Professor Ashley Halpe, the great humanitarian I knew – II – By Rohana R. Wasala

Professor Ashley Halpe, the great humanitarian I knew – II – By Rohana R. Wasala

Professor Ashley Halpe

Although I could have enrolled for the external degree programme as a private candidate without revealing my job on the strength of my results the GCE AL exam alone, which I did after completing my training and after being posted to a school, I did so as a specialist trained secondary school teacher (At that time, trained teachers had to have only two passes at the AL in addition to their training certificate to register for an external degree programme). The reason for this was the prevalent belief among teachers that the ‘trained graduate’ status improved a teacher’s prospects for career advancement.  

Now, I realized that doing English Special (Honours) was not as easy as doing the GAQ, which I did through self-study with the assistance of my friends as described above. Their help turned me into a de facto internal student. Now after passing the GAQ with the necessary grades, I wanted to explore the possibility of becoming a de jure internal student of the university for completing my degree. (A flash-forward: A few years after I completed my English Honours as an external student, Professor Halpe succeeded, towards the later ‘70s, in persuading the country’s educational authorities to introduce a scheme under which trained government school teachers who had passed the GAQ with English as external students of the university to be admitted to the English department as internal students. So, that attractive concession was still in the future and didn’t apply to me.)

 I found that the authorities of the department of education that I approached with my problem did not know how to help me or were just not interested. In my desperation, as much as in my youthful naivety, I wrote a personal letter to Professor Halpe, whom I had never even seen before, but had heard good spoken about, from my friends. In that letter, I explained my educational ambition and the particular circumstances that prevented me from entering a university as a fulltime student. Written communication took several days at that time. But, to my pleasant surprise, I got a duly signed typewritten reply from Professor Halpe by return of post as we used to say in those days of snail mail. This was around 1972-73. Considering the still unsettled state of the whole country and the rough weather that I heard later, Professor Halpe was himself experiencing in his professional life, on account of the so-called university reorganization plan launched by the government of the day, this prompt reply to my letter demonstrated his genuine concern with the youth of the country. He responded with the suggestion that I continue my degree studies as an external candidate while employed and that he would do whatever he could to ease my lot as a student reading for a degree in English. He concluded the letter asking me to come and meet him at Peradeniya on a day that he suggested. 

To again anticipate things at this point, some time after I joined the teaching cadre at the university having completed my degree as already explained, Professor Halpe surprised me one day by revealing something that he had never told me before. It was the day that the first batch of English trained school teachers who had passed the GAQ with English as external students were admitted to the English department of the university to complete their degree as a concessionary measure introduced by the ministry of education under the UNP government of Mr J.R. Jayawardane. Commenting on the arrival of that additional batch of students, Professor Halpe said, “They are here because of you, Rohana!” I thought he was joking, for he used to enjoy lighter moments with us. But, somewhat perplexed, I asked him, “How?, sir”. “You remember the letter of distress you sent me, years ago?”, he said with a touch of humour. “Yes, I do, sir”, I answered. “And I asked you to come and meet me?” “Yes, sir, I came here and met you for the first time in my life,” I replied. Professor Halpe then told us (Kumar Abeysekera, a colleague, was with us) that he remembered that letter when he ran across the permanent secretary to a particular ministry who was a powerful civil functionary of the new government at a party. I faintly remember that he mentioned the name Paskaralingam, but my memory may not be accurate on this point. The university reorganization plan of the previous UF government was in the process of being dismantled. Professor Halpe’s accidental encounter with the official was at a function held in Colomb which was attended by some government higher-ups and some members from the diplomatic community. He said that he suggested to the influential civil servant, “Can’t you make some arrangement  to allow English trained teachers from government schools who have passed the GAQ as external candidates to enter the university, to finalise their degree, while they are on study leave?” The official had promptly replied, “Why not?”. We were witnessing the ultimate result! (Professor Halpe said that definitely more people had to have got involved in the matter and complicated administrative and fiscal procedures to have been carried out before his suggestion was thus followed through, but that the idea germinated in his mind by my letter played a seminal role in the whole process.)

