Life at St.John’s College, Jaffna, in the 1930 – 1940s – by Victor Benjamin.
A recall by a Surgeon in the Health Department of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, now in Australia.
Source:Medical batch colombo
In January 1937, I entered St. John’s College, Jaffna, as a Fourth Standard student, after studying at Chundikuli Girls’ College. Miss. M. E. Van Den Driesen was my first class teacher. She was called Lorna, a shortened version of her name Eleanor. She was beautiful, intelligent, and very kind. She is the only person who taught me at St. John’s, who is still alive. She leads a very active life in Australia at present.
I found the new environment at St. John’s very exciting and different. Ceylon was then a Crown Colony in the British Empire. St. John’s was run by the Church Missionary Society (or C.M.S) from Britain. Chundikuli Girls’
College, the school at Kopay, and a small school in Nallur also belonged to the C.MS <http://c.ms/>. These were smaller schools, created long after St. John ‘s had been recognized as a success. We were being educated to be the discipline men of the future, on whom the country would depend. The statusin life which each of us would attain in later years was not important.
Whether in a humble, or in an exalted position, our conduct had to be exemplary and honourable, at all times, so that others would identify us as “Old Johnians” wherever we went. We were to be sportsmen, to whom winning or losing did not matter, as long as we “played the game”.
Reverend Henry Peto, M.A. was our Principal. He was proud of us, and we were inspired by him. He had been Principal at .St John’s from 1920, until his tragic death by drowning in 1940, while sea bathing at Thondaimanaru, in the company of two other teachers residing in Chundikuli. Henry Peto was a very learned, energetic, benign looking, thin handsome man of average height, and who was a very strict disciplinarian. He had a small dark brown coloured Austin Seven car, a model that was referred to as the “Baby Austin “. We
referred to it as the “match box car”. He was the Chaplain to St. John’s, and to Chundikuli Girls’ College, when there was no other ordained clergyman on the college staff to take this responsibility for the spiritual care of
the staff and the students. Sunday Church services in English were conducted by the Principal, and the Chaplain (if one was available). There was a Holy Communion service, early in the mornings, and an evening service (or
Evensong). Prefects and monitors felt very important, when their turn came to read a lesson, and collect the offering at the Evensong. After the Sunday evening service, it was customary for the boarders at both schools to walk in an orderly fashion, in different processions separated by a safe distance, to the beach beside the Jaffna lagoon. The distance separating the procession of the girls, and that of the boys who followed, had an unexplained tendency to diminish. This trip to the beach was quite popular with many day scholars too, who would attend the evening service regularly, in order to join in the march to the beach. Opportunities to communicate with the girls by verbal, non-verbal, and body languages were great. It was considered vulgar to go to the beach with the other students, unless one had attended the church service preceding the excursion. Hence, many Hindu boys eagerly came to church on Sunday evenings, and thereafter to the beach.
Mrs. Peto took upon herself to teach English singing to the students at St. John’s. These singing classes were held, during school hours, at the Principal’s bungalow. She would play the piano, and would lead in the singing. These classes were part of the education at St. John’s. Thus, the boys at St. John’s became good in many old and popular English Ballads. Miss. Athisayam Sathianathan, who also was a good pianist and could sing well, would assist Mrs. Peto. Miss. Sathianathan changed the life of another teacher Mr. D. C. Arulanantham, who had returned in 1938, after post-graduate studies in Britain, by getting married to him. They left St. John’s a few years later, when D. C. Arulanantham took up a senior staff job in the Education Department in Colombo. When World War Two began in Europe in 1939, Mrs. Peto was in England, where their children lived.
Rev. Peto enjoyed a regular swim in the sea off the North coast of the Jaffna Peninsula. He. was an expert swimmer, and went further into the sea than the others who accompanied him. On the fatal day when he got drowned, he had got into difficulty by going too far into the sea. His body was interred in St. John’s Church Cemetery. His death was the saddest event that I remember. A few years later, Rev. Peto ‘s son, Captain Morton Peto came to St. John ‘s soon after the World War ended He was in his army uniform, and was introduced to the students at a special college assembly, after which there was a brief service at the grave side, when. wreaths were placed by Captain Peto and our Principal.
The C.M.S. was unable to send another Missionary from Britain, to succeed Peto as Principal of St. John’s, because of the war. Their inability to send an Englishman from Britain resulted in the very best choice being made in the appointment of the next Principal. Our Vice-Principal, Rev. J. T. Arulanantham became the new Principal of St. John’s College. He proved an extremely successful Principal. During his tenure as Principal, a number of far reaching changes took place in the country in general, and specifically in the field of education and in matters concerning schools, particularly after I left the college. Changes and challenges that occurred after I left St. John’ s, fall outside the scope of this article.
