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DateLine Sunday, 6 July 2008

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Attn: those who are seeking greener pastures:

No grass is greener than the grass at home



Raw material - literature



Prof. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke

What makes a professor a professor? Or, to put it in another way how does one go about becoming a professor of literature - and not just any professor, but a legend? The doyen of English studies in Sri Lanka? And above all a mentor for an uncountable number of undergraduates spanning over four decades?

You might as well ask, how does one become a flawless human being - whatever that might mean? Could it be that, one falls in love at an early age - with books?” The student asks herself as she sits, for the first time since she got to know him, in the study of her professor’s home.

Knowing perhaps that this would be the last time (for sometime), that she would be paying a visit, he had asked her to step into the study where an uncountable number of books stare at her, among them no less than twenty with the name D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke written on the spine. The answer to her question comes when she asks the professor to describe his childhood and school days.

“I love reading. I love books. My favourite subjects at school were English Literature and Latin. I attended the Royal Primary School and we had to pass a test to enter Royal College which was not much of a hurdle”. This was in 1950 and he recalls how for four years everything had been blissfully “uneventful”.

In 1954, however, he was shocked to learn that his father was suffering from cancer. Recalls Prof. Goonetilleke. He remembers how he had gone to collect his prizes at the College Prize giving in December 1955, straight from his father’s bedside in hospital.

“My father died in April 1956 at 54 years of age, the year I was to sit for the University Entrance Examination (now the GCE A/Level). I was the eldest of a family of 5 children and my mother was a home maker. In case I forgot my responsibilities, one of my uncles wrote me a letter, pointing out that I was “in loco parentis” (in the place of a parent).

What was it like growing up in the late 1940s? Professor Goonetilleke feels his generation was lucky. “We were living at a time when there was peace in the country. There were no problems such as could create pressures on our minds”.

Tuition classes were almost non-existent. Homework was not onerous. Schools had both morning and afternoon sessions and the evenings were devoted to play, which obviously had no adverse effects. Getting the top prize, the Governor General’s Prize for Western Classics and having his name inscribed on a panel in the College Hall were not problems to lose sleep over.

He recalls his days as an undergraduate at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, (which was the only university around, at that time) as a period which was most enjoyable and highly educative.

To him, the University of Peradeniya is “one of the most beautiful campuses in the world”, and he feels he was lucky to have been there residing at Marrs Hall, situated at the top of a hill with a panoramic view, during its golden years. Going to see Prof. Sarachchandra’s plays in the open air theatre had been a favourite past time.

Watching Maname and Sinhabahu, however was not the most attractive leisure activity. Playing badminton was.

“My marriage to my wife Chinchi (her pet name; real name Chitranganie) is the result of a campus romance. We were partners in the Mixed Doubles section of the Peradeniya Open Badminton Tournament in 1960”. Says Professor Goonetilleke. Having discovered they were kindred spirits on the badminton courts they had “quickly decided to continue as partners for life”.

Unlike many others who had fumbled with one profession or another till they discovered their true vocation, Prof. Goonetilleke says from the very first day he started to teach as an assistant lecturer he knew this was what he wanted to be throughout his life.

“I felt that the profession of being a university teacher suited my temperament. I was appointed to such a position even before the results of the Final Examination were out, and so I never thought of an alternative profession. My enjoyment of teaching was complemented by my dedication to scholarship. My success as a scholar, probably, confirmed me in the profession”.

His books such as Developing Countries in British Fiction, Images of the Raj, Joseph Conrad: Beyond Culture and Background, Salman Rushdie and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and numerous articles in prestigious journals earned for him a position as a well-established critic of 20th century and postcolonial literature on the international level.

Remember how Picasso said “painting is my hobby. When I have finished painting, I paint again for relaxation”? Prof. Goonetilleke seems to do the same.

He says he makes no distinction between work and relaxation because he finds his work enjoyable. “After all, my raw material is literature and my approach is through reading. Making discoveries is exciting and seeing one’s work in print has a pleasure all its own”.But he does love to listen to music, usually English/Sinhala oldies, and sometimes modern songs as well.

Answering the question, on why he has never written fiction even though he has encouraged other writers through his numerous anthologies he says: “I used to write short stories as an undergraduate and had one published in the Daily News. I also jotted down plots for several more. But after graduation, I felt I could not make the grade internationally as a creative writer. I succeeded as a scholar on this level and there was no turning back”.

He will surely become the envy of all writers who suffer from writer’s block, when they hear him say he does not even know what it’s like to have this ailment, peculiar only to scribes and for which a cure is yet to be found. He has never experienced it but admits “sometimes I take a little time to get started”. Ideas which are in a kind of a big soup gradually begin to fall into place after a start is made.

Never the one to get up early or break rest - to write, he says he does his scholarly work “as and when possible - morning, afternoon or evening - and not according to a timetable”.

Having visited many countries during the past decades he finds it difficult to decide which country he prefers the most. “I have spent most time in Britain because of my subject and then Germany. Both countries are ideal for research and teaching. (Cambridge particularly is a fantastic place.

The election to a stipendiary Fellowship there - which I was fortunate to receive - is an aspiration common to academics in English studies all over the world.) Both countries have much to offer by way of scenic beauty and cultural riches.

The cultural wealth of India is no less. Australia and New Zealand offer attractive scenery, fauna and flora, and aboriginal artefacts among other items of interest. Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur are interesting as cities.

“The game parks of Zimbabwe are a revelation. Victoria Falls is unforgettable. Jamaica has its own unique culture. There are also other places of interest which have widened my horizons”.

Yet, no other land holds his heart in her grips as does his motherland.

Though he could have easily decamped to a lucrative job in a developed country, he had remained in Sri Lanka because of his love for the pearl shaped island in the Indian ocean.

“I have remained in Sri Lanka because I wished to serve my country and because I felt that I could not be happy elsewhere as I am here, whatever the setbacks, difficulties and risks. My work on Sri Lankan literature is the consequence of my love for the island”.

Nothing had been more pleasing than to have Vijitha Yapa publish his books, Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003 and Kaleidoscope: An Anthology of Sri Lankan English Literature, which are surely the greatest contributions a scholar has made in the arena of Sri Lankan English literature till now.

Turning down highly remunerative offers of employment since he retired in September 2004, he says, today, he has devoted himself wholly to reading and writing. Having published three books in the past four years, he is now working on another, for a famous British publisher.

What are his plans for the future? “I do not have long-term plans”. Says Prof. Goonetilleke proving that, sometimes the most complex questions have the simplest answers.

This is it. The student closes her notebook feeling she had come to the end of the most insightful and influential lecture she had yet had with her professor.

The subjects of the lesson? Courage, perseverance, and contentment.

The student? You know her.

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