a warm welcome
Greeting guests at the Galle Face Hotel for
more than half a century, Kuttan reminisces about his life and service
It’s hard to miss 86-year-old Chathukuttan
at the Galle Face Hotel entrance. Rain or shine he is there, courteously
greeting visitors with an Ayubowan, his presence an intrinsic feature
of the hotel’s reception.
Completing 64 years at this landmark hotel, Kerala-born
Kuttan is the oldest serving employee of the Galle Face Hotel, established
in 1864, and thereby, something of a symbol of the country’s
|Galle Face Hotel
How did this man from a small South Indian town
called Thrissur carve a niche for himself in this legendary institution?
Stroking his upturned silver moustache, Kuttan tells us his life
story, refusing to sit down the entire length of time.
His is a saga of hard work and perseverance. Born
into a poor family in 1920, Kuttan dropped out of school in Year
Four and took on odd jobs. He was 16 when his mother died, and he
knew he had to seek a job elsewhere. Hearing of an uncle who worked
in a tea factory in Ceylon, he began his journey with only Rs. 25
in his pocket.
“It was 1938 and we did not need visas or
passports then,” he says. He waited a week at Mandapam working
for food at a tea shop, awaiting the ship that sailed to Talaimannar
from Rameswaram. “It was a day’s voyage,” he recounts,
after which he took a train to meet his uncle at a tea and rubber
estate where he stayed for a month.
Thereafter he commenced work at the De Sarams’
(father of the late Srimani Athulathmudali) residence where he received
Rs. 10 per month as wages. He recalls the Japanese bombing during
World War II, when many Indians returned to India, but he decided
to stay on.
In 1942 he was employed by the Galle Face Hotel
restaurant earning Rs. 20 a month. “It was enough for my needs
then,” he smiles. He and his Sri Lankan wife Lourdes Mary,
whom he married in 1952, lived in a small house in the area where
Liberty Plaza now stands, from where he would walk to work each
day. The entire landscape of Colombo was different then, Kuttan
reminisces. Galle Face Hotel was the only hotel in the area with
the Parliament building and the President’s House to one side.
Kuttan has seen celebrities and royalty, and reels
off a list of international dignitaries that include Queen Elizabeth
II, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Prince Aga
Khan, and many more during his 53 years at the restaurant and 11
years as part of the hotel’s welcoming committee.
However, life was not easy. He was widowed in
1995, and his married daughter was widowed in 2005, leaving the
burden of providing for her and her five children on his shoulders.
His other unmarried daughter works in Kuwait.
Kuttan, however, has learnt to accept the good
times with the bad. In 1980 when he was to retire, Galle Face Hotel
Chairman Cyril Gardiner, impressed by his sincere service said,
“Kuttan can decide when to retire.” In 2004 he got an
opportunity to go back to his home town for a month, where he met
with his two sisters and their families. It was certainly a momentous
time for him.
More recently, one-and-a-half years ago, his grand-daughter
who was performing a pooja set fire to herself by accident, suffering
severe burns and requiring eight months of hospitalisation. Galle
Face Hotel Chairman Sanjeev Gardiner came to his rescue covering
a major chunk of the medical expenses. However, the incident compounded
by other problems in the family, forced him to sell his house.
Today, Kuttan who takes his job very seriously,
continues to make his way to the hotel at 4 a.m. and is dressed
and ready at the entrance by 6 a.m. He obviously does not make any
allowances for his age. Asked if there was anything else he needed
to do, “I desperately need to buy a house,” Kuttan says,
adding that he has saved some money, but needs some more. His responsibilities
would then be complete.
Reflecting on his life, “I do not believe
in karma, but I worship Gods of all religions,” Kuttan says,
attributing his achievements to sheer hard work. With pride he points
to the various badges on his uniform gifted to him by guests from
Canada, US, UK, India, the Arab states, etc., evidence of his happy
interaction with guests from all over the world.