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Peradeniya University:

Sir Ivor Jennings's dream comes true



Sir Ivor Jennings

Recently, consequent to the visit to the Peradeniya campus of Catherine Watson granddaughter of Sir Ivor Jennings, quite a number of articles and nostalgic commentaries appeared in the newspapers on Sir Ivor (1903 -1965) particularly on a controversial topic as to whether Sir Ivor was a chain smoker and a tobacco addict or not. Various theories, comments (some adverse) and reminiscences were touted on this aspect of his habits, some even stating that on this, he set a very bad example to generations of undergraduates. This made the writer, a pioneer of the 1952 original batch of undergraduates to the Peradeniya campus and familiar with Sir Ivor the first Vice Chancellor, to search his memory as to the veracity of these contentions.

It is not easy to go down memory lane of over 60 years but my first encounter with Sir Ivor was in mid-1951 when he chaired the Board conducting the Viva Voce for those seeking entrance to the University. Unlike now, in those days apart from qualifying in the University Entrance Examination, one had to go through a medical examination and also a Viva Voce to be admitted.

The medical examination, I remember was a relatively cursory one conducted by the then University Medical Officer Dr. H.M.P. (Humpy) Perera an all- island athlete of repute, who to my surprise, apparently merely glanced at me (although I presume it was a thoroughly investigative glance) and passed me without any further check.

Experience


A view of the University of Peradeniya

The Viva Voce was an entirely different experience. It was held at an upstair room at College House, Thurstan Road the administration block of the University then at Colombo. One approached it with some nervousness and I remember Lakdasa Hulugalle nervously walking up and down muttering to himself apparently by-hearting various facts to face the interview. My first face to face meeting with Sir Ivor was at this interview at which he asked some searching questions.

This first encounter itself was memorable as there happened to be a disagreement between us on a question on constitutional law on which of course, Sir Ivor was a well-known international expert. It was not so much on a point of theory as such but on the pronunciation of an author's name Mac Iver which I pronounced as "Mac Iver" but which Jennings pronounced as "Mac Eever". He was probably right and corrected me several times but I stuck to my version. There was an amazed silence pervading among the rest of the Board members and finally to my surprise Sir Ivor said "All right, let's stick to your version."

After some further questioning the interview was over and I left the room thinking I had blundered and ruined my chances.I heard an uproarious laughter behind me and I left in trepidation. But Jennings' gentlemanliness, intellectual honesty and value of intellectual independence in others whether right or not, was illustrated at this interview and I had sailed through.

That was my first meeting and personal experience of Sir Ivor and the precursor to many subsequently. As far as the tobacco smoking aspect was concerned, I am certain that Sir Ivor never smoked during the interview nor did I notice any packet of cigarettes on the table by his side.

Although the University of Ceylon was established on July 1 1942, the first move to Peradeniya was made only in 1950. Jennings' dream was to establish a residential University on the lines of Oxford and Cambridge on the location in Peradeniya which is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque in the world.

To this end he devoted most of his time and effort apart from his other contributions in the sphere of political and constitutional affairs and other activities both during war time and subsequently in the events leading to independence in 1948.

Setting

The majestic surroundings, the picturesque setting amidst mist laced mountains and cool breezes, the Mahaveli river and Hantane slopes provided an ideal setting for the majestic buildings in ancient Kandyan architectural style, the brainchild of the chief architect Shirley de Alwis in liaison with Sir Ivor who selected the flowering trees and shrubs with care with an emphasis on the blending of colour.

To quote his words, "There is not the slightest doubt that if the University is worthy of its location it will be one of the finest small universities in the world" (Road to Peradeniya, Sir Ivor's autobiography, p. 183).

The Faculties of Law and Agriculture had moved in earlier, around 1951 with just a handful of students including Felix Dias, Lakshman Kadirgamar, John de Saram, K. Shinya, Ana Seneviratne, R. K. W. Gunasekera, Vijaya Vidyasagara among others. However, the first major transfer was on October 6, 1952 when 820 students of the Faculties of Arts and Oriental Studies went into residence.

The first academic year 1952-53 was still in Colombo and it was the second term of that academic year that commenced in Peradeniya. The University was however officially opened on April 20, 1954 by the Duke of Edinburgh in the presence of Queen Elizabeth 11 when he declared it "more open than usual" and its official sixtieth anniversary was celebrated recently on October 9, 2014 in Peradeniya.

