Shakespeare in a takarang shed  By George Braine

Shakespeare in a takarang shed 

By George Braine

George Braine

In a tribute to Prof. Ashley Halpe, his daughter recently wrote about the time he was “forced to give his lectures in a takarang shed”. That triggered my memories, of sitting in those takarang sheds, both as a teacher and a student. This is that story.

But, let me begin at the beginning. In 1973, I was teaching English at a remote school in the Uva, when the Vidyalankara campus advertised for English instructors. I was called for a written test, and, to my amazement, nearly 200 applicants had turned-up. I thought my chances were nil. Surprisingly, after a follow-up interview, I was selected, one of only three appointees. 

Vidyalankara campus sat on a hill, at Kelaniya, not far from the Colombo – Kandy road. As one climbed the hill, back in the mid-1970s, the sports ground and the convocation hall would be on the left, followed by the science block and the library. On the right were the student center and a dormitory for female students. Teachers traveled from home and students lived mostly in nearby boarding house. A no frills, commuter campus.

After walking past these buildings, one descended the hill to a strange sight: a scattering of low slung takarang (zinc sheeted) buildings on either side of the road. On the left, one long structure housed the English department. On the right, a number of buildings housed the sub-department of English, offering general English courses to students of all majors. These courses were taught by a host of instructors, mainly English trained teachers like me. English majors, on the other hand, attended lectures conducted by professors, lecturers, and assistant lecturers.

The takarang sheds were spread among coconut palms, each consisting of a number of classrooms. The walls, which rose to about six feet, were made of cement blocks, crudely white-washed, topped by wire mesh. The roofs were zinc sheets, dented by falling coconuts and branches. The classrooms were hot, the teaching method was chalk-and-talk, and the students sat passively, bored, their minds elsewhere. On rainy days, the sound of rain on the roof was deafening, and all chairs were soon wet, not drying for days. 

Vidyalankara, having been a pirivena (monastic college), enrolled a large number of young Buddhist monks. They were the better students, but, the longer they stayed at the university, the less inclined they were to remain in robes. Perhaps the easy interaction with female students showed them the disadvantages of a celibate life.

After the 1971 insurrection, Vidyalankara had been a camp for captured “Che Guevarists”, and their kurutu gee (poetic graffiti) could still be seen in the basement of the science building. A few years later, a group of trainee math teachers were brutally ragged in that basement. Already, JVP led, Marxist-oriented student unions were making a comeback.

The senior common room, actually a partitioned off space on a staircase landing, is where all teachers, irrespective of rank, met and mixed. We chatted, read newspapers and magazines, had a cup of tea, and played carrom. One player I partnered was Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, having previously known him at Maharagama teachers’ college. Tall and good looking, a man of few words, with a disdainful stare that made lesser mortals uncomfortable. He wore his shirt halfway buttoned that displayed his hairy chest, and the sleeves rolled up just below the elbow. He was already a well-known poet, and is now acknowledged as perhaps Sri Lanka’s best, writing in English. 

A few years after joining, I was given permission to enroll full-time for a special degree in English at Vidyalankara itself. So I led a double life, an instructor and a student at the same time. As a student, I came into close contact with other students majoring in English, mainly young and female, as well as the teachers who taught them. My group of special degree students had five young females and me, the only male and a good ten years older than my classmates. This was when English was cynically nicknamed kaduwa (sword). What I soon realized was that, despite their shabby appearance, the takarang sheds also sheltered inspiring and passionate teachers.

Prof. Doric de Souza was renowned among them. A Trotskyite politician and a Marxist theoretician, and a contemporary of NM Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, and Philip Gunawardena, Doric – tall, bald and slightly stooped – had a commanding personality. He had been a senator and a permanent secretary of a ministry, but dressed simply, in a bush shirt and cotton pants. He addressed students as Mr. or Miss. He never brought politics into the classroom.

Doric taught The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s 14th century classic. The tales were related by a motley collection of pilgrims, including a knight, a prioress, a monk, a man of law, a scholarly clerk, a miller, a wife of Bath and many others. Doric’s mode of teaching was to read the text in his sonorous voice, pausing to explain and ask for our questions and opinions. 

Shakespeare in a takarang shedSome Tales contain explicit descriptions of debauchery. On the day the Miller’s Tale was to be discussed, the female classmates (young enough to be his grandchildren) waited, sitting upright with bated breath, staring at Doric mischievously, wondering how he would handle the bawdy parts. Doric, the old fox, was up to the mark, and, looking down on the text, read right through the lines, without a pause, explanation or question! The scene is etched in my mind.

A word about those female classmates. They were from elite girls’ schools and privileged families. I occasionally overheard their off-color jokes. Occasionally, I would see bearded, long haired, sullen young men coming to the English department to meet with some of these young women. Intrigued, I snooped, and realized that the women were translating radical leftist texts for the men. These young men perhaps died, on burning tyres or in other horrifying ways, in the violence against the government a few years later. The women, with solid qualifications in English, would have gone into well-paying jobs.

Doric once invited me and two other instructors to 80 Club for drinks, where the actor Gamini Fonseka stopped by our table to mention how much he respected Doric, whom he addressed as Sir. One instructor, a smart aleck, got into an argument with Gamini. Doric didn’t say a word.

