By Emil van der Poorten –
I don’t know when Hilary Abeyaratne passed away in Australia, but it was, for someone like me who wanted to meet him again as I entered my own twilight years, too soon.
There has been at least one appreciation of Hilary that has appeared in a weekly English language publication that speaks to his many qualities as a teacher. For my part, I believe that Hilary made a significantly greater impact on those with whom he came in contact, an impact that extended beyond the confines of the classroom and its immediate vicinity.
My family’s relationship with Hilary encompassed both my generation and the one that preceded it, in the shape of my father.
My father never really forgave Hilary for what he saw as his “misleading” my older siblings into a lifetime submersion in Trotskyist politics. Those siblings, in turn, were most disillusioned with Hilary when they sought to have him more intimately involved with the political causes in which they had immersed themselves in Britain in the 1950s when Hilary, who had been their Housemaster and political guru at Trinity College, was doing a post-graduate teaching practicum of some kind in England. In fact they never forgave what they interpreted as his “typically bourgeois dilettantism” and an attachment to progressive politics which didn’t extend beyond the theoretical. The Anglican Ladies Sunday Afternoon Tea Party at which good deeds were planned and little else was where they seemed to place Hilary’s politics!
My contact with Hilary was not unlike that of my brothers, known in British political circles as Michael and Tony Banda, pseudonymous in typically Trotskyist fashion! At an impressionable age – my mid teens – I was enormously impressed by both Hilary’s style as well as the content of what he spoke knowledgeably about. Coming from a background that was attached to English middle-class culture, I could relate to what Hilary said both in the classroom and outside it. I believe he was a little less explicit in what he told me about politics, perhaps because of his experience with my brothers and the fallout from those conversations. However, he did reinforce the stirrings of social conscience that, in retrospect I now know, was part of my family’s belief system.
In addition to his political progressivism Hilary was another breath of cultural fresh air in the halls of a Trinity where the environment had been created by the “new broom” regime of Norman Walter for unprecedented physical and intellectual change. Among other things, Hilary was responsible for establishing a Film Society in the school and we had the opportunity of watching a very grainy “Battleship Potemkin” in 16 mm format and we learned that there was more to films about nature and wild life than the slick and cutesy Walt Disney films such as the “LivingDesert.”
Trinity had been in the doldrums, in more ways than one, for many years and Norman Walter certainly shook things up. To me this was epitomized by some of the teachers he brought in from Britain.
There was Hugh (H.J.K.) Smith, a Welshman if memory strikes me right, who made poetry come alive for so many of us to whom it had been unbelievable drudgery up to then; there was Derek Jukes who let his arts students indulge their creative fancies in a manner that Harry Hardy, very much the follower of academic tradition, would have shuddered at! There was J.J.Armstrong, a “man of the cloth,” from Ulster from whom I once received a “thundering” slap for having had the cheek to try to mimic his very heavy Irish brogue! Nevertheless, a good and conscientious teacher!
And, as if to prove that the only ones who don’t make mistakes are those who don’t do anything, there was a recruit to the staff called Dixon, if memory strikes me right, who left quite mysteriously and, seemingly, under a cloud.
If you think that Walter’s was a regime devoted to “re-colonizing” Trinity, there were several eminent Sinhala and Tamil scholars brought on board, one of whom I distinctly remember was a Charles de Silva who had flowing locks of a kind associated with intellectuals and artists of the time.
There were also, of course, the non-conformist survivors from the days of Empire. Among these was the Gandhian, A. M. Sunderamani, who possessed one of the most under-rated intellects on Trinity’s staff, a man of wisdom whose principles were epitomized by the fact that he disobeyed the edict of a previous principal, Campbell, and continued until he left TCK, to wear his Indian national garb of khaddar (raw cotton) on every occasion, formal and otherwise.
This then was the TCK that Hilary throve in. I cannot speak for the years after Norman Walter left – post Bandaranaike “Sinhala only” – but I certainly have vivid memories of Hilary in the Walter years and, warts and all, he epitomized the (western) liberal tradition that, sadly, seems to have deserted the Kandy school.
Hilary encouraged his students to think for themselves. You certainly didn’t learn by rote in his classes. In fact, to me the impact of his teaching is most evident in several contemporaries whom I have met up with, sometimes after half a century, who, while they came from very conservative Kandyan backgrounds and might have been expected to more than retain that conservatism, provide living examples of the breadth of vision that Hilary’s teaching projected. I am truly filled with wonder when I consider where these men came from, culturally speaking, and the space they now inhabit and presumably did during their working lives. That was a large part of Hilary Abeyaratne’s legacy.
To some of us at least, “H.B.A” was a glamour boy of significant stature! He, admittedly, drove a poor excuse for a sports car, one of the “lemons” of the British motor industry, an Austin A40 Sports. It was a nice enough looking vehicle with a soft top, the only real concession to “sportiness,” but otherwise very much a part of the citrus branch of the imperial automobile industry of the time!
Hilary liked a tipple and was famous for his “civil service butts,” cigarettes lit, drawn on and then stubbed out while moving from one classroom to the other without benefit of an “interval” in which to indulge his addiction to “cancer sticks.” In fact, there were the more adventurous among my contemporaries who’d make a practice of picking up these “fags” off which only a couple of “pulls” had been taken, storing them away for future use!
Hilary was part of a generation of the Abeyaratna family that personified excellence in the fields of endeavour they entered. Ernest devoted his life to dry zone agriculture and headed up the research station at Maha Illupallama for years, performing a veritable labour of love with great distinction; Michael, the youngest, shone as a surgeon and, if I remember right, “Brightie” de Mel more than excelled in her chosen medical field. Their parents, Dr. Lloyd and his spouse were paediatricians of repute not to mention human beings of exceptional integrity and excellence. The Abeyaratne’s of those two generations not only excelled in their chosen professional fields but were the personification of the liberal democratic tradition of that time.
The fact that Hilary left Sri Lanka when he did is indicative, notwithstanding any protestations to the contrary, of the historical progression of the narrow, chauvinistic, intolerant and violent culture that had begun to overtakeSri Lanka. To me, the life of Hilary Abeyaratne parallels the history of late twentieth century Sri Lanka and the opportunities lost to those who might have continued to be the beneficiaries of educators of excellence like him. Ironically, Hilary and, through him, all those who might have benefited from the ministrations of an educator par excellence were victims of the politics that Hilary and his fellow believers had broadly supported!