Prof. K. W. Goonewardena
Of that rare breed of outstanding Peradeniya men, one more has left us. He was one of the giants at whose feet we sat. Professor Karunadasa Wijesiri (‘Carl’) Goonewardena (1925 – 2009) was the epitome of the gentleman scholar. By the time he returned home upon completion of his post-graduate studies at the end of 1953, the university at Peradeniya had been established. He was thus one of the founding fathers of Peradeniya having joined that venerable institution in the Jennigsean era. He retired in 1990 and lived in Maharagama until his recent death.
Although from a different and much younger generation , I had an education and upbringing similar to the one Prof. Goonewardena had. Like him I was born in the south( on the correct side of the Bentara Ganga, too) and like him I had the benefit of receiving my primary and secondary education at Buddhist, Catholic and Methodist schools: he at Sangamitta Vidyalaya and St. Aloysius’ College, Galle, and Kingswood College, Kandy and I at Hikkaduwa Central, De Mazenod College, Kandana, and Kingswood College, Kandy. Perhaps it is our broad exposure which made us avoid the pitfall of ‘Adolescent Nationalism’ that most others of our social and class background have, sadly, stumbled over.
My senior colleagues and contemporaries who specialised in History acquainted me with Prof. Goonewardena’s pioneering work of great significance in historical revisionism. I have since read his The Foundations of Dutch Power in Ceylon 1638 – 1658 (his doctoral dissertation of 1953 revised and published in 1958)) and his 1958 University of Ceylon Review article on Robert Knox and benefited from his incisive scholarship. Together with Prof. S. Arasaratnam, another notable Sri Lankan authority on the Dutch Period, Prof. Goonewardena has enabled us to understand better the Dutch colonial interregnum in seventeenth century Ceylon.
Prof. Goonwardena’s contribution to Peradeniya and Kelaniya as scholar and administrator has been exceptional. He was only 38 when he was appointed Professor of History at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1964. Five years later he was selected to be Vice- Chancellor of the Vidyalankara University.
In the post-1965 days of the National Government led by the late Dudley Senanayake, the politicization of the higher education sphere which had begun under the previous government of Sirima Bandaranaike acquired a fresh and new lease of life. In addition there now was at Malay Street (then the Education administration headquarters) presiding over the destiny of education in Ceylon a volatile and authoritarian Minister in I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla.He was as hostile as anyone you could then find to the academic independence cherished by the majority of the university tutorial staff members of that era. He used to refer derisively to this freedom as autonomiya. This factor makes it even more remarkable that Prof.Goonewardena, a forthright and unbending academic if ever there was one, found acceptance. The late 60s was a time of turmoil in university campuses the world over and Ceylon’s were no exception. As we know, the turbulence in our universities at that time which culminated in the momentous and violent Insurrection of April 1971 made university administration of that period more challenging than usual. The Vidyalankara University was in particular disarray, both at the student and staff levels. Long after these seemingly calamitous circumstances had become history and many an academic battle had been waged, lost and won, I learnt of Prof. Goonewardena’s marvellous contribution to the betterment of the Vidyalankara University. Two of his then Kelaniya colleagues, Professors Charles Dahanayake and Indra Balasuriya, stalwarts of the Science Faculty, shared with me their recollections of Prof. Goonewardena’s tenure as Vice-Chancellor. These recollections accord with the facts found in the introduction to the K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume(1989) edited by Profs. C.R. de Silva and Sirima Kiribamune. Here’s how they record Prof.Goonewardena’s labours on behalf of the Vidyalankara University:
… in January 1969 he was elevated to the coveted and challenging position of Vice-Chancellor of the troubled university at Kelaniya, the Vidyalankara University of Ceylon, the administration of which had come in for severe and scathing criticism by a Royal Commission a short while before.