During my time at St. John’s, Rev. Arulanantham continued to teach Scripture, even after becoming the Principal. He introduced ethics as an alternate subject to cater for Non-Christian boys who did not wish to learn
Scripture as a subject. He made good use of the school assembly in the mornings, to be an occasion to communicate his thoughts to the entire school population. These included his reflections on moral, historical,
contemporary, local, and other issues, presented in a brief and very casual talk, which did not have any of the features of a sermon, or class-room teaching. A lot of preparation would have gone into making his message brief
and understandable to all the students, from the juniors to the seniors. He never monopolized the assembly time, and allowed other teachers, and occasional guests, the opportunity to talk to the students.
He had the capacity to rebuke students in the most inoffensive way, and with a kind smile. He was capable of being stern, when the occasion merited it. He was a deeply God-fearing man. He was always conscious of the demands of the leadership role and responsibility, placed on him, when with unexpected suddenness, he had to abruptly take over the Principalship of the College, in succession to Rev. Peto, who had been Principal for twenty years.
Soon after Japan’s entry into war, and the capture of almost every country that Japan invaded, a severe shortage of food occurred in Ceylon. Therefore, every bit of available ground in the college, as well as Jaffna homes, had
to be used to cultivate food crops, yams (such as manioc), and vegetables, in addition to providing Air Raid Shelters in the form of trenches. Students helped in the food production drive. The war ended in 1945, but the problems did not cease immediately.
Free Education was introduced in 1945. Until then, students had to pay school fees. If there were two brothers from the same family, the younger brother paid only half the fee. If there were three brothers from the same
family, the youngest studied free. Two or three brothers from the same family studying at the same time at school were not uncommon. But for four, or more brothers to be in school together was exceptional. I distinctly
remember four brothers studying at the same time. It was from the Arnold family. They were Marcus, Anton, Stanley and Earnest. Anton and Stanley were my classmates. I believe that the Lewis family also had at least four, (and possibly five) brothers studying at the same time at St. John’s, during my student days.
A new cinema theatre got built very close to the college and the church, almost diagonally, across the road, and opposite the church cemetery. All opposition from the college, the church, and the Chundikuli community had
been ignored. Music and drama from this new cinema theatre could be heard over the loud speakers outside the cinema theatre, from even beyond the Principal’s residence and every boarding house in the college. A tea boutique opened up for business, beside this cinema theatre. Undesirable persons would loiter on the road, in front of these unwelcome intrusions into the Chundikulj environment. The College responded by shifting its main gate from Columbuthurai Road, to the road between the Old Park and the College playgrounds. In the space of a few years, that offending cinema theatre became a financial disaster, and was put for sale. There were no buyers. This happened sometime after I had left St. John’s. Eventually, St. John’s College purchased it, raising a loan to pay for this unwanted new acquisition. It was the price to pay for being able to preserve the neighbourhood for expansion of the educational activities of the college, and meet the bigger challenges that followed in subsequent years.
Teachers during my time at school were unique. Until Japan entered the war,and imported cloth became scarce, all the male teachers who chose the western attire wore lounge suits made of imported cotton drill, hats (which often looked like white helmets, with a strap going under the chin), socks and polished lacing shoes. The lounge suites comprised of long trousers and a matching traditional western coat, a shirt and tie. Those who opted to be
in National Attire were in immaculate white verti and long sleeved collarless banian, complete with a white shawl. and less cumbersome footwear. Mr. K. Nesiah, Mr. K. (“Kadavul”) Subramaniam, Mr. M. S. Thambithurai Mr. A. W. Rajasekaram and his brother Mr. A.Rajendram were consistent in always being in the National Dress. Mr. Nesiah went further in using ‘KHADAR” or cloth made on a handloom, as a “cottage industry” for his national dress. It was less dressy, but more durable. (Khadar was an inspiration from the Great Mahatma Gandhi of India, and its usage was to show to the rest of the world that he was an ardent follower of Gandhian
principles and teachings).
Mr. Nesiah had a M. A degree, and was a great intellect. He left St. John’s in 1945, to join the staff of St. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. From there, he joined the University of Ceylon when a Department of Education was inaugurated at the University. He served for many years as Head of the Department, in the University. “Kadavul” Subramaniam was the only Hindu among the teachers at St. John’s, during my time as a student. He was a Tamil Scholar, and was always smiling and pleasant. I have never seen him getting angry, and rebuking any student. He commanded the respect of all students, with his personality, simplicity, and subtle sense of humour.
