By Tissa Jayatilaka –
It was in 1957, while a tiny tot in the third grade at De Mazenod College Kandana that I first came across Ashley Halpé. Having distinguished himself by graduating a few months earlier with a First in English from Peradeniya, this former De Mazenodian had been invited to propose the vote of thanks at the annual Prize Day of his secondary school. The Chief Guest that day (I later learnt) happened to be S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Little did I know that some thirteen years later Ashley Halpé would be my guru at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, It is not insignificant that more than half a century later I am able to recall the young proposer of the vote of thanks but not the silver-tongued Chief Guest, Perhaps it says a great deal about my reverence for my teachers and something besides of my aversion to politicians!
A decade after that first encounter I was once more in an audience that Ashley Halpé was addressing. He was by now the very youthful holder of the only Chair of English in the country at that time. This was in 1967 in Room ‘B’ in the Faculty of Arts at Peradeniya during a lecture he delivered on Shaw. Surprising though it may now seem, in my mind’s ear I can yet hear his opening lines — The material is plentiful and I am tempted to let Shaw speak for himself. I have tried not to resist the temptation — and in my mind’s eye I see Prof. Halpé standing beside a table full of books containing Shaw’s plays and critical writings from which he indeed quoted copiously as promised. That was the same year I had begun to consider moving away from my plans to pursue a possible career in medicine and opt for one in the humanities. Halpé on Shaw was thus a defining moment for me. I eventually ended up not resisting my own temptation to read English at Peradeniya for my bachelor’s degree.
I shall forever be in debt to Indrani Abeyesekere, one of Prof. Halpé’s Peradeniya contemporaries, who made arrangements for me to attend that lecture on Shaw in 1967 while I was yet a student in the University Entrance Form at Kingswood College, Kandy. It was some years later that 1 came to know that Prof. Halpé had himself abandoned science studies to become a devotee of the common pursuit. Having qualified to enter Peradeniya for a degree in science on the basis of his University Entrance examination results, much to the horror of his parents, Ashley Halpé at his viva voce had pleaded with and secured from Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings et al, permission to opt for an arts degree. He was to take another momentous decision similar in character upon graduation. In the fashion of the day, the young Mr. Halpé in 1957 duly sat the examination for selection to the Ceylon Civil Service and was placed first. On being presented with an opportunity to serve his alma mater as an Assistant Lecturer in English, however, the young Civil Service Cadet had no hesitation whatsoever in going back to Peradeniya, compounding his family’s initial horror at his previous decision to change his academic discipline.
Given his excellent and varied achievements as an undergraduate, his decision to forsake the Civil Service for a University teaching career makes absolute sense. He was winner of virtually all of the glittering prizes on offer at Peradeniya and doubtless the biggest of them all was his appointment to the enormously prestigious and much-prized Chair of English at Peradeniya in 1965. At the age of thirty-two, he became one of the youngest to hold a University Chair in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Prof. Halpé is among the finest of Peradeniya men I have had the privilege to meet and get to know intimately. He is above all else a university don in the finest sense of that term. As teacher, researcher, disseminator of knowledge and administrator his contribution to Peradeniya (and to the Vidyalankara Campus in Kelaniya in his brief enforced spell there) has been substantial and significant. Perhaps the only administrative responsibility he did not shoulder in his time is that of Warden of a Hall of Residence.
Despite the load he carried as an administrator, Prof. Halpé found the time for his academic and extra-curricular interests. His scholarly publication record speaks for itself focusing as it does on aspects of Shakespearean drama and Shakespeare criticism and South Asian Creative Writing in English. Aside from several poems published in anthologies, three collections of his poems are available. These are Silent Arbiters, Homing and Other Poems and Sigiri Verses, an adaptation of the 6th – 9th Century Sinhala poems with an introduction and notes. His labours as translator have yielded notable English versions of some of the novels and short stories of Martin Wickramasinghe. That painting is one of Ashley Halpé’s varied talents and that he has held exhibitions of his paintings in Bristol, UK, in Sao Paolo, Brazil and in Colombo and Peradeniya, Sri Lanka is unknown to many. The energy and enthusiasm he has invested in Peradeniya University’s Dramatic Society (DramSoc) have resulted in more than a dozen play productions designed and directed by him. Among these, my favourite is Strindberg’s The Father – the 1966 offering of the DramSoc with the late Osmund Jayaratne in a memorable lead role. His contribution to education and literary activities outside the university is equally notable.
