By Helasingha Bandara –
The memory of one of the greatest contributors to English education in Sri Lanka is fading away gradually and naturally. This article is a conscientious effort to prevent that from happening too early. The intention is to rekindle our memory of him from time to time.
In “A Garland for Ashley, Glimpses of A Life” edited by Tissa Jayatilaka and Jayantha Dhanapala, a book that was gifted to me by Ashley himself with his familiar signature on it, I read a few personal accounts that were similar in some ways to the story of Ashley and me. I wanted to relate my story in his memory as I believe it still is unique despite bearing some similarities to other stories.
The year was 1982, a long time ago, thirty-six years to be precise. If I were to secure study leave to study at university with my teacher’s salary intact, my options were either to take up Mathematics or English, neither subject I had taken at the advanced level examination in 1981 that had guaranteed my university admission. In desperation to study at university on study leave, I approached a certain Doctor at the department of Mathematics which seemed to me the most likely option. My previous studies and work were based on Mathematics. By that time, I had had eight years of experience in teaching mathematics in state secondary schools as a specially trained Mathematics teacher. To this academic, such experience did not mean much and he declined my request to study Mathematics, straight away, without a second thought at all. I had the booklet issued by the University Grant Commission in hand that expressly stated that a person who had studied a subject before, was entitled to read that particular subject at University although they had not taken that subject for the particular advanced level examination that guaranteed their admission to university. I could argue with the then temporary head of the department of Mathematics about my entitlement. I knew arguing with this person could be like committing suicide. Such was the autonomy those men enjoyed within the supreme educational institutions in our country.
My second option was to take up English for which I had no prior qualification or experience, nor had I sufficient knowledge to cope at university level. I was even ashamed to ask anyone whether my request could be considered. I happened to know a brother of a friend who worked at the sub–department of English at the university of Peradeniya. During this tumultuous period, I accidentally met him at his sister’s residence and he heard my story. He encouraged me to approach the English department irrespective of the outcome. Reluctantly I met him at the university and was introduced to Dr. Kamal de Abrew. Dr. Abrew in turn took me to the grand library of the university.
There, immersed in a book, surrounded by thousands of other books, stood this physically diminutive but intellectually colossal person named Professor Ashley Halpe – the humanist, artist, poet, writer and the teacher with whom later I became friends.
Our conversation took place in Singhalese. He simply asked me whether I had studied English language and literature. Following my “no sir” he asked whether I had studied Singhalese literature. His eyes popped out in surprise at my “neither that, sir”. I said I was a science student throughout. “In that case I don’t think you can cope with the course work”, he replied. Only now, can I comprehend that he would have compared in his mind my situation with his own admission to the department of English instead of the medical school, although he did not show any sign of doing that. After a few minutes silence he said “If you fail your first year, you may have to pay back the year’s money. Is it not good to return to what you have been doing now rather than returning at the end of the year having to refund a lot of money?” Only years later I realised that he was testing my will and determination. However, my luck was such I said “I don’t mind taking the risk, I really don’t”. “You seem a determined man, all right, give it a go, come to the department on Monday”. That Monday I joined my class of new mates who were being taught by Dr. Tirukandaiah at the time I joined them. That was the beginning and the rest was history.
Ashley’s method of encouraging me was to keep on saying that I would fail. I did not, thank you Ashley, I really did not fail you or myself.
Ashley came to see me in Edinburgh and we spent a few days together and became even closer. Someone had written that more than anything else, Ashley was respected for his humility that knew no bounds. To the pupil who even did not speak English at the first interview, he said “you now speak better English than I do”. I knew I was just an anchovy compared with this massive whale. Yet, such was his humility to complement my rapid development. I have no doubt he must have shown that human understanding and compassion to many others in the same manner. That is the greatness of the man.
Most times when I visited Sri Lanka I visited him at their Peradeniya residence. All those visits were warm. In January 2016 I visited him and promised to visit again in July. I said goodbye in the traditional manner to which I was used. It is hard to imagine that there were many of Ashley’s students who touched his feet in saying goodbye. That in fact touched his heart and when I raised my head I saw his eyes glistening with tears. After all he was still a Sri Lankan. At the time I did not know that it was not just a goodbye but a farewell. Farewell my dear sir! To me Peradeniya is void of life without you.