The teachers at St. John’s, during my time as a student , comprised of a harmonious multicultural group from several different ethnic origins. Apart from the Tamils, we had a Dutch Burgher in Miss. M. E. Van Den Driesen.
Portuguese Burghers were represented in Mr.C.C. Jell, Mr. S. L. Jansen, and Mr. A. G. Charles.
We had MaIayalees from Kerala with three different persons having the same surname; they were P. I. Matthai, P. T. Matthai and T.M.Matthai. There were referred to by their initials. Later arrivals from Kerala were Mr.K.K. John and Miss. Abraham.
Another Indian was Mr. Bhlasingh, an academic who came from Madras. Englishmen on the staff were Rev. Peto, (until his death), and followed later on by Mr. P. C. Gaussen.
The Sinhalese teacher was Mr. C. H. Gunawardene.
This produced a “cultural and ethnic diversity” among the teachers at St. John’s. During that era, this was not, considered unique. It was part of normal life in Ceylon.
Mr. C. C. Jell took it in good humour, when students chanted “C. C. Jell, Go to Hell” His sudden death in 1937 or 1938 made us very sad. We had been trying to dispatch him to “hell”, when he was alive and well. We were sure that there was a better place prepared for him in HEAVEN, and that he never went to hell. Mr. A. G. Charles was the greatest storyteller we knew. He enjoyed boasting about himself, his accomplishments, achievements, adventures, exploits, and his versatility. His stories were very original, and were invented by him. It was easy to divert his attention from the formal teaching, by tempting him with a question for which the answer was irrelevant. He would immediately invent an interesting new story, with fascinating imaginary details and gestures that were spontaneous and appropriate. It was superb education to be taught by Mr. Charles. It was great fun to imitate Mr. Charles’ story telling, and every class had a clown who could mimic Mr. Charles. His punishment for any student who got caught imitating him, or showing gestures of disbelief, or playful mockery, during his story telling diversions, were two or three hard strokes with a thin length of tamarind stick, which he always carried with him. Students would invent all sorts of amusing tales (not founded on facts, and which were not very complimentary), about Mr. Charles. Based on these tales, he earned a unique nickname in Tamil, alleging mischievously that he considered as a delicacy in food, an item, which no one else ever ate. He was loved and feared at the same time. It was dangerous to incur his wrath. It was easy to please him, by being part of a very appreciative audience listening to his creative story telling. One of Mr. Charles’ sons, and one of Mr. Jansen’s sons were my classmates.
Those of Portuguese descent in Jaffna used to converse with each other, both within their homes, as well as outside, iii their own Portuguese language. They were very industrious.
Digressing, during that era, there was a group of Protuguese Burgher men who formed an impressive musical band in Jaffna town. They had several different types of brass instruments like the trumpet, and bugle, and they had drums of various sizes, ~trapped in front of them. They all wore white suits and a peak-cap, and looked like admirals in their uniforms. They proudly marched in front of funeral processions, playing appropriately solemn funeral music and suitable hymns (such as “Nearer my God, to thee” of “Rock of ages, cleft for me’). It was customary that apart from their fee, a generous amount of arrack was also given to them. After the funeral was over, and they returned from the graveyard to their homes, the band would change their musical rhythm to livelier tunes, (such as “He’s a jolly good fellow “, and even Baila Hits of that era).
It is a pity that the Burgher community has disappeared completely from Jaffna. Those of Dutch origin moved towards Colombo, after Ceylon got independence in 1948, and then emigrated mainly to Australia after English
ceased to be the Official Language in 1956. The Portuguese Burghers slowly integrated with the natives of Ceylon, by marrying the locals, and got assimilated as Tamils, in Tamil areas, and lost their separate identity.
Mr. P. C. Gaussen was a handsome, tall, refined, bachelor, who went about on a scooter. I think that he was the first person to introduce a motor scooter to Jaffna. He had been a teacher in Espahan in Persia (or Iran), prior to
coming to St. John’s as Vice-Principal, sometime after Rev. Arulanantham became the principal. Gaussen taught me physics. Gaussen had an Oxford M. Adegree, and his main academic interest was in Architecture. The Science Laboratory Building at St. John’s was designed by Gaussen, as the architect. Its original roof was beautiful and elegant, but had been more suitable for the British climate. Many years later, the roof had to be redesigned and altered to suit local Jaffna conditions. It was paradoxical in that while he was a very friendly and polite man, he chose to be a bit aloof and cultivated very little friendships with anyone in Jaffna. He was an idealist and a perfectionist, who took his teaching seriously and was a good teacher.