Let me again go further back in my narrative to the time that the professor and I were strangers to each other. Meeting Professor Halpe on the campus as I did around 1972-3 was easy, because I had been frequenting the place over the past year or so, in the company of my helpful old and new friends. I had even read in the library, sneaking in there with my former schoolmate already mentioned and others who were internal students. I used to rush there soon after school on two or three days every week, and on most weekends; and often at meal times I ate at the common dining room of the hall of residence where my friend was lodged. Pointing to the unfailing leafy vegetable dish – maelluma -, he’d say: “kapang, tanakola tama kanta thiyenne. Eat, there’s only grass to eat”. But the fare was still (in the early ‘70s) quite satisfactory with lots of meat and veggies and in abundant quantities, too, (not unwelcome circumstances for the voracious omnivore that I was then, unlike the controlled eater I am today). Even at that time the university retained  in this department something of what had inspired the nineteen year old Halpe who arrived at Peradeniya in 1952 as one among the first batch of Arts students to feel the place to be “very much a bowl of plenty and the perfection of a dream..” (as he poetically described in an article published in Sunday Times Plus/June 30, 2013 to mark the Golden Jubilee celebration of the 1963 entrants of the university). 

By the way, the phrase ‘a bowl of plenty’ (comparable to the  ‘Pun Kalasa’- the Full Pot – in ourEastern  cultural tradition symbolising prosperity and plenteousness) is obviously an adaptation of the ‘Cornucopia of the Horn of Plenty’ of Western classical antiquity that stood for agricultural abundance and life sustaining nature. Professor Halpe uses one of his own paintings to decorate the cover of the poetry collection ‘Silent arbiters……’, where he juxtaposes the Pun Kalasa with the image of a skull. 

My unique association with Professor Halpe started somewhere around 1972/1973 and remained close and unbroken until, in 1982, I resigned from Peradeniya and left Sri Lanka to go to the Sultanate of Oman to serve there under the Ministry of Education of that country. When I returned to Sri Lanka in 1999 and resumed teaching at Peradeniya on a visiting basis, Professor Halpe had retired, but was occasionally seen on the campus, himself doing visiting. As both of us were only visiting, and were longer occupied with doing our own things than was usual in the past, our meetings were few and far between. The visiting work, I was sure, he cherished for the opportunity it gave him to enjoy some more time in the paradisiacal environs of the scenic Peradeniya campus, where he had spent most of his youth and adult life. For an aesthete like Professor Halpe, the Peradeniya campus premises could not but be paradise! I remember Dr Kandiah once remark, “If I had to choose between paradise and Peradeniya, I’d choose Peradeniya”! The university is located in an extremely picturesque setting on the banks of the Mahaveli that traverses a part of the lower Hantana mountain range. The following extract from the aforementioned Sunday Plus column verbally recreates the vernal splendour that all those who studied, taught, worked and lived on the Peradeniya campus have experienced, unless they were stone-dead to natural beauty: 

“The Peradeniya campus is beautiful at all times of the year, but particularly in the months of Duruthu and Bak, which correspond to Spring in colder climates. Then, it is like a vast pavilion decked gaily as if for a festival, with festoons of flowers hanging over- head, and yellow petals falling lightly from them to rest on the cool green grass and make a carpet for the feet, while bougainvilleas twine themselves into multi- coloured trellises all around. The shimmering vault of the noonday sky resounds to the cry of the kovula, rising higher and higher up the scale, and ending in a crescendo of longing.”  

In the same context he describes the architectural magnificence of the university buildings thus: “Peradeniya was all planned, its variations of Kandyan architecture daringly blended with elements from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa as well as infusions of inspirations and models from the modern world.” Professor Halpe’s delineation of the exquisite beauty of the architectural and horticultural features of the Peradeniya campus reminds one of the legendary ‘University Architect’ Shirley D’Alwis who designed those buildings. It was said of him that he wanted to so plan them as to make them blend with the grandeur of the natural landscape. However, the UK trained ‘University Architect’ died in 1952 in which Halpe entered university.