For the extensive and invaluable services detailed above, Prof. Halpé has been honoured both nationally and internationally. The Government of Sri Lanka has conferred on him the Kalakeerthi and the Vishvaprasadini titles. The Governments of Sri Lanka and the United States awarded him two Fulbright Senior Fellowships while the Government of France has made him Chevalier dans l’ordre Palmes Academique. He has been an Honorary Fellow of Claire Hall, University of Cambridge and Resident Fellow at the Literary Criterion Centre for Indigenous Arts and Literature, Dhvanyaloka, Mysore, India, and Visiting Fellow at the American Studies Resource Centre, Hyderabad, India.
All of these achievements and honours have sat and sit lightly on Ashley Halpé the man. His is an under-stated personality, with the humanity, humility and modesty of the truly educated person at its core. As a teacher, he did not mesmerize his students as some of his predecessors, notably Lyn Ludowyk and Doric de Souza, are reputed to have done. Not having had the good fortune of sitting at the feet of the former, the magister magistrorum, I shall accept the word of my predecessors at Peradeniya for this evaluation, but l certainly am able to vouch for the latter’s virtuosity having heard and watched him perform within the four walls of a classroom. Ashley Halpé the teacher can be humble to a fault. He refrained from histrionics of any kind. His knowledge and erudition were never on obvious display in or outside the classroom. He did not seek to lecture or talk at us. Rather his pedagogic labours were directed at ferreting out what we knew, thought and felt about literature and life. He never tried to poke us in the eye to make us see how much he knew! This understated approach, however, had its drawbacks. Some of my befuddled Peradeniya contemporaries erroneously wondered if Prof. Halpé actually knew more than he let on! Those who stayed on to benefit from his knowledge and wisdom beyond the freshman year were able to discover the light concealed under the proverbial bushel. His disarming simplicity and unobtrusiveness are a crucial part of Ashley Halpé’s immense civility.
Photo – Ashley Halpé and Tissa Jayatilaka at a seminar in 1994 in Colombo
It is this Socratic teaching style combined with his respect for the students’ innate understanding that enabled him to reveal to us the inner depths plumbed by great men and women of letters as they (and we) grappled with the eternal verities. My own understanding of Shakespeare and George Eliot in particular is due mostly to the manner and style with which Prof. Halpé led me into discovering for myself those ‘spots of commonness‘ of a Lydgate or the terrifying ambition of a Macbeth. That the hautboys one comes across in Macbeth are musical instruments and not arrogant young males is something I learnt thanks to Prof. Halpé’s insistence on close reading and careful scrutiny of literary texts.
Of the several admirable qualities of Prof. Halpé’s mind and heart, one that has stood out during his long and devoted stewardship of the English Department at Peradeniya is his consistent avoidance of change for the sake of change. I think it is not incorrect to say that he was and is an enlightened traditionalist. He was, however, never dogmatic. Especially in the post-insurgency years of the early 1970s, it was fashionable to seek to introduce into the education sphere ad hoc change. This was the time of ill – conceived, politically motivated, hasty and autocratic educational policymaking – the infamous era of ‘University Re-organization’. The policymakers of the time were primarily the place seekers of the academic community who had sold out and were, for the most part, lackeys and henchmen of the politicians in office at the time -‘the rash mandarins dabbling in change‘. Prof. Halpé had the courage of his convictions to challenge and question the establishment of that day. In numerous and various public fora, both within the university and without, he exposed the eclecticism and the shallowness of the ill-conceived proposed changes mooted for the higher education sphere, especially in the humanities and the social sciences. The coterie of men and women inebriated with political power and ‘Dress’d in a little brief authority‘ were incapable of accepting in the spirit in which it was given those trenchant but nevertheless constructive criticisms of their proposals that Prof. Halpé offered. For his pains, he was forced to ‘build elsewhere‘, having been thrown outside the world of his beloved Peradeniya by ‘foul extrusion‘. Hence his brief sojourn in Kelaniya in the mid-1970s. This is possibly another first for Ashley Halpé albeit a dubious honor in stark contrast to the other laurels won. The forced removal of Prof. Halpé from Peradeniya is similar to that which is known as a ‘punishment transfer’ in Sri Lanka’s public service. Whenever a spirited public servant stands up to a meddling or corrupt politician and refuses to carry out what amounts to an illegal administrative request, he is usually punished for his non-compliance. The punishment often takes the form of a transfer to an under-developed rural outpost of the country. The ‘re-organizers’ of university education of the time hastily created a ‘centre of excellence’ for English Literature at the Vidyalankara Campus of the University of Sri Lanka at Kelaniya and ordered Prof. Halpé to move there. This could well be the first ‘punishment transfer’ meted out to a university don in Sri Lanka!