I am not sure as to what happened to him in 1945, because Physics, the subject he taught me; was taken over, initially by Mr. Peter Somasunderam, and later by Miss. Abraham, who came from India. Gaussen probably went away on Home Leave.
Mr. C. H. Gunawardene was specially recruited to teach Sinhala at St. John’s. Apart from the small Sinhala School in Hospital Road, Jaffna, St. John’s was the only school in thë whole of the Northern Province to have a
Sinhala teacher. He was a very young teacher with an extremely bright future before him. I am sure that his early years at St. John’s would have helped him in later years. He would have gone as an unofficial ambassador from
Jaffna to the Sinhala dominated parts of Ceylon.
All three teachers with the name Mathai taught me. They were better known by their initials. T. M. Matthai was also the “Scout Master”. His son Babu had his early education at St. John’s.
Mr. Balasingh arrived from Madras in 1942 or 1943 , and was the first Zoology teacher at St. John’s. He had a First Class Honours B. Sc. Degree from Madras, and had done Botany as a subsidiary subject. He would have been around the age of 22, and was fresh with new ideas on how teaching of these two subjects should be done. The new Science Laboratory Block had been dedicated and opened around the time. The task of setting up the Biology section of the Science Laboratory was assigned to him. Prior to arrival of Balasingh, Zoology was taught for the Johnians at Chundikuli Girls’ College, by their Principal, Dr (Miss) E. M Thilliampalam. This had been an
unsatisfactory arrangement, particularly where Zoology practicals were concerned, and clearly even Miss. Thilliampalam wished St. John ‘s to find its own full time Zoology teacher. Mr. E. M Ponnudurai who had been the Botany teacher all these years felt happy to have Balasingh share the responsibility of teaching Botany also. Balasingh organized the Biology laboratory with Ponnudurai giving him all the support and help. They jointly
inaugurated the Natural Science Association for the senior Biology Students, and I was fortunate in being a founder member of that Association. Weekly meetings were held, soon after school hours. As an incentive for the
students to stay behind, after school, some food in the form of patties, or vaddai and plantains with a cup of tea was provided from the tuck soapbefore the commencement of the meetings. This was paid for from the annual
subscription of One Rupee (Rs. 1.00) paid by the members. Office bearers of this association were a President, a Secretary, and a Treasurer (all of whom were students), with teachers Ponnudurai and Balsingh being Patrons. The cost of the food was subsidized by the College. No one really knew whether it was considered part of formal teaching of Biology, or if it was extracurricular activity. Students were encouraged to read papers, arrange demonstrations (or “practicals”), and even debate on controversial subjects such as whether life started on Land, or in the sea, whether plants or animals were more important, etc. Help in preparation in presenting a paper,
a demonstration, or a debate, was freely available from Balasingh. who was more approachable than Ponnudurai. Early in 1945, Balasingh took up the position of Assistant Lecturer ship at the University he graduated from, having sponsored Mr. K. K. John to succeed him at St. John’s.
Mr. E. M. Ponnudurai was an excellent teacher in Botany. He was a very strict disciplinarian, and was generally feared by the students, because he had powerful unofficial authority outside the classrooms, and even outside
the college compound. He was seen everywhere, walking around even after school hours, as he lived with his family inside the school campus. He knew every student in the school by name. He would keenly note how games were being played, and mistakes any player made. He even seemed to know the parents of most of the schoolboys. His punishment of students never exceeded a verbal lashing, but the recipients of a scolding from Ponnudurai knew that they were guilty of some misdemeanor or misbehaviour that had come to Ponnudurai’s notice. The College was everything that Mr. Ponnudurai toiled for, and he was fond of proclaiming this fact. Nothing else mattered to him.
Botany was Ponnudurai’s scientific interest. When I was the only candidate in the whole of Ceylon to be awarded a Distinction in Botany, at the Higher School Certificate examination held in December 1945, Mr. Ponnudurai felt the proudest man on earth. He justifiably assumed it as proof that he was undisputedly the best Botany Teacher in the whole of Ceylon. In later years, he would embarrass me by consulting me on serious medical matters, even when I was only a third year medical student.
Mr. J. R. Thambyaiah taught me Chemistry in the higher forms. He too felt equally proud of himself, as the best Chemistry Teacher, when I obtained Distinctions in Chemistry too, at the same H.S.C Examination. But he had to share that honour with the Chemistry Teacher at Jaffna Central College, for Kathiravel Reviraj of Central, and I happened to be the only two students in the whole of Ceylon to be awarded Distinctions in Chemistry that year. It was a very sad moment for me, about 25 years later. when I was suddenly summoned to see him at his home. He had severe chest pain of very brief duration. He died while describing his chest pain to me. 1 was the very last
person he spoke to.
