AT THE BAMBA FLATS – The wolf whistles were long and approving. The long-legged pretty girls walking by in their mini-skirts didn’t mind it. They just loved the extra-attention which added more spring to the step and flounce in the hip. Tony Martyn and his friends were all spellbound, caught in a thrall of admiration. [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Illicit love affairs, stealing mangoes and wooing the girls – life was a ball at the Bamba flats


Artist's impression of the proposed new complex

AT THE BAMBA FLATS – The wolf whistles were long and approving. The long-legged pretty girls walking by in their mini-skirts didn’t mind it.

They just loved the extra-attention which added more spring to the step and flounce in the hip. Tony Martyn and his friends were all spellbound, caught in a thrall of admiration.

Life was good in the 60s at the Bamba Flats (in Colombo 4 bordering Galle Road and the Marine Drive). It was also fun. Clean fun that is. The admiring looks and the two-toned wolf-whistles were never degrading but just a tacit admission that there was some serious talent around the blocks.

“We were a naughty bunch but never bad,” reminisced Martyn on the good old days when he and his buddies used to hang around casting appreciative looks at the Bamba Flat girls, most of them known to them and in some cases the sisters of their own buddies.

Stealing mangoes and amberella from the neighbour’s trees, and strumming the guitar and singing songs – love songs when the girls walked by – were a popular pastime for Martyn and his gang who hung around the stage near ‘L’Block which today faces demolition.

The government has mega plans to build a multi-billion rupee mixed development project including seven residential towers that will house around 2,000 people (one tower being dedicated for the current owners which number 308 – 298 flat dwellers plus 10 shop owners) on the 10.5 acres of prime land smack bang in the heart of the city.

We took a walk down memory lane accompanied by residents – current and former – who are all unanimous in the verdict that the Bamba Flats was a great place to live at. Or, well, used to be.


Fione Perera (right) with Shiro and Ajith Subramaniam, former flatters, at a reception last week in Melbourne organised by the Bamba Flatters Association.

“The beauty of living there those days was that at any given time you had many friends to hang out with. The bond between flatters was unbreakable. If any flatter was being harassed or bullied, it was a matter of time before 10 or 20 flatters turned up to support their mate,” says Martyn who lived in M Block from 1961 to 1987.

Martyn, who emigrated to Australia and now lives in Melbourne, says the fierce camaraderie led to the phrase “never mess with a flatter”. His closest friends were Dwight Vangramberg and Joey Nadarajah.

“We had some of the prettiest girls in the flats. The worst things we did were to whistle at them and steal mangoes from the neighbours’ trees. There were also many top cricketers and rugby players who lived at the Flats,” Martyn adds.

Sweet girls and friendships seem to be a thing of the past, for today, things are a bit sour, according to Ms. Helen Fernando who also lived in the 60s in J Block. She sold the flat she grew up in but bought her sister-in-law’s flat (she emigrated to the US) in B Block closer to Galle Road a few years ago as a place to retire to. She has shelved that idea and now lives in Nawala.

“The conditions of the flats are terrible. Even the garbage is not collected. You only have to pay 100 rupees for the garbage to be collected but some people don’t even do that. The good crowd that used to live there has left long ago,” says Helen.

While a handful of flatters are against the re-development – insiders say it is because of vested interests like one powerful individual renting out public space for three-wheelers to park or another owner having illegally put up an extension which is now being rented out to foreigners – Helen is all for the government’s plans to modernise the old landmark.

“It is the best thing that could have happened (the re-development proposal). The place is falling apart and people are not interested in maintaining their flats. If they can’t even contribute to the garbage collection, then what is the point of living there under these current conditions,” asks Helen.

Love is in the air

It wasn’t like this in the good old days. Salome Visi Rajeswaran (nee Lazarus) remembers how her love affair as a teenager ignited inside the walls of a neighbour’s flats.

“I was a Christian Tamil and I met Rajan who was a Hindu Tamil. Both sets of parents were dead against our love affair and had many spies who reported on us whenever we managed to meet. But we also had a lot of friends (flatters) who helped us. It was a bitter-sweet affair and we faced many hurdles,” Salome wrote to us from Sydney.

Salome and Rajan met for the first time at a 31st night and it was love at first sight, their eyes meeting across the floor of a flat owned by a Muslim family. “We were not allowed to go for parties, but that 31st night was an exception as my parents knew this Muslim family well and knew we would be safe there.

We met under high scrutiny and it was meant to be. We have had no regrets whatsoever,” says Salome who has been happily married for 45 years.

Love was in the air, everywhere they looked around. And the talented Lye family used it to good effect in the music they played and which earned them a passage to Switzerland in 1980.

“We lived in P Block from 1963 and it was the best times of our lives. The friendships we forged have lasted the test of time,” says Kamy Lye, who along with his brothers Sherry and Najo emigrated to Switzerland (sister Sandy moved to Melbourne in 1996).

The brothers formed the band SKAR while living at the Flats and they were a popular hit among the in-crowd. Kamy was on drums and Sherry was on bass.

They practiced at the Flats. In 1978 they got the break when they got a contract at the Little Hut. A few months later, a female vocalist joined them. Her name was Noeline Honter.

Music was my first love

Present-day view of the flats.

“In 1980 we got a contract to tour Switzerland and Europe. When we began our tour, we changed the name of our band to ‘Fame the Band’. It all began for us at the Bamba Flats. What a great place to grow up in. We used to love when it was Christmas and Avurudu. Special times, special people,” says Kamy.

In 1987, they released their first original CD called ‘Still In Love With You’. Yes, love was in the air at the Bamba Flats.

Hardly the case today with residents divided over the re-development plans.

But Felix Perera, who lives in Q Block, is all for it. “It is a good offer.

I only hope they will live up to their promises,” says Felix who has lived there since 1968.

The last word goes to Fione Perera (nee Muller) who was born at the flats and lived there until she migrated to Australia in 1994. “I can’t even think what my life would have been if I hadn’t been born at the Flats. It was an amazing place to grow up in and the many friends I made still remain close to me.

“We played tin ball, cricket and hide and seek. I learned to ride a bike and drive a car there. We rang doorbells and with our friends made achcharu. We sold concert tickets for ten cents and with this money would buy ‘gal siyambala’ and ‘mee betty’.

Kavum Amma

“There was always someone outside our flats selling their wares. The Kavum Amma, the breadman, the shoemaker. Every visit was an occasion. It was a great time and we got on with everyone. We used to also spend hours just chatting with our friends. I’m so ever grateful that I was born and grew up at the Flats. I hope things will be the same for those who live there today,” Fione added.

Not the case, with life becoming more impersonal. Modern life has seen people communicate on Whatsapp and Instagram, and “chatting for hours” like Fione did is a thing of the past. Perhaps it is best then that a new beginning takes place and people just cling to their memories of the old Bamba Flats.

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