Taking up a challenge
Everything that could have gone wrong about our trip to Kandy in
April 1981 did go wrong. We were due to travel by night, after an
evening drinking at the Art Centre Club, but one of our numbers failed
to turn up, so we had to postpone our departure till the next day. I did
not want to go back home after having said I was leaving, so I spent the
night at Richard's, where his mother was quite used to sudden changes in
plans. She was really quite an extraordinary character, remaining calm
in the midst of all Richard's various fads and fashions. On a couple of
occasions I took her on holiday with us, which meant that Richard backed
out, since he hated mixing up his different lives. However,
characteristically, he dropped in on both occasions, even roaring up to
Wilpattu on his bike for a lightning visit.
After a leisurely breakfast, which Manorani provided in the midst of
going off to work, we were finally all together, and set off, only
discovering en route that none of us had brought much money.
Tissa's man of all work welcomed us warmly to the little flat on the
Peradeniya Road, and cooked for us the limited rations we brought back
on the first day. Then, on the second, we met up with Qadri Ismail, who
had just gone up to read English at Peradeniya. Unlike Ravi, who was in
the same batch, he had to spend his vacations at the university, since
he was in bad odour at home for having opted out of medicine, for which
he had been selected. Those were the days in which, with district quotas
reintroduced, and S. Thomas' run by a regime that thought its students
did not need to go to university, very few boys got in for prestigious
The Ismails, who valued education, were deeply upset when Qadri
succeeded in qualifying for medicine, and then declared that he
preferred the Arts.
I had met him some time back with the Thomian Drama Society, and
found him surprisingly well read, so I had encouraged his keenness to do
English. Then I resigned, which caused him some irritation, though he
was kind enough, after one visiting lecture I gave, to say that was what
he had hoped for from university. Still, despite his parents refusing to
help him financially, and scorn for much of the staff (though he later
came to appreciate at least some of their positive points) he ploughed
on, and got the best First in the subject for ages.
He then went into journalism, and produced some of the best reporting
of events before and after the Indo-Lankan Accord. Sadly he was then
swept away to America, where he now teaches, though he returns at
intervals to address himself more closely to Sri Lankan issues.
While he was at university his many friends subsidized him to greater
or lesser extents till his parents finally came round, which meant of
course that, when he took us to Lyon's Cafe, as the regular haunt of
undergraduates, we had to pay. We therefore found ourselves with hardly
anything left, with a couple of days still to go before we were due back
in Colombo. Richard then hit on the bright idea of inflicting ourselves
on a cousin on an estate in Nawalapitiya, which we duly did, after a
train ride for which we had just enough money. We were graciously
welcomed, and had an idyllic couple of days, though I realised then that
the lavish lifestyle I had been used to on tea estates during schoolboy
holidays was very much in the past. We were well satisfied however,
especially because our hosts lent us funds to make the journey back to
I think it was at the second meal that Ravi suddenly had hysterics
and left the table, to be followed hastily by Richard.
It turned out that I caused them vast amusement by trying to make
conversation with our host and hostess. You have to learn, Richard said
to me firmly, that you don't really have to talk all the time. Some
people prefer silence.
I was duly rebuked, and realised that the Oxford theory was that one
had to converse brightly right through a meal, with one's neighbours in
turn and also with whoever was opposite, had to be forgotten.
I had some consolation though when Richard told me later that his
cousins thought I was the nicest guest they had ever had. I never met
them after that, but the episode made me think much about the
artificiality of the social skills I had picked up as an essential part
of a university education, as well as their advantages.
Years later however, trying to work out why government found it so
difficult to deal with what is termed the international community, I
realised that perhaps some training in such soft skills would make a lot
Back in Colombo, continuing with my unfocused existence, I realised
it was time I thought of another job, but then realised more fully the
difficulties of a dispensation in which intellectual activity, such as
it was, was dominated by the state.
I had no inclination to join the business sector, but education was
wholly a state monopoly, and except for Marga, which had begun to get
withdrawal symptoms, there were no think-tanks.
It was then that Chanaka suggested I become Sub-Warden of S. Thomas'.
He had been teaching there in between degrees, and he had found the
College in a mess.
The Warden had agreed with him, and it seems readily fallen in with
his suggestion that I be persuaded to assist. I was slightly surprised,
because I was under the impression that Fr Chickera, who had been
Chaplain, had been sent to Oxford to obtain a diploma so that he could
become Sub-Warden and then take over.
My father had helped him with his passage, and was enthusiastic about
the man, but Chanaka told me that he was unlikely to be appointed and
Lyn Illangakoon, the Warden, was quite negative about him when I asked.
I was duly appointed after just an interview with Illangakoon and the
Treasurer of the Board, a protege of my Uncle Lakshman called Duleep
It seemed that he virtually ran the College, since the Board duly
appointed me on his recommendation, without my meeting anyone else on
it. Even my father, who was on the Board as the Staff Representative,
did not know about the matter till it came before the Board.
Lakshman had fallen ill earlier that year, with the heart problem
that was to precipitate his early death in 1983.
He had gone away I think for medical attention and, when he came
back, he said that while in England he had heard that, like himself
nearly thirty years earlier, I had been asked to be Sub-Warden of S.
He had replied that he was sure that, like him, I would refuse. He
was surprised when I told him I had accepted, because I think that after
my resignation from the University he thought me a radical like himself.
In the fifties he had thought S. Thomas' too elitist to join, and had
preferred, after a short period as a curate, to move to Peradeniya as
University Chaplain, where he dealt with a much wider social range.
I thought about what he had said, but it seemed to me that the
situation had changed and that S. Thomas', while still a place of
privilege, had also suffered serious deprivation.
That it did not understand what it was lacking, in terms of
intellectual and social commitment, was something that could be
remedied. Given what Illangakoon had told me, that teachers did not come
to class, that discipline had broken down, that exam results were
terrible, I thought it would be an interesting challenge.
I had however asked for time, since I wanted to get back to England.
It was nearly two years since I had been there, and I felt it was
time to return to what I still continued to think of as my roots, not
just intellectual, but social and moral too.