Midweek Review

Fond memories of an exemplary guru
by Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa

My revered Guru, Professor M. W. Sugathapala de Silva has left an indelible impression on the Sri Lankan academia in spite of the fact that his was a short life of 49 years. Without any fear of contradiction one can say that Prof. Sugathapala de Silva is the man who introduced modern linguistics to Sri Lanka and placed it on a firm footing in our university system. Although linguistics as a discipline was known in this country before him he was the first teacher of the discipline in the (then one and only) University of Ceylon at Peradeniya in the mid 1950s. He was the one who brought it to public notice through his lectures, books and newspaper and journal articles. Furthermore, it was also he, who, later with his vantage point as a senior academic operating from Europe, arranged for several young Sri Lankan academics to be trained as linguists in centres of excellence in the discipline aboard.

As records indicate, the first Sri Lanka to come into contact with modern linguistic studies was H. S. Perera, an officer in the island’s Department of Education who had been sent to the University of London for training. That was before the Ceylon University College was established in 1921 as an affiliate of the University of London. However, what Perera imbibed in London in the field of linguistics, particularly phonetic studies, under the veteran Daniel Jones could never be applied in the island’s educational system. After the University of Ceylon was established in 1942 several academics of its Faculty of Oriental Studies who went for post graduate studies to the School or Oriental and African Studies of the University of London (SOAS), had come into contact with the new discipline while engaging in their research. But their fields of speciality being such, they could not venture deep into linguistic studies and it was they who encouraged their student, young Sugathapala, to delve deeply into the field and become a full-fledged linguist. These teachers whom Sugathapala always remembered with respect and gratitude were Prof. O. H. De A. Wijesekera (Sanskrit), Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi and Prof. D. J. Wijeratne (Sinhala) who had all obtained their Ph.Ds from SOAS. Prof. Wijeratne, who studied under the legendary Prof. Ralph Turner and wrote a dissertation entitled "‘The Morphology of the Noun in Sinhalese Inscriptions up to the 10th Century," proved to be a role model for young Sugathapala. When Sugathapala graduated from Peradeniya with first class honours in Sinhala in 1954, Prof. Hettiarachchi, who saw great promise in the young man, recruited him to the teaching staff of the Department of Sinhala. Hettiarachchi and Wijeratna, both of whose forte was language studies, knew that having an energetic young man like Sugathapala trained in modern linguistics would help their department as well as the university immensely. Reminiscensing how Hettiarachchi, the Head of the Sinhala Department, sent him to do linguistics Sugathapala used to say, "First he asked me to go to (Leonard) Bloomfield. Then we came to know that he was dead. Then he asked me to go to (Edward) Sapir, and, he too was dead. So we decided on Firth." (It was typical of my Guru’s wit to draw parallels between incidents in his life and incident in the Buddhist tradition. The above incident reminds us of the Buddha’s search for former teachers like Alara Kalama after attaining enlightment. Again, in his personal library I noticed that on the title pages of some of Professor Firth’s books he had written "Vijja Udapadi", "Panna Udapadi" and "Aloko Udapadi" quoting from the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. That was obviously Sugathapala’s way of appreciating the teaching skills of his own Guru.)

Prof. John Rupert Firth, is remembered as the father of the London school of linguistics as much as Bloomfield and Sapir are pioneers in American linguistics. "My Guru Hettiarachchi asked me to bring to Ceylon everything possible from Firth. So not only did I bring down the knowledge he imparted but also his secretary!" Sugathapala used to say. When he returned from London in 1958 not only did he have a research degree, an MA in Linguistics (those days MAs were research degrees), but was also accompanied by Miss Helen Wheeler, who had been Firth’s Secretary in the University College, London. As we came to know later there was an understanding between the young man from Ceylon and lady from London that she would first come and see the conditions here before committing herself to him till death would pull them apart. Apparently she was happy with what she saw and they were married in the Kandy Kachcheri. The new couple had for themselves a bungalow in the university quarters at Mahakanda, then a misty lonely and quiet outpost of the Peradeniya Campus.