Those were the days of strict foreign exchange controls, and even essential textbooks for our courses were not freely available. The library was bereft of books, the shelves for English language and literature holding only a few tattered, outdated volumes, missing some pages. (Instead, the shelves were bulging with the thick volumes of the collected speeches of Kim Il-Sung, donated by the North Korean Embassy, and read by no one.) All this meant that we did not have secondary sources, or access to literary criticism. So, in tutorials, we wrote mainly what we had noted down in lectures. The lecturers would have found the endless repetition of their own ideas returning to them utterly boring. 

AMG Sirimanne was perhaps the most popular and inspiring teacher. He did not have a commanding presence, nor did he stick to the text, interposing the lecture with anecdotes, usually funny. He taught Wordsworth with passion, taking was away from the mundane surroundings to a green and pleasant land, to a time of romance and places of natural beauty. He deftly added pithy statements in Sinhala to his lectures, and we barely noticed the intrusion. Sirimanne had a thriving tuition class for AL students, and that, in the eyes of his colleagues, somewhat lessened his standing as a scholar. But not in ours. 

Teachers often adopt the teaching styles of their favorite teachers. In retrospect, I realize that Sirimanne was my model. I, too, would rarely stick to the textbook, mixing anecdotes and jokes as I taught.

Here’s a Sirimanne anecdote. When he was in the USA, studying on a scholarship, a parcel had arrived addressed to him. Sirimanne was summoned to the post office, and the parcel opened before him by a counter clerk. Upon seeing and smelling the contents, the clerk exclaimed “What’s this? Sh*t?” In fact, they were lumps of maldive fish!

Ranjith Gunewardena, fondly nicknamed “Ranjith Goonda” by the students, taught poetry in translation. His forte was the Spanish poet Anthonio Machado. In his raspy smoker’s voice, Ranjith didn’t teach, but performed, his soaring voice and passion carrying him away. Himself a product of Vidyalankara, and equally fluent in Sinhala and English, he would shock his sheltered, privileged students with profanities. Behind that idiosyncratic, devil-may care personality, was a tender heart. He called me “machang” (we were similar in age). In fact, he had many “machangs”. 

A few years ago, I sat next to a Spaniard on a flight. As we talked, I told him about the Machado poems I had read in the 70s, and still cherished. He was surprised: Machado at a Sri Lankan university? Then I recited the opening lines of “To José María Palacio”, Machado’s bitter sweet poem of nostalgia and longing, to the amazement of my fellow traveler. I realized how avant garde Ranjith had been. 

Palacio, my dear friend,
is spring already
covering the poplar branches
by the river and the roads? On the plain
of the upper Douro, spring comes late,
but it’s so soft and lovely when it arrives!

Do the old elms
have some new leaves?

Even though the acacias are still bare
and the mountain tops clad in snow.

Mount Moncayo up there, rosy and white,
so beautiful against the sky of Aragon!

This was the time that the English department was moved from Peradeniya to Vidyalankara, for reasons too complex to describe here. That brought Prof. Ashley Halpe to us. We had not met him, but his reputation as a top Shakespearean scholar preceded his arrival. He turned out to be a soft spoken, low key, unassuming man. He traveled from Peradeniya to Kelaniya perhaps twice a week, taking the bus, so we had little opportunity to get to know him. Our loss. If he resented having to teach in a takarang shed, away from salubrious Peradeniya, he did not show it. Often dressed in a bush shirt, casual pants, and sandals, I can still picture him trudging up the hill. 

Those were violent days on campuses. The JVP was in control of student councils, but UNP student unions were being formed, leading to inevitable clashes. Vidyalankara was a hotbed of these clashes, leading to frequent suspension of classes. (I stayed home so often that a neighbor asked if I was unemployed.) Once, passing the Vice-Chancellor’s office, I saw that radical students had, once again, invaded the office. One bearded, long haired, raggedly dressed student was standing on the VC’s desk, gesticulating wildly while lecturing the VC, who at impassively. 

In 1977, the UNP came into power, and the campus clashes worsened. One day in March 1978, a bunch of thugs (organized by a prominent politician) swarmed up from Kandy road, armed with knives and iron rods, and attacked students at the student center. Outnumbered, the thugs were beaten-up and chased away by the students. An eerie, ominous silence descended. The road leading down to the Kandy road was deserted. 

Lakdasa and I had watched this from the safety of the science block entrance, and noticed that someone was lying on the road, halfway between the student center and the Kandy road. We thought it was a student who had been ambushed.

So we walked down to the prone body and squatted for a closer look. It was one of the thugs, badly beaten, his hair matted with blood, bleeding from the nostrils, taking horrific, long drawn breaths. He appeared to be breathing his last. Suddenly, we heard a wild yell and saw group of thugs running up the hill from Kandy road, brandishing iron rods, already within a few yards of us. Lakdasa and I took to our heels, and bolted uphill for our dear lives. Had we been caught, we would have been severely beaten-up, if not killed. (The thug died the next day, and the President of the country attended his funeral.)

A few months later, Lakdasa was dead, from drowning. He was only 36.   

Vidyalankara became the University of Kelaniya in 1978. The takarang sheds survived that change!

Shakespeare in a takarang shed

Photo: Kumar de Silva

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