Mumtaz Mahal

The story of a house

By Ameena Hussein
A few days ago, I took my father to see his childhood home. Situated on the busy and newly refurbished Galle Road in Kollupitiya, the house sat on a piece of land that stretched from the Galle Road down towards the sea. It is a testament to a long-lost era of spacious compounds with large houses, vast rooms and elaborate gardens.
My father often told me stories of how he would go to sleep lulled by the sound of the waves of the Indian Ocean pounding on the beach outside. Of playing in the gardens and sitting on the verandas with his siblings and parents. He was talking of a period that I was not familiar with, when Sri Lanka was called Ceylon and still a colony under British rule. As we walked down the drive, the house though shabby still looked imposing and the gardens though neglected showed traces of what they would have been like long years back. It would have been a magnificent house.

This is the story of that house. Around 1927, my grandfather, a man prone to insane fits of building extravagant houses, embarked on a project that would ruin him. The youngest and spoilt son of a rich man, he was presented a house called St Margaretís which was a lovely French styled villa, by his father. He tore down the house against his wifeís wishes and in 1928, he commissioned the services of the architect Homi Billimoria (who would go on to build Tintagel in 1929) to build him another house on the same piece of land that echoed his vision and would be the very definition of himself. It was a house that mixed the styles of Italian renaissance and colonial grandeur. Tall columns, sweeping stairways, wide balconies, high ceilings, intricate floors and broad verandas were all part of the house design. Once the house was completed, he hired the Count de Mauny, who romanticised and made the island of Taprobane off Weligama famous, to design the gardens and furniture to fit the house. Sunken gardens, elaborate drive-ways, garden stairs and framed views were his theme; his furniture using exquisite, rare and native woods were art nouveau replete with complicated inlays and detail. The furniture was specifically built for the house and resulted in being extra tall, extra large and extra elaborate. The beds could sleep three or four people easily, the sofas were as wide as beds, the dressing tables had tall mirrors and the cupboards were deep.

My father spent three happy years there, before my grandfather, deep in bankruptcy, was forced to rent the house to the French consul until 1943. He vividly remembers the day he and his siblings left the house, led by the hand by his father and taking one last look at the Joan of Arc statue at the bottom of the stairs hoping that a miracle would happen and that he would never have to leave.

When the French consul left Sri Lanka on the fall of the Vichy government, Sir Geoffrey Layton who was Commander in Chief Ė Ceylon, took over the tenancy. In 1947 when Ceylon achieved Dominion status the government began to look for a house for the first Speaker. My grandfatherís house was sold together with some of the Count de Mauny furniture to the government of Ceylon and Sir Francis Mollamure took residence. For the next 53 years eminent citizens of the country like Sir Albert Pieris, HS Ismail, TB Subasinghe, RS Pelpola, Hugh Fernando, Shirley Corea, Stanley Tillekaratne, Anandatissa de Alwis, M H Mohamed, Bakeer Markar, and EL Senanayake among others lived in the house that became the official residence of the Speaker of the Parliament.
Over the years, my family has been invited by various members who held the post of Speaker to have high tea and walk about the house that my ancestors once owned. It was like walking into another era for my sister and I as we roamed through the rooms, laughed at the now strange looking oversized furniture and the vast and over-bearing rooms.

The house and gardens always looked well kept and it must have given my father pleasure to know that his childhood home was well looked after. Then a newer residence was built in Sri Jayawardenepura, as the official residence of the Speaker and the house went through a series of different identities, including the office of the short-lived Constitutional Council and the Fiscal Ombudsman.
A few days ago, while driving past I was pleasantly surprised to see that the house now housed the Buddhist and Pali University. My father with his love for languages and philosophy was pleased that his childhood home was now a home for academia. We decided to visit.

As we climbed up the stairs to the house from a side entrance we began to get a sense of the neglect that had set in. The walls were damp and green with mould, the intricate parquet floor was wet, a heavy fetid smell followed us through the house. The remnants of the Count de Mauny furniture, and there were not many, were pushed to a side carelessly and were in a state of disrepair. Velvet curtains hung loosely as if in a mad scene from Great Expectations. The Joan of Arc statue was no longer there. I looked sideways at my father to see if he was upset. His face was the picture of calm. He has a Buddhist outlook on life and knows that nothing is permanent.
When I asked a man loitering outside why it was in such a neglected state, he told me it seemed to be between authorities and no-one wanted to take responsibility for it. When I told him that it was my fatherís childhood home, he asked us if we were Indian. I had to tell him that we were born and bred Sri Lankans for many generations and that we still live in the general area. He seemed mystified and kept on asking if we were returning to India. Perhaps he had been told that the man who built the house was an Indian, or perhaps he thought that Hussein was not really a Sri Lankan name.

A few days ago I had the good fortune of listening to Professor Guhar who spoke about making Asian cities habitable from a perspective of the past, at the 12th Neelan Tiruchelvam Annual Lecture. He touched on the three salient points of ancient cities ĖNature, Democracy and Tradition, and congratulated Colombo on still possessing heritage houses and colonial buildings. Looking at the treatment this particular house is receiving, perhaps it wonít be there for long.

I mourn that a heritage house like this is falling apart under our very own eyes. I bemoan the fact that our government has not set up a heritage trust to protect or maintain historical buildings. Soon, I expect it will be bulldozed to make room for a bright, shining, steel and glass monstrosity. Then the city of Colombo will forget that it once housed a residence called Mumtaz Mahal. Initially a rich manís folly, elevated to the residence of many eminent Sri Lankans including various Speakers of Ceylon, and now a dilapidated classroom that resembles a slum!
(Ameena Hussein is a partner of Perera Hussein Publishing House and a writer)