Salad Days at St Benedict's College

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Dharba

Charles Boyer is said to have whispered ‘Come with me to the Casbah’ in a deep and seductive voice to the beautiful Hedy Lamarr in a scene from the film Algiers.

A full 50 plus years ago, in the prime of the lives of my peers at school, ‘Come with me to the Dharba’ or more relevantly ‘Meet me at the Dharba’ was another ‘famous’ expression when we had some plan to hatch or scheme to carry out.

The Dharba was a Thambi (Muslim) wayside coffee/tea/string hoppers/rice and curry little eatery that stood strategically on the crest of the hill of Kotahena Street. It was ‘strategic’ from the viewpoint of us teenage schoolboy Romeos because the Dharba sat almost opposite the turn off to Wasala Road down which the entrance to Good Shepherd Convent was located.

Panting swains sitting inside the kiosk having a ‘plain tea’ and a ‘fag’ or standing in studious nonchalance outside the café, the would be Benedictine Romeos could spot or ‘cap’ their fancied “Juliets” wending their way to school and brazenly send out signals, winks, smiles and soulful glances at their heartthrobs as they wiggled by. There was no alternative - other than cutting through Ja Mudukkuwa coming up Kotahena Street - for the hapless blushing teenage maidens who had to use the Kotahena Street route to by-pass the Dharba as they walked to school.

Not infrequently, some Juliets had their individual ‘minders’ to accompany and shield them from the prowling lads. And not so infrequently too was it possible to observe adventurous and bold Romeos walk beside their responsive “Juliets” almost right up to the gates of the convent before they either discreetly dropped behind or accelerated and walked past their inamoratas.

One has to remember that in those virtually ‘Catholic Victorian’ days parents, supported by teachers, family friends and the pristine nuns who governed the roost, kept their eyes and ears open and noses to the ground in an ever vigilant mission to ensure that their daughters did not fall prey to ‘those rowdy, rascally, evil intended testosterone laden school boy Lotharios’ who they were certain had only one thought on their warped minds!

Was it not part of the Divine Plan then that at the end of every forty-five minute ‘period’ in class us Bens of that era had to stand up and cross ourselves when a little bell rang and our class teacher intoned ‘Let us remember that we are in the Holy Presence of God? ....Oh naïve wondrous, glorious days of our youth when it was NOT success that mattered but HOW you played the game!

Getting back to ‘The Dharba’, apart from it's importance as a strategic location and vantage point for romantic ventures, the little ‘hotel’ was the most affordable place for impecunious school lads to host and treat each other in mutual camaraderie. If one possessed a ‘legal’, as opposed to a ‘stolen’, parental allowance of even two or three rupees one could easily ‘stand’ a favoured friend a shared feast of string hoppers, meat curry and at least a ‘plain tea’ and ‘fag’ or cigarette each for around two rupees seventy-five cents at most.

If one had accepted creditworthiness or was possibly a ‘long-standing’ client of the management one could even ‘stand’ one’s treats on ‘tick’ or credit.

The Dharba ‘rocked’ on days just prior to school holidays or when the boys had completed their exams or ‘tests' and needed unwinding. It was full house or nothing - and it was noisy, raucous and buzzing with the exuberance of youth. The waiters were given a torrid time taking orders and in the confusion you could bet on it that a few bills were either undercharged or not billed at all. The boys only protested if their bills were in excess - don't you worry about that!

As was common to all wayside tea-boutiques, kiosks and little cafes, a long smouldering rope dangled outside the entrance to the Dharba. Its purpose was eminently useful for the beginner and seasoned smokers - to light up before and after their meals.

In those days ‘show-offs’ could purchase as few as two or three Peacocks, Three Roses, Four Aces or the more upmarket and more expensive Navy Cuts, Sportsman, Ardath and Du Maurier cigarettes, stick them in an empty packet parading their ‘style’ or more particularly their personal ‘wealth’ by displaying the pack prominently either held in the hand or conspicuously popping out of the shirt pocket.

I guess there are many other stories that you good Bens and Shepherdians out there can recall or contribute to on this ‘blog’ about your personal ‘involvements’ with The Dharba. So why not get on the ‘blog’ and send them in boys or girls who knew Kotahena?

My next chapter for the blog is a little history of Wasala Road and the other landmark kiosk or all-purpose kadé that stood at the corner of it's commencement, to wit - the ‘famous’ Velupillai's shop. I am not absolutely certain of it's veracity, but I am given to understand that one of the descendants of those friendly Indian Tamil ‘entrepreneurs’ has recently immigrated to sunny Melbourne - the frenzied capital of Victoria in the Land of Oz.

- The Platypus


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