Colombo Telegraph

Journey To Peradeniya & Life On Campus: Personal Reflections

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Introduction

1968 seems as yesterday.  It was a watershed year in our lives. The year is steeped in memory like an inscription. In that year, we came from far flung areas of the island to the premiere higher learning centre in the country for a higher purpose. Once it was reserved for the children of elite families seeking knowledge and initiation to higher office. Thus, even before setting foot on the campus in some say we felt somewhat privileged. Our parents and close relatives made heavy sacrifices to lead us toward this journey with great expectations. Some of us made the journey according to the rule book.  Others stumbled and fell on the wayside. To this day we carry the kindred spirit and batch bonds born out of Peradeniya days that were characterised by promise, turmoil, change, love, comradery, beauty, aesthetics, seclusion and fun. In the following pages, I recall my memories to give you a glimpse into our lives at Peradeniya as well as ups and downs during those crucial years.

Undergraduate Years (1968-1972)

I travelled a long distance from Ethpitiya, Walasmulla in the Hambantota district to Peradeniya in the Kandy district by a combination of methods.  Peradeniya was generally cool and foggy with a drizzle. Roads, footpaths, grass and trees were wet. Difference in climate from the Hambantota district was quite noticeable. An umbrella was a necessity (umbrella had a symbolic significance also in the life of couples). The day long journey from Ethpitiya to Peradeniya generated mixed emotions as I had to leave my loving parents, grandparents and familiar surroundings behind and adapt to the cosmopolitan environment in the university. The contrast between the village Ethpitiya and Peradeniya campus was stark.

Once in the university, the reality sank in. I had the excitement of my success in getting admission on the one hand but also carried the anxieties about what is in store for us in the new place? There were freshers from all over the country in white trousers and shirts wearing slippers. Girls wore skirts and blouse. Likewise, there were the seniors –some of who followed specialised courses and serious looking in behaviour-carrying signature files with them. Some smoked. Then there were the tutors, lecturers and professors –some just back from England and America wearing fashionable codroy trousers, foreign made shirts and shoes. They possessed status symbols such as modern cars, watches, carry bags, and umbrellas. The place was busy with life, men and women, boys and girls going in to lectures and tutorial classes and coming out in groups. Support staff (called minor staff) kept the offices and the library in order. The WUS canteen on the way to Marcus Fernando Hall -where I resided part of my first year-was a busy place with both freshers and seniors. 

Compared to the school, campus contrasted with the environment outside the university also e.g. one could not see huts like houses of the poor or the diversity in housing. Those who established it obviously had done their homework. Architecturally designed buildings such as the library, lecture theatres, classrooms, administration building, residence halls, grounds and landscaping revealed to us that we were inhabiting an unusual place. This inculcated an attitude in our minds that we are a special group of people –though we didn’t realise the full importance of it at the time. The natural beauty of the campus grounds gave us a feeling of serenity similar to what you find in a temple. It contributed to our academic and intellectual endeavours among the best brains trained in England, Europe or USA and the books written in an alien language by those enthused about social, political, economic and cultural issues in the imperial centres of the world.

We were asked to attend lectures in the main lecture theatre (or in small classrooms if the number of students were not large) and tutorials held in smaller classrooms in the arts building. Lecturers and professors had a PhD and better reputation compared to the teachers in schools.  Professors like D.E. Hettiarachchi came to lectures in the academic gown-a practice adopted in Western universities in earlier days. They used microphones to address a few hundred undergraduates seated in wooden chairs with pen and note pads. In the arts theatre, there were ceiling fans working overtime time during hot months to keep us cool. Male and female undergraduates sat next to each other to take notes while keeping their handbags and umbrellas on the floor. Couples of course did not separate if they followed the same course. Only when they had to attend different lectures they temporarily departed from each other.  During the lectures, no one would ask questions from the lecturers. Our task was only listening and writing notes while observing the movements of the lecturer. It was not that difficult.

The phenomenon of ragging increased our anxieties but the relationships with selected seniors provided some reassurance. Once our subjects for the first year were sorted and we started attending lectures and tutorials, a semblance of order and regularity entered our lives. Courses ran for a year and at the end there were examinations.

Foremost among our minds at this time was to do well in study if we were to get entry to do a special degree. One had to pass the SAQ examination along with an English language test to be able to get entry to the special degree in Sociology. Other departments had their own entry requirements. Many of my colleagues did not choose this path or in the case of some did not qualify after trying. They were in majority and simply followed a three-year general degree course.

