The Castle Hotel was once beautiful. On the outside it still is, with its mustard-yellow exterior and colonial British architecture, standing out in a splash of colour against a palette of grayish buildings. Inside however, it is dark even during the day and appears to be held tenuously together by heavy wooden beams in various stages of decay.
When we walked inside the dimly lit establishment, pushing aside heavy doors that were just the slightest bit ajar to indicate that it wasn’t quite closed, members of the staff – obviously surprised to see two women asking after the place – led us to the hotel Manager, H. D. Mervyn Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe was offhandish at first, reluctantly ushering us into a tiny office behind the reception desk before asking us what we wanted. Middle-aged and quietly street-smart, he showed us around, politely answering any questions we had with a noncommittal air that told us he had much more information to share, if only he chose to.
It took a while for him to warm to us and even when he did, there was a restless air about him that made us wonder whether or not he enjoyed the job he had been doing for decades. Still, he was decidedly friendlier – even going as far as to tell us, with a fatherly sort of concern, that he would like us to always visit the Hotel before 6 pm because after that, the bar became active and wasn’t a suitable environment for women.
Wickremesinghe was most animated when he spoke of his conversations with actor-turned-politician Vijaya Kumaranatunga, the late husband of Sri Lanka’s former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike. One of the first Sinhalese political figures to visit Jaffna after the start of the war to initiate peace talks, Kumaratunga met Wickremesinghe while he was at the Castle Hotel, working on a film. He was assassinated in 1989, but Wickremesinghe clearly still values their frank discussions. His picture is one of many framed images hanging on the walls of the lobby and bar of the hotel, along with those its first owner, Paul Perera, and Mahatma Gandhi – a pacifist of another era.
Much like the area to which it belongs, the Castle Hotel has changed since its earlier days. Previously a printing press called Cave Press, it was converted and renamed by a former graphite-miner, Paul Perera, in 1875, and has since been passed down through generations – now being owned by his great grandson, Mahinda Perera.
While its early clientele were mainly foreigners – some of them military personnel, especially during the World Wars – the Castle Hotel of today is now more akin to a local watering hole. The rooms are simple and sparse, containing a bed, a chair and a dressing table, and according to Wickremesinghe, house mostly outstation guests in Colombo for a few days.
Once we looked hard enough though, we saw that telltale signs of its past grandeur still existed – the panel of stained glass above the entrance which painted the minimal light allowed into the building; the black iron ceiling, parts of which were so rusted that they had left gaping holes; the stately wooden staircase in the centre of the lobby with its tattered red carpeting.
The Hotel clearly needs renovation but has lacked sufficient funds for such large-scale maintenance. However as Slave Island business owners have been told by authorities to ensure that their establishments look attractive to tourists and passers by, there may be hope for refurbishment in the Hotel’s near future. Right now it is being repainted – its landmark yellow, disappearing under a coat of orange and green instead. Mr. Wickremesinghe is unsure what part Castle Hotel will play in the transformation of Slave Island, but unlike other residents, who are being told they must move to make room for the new developments, he has the comforting assurance that – at least for now – he and the Hotel are safe.