One can still recall the suppressed excitement, hustle and bustle, the nervousness and expectations of the students and also the authorities in preparing for the historic shift. Sir Ivor had prepared a special set of notes and instructions distributed to all students on the shift, giving details of the Peradeniya climate, the conditions to be expected, the modalities of the shift, transportation and I remember, even the type of clothing recommended to be taken.

Some of the students found their way to Peradeniya on their own but for most of the students, the authorities had arranged a special train from Colombo Fort to New Peradeniya station. It was on this famous train that most of the students embarked to Peradeniya and at the New Peradeniya station, it was, amidst rain, all chaos with loads and loads of luggage and male and female students (quite a few of whom had by this time found their future life mates), all agog as the vans for transportation were found insufficient and out of schedule.

They were transported to the four Halls of Residence for men - Marrs, Arunachalam, Jayathilaka and Peiris and the one Hall at the time for women, the Hilda Obeysekera Hall (the Walled-off-Astoria) under the Wardenship of "Mathi" (Miss Mathiaparanam). Later added were Sangamitta and Ramanathan Halls.

Finally, after settling down, when it was thought that things were going smoothly, all hell broke loose again. It was found that the kitchens which were fitted with the most up-to date electric equipment were not working, or it was that the new kitchen staff were ignorant or unable to operate the gadgets. The Vice Chancellor had had a hectic day rushing from one Hall to the other to see how things were going and giving hectic orders, but poor man, this was too much even for him. This may have been probably the time that he was seen chain smoking as some claim that he was a tobacco addict.

Meals

I remember that the Steward at Marrs Hall who was in charge of and responsible for preparing meals and serving them at the tables was in a real quandary. Mr. Karunaratne, the Hall Steward happened to be an ex-Buddhist monk who attempted to compensate for his completely bald head by trying to cultivate, rather unsuccessfully, a ferocious looking (in his opinion) moustache.

This did not deter the hungry students from their usual hoots and all of us had to go the Peradeniya town to have our meals till the kitchen was made operational which was I believe, a day or two later.

Those were the halcyon days of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. Studded with eminent academic staff under the Vice Chancellorship of Sir Ivor Jennings, himself an intellectually reputed scholar from Cambridge, were brilliant academicians.

Among others in the staff one also recalls Dr. Ananda Kulasuriya, V.K. Wickramasinghe, Sumana Saparamadu, H.N.S. Karunatilake, Mc Fadden, Wilfred, J. Eiteman, Dr. "Dento" Dissanayake, Abeyratne etc. With the affable H. J. Balmond as Registrar and the erudite Ian Goonetileke as Librarian together with the academic staff, the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya could at that time undoubtedly hold its own among the best Universities in the world.

In 1952-53 as pioneers we had the privilege of being entitled to single room accommodation with all modern amenities - a far cry from what it turned out to be decades later. The Halls of Residence were run efficiently, the kitchens well equipped with trained staff, the food good, the selective purchasing of food items done by the University Supplies Organization under Harry Goonetilleke.

Health was looked after by the University Medical Officer Dr. C.E.S. Weeratunga who I remember, when I contacted chicken pox during an exam time, made arrangements for me to answer my papers isolated in the "sick bay". Discipline in the campus was the responsibility of the University Marshalls with Fred de Saram as Chief Marshall assisted by Bobby Jayaweera, Derek Raymond, R. Boulton and R.P. de Alwis.

Sports flourished under the supervision of G. Brant Little (Con-o-little) a former Canadian Olympic athletic as Director of Physical Education. Students were organised under the main Union Society and separate General Committees for each Hall.

The President of the first Peradeniya Union Society was Herbert Cooray with (if I remember right) the writer as the Treasurer as well as being the first Treasurer of the Marrs Hall General Committee whose first President was Peter Gunawardene and Secretary, Mahinda Karunaratne. Ragging of freshers was unlike today, relatively mild and tolerable and fun for both seniors and freshers alike.

Apart from academic activities such as attending lectures and tutorials, reading and library work etc. were a host of other social, religious and even politically related activities as well. Various societies catering to the different interests of students existed such as the famous Dramsoc, the Music Society led by P. M. D. Fernando & Inthiran Chelvathurai, the Singers Choir under Robin Mayhead, the Historical Society under S. D. Saparamadu, the Social Service League, the Socialist Society, the Muslim Majlis and societies catering to the different religious groups like the S. C. M. under Kenneth Fernando. There was also the Travel Club which was responsible for organising many of our trips around the country.

