By Tissa Jayatilaka –
Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen. Firstly my thanks to Prof. Savitri Kumar, President, and to her colleagues on the committee of the Alumni Association of the University of Peradeniya (AAUP) for inviting my wife Lilani and me to join you on the occasion of the 25th Annual General Meeting of the AAUP.
Lilani and I consider our years spent in ‘Peradeniya’ ( I refer here to the institution as much as to its ambience) among the most enriching and enjoyable of our lives to-date. Each time we return to these idyllic surroundings, we re-live our warm and fond memories of times spent by the banks of the Mahaweli. We both were not only students here but had the good fortune to also be attached to the academic staff for a while. As I face the audience before me today, I recognize many a familiar face and my mind’s eye instantly transports me to certain shared pleasures of ‘time past’. And I know that these memories will continue to sustain me through good times and bad, as they have done in the past, until the end of my days.
I thought long and hard about what I should say this morning. At first I thought of taking a retrospective critical look at how our university came into being, how it evolved, and changed over the decades. At a gathering of the kind we are at today, I felt that such a philosophical contemplation may be out of place if not inappropriate. That I might, if I went down that road, spoil the collective mood and dampen spirits. In any event 20 to 30 minutes that I have at my disposal this morning will not suffice for me to do justice to an undertaking of the kind I initially had in mind. Hence after a degree of soul searching, I decided to spend the next several minutes sharing with you some of my significant recollections associated with this great institution that is our alma mater which, borrowing the words of W.B. Yeats, Ashley Halpe’ has most aptly referred to as that ‘dear, perpetual place. . .’ In the process of sharing my recollections, I thought I should reflect on how the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya (as it was known in my time) refined and reinforced my worldview and outlook on life, the values it inculcated in me, and how all of these impacted on my life and career to-date. Without taking anything away from Peradeniya, in fairness, I need to note here that my parents and family and my school laid the foundation on which the University of Ceylon subsequently built.
My father, a post master by profession, was transferred to Kandy and we moved in as a family there in 1960. I attended Kingswood College and from my earliest days there dreamed of entering the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. No other university either in Ceylon or elsewhere in the world mattered or entered my thoughts. I can yet vividly recall how excited I got whenever I boarded the Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) ‘University’ bound bus to travel to and fro between Kingswood and our then home in Katukelle, on Peradeniya Road, right next to Girls’ High School. For that brief period of the bus journey, I let my imagination run riot and pretended to myself that I was one of the undergraduate occupants of the bus.
In the 1960s, I also recall noticing established university academics driving past Kingswood. Oddly enough, I even yet remember the numbers of their motor cars! Doric de Souza’s black Volkswagon Beetle bore the number 1 Sri 1014; Ian Goonetileke’s grey-green Beetle EN 1288; Merlin Peris’s light green Skoda 1 Sri 5045 and Thiru Kandiah’s black Beetle 5 Sri 747. We knew of these personalities by reputation or because they were ‘ Varsity contemporaries of older relatives or of our school teachers. Some of them, at the behest of certain of our teachers, came to our Sixth Form (University Entrance Form) Union at Kingswood and gave talks. I recall Fr. Pinto holding forth on ‘The Fallacies of Marxism’ and Gerry Peiris, a fellow product, together with K.M. de Silva, of Kingswood, explaining to us the proposed Mahaweli River Diversion Project as it was first envisaged in the 1960s. One way or the other we knew of these Peradeniya academics and we looked up to them. We youngsters of that era were awe struck by these university dons, in the same way perhaps today’s youngsters are by film stars, national cricketers or politicians!
From the earliest days while nursing dreams of going through the portals of Peradeniya’s ‘green and pleasant’ seat of learning, I wanted my sojourn there to be memorable. I wanted to meet and interact with intelligent and inspiring men and women with vision. My desire was not to spend four years merely acquiring book knowledge but to get to know the fundamentals of existence. I also yearned to be taught by Peradeniya’s learned men and women (especially the legendary eccentrics amongst them) about whom the stories I had heard from those of my family elders, teachers and friends who preceded me at Peradeniya were legion. I had been told that a university was a place where mind meets mind and wondered whether this was really the case.
