The First Years of the University of Ceylon
August 21, 2010, 3:47 pm
Ananda E. Gooonesinha
The University of Ceylon was established in July 1942. It was a historic event but not entirely unprecedented. Its predecessor was the Ceylon University College (UC), about 20 years extant, affiliated to the University of London. It granted Arts and Science degrees on examinations conducted by the two Departments but the results were jointly assessed by London which confirmed the award of Degrees.
The genesis of the University of Ceylon was not original but was actually a transfer of the entire academic structure of the UC together with its pedagogues, students, administrative organization, buildings, playgrounds, furniture, laboratories and all staff and equipment. Carping critics might even have derisively termed the mutation a mere change of name but for three very important and significant adjunctions. Firstly the U of C acquired the authority to grant its own Degrees, its affiliation to London University being automatically terminated. Secondly, whereas the UC had only two departments of Arts and Science, these were now termed faculties. Thirdly the former Ceylon Medical College was absorbed with the U of C and termed the faculty of Medicine and still further a new faculty of Oriental Studies was established.
The Chancellor of the U of C was ex officio The Governor of Ceylon, and its first Vice- Chancellor was Dr. (late Sir), Ivor Jennings, a fortunate and laudable acquisition indeed. Each faculty had a Dean at the head and Professors and Lecturers attached to the various departments covering subjects of study. Entrance to the U of C was determined on the results of an examination held by each faculty. I was one of the few hundreds who gained admission in the inaugural year, together with Ronnie de Mel, Nissanka Wijeyeratne, Ranjit de Livera, Dudley Gunasekera and Rajah de Silva amongst a host of others, affectionately unforgotten.
The U of C had awarded Arts and Science Scholarships on the results of a special examination for study in a British University usually Oxford or Cambridge and this was continued and so was the Exhibition award for second place ensuring free study throughout the course in the U of C. These were highly prestigious awards and the winners were acknowledged to be brilliant students. Ronnie de Mel won the first Arts Scholarship of the U of C whilst I was the winner of the Free Arts Studentship introduced for the first time for the first place in the Arts faculty entrance exam. Unfortunately Ronnie de Mel could not avail himself of this achievement because it was wartime. To this day I am unaware whether he received recompense in any other form.
It is pertinent now to advent to the home of the U of C. There is a strange misconception in the minds of many, even expressed authoritatively by the media that the U of C was born in Peradeniya. No! No! Its birth was in the premises of the UC in Colombo. College House on Thurstan Road accommodated the Administration and the Registrar’s office. It also housed the Men’s and Women’s Common Rooms and at the back the Canteen. In its grounds were two tennis courts between the Library and the Union (students union) Society hall and the No.1 Tennis Court reserved for seniors between that and Thurstan Road. On the opposite side of Queen’s Road which bordered College House was Cruden House, the seat of the newly formed Faculty of Oriental Studies.
On the opposite side of Thurstan road were sited the Science and Arts Blocks, King George’s Hall, the main lecture hall and the cricket grounds. The Medical Faculty was far away in the old Medical College. Away from all these but within easy cycling or even walking distance were the Halls of Residence, Brodie, Ramanathan, Arunachalam, Union and Aquinas the Roman Catholic hostel, and finally the piece de resistance the Women’s Hostel which was by a strange coincidence in a house in which I had lived as a small boy. Though childhood memories may have made me familiar with its inner layout they were useless as the hostel was ruled by a veritable termagant- the Lady Lecturer in Logic.
It was wartime and the fortunes of the Allies were at a low ebb. It must never be forgotten that the U of C was established and began functioning first, three months after the Japanese air raid on Colombo – an estimable and admirable feat. Colombo could then be compared to Goldsmith’s Deserted Village. Many houses, large and small were empty, their occupants having evacuated. Those who had nowhere else to go of course prided themselves on heeding the British governor’s call to "stay put". There were hardly any vehicles on the roads other than military transport. Petrol was rationed and desirable food was scarce, though the British N.A.A.F.I (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) was a convenient source of illicit supply of goodies such as Imperial corned beef, liquor and cigarettes.
