Disce aut Discede – by Gamini Seneviratne
Form-mates, classmates perhaps in Mr. J E V Pieris’s IA, I seem to recall also the ‘J’ in J Godwin Perera. His reminiscences of those times past are indeed welcome. What follows here are some additions / amendments.
Given the heading used by Godwin and repeated here, the first of them must surely be the third option that completes that quote: Caedi (be caned). Looking back from present times, a very mild option, one would say. I was caned only once, by Mr. Bob Edwards: he had forgotten what my supposed misdemeanor was and I couldn’t tell him why I was there as I had ceased to know what it was.
Godwin’s mentioned the Senior Lit. and the Best Speaker’s prize. I was never involved in the first and had a spectacular spell at the second. I forget what the subject was but the Principal’s hand had been hovering over the bell as I passed the time limit. The judge was A B Perera, a Barrister who had served as Principal of Ananda and was to serve as our Ambassador to China. In his summing up he said that I had made a very interesting speech – but rules must be observed. He awarded the prize to Mark (L J M) Cooray who had elocuted his forgettable words finishing on the dot. (He went on to obtain all the postgraduate degrees required for a career as an academic. A high point in that was his attempt to prove that the indigenous people Down Under who had built their culture through some 40,000 years “had no right to the land”. There would have been some applause in academe.)
L H Meegama had a bicycle and some days when I didn’t join another gang up Buller’s road to Galle road I went with Meeya to his place on Vajira road. Our Mahappa’s place on Janaki Lane was almost directly across Galle road from there. His senior sister would sometimes be in the kitchen cooking – scraping coconut and such – while her fiancée chatted with her. He took up engineering and I last heard was working in the Port when he died relatively young.
And so did Tyrell Muttiah, superlative scrum-half, who lived on Galle road just by Bin Ahmed’s studio at the top of Janaki Lane. He seemed to have been born smiling and bred in courtesy. He was the most pleasant of friends.
K. Manickavasagar, Manicks, and I were immediate, next-door neighbors but we were not together in Form I A. He went into the pharmaceutical industry and headed Pfizer here before retiring to Canada.
Am sure have missed many in that class. I have asked as many of that Group of ‘Forty Nine as I could locate here: their memory, alas, is as bad as mine.
May we all make a good ending!
In that class chaired by Mr. Nathanielsz, aka “Naetta”, Mr Pieris, aka “Bada” was the presiding deity. His approval took the form of “Mr. Mendis, you are a little gentleman.” Surprising as it may be and far less often than “Mr. Mendis” though it was, he is known to have waved the wand over “Mr. Seneviratne”.
“Mr. Mendis” was Lalith, one in the cluster a few of us occupied. Among the others in it were Chulani Wickremasinghe, Laki Senanayake and Punyadasa Edussuriya. Perhaps Tyrell Mutthiah was in it too.
Of those in the periphery, a failing memory prompts the names – Nimal Fonseka, Wonkie de Silva, P S C Goonatileke, L H Meegama and H C Wickremesinghe.
I present a few notes on that lot.
Lalith was an artist and he sketched a good bit of the time. As a medical doctor he took to the study of filaria and headed that field of research. When he became Director of Medical Services and I saw him there it struck me that he was in the wrong place: he was not built to deal with politicians especially not those in the Department of Health. I suggested that he gets back to his research in an area in which he had already distinguished himself but he passed that with the sweet smile that characterized him.
Laki too did pencil sketches but they were mostly copies of figures, including horses, from the ‘western comics’. Among his skills was the pea shooter and we had exhibitions when Naetta chose to lay his head on his arm and say, “Read”! One after the other we ‘read’ and Naetta awarded marks with his free hand. There were quite a number of zeros and he couldn’t signal any more than five. Laki took aim and sent a spit-ball straight as an arrow to the bald spot on Naetta’s crown.
He took his artistic skills to Dambulla where he sold his drawings, signed kali, to tourists. Laki was and is casual about things. When, on my way to Jaffna, I dropped by to see him at Diyabubula, he had a high fever and looked quite ill. He had obtained medication from the Dambulla Hospital, he said, as he coughed out a typically c & b story – and was sharing the pills with workers who showed the same or similar symptoms. He had been ordered bed-rest and he had complied, he said, by lying flat in his jeep as it juddered around the jungle. A mutual friend, Chandra Subasinghe, lived not many miles away by the Dambulu Oya and managed to get the patient to the Matale Hospital ‘just-in-time’. (Chandra was quite as inventive as Laki and had informed the water-tax collectors from the Mahaweli that for many years his pumps had been accustomed to pumping water from the Dambulu Oya and would continue to do so. If those gentlemen had sent down water there from the Mahaweli and the Sudu Ganga, his pumps knew nothing about that).
