Early days at Peradeniya
began lecturing in Peradeniya on January 2nd 1980. Getting up before
dawn to catch the train had not been easy, since the 31st of December
had been spent at the usual Ponniah party. My last act of the seventies
had been to introduce Gowrie Wignarajah to Rohan, having overcome her
diffidence about going to a party with a crowd considered irredeemably
fast by Colombo High Society. The acquaintance flourished, and Gowrie
still accuses me of, or thanks me for, changing her life, for worse or
better, depending on her mood. Thankfully, her father seems quite happy
with his son-in-law, and the family still flourishes at Mangalagiri,
another wonderful old house.
There was no one in the room at the university at which I had been
told I was to lecture. After some time a bearded gentleman (as I
remember him, though the beard may have appeared later, as the hair on
his head vanished), who seemed much older than me, turned up. This was
Walter Perera, one of my third year students, of my own age as it
happened, given the enormous delays in entrance to university that the
disruptions of the seventies had caused. Since no one else came, I sat
him down and talked to him for the prescribed period. He was surprised I
did not talk at him, since that was the regular practice " one of my
colleagues actually read out notes about Dickens to be copied down,
though he was thankfully very much an exception.
A view of Peradeniya
Before long however I had got my students to write regular essays
which were discussed in class. I think they enjoyed this, and they
certainly benefited from exchanging ideas, four of the five of them two
ended up on the staff and one headed the English Department at NIE. The
first year also did remarkably well, the most interesting amongst them,
Yuvi Thangarajah, becoming a Dean at the Eastern University, and Acting
Vice-Chancellor before the Tigers captured him and nearly killed him. He
had to flee to England, and now has to wait until his children finish
their education, though I hope he will return as soon as possible after
that. He has much to contribute.
The students were fun, but there were very few of them doing English
and opportunities for interaction with the others were limited. The most
sophisticated of my students, Margot Thomas, introduced me to Jayadeva
Uyangoda, who had finally got to University after being the 4th accused
for the 1971 JVP uprising and spending some years in jail. I was
delighted to see the friendship between him and Margot, who had been at
Ladies College and whose brother David had been with me at S. Thomas'
Their father had been vicar of St. Luke's Borella, and she reminded me
of birthday parties in the expansive church grounds in the sixties.
Sadly, perhaps inevitably, the whole family is now away, the youngest
sister having married Sheikh, a Chinese contemporary of David's and mine
Uyangoda ended up marrying another Burgher lady who also specialized
in English. He was much more anxious to discuss literature with me than
politics, and I found him astonishingly well read, much more so than me
in European theorists and what I might call practitioners of literary
theory. He had obviously used his time in prison well, but equally
obviously he had an astonishingly broad intellect, and one wondered
about a system that had driven youngsters like him into armed
revolution, instead of nurturing their talents more positively.
Of course armed revolution was the fashion at the time, all over the
world, so perhaps the violence that generation embarked on in Ceylon, as
it then was, was inevitable. But it struck me then that we really had to
change the system of education since, while it provided basic
opportunities for all, it did nothing to promote excellence, and to
empower the outstanding in deprived areas to compete on an equal level
with the elite.
Ranil Wickremesinghe had by then been appointed Minister of
Education, and I had high hopes that he would ensure the necessary
reforms. I think he tried, and his White Paper on Education, produced by
a superb team that included E. L. Wijemanne and D. A. Perera, would have
achieved much had it been properly implemented.
However it was combined with proposals regarding Higher Education
that were divisive, and were tactlessly addressed, by Stanley Kalpage, a
Peradeniya Professor turned professional politician and then made
Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education.
This had been hived off from Education when Ranil was appointed" Mrs
Bandaranaike's erstwhile Permanent Secretary of Culture, subsequently
Diyawadana Nilame, Nissanka Wijeyeratne, having made a mess it seemed of
the joint portfolio" and taken over by the President, who basically let
Kalpage run the show.
The result was disaster. Kalpage had it seemed been ill-treated by
students when he was at Peradeniya, and he certainly seemed determined
to deal with them in similar fashion. His saddest step, which put the
case for private initiatives in education back for years, was to
establish what was termed a Private Medical College at Ragama.
This was an excellent idea in itself, and I saw nothing wrong in its
administrators providing places for their own offspring, many of whom
were able but denied admission to university because of the new District
quota based system that the government had introduced after Cyril Mathew
accused Tamil examiners of cheating.
Where Kalpage and his crew went wrong was in allowing the Private
Medical College to be parasitic on the State. It was permitted to
provide degrees from Colombo University, which was of course manifestly
unfair to students who had completed their courses from Colombo. Instead
of developing an independent mechanism to assess quality, the
Jayewardene government set up a system that would have allowed students
of a private institution to claim parity with graduates of a more
prestigious body. True, Carlo Fonseka has argued that the Colombo
University Medical Fraternity promoted the measure, as a way of
maintaining standards, but it is unlikely that his colleagues were as
idealistic or naive as Carlo, and did not understand the sleight of hand
that was being practiced.
That was an issue then that roused emotions, and a newly resurgent
JVP, released from jail swiftly by Jayewardene so they could join him in
persecuting Mrs Bandaranaike, rose to the challenge, and managed to have
the White Paper withdrawn.
This was not fair on Ranil, even though he was told to proceed with
much of what it suggested, and did so. Because Jayewardene, intent by
then on more insidious stratagems, did not want to confront the students
head on, accepting their objections to some measures in the White Paper
but standing firm by the bulk of it, implementation was haphazard. Good
things were not entrenched, and were changed when there was a different
regime, the next UNP one in fact, given the more populist and parochial
approach of Ranil's successor.