The thought of Shirley D’Alwis reminded me of the the memorial monument built in honour of him at the roundabout not far from the tennis courts. Some gruesome images from a later time (1986-90) associated with that spot on the campus that have been seared into my memory reverted my mind to the earlier era that mostly features in this article. The early ‘70’s proved a particularly dangerous time for my generation because of the murderous violence unleashed in the wake of the Che Guevara inspired JVP uprising. Unprecedented violence between the rebellious youth and the security forces swept the country to the utter dismay of ordinary people who were looking forward to a bright future for the country following the landslide electoral victory scored by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the head of an alliance of left parties led by the SLFP (the United Front) in 1970. It was in that election that I voted for the first time as a new voter. The rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by the government, killing nearly 5000 barely armed rebels according to unofficial figures, though the government sources put the number at 1200. Sri Lanka was declared a people’s republic in 1972 under a new constitution. 

A drastic university reorganization programme, among many changes introduced by the government including the republican constitution after the abortive JVP insurrection of 1971, turned all the existing universities into campuses of a single university, and the Peradeniya University became the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Sri Lanka. Most students believed that, under this programme, Professor Halpe got dislodged from his accustomed Peradeniya to the Vidyalankara University at Kelaniya (the University of Kelaniya today) along with the famed Department of English; they thought that it was engineered by certain influential people just to spite him. As a result of this ‘dislocation’, Professor Halpe was going to be at Peradeniya only on one or two days of the week. He had to move his young family to Colombo, which must have been very inconvenient to them. It was under these circumstances that I met Professor Halpe for the first time.

The day I met Professor Halpe for the first time fifty years ago is still fresh in my mind. I was immediately struck by his oval Shakespearean visage – at around forty he still had something of his youthful rotundity – with a prematurely receding hairline, but a fairly abundant crop of shoulder-length flowing grey hair that was uniformly pepper coloured. When I told him that I received my school education in a rural school called Poramadulla Central, he reassured me: “That’s no problem. I am also from a village school”, he told me, “I studied at De Mazenod College, Kandana.” Perhaps, he was exaggerating the facts a bit to put me at my ease, for that school was not such a rural school as he made it out to be. Later I found that he was better known as a past student of St. Peter’s College, Colombo, but he could have attended De Mazenod before he went there. 

Concerning my problem, Professor Halpe suggested that I should get a transfer to a school close to the university so he could arrange for me to attend at least some lectures, and also to make use of the central library – all this to be made available to me unofficially, though against the rules, in view of my exceptional situation, as a special favour offered with the consent of the other lecturers in the English department, which he promised to secure for me by appealing to them on my behalf. He himself was, at that point, being transferred to the Vidyalankara university under the university reorganization programme, and was going to operate from Colombo, and would be available at Peradeniya for a couple of lectures each week. 

I told him that, in fact, I had already tried to get a transfer to a school nearer to Peradeniya, but that I couldn’t persuade even the head of the school where I served then to agree to release me. So that avenue was closed. Professor Halpe promised to put me in touch with his predecessor, emeritus professor H.A. Passe, for help in English (which was my principal subject). The latter was then living alone in a house at Mahaiyawa (where the car sales are today). Professor Halpe similarly directed me to Professor Merlin Peris, for me to consult regarding Western Classical Culture (my subsidiary subject). So a few days later, one hot afternoon, I trudged up a hilly road, to go and see Professor Peris at his quarters at Dangolla (which involved a steep ascent from near Getambe). He welcomed me with a delicious bowl of ice cream, before he asked me the purpose of my calling on him. He became a very inspiring source of generous help for me in WCC. In later years I particularly admired his desire to make his expertise in western classical literature relevant to the local culture and history. He claims he has detected Greek motifs in the Jataka Stories, and Greek mythological elements in the Mahavamsa. Sensitivity to local cultures and history was something I admired in all those generous university teachers that I approached for help. 

 It was past three o’clock one afternoon when I  made it to Professor emeritus Dr Passe’s. His only companions were two dogs (a small breed). They walked to and from the door with him, and lay spread eagled on the floor at his feet, their paws with overgrown toenails protruding like the tines of forks. Listening to the clicking noise that their paws made on the polished cement floor, when they walked, Dr Passe said, “They are suffering because their toenails are grown too long and their paws have no firm grip on the floor. Sometimes, their legs tend to slip sideways, making them fall, when they try to run.  I’ve asked a man to come and trim them”. Professor Halpe had spoken to him about me. “Ashley told me about you”, Dr Passe said, “I like to guide young English enthusiasts like you”. Dr Passe, who was a Burgher, I thought, like his predecessor Professor Ludowyk, spoke English with what struck me as a  native British accent. “I have always insisted that standards must be maintained at any cost”, he said. This is something that Professor Halpe also used to stress. In the following years I met Dr Passe many times. I even borrowed books from his private library with the knowledge of Professor Halpe, and duly returned them.

