Peradeniya, sixteen years later

peradeniya.gif (42987 bytes)by Malinda Seneviratne
It is always nice to revisit old places, especially when they happen to have etched the indelible in our memories. It is hard not to be nostalgic when you observe the scars and other lines that time has carved on the landscapes and in the ambience that made these places special in the first place.

Last week I was in Sinhapitiya, Gampola to attend the funeral of a music teacher. C. S. Handun Pathirana, the father of a campus friend, won state recognition for his contribution to music when he was awarded the title "Kalavibushana". During the endless years at Peradeniya, which was as Gamini Haththotuwegama put it "more closed than usual" during the late eighties, I spent a lot of time at this cosy house half way up the Ambuluwawa Kanda and enjoyed the hospitality and love of the entire family. So much so that I came to be regarded as a son and a brother by the good people in that household.

Death is common to us all, and that is common knowledge. Remembrance is always personal. My friend’s father treated me as a son. My affection, appreciation and sorrow therefore naturally derive from this most precious of relationships.

After the funeral, Priyantha (another batchmate of ours) decided that we all go to his place in Muruthalawa. Later that night we were joined by Gamini Maltaso (Malta, pronounced "Mal-ta"), another friend who had come late and had missed us in Gampola. After an hour or so of conversation about old times, present times, politics, children and other things, it suddenly dawned on me that this happened to be the 16th anniversary of the day that all of us entered university, October 13th, 1985.

Malta immediately suggested that we visit Peradeniya to commemorate that distant day when as fresh, somewhat innocent young men we entered Dumbara Campus (located in Polgolla) as first-year students in the Faculty of Arts. Malta was like that, given to sudden decisions and crazy schemes. He was, and still is in many ways, Mr. Spontaneity.

Priyantha, easily the laziest of our group, did not want to drag his weary feet all the way to Peradeniya. He claimed that this was because he, along with some others, had spent a day and a half in Gampola helping out with the funeral arrangements. They had not slept in over 36 hours. He also insisted that he was not suffering from Nona-B, a virulent affliction that was said to be spreading fast among married men. Nona-B (a disease unlike Hepatitis B), as the name suggests is a condition suffered by hen-pecked husbands, the "B" referring to "biya" or fear.

In the end, Premasiri ("Aliya", short for "Ampare Thani Aliya", was so named by Prabath Sahabandu because he maintained a pretty low profile during the first few months. Apparently, he was unable to come to terms with the don’t-care demeanour of people in and around Kandy, coming as he was from an area repeatedly attacked by the LTTE), dropped us off at the Peradeniya junction. Just Malta and I. Like old times.

The lights were out by this time. Malta, who hailed from Pilimatalawa, insisted on peeping into each and every shop along the way. In each place he met people who recognised him and welcomed him warmly (after leaving campus he was mostly in Colombo and out of the country). From then on, as we wandered through the Old Galaha Road and all over campus, we ran into people who were known to us.

Naturally the students were all strangers. But there were many people in the non-academic staff who remembered and were remembered. Outside the Arts Theatre (where we both have been accosted by belligerent and small-minded seniors on occasion even beaten once), there were a large number of cars.

A Korean film was being screened and we managed to catch an enchanting ending; the reconciliation of lovers bathed in morning mist and the sweet and airy words that lovers tell each other. And of course the appropriate music. We were hopeful that there would be some lecturers at the film, since we wanted conversation, food and maybe a drink. One by one the cars were driven off by young men who were clearly of the student population. Times had changed.

Back then, only a couple of students had bicycles. There were no cell-phones. Not even telephone booths. Were we in the dark ages then? No, just that things change.

The line of tal-gas outside the AT was gone. Those trees stood like intractable sentinels from some distant age as we waited for the bus or picketed against an undemocratic and corrupt regime. In less than fifteen minutes, there was no one around but the two of us. We sat on the parapet, sharing a cigarette and sang a couple of old songs. "If someone were to hear us, we will definitely be ‘located’ in the eighties," said Malta. There was no place to go, so we decided we would see if any of our teachers were around. Unfortunately, more time had passed than we had realised, and we didn’t know where some of the favoured ones lived. "Let’s ask the security office," I suggested.

Before we had walked 10 yards, we saw a security officer coming towards us and I asked him if he knew where Mr. Tissa Atukorale lived. He flashed his torch in our faces. A broad smile materialised on his face, for he had recognised Malta, who had a history of various entanglements with the security people. Greetings were exchanged and we were accompanied to the security office by that genial officer, where of course there were more greetings exchanged and much reminiscing. None of our friends in the academic staff seemed to be around, so they offered to drop us off at the Faculty Club where the more interesting of the lecturers meet to drink, argue and relax.

"Things have changed," said one of the officers, stating the obvious. "We are being replaced by private security companies, slowly but surely. When people retire they are not replaced. Private security officers are here today, gone tomorrow. They don’t know the students, don’t care and have no sense of the history of the place and the way things happen here. For us, all of you were like children. We had our clashes, but it was all ‘family’. The students are different too. Look, it’s not even 10 PM and there’s not a single student on the Galaha Road. There is no spirit left here."

Maybe he had grown old, as we had too. I suppose students of each era have their agendas and they don’t necessarily have to be that which their predecessors were obsessed with. Whether it is in politics, cultural activities, attitude towards scholarship or expectations beyond the degree, things can’t be the same.

The Faculty Club was deserted. We had already spent several hours walking around, talking to people and remembering. And I recalled a short piece I wrote some ten years ago, which I submitted to the good people who were bringing out a volume of ‘recollections’ written by people from different times, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the university. Ours was clearly a bastardised history. My piece didn’t make it. Those who were best qualified to write that history had been tortured and killed. Those who got to write it belonged to the conspicuous consumers.

"Many I am sure will not miss the era that was censored, the bastard age of unsung heroes who are no longer around to plead mercy. This is not an attempt to protest our demise or state our innocence. It is not a demand for a place in a history we are not particularly proud of. It is merely a promise, to those who carried the torch and those who will not arrive, that we will derive from the dawn songs left unattended among the blood stained reeds, the miseries, the hopes and also something about integrity when we re-write our Internationale."

Ten years later, I wonder. People move, life drags us along in different directions, and we like to think we try. Our fathers also did, and although the world did not evolve the way we wanted it to, who’s to say they were not honourable? Amaradeva sang it this way... "ath thatu sindagath vihanga vilasen, ape pethum iki bindenu aese" (our hopes can be heard sobbing like a bird with broken wings). In a way. In a way.

Sixteen years after that first uncertain day in Dumbara, 15 years since we made Peradeniya our home, the landscape has changed. The "gemba" canteen is being replaced by a huge building. Looks ugly. Maybe it will look nice when it’s done. The "Strike gaha" with its long vines still stands. The flowers will bloom. There will be lovers and song, agitation and surrender, laughter and tragedy. Life will go on.

University life is a bit like love; anticipated with relish, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia. Maybe it was not uncomfortable, but then again we are in the "nostalgia" time frame now. Is it a trap, a comfort zone or had the distancing in terms of time and space facilitated a better perspective? Impossible to tell.

A light rain was falling as we navigated the darkness with the brilliant light of awakened memory. Back then we were all kings and queens. The university was our kingdom. It was mine. It was Malta’s. It was the private property of each of its children. It was a collective too. It probably still is.