A lively interest will be generated by recalling the social and educational backgrounds of the student body which flourished 66 years ago. The majority of undergraduates in the U of C had come from schools in Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. This feature was continued but the U of C saw the impressive influx of large numbers of students from provincial schools. These mainly entered the Faculty of Oriental Studies and included a few Buddhist priests. It soon became evident and it was observed in the student cognizance that lines were being drawn. This was unfortunate but painfully natural as there were distinctive differences between sets of students. Royalists, Thomians, Trinitians and students from socially prominent or professional families gravitated toward each other impelled by a mysterious magnetism of camaraderie. Almost defensively, provincial students herded exclusively in Cruden Hall. Only the lecture halls and the library permitted a sense of togetherness. We inherited from the U.C. the Union Society which now became the association of all students of all faculties. There was a president, other office- bearers and a committee of students, but the senior treasurer was a Don (professor) appointed by the Vice-Chancellor who also functioned as a Monitor. There was the Union Society hall used for committee meetings, elections and indoor games. General meetings were held in King George’s hall.
There had been a few women students in the U.C. hailing from better known schools like Ladies, Bishop’s, St. Bridget’s, Hillwood and Methodist and comprised of Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers. The U of C welcomed many more, a pleasurable feature being the large number of Tamil girls from schools such as Chundikuli, Vembadi and Uduvil. They were pleasant, refined and polite though reserved. Needless to say men and women had to be very proficient in English as all instruction was imparted in that language. The only exception was the Oriental Studies faculty and this contributed in no small measure to social separation.
The names of examinations for degrees were changed. The UC London Intermediate and the Ceylon Pre- Medical became the first examinations in each faculty. There was a General Degree requiring a course of study of two years after the first exam. There was the Special Degree with a study course of three years after passing the first exam covering the subjects English, History, Chemistry , Physics, Pali, Sanskrit or Sinhalese which replaced the former "Honours" degree and was in no way to be disparaged. There was a strict rule that any student failing the first exam twice had to leave. It is noteworthy and interesting that several such seemingly unfortunate students joined the Law College where they later proved that their first failure was a blessing in disguise by becoming Advocates or Proctors. Others took to teaching or employment in either the Government or Private Sectors.
Apart from the Union Society, there was the Historical Society (Curia Historica), Economic Society, and mirabile dictu the Dramatic Society. There were " Socials", get-togethers organized either by a society or a group of enterprising students. These were occasions for fraternization and small talk but sadly the lines that had been drawn came into evidence. There were also opportunities for amorous dalliance. At one of these an imaginative Fernando organized a "Treasure Hunt." I chose as my partner a girl from Ladies who also was the sister of a fellow prefect at Royal who had asked me to keep a brotherly eye on her. Unfortunately a senior, an old Thomian and a noted athlete though not especially known for his command of English, his school nickname being Godaya, had fixed his eye on her. Although the game was for a man and woman partnership, he insisted on following us everywhere. Finally losing patience I told him "apart from the rules two’s company, three’s none." He tersely replied "Then you go." Needless to say I never knew what the treasure was as the girl fled to join her friends.