Both Professor Halpe and Dr Kandiah were sincerely concerned with and selflessly dedicated to the welfare of all the young university students, with whom they had great empathy, while being completely neutral about their usually left or anti-establishment politics. Both of them made us feel warmly welcome. At the beginning of our stint as instructors, Dr Kandiah drove three of us (me and two colleagues, Kumar A and Kingley F) one day in his brand new white Subaru hatchback almost all over the sprawling 800 acre campus precincts house-hunting for us, and found us a temporary place to stay. Later, we three found separate apartments. I found accommodation in a room in Akbar-Nell Hall adjoining the faculty of engineering. Professor Halpe took us for a ‘hopper treat’ with a beer at a prestigious restaurant in the ground -floor of the Queen’s Hotel building in Kandy. Noticing that the waiter had not brought any cutlery with the food, he called him and asked him to bring some. “Let him be civilized”, he said to us smiling cheerfully. We didn’t know whether he was serious or being funny. I don’t remember if we, including our host, used the forks and spoons that the man brought, or just used our fingers, to eat.

When the Halpes moved to Colombo (where they resided at Thimbirigasyaya)  as a result of his removal from Peradeniya, Professor Halpe’s work was divided between (Kelaniya) Vidyalankara and Peradeniya campuses. The day or two he spent at Peradeniya every week, he spent at his quarters at Meewatura, right behind the Akbar-Nell Hall. It was a ‘C’ house, something less than what he was entitled to as a senior professor. Probably this was partly due to the discrimination he was subjected to by those that resented him being at Peradeniya.  Professor Halpe made the house available to the two of us, Kumar and me, to stay for free.  I moved into it from the Akbar-Nell Hall nearby, and Kumar joined me from somewhere else. Then later, an old friend of Professor Halpe, a university colleague of his vintage, just returned from the ‘States’ (America), came to stay there, apparently on a long sojourn at Peradeniya courtesy his benevolent host. Kumar and I had no truck with him, as he seemed aloof, even when his friend was around. 

A little digression: Kumar Abeysekera played the role of the old man Chubukov (father of Natalia) with the late Dr Neil Halpe of the Medical Faculty teaching staff playing the nervous hypochondriac suitor Lomov in Anton Chekhov’s hilarious one act play of 1889/90 ‘The Proposal’ under the direction of Professor Halpe in 1979, as I can recollect. The play was staged in an auditorium, in the engineering faculty probably, but I don’t remember the venue so well. Nor can I remember who played the female character Natalia. When this happened, I had left Professor Halpe’s house to get married. My spouse and I attended the staging of the play as newly-weds.

On the morning of the second day he spent at Meewatura with us every week, we shared ‘bed-tea’ with him, which I routinely made for Kumar and myself on other days  (The first day he was with us at Meewatura, Professor Halpe was not available for this, as he travelled to work from Colombo on that day.) He surprised us one morning by bringing us two cups of bed-tea to our room upstairs. Fortunately, we were both awake; I was just preparing to go downstairs to the kitchen to do my daily bed-tea making. He handed us the tea, and said, quite casually, “You take your own time; I am going a bit early today”. This was before the coming of his friend. 

One rather warm afternoon, I lay prone in my bed resting on my elbows trying to read a book (it was the red coloured paperback edition of  Shakespeare’s sonnets by J. Dover Wilson entitled “The Sonnets”) which was propped against a pillow. I had left the door and the windows open. I didn’t know that Professor Halpe, who had just come back from a lecture, was looking at me, until he said with searing sarcasm: “That’s a perfect position to read, Rohana, especially when you read serious stuff like Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, and walked to his room, before I could form anything coherent in my mind to say in defence of myself. Another victim of his sarcastic humour was his old friend, who had come from the States. This person used to spend at least ten minutes each time washing his hands at the wash stand, while the water was flowing freely from the open tap, probably trying to cool himself. He did this umpteen times. One day Professor Halpe, watching him performing this wasteful ritual, smilingly commented: “P……. is a perfectionist at the wash stand..”