It did not matter that library facilities for students seeking to specialize in literature and the humanities in general were only available at Peradeniya and that there was no academically justifiable reason to move the specialized study of English Literature to an ill-equipped Vidyalankara Campus. The need of the hour was to get Ashley Halpé out of Peradeniya and out of the way at any cost as quickly as possible. The damage to the university and to those of us following the Special Degree programme in English at Peradeniya at the time was enormous. Several of our teachers having left Peradeniya for less uncongenial academic institutions overseas, the English Department was utterly strapped for variety and specialized talent. The last thing we needed was to be made headless and rudderless. Despite the valiant efforts of those of the under-staffed English Department of the time, our studies and progress were adversely affected by Ashley Halpé’s contrived absence. His guiding hand was now available only intermittently as and when he appeared in Peradeniya as a Visiting Professor!
Prof. Halpé survived the machinations of these pathetic and irresponsible dons who had banished him. He returned a few years later to continue to nourish Peradeniya. His greatest contribution to English Studies at Peradeniya, as pointed out above, was his steadfast opposition to reckless innovation. When less-experienced and short-sighted critics armed with political clout sought to mangle the Peradeniya English curriculum by forcing ruinous curricular reform down the throat of the English Department, he successfully withstood these calculated moves. While standing against academic adventurism, he did introduce meaningful change as and when such change was called for. The inclusion of instruction on the fundamentals of Sinhala and Tamil literature to those following the Special Degree in English is a case in point. Given the dramatic changes in the socio-political complexion of Sri Lanka post – 1956 and post – 1971, this harmonisation of the national literatures and other ‘world’ literatures in English with English Studies at Peradeniya was a far more sensible and profitable innovation than the approach advocated by the ‘re-organizers’ and their accomplices who were merely hell-bent on throwing the (English Lit.) baby with the (colonial/ imperialist) bath water! It was in this exemplary manner that Prof. Halpé and the Department of English he presided over responded to unsympathetic critics who mistakenly sought to accuse Peradeniya English of producing ‘alienated’ and ‘deracinated’ graduates.
In my own time, the two “Special Periods’ in English Literature which those following a Special Degree in English had to study in particular depth were the ‘Romantic’ (1770-1832) and ‘Victorian’ (1832-1901) periods. We were expected to place against their social, political and economic background the literary and philosophical texts of these periods our syllabus demanded we explore. In order to deepen our understanding of this background, the English Department enlisted the services of specialists from the History Department whose lectures were both stimulating and extremely useful. They most certainly served to reinforce our literary critical explorations of the writings of 18th and 19th century England. Later on, Prof. Halpé made the study of Greek Tragedy and Mediaeval and Renaissance European Literature and Culture compulsory for those pursuing Special English.
Two of Prof. Halpé’s proposals to the educational authorities that were accepted at the time they were made have had a lasting educational impact and will continue to have an impact on our educational system long after Prof. Halpé is gone from the scene. These are his successful advocacy for the inclusion of English among Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit and related ‘endangered subjects’ in a special category within the universities’ humanities curriculum and his contribution to the strengthening of the teaching of English in Sri Lankan schools. The need for the protection of these subjects in the humanities arose due to the greater emphasis placed by students and parents on degree programmes in science and technology in their understandable, if myopic, quest for a job-oriented education. The future for the humanities thus appeared bleak and hopeless with the numbers of those opting for the humanities which had been in decline dropping alarmingly in the 1970s. It was Prof. Halpé who gave leadership to those members of the university community who saw the need for urgent preventive strategies to arrest this dangerous and unfortunate trend in the sphere of higher education. The continued study of these subjects was safeguarded and further strengthened by the creation of a special category of admissions. Those who had passed in these subjects while passing the exam as a whole but had not obtained high enough aggregates to secure places in the open competition were given ‘special admission’ provided they committed themselves to continuing study of one of these ‘endangered subjects’ right through their studies for the degree. This enabled a large number to obtain degrees in or with English. His specific proposal to reinforce English teaching in schools had to do with his recommendation to enable school-level teachers of English with three passes (inclusive of English) at the General Arts Qualifying (External) Examination to enroll in the degree programmes in English at Peradeniya as internal students. Additionally, despite what I have perceived to be his traditionalism, Prof. Halpé encouraged his juniors to branch out in new directions. He thus left the door open for new post-colonial and post-modernist breezes to blow through the Department of English though perhaps not entirely convinced of the usefulness of some of these breezes!