In this our first year, we were fresh, eager and keen to succeed. I remember being ragged in the company of other freshers by the Union Society President Vicky Thuraisingham and his aides Stanley Senanayake, Buddhi de Zoysa, Andrew Joseph and a few others. The ragging was an order to sing, dance, leap-frog and empty our pockets. Any collection was used for the finale – booze, feed and cinema though not necessarily in that order. Obviously since we had not been forewarned, the collection was poor and the seniors had to subsidize us and themselves and it was all good fun. I cannot now possibly avoid comment on present- day ragging. This form of inducting freshmen originated in British Universities and was an occasion to remind them of their inferior status, to good naturedly extract from them physical performances to emphasize that position and the wherewithal to have a good time in cafes and pubs. Today it is tragic to see in this country that ragging has been made an excuse to give vent to expressions of sub conscious feelings of inferiority, suppressed sadism and to resort to such violence as to cause grievous bodily harm, mental disorder and manslaughter. It is very important to understand the backgrounds of those responsible. I can visualize a backwoods origin, a high degree of intelligence and standard of literacy but sadly not even an iota of liberal education or social acceptance. This scenario applies equally to men and women. It is astounding that the Government wishes to give recognition to ragging as an established customary institution. This only serves to grant importance out of all proportion to activities which do not require legislation to eradicate. It would be the same as legislating against booing and hooting at public meetings. If that kind of vociferous expression of feeling degenerates into obscenity the Penal Code provides for reprisal. Likewise in ragging, any bodily harm, unlawful confinement or physical abuse of a criminal nature can surely be dealt with under the Penal Code.
World war II affected our lives to a great extent but one carried on. To undergraduates the Civil Defence Commissioner offered opportunities of earning handsome pocket money. Some seniors, Sam Wijesinha, C. Mylvaganam among them, became Food Distribution Inspectors and Price Control Inspectors, part-time of course, cleverly weaving the job requirements into their lecture patterns. In the Varsity itself the Auxiliary Fire Servic e made its appearance. Many joined and stalked about in their uniforms of white shirt, blue trousers tucked into high boots and blue peaked caps. Among our firefighters were Lesly Jayatilleke, Hanan Ismail and very curiously M.C.C. Fernando from Cruden. M.C.C. had first appeared in national dress and had earned the sobriquet "Reddha."When his short roly-poly figure was first seen in AFS uniform it was difficult not to hoot with laughter because the contrast was so comical.
Anyway the change in dress and activity caused M.C.C. to use Cruden only for lectures and to join us in our recreation which introduced him to a new life-style. Firewatching was also introduced and I volunteered. It involved reporting for duty at 7 pm to the Supervisor, Senior English Lecturer Cuthbert Amerasinghe at the Science block. The purpose was to watch out for fires caused by exploding bombs in an air raid. One night I had turned on my cycle from Galle Road to Queens Road and stopped when I spotted the half masked head lights of an army truck approaching. For some inexplicable reason I was hypnotized by those dim lights and remained motionless still seated on the cycle. The truck screamed to a halt inches away from my body. The uniformed driver descended and when he approached me I expected a torrent of rich English obscenities and even assault. To my amazement he merely asked "Are you orright mate?" and stood there till I had crossed the road. This was just one of the hazards of travelling in the blackout. There was not a glimmer of light from any building and only keen eyesight to depend on. Sadly an acquaintance was knocked down and killed while walking on the side of the road opposite Victoria Park.
We were all awed by the Dons as the Professors were called, and also Lecturers. Without exception they all had not only high qualifications but also demeanour, refinement and accessibility. The History Professor Dr. H.C. Ray was an import from Calcutta University and the author of the Dynastic History of India. Dr. G. C. Mendis, senior History Lecturer , author of the History of Ceylon was short and soft spoken but also erudite. Dr. E. F. C. Ludowyke Professor of English was scholarly and cultured and was also the doyen of the Dramatic Society. He schooled its members, encouraged, trimmed and at times necessarily tongue-lashed them.
Doric de Souza lecturer in English was the well-known Trotskyist and the recognized theoretician of the LSSP. F.R. Jayasuriya, Lecturer in Economics, was noted for his ‘Sinhala Chauvinism’ and A. B. Perera from the London School of Economics was for a time Lecturer until he became Principal of Ananda College. Dr. G. P. Malalasekera was the Dean of Oriental Studies and Dr. M. D. Ratnasuriya , its Professor. Unforgettably, J.L.C.Rodrigo was Professor of Classics and benign.
Also memory fails me in regard to the Dons in Science and Medicine but I distinctly remember that Tamil students regarded Science lecturer C.J. Eliezer as something akin to a demi-god. We did not realize it at the time, but Tamil militant racialism was kicking in its embryo.
