Training College Days – By George Braine
In memory of Colonel Nizam Dane, Died in Action on June 24, 1997
The entrance to the Maharagama Teachers Training College wasn’t particularly impressive. It was a narrow, tree lined, pot-holed path leading off High Level Road, some distance from the Maharagama junction. About a hundred yards beyond the entrance, the path opened up to the training college premises. The sight, in the early 1970s, was more akin to an internment camp than the premier teachers’ college in the country. World War II vintage Army barracks, made of carelessly white washed rough-hewn stones, rusty wire mesh, and grimy asbestos roofs, were scattered among overgrown lawns and gravel pathways.
To me and the others who had gathered there on a January morning in 1970, our first day as teacher trainees, the environment was indeed forbidding. Senior trainees, rumored to be merciless raggers, hovered menacingly. There appeared to be no escape, not even strength in numbers, because, as newcomers, we were yet strangers. We were further disadvantaged as English teacher-trainees because of our tendency to speak in the detested kaduwa. All we could do was to put-on a false bravado and pray that the ragging would be merciful and not wretchedly embarrassing.
In fact, the ragging never took place, but the bonds forged out of nervousness and fear among us that day lasted well beyond the two-year training period.
I often wonder why we still speak so nostalgically about Mahargama days. Is it because none had attended university, and the training college was a better substitute, minus the economic hardships of undergraduate study? Or, did the eccentric and sometimes brilliant lecturers of the caliber of Walatara, Cramer, Karunaratne, and Tambimuttu inspire us with a sense of empowerment, the feeling that we could, if only we tried, change the world through the minds of our young students?
He is Nizam to some and Raja to others, but he will always be Dane to those at training college who fell under his charm and learned to love him. Because his name appeared right after mine on the roll and we often sat together at lectures, our unusual and rhyming surnames were a source of confusion to some and amusement to others. On the first day of lectures, we were called upon by the lecturer of Sinhalese language to identify ourselves. “Mama Braine” (I am Braine) was followed by “Mama Dane”. The lecturer, a motherly woman who later became one of our favorite teachers, wasn’t amused. “Meke vihuluwak kiyala hithuwada?” (Do you think this is a joke?) she retorted. Amid peals of laughter from our classmates, we eventually managed to convince her that these were our real names.
We English trainees were easily divisible into two groups. The twenty who came in January were the younger “non-teachers,” with no experience in teaching; we had been admitted on the basis of high scores obtained at the entrance examination. But the vast majority of English trainees, about 140, were “teachers,” often with ten or more years of teaching experience before being granted admission. To many of the younger, non-teacher trainees, the two-year training period actually became a time of leisure—a paid holiday. Only the older classmates, with responsibilities of parenthood and accountability to their spouses (and maybe even to the Department of Education, our employer), appeared to take the work seriously. The easygoing curriculum, with plenty of free time between lectures, provided the younger trainees time to socialize or to plan extra-curricular activities. So we acted in the English Department’s annual Shakespeare production, planned sports events and outings, and campaigned vigorously for elections to the Student Council. Some even found time for romance.
Especially in the first year of study, a few classmates were noted for their regular absence from lectures. Dane didn’t miss any, although I rarely saw him take notes. At the more important and interesting lectures, while most classmates scribbled away without a pause, he would be sitting bold upright, listening with rapt attention, his eyes focused on the lecturer. Later, during discussions, he would summarize the lecture precisely, and others taking part in the discussion would have to correct their notes. I marveled at Dane’s brilliance, wondering why he wanted to be a teacher when he could have easily chosen a more lucrative profession.
The afternoon lectures were the hardest to handle. Lunch was usually a heavy meal of rice and curry often followed by a drink, and the temptation was to sneak-off and nap at home. But attendance was compulsory and all had to make an appearance and sign the register. The heat and slowly revolving fans in the lecture theatre only made staying awake even more difficult. Some, including Dane, took the opportunity to nap, stretched out leisurely on a row of seats at the back of the lecture theatre. One could always recognize the nappers by the way they sauntered in just before the lecture began, in contrast to the more serious students who rushed in well in advance to grab the front seats. While they meticulously copied every word of the lecture, a few trainees slumbered peacefully at the back, disturbed only by an occasional, quickly muffled snore.
Dane came to training college with impeccable cricket credentials. He had captained the team at Carey College and had also played for Walkers, and was an automatic choice for the training college team. He quickly became the team’s best bowler. To Dane, cricket sometimes took precedence over less important family matters, such as a vigil on Eileen’s bedside after the birth of his only child. On the morning Romola was born, he was playing cricket. Although his bowling was outstanding, batting was not his forte. He was the popular choice for the vice-captainship of the team in the second year. In one memorable game with the Peradeniya Teachers College played at Police Grounds, Kandy, Dane and I bowled at either end to spin our team to a win. (That’s me, waiting to bat, in photo.)
Because most English trainees were mature, rather portly ladies and gentlemen, the English Department was fondly referred to as the “Mahalu Madama” (Home for the Aged) by trainees from the Science, Mathematics, and Commerce Departments. In fact, they appeared young enough to be the children of most English trainees. These age and girth factors posed certain problems in inter-departmental sports activities; although English trainees were guaranteed victory in such events as the shot-putt, discuss throw, and the tug of war—the domain of big, potbellied, men—we were hard pressed to find enough participants for track events, and enough players to field cricket, hockey, and soccer teams in inter-departmental tournaments. This meant that the same (younger) English-trainees took part in all the sports activities.