During the six years from 1958 to 1964 Sugathapala applied himself tirelessly to the task of enriching the academic life of Peradeniya with what he had imbibed in London. He gave a new life to languages studies, particularly to the teaching of grammar. He made the grammar classes extremely entertaining affairs. Not only did the regular students of the Sinhala Department who were earlier used to finding some excuse "to cut" those boring classes, now avidly rush into each and every class, but they also invited their friends in other disciplines to come and share the fun in Sugathe’s lectures. He was such an effective teacher that what he imparted with a humorous twist was imprinted indelibly in the student memory. I can say this of his teaching skills after coming to know some hundreds of teachers here and elsewhere. Sugathapala de Silva had the rare skill, found in all great teachers who have complete mastery of their subjects, of presenting the most complex of problems in a form which his audience could comprehend.

Coming back to linguistics, Sugathapala de Silva was the author of the first Sinhala book in the discipline of linguistics. In his Vigrahatmuaka Vaag Vidyava, published by the Department of National Languages in 1963 he indicated clearly the path future language studies in Sinhala should take (I translate from his Introduction):

"The Sinhala language of today has a form which differs very much from the Sinhala of ancient times. Listen to the newscast on the radio. Read the first page of a newspaper. Read a novel. Read a collection of short stories. Read prosaically composed poetry. Read a collection of "free" (nisandas) poetry. Examine works on modern science. Examine scholarly writings. You will clearly note, if you look carefully, that the Sinhala used in each case differs from the others in style and grammar. While the forms of Sinhala in each case are diverse and varied, each one of them is very much different from the language we use for day-to-day conversation. In each one of them there is grammar which is not found in speech and that grammar is often different from the grammar we find in ancient texts."

We need to remember that Sugathapala was operating within a highly traditionalist world of scholarship. The traditional scholars of language believed that only the classical texts contained "grammar" and that all forms of speech were "vulgar and ungrammatical". It was Sugathapala’s mission to educate the Sinhala scholars that speech also had a grammar albeit different from the grammar in classical texts and that the Sinhala writings in the different context, such as radio newscast, poetry, fiction, scientific works etc. each had a peculiar form of grammar special to itself. These observations opened up new vistas in Sinhala language studies which had so far been a dull, monotonous and closed field. It needs be said in passing that in assessing the contribution of the University of Peradeniya to intellectual life of Sri Lanka, the work done in the am of language studies is often overlooked. That, obviously, is due to overshadowing phenomenon in the areas of literature and the theatre during those most productive young years of the university. It is high time that we corrected the picture and give due recognition to the work done in the area of language studies by the great academics such as Hettiarachchi, Wijeratne and Sugathapala de Silva

Sugathapala’s students, particularly those who followed his steps as university academics, namely J. B. Disanayake, P. B. Meegaskumbura, A. A. Abeysinghe and the present writer, have followed the way he has shown and made further contributions in structural linguistics, historical linguistics and sociolinguistics. Others have followed suit and the discipline today is well established in our university system.

With his research, scholarly publications and taking part in seminars, workshops and conferences, Sugathapala created for our university some very valuable links with the international world of scholarship. Prof. W. A. Coates and Prof. W. J. Gedney, two American linguists, came to Sri Lanka to research on Sinhala and James W. Gair another American academic came to Peradeniya to prepare his Ph.D. thesis on Sinhalese clause structures. Furthermore, Sugathapala with his colleague D. D. De Saram, prepared a beginner’s course in Sinhalese for foreign students (Spoken Sinhala for the Beginner) which was published by the Ceylon University Press in 1963. Sugathapala, later, along with Gordon Fairbanks and James W. Gair of Cornell University, prepared two monumental beginners’ courses for spoken and written Sinhala.

With the general interest thus kindled Sugathapala took the initiative in 1963 of forming The University Linguistic Society. Its founder president was Professor Senarath Paranavitana and its members were the academices in Peradeniya at the time: Prof. K. Kanapathypillai, Prof. H. A. Passe, Prof. O. H de A. Wijesekera. Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi, Prof. N. A. Jayawickrama, Prof. P. E. E. Fernando, Prof. M. B. Ariyapala and Prof. M. H. F. Jayasuriya. The first publication of the society "Transaction of the University Linguistic Society" was published in 1964 and it carried articles by Sugathapala de Silva, Doric de Souza, S. Thananjayarajasingham, Thiru Kandiah, S. A. Imam and Senarath Paranavitana. Two other significant projects for which Sugathapala provided guidance during this time were "‘The Survey of Sinhala Dialects" under the directorship of Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi and "The Field-Study of the Vedda Language" under the collaborated guidance of Professors D. J. Wijeratne and W. J. Gedney.