Mr. S. Sivapragasam was a very amiable and lovable science teacher who introduced Chemistry as a subject to students beginning to learn Science. He taught the subject from the Chemistry laboratory (in the old block, and
before the new Science Laboratory had been built). He had the ability to have the whole class involved in spontaneous and simultaneous bursts of laughter,. even when teaching a dry and uninteresting subject like Chemistry. His jokes were always new, and were strictly and appropriately applicable to some situation or event that had taken place only moments earlier. He was always very calm and serene. Any students or class that tried any practical joke on Mr. Sivapragasam would instantly be made to look fools by his instant response. Sivapragasam was a common name, and therefore, he had to be identified by an appropriate nickname. His two sons. D.R. Sivapragasam and P. T Sivapragasam studied at St. John’s during my tune. They were little senior to me.
MR. J. T. Solomons was the “ARTS MASTER’ who taught drawing, sketching, and painting with water colours. He was a very simple and pleasant man. He knew that no student of his would ever equal his skills, even in later life, as an artist. He was a contented man, having an “Arts Class Room” which he did not have to share with any other teacher. He knew that during the days when Ceylon was part of the British Empire, teaching of “ARTS” was held in very low priority by the British rulers. Artistic skills never helped anyone to secure any form of employment, and was a neglected subject. The class timetables allowed students to choose between LATIN and ART, as their preferred subject. The British Educational Policy for the Colonies in their Empire placed some importance in learning a second language, and learning the dead language. Latin was considered more important than learning the native languages, Tamil or Sinhala. In this context, I chose to be an Art Student than study Latin. I found that both the teacher of Latin. and the subject, to be equally boring. .W. J. Solomons, son of Art Master Solomons. was a few years senior to me at college. He had the same satisfied attitude to life, as his father. He worked in the Forest Department after leaving school.
Mr. L. W. D. Nalliah succeeded Mr. Solomons as the “Art Master”
Mr. D. H. Chinniah was a longstanding teacher in the lower forms. He was a thin, dark. bachelor, who had the unique ability to suppress a smile, even when inwardly, he was smiling or laughing with others, over some funny or laugh provoking incident. He always wore white suite and white hat, and would pedal to school on his rusty old bicycle. He taught with a seriously monotonous loud voice. and there was no room for any fun, pranks, or jokes during his classes. He would bring a thin stick with him, the presence of which served as a deterrent to any student tempted to some minor mischief, such as throwing paper rolled into a ball at him, when his face was turned away from the students. If provoked by some fun at his expense, the next student who failed to give a correct answer to some question from him, earned a few strokes with the stick that Chinniah carried
Chinniah was a common name in Jaffna. and there were several students with the name Chinniah, (which sometimes got spelled Sinniah). Students solved the problem by giving Mr. Chinniah, an appropriate nickname, by which he was always referred to.
Mr. K. C. Thurairatnam was the only teacher who rode to College on a majestic motorbike. He was an excellent English teacher, and a handsome and keen sportsman, and he played better soccer than the students did. He got
married, while working as a teacher at St. John’s. He advanced his career a few years later, by joining the staff of Jaffna College.
Mr. V. C. Canagaratnam was a teacher whom no one forgot. He taught with great enthusiasm and with a loud voice. He looked equally smart, whether in National dress or in a Western Lounge Suit. During my time at St. John’s, a cane about a meter in length. was kept in the college office, and was available to any teacher who required it. Mr. Canagaratnam would send for the cane with greater regularity than any other teacher. When teachers used the cane, they had to make written entries on the “cane register” which always had to be taken with the cane. The names of students who received strokes with the cane, and other details including the offences that merited the caning had to be entered by the teacher. Canagaratnam was fair in that every student had an equal chance to be at the receiving end of the cane.
And every student got that chance. Strangely, the students did not take offence at his resourcefulness in using the cane as an aid in education. He was forgiven. and referred to. most affectionately. by the nickname ‘crake-en “, (the first part of the nickname “crake” being understood in English and the “en” which followed being borrowed from Tamil). Canagaratnam liked the nickname by which he was known, and felt obliged to act that part. He carried no grudges.
Mr. Param Selvarajah was both cricket coach, and a commissioned officer in the Ceylon Cadet Battalion. St. John’s had cadet platoons, both for senior cadets and for junior cadets. Later on he joined the regular army, and rose to the rank of a major.