Some of my immediate seniors had been my classmates at Royal, the reason being that I had not reached 17 years to sit for the Entrance in 1941, when they entered the U.C. Among them were Walter (now Mendis special) Mendis, and E.C. Gunasekera, later Vice-Principal of Royal. I now made friends with senior Thomians and Trinitians. Among them S. K. Goonewardene, younger brother of Cholomondley, an exhibition winner, Lionel Fernando, the Trinity hockey star and later Principal of his old school and Andrew Joseph whose declared intention was to enter the Civil Service, which he did. Lionel tried hard to get a hockey team together but failed pathetically. There was no sports activity due to lack of sports equipment, although sports were very much to the fore in clubs even though it was wartime. The presence of British servicemen gave a tremendous boost to Rugby. We had to be content with table tennis, chess and carrom for the nonce.
On we went to read for our Degrees. Ronnie de Mel, Nissanka Wijeyeratne, Adrian Wijemanne (all later C.C.S.) Jabez Manickavasagar (later Bishop) and I (later?) chose History Special. Apart from the Professors and Lecturers we now had the good fortune to come under the wing of Rev. Lucian Jansz of the Milagiriya Church, who lectured in Dutch (we had a language paper – Dutch or Portugese) and Father Ignatius Pinto, O.M.I. our lecturer in Political theory who was also the Rector of Aquinas Hall (more of him anon.) The frenzy of studying for the entrance and the first exam was now dispelled and we had only to attend lectures and take notes. I had time on my hands. I did not smoke and only had an occasional glass of Guiness Stout and Wincarnis wine sneaked from my convalescent mother’s cabinet and never spirits. My father being an anti-smoker and teetotaller, this seemed to be in order. But alas, I was inveigled into a trip to an estate bungalow upcountry where I was persuasively introduced to arrack. I took to hard liquor like a duck to water probably due to the enzymes content in my body inherited from my paternal grandfather who, I heard tell drank a bottle of Scotch a day. In the Varsity we formed a coterie of drinkers. Money was somehow found. The only pure coconut arrack cost Rs. 6/- a bottle, while whisky, brandy and gin could be had from friends in the NAAFI at services prices which were only three times as much, Beer was scorned as being too weak and needing the imbibing of larger quantities to produce the desired effect.
Youth must prevail, and there was now time for girls. The war had brought about a degree of young female emancipation. Apart from girls working in Air Raid Precautions, , as aides in the Women’s Royal Naval Services (called WRENs by the British) and other temporary government departments, sets of three or four girls were habitually seen at matinee shows or cinemas at 3.30 pm when they were entitled to half- rates.
A friend and I decided to patronize one. I was late and the hall was absolutely full except for one seat only which he had kept for me with my ticket at the counter. When I sat down it was next to the love of my life who was flanked by three cousins. I have been and am a voracious and catholic reader but I have yet to see a fictional account of fate determining such a blissfully fortuitous juxtapostition.
To the amusement and even derision of my varsity friends I thought nothing much of, cycling eight miles down and eight miles back to and from from Mount Lavinia almost every evening.
The word came along the grapevine to the Ladies and Bishops old girls I knew, having met them at parties or known their brothers at Royal. Their haughty reaction was "why not one of us?" But they later found that the girl had several first cousins who had been at Ladies and this was sufficient to appease them as all of them knew me.
One rainy afternoon I was sipping tea with a couple of friends in the canteen when I overheard N. Sanmugathasan, my senior by two years holding forth to a few students on the subject of the "People’s War." Shan was a committed Communist (Stalinist) and the founder of the Varsity branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union. After the Allies declared war on Nazi Germany, Stalin signed a Non-Agression Pact with Hitler. Apologists aver that he did so in order to buy time to build up his defences. When Hitler attacked Russia the Communist party which had earlier denounced the war as Imperialist now called it the ‘People’s War". After listening to Shan for a while I remarked to my friends "All this talk of a People’s war is a load of rubbish." True enough the Russian people are defending their country but the Allies are Imperialists and war was declared not by their people but by their Governments. Britain has conscripted young men to fight. Where do the people of Ceylon come in? We are a colony and were forced into this war willy-nily by our Imperialist masters. Our leaders support the war but do the common people? My friends nodded either disinterestedly or in acquiescence.