I wish to touch on certain personal recollections in conclusion. My freshman year at Peradeniya was suffused with boisterous antics as I revelled in ‘uncivilized fooling’ as most new entrants are wont to do. With the advantage of hindsight I am now aware that my early unruly behavior embarrassed Prof. Halpé as he happened to be the University Proctor at the time. Besides the frolic and madness, there were other encounters of a serious nature during my early Peradeniya days that brought me unexpectedly close to Prof. Halpé. One such occurred during the insurgency of April 1971 when I was unwittingly in the way of possible grave harm. Without realizing that all the student hostels except Hilda Obeysekera Hall had been declared out of bounds for all male undergraduates by the authorities, I was yet at Arunachalam Hall after the new emergency arrangements had been enforced. It is more than likely that l would have been a victim of the ‘shoot to kill’ orders in force given the fact that my physical appearance at the time, replete with long hair and flourishing beard, qualified me to be thought of as a ‘Che Guevarist’ student revolutionary by the uniformed men in charge of crushing the insurgency. I sought refuge at Prof. and Mrs. Halpé’s house and was promptly thereafter placed under house arrest at Lower Hantane, the Halpé residence! To keep me from landing in any further danger, with a little help from Fr. Augustine the Catholic Chaplain of the University, the Halpé’s introduced me to the blessed game of Bridge. It was only after the coast was quite clear that I was eventually allowed to leave. I later came to know that Prof. Halpé had taken even greater care of those undergraduates taken into custody under the hurriedly promulgated emergency regulations to deal with the insurgency. It must surely have taken much courage for him to pursue this course as most members of the university academic community were under suspicion and at the receiving end of the hostility of the defence forces personnel because there were dons who were either involved in the uprising or were among those who empathized with the political convictions of the youthful insurgents. Bearing books, sympathy and understanding, Prof. Halpé regularly visited the detained undergraduates. Later on, he was among the university authorities who assisted those of the detainees desirous of sitting their university examinations from prison.
The Halpé residence at Lower Hantane was also our not infrequent venue for Dramsoc rehearsals, Music Society socials and several other memorable undergraduate activities. It was at some of these extra-curricular encounters that students and lecturers mingled informally. Looking down at us from his vantage point, Sir Ivor Jennings would doubtless have blessed the Halpés for keeping alive one of the finest aspects of a residential university like Peradeniya, viz., – that of fostering close intellectual and social interaction between the teachers and the taught. Prof. and Mrs. Halpé were exemplary in upholding this wonderful Peradeniya tradition. It was at some of these events at the home of Prof. Halpé that many a non-academic undergraduate aspiration was also realized. Although to the world outside they may not have mattered, for us the mild flirtations, little romances and other emotional entanglements of a more serious nature that originated during the interactions mentioned above, often the inevitable rites of passage for transition from young adulthood to the real world outside Peradeniya’s charmed surroundings, meant a great deal.
Of those with an education in the humanities that I know personally, there indeed are only a handful who actually live by or reflect the virtues and values of such an education. Indeed of only a few humanities specialists can it truly be said that all that’s best of literature and the arts meets in his aspect and his eyes. Prof. Halpé is indisputably one of the very distinguished members of this wee tribe. I have never heard or seen in print harsh and disparaging words from him about anyone. His concern for family, friends and colleagues is sincere and heartfelt. Two examples are offered in illustration of his inherent goodness as a person. The first of these is his taking affectionate care of his former teacher and senior colleague Prof. Hector Passé during the latter’s difficult and exceedingly lonely last several months of post-retirement existence, subsequent to the early deaths of his wife and only child. He not only provided Prof. Passé a home but also kept him gainfully occupied by inviting him to teach part-time. During this period, Prof. Passé once more became a participant in all of the English Department social activities as well. In fact it was while enjoying himself in the company of his students and colleagues at a Going Down dinner that Prof. Passé fell ill and passed away soon thereafter. Thus it was Prof. Halpé who made it possible for Prof. Passé to die with his boots on so to speak – a consummation any teacher would devoutly wish for. The other example is a very personal experience. At an extremely vulnerable early stage in my professional career as a young Assistant Lecturer at Peradeniya, I had occasion to turn to Prof. Halpé for succour. Having laid bare my inner turmoil, I asked Prof. Halpé for advice and direction. I qualified my request for spiritual assistance by saying ‘Sir, to a non-believer like myself, you are my God on earth’. He did offer me ‘sentence and solace’. Before he left me to ponder over his response, however, he said, ‘thank you for your deep faith in me, but, please, for my sake, let me remain human’.
It is possible that Ashley Halpé may have on occasion revealed the clay in his feet. In so doing, he has offered proof of his complex human fallibility and vulnerability. If any amongst us has found and finds him wanting in this respect, it is perhaps his or her fault for expecting Prof. Halpé to be infinitely more than human as I did in my callow youth. For all of his human frailties or despite them, Ashley Halpé is a very true, near perfect, gentle human being. It is indeed a privilege to pay this public tribute to him.
*This essay was first published in Arbiters of a National Imaginary: Essays on Sri Lanka Festschrift for Professor Ashley Halpé Edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, 2008.