Mr. E. C. A. Navaratnarajah was another keen teacher of English. and produced several English Plays. These were so successful. and some of these were staged in Kandy too. During the period January to June 1946, 1 remained in school, even though I had no class to attend as a student. It was just after my H.S.C and University Entrance Examinations held in December 1945. I was Senior Prefect at that time, and had a single room in the college boarding house. I would be asked to act for any teacher who was absent. During this period, Mr. Navaratnarajah trained students for one of the best plays that St. John’s produced. I attended the training of students, very regularly, after school hours, not having anything else to do. I did not know that Mr.
Navaratnarajah greatly appreciated my presence as an uninvited observer.
Very soon, I knew the parts of every actor, including what they had to say, by memory. When Mr. Navaratnarajah knew this, he would ask me to deputise for any actor who was absent, or who turned up late. He also invited me to sit near the stage and prompt what had to be said, when an actor got stuck, forgetting his part. I soon became a voluntary “sub-assistant” to Mr.Navaratnarajah. He rewarded me in the most unexpected way, by including me in his group, when the play was staged in Kandy. It was my first visit to
the hill capital.
Mr. P. E.Rajendra, an excellent athlete, had been the Assistant Athletic Coach at St. Patrick’s College for several years, during which years, St. Patrick’s remained the unbeatable Athletic Champions. After some dispute at
St. Patrick’s, he joined the staff at St. John’s, vowing to train a team from St. John’s that would defeat St. Patrick’s. He worked very hard towards this goal, and transformed ordinary students who were idle in the evenings, into top grade athletes. Within two or three years, he achieved his aim.
when St. John’s became the Athletic Champions. It was a moment of great triumph for everyone at St. John’s. Soon afterwards, he entered the University. of Ceylon as an undergraduate, and a few years later became the
Director of Physical Education at the University.
The Science Laboratory had two full time attendants, Vellaichamy and Chinniah. They were in charge of the entire science laboratory building with all the equipment and material contained. They set the stage for all
practical classes, so that teachers and students could commence the demonstrations and experiments without wasting a single minute. Vellaichamy was a tough looking sturdy man with a majestic moustache. He looked upon the science block as his territory. He was a terror inside the Science Laboratory building, but became a very mild and amiable man outside. Like most of the teachers. he had a distinct identity for himself, within the
school. Outside attending regular science classes, no student would dare to enter the science block, without obtaining Vellaichamy’s permission first.
Sportsmen among the students. In an article such as this, it is impossible to name all the students who were great sportsmen, in cricket, soccer, athletics and volleyball. However, it will be incomplete, if I do not
mention a few of the outstanding sportsmen. Two Van Den Driesen brothers, Tom and Billy were great cricketers and soccer players.
Without, any risk of being disputed or contradicted, I remember R. R. Scott as the greatest student sportsman in the whole of Jaffna, during my time at St. John’s. He had style in the way he played. He was a shy and silent man, who was conscious that he was admired universally for his sportsmanship. His brother E. T. Scott, too was an excellent cricketer, athlete and a soccer player. Freddy Ratnesar played excellent cricket and tennis, and was the chess champion, year after year. The boys who walked from Ariyalai to school were always very fit, and would excel in all sports. But their priorities were different, in that they gave greater . importance to studies than
games. Walking to school and then. back home, gave them enough exercise to keep fit. They competed in sports without much training, and yet played a winning game.
Tharmalingarn, a classmate of mine was an outstanding example of this phenomenon.
Albert Rasiah, (another classmate of mine) who travelled daily from Usan, Mirusuvil, was one of the finest pole-vaulters, in addition to excellence in several other athletic events. R. S. Peter, (also a classmate of’ mine), R.
R (Reggie) Jeyarajah and Lionel Thambyrajah were excellent all-round sportsmen.
Unexpected influx of students from Colombo, due to the war. Japan brought the war to the east, and bombed Colombo and Trincomalee. on O5 April, 1942, and once again a few weeks later. To add to the minor (or trivial
dislocation), several school buildings in Colombo were taken over by the British Military as barracks for their troops. School education in Colombo was severely disrupted. This resulted in a sudden exodus of school children
from Colombo to the provinces. St. Jôhn’s responded by generously opening its doors to vast numbers of displaced students, from different Colombo schools, despite having very meagre facilities to accommodate all of them.
