By Laksiri Fernando –
Even if we were not very conscious about or appreciative of the natural beauty of the place, that influenced all of us immensely. That may be one reason how the place gave room for several romantic love affairs. On one side, it was the picturesque Hantana mountain range, and on the other, the winding Mahaweli river. On Friday evenings, couples could be seen roaming between the kissing bend and the Ramanathan hall until the dinner bells rang at 7.00 sharp. Boys were slightly late for dinner than the girls. The couples were not that visible on Saturdays or Sundays, and rarely during the other days of the week. During the weekends, the girls could get late passes to visit Kandy for a movie or dinner until 10.00 pm. I cannot remember any such restriction for boys.
Best of times?
I entered the University of Peradeniya in October 1965, to read a special degree in economics, spending the first year at the Colombo campus. What I appreciated most about the place was its ‘academic freedom,’ even as a student. But by the time I left Peradeniya as a teacher in 1984, these freedoms were encroached or abused by the authorities and the students alike. In hindsight, I can now even see the first signs of this deterioration before I graduated in 1968. There were other paradoxes and contradictions.
One of my closest batch mates, Piyasiri Wickramasekera, writing his memoirs quoted Charles Dickens’ ‘best of times and worst of times.’ I cannot agree more. ‘It was also the age of wisdom and it was also the age of foolishness,’ particularly for us as students. Before writing any further, I must apologise if I inadvertently hurt any feelings when I mention few names. Without those names this narrative might be lifeless.
When I was asked to come to Peradeniya, if I wish to pursue my special degree, I was given a list of things to be taken. That included a raincoat, an umbrella, a torch, a cap, a light pullover, and a particular number of shirts and trousers! I don’t think anyone cared for this list, but my mother insisted that I should take them. My mother pooled money of course with difficulty. When my father was alive, we were rather ‘rich.’ But when he prematurely died, when I was ten, we became poor. My three elder sisters and brother had to find work without higher studies. Therefore, they were the victims for my fortune.
Without free education, I would not have entered the university, I must emphasise.
Apart from academic freedom, there were many extracurricular activities opened for the students. I was not involved in sports or inclined in using the gymnasium for physical exercises. But there were many who did so, even coming from the remotest villages. Therefore, compared to my first year at the Colombo campus, Peradeniya was a heaven. One weakness I could see in hindsight, is the lack of promotion for the students to do sports more broadly. The reason could have been the sudden explosion of student numbers amidst limited facilities. Otherwise, with the mild climate, surroundings were ideal for promoting sports and physical activities.
Climate at Peradeniya or Kandy has changed a lot throughout years. During my student days, it was not only mild, but sometimes even cold. I did use my ‘pullover’! There were days, perhaps during December, the surroundings were misty. In the evenings, one couple could not see the other, cuddling under palm trees, along the Ramanathan avenue.
My inclination was for the ‘mental.’ I did contest for the debating team in Sinhala medium and became the team leader in 1966. Others were Gamini Abeysekera, Sam Samarasinghe and Mano from the medical faculty whose full name I cannot remember. Ediriweera Sarathchandra, Ashley Halpe and Siri Gunasinghe, among others, were encouragement for those who wanted to pursue artistic or literary talents, whether in Sinhala or English. I cannot remember who was there for Tamil. On our part, we just went to watch their creative products at the open air theatre which was known as ‘Wala’ (the pit). We did publish articles in the Sinhala society journal, Piyawara (Footsteps), Winitha my girlfriend, from school days, more than me.
There were many student societies apart from Hall Committees and the Student Union. One of the societies was to advocate the ‘right to commit suicide.’ I wouldn’t reveal who was leading or involved, without their permission. None of them committed suicide however. Nevertheless, there was one unfortunate suicide of a student during our time, quite unconnected to the above society I must add, due to financial related social difficulties. He came from Mulgampola, unknown to many before the death, and his single parent mother was working at a quarry mine. Many could have helped him, if the situation was known.
DemSoc (democratic society) was another organization that existed, home to many liberal minded and left-sceptic students. It was however a small group to my knowledge. There were one or two Tamil organizations. There were Marxist study classes conducted by the students. Those were allowed freely and I happened to be one of the student-lecturers.
As there were many non-residential students by 1967, a non-residential student union was officially allowed to air their grievances. By that time, the power of the main student union had gone to the ‘reformists’ (LSSP/SLFP/CP). Therefore, our refuge as ‘revolutionaries’ (LSSP(R)/Virodaya/CPC) was the non-residential student union. That time, the JVP has not yet emerged as a major force. Socialist Student Society was formed later, led by Sarath Wijesinghe, who got killed in 1971 insurrection. Although I was involved in student activities, my main focus was on national politics. But I did contest for the non-residential election in 1967 and served in the committee.