Significantly my remarks had been overheard by Homer Vanniasinham with whom I had a nodding acquaintance. He had graduated from U.C. with a second class lower Honours degree from London. He was habitually seen strolling through the corridors of College House and sitting in the canteen in a pair of shorts. I learned later that the objective of this seemingly aimless exercise was to discover likely recruits for the now proscribed and illegal L.S.S.P. whose leaders were in jail. Homer button –holed me soon after and told me that he had overheard my criticism of Shan and that he was wholly in agreement and said "There is someone I would like you to meet." We met the following morning in the tea boutique at the corner of Alfred Place and Thurstan Road and there I met Bernard Soysa for the first time. He was soft-spoken but forceful, impressive but not patronizing and I listened to him for over an hour. He later introduced to me Engel’s "Scientific Socialism", Lenin’s "What is to be done" and my greatest find Trotsky’s "The Revolution Betrayed". Bernard thereafter exerted a powerful influence on me. He and Homer took me to No.9, 33rd Lane off Bagatalle Road which was their illegal and secret headquarters. Its custodian was Henry Peiris (later M.P. for Panadura) who lived there with his family in dire circumstances which he endured stoically.
I became an intellectually convinced Marxist - Leninist-Trotskyist. From being a mere sympathizer, I was now classed a candidate-member. Bernard and Homer took me to a secret meeting of the LSSP held in Edmund Samarakkody’s house in Siripala Road, Mount Lavinia. Despite all the secrecy and covert movement, there were about 200 present. During the meeting, there was much criticism by workers of illegal activities mainly on the approach that their scope was not being sufficiently expounded. After it was over Bernard told me that I must now become an activist.
He said that the party was publishing papers in English, Sinhalese and Tamil and I must immediately turn out the English paper - the "Fight". The Sinhalese paper was called ``Satana." How this was to be done was made very clear.
I had to collect a Gestetner machine from No.9 and set it up in my room at home and I would be provided with the necessary paper, ink and articles for publication. I had a good friend, a co-entrant, Lindon Rajaratnam. He was never called anything else but "Singapore" because he had escaped from that city just before it fell to the Japanese. Just before midnight one day he and I put the Gestetner into a rickshaw and accompanied on our cycles to my home in Flower Road. Fortunately there was a side path leading to my attached bathroom and thence to my room and we carried it there. Singapore was never political – he only wished to help. I turned out the "Fight" choosing times which were conducive to discretion. Fortunately the noise was slight and the concrete slab separating my room from my father’s above seemed to deaden it. Homer, now a frequent visitor, Singapore and I wrapped the finished product in brown paper like any other periodical and went along distributing them not to individuals but placing them in the public library, on bank counters, in offices, the university lecture halls and common rooms and other likely places. I also posted them to cell-leaders in the outstations and I remember Battu in Ratnapura and Patchemuttu in an up-country estate. Incidentally I met Patch at Bernards 80th birthday felicitation and he patted my arm, smiling broadly. Eventually after about three months the strain of secret printing became too much to bear, and on my appeal to Bernard other arrangements were made. I often wondered and still do what horror and turmoil would have resulted and what the awful consequences would have been had it been discovered that the LSSP was conducting an anti-British and illegal activity in A.E. Goonesinha’s house and that his son, still a minor, was an active participant. I believe there were other illegal cells in the varsity but they were unaware of each other’s membership. My cell comprised Homer, a medical student Dissanayake, the Union society peon Gabriel and myself. We were given classes occasionally in Marxist-Leninism and Trotskyism by Esmond Wickremesinghe. Incidentally we were all invited to his wedding where I saw the Girl who was Esmond’s first cousin but I couldn’t talk to her.
