By Palitha Pelpola –
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past”~William Shakespeare, Sonnet (30)
Ananda 125 Years – A review
Ananda College, named after the principal disciple of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha is, more often than not, revered for her celebrated contributions to the revival of traditional Buddhist education, reckoned for her distinct accomplishments in non-academic fields and scorned and looked down upon by condescending social-climbers who missed the rare opportunity to attend Ananda College to pursue their primary and secondary education, still remains at the very top tier of educational institutions in Sri Lanka. I state that, not as a so-called proud old-Anandian, but an ordinary citizen making a mere statement of fact. Ananda’s journey over the past 130 years has led through a path of glory and disappointment; it’s been through hardships for the teachers and torrid times for the students; it’s been one magnificent journey, through the proverbial peaks and valleys, whose end is nowhere near but in the distant future. Ananda is not a station as most of our admirers respect; it is a fast moving train taking its travelers along moonlit nights as well as broad daylight; without any favor or fervor, without any irrational emotion but a whole lot of passion.
In completing ‘Anandaya – the first 125 Years’, a dedicated team of chroniclers have made a remarkable effort at painting a marvelous picture on a broad and seamless canvas, with cold professionalism and painstaking attention to detail one would see in an accomplished biographer. It has provided each reader of each era with a timeless impression of reminiscence of what he went through in that long and arduous journey. That is the inescapable essence of the chronicle that is before us. Whilst recounting the dates and times of each era, whilst presenting a factual picture of the varied struggles and tribulations ‘Ananda’, as a collective mindset of faceless thousands who have passed through the ages of pre-Independence and post-Independence Sri Lanka had to endure, the authors have been able to maintain a remarkable sense of balance in highlighting those characters who shaped and defined what is left today as the legacy of ‘Ananda’.
Many a review has already been written of the book we are talking about today. I’m not going to be judgmental on those efforts, nor am I going to be judgmental on the very institution that is called Ananda and her place in Sri Lanka’s society in relation to each of us. All products of Ananda College have not achieved the pinnacle of society. All have not achieved the desired results when they entered school and completed their education from their formative years to late teens. Yet we indulge in the glories of those few who went to the top of our societal ranks, whether they be of professional, academic or political sort. Many have fallen by the way side. Many have found no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Many have grown accustomed to the utterly discriminative nature some of our masters and even Principals had resorted to during the reformative ages of our nation as one struggling to raise her head above water during and after the colonial times.
When stipulating these thoughts and beliefs, one must unvaryingly grapple with the fundamental question one must ask as an old-Anandian or even a non-old-Anandian. What is the concept of ‘Ananda’? Is it merely a concept, or is it a living organism? Is it the buildings? Is it the teachers and principals? Is it what we have attained in our respective lives, professionally and personally? Is it the countless lessons we have absorbed or is it an illusion or a mirage that we store within ourselves and never try to give expression to, for fear of finding the inglorious truths hidden behind those illusions and mirages? Or is it the combination of all these aspects and influences and more? I don’t have an answer to these endless alternatives. I dare not choose one from amongst these choices. To do so would be utterly condescending, a characteristic which Anandians are not known for. That, they say, belonged to alumni of other so-called ‘classy’ schools who hurl scorn at Anandians for not being so ‘classy’.
Taken in that context of contemporary historical experiences, has ‘Anandaya – the first 125 Years’, the publication we are reviewing today, accomplished its singular and primary task of telling a tale of enchantment, sorrow, courage, achievement, despair, hope and valor? If the reader has the patience and insight, if he or she can absorb the niceties and cruelties of the times, from the 1880s to the twenty first century, if he has the elementary keenness to sit down and indulge in it as a book of reference which he can every now and then turn to a page and relive the experiences it tries to narrate, it has accomplished its task and done even more. It is not a Frederick Forsyth thriller which one won’t put down until one reaches its last few pages in which the plot has thickened and the plan has combined with the key characters to spring up a surprise. Nor is it a biography of a contemporary politician whose scandals outnumber the ‘good’ deeds he has done for the community he is sworn in to serve. It is a coffee-table-book which belongs more in those abodes where there are no coffee tables; it is a publication which has embraced a history of a nation struggling to shake away the cobwebs of colonial domination; a gem of a production whose narrative is difficult to digest because of its weighty substance. And the authors must not be discouraged by that response from a majority of readers.
Ananda, as all good things, is more difficult to achieve, more precious to part with, more sustaining than a victory at a big-match. Ananda is the whole experience of life; its awesome dignity dwells in the values it has imparted to its students; not Buddhist values, not Sinhalese values, not traditional values nor modern-day values, just plain human values. Ananda’s contribution towards the sustenance of human values surpasses its own material values of which volumes have already been penned for posterity.
After all, what Ananda means to each old-Anandian is not what others tell him about it. It is what he or she has taken or not taken home from it. It is fundamentally personal and private. What Ananda represents to each and every old-Anandian who attended this great school, from the 1880s to the present day, is unique and exclusive and at the same time universal and all-encompassing. On November 10, 1922, Rabindranath Tagore, considered by a great many as the greatest literary figure in all human history, visited Ananda College in Colombo as the chief guest of the annual prize-giving ceremony. It is apt to refer to one of his famous quotations as follows: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” In the writer’s opinion, that is the one great lesson Ananda has imparted to us. In the same vein, Ignazio Silone, the author of the timeless novel Fontamara said: “I am a Christian without a church; a socialist without a party and a citizen without a country”. Such sublime thoughts are capable of being born in many an old-Anandian. Silone also said thus: “On a group of theories one can found a school; but on a group of values one can found a culture”. Ananda founded more than a school, it founded a culture.
When a well-accomplished academic sits down in the deepening hours of twilight, in his well-lit study surrounded by hundreds of books, he may turn the leaves of Anandaya – the first 125 Years; in another far-off land, a professional who pursued his post-graduate studies in western lands might wake up early morning and before his usual morning constitutional, with a mugful of coffee in hand, glance through the pages of Anandaya – the first 125 Years, and yet in a very average household in the suburbs of Colombo or in a far-off hamlet in rural Sri Lanka, the father of the household will turn the pages very proudly and try to instil in his teenage son what to do and what not to do in life’s long journey. They are occupying varied social tiers and earn varied incomes but the common thread that binds them is that they are all old-Anandians. When one goes through the pages of this book, whichever tier of society one belongs to, to be part of that whole, not the singular tier, but the collective whole, makes one tremble not with fear but awe that Ananda has instilled in them. To me, that is Ananda, the whole. Anandaya – the first 125 Years has done that awesome legacy proud.