It was during this time that Sugathapala noticed an opening in the UK where his talents could be put to better and more varied use. In the early 1960s Great Britain was opening some new universities which were to have novel features befitting new circumstances breaking away from the models of the centuries old traditional universities. Sussex and York were two such new universities. In York there was a "Department of Languages" under the guidance of Prof. Robert Le Page, who had been earlier the Professor of English in the University of Malaya and the University of West Indies. Sugathapala’s application to the Department of Language in York was readily accepted and he became, along with Dr. Rebecca Posner (an expert in Romance languages), a key figure in the pioneer staff of this department which was later to become one of the most prestigious centres in linguistic studies in the UK. (Incidentally York ranks today among the topmost universities in the UK).

The fact that Sugathapala became a key figure in the Department of Language also happened to be a windfall for several Sri Lankan academics. I was one of them and my fondest memories of this inimitable Guru, who was also my friend, philosopher and guide, are of the days at York during the period 1965 to 1968. Incidentally, of his Peradeniya Golays I was the first one to go to York. A. A. Abeysinghe and A. K. Gunasena were to follow me later.

York advertised several international scholarships for linguistic studies in early 1965 and I, who had been recruited to the staff in late 1963, and was looking for an opportunity to go for higher studies abroad, sent an application along with a recommendation from Professor Hettiarachchi. I was selected to the first batch of post-graduate students in this new university established just two years ago. In our batch in the Department of Language there was one student each from India, Pakistan, Iraq, the West Indies and Great Britan. I was the first Sinhalaya to go to York for studies.

I can still visualise that cool morning in October 1965 (winter had not set in yet, and the academic year in York started in October) when I stepped out of the railway carriage in the York station to see my Guru walking towards me with a smile, shaking hands with me saying "Welcome to York." From that day onwards till I left York in early 1968 I was virtually a member of The Sugathapala family, like in the ancient Taksila tradition. There was my Guru, Mrs. Helen de Silva and Prasannajit, the son, who was five years old.

The University of York was in Hesligton among the moors of Yorkshire a couple of miles away from the old city of York. York is a historic city enclosed by a stone wall put up during Roman times. The university campus in Heslington had two colleges at the time, Langwith and Derwent. They were built according to ultra modern architectural designs and housed residential rooms, dining halls, as well as academic departments along with a small library. Many other academic departments and the central library were situated in separate buildings. My residential room was in Langwith College, and, fortunately, the Sugathapala household was only about 20 metres away from the college buildings. It was situated among the few staff residences, all newly constructed for the campus. The administration of the university was housed in Heslington Hall, the residence of a medieval lord. The Department of Language, interestingly, was in the "King’s Manor," a medieval stone building in the city. While its exterior was preserved in its medieval grandeur, the interior was fully modernised, walls being fully plastered, carpets laid and central heating provided. There was a regular bus from Heslington to York.

Every Saturday dinner at the Sugathapala household was a Sri Lankan, or, rather, a South Asian affair. Hans Raj Dua, the Indian student from Rajasthan, and Asghar Khan, a Pathan from Pakistan, along with the Sri Lankan Dharmadasa were hosted to dinner and we had the wonderful experience of enjoying the culinary expertise of Mrs. Helen de Silva. She had mastered the skills of Sri Lanka cooking, which, we later realised, was greatly due to the expert guidance of her husband. I should also mention here that I, whose cooking skills so far had not gone beyond boiling an egg, was initiated into this wonderful domain with the experience I gathered at York under these two experts.

A Sinhalese man, wherever he is, be it even in the North Pole, would look forward yearningly to the day he can enjoy a "bath curry". The college dining halls provided only Western (and most often the drab English) food. Rarely, or once a week or so, did they serve a thing called "curry", which was a spoon of rice on top of which was spread another spoon of curried meat. But for us Sri Lankans a "bath curry" should have at least one or two more curried stuff, particularly vegetables. I am sure my Guru also missed his curry meals, for the household, having as its "Grhamulika" the British lady, had only British food for the large part of the week, and my Guru would have yearned, as I did, for a good curry meal sometime within the week as well. To my surprise, one day he turned up in the afternoon and knocked on my door. When I opened it he was there, and said "Dharmadasa, Nona Mahattaya has gone to London. Come let us cook some dinner today." I readily agreed. We went to town and bought some beef and went to a vegetable shop to buy some beans or the like. To our extreme joy there was a very rare commodity on sale that day, some green chillies which I had not tasted since my departure from Sri Lanka some months ago. So we brought a good quantity of that as well.