Despite my clandestine political activities I found the time, apart from lectures and library study, for the pursuit of pleasure. Shan put a play on the boards in King George’s hall called "The star turns red". A brazen piece of Stalinist propaganda and I was persuaded to play a minor part. Now came an interesting and for me a thrilling development. The medical faculty staged its "Block" dance in King George’s Hall. There was only one Arts girl – Ladies of course and a couple of female medicos, and all the other girls were outsiders. I could only watch open-mouthed. I had always been musical having learnt Udekki Kandyan dancing from Gunaya in my boyhood and played the violin till I was sixteen, but ballroom dancing was really something else. It was then that Andrew Joseph already an accomplished dancer told me that I must learn ballroom dancing. He introduced me to a Burgher (naturally) dancing teacher in Bambalapitiya and I became proficient in a couple of months. Andrew and I went to various public dances and to "house" dances in Wellawatte Burgher homes where you had to bring your own liquor and snacks and dodge pillars and furniture while dancing. Of course I couldn’t take my girl – she couldn’t dance and was never allowed out after dark but I had no trouble getting partners.
They were around my age, good looking, good dancers and most importantly had liberal-minded parents. The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) and the Auxiliary Fire service (AFS) organized dances and Singapore and I decided to attend one held by the AFS in their H.Q. in what later became the Buddhist Ladies College on Turret Road. There we witnessed a spectacle which was revolting, disgusting and shameful. The dance was going on merrily when two Ceylon Naval Officers walked in clad in Uniform.
I saw Calay Gooneratne, the All –Ceylon fast bowler, my senior at Royal by several years and now an AFS officer (we became fast friends later) talking to them. He appeared to be reasoning with them and I sensed that they were uninvited and ticket-less. Both were obviously drunk. One was tall and burly and the other short and stocky. The former was my senior at Royal by a couple of years and the latter an old Thomian. What followed was therefore unimaginably base.
Suddenly the music stopped and the dance floor was bare excepting three figures – A British soldier in uniform and the two naval officers. The taller was shouting drill orders to the soldier "Attention, right turn, left turn, about turn, salute" the soldier obeying smartly. Everyone stood watching motionless and aghast while Calay Gooneratne walked up and firmly asked the officer to stop. When the soldier walked away Singapore and I went up to him. There were tears in his eyes and we consoled him as best as we could. When I told him that he could have told the officer to go to hell because he was in a different service and not even in his Navy he replied "Officers are Officers". We introduced him to a couple of girls and he started dancing. All seemed to be forgotten except by me. I could never for the life of me understand how these two, supposedly educated, from prominent families in their community and officers and gentlemen to boot could have acted in such a contemptible manner especially since both had been in the U.C. for a short time before joining the Navy. To cap it all, the taller finally became Commander of the Navy and the shorter reached one rank below.
I had passed my first exam in English, Latin, History and Economics and now in my final year I went onward to the finale of my varsity career. It was 1945 and the war was nearing its end. It had not affected our undergrad lives much except that we ate country rice and kurakkan. Tinned corned beef became our staple diet and liquor and cigarettes were plentiful though I still did not smoke. Clothing was no problem but the pre-war dress codes had been shed. Then the sixth formers in college had to wear suit and tie and it was standard in government and mercantile offices. The UC undergrads sang a baila which was called the varsity tune and the words were "Have you never seen the Ceylon undergraduate - white suit bicycle and Elephant cigarette!! Now everyone wore shirt and trousers. I had somehow acquired the reputation of being the best dressed man in the varsity possibly because I sometimes appeared in English drill or tussore suits and I had been seen at dances and parties in an Air Force blue worsted flannel lounge suit, the very latest in men’s attire.
The Union society was continuously active. Apart from the general meetings held after the election of new office bearers, prominent outside personalities were invited to address special meetings held in King George’s hall.
