Vinodh Wickremeratne’s Jottings as Memoirs on the Past

Royston Ellis

Vinodh L. J. Wickremeratne describes himself as a Colombologist, a word he has invented to explain his fascination not just with Colombo’s recent history, but also with the prominent people who have contributed so much to the development of Colombo and Sri Lanka.  He is not a historian, although he conducts research for people into Ceylon’s colonial past under the apt heading “Colonial Cousins.”

This self-published book of 173 (A4-size) pages and 93,000 words in large type is not so much a memoir as notes for a memoir. It seems Vinodh is pioneering a new form of reminiscences since there is no narrative, few anecdotes but hundreds of fascinating snippets of information about Sri Lanka’s recent past. It is amazing what Vinodh remembers or has discovered through research. As such, this volume is a huge source of accurate detail for anyone interested in “yesteryears” – either to refresh memories or to use the material for biographies or historical novels.

Although I and many others know Vinodh as a model railway and steam train enthusiast and co-author of Ceylon Railway Heritage, readers will learn from this book that he wears many hats. He mentions his work as a vintage car restorer, designer of precision working models of aircraft, boats, cars, bikes and doll’s houses, and consultant on the development of railways, tramways,  motor roads, canals, aerodromes, mercantile , industrial and social lifestyles, telegraphs, gas lighting, rest houses and genealogy.

We learn also that while he was awaiting A- Level results, he gained tea plantation experience before becoming a junior auditor learning about accountancy, bookkeeping, taxation, incorporations, shareholders’ reports and investigations. Born in 1958, he describes himself as a “born again bachelor” after his divorce in 1995.

In his introduction, Vinodh writes that his memoirs are “more suitable for Ceylonese gents over the age of 50” before pointing out that “the recent past gets easily forgotten” as the reason for compiling this collection of details of remembered events, people, shops, products, companies, motor vehicles, popular cafés, club life, religious and sporting personalities, banks, patent medicines, fashions, music and musicians, horse racing, hoteliers and more, in preparation for a narrative. As can be expected, there is a lot of information about railways.

He states as his reason for writing: “No one will have such information which will ‘go down’ with him, never ever to be recovered.” He records such forgotten detail as “Before 1971 it was usual to go to a good hardware shop to buy shotgun cartridges for a ‘shoot’ as hunting trips were known.” He remembers that, in contrast to today, [in the 1960s and 1970s] children were kept occupied with Snakes & Ladders, jigsaw puzzles or Ludo, toys and kites were home-made and ballroom dancing was popular.

Vinodh experienced at first hand the transformation of colonial Ceylon into modern Sri Lanka, because of a privileged start to life. His father (Mahee L.J. Wickremeratne) was a government civil servant becoming in 1962, Government Agent for Ampara (said to be the youngest at the time). He retired prematurely in 1976 from Government Service as Chairman of the Ceylon Sugar Corporation, to become a leading figure in private sector companies.

His father’s career and Vinodh’s childhood (one of curiosity about everything happening around him) gives authority to this memoir. What could be a boring collection of names, events and places becomes an entertaining read due to Vinodh’s amusing asides and startling puns.

The result is a wonderful cornucopia of arcane titbits adding unexpected footnotes to the history of Sri Lanka’s recent past.

Book facts  
Vintage Vignettes: Remembered Yesteryears. Memoirs of Vinodh Wickremeratne
Reviewed by Royston Ellis

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