Singing alongside Victor – by GEORGE BRAINE
I spent Christmas 2017 with Victor Ratnayake and a few friends at Nuwara Eliya, and, on our return to Colombo, he drove me to my home near Lunuwila. I sat in the front seat, and his wife sat in the back.
As we were passing Rukmani Devi’s statute at Tudella, Victor began to reminisce about the Rukmani he knew and respected. He has a phenomenal memory, and he brings in numerous anecdotes, usually funny, to his stories. But, on Rukmani, his memories were tender and tinged with sadness.
Then, I related my own story. While schooling in Negombo in the early 1960s, I was boarded at a house on Temple Road, only a few hundred meters from “Jaya-Ruk”, the home of Rukmani and Eddie Jayamanne. They were at the height of their popularity. The boarding house owner was the sister of Bertram Fernando, a comedian of early Sinhala cinema and a contemporary of Rukmani and Eddie. Bertram was affectionately known as “Batta”, and lived with us.
Every Sunday, his friends, including Eddie Jayamanne, would gather in the verandah for a game of cards that went on till afternoon. I recall a two-tone Buick convertible, red and cream, being driven regally up the driveway by Mr. Jayamanne. We children were in awe.
When I related this, Victor thought for a while, and, without any warning, suddenly burst into song. He sang Bertram Fernando’s early 1950s hit “Mang bandina wayase thawama danna nadda maupiyo”, the second line being “mage rupe dakala kele gilathi me game liyo”. (Loosely translated, it goes like this: “don’t my parents realize that I am of marriageable age now, the young lasses of the village salivate at my good looks”). Victor sang with gusto, taking a hand off the steering wheel to gesture. He particularly relished the rousing phrase “Ammapa! me game liyo”. I joined in.
Then, Victor launched into “Kolom pure sriya”, Eddie Jayamanne’s hit from “Banda nagarayata paminima”. This number, with descriptions of tram cars, the Colombo jetty, and an energetically signaling traffic policeman, gave Victor many opportunities to gesticulate and thump on the steering wheel. This was not the gentle crooner of “Sihil sulang ralle” or “Aadaraye ulpatha wu amma”. He seemed very happy.
Finally, at my request, Victor sang “Saragoiya hari miniha”, first performed by Mabel Blythe. As a child, I had seen the movie “Daiwa Vipakaya”. This song was the backdrop to a brief segment shown at the end of the movie, where a village yokel outsmarts a policeman. It was hilarious, filled the theatre with laughter, and everyone went home happy. Ms. Blythe, dressed in a black suit, danced as she narrated the story, dialogues and all, while the main action was shown in flashback.
In the first two songs, Victor’s versions were much better than the originals, but, to me, Mabel Blythe’s “Saragoiya” is still the best!
A memory I cherish, and am happy to share.