The Colombo Chetty community

-Their roots, branches & history

Review by Manel Ratnatunga
Do you want to know who the Gratiaen Award Ondaatjes are? From where did they come, and who married who, and who are their children? Our mothers’ generation would have revelled in a book such as this and would have spent many delicious hours discussing what ATS Paul has written in this marvellous WHO’S WHO about the Chetties. For us today, a wonderful font of knowledge about a very vibrant community of our nation.

Names we have all heard - the Muttukrishnas, Aserappas, Casie Chitties, Pauls, Fernandopulles, Candappas to name a few are all here in a scintillating run of their dazzlingly brilliant achievements along the generations.

The first Ceylonese Medical Officer of Health; Founder President of the Association of Surgeons of Ceylon, who achieved the rare distinction of obtaining both the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians and the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. The first Ceylonese Director of a British Company (Lewis Brown) rising to be its Managing Director; the first Ceylonese to be a member of the High Court of Justice of the Netherlands; first to act as Crown Counsel; first to import an automobile and an air conditioner; first to introduce neon advertisement (Berec ad. on top of the Savoy Cinema). A Chetty was admitted into the Colombo Club for Europeans only. Then there is Lady Corea. Do you know who her father was? And who was Mabel, the patron of Bishop’s College? And who, the lovely Vanaruha?

ATS Paul, the surgeon, writes with the precision of his surgical skill. Neat, tidy, precise. He tells that Chetty merchants were visiting Ceylon in their own sailing vessels carrying diamonds from Golconda, emeralds from Rajasthan, rubies from Burma and so on from various states of India from pre-Buddhist times. Their arrival here is documented in our history during the time of King Rajasinghe II and the governorship of the Dutch. Once they settled in Ceylon, these traders and money-lenders dropped out of the money-lending livelihood as it was considered repugnant and switched to the learned professions where they rose to great heights of fame.

We learn that the Chitty legal luminary, who owned one of the first imported automobiles, used a rickshaw to go from his home Stafford House to the Supreme Court. That his son drove the family American carriage drawn by an Australian horse to Royal College at about the age of ten. ATS has not explained why their neighbours objected to this. All his children were educated at home and the boys went straight into Form 1 at Royal College and walked away with many prizes.

The book takes you on a romp through Colombo when fields and forests lay beyond Pettah and the Fort, from where a wild elephant might emerge. Do we know Pettah was originally Janpeta and why? And that it was just a village street owned by the Colombo Chetties. And why ‘Colombo’ Chetty? How did that name come into being?

I must admit I never knew half these interesting facets about a clan of people who have made great contribution to our nation and belong with pride to Sri Lanka. This easy to read compilation is a MUST for our public and private libraries.