These students had lived and been educated in environments, where the values, traditions, codes of conduct, and behaviour patterns were far removed from what prevailed in Jaffna. The students who. came from Colombo
had a false belief that they were from a superior tribe than the native students and teachers in Jaffna. These refugees from Colombo always wore leather shoes. and could never walk barefooted. By contrast, in those days.
all the students in Jaffna. both girls and boys, attended school without any footwear. They got into shoes. which were often ill fitting, only on special occasions like the Prize giving, or when they started to wear long trousers.
Generally; the students who came from Colonbo were more interested in being idolised adored, and admired by the girls, at Chundikuli. They took games seriously, but forgot the reality that they came to Jaffna to continue their studies. However by the time these students completed their schooling, they changed and accepted in later years that all their successes in life was entirely due to the education they were privileged to receive at St. John
‘s. They became proud to have transformed into Johnians.
A few great sportsmen came into St. John’s, with this group of displaced students. These included the brothers J. M. Rajaratnam and J. I. (“Jimmy”) Rajaratnam (both of whom eventually settled down in Jaffna). three Kanagasabay brothers, and a very stylish high-scoring batsman Kanaganayagam.
all of whom enhanced the strength of our various sports teams. These were many other younger sporting stars in this group.
It is ridiculous to compare the way Colombo became. a deserted city, in 1942, after two brief air raids, and the great courage, determination, and resilience with which the present residents of Jaffna and other parts of the
Northern Peninsula have been getting on with their life, with the the ongoing war, over the last 14 years. Aircraft dropping loads of lethal bombs have failed to intimidate the Jaffna man.
St .John’s College continues to provide education, and celebrate the 175th anniversary now, in 1998. The Principals and teachers who have been faithful to their calling, and have served with great dedication anti leadership. in these unthinkably difficult years, since the civil war started, and escalated, will be remembered for posterity.
Composition of Students. During my time at St. John’s, we had a cultural and Ethnic diversity among the student population. a feature made impossible now by the actions of politicians and governments that came into power. after CeyIon won independence from British Colonial Rule in 1946. Apart from the Tamils from different parts of Jaffna. we had Sinhala students from Medawachiyaa to Colombo and Kandy. Many students came from the up-country tea plantation regions, and some from the Eastern Province. We had a few Muslim students also. When a Sinhalese student came from Colornbo or Kandy. it usually meant that student had offended his school authorities in his hometown and had to leave his school. St. John’s offered such students “a second chance to continue studies”. Such students always proved a success in later life, and valued their association with St. John’s. Such opportunities were available during my student days. because the medium of education was English, throughout the country.
During my latter years at College, girls wishing to study science subjects in the lower and upper sixth forms, preparing for the University Entrance Examination were also admitted to St. John’s.
When it was envisaged that invasion of Ceylon by the Japanese was imminent, a big military enlistment drive was started in Ceylon. Among the large number of citizens who responded to the call to join the army were
schoolboys, including many from St. John’s. Even a few from my own class, and who had reached the age of 18. suddenly left school and joined the army. When they were on leave, during or after training, many would proudly return to Jaffna in smart military uniforms. Unfortunately, as this resulted in their dropping out of the educational stream, and being rendered unfit to re-enter the discipline of formal studies, joining the army ruined the future careers of many intelligent and promising contemporaries of mine at school.
Refugees who arrived in boats, escaping front countries that Japan conquered. Malaya and Singapore forming the F.M.S. or Federated Malay States,, fell to the Japs. soon after Japan entered the war. The British made a hasty evacuation of the white population there. Many Ceylonese in these countries were able to escape in small-overcrowded boats. with minimum stocks of food and water, not knowing what their destination would be. A
couple of boats reached the shores of Ceylon with the cargo of persons, (mainly women and children), with terrified memories. A few of them entered St. John’s. Two of them, Percy Handy and Paul Thambar, became my classmates. Two of Percy Handy’s sisters also joined St. John’s. Ranee Handy (as teacher), and Ranji Handy (as a student, a year or two later).
Silent Students Achievers. Most students at the college were silent achievers, who went through student life without being in the limelight or drawing attention on themselves. Such schoolboys, who successfully accomplished more in later life than those who were stars and celebrities as students, were in the majority during my student days. I will name a few who were my classmates, and contemporaries who were such silent achievers.