Two desks away was Chulani who had the most inclusive collection of westerns – the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Lone Ranger, Tom Mix & co. freely available to us all. Such knowledge was not prescribed for us at school and Chula suffered a ‘take down’. He made up for it by topping the City & Guilds exams , migrating out there and on to the USA and thence to South America where, by his account, he out-samba’d all the experts that Rio could gather.
Punya Edussuriya’s father and mine had been at Ananda around the same time; Punya claimed that his father would have taught mine. That is unlikely – (I didn’t know it at the time, but my father had won the Senior English Essay prize in 1923 and his father could not have been that much his senior). They sat together in the pavilion at the Royal Thomian. In our first year we were among dozens of boys who encroached into the Oval grounds as the match neared its end. The boundary rope moved up or down and when Bradman Weerakoon was given out caught, Wignarajah the fielder was behind us and well behind the boundary line. We were right there and yelled that it was a six. Nobody listened. Years later when I mentioned it to Bradman he was unaware that he and St. Thomas’ had so been denied a right royal victory. Not the first time it happened and won’t be the last: the evidence of eyewitnesses is swept under, justice given no opening at all. Happens all the time.
Not many years later Punya and big brother Piyasiri were moved across to Ananda – a school that figured prominently in our family. Beginning with mother’s maternal uncle D B Jayatilaka’s contributions at the start, all our male relatives ‘on both sides’ as they say had been at Ananda: my father and his brothers, mother’s brothers, all our cousins. I was the ‘out’ chap and it happened like this. At the same time as I qualified to enter Royal I had been awarded the ‘Entrance Scholarship’ for Ananda – creating sort of competing claims. Regardless of having served on the academic staff at Ananda in the early 1900s father’s eldest brother had said, “Royal”! – after all he lived in Bambalapitiya and could keep an eye on me. That was convenient, a convenient story, but as the old man had told me the previous year (when I was a little over 9) he was disappointed in his sons.
That was the product of another pressure point. Our paternal grandmother had a cousin called Arthur Wijewardena; we had nothing to do with him but Mahappa had been in touch. All I remember is that he was an unsmiling kind of man who lived down Vajira Road next to Visakha; it had a nice garden and there was a son who sort of floated in and out of the verandah and drawing room offering biscuits. What was pertinent at the time was that he had been our Chief Justice and Mahappa had expected his sons to take to the law likewise as he himself had done. But what did they go and do? – One became an engineer on diesel locomotives and went on to become a chemical engineer (he built and ran Kelani Valley Canneries our best fruit processing factory) and the other an architect who also played piano, painted, sculpted and would you believe it? did ballet dancing. I was sort of the last chance to get the law back into his half of the family. I was to prove a disappointment too, but no one suspected it at the time.
In later years, though not for long, I made my peace with Ananda when Principal S A Wijetilleke recruited me as an English teacher. There I was to establish a friendship with V Thanabalasingham, the senior in that field, that continued as circumstances permitted through the rest of his life. Mr. Thanabalasingham’s intellectual acumen was quite on par with that of B St. E de Bruin or S Constantine at Royal. I had come to know of him earlier when, following the communal riots of 1958, my cousin, Asoka Gunasekara, wrote a short story around Thane’s experiences of those days; titled vibhagaya it was one of the best bodies of writing in Sinhala. In later years, when I mentioned vibhagaya those who had read the Kelani University literary magazine, Vimansa, assumed I was referring to a short story of mine in it that had the same title [that had to do with an actual vibhagaya, the government’s ‘efficiency bar’ exams.]