For the English Department’s soccer team, Dane was the goalkeeper and I played at fullback position. Our defense must have been solid because we frustrated teams from other departments, who in previous years had subjected the English team to humiliating defeats. We held a couple of better-fancied teams to scoreless draws. I captained the hockey team and Dane kept goal. Again, we put-up brave fights, but I was not happy when Dane let off an easy goal in a crucial match. Meaning to appease me, he persuaded another player to don the goalkeeper’s gear and came to the forward line to score a compensatory goal, which, alas, did not materialize. We lost the match.
My sweetest, most hilarious memories are from the track and field events. Well in advance of the annual sports meet, Dane let everyone know of his prowess as a high jumper. So, he became the English Department’s natural choice for the event which was held a few days before the main sports meet. I, along with Kumar Molligoda, Sunil Fernando, Alfred Jansze and other friends gathered to cheer him on and to celebrate a sure victory. For the initial jump, the bar was set at a modest 4 feet, hardly a challenge for accomplished athletes. A number of participants had nonchalantly cleared the height, and, because his fame had already spread, the crowd held its breath as Dane ran up to jump. Lo and behold, instead of flying over the bar, he was soon lying ignominiously on the ground, the bar clattering at his feet. He appeared to have passed out, and, fearing the worst, we rushed to the pit to carry him out. The unconscious state didn’t last too long and our champion soon melted into the crowd. However, he didn’t escape our endless ridicule.
But Dane soon had his revenge. Sunil too had boasted of his abilities as a long distance runner and was entered for the one-mile event. Soon after the race started, much to our dismay, he was not only running at the back of the pack but was also being lapped by the front runners. This was a fine opportunity for Dane, who continued to heckle Sunil at the top of his voice till the race ended. “Pathetic,” the term he used most often, clung to Sunil for the rest of his stay at training college.
The day of the sports meet held some hope for the English department athletes because the commerce department had pulled out of the competition over a dispute. With only science, math, and English in the running, we were guaranteed at least third place in all events. But, even that did not come without a price. The 4 x 400 yards relay, the last and crowning event of the meet, brought the biggest embarrassment. I ran the third lap and was already well behind the science and math runners when I
handed the baton to Kumar Molligoda for the final lap. As Kumar bravely struggled to complete the race amidst cries of “Come-on Mahalu Madama,” he was swallowed by the spectators who had swarmed over the field, assuming that the race was over; we had to clear a path for Kumar to finish. Throughout the race, I could hear Dane’s loud catcalls, getting his own back for the high jump debacle.
Training college days were not all play; we did have final examinations to complete. Certain courses, such as Sinhalese Language, were compulsory, and posed a challenge to a few trainees who were from minority communities. In fact, a number of trainees failed in Sinhalese at the final exam. On the day of the exam, to my amazement, Dane handed over his answer script and walked out of the examinations hall well before any of us did, smiling with confidence. Keenly aware of his not-so-perfect mastery of Sinhalese grammar and syntax, I was even more surprised when he passed the exam. I did not learn the secret of his success till he confessed recently. About an hour before the 3-hour exam ended, he had “borrowed” the answer script from Neil Silva, who sat nearby. Then, all he had to do was to erase Neil’s name, write his own, hand the paper over to the supervisor, and walk triumphantly out of the examination hall. In the brief time that was left to him, the hapless Neil scrambled to answer as many questions as he could. Fortunately, he too passed the exam.
Dane also passed the final exam in Islam in flamboyant style. According to Fawzia, a classmate who later became my wife, Dane rarely showed up for Islam lessons; it was rumored that he attended Christianity classes instead, which he apparently found more easygoing. Because Islamic students were few, his absence was easily observed, but despite the efforts of the teacher and his classmates, Dane managed to keep his distance from Islam classes. But, once again, he astonished everyone by passing the Islam paper too. Explaining this miracle, he revealed his magic formula: all he did was to write “Allah is great” fifty times on the answer script!
How Kumar Molligoda passed the English Literature paper with Dane’s help is legendary, but it is worth repeating here. Kumar, a professional musician, was perhaps the most colorful character at training college. While other trainees eked out an existence on the meager monthly salary, Kumar not only traveled to the college by taxi, but he also owned a half share in it. However, lecture attendance was not his highest priority. Yet, when the first year exams came around, Kumar was unperturbed. The evening before the literature paper, he visited Dane at Etul Kotte for a “cram session.” Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was a text in the course, but it was soon apparent that Kumar knew very little about its character and plot and quite likely had never read the text. As Dane related to us later, Kumar’s first question was “Machan, so who is this Henchard?” (Henchard is the tragic main character in Hardy’s novel.) The cram session must have been highly successful because Kumar passed the examination, although a few of the more diligent students failed miserably.
Perhaps the most exciting time at training college was the elections to the Student Council. For most younger trainees, experiencing their first taste of freedom, it was a time to be actively involved in politics, dividing themselves into camps and campaigning on behalf of their favorite candidates, The English Department didn’t escape the excitement, and Dane and I were heavily involved in the elections.
Our candidate lived at “Botledon”, a nearby chummery (rented house) shared by a number of mature English trainees, which was also Dane’s second home. It naturally became the campaign headquarters where strategies were planned and posters designed and created. As election fever reached a crescendo and defeat stared them in the face, the opposition resorted to personal attacks on us. I vividly remember one poster which stated in big, bold letters that “Braine Dane bothelete weda” (Braine and Dane are working for liquor), a blatant canard if ever there was one! But we had the last laugh when our man won, and by a two-thirds majority at that.
Little wonder we speak nostalgically of training college days.
Kumar Molligoda taught for a few years and returned to music and other work. Sunil Fernando lives near Colombo. Dane joined the army, rose to colonel, and died in action.