University life gravitated around the discovery of new knowledge and acquiring skills in reflection, analysis, synthesis, comparison, composition, interpretation of facts, articulation and presentation. Some became fascinated by dealing with ideas and facts, theories and concepts, methods of research and analysis relating to history, language, social sciences, humanities, science, medicine, dental science, agriculture, veterinary science and engineering subjects under the guidance of inspiring professors and tutors. As the professors and lecturers showed considerable commitment and dedication to their vocation, they became our role models. As we progressed, the possibility of joining the academic staff as tutors, temporary lecturers or as probationary assistant lecturers became a goal for some of us.

I had to master a new discipline i.e. sociology and anthropology, as well as a new language when I decided to do a special degree.  It was like trying to learn Buddhism without knowing Pali. For me, learning English had to be mainly through learning Sociology and anthropology books. To be a Sinhala medium student was a novel and challenging experience. Our knowledge was tested through exams at the end of the year. Though in the sociology classes we were asked to write essays on topics covered in lectures, they did not count for the final exam.  We were exposed to different subjects during our learning.   As part of the sociology course, we were introduced to a range of subjects.

In my sociology batch, there were 4 males and 3 females in the Sinhala medium. There were a couple of English medium students also. Invariably the latter were those who attended urban schools in Colombo or Kandy and perhaps English was their home language. My batch mates in the Sociology program (Sinhala medium) included Tudor Silva, Jayantha Perera, Amarasiri de Silva, Piyaseeli, Crisida Fernando and Chamila. Aruni Dayarathne (daughter of Mr. D.G. Dayarathne) and Sunimal Talwatte were in the English stream. Sometimes both groups attended same lecture, e.g. Obeyesekera’s. Mr. Coomaraswamy managed the offie whereas Sataiah was the office peon.  When academic staff members were not around, one of them was the de facto boss.

Academic staff included Gananath Obeyesekere, Ralph Pieris, K. Malalgoda, H.L. Seneviratne, Sunimal Fernando (after the foregoing three left the department in early 70s), Joe Weeramunda (visiting), and J.P. Delgoda (Visiting –Commissioner of prisons).  Last two came from Colombo for lectures. Mr. Delgoda came by an old-style Volkswagen car and stayed in the rest house. Though all of them were using English as preferred language, they attempted to use Sinhala words to explain the subject matter.  Some were good at this than others. There was a department library with a lot of sociology and anthropology books donated by the American Centre. However, most of our recommended literature originated from Britain and other European countries like Germany and France.

University education provided us with a liberal education, foreign theories and perspectives. It trained us to look at society, culture, economy, polity, religion, family, community, social problems etc. from an objective- analytical, fact based point of view while eliminating human biases in our thought. Some lecturers emphasised the need for a human perspective to our research and analysis.

The language of teaching and learning was a barrier to many because of the limited Sinhala language knowledge of professors and limitations in our knowledge of English. In the late 60s, there were English and Sinhala medium streams. However, in disciplines such as sociology (included anthropology) and economics, even the Sinhala medium students were required to use reference books and journals available in English only. In the lectures, discipline specific terminology was used. Corresponding words in Sinhala for English technical terms were alien as they were artificially constructed. Students who had acquired better English language knowledge were at an advantage.

English language

Many of us did not have even the basic skills in English language by the time we entered university. This was because the schools we attended did not teach the subject or even if they did the teaching was ineffective. Along with the lack of knowledge in English, our lifestyle with rural backgrounds stood in contrast to those colleagues who entered university from city schools and middle-class backgrounds whose parents held government or private sector jobs. This distinction was referred to as Kultur vs. Godeya. 

The university offered us English language classes through the sub department of English to provide basic skills in reading and writing. While we considered attending such classes in a small building behind the main library as an unnecessary burden, only later we realised their importance when we started the special degree course. Nonetheless, the learning in such classes was not adequate to be fully fluent in the language.  These classes offered us very little by way of spoken English.  They were not designed to do so.  It was left to the student to find other ways to acquire knowledge in spoken English. Thus, we had to attend extra classes in Kandy or elsewhere to brush up our knowledge of English. One method the teachers used was to teach us the meanings of English phrases. Attending private classes in literature outside the university was also an option.