Before I continue, a brief note on the Royal Post Primary to which boys who failed to go over from Royal Prep were sent. There they were expected to adjust their focus more towards studies and away from, say, sports. One of them that year was Brindley Perera, generally regarded as the most gifted 10 year old batsman in our schools. (His nephew, Brendon Kuruppu, gave hints of how strong the genes were). Most of those who slipped at that point showed their caliber in later life. Those I recall include Susantha Samaranayake, the first Lankan to be appointed a Director / Manager at IBM; Dharmasiri Pieris, who had a distinguished career in the public sector including that of Secretary to the Prime Minister; and Sarath Weerasooria, Chairman of FINCO. My brother had moved there from Ananda and had the distinction, besides scoring a near-double century versus Carey, of being the first (only) – student to pass the SSC in the first year that Thurstan students were presented for that exam. He moved back to De Mazenod where he ended with a flourish as Senior Champion at athletics, Captain of cricket and winner of the General Proficiency prize. The police grabbed him then – and a young lawyer grabbed his girlfriend, much the prettiest schoolgirl seen at our railway station. I had written poems to her on his behalf and delivered them as she took a detour down Janaki lane where I lived on her way from the HFC to the railway station.
In the lot who got to Royal College that year (1949), 35, fully one-third, were from schools other than Royal Prep. Perhaps that accounts for the special distinction which seems to have marked that batch.
Even among 10 year-olds, Nimal / Nimma stood out for being pugnacious but was never a bully. He turned his hands to several part-time occupations at one of which, the Hotel De Universe’ he employed school friend Raja (Rahula) Silva when the then government failed to do him justice. When Raja fell asleep at wrong time of night Nimma functioned as bouncer at his hotel bar. An expatriate in England of long standing Nimma became a teetotaler I presume in mid-life: when he took leave of his business and related activities he was in great demand at parties – for drive-home services. “They get cocked and talk cock” he said, “so I stopped going for parties”. He continues his interest in topology and is last known to have remained more or less certifiably sane.
W K N Silva was a Proprietary Planter with tea and rubber in the Ratnapura district. I believe that two of his sisters married a pair of brothers. In his latter days he took exception to being called “Wonkie”; he said it should have been applied to Nalin (WNK) Fernando, journalist, because the name fitted him, initials and all. He had a sufficient number of siblings to retain the bulk of their estate after Land Reform.
Occasionally initials provided a convenient name – say, Jabba for JB. Susantha Goonatileke’s PSC was tempting and tempted. He chose engineering as did his cousin C L V Jayatileke (who proceeded all the way in mechanical engineering) but he took his BSc (Eng) and changed course towards the social sciences. It was a move that opened a range of intellectual challenges for him and brought his academic work into discussion at fora around the world. His son is perhaps way and away the wealthiest among us in the next generation.
H C (Channa) Wickremasinghe was one of the brightest among us but health-related hiccups prevented his full development as a scholar. Turner, his architect brother was a left arm spinner of a most mean disposition who played for Royal. Channa was content to send down mostly friendly off breaks of which he had a good opinion.
Godwin relates an incident concerning our ruggerites et al and he attributes the report on it to Mr. Orloff, Principal of Trinity College. As I recall, the Trinity Principal at the time was a Mr Walters and the incident had occurred not in a room at the Trinity hostel but on the train down from Kandy. However that may have been punishment was meted out as Godwin says. I was co-editor with Nihal Jayawickrema of the school magazine and inserted some quotes in the space for footnotes: one and all pointed towards the merits of forgiveness.
The Principal, Mr. Dudley K G de Silva, sent for me. I was met at his door by Mr. Elmo de Bruin who served as Manager of the Magazine. When the Principal saw that I was not without back-up he asked Mr. Bruin whether he had approved the insertions and he replied, “I have the fullest confidence in their judgment, Sir” spreading the blame.
Principal de Silva tended to take the word of fellow Principals a bit uncritically. I noticed that the Thomian magazine that year had carried a poem published some years previously in ours and wrote a little note to the Thomian editor, Ranjith Wijewardena, ribbing him about it. Instead of writing back in similar vein Ranjith had taken my note to his Warden – who had promptly phoned our Principal. Predictably I was sent for. As the fates decreed, I ran into Bruno on my way there. He heard me out and strolled into the Principal’s office ahead of me. He asked me to show the evidence to the Principal and suggested that “if ‘these Thomians’ had any sense they could have said they don’t retain past copies of our Magazine”! Writing from Jamaica a life-time later, Bruno recalled such and other ‘happenings’ of his years at Royal. There must be hundreds still around who miss him.