“There’s no place quite like Slave Island,” Nizar Doole announced to us within minutes of meeting us for the first time. As an example, he urged us to look to his own community, the Malays, who speak most if not all of the country’s languages: English, Sinhala, Tamil along with their own dialect, Ja. A gentleman in his late 60s, Doole himself spoke all four; conversing easily with us in English, hailing his neighbours in Tamil, addressing his children in Ja but preferring to be interviewed in Sinhala.
Doole’s home is found on Java Street, in a neighbourhood populated largely by the Malay community. There is something about the area that is slightly different from greater Slave Island – it seems neater somehow, the colours seem brighter and more varied, and there is a more tangible impression of communal living. Women and children would always be in and out of each other’s homes, men would gather outside the neighbourhood mosque in colourful shirts and white prayer hats, talking amongst themselves while the call to prayer would resonate through speakers latched onto the tall minarets of the holy place. Once the men went inside however, the street would fall silent, save for the stray cry of a baby or the periodic cawing of crows.
Having lost his wife 2 years ago, Doole now lives with his children, his mother and his brother’s family in a narrow two-storey house, just a step or two away from the Java Military Mosque of which he is a trustee. After shooing a couple of his grandchildren out of his living room and finding a comfortable spot on his sofa however, it wasn’t the mosque that he talked about so much as the days before religion had calmed his instinct for adventure. He regaled us with stories from his days a seaman, talking of all the countries he had been to and the storms he had weathered along the way. And despite haven’t not touched a drink for the past 15 years, he fondly recalled spells of time back home in between voyages, during which he would walk over to the Castle Hotel for a few afternoon beers.
When we asked him of his origins, he was struck by how little he himself knew about the matter and resolved to find out through his mother by the time our next meeting rolled around. As it turned out, his story was quite a sad one. He never knew his father, a soldier from Indonesia who was posted to Sri Lanka during World War II where he met and married Doole’s mother, then a young Malay girl living in Slave Island. Less than a year later he left to go back to Indonesia, leaving Doole’s mother with a promise that he would return. He never did. Doole showed us the only object he had to remember his father by – his parent’s wedding photograph.
Doole is very much attached to Slave Island where he has lived his entire life, and uses his still-abundant reserves of enthusiasm to be a responsible member of his community. During the war he was a member of a civilian-run Vigilance Committee who were responsible for reporting suspicious peoples and activities to the police – a job he took very seriously, even taking it upon himself to settle small disputes between locals in adjoining settlements.