A great deal of credit for rectifying the situation and steering it through its formative years goes to K.W. Goonewardena. Among his achievements as Vice-Chancellor was the successful battle [he waged] to preserve the Science Faculty in that institution at a time when it was threatened with closure. He was a strong advocate of the introduction of the study of Tamil at Vidyalankara University and proposed that students in the Faculty of Arts should also be given a basic grounding in science, though problems of finance and the change in the University set up in 1972 frustrated these objectives.
Apart from that brief spell at Dalugama, Kelaniya, to revive the Vidyalankara University of Ceylon, Prof. Goonewardena’s academic labours were devoted to the continued wellbeing of the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya. In addition to his superlative contribution on the academic front, Prof. Goonewardena involved himself, as did the rest of his colleagues of his generation, with the wider life of the community at Peradeniya. He gave of himself abundantly to the causes of both students and staff whilst holding a variety of honourary posts—as Warden of Marcus Fernando Hall of Residence(1963- 1968), as President of the University Faculty Club on numerous occasions and as President of the University Teachers’ Association in 1967 and 1968 in addition to serving as President or Vice- Patron of a number of Sports Bodies both within and outside of the University. All of this besides functioning as the Head of the Dept. of History, Dean of the Faculty of Arts on two occasions and serving a three-year term on the University Council.
Prof. Goonewardena was erudite and civilised. Involved though he was to the hilt with university affairs both in and outside of the classroom, he yet managed to keep a respectable distance from the generality of Peradeniya’s residential community of students and scholars. He was dignified and decorous at all times. And yet he was never aloof and detached as some of his contemporaries tended to be. He doubtless watched bemusedly as some of his contemporaries turned academic populists seeking to win cheap acceptance or groped for fleeting moments of glory by playing to the gallery. Neither being overly reserved nor being a ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ type, Prof. Goonewardena managed to relate meaningfully and appropriately to Peradeniya’s younger generation. There was not a trace of artifice in him. He was thus looked up to by both the teachers and the taught. He was a good mixer, moving easily and comfortably in all circles. He was a wonderful role model, mentor and friend to generations of Peradeniya’s fortunate undergraduates and younger academics. He fought relentlessly against injustice no matter which quarter that injustice emanated from reserving his best efforts in this regard to champion the cause of the underdog and the marginalized. I think it is not unfair to say that Prof. Goonewardena was acceptably old-fashioned to the extent that he upheld traditional values worthy of preservation. Respect for the sanctity of institutions, honouring those worthy of honour, observance of discipline and decorum at all times and consistent adherence to principle were of utmost importance to him. He was forthright sometimes even to the point of bluntness in defending the values he chose to live by. His unequivocal and explicit manner notwithstanding he was ever amiable and affable for he was no prissy academic standing on ceremony. He was always firmly rooted in the particular whilst reaching out to the universal. It was a difficult balancing act to perform in order to be who he was and be understanding and caring at the same time. I am convinced that it was his unblemished character and his rock solid integrity that enabled him to remain a credible personality.
He was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts when I joined the academic staff of Peradeniya as an Assistant Lecturer in English in the mid-1970s. We were regular tennis partners for several years thereafter. Not infrequently we would meet for a beer and a few rounds of Bridge at the Faculty Club especially when it was situated in those wonderful surroundings of the abandoned old golf course opposite the Botanical Gardens. We had a regular crowd that included the late Dr. ‘Udu’(M.S.) Uduwela, Dr. S. Mahalingam, Dr.Rex Clements, Dr. ‘Soory’ Soorymoorthy, Dr. Ranjith Galappatti, Dr. ‘Rambuks’(N.B.) Rambukwella, Wilfrid Dahanayake, Vijitha Kuruwita, R.O. Thattil, Athula Perera and the inimitable George van der Poorten—young academics, then, drawn from the Engineering, Veterinary and Agriculture Faculties. ‘Carl’ Goonewardena was at home with all types, the young and the old, the conservative and the revolutionary, the indigenous and the westernised, without ever losing his individuality. He was the consummate Peradeniya man.