As is evident from the foregoing, my expectations of Peradeniya were great. And, am delighted to say that, on the whole, Peradeniya lived up to them. Virtually all of my teachers and other academics there in my time were exceptional men and women. We truly sat at the feet of giants. Being an excellent residential university, Peradeniya afforded us easy access to the institution as a whole. Thus the giants at whose feet we sat were teachers from all the Faculties of the university. We attended ‘P4’(Thursdays) classical music evenings at the Medical Faculty where Valentine ‘Bas’ Basnayake, Mark Amerasinghe, Senaka Bibile, Rienzil ‘Bandi’ Piyasena et al did the honours; ‘Pop Science Gossip’ talks here at the Faculty of Science which drew on speakers from the entire university and where ‘Gossip’, popular or otherwise, was not limited solely to ‘Science’. I listened at these varied and enlightened ‘Gossip’ sessions to ‘Chubby’ Arseculeratne, Raja Bandaranaike, Osmund Jayaratne, V. Appapillai, M.U.S. Sultanbawa, Reggie Appadurai, M.Maheswaran, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Ashley Halpe’, among others; and then there were those special guest lectures of interest at the Arts Theatre.
In the course of my undergraduate career and in the years later when I taught in the English Department, I had the great good fortune to be guided by such venerable figures as ‘Cuthy’ (Professor of Classics and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Cuthbert Amarasinghe) who revealed to us the world of Homer and Virgil and that of the Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. One of his children, the late Preshantha, a contemporary of mine, was a brilliant product of the Department of Zoology here; ‘Mathy’ (Miss. K. Mathiyaparanam), the legendary Warden of Hilda Obeyesekere Hall, ‘Walled-off-Astoria to some of us, and later, when it became a women’s Hall of Residence, of Wijewardena Hall, was head of the Department of Philosophy and one of the kindest of my teachers; ‘Labby’(W.J.F. LaBrooy of the History Department) who at the request of Ashley Halpe’ gave us background lectures in ‘Victorian’ History to help us understand ‘Victorian Literature’ better by enabling us to situate it against its socio-politico-economic context. Incidentally, pardon me for this idiosyncrasy, but I do also remember the number of Labby’s beige Austin Cambridge which he and his wife, the then Principal of Girls’ High School, one of the earliest lady drivers of our time, owned – – 1 Sri 7914. And I also recall how ‘Labby’ clad in his light brown tussore suit used to doff his brown felt hat, in keeping with the manners and mores of his generation, on each occasion he happened to pass on Galaha Road three of my lady contemporaries who read History, Corinne Baptist, Michele Berenger and Pat Miranda; Hilary Crusz, (Professor of Zoology), who I well remember talking to me of the great goodness of Saints Augustine and Aquinas and their invaluable contributions to knowledge on numerous evenings, over arrack and beer, at his ‘Augusta Hill’ home. Hilary Crusz, a student of Latin and Greek and the Classics at school switched to Science on entering university (as did Ashley Halpe’ from Medicine to Arts). I learnt from my fellow-students who read Zoology that Hilary Crusz, not infrequently, used to begin his lectures with a quote from Saints Augustine or Aquinas, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Swinburne, or Hopkins. I have with me yet a duly inscribed paper Prof. Crusz had written on those great German Men of Letters, Goethe and Schiller, that he gave me many moons ago; Ian Goonetileke, friend and mentor, the gifted and brilliantly well-read Librarian of the University and bibliographer par excellence; ‘Dental’ Dissa (S.B. Dissanayake) , the debonair and versatile Professor of Dental Science; ‘Carl’ Goonewardena, the historian, specialist on the Dutch period of Ceylon; Merlin Peris( Department of Western Classics) who guided me magically through the mysteries of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Greek and Roman History; Ashley Halpe’, Ranjini Obeyesekere, Yasmin Gooneratne, Kamal de Abrew, Thiru Kandiah, Sarath Wickramasuriya and Derek de Silva who taught me much that I know of English Literature. Others like ‘Tawney’ Rajaratnam, George Kodituwakku, Shelton Kodikara, ‘Pep’ Jayasena, ‘German/Lobby’ Kanapathypillai, M. Maheswaran, ‘Breck’ Breckenridge, ‘Botany Bala’ Balasubramaniam, Sivalingam Mahalingam, T.Sooriamoorthy, Rex Clements and Noble Jayasuriya and the following gentlemen from ‘the other side of the river’ in the Faculty of Engineering, S. Mahalingam, A. Thurairajah, ‘Batho’ Bartholemeusz, S.Sivasegeram, ‘Gunda’ Gunawardena, N.B.