Kuttan re-lives ‘good old Galle Face green days’

With over half a century of loyal service to Galle Face Hotel, Colombo, the 88-year-old legendary usher, K.C. Kuttan still stands tall welcoming all those who walk into this establishment of prestige. The Nation re-lives the ‘good old Galle Face-green days’ through the eyes of this classic paradigm of ‘living history’

By Randima Attygalle
A destitute fourteen-year-old from Kerala, India, having lost his mother and with a helpless father to support five off-springs, arrived in Mannar, ‘Ceylon’, in 1938. Little did he know how his destiny would be written in the ‘tiny island’, and that a bygone epoch of this island nation would be synonymous with the name ‘Kuttan’.

One of the most photographed personalities and the longest serving hotel employee in Sri Lanka and very likely in the world, K.C. Kuttan, the ‘legendary’ usher of the Galle Face Hotel still ‘stands tall’ as part of its ‘living history’. Welcoming guests with ayubowan, an unmistakable Sri Lankan gesture of hospitality and warmth, Kuttan’s impressive persona, much complemented by his ‘snow white’ moustache, has adorned prestigious journals in the calibre of Austin Reed and an assortment of airline publications.

Journey to “Ceylon”
“My mother died when I was only 14 years and my father found it hard to raise five children single-handed. Employment was scarce in Kerala where I was born and grew up. Therefore I was compelled to try my fortune somewhere else. In 1938 I arrived at Mannar of Sri Lanka (Ceylon then). From there I boarded the train to Fort,” recalled Kuttan of his maiden voyage. What were his memories of Mannar and Fort during the colonial milieu? “It was all so simple. No passport, no visa nothing. It was just the matter of buying a ticket from India to Sri Lanka. I remember the camp at Mannar where we were officially checked by authorities who were the officers of the British government at that time. There were no security concerns like today,” replied Kuttan with a smile. “Fort was basically deserted compared to modern times. No buses, no traffic, just few cars owned by suddas, and lot of rickshaws. Even shops were limited. I remember Millers and Cave and Company well,” recalled Kuttan further.

Having arrived in search of greener pastures, Kuttan was fortunate to find immediate employment through one of his uncles working at Slave Island. “My uncle found me a job as a domestic help of a Parliament Secretary in Colpetty. My monthly salary was only Rs.15 and from Slave Island to Colpetty, the bus fare was just 25 cents,” chuckled Kuttan amused by my bewilderment! From Colpetty house, Kuttan moved to the residence of Police chief F.J. de Saram. When questioned about communication difficulties faced by him in early days owing to language barrier, Kuttan replied, “luckily there were other Tamil employees at the homes I worked. So I did not have much of a problem. But with others who were not conversant in Tamil, I had to depend largely on body language. But within six to seven months, I picked up Sinhala well.”

1942 brought Sri Lanka ill luck and as for Kuttan, it was a turning point in life. According to Kuttan, during the Second World War, when Colombo was bombed, many employees of Galle Face Hotel had left in fear, which opened doors for him, an opportunity he had been awaiting a long time. “The hotel recruited me as a restaurant waiter for a monthly salary of Rs. 20. Since then I have been serving the hotel as a waiter till my retirement in 1995,” explained Kuttan who was appointed to his present position of an usher in the aftermath of his ‘official retirement’. Kuttan who had to bid adieu to his long standing job of 53 years owing to ill health, was assigned to his present post of an usher by the present Chairman of Galle Face Hotel, Sanjeev Gardiner, making him an integral part of Galle Face Hotel’s history, for which Kuttan extends his heart-felt gratitude. “I’m thankful to late Mr. Cyril Gardiner who recruited me and also the present Chairman, Mr. Sanjeev Gardiner and his family who have been so good to me. I have had a good rapport with the staff of Galle Face Hotel through out these years. In fact when I turned 88 this year, the Hotel organised a gala party in my honour,” said Kuttan with a smile.

Galle Face icon
Sharing his thoughts about this loyal employee, Deputy General Manager and Director Operation, Galle Face Hotel, Harsha Thevarapperuma said, “Kuttan has become an icon and part and parcel of Galle Face Hotel’s history. He’s in fact a fine example of living history of the hotel and he’s a very lucky man indeed to have had the privilege of meeting many luminaries from all over the world. It was Mr. Cyril Gardiner, former Chairman who had recruited Kuttan and the present Chairman, Mr. Sanjeev Gardiner and his family are very concerned about the well being of Kuttan.”

The spotless white uniform of Kuttan which is bedecked with over 50 emblems is an interesting sight. “These badges which represent around 58 countries, are all tokens of friendship, which guests have pinned on my uniform with whom I have posed for photographs,” explained Kuttan who has had the privilege of meeting many VIP’s from all over the world. “I remember the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister during Bandaranaike regime and Indira Gandhi and so many others,” recalled Kuttan adding that prior to independence, only a handful of locals could afford to patronize the hotel. “Francis Molamure, the first Speaker of Sri Lankan Parliament and George E. de Silva from Kandy were among the few locals who used to visit the Hotel often. Mostly it was frequented by British planters and other foreign diplomats. There were no wedding bookings like today. It was only after independence that many locals could have access to the hotel. Prior to that it was a prime venue for cocktails and formal dinners,” Kuttan recalled.

Good old Colombo
A man who had withstood many winds of change that have blown across the Galle Face Green, Kuttan finds it disheartening that ‘good old Galle Face ‘green days’ no longer exist. “It is such a pity that the area has become a security concern. Gone are the days when children flew kites and ran freely across the Galle Face green,” sighed Kuttan for whom that era of ‘blissful Colombo’ still holds nostalgic memories. “There were no other hotels in the vicinity of Galle Face like you find today, only the Colombo Swimming Club was there. The only prominent buildings in the locality were the residence of the Prime Minister and the Macan Markar building,” added Kuttan.

“There was no Hotel School for us those days. It was just an on-the -job training we received here,” chuckled Kuttan who was among the most sought-after waiters summoned by Queen’s Hotel Kandy (during Esala Perehera time) and the residences of foreign diplomats for functions. “There were no catering services available at that time and Galle Face Hotel provided the most sought-after services. During perahera time in Kandy, extra hands from Galle Face Hotel were summoned by Queen’s Hotel, Kandy and I happened to be one of them,” explained Kuttan who fondly reminisced that he had watched the perahera from the verandah of the “Queen’s”.

Kuttan who had been to the land of his birth only once since his arrival in Sri Lanka has dreams of visiting it once more before he ‘closes his eyes forever’ in his own words. “Other than my eldest sister who is 91 years now, all my other siblings are dead and I want to see Kerala, where I was born once more before I die,” Kuttan shared his dreams of future with us. A blessed father of two daughters, Kuttan is a happy great grandfather today.
The Nation bids this ‘icon of history’, ayubowan or long life, good health and happiness.