Innovation

One can also recall the cross-country race an innovation of the Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor, from Peradeniya to Geli Oya and back a distance of over seven miles. Open to the staff as well, one has memories of the rather cranky George Wickramaratne (Classics lecturer) being chased in the opposite direction by irate water buffaloes as he ran across the bunds of the paddy fields in Geli Oya.

The race was won by D. M. de Alwis and A. Imbuldeniya of Arunachalam Hall came second. Memories crowed but space does not permit me to pen all these memorable events. One recalls the High Table dinners in the oak panelled dining hall, the socials, dramas, films, walks down Lover's Lane, "pillaring", the Kissing Bend, Hantane climbs and so on.

As Lakshman Kadiragamar when Foreign Minister once stated "the days at Peradeniya were probably the best years of my life as it laid the foundation for subsequent achievements."

Before concluding, to come back again to Sir Ivor Jennings one always recalls his finesse, principles and gentlemanliness in all the dealings we had with him. In his office he always listened to you whether he agreed with you or not and while being firm with his decisions, it was articulated with politeness.

Outside, one remembers him going on his evening walks clad in open shirt and trousers but with a coat on and his walking stick and when he met a student he never failed to say "Good Evening" to them. However even on these walks I have not seen him smoking. Of course being an Englishman hailing from a cold climate, he used to have his occasional evening tots in keeping with the cool Peradeniya climate.

One also recalls other events such as his daughter's wedding with the Lodge clothed in mantle of festivity. Many lined the Galaha Road running through the campus to wish the newly weds good luck, contributing in no mean measure to the old buckets and tins that trailed the Vice Chancellor's Vauxhall Wywern on its departure to an undisclosed destination, the bride and bridegroom enjoying every moment of the unscheduled yet spontaneous cheers that assailed them.

Yet there were also unpleasant encounters as well. Once, about 20 undergrads of James Peiris Hall (then a men's hall of residence) had congregated on the Vice Chancellor's lawn to complain that the food in the Hall (it composed of liberal slices of grilled seer with sauce, potatoes, bread rolls, butter etc.) was insufficient.

Sir Ivor who had just returned from Colombo appeared on his balcony and informed the "starving" protestors that he had just re-read the University Act which indicated lucidly that the Lodge was private property and consequently the group was trespassing! The protestors melted away into the twilight of a beautiful sunset and to a good dinner!

There was also the incident when Mervyn de Silva (Andea) led a demonstration against Sir Ivor and the latter had demanded to know under what section of the constitution it was being carried out. Mervyn had replied "Sir, we are without a constitution but within the law" and it had ended the argument.

However, one also recalls how earlier, Sir Ivor had caught Mervyn (Andea) along with Constantine (Connie) and Mervyn Perera redhanded, gambling at the "cut table" in the Common Room (this was in 1951 at Thurstan Road) and promptly suspended all of them for two weeks.

Farewell

In January 1955 Sir Ivor Jennings bade farewell to the University to take up an appointment as Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. It was a sad occasion and one remembers all the students lined up on the campus road from the Lodge onwards as Sir Ivor drove along it for the last time in his old Vauxhall Wyvern EL 3489 preceded by a motor cycle escort of students led by Willie (Bada) Perera, A.P. Ranatunga and Bandula (Balu) Silva on their motor bikes.

However even after he left, Sir Ivor never forget Peradeniya or its students. Seven years later he made a visit to Peradeniya on August 2, 1962 and one can imagine his feelings when he saw his old familiar campus, the new buildings, the trees he had planted grown up, had lunch at the Lodge and had a nap in his old bed before addressing a packed Arts Theatre overflowing with students and staff.

He did not forget his old students either. I still have a letter from him as Master of Trinity Hall wherein he pledged his assistance in securing a scholarship to Cambridge for my postgraduate studies for a doctorate. However, unfortunately, the premature death of my father and resultant family problems and responsibilities forced me to shelve all these plans.

It is also an unfortunate fact that relatively little recognition has been accorded to him for decades for all his efforts and it was only recently that at least a Hall of Residence, Jennings Hall has been named after him.

The writer is a former Commissioner of Inland Revenue, Secretary of the 1990 Presidential Taxation Commission, Past President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Taxation and presently Editor/ Consultant at the Institute of Policy Studies.

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