There were some academic staff who seemed eccentric either due to their appearance, speech or behaviour. Students viewed some staff members as Kultur(posh). Those who had returned from UK or USA after doctoral study and Westernised belonged in this category. They had status symbols such as modern cars, umbrellas or handbags, shirts and trousers, attractive hair styles.  They conversed in English with their colleagues in the Senior Common room, in the library, the department or when walking along the corridors of the arts building. This created a significant gap between them and us. It also made us reluctant to interact with them. For students like us, interactions with academic staff were limited to lectures and tutorials. There were not many informal opportunities for interactions. One occasion when the senior academic staff in the faculty including the Dean came close to interacting with us was on occasions of taking batch photographs near the Senate building.  Another was when they came to see a drama with family in the Open-Air theatre.  

Social Life, Entertainment and Religious Activity 

There were formal and informal occasions for such activities. Formal events included those organised in the Halls of Residences, e.g. formal dinner nights, high table dinner.  For the former, a student in a male residence hall could invite girls. Students dressed up in formal attire –Western style -to enjoy company, eat and dance in the background of music.

There were societies such as the Sinhala Society, Buddhist Society, Film Society and Sports Society. We never forget the roles played by Somadasa Kumarage in the Sinhala society and Hubert Kalugampitiya in the Buddhist society. They were enthusiastic office bearers. Hubert organised Mal Pahan Pooja and meditation at Sarasavi Saya on full moon days. It was located on the way to Marcus Fernando hall passing the telephone exchange (then the University had five telephone lines only).

Around 8.00pm on selected days there were film shows for students and invited staff organised by the arts faculty film society.  Documentaries screened depicted life in various countries such as Soviet Russia, USA, and in Europe-Western and Eastern.  These shows were god send for couples who could enjoy each other’s company while the show was on.

Politically active students organised talks by visiting politicians, in particular left party leaders and other members e.g. Anil Moonasinghe, Colvin R De Silva. Compared to such smaller groups, the JVP supporters and sympathisers grew exponentially during our time.  Their message was taking roots among the youths, particularly school and university students, landless peasants in the dry zone districts, clerical and minor workers in the state machinery. The JVP ideology was critical of Western style formal social events.  It was even against students forming into couples with the opposite sex. Love between a male and female student was considered a barrier to the planned revolution to capture state power.

Informal occasions were more impromptu, cordial and entertaining. For example, a group of us got together and went to Kandy town for lunch or dinner. Popular places included Lyons cafe where we could eat fried rice, buriyani, rice and curries, string hoppers etc.  Chinese restaurant on the main street was another popular place to eat chop suey and Chinese fried rice. Couples also went to such places for a decent meal.   At other times, girls cooked nice food for the male partner to share.  Often, some walked down to Sandasiri hotel at Hindagala (off Ramanadan Hall on Mahakanda road) where they ate bread from the bakery with coconut sambal mix (very hot) and dhal curry. Students went to see movies in Kandy as a pastime.

Visiting the botanical garden was another pastime for students who yarned for a break from study. Climbing Hantana in groups on weekends and other holidays was popular. Students carried food and drinks on such trips. Visiting Adam’s Peak, worshiping and watching the sun rise was another socio-religious activity.

Some chose to visit Ramanadan, WIijewardena or Sangamitta hall instead of the library during afternoons/evenings. These are life choices that our batch mates made, i.e. instead of learning from books, perhaps they preferred to learn from life itself. There were famous couples in our batch and among our seniors. 

On full moon days, Buddhist students walked up to Gatambe temple and offered flowers etc. to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. They participated in Bodhi Pooja also. At the time, Bodhi Pooja was a novel activity spreading around the country’s Buddhist community. Rev. Panadure Ariyadhamma was the leading monk who initiated and propagated this practice. Men and Women in white clothes went to the temple premises adjoining the Mahaweli river. After finishing formal part of worship, they would hang around and enjoy the river and surrounding scenery.

Hilda Obeyesekera Hall

I was a resident in the Hilda Obeyesekera hall during most of my 3rd and 4th years (previously I resided in Marcus Fernando hall and in a private boarding house in Hindagala. Closer to final exams I moved to Hindagala boarding house). It had seven wings, each with two upper floors all coloured in pink. Between the first and second wings was a large pool. Next to it was the dining hall in the ground floor.  One end of the hall was facing Sangamitta hall (female residents) and the other end faced the Open-air theatre (Vala).  Facing the Peradeniya-Galaha road on hill side was James Peiris Hall (male residents). On the far-right side beyond Sangamitta was Ramanathan hall (female residents). I shared my room in the 3rd wing upper floor with a batch mate doing political science. 

