Posted on January 2nd, 2013

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Students in England had a rough time with finances due to stringent exchange control regulations that existed in Sri Lanka under Mrs. Sirimavo BandaranaikeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s government. There were a few privileged students, however, who got funds transferred regularly to their UK accounts from parents or guardians who operated Swiss or off-shore bank accounts that helped them to afford comfortable well heated hostel accommodation.

Bedsitter experience

Others, especially in London, had to economise and confine to little rooms or a bed sitter. In fact, a bed sitter, with cooking facilities in the same room, in some instances with a bath tub in a partitioned area with sliding doors, or a ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”flat-letƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ was regarded as luxury rather than having to share with others. Many Victorian houses in Paddington and Nottinghillgate area in West London had 4-5 level-Victorian houses converted especially for renting purposes with room facilities only on each floor landing.

Stringent Exchange Control Regulations compelled majority of students to engage in ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”moonlightingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ and accept whatever jobs that were available to supplement their income. The difference between Sri Lanka and in the West was (is) that particularly in England division of labour did (does) not attach any inferior label to one does for a living. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Everyone in this world had to work for a livingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, as such the type of work one did for a living did not matter as long as a service was rendered to the society by everyone for the benefit of others. In this respect we, in Sri Lanka, still seem to suffer from negative pseudo egotistical ideology which has hindered our progress as a nation in that direction!

A family relaxing in the comfort of their home

This was clearly illustrated in the film ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”My Fair LadyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ when ElizaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s father ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Mr. DoolittleƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ who was a dustman appeared scruffy while on duty but turned up in the evenings at the pub as any other respected gentleman. In fact in England Blue Collar workers have more earning capacity being productive than white collar staff who are non-productive! We in Sri Lanka tend to brag about our centuries old civilisation, as opposed to other nations, yet keep on denuding ourselves as if we have never had any civilisation!


During the austerity period when some commodities such as sugar, onions and chilies became scarce in Sri Lanka due to import control, a few Sri Lankans decided to abandon the mother country in search of greener pastures just because they were ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”unhappy with such shortagesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢! Having taken such bold decisions, and burning their boats completely in certain cases, they were compelled to accept any job for survival in the UK rather than living off their savings or converted rupees to foreign exchange after the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”honeymoonƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ was over.

Speaking in general, among those who left Sri Lanka were professionals who have had free University education and attached to senior management jobs in the Government Service or Corporations.

Some such big wigs who were sent on government sponsored scholarships and/or sabbatical leave, after committing themselves to legal and financial bonds decided to stay back in England without paying any heed to their obligations or conscience! Same was with some diplomatic staff to London – from High Commissioner Grade down to home based clerical and minor staff who followed suit. The irony was that all those who were willing to erase their memory at the drop of a hat were quite willing to forego their pension rights at home, after working for more than half of their life time in certain cases, in preference to experience a ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”new life styleƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ in London. In such a backdrop they had no qualms about doing any menial job which in Sri Lanka they would not have thought about even in their wildest dreams!


Equally there were patriotic post graduates who arrived in the UK to follow MSc and PhD programmes who successfully achieved their goals and returned back with new refrigerators, motor vehicles, Belling Cookers etc., out of their part time job earnings, which were regarded as luxury items at the time of undersupply at home.

Another group belonged to a different category of students who were unable to get official foreign exchange permits when Mrs. Bandaranaike bolted the door for those who wanted to study abroad when courses they applied for were available in Sri Lanka! Students going abroad had to be contented with only 45 Pounds as a one-off remittance as against anyone who wanted to visit the UK had to be complacent with 3 Pounds on a passport.

However, some clever Sri Lankans found a loophole in the law to creep through such barriers and found a way of getting to the UK as ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”trainee psychiatric nursesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, which became much popular while there was a demand in England at one time.

A few agencies in Colombo soon mastered the art of sending students to various psychiatric hospitals in England where they managed to get entry permits from the British High Commission in Colombo with ease.

Once they landed on hospital jobs they enjoyed comfortable accommodation, good food (three meals a day) at hospital cafeteria and what more, in the company of many beautiful international female nurses in abundance!

For many, this became the only route of escape where they could earn around 700 Pounds a year as wages and not having to bother about domestic chores. With the increase in such student arrivals, seemingly over a period of years, such students found their way out of hospital life and managed to stand on their own feet financially and went on full time studies in different disciplines and ended up as professionals to establish themselves in many parts of the world. Simultaneously the National Health Service tightened the belt on such escapees later and made them complete their course of nursing which opened up, once qualified, in many other interesting avenues in the Health Sector such as Psychiatric Social Workers, Visiting Nurses, Community Nurses and Charge Nurses etc., taking over responsibility on human life. Nursing in England is recognised as a professional qualification.

Medagama, (Bless his soul) was a nice guy; colourful character who was largely idiosyncratic and very popular among Sri Lankan students. Squint-eyed Medagama always looked obliquely or askance. He was once the Staff Nurse in charge of a mental ward in a hospital who had the keys to all provisions of the ward. His ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”clevernessƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ or skilful ingenuity was displayed once when he filled beautiful Tea Canisters bought from Colombo Tea Board and filling them with tea leaves from the WardƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s supply and presenting as expensive Christmas presents to all senior management hierarchy in the hospital bragging about the history of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”CeylonƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ tea.

