(Reproduced from the Sunday Observer of February 24, 2002)
By Jayanthi Liyanage
It was a rare gem of an occasion, yet only a few heard it over the evanescent din of the tumultuous hotel industry.
For instance, us, stepping over the threshold of the 138-year, ocean-bordered colonial majesty, Galle Face Hotel, an usher greeted us. Small, slight in stature, a demeanour swished to our day from the grandiose yore of Wel Widanes and Korales.
White tufts flanked his neatly-receding hairline, matched in the moustache twirling at both ends and the immaculacy of a spotless, brass-buttoned coat and sarong. His glance of enquiry was at the same time, a tactful effacing of himself.
have come to meet the employee who is being feted today," we
explained. "Ask the reception, please," he nodded in its
direction without batting an eyelid. "He is the person," the
desk pivoted us back to where he stood - a quiet brimming of hospitality
coupled with the impassivity of granite. That is Kuttan - the epitome of
discreetness and etiquette, straight from the pages of Wodehouse.
Kuttan - still batting strong in his year 84 could well be the
longest-serving hotel employee in Sri Lanka and perhaps in the world.
"For who has served in a hotel for 60 years?" asked Dr. Wickrema
Weerasuriya who regularly visits the hotel as early as 5.45 a.m. for his
daily swim. "When I come, the first one I meet is Kuttan. I see him
with hair well-combed, trimming his moustache at the mirror."
"Kuttan started working at Galle Face Hotel in 1942 as a waiter but found his true calling only after retirement 50 years later when he came to the hotel front to welcome guests," said Sanjeev Gardiner, Chairman, Galle Face Hotel. "He is a distinguished person and had his picture published in Austin Reed magazine and other foreign publications. His dignified, understated elegance is very much like the Galle Face Hotel itself!"
"He is still as fit as a fiddle and can take on two young men single-handed," remarked a hotel employee. "He is a teetotaller and can stand for over eight hours with no fatigue. Every Airline magazine in the world and even the Internet carries his photograph."
"Foreigners coming to the hotel ask, 'where is the moustached-man?' It's his trade mark," the employee said. "And he is a good-hearted man." Amiable. Loyal. As steely as good-hearted iron. That rounds up what Kuttan is.Ē
Last week, Galle Face Hotel staff and management immortalised Kuttan's year 60 in its service by a poignant tribute. Dr. P. Ramanujam, Secretary, Ministry of Tourism and Renton de Alwis, Chairman, Ceylon Tourist Board, joined the small, intimate gathering, headed by Gardiner and the hotel's Managing Director, Lalith Rodrigo.
"Kuttan, you are in the forefront of the tourist industry," Alwis spoke at the ceremony where Kuttan cut his Ď60-not-outí cake and was feted by his Chairman with a special gift. "The General Manager of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore takes her doorman along, to receive international awards for the hotel. Often, it's the doorman who receives them. It shows how important front-liners are in this industry."
Despite his authentic "Korale Mahattaya" looks, soft-voiced Kuttan was not born here. He fled his home in Kerala, India, at the tender age of 19 years after his mother died, without telling his two brothers and three sisters and arrived by sea at Talaimannar in the pre-independence year of 1938. Staying with his uncle and working in the tea-rubber houses at Slave Island, he witnessed the Japanese Air Raid of Colombo in 1942. "Everybody left. Even my uncle's family. But I stayed behind," Kuttan said.
The same year, he found work at Galle Face Hotel. "Then, full board cost only Rs.45/-," he reminisced. "My salary was Rs.20/- a month." The hotel and Kuttan grew together, experiencing visits of many dignitaries such as Lord Mountbatten, Princess Elizabeth, Pandit Nehru and Sir Arthur C. Clarke. "I get regular mail from Arthur C. Clarke for Kuttan," his Chairman smiled.
After 62 years of fleeing home, a newspaper story on Kuttan enabled him to reconcile with the surviving members of his family in Kerala. A reader sponsored his airfare and for the first time, he saw his young nephews and nieces and the plot of land the two sisters, still living, had safeguarded in his name. Now he longs to go back again and bequeath it to the children of his dead brother.
Until recently when he fell ill, he daily walked the three-mile stretch to the hotel from Maligawatte where he is housed now. "Now I walk one mile," Kuttan said. "It keeps me healthy." His bronze, wizened image cannot be separated from that of Galle Face Hotel. He is the face of Galle Face Hotel. Ageing K.C. Kuttan longs to visit Kerala once again, to fulfil family obligations of bequeathing his land to his second generation. We welcome the assistance of a warm-hearted reader who could sponsor his travel to India. It is the best tribute we can pay this rare man.
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