The dining hall had long tables and benches set up for the students.  Staff including the sub wardens and at times the warden dined at the high table. The warden was Dr. Bandaranaike who later migrated to Australia with his wife Suniti.  She worked as an academic at James Cook University). They resided in the hall itself where they had comfortable quarters for accommodation. They used a Peugeot 404 imported car which was fashionable at the time. Some degree of civility was observed by students in the dining hall under their gaze. The standards of food served for meals deteriorated by the early 70s corresponding to the dire situation in the country due to restrictions imposed on food by the Sirimao Bandaranaike government.  Instead of eggs, milk, cheese, jam, butter, and sausages (served until 1970 in halls), we were served with bread, potato curry (Ala hodi) and bananas for the breakfast. Curry was watery with no taste except salt flavour. Many students consumed only the middle part of bread slices. They left the bread crust on the table like small mountains.  A lecturer in the dental faculty named Ariyadasa consumed such left-over bread for his breakfast to show the value of not wasting. No one else followed him and we thought he was crazy. Children of poor families from surrounding areas like Panideniya-Meewatura along the railway track gathered around the dining hall to eat left overs at each meal. The kitchen staff chased them away from time to time though some of us did not approve the practice. 

Life in the all-male residence hall was memorable for many reasons.  Firstly, it provided a home away from home. We had good company. The atmosphere was somewhat alien with a routine that included breakfast, lunch and dinner served in the posh dining hall. Catering staff kept the dining hall clean and tidy while the ground staff kept the gardens, ponds etc. clean and attractive. Once a week, we had a special dinner on Thursdays. Many of us yarned for the dessert which was Watalappam pudding.

A few days before April 4th JVP uprising when the government declared a state of emergency, police and army officers came to the hall to check rooms for weapons.  They searched wing by wing, floor by floor for such objects. As they combed through the first wing, JVP sympathisers in other wings threw old army boots, helmets etc. to the Mahaweli river. One police officer looking for illegal items in the ceiling in fact fell on to a bed.  This became the subject of humorous talk and laughter among students. No one was arrested for keeping illegal weapons on that day. However, the social turmoil and uncertainties about when and where the attacks against state security installations would take place created a lot of anxiety among students. Events after the 4th April 1971 created disruptions to our lives. However, they were minor compared to the disruptions felt by those outside the university including death, displacement and even imprisonment.

The Final Year and the Exam

Final year is the most important year in a university student’s life. Final exam is the culmination of four years of study for a special degree.  In the case of those doing a special degree, third year is also an important year. Second year is considered a qualifying year for the special degree and the exam is called special arts qualifying (SAQ). Those who are aiming at an upper second class or a first class spend enormous time and energy to achieve this goal throughout the last two years.  For the final year exam, I moved to Hindagala boarding house as it was congenial for study and the food provided by aunty who ran it was better than those served in the hall of residence.

There were seven exam papers. These included principles of social structure, social administration, comparative social institutions, theories and methods of sociology, criminology and penology, the culture and social organisation, statistical methods, a general paper and social anthropology.  Preparing for nine exam papers was not an easy task. One strategy I used was to guess the kind of questions that may be asked in the exam in advance and prepare answers by way of short notes or dot points. These included important concepts and theoretical arguments or theories relevant to the topic.  At the end, the day before the exam, it is these short notes that were useful to go through quickly and still keep the mind clear and focused. When we saw questions that we had guessed in the exam papers, we were overjoyed. When there were difficult and new questions, we obviously got frustrated. At the end, it was worth the try.

Exam was held in the gymnasium. There were long lines of desks arranged from one side to the next. Invigilators walked up and down keeping a close eye. Once the papers were distributed we swung into action. My strategy was to study the questions carefully, write down several key points and start answering. This proved a successful strategy.

Conclusion

We entered the university in 1968 and engaged in studies during a most turbulent time for the university and a tenuous point in the country’s political, social and economic history. We lived through ups and downs of life among the books, trees, footpaths, flowers, buildings, grass, and smells of modernity and rebellion. We learned under the care of a special breed of scholars renowned for their research, knowledge and wisdom. We accomplished our learning and life goals in varying degrees. We joked, grieved, sang, ate and danced together in this beautiful place on earth. The bonds we made are still continuing-though waning due to natural causes.

After leaving the University of Peradeniya, we stood on our own foot and travelled through the journey of life thus far in our motherland and abroad with determination and courage. We have observed how we changed along with the country and the world during the decades since our departure from the campus. It seems that change is the only constant in life. Many of us have children and grandchildren while being subjected to the ageing process. As we managed our lives in the last 50 years with varying success, I hope all of us in the 68 batch  will manage rest of our lives and fulfil remaining dreams, including spiritual advancement, with success!

Back to Home page