Whiz kids

Those students who were in rented accommodation had no choice but to find some means for survival during severe cold weather conditions. A novel story about three Tamil Engineering studentsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ ingenious work needs to be highlighted.

Three of them during thick of winter managed to interfere with the gas-slot-meter where they had to insert coins to keep them warm. They put their minds together and made a few moulds to exact size of the gas tokens, filled those with water and froze the moulds in the freezer compartment of the fridge. When it became hardened ice and matched the real coin, in shape and weight, they used ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”icedƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ tokens instead of real money to activate the gas meter.

When the landlady opened the meter to collect money there was hardly any coins but waterƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚¦..! This was immediately reported to the Gas Board authorities who became suspicious. Subsequent a visit by an inspector from the Gas Board it was found that water had already vapourised.

The threesome were taken to the Gas Board HQ for investigation but their frank reply about the economic hardship which prompted them to devise a method of using frozen ice tokens was regarded as an ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”innovationƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ rather than an offence, and the students were granted free heating for two consecutive years by the Gas Board, instead.

As a young kid I could remember a story about a CTB bus conductor succeeding to interfere with a fool-proof German ticketing machine with the help of a wire nail!

Some cogitate that Sri Lankan intelligent level is much higher than the average person in the world, and no wonder why today many such brains have left the country and serving other nations to make foreign countries prosper.

4 Responses to “GAS OUT OF ICE; ONLY SRI LANKANS COULD DO IT!-Life Abroad – Part 9:”

  1. Wickrama Says:

    One small observation.
    You cannot match a real coin, in shape and WEIGHT, with ICE, since the densities of Ice and metals/alloys used in manufacture of coins are not equal !!

  2. cassandra Says:

    The ‘gas out of ice’ story here has been around a long time, surfacing from time to time with many variations. When I first heard it there was only one chap involved. I see in the story as recalled here, there are three!

    It is a charming old yarn but that is all that it is – a good yarn. Anybody who has used those gas meters will know only too well that it would have been impossible to use ‘iced coins’ (if indeed it was practicable to have made them) in the manner claimed. The coins had to be inserted into a slot and pushed down and if ‘iced coins’ were used, they would simply have broken – and quickly – in the process.

    And, besides, where did these enterprising young men find a refrigerator to make their ice coins in? How many landladies in London had refrigerators? Indeed, how many people in London had refrigerators at the time?

  3. Leela Says:

    I must say, I too have heard of it when I was an engineering student there in the latter part of sixties and tried it with a friend but it didn’t work. Its a lie.

  4. Nimal Says:

    I doubt very much a Sri Lankan is more intelligent as anyone else in the world.In that case we will stay back and beat all other countries in technology etc.Unless we change our backward mindset we will never achieve that stage,just because one is crooked enough fiddle gas meters etc.Perhaps we may take the cake for dishonesty,greed,inability to innovate,etc.
    We are almost a lawless nation where need a complete clean up from top to bottom.I am speaking from my horrible experiences from the very childhood there.One has to be a crook and a hard man to survive there.I regret very much investing my hard earned money there where I am stuck with stupid bureaucracy,corruption and the utterly corrupt and infective justice system.One can’t move forward in any thing unless you bribe.They lack humanity and pity,as one can see the way they drive regardlessly to other users and how they don’t honour a simple pedestrian crossing.I was almost grievously injured 2 years ago by some political thugs while innocently walking on the streets.Kandy hospital treated me very badly,where the orderlies or male nurses treated me rudely with envy.I was seriously injured on my head though their emergency ward 9 had several empty beds,never offered it to me.When I tried to sleep on the bench in the corridor these orderlies woke me up rudely and asked me to stay awake and not to sleep on the benches that was plenty and vacant.Whenever a patient wanted their attention they were rude and un co operative because they were more interested in watching the TV,going on whole night.They bullied and offensive to the private nurse who looked after one critically sick patient.One minute they rudely asked that poor chap stay away from the patient and the other minute he is being berated for not being with the patient who was crying for attention.They are utterly mad and the house doctor was completely helpless to do anything for me,though he had a sympathetic eye for me.This too happened twice few years before where my foreign born wife was not allowed cross the police barricade to enter our house only 50 yards away.She had major two surgeries at a private hospital and wanted to stay the last few days in our house but the ambulance was not allowed to go pass the barriers,though the politicians and their cronies were allowed,thiswas during the perahara time.Poor people have little medicines available in the state hospitals and they have to supplement that from the outside chemists.This the country of my birth and I just can’t stop going there and investing there as I love my people still living there.Problems in that island is great and I doubt the politicians will ever solve it in our life time.No wonder people are trying to go abroad.we are making a paradise in to a hell that benefit few and commend those who survive,especially the private companies that do their business with so much obstacles in the system.I commend them a lot.

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