My teacher told me: "DD," (that was the nickname that Prasannajith had given me) "we will cook some roties [roti tikak puchchamu]." And I can still recall the mouth-watering smell of roti (wheat flour plus desiccated coconut mixed in milk) which emanated from the non-stick pan in the Sugathapala kitchen that afternoon. Having cooked the beef curry, the green chille curry and a pol sambol (again with desiccated coconut) both of us had a sumptuous meal, gulping down in particular loads of the mouth burning amu miris maluwa which was a rare treat for us. I came to my room later and went to bed. Late in the night I got up with strong urge to go to the toilet and that was the beginning of a bout of purging which continued till morning until there was nothing left to be removed. At day-break, there was a knock on my door and opening it I saw my teacher who also had been having the same punishment for the unscrupulous indulgence the previous day. He advised me to drink plenty of milk so that the stomach burn would go away. When Nona-Mahattaya returned from London she had been told about our escapade by my teacher (incidentally, I noted that he never kept any secret from her) and both of us got a good scolding when I visited them again.

One of my most cherished memories of my Guru Sugathapala de Silva relates to the days I was down with chicken pox. Normally Sri Lankan contact chicken pox, mumps and the like when they are kids. In my case although I had had mumps in my teens I had never been down with chicken pox. While in York (I was in my mid 20s then) I came down with fever one day and when I saw the university doctor he diagnosed it to be chicken pox and I was told to rest in my room for 10 days. I informed my teacher about it and went to my room. Around meal time there was a knock on my door and opening it I saw my teacher with a plate wrapped in a cloth in the Sri Lankan style. I can never forget the kindness of the Sugathapalas who did this routine of providing meals daily till I was okay.

One memorable episode in this "buth pingana" saga was the fact that one day he brought bacon and eggs for breakfast. In Sinhala folk-lore chicken pox (papola) is deyyinne ledak (a ailment due to supernatural interference) and one has to make a vow (bara) to the deities as well as keep away from taboo foods (kili ahara), pork products coming at the top of the list. When I looked askance at my teacher on receipt of the bacon he said "Don’t worry. Nothing is going to happen," and I ate it. I must say that nearly 40 years have passed and nothing has happened so far.

Among memorable episodes where my Guru was the chief protagonist is the "one man show", a drama he performed for a closed audience of five including myself at the Mahakanda bungalow of Dr. Hemapala Wijewardena. By the time I had returned to Peradeniya and through the kindness of Dr. Wije, another respected teacher, I had a room in his house. Dr. Wije lived as a temporary bachelor from Monday to Friday here (with two other real bachelors myself and A. D. Sugathadasa, a Staff Officer in the Department of Agriculture) and went home to his family in Horana for the weekend. My Guru Sugathapala and Dr. Wije were bosom pals and when my Guru came on visits to Sri Lanka he stayed in Mahakanda with us bachelors. Once in 1969 when he came over, he performed for us a play, "written", acted and directed by him. The audience was the three of us, along with P. B. Meegaskumbura (then an Assistant Lecturer) and P. V. Premaratne, then Research Assistant in the Department of Sinhala. I refrain from discussing the contents of the play in public. But suffice it to say that it was so funny that most of the time the all male audience was literally rolling on the floor with uncontrollable laughter.

I have recounted only some of the memorable episodes in our Guru-sishya relationship as permitted by constraints of space. However, as an academic who has served for forty years in the Sri Lankan university system there is one singular fact about my Guru Sugathapala de Silva that I want in particular to place on record. That is the fact that of all the Sri Lankan academics who have made it good in foreign countries, Sugathapala de Silva stands out as the one who has given a helping hand to the largest number of young colleagues to obtain the benefits of post-graduate education aboard. During the 16 years he was at York he took the initiative to provide scholarships to five Sri Lankans to enter that university for post-graduate studies. Also, for many Sri Lank-an academics he was "our man in York" on whom they could depend for recommendations and testimonials when applying for positions or scholarships abroad. And, all who have known him intimately will vouch for his humane care and abiding concern for people. In addition to all this if we are to make an assessment of his career, his achievements as an academic have been tremendous and his impact monumental.


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