Dharmarajah (my classmate) became the General Manager of a leading bank. J.H. Ariyaratnam, K. Gangadheran, Pulandran Nagamuthu, K. Kunaratnam and B. R. R. Sinniah, (all my classmates) were excellent in their studies, and commanded a lot of respect in positions of great responsibility, though out. their entire working life. The Ambalavanar brothers got enticed into Jaffna College, halfway during their student life, but I do remember their days at St. John’s with pride. The elder brother, D. R. Ambalavanar (my classmate)
became a clergyman, and is a leading Tamil Scholar, and a Theologian. His younger brother D. J. Ambalavanar (who was only nine days younger than me) also joined the clergy, and in 1971 was consecrated as Bishop in the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India.. B. A. Mills (another classmate of mine) became a leading Obstetrician and Gynaecologist. M. C. Hunt (who was very quiet at school) became a leading Paediatrician. J G.Asirwatham. whom I remember as another quiet pupil at school, ended as a high Court Judge of distinction. Sam Alfred (who was a boarder at St. John’s for a few years), also became a clergyman, and dedicated his life to service of others. He is well known for his untiring work in Jaffna and the Batticaloa districts. Even people who are much older than him respectfully call him “Sam Annan”,
C. Amirtharajah and A. J. Jeevaratnam are two more quiet students of my days, who rose to positions of responsibility. Alfred Durayappah (who during student life, preferred to remain in the background) became a lawyer, and a well-known and controversial politician on the local and the national scene. He was the first politician to be assassinated in Jaffna.
V.Sivapragasam (my classmate) played only. volleyball, and excelled in studies, and was content to become an Excise Inspector; K. Rajasunderam (a classmate of mine) had only one ambition as a student. He realised this
ambition by joining the Police Department, as a Sub-Inspector. He ended as a Superintendent of Police. Similarly, RR. Scott, K. Thirunavukarasu, and D. J. Nathaniel, whose names had been mentioned earlier, also ended as Superintendents of Police.
Sathasivam, (another clever classmate of mine,), and E. T. Samuel (who was a little senior) were proud to become Post-Masters. Paul Lewis, and P. T. Sivapragasam, (who was a Senior Prefect during my time), are outstanding examples of’ quiet students, who entered the mercantile sector, and reached the very top in Colombo.
Enlargement of the College playground.
When I joined St. John’s, the playground was too small for games like cricket, football or athletics. A need to enlarge it to its present size was recognized. The new science laboratory had not been built then. Land was
chosen for the Science Laboratory building. There was an old building dividing the present playground into two unequal halves. The brave decision to demolish that existing building served two purposes. It enabled the
playground to be enlarged to its present size, It also resulted in the beauty of the Science Block that was built a few years latter to be seen from the Old Park Road.
Mr. Kanapathipillai was a very humble gentleman of sound character, short stature, and charming personality, who chose to dress a bit differently from others. He wore a white verti. a white shirt, and a very light brown
coloured traditional western type ‘coat. He worked in the college office, and was always smiling and polite. I do not know what his official designation was, but on reflection, he seemed to do the work of peon, cleaner, clerk, bookkeeper, and office assistant, all rolled into one. He had access to all files and documents in the office. Generations of students will remember him. Without him, work in the college office would come to a standstill.
A notable incident of student mischief.
Innocent fun and mischief is part of student life, and my days at St. John’s were no exception. One incident merits inclusion in this article. Boarders at St. John’s were accommodated in three different Hostels. The one close to the Principal’s bungalow housed the junior students. That behind the kitchen and the science block had the intermediate students. The boarding house separated only by a cadjan fence from the Old Park Road was for the seniors. The seniors were involved in the incident. Bathing facilities for them were provided in a semi-sheltered area, on the college side of the fence along the road. There was a very large cemented tub, which was filled with water pumped from a well. Several buckets were provided for use. Some seniors had no hesitation in sending buckets of water, over the fence, on senior girls from Chundikuli, going home after games at their school. This was appreciated by the girls, as evidence that they attracted the attention that they wanted. One evening, the girls happened to be accompanied by a very strict senior teacher from the girls’ college. She probably had come, having received complaints from some spoilsport. This teacher too got a good drenching with water, that evening. She lodged an angry complaint to the Principal of St. John’s, who promised that he would see that such incidents never happened again. During the investigations that followed, no student
seemed to have any knowledge of this incident. Every student became a suspect. Rev. Arulanantham solved the situation by immediately transferring. all the senior boarders to the hostel close to his resident, and the juniors were sent to the hostel beside Old Park Road. Everybody knew who was suspected as the ringleader in this episode. It was his strategy that suppressed all evidence implicating any student. A couple of students who
were Monitors or Prefects and happened to be senior boarders ceased to be Monitors or Prefects, for lack of knowledge of who the culprits were. The ringleader became a leading lawyer in Jaffna, in later life. During student life, being sacked from Prefectship, after this incident, was a greater honour than being a college Prefect.