We went without Coke in Sri Lanka in the 1960s. It was a simpler era, full of hope, before a civil war almost tore our society apart.


Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka (Wikimedia Commons, by Astronomyinertia)

This article is part of a series by our correspondents and guest writers reflecting on the 1960s — a decade of political and social convulsions around the globe. Our hope is that today’s younger generations can learn from their elders’ experiences.

COLOMBO – I grew up in Ceylon, which only later became Sri Lanka, in the 1960s. We went without Coca Cola — it was too expensive — but that did not matter.

A growing middle class in our South Asian nation, along with Woodstock, bell-bottoms, long hair and the occasional “smoke,” gave hope to our new generation even though we were far removed from the global centers of power.

The Vietnam War didn’t figure much in local politics. It was era when members of the three main communities here — Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims — lived together as one, without the squabbles seen today. Whistling at girls in mini-skirts by boys sporting Elvis Presley-style, brylcreemed hair bumps was considered clean fun.

Baby Boomers’ experiences differ from country to country, but in this part of the world, it was the era of “suicide doors” – car doors hinged at the rear rather than at the front, like doors on horse-drawn carriages. My father’s British-made Lancaster had such doors, which would be dangerous in today’s speedy, traffic-filled world. We started the engine by cranking.

Those were carefree days when going to school meant returning home around 1-2 pm, having lunch, a quick nap and playing cricket.

It was early to bed, listening to the radio in between. Launched three years after the BBC, Radio Ceylon (before the name of our country was changed to Sri Lanka) was Asia’s first English radio station and popular across many countries including India.

Space was plenty. Most modest, standard homes had large gardens, with trees filled with fruits and playing areas in abundance. We shared time over family dinner. The landline was the only telephone in existence, and only a few people had the luxury of owning it.

We walked two or three kilometers to the local school when the bus was running late, and many homes had no electricity. It was no big deal.

Laid back, no rush and time to spare!

It was an era of families with tongue-twisting names – Deutroms,  Hingerts or Hoffmans (Burgher community); Cabraals, Silvas, or Mendis (Sinhalese); Amarasinghams, Gnanakumars and Rajasinghams (Tamils) or Cassims, Deens or Lyes (Moors and Malays). Wonderful days! Badminton, hopscotch and marbles were the games of the day.

In politics here, nothing much has changed since the 1960s. Sri Lanka’s two main political parties, the right-leaning, pro-capitalist and liberal-minded United National Party and the nationalist, democratic and socialist-leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party continue to dominate the political scene.

Mahathir Mohamed’s shock victory at Malaysia’s polls earlier this month, making him the oldest elected leader at 92, is a reminder of when Sri Lanka’s Sirima Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister in July 1960, a few months after her prime minister-husband, Solomon Dias, was assassinated by a radical Buddhist monk.

I remember wading through journalism texts at the U.S. Information Service library in Colombo, where I was introduced to country music – records of Johnny Cash, Elvis and  Creedence Clearwater Revival.

It was an era of kerosene fridges, Enid Blyton and Hardy Boys books and 33 rpm and 45 rpm records.

The best part of the ‘60s? Laid back, no rush and time to spare!

Feizal Samath is a Sri Lankan who covered the war between Tamil Tiger guerrillas and government troops, and the leftist insurgency attempting to overthrow the government, for Reuters. A journalist for nearly four decades, he more recently has covered economic development in Sri Lanka for a newspaper in Colombo. A social activist and guitarist, Samath founded a concert series that has raised millions of rupees for children’s charities.

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WorldAsiaCarefree days growing up in Sri Lanka in the 1960s