(‘Rambuks’) Rambukwella, Ranjith Galappatti, Sanath Ranatunga, Kosala Gunetilleke, among others, made my years at Peradeniya exceedingly rich and unforgettable. Vijay Kumar, here with us in the audience today, was my Warden at Arunachalam Hall in my final year and I recall many an interesting encounter with him. In E.O. E Pereira, I happen to think, we had the last of our gentleman Vice Chancellors who was more successful than most at keeping interfering politicians at bay. He was thus able to administer the university with great acceptance.
Most, referred to above, are dead and gone; a majority of those left are in the twilight of their lives. I know, as I speak, that Ashley Halpe’ is fighting the indignities that life and age force upon us and I wish him the speediest of possible recoveries. I wish to take this opportunity to remember all of my teachers and other guides, philosophers and friends with gratitude and respect, and thank them again for their role in making me who I am. Needless to say, I, not they, am solely responsible for such shortcomings as I yet possess.
What did the University of Ceylon and my teachers do for me? In a nutshell, they taught me to be true to myself. From this has arisen whatever other qualities of mind and heart that I possess. Let me share with you these latter as briefly as I can in the few minutes left. In the process of teaching me to be myself, they also guided me to realize:
- that race is a myth and that there are only two kinds of people on earth: human beings and
inhuman beings. That we may speak different languages and belong to different religious groups but that deep down all of us are human beings struggling to make sense of our existence;
- that a majority of people is not always right and a minority of them not always wrong. And that I should not be afraid to belong even to a minority of one should ever my convictions lead me there;
- that I should strive hard to take care of the vulnerable and marginalized segments of humanity wherever in the world I may be;
- That I should listen to diverse points of view, consider them on their merits, and work out my own position on any given issue diligently.
- That I should take care not to be swamped either by the popular view or the dominant one if neither accords with mine. I was taught that succumbing to cheap popularity is as awful as jumping on any bandwagon for shallow gain;
- that once I had carefully worked out my own position on any subject, I should speak my truth calmly, fearlessly and call a spade a spade no matter who he or she may be or what position that person may hold;
- that I must always be a good listener and that whenever I disagree I should take care not to be disagreeable.
Over the years, I have done by best not to let either my teachers or my university down. Peradeniya and the education I received here, both in and out of the classroom, have equipped me to hold my own wherever in the world I have had the opportunity to go. The University of Peradeniya( as it is known today) is certainly different from the institution I encountered and benefited from over four decades ago. Sadly, change and decay are part and parcel of life and no individual or institution is immune from this reality. But, there yet is so much to be grateful for as no one can take away from us what we learnt and took away from here. I shall hold on to all that I was taught and learnt here throughout the changing scenes of life. As that memorable line from the Sinhala Vadan Kaviya I learnt as a child reminds us: ugatha mana shilpayamai mathu rekena. I wish to end now with a few lines from one of my favourite poems of Wordsworth which echoes perfectly my present sentiments:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever be taken from our sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, or glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
I thank you.
*Based on comments made as Chief Guest at the 25th Annual General meeting of the University of Peradeniya [AAUP] on Sunday, 23 March, 2014, at The Chemistry Theatre, Faculty of Science, University Park, Peradeniya