One morning, about nine o’clock, as we were approaching the central canteen for our breakfast, we saw him coming from Colombo, dressed in his usual bush shirt and slacks, a cloth bag slung over one shoulder, having got down from the train at the Sarasavi Uyana station near the Agriculture Faculty, and walking briskly towards the Arts Theatre, eating a snack for breakfast. He was rushing for his lecture that morning. He never put on airs. That was why he was so popularly respected by the general mass of students and teachers.

Years later, in personal conversation, referring, without a hint of malice, to the petty personal jealousies, academic rivalries, moral hypocrisies and intellectual deceptions that sometimes plagued life among the denizens at the otherwise salubrious Peradeniya, and that eventually evicted him from there for a brief three or four years, he told me “and this also is one of the dark places of this country”. He was parodying the philosophical Marlow, the tough seaman, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Sitting cross-legged in darkness one evening in his ship The Nellie at the Thames estuary, Marlow has just told a couple of his fellow sailors listening to “one of his inconclusive experiences” that “messengers of the might within the land, bearers of the sacred fire” …. “had gone out of that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch..”, etc. This image of the sacred fire is important. Peradeniya was indeed a source of the sacred fire of a different type (intellectual stimulation, knowledge seeking, science, creative arts, etc), something alluded to in the name NAVASILU, the academic publication/magazine that Professor Halpe started after being landed in Kelaniya (Vidyalankara). The name is Sinhala, nava (new), silu (flames), meaning ‘new flames of creativity’. He had this penchant for choosing names that reflected aspects of national culture. The name of the house he built on Riverdale Road, Aniewatte, Kandy is “Varama”, a word which means “assurance or confirmation” (of achievement and protection); that word is rich in associations in secular and religious Sinhala literature.

The last time I met Professor Halpe was in July-August 1997, I think. It was a chance meeting. I was reaching the end of my annual vacation from Oman. It was at Gatembe on the day of the ‘water cutting ceremony’ of the Kandy Esala perahera, that is, the day of the final day perahera, which marked the end of the annual event that year. My wife and our two children were with me. We met Professor Halpe and his daughter Haasini there. A large crowd of people were waiting there to witness the water cutting ritual that was going to be performed there at the ford of the Mahaveli after the arrival of the diya kaepum perahera from Kandy. The sound of music from the approaching perahera was heard from a distance. Professor Halpe had come with Haasini, who was waiting there to report on the event for the TNL or the Young Asia TV (I am not very clear about which TV channel it was). While chatting with us Haasini referred to the popular belief that it rains (miraculously) when the water cutting takes place; she seemed to empathise with that belief. When Professor Halpe learned that my son was going to sit for his OL exam at the end of the year, he said: “Don’t put too much pressure on the child. It is enough if he passes the exam with the minimum number of credits that would qualify him for the AL. He should reserve his energies for the more important AL hurdle.” Sound advice for a parent, so characteristic of the  always humane Professor Halpe.  

Finally, we have already seen how Professor Halpe let his own conscience torture him while thinking about “young bodies tangled in monsoon scrub…” in that first book of poems “Silent Arbiters…..” (1976). These are the final lines of “April 1971”:

I sit through night hours 

trying wonted work, compelled 

into blank inattentions 

by these images 

young bodies tangled in monsoon scrub 

or rotting in river shallows, awaiting 

the kind impartial fish, 

and those not dead– 

numb, splotched faces, souls 

ravaged by all their miseries and defeats.  

Professor Halpe never expressed any personal venom or nurtured any vindictive thoughts about the gratuitous harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by his detractors. Neither did he slacken the pace of his ‘wonted work’ (which, in his case, was nothing if not utterly committed and service oriented). In the year 1976, Professor Halpe was still ‘doing time’ for no crime done in that period of adversity while based in what I’d call his punishment station Kelaniya (Vidyalankara university). In the same year he inaugurated the scholarly publication NAVASILU under the auspices of the English Association of Sri Lanka: Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, which he led at the time. I remember him soliciting sufficiently ‘heavy stuff’ (meaning serious research articles) to be featured in it.


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