fort.(eg Bus no 103 from Narahenpita to Pettah). It was easy to travel short distances on the crowded buses without paying. Drunken medical students were tolerated on the buses and on the streets. The local cinemas screened overlong Hindi Bollywood films (three and a half hours) with doors opening as late as 9.30pm.


My earliest memories of Punchi Borella are from the fifties when trams used to operate through this junction between Borella and Maradana and points beyond. I must have been about five years old then.The trams were operated by the Colombo Municipal Council, were painted a vivid green and had open sides. They ran on steel tracks on steel wheels and most adults would complain about the uncomfortable ride. By the way, the seats were wooden.

For a little boy however trams had a definite attraction. The motorman stood at the front end and vigorously jangled a bell which would mysteriously cause the tram to move forwards or so it seemed. The current was picked up from an overhead single cable and frequently produced blue flashes accompanied by a sharp crack and an acrid "electrical" smell. The wheels clattered. There was a single locomotive-style headlamp at either end and there was of course a conductor/brakeman.

Men preferred travelling on the some ways similar to the famous cable cars of San Francisco.


Years later not only did I enter the Medical School but for a while was forced to live with my parents in a small bedsit rented out by Uncle Arthur McLelland and Aunty Erin. The house was behind the establishment of Highland Funeral Undertakers (Why Highland?!) opposite the Catholic Press.The Bishop and later The Cardinal lived in a PALACE ( A Palace! the rich bastard!) opposite our rather downmarket rented bedsit (housing a whole family of SIX!)

The reason my parents moved to Colombo should be fairly obvious to readers of this page! To keep me out of "trouble"! i.e. to stop me from going out with nurses or other "unsuitable" females. Aunty Erin was more broad-minded than my mum, as were Uncle Walter and Aunty Claribelle who lived in Kirillapone. (Uncle Arthur McLelland is one of those benign and nice blokes one only rarely comes across in life and so therefore really doesn't come into this story at all.. and oh by the way , he was a Tamil)

Prior to their move to Colombo my mum travelled everyday to hang outside the Medical School with a furled umbrella (as a weapon, not for shelter!)... Having been caught out once going out with a girl to Campbell's Park (the same girl as mentioned in my Love Train story) I had worked out ways of staying one step ahead of the opposition. This not only required a thorough knowledge of the geography of the Borella area but also friends like Sam to provide alibis. I knew all the back lanes, back entrances and alleyways.

The Colombo General Hospital was a labyrinth of corridors and wards. Unlike hospitals these days it was not a large concrete block with holes in it. It was a proper carbolic-smelling hospital. Nurses wore traditional starchy uniforms and smelt of antiseptic....especially the Operating Theatre nurses. Nurses were happy being nurses. They didn't want to be doctors or have the right to prescribe. Nurses were always helpful to medical students and I certainly learnt all my surgical and obstetric skills from nurses and midwives.

A canal (the Norris Canal ) ran through the center of the hospital premises flanked by the Norris Canal Road. Medical students had access to the hospital at all times but not the general public! In fact one of the main hospital entrances was across the road from the window of the Men's Common Room (Yes, we had separate common rooms!) Those of us who left things 'till the last minute (indulging in such activities as playing billiards or "listening" to The Ventures at full blast) could vault through the window to get to our "ward classes" on time.The kahki-clad gatekeepers of the old GH Colombo knew us ruffians anyway and probably admired our guts!

Even when I started going out with Ranji, a fellow medical student (and now my wife of twenty five years plus), the geographical knowledge of this area and the help of friends proved invaluable to keep interfering mothers at bay. What a way to grow up! With all this evasive action and "war" campaigns I didn't really have much time to study medicine. I just picked up things as I went along...............

Dr. Richard Gordon, author of the book series "Doctor..", once wrote that "Doctors marry other doctors, nurses or barmaids".There were no barmaids in Srilanka at that time.......but there were lots of pretty nurses!.....Presumably Doctor Gordon's characters weren't handicapped by their mums!!!!
THE NORRIS CANAL: The Norris Canal was one of the many canals that criss-crossed Colombo and either drained into the sea directly or through one of the lakes e.g. Beira and Bolgoda.
Colombo like London, was a marsh at one time.The Dutch, who are good at that sort of thing, built most of the canals now in exsistence in and around Colombo. Unfortunately, due to a combination of silting and building-up most of the canals became open sewers. Shanty towns grew up along canals and their denizens treated the canals as public toilets. To put it crudely:They shat in the canals!...(This is basically what happened to the River Fleet in London. It is now a closed sewer and runs under Fleet Street.)
At one time the Wellawatte Canal in Colombo (which should drain into the sea near the Savoy Cinema but didn't!) smelt so bad that local journalists refered to it as Canal No 5!


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Acknowledgment: This essay was the result of a recent conversation with my sister Babs. First written on the Easter Weekend (Sunday the 15th of April 2001)

Copyright © Gyan C. A. Fernando 2001

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