One of the committed student activists during my time was Sydney Jayasinghe, who is now caught up in a business scandal. Another was Nadarajah Shanmugaratnam, who became a professor in Norway. Among others were Newton Gunasinghe, Bertie Gajameragedara, Kodikara, Nihal Dias and Upul Jayawardena. Wije Gunasinghe is still in revolutionary politics. Wickremabahu Karunaratne or Kumar David were seniors to us and were already on the staff.
Although student politics today is viewed largely negatively, during my/our time it was not exactly the case. There were adventures and misadventures, but by and large the experience was useful for future professional or other careers. Unfortunately or fortunately, no leading national politician emerged out of that crowed. Their ideals obviously were different to the national politicians even by that time.
A usually asked question about university life is whether you were ragged or whether you ragged others. My answer is negative for both, except once enjoying a particular ragging session at ‘K-hall,’ where I lived in my third year.
‘K-hall’ was not a formal hall of residence, but a ‘chummery’ ran by some passed out graduates at Rajawatta. The house belonged to an interdicted university administrator. It was a place where once some student monks came to disrobe themselves. Therefore, we had some saffron robes left. One day, when some of the freshers were brought there for ‘fun,’ they were asked to wear those robes and chant pirith. The best performer was Amarasiri Soysa who later became a professor of political science.
When I went to Peradeniya, I was in my second year and therefore I fairly knew the tricks on how to escape ragging. I also had many political ‘comrades’ there to protect me. Even at Colombo, I escaped the ragging because I travelled from home (at Moratuwa) and during the initial months, went only for the lectures and quietly vanished thereafter.
However, I strongly consider any type of ragging as inhuman, including what I enjoyed at ‘K-hall’ as insensitive. But during my time, I had never come across or heard any harsh ragging.
I went to Peradeniya, alone. Getting down at nicely kept Sarasavi Uyana (University Park) station, with blooming kannas and roses, I had to take a car hire because of my mother’s heavy luggage. It was an old Austin, black of course. I still recollect the station surroundings with nostalgia. The station was a colonial icon. This was our main launching-pad to ‘inside and outside’ of the campus for the next three years.
First I went to see Thulsiri Andrari, who was in his final year, at Arunachalm hall to seek his help in finding accommodation. I do remember, Thulsiri’s roommate, Thomasena, wriggling to rag me, but Thulsiri smilingly prevented it. Thulsiri was in the LSSP (R) and later became a trade union leader in the Central Bank.
During our second and third years, we were not given hall accommodation. That was a downside by that time of university life. But at the same time, it was a blessing in disguise to know the outside world. If the non-resident life was limited to one year, it would have been ideal. In my case, coming from Colombo, I had only one year residential living at James Peiris hall in my final year. But I was not the only sufferer of that predicament.
Winitha had already boarded at Ramanathan hall, a month before me, as a first year student. Everything was carefully planned for our further company. Thulsiri took me to Hindagala Mudalali at the famous ‘dynamite hotel’ by bus from Arunachalam. It was just passing Ramanathan hall. It was famous as ‘dynamite hotel’ because of it’s extremely ‘hot chili paste’ to eat hoppers. Otherwise, it was just Hindagala hotel. I don’t think there were any student, whatever the faculty, who had not visited this place or tasted ‘dynamite.’
Hindagala Mudalai was my first acquaintance at Peradeniya, outside the campus. He had come to the campus-site in late 1940s first as a ‘tea and bunis’ vendor when the university being built. His rise as a businessman was interwoven with the rise of the university. The hotel was built much later in late 1950s. Hotel upstairs were given to students, but there was no vacancy when I arrived. It was already crowded. Most of the students there belonged to the student movement, Sydney and Ratnayake being the most prominent.
However, Mudalali found me a nearby place, at Panadura Aunty’s cottage, not very far. She in fact had rather a rundown spare house in front of her main house, given completely to students. She also didn’t want to make it crowded, and we only five were there, George, Dias, Cyril and myself, all who had come from Colombo, and Sarath who was in his geography third year who occupied the small front room all alone. All were apolitical people who gave me a peace of mind. If I were to live with ‘comrades,’ life would have been boring and stereotypical. We also had our meals at Aunty’s and she was in fact like a second mother to us, not charging exorbitantly.
We didn’t have much comforts however like in a hall of residence. There was a toilet outside, but not a bath room. There was water service, a line coming from a tank in the mountain behind, part of Hantana. Except when a water-snake got into the system, we had running water. There was a tap just next to the toilet, where we could have an open air cold bath. However, we often liked to go to the stream, next to the ancient Hindagala temple, with a fixed water pipe as a ‘shower.’
Except glorified instructions given to us to bring ‘raincoats and pullovers’ before coming to Peradeniya from Colombo, we didn’t have any help to find accommodation from the authorities. This was the same for students thrown out of halls after the first year, who entered Peradeniya as freshers. This was a weakness. There were early signs that Sir Ivor Jennings idyllic university was coming under pressure with several administrative lapses.