Bengaluru: Six years after his death, KC Kuttan, the legendary doorman still stands tall in the 156-year-old ‘living history’ of the Galle Face Hotel in Sri Lanka. The longest-serving hotel employee in Sri Lanka and very likely in the world, he passed away at the age of 94 – never retiring from his job at the iconic sea-facing property in the heart of Colombo.
Kuttan was born on February 20th, 1920 and this is his centenary year.
What makes him a living legend in an island nation with 22 million people? He was one of the most photographed doormen in the world; his spotless white uniform with more than 58 badges and medals pinned on to it adorning the cover pages of hundred or more travel magazines across the world.
A native of Thrissur in Kerala, he had arrived in the erstwhile British colony of Ceylon in 1938, after his mother’s death. At just 18, the eldest of five siblings, Kuttan had to discontinue his education to support his family. He was told of opportunities in the island nation which he figured was just a boat trip across the Palk Strait.
After working at the house of a wealthy Sinhalese family, Kuttan joined Galle Face – once described by the British as the “the best hotel East of Aden.”
An Island Native
Kuttan had set foot on the island nation in 1938, though he had begun working at the hotel as a bell boy and waiter only in 1942. “I was compelled to try my fortune somewhere else,” he had told The Nation newspaper in an interview in 2008.
Decades later, however, life was perhaps kinder to him than he had imagined. He was married to Sinhalese Christian woman, who predeceased him. He is survived by two daughters and was looked after by a granddaughter in his last days.
The initial days in Ceylon did not go smooth for the doorman, though he had managed to learn the Sinhala language, and some English to converse with the guests of the hotel. During those days “it was all so simple. No passport, no visa nothing. It was just the matter of buying a ticket from India to Sri Lanka,” he had said, recalling his maiden voyage across the water of India.
The simple journey across water turned into a life-changing experience as Kuttan served the illustrious guests of the hotel. The star-studded list of dignitaries gracing the property include King George V, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philips, Winston Churchill, Lord Mount Batten, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru, General Aung San, Japanese emperor Hirohito and son Akihito, the King of Thailand, Richard Nixon, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russel, cricketers Don Bradman and Garry Sobers, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Deng Xiaoping, ZA Bhutto, Nasser, Khrushchev and hundreds of others.
They would be greeted at the porch of the grand, colonial seafront facing hotel by its doorman: a white-haired man with a handlebar moustache and broad smile, who folds hands in humility to say “ayubowan” – meaning “may you have a long life” in Sinhalese.
Kuttan’s life is the living testimony to Sri Lanka’s pre and post-Independence history. He was only 22 when he witnessed the Japanese bombing of Colombo in 1942. Over 60 years later, speaking to this reporter, he said that he still vividly remembered the crashing of a Japanese warplane right in front of his hotel.
“I was new to Ceylon. The Second World War had reached the island. People were fleeing. I was poor and I had nothing to lose. So, I had stayed back, witnessing the unfolding events”, he had said.
When Ceylon got Independence from the United Kingdom on February 4th, 1948, Kuttan was there to witness that historic event. All Sri Lankan Presidents, Prime Ministers, Governor Generals, Ministers and other celebrities of the time knew him well. The first Prime Minister DS Senanayake to President Mahinda Rajapaksa knew him personally.
When he died, Mahinda Rajapaksa had described him as a national icon, one who made Sri Lanka famous among the Westerners. Sanjeev Gardiner, the current owner of the hotel describes Kuttan as an icon. “His death was indeed a sad day for all of us. He had worked for over 72 years at the same hotel. Kuttan was close to my late father Cyril Gardiner. We were concerned about his health. He was Sri Lanka’s most famous tourism brand ambassador”, he said.
He was almost like a family member of the wealthy and famous Gardiners. When Kuttan turned 88, the Galle Face Hotel had organized a gala party in his honour.
Kuttan’s death was mourned by the who’s who of Sri Lanka including the then President (now Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and many others. The hotel had even observed a two minutes of silence in his honour in the presence of all dignitaries.
Kuttan who had been to the land of his birth Kerala, only once since his arrival in Sri Lanka 76 years ago, had dreams of visiting it one more time before he “closed his eyes forever.”
“Other than my eldest sister who is 91 years now, all my other siblings are dead and I want to see Kerala, where I was born, once more before I die,” Kuttan had shared his dreams with the staff of Galle Face Hotel in 2008.
Unfortunately, he breathed his last before realising his last wish. The doorman continues to live among the memories of a nation, even after death.