The current President Manickavasagar Underwood (I believe he later reversed the names) invited ex –Professor C. Suntheralingam.
Those were the days of the Soulbury commission and G. G. Ponnambalam’s 50-50. Sun, the individualist, had his own brand of Tamil militancy. Needless to say hardly one Tamil undergrad failed to attend. Sun’s diatribe and humourous invective were greeted with vociferous applause and table thumping by A. Amirthalingam, M. Sivasithamparan and their followers. We were at the back listening apathetically. Underwood’s term of office expired and the presidency of the union society was wide open. It was then that Bernard Soysa told me that I should contest it. Bernard was then around 30 years of age having forgone a university career for active full time politics.
He was completely dedicated and unswerving in his convictions but never dogmatic and always tolerant. His memory impels me to digress. When he was Acting Minister of Finance he helped a lady friend of mine to overcome a restriction on taking jewellery worth more than R. 10,000 abroad by using his discretionary powers. His understanding and appreciation of the genuineness of the case would put many a Minister and bureaucrat to shame. A year or so before his death he personally ensured that the husband of my cousin, incurably ill and needing very expensive life-support, obtained financial assistance from the President’s fund.
To revert to our Presidency, I announced my candidature. My opponent was I. D. S. Weerawardena (later a Professor at Peradeniya.) My supporters were all old Royalists, Thomians, Trinitians and old boys of other leading schools. In the forefront were all of my History Special colleagues, D.K. Suppramaniam who had been my classmate but entered the varsity from Trinity and was a committee member for sports, Earle Wanigasekera whose girl cousins were my dancing parners, S.P Wickremasinha and Bunty de Zoysa who had been banished for juvenile delinquency by his elder brother, Sidney de Zoysa of Police fame, to St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna and entered the varsity from there a year after us. There were Bobby Ratnaike, D. S. Ratnadurai, Rajah de Silva, Sunderasivam unexpectedly from Union Hostel, Lakshman Saravanamuttu of the famous Saravanamuttus whose cousin, Baski, was a final year medical student, Dalton Wijeratne, Upali Godamune, R. R. Nalliah and Basil Mendis, younger brother of Walter (who later became a Jesuit priest). My supporters of the fair sex were naturally old girls of Ladies’, Bishops’, St. Bridgets and Holy Family. My opponent’s supporters were sadly, to begin with, almost the entire women’s hostel. There also arose a strange bedfellowship. All of Cruden were joined by the Tamils of Arunachalam and Ramanathan halls and Union Hostel; but Brodie Hostel was solidly behind me as was Aquinas. The election was held and I won by a majority of only 13 votes, by no means convincing but just enough. Basil Mendis was elected Editor.
The victory celebrations were held in the style to which we were accustomed. I was only somewhat prepared but my friends who were more confident really laid it on. The venue was Lion House, Bambalapitiya, which had been our rendezvous for quite some time. Liquor was plentiful and the manager was only too delighted to provide whatever food was requested. At long last came the cycle procession wending its way over the environs of the varsity and stopping at the women’s hostel. Here the continuous hooting and derisive shouts referring to some women by name was deafening. Strangely and untrue to her character, Miss Mathiaparamam, the Warden, made no complaint thereafter though we must have been easily identified under the lampposts, possibly because no objectionable language was used.
One day two British naval officers were brought to me in the Union Society hall. They had been Oxford undergrads when they were conscripted. They were naturally interested in seeing the university and I took them on a comprehensive tour. They then suggested that I visit them at their camp in Moratuwa and invited me along with a friend of my choice. I accepted with alacrity and got my fathers’ permission to use his car for the evening and I took Lakshman Sara along. We produced the passes given to us at the gate but the Sikh sentry had trouble deciphering them. However a British Sergeant came along and led us to the officers’ mess where our hosts awaited us. They were confirmed beer drinkers but we settled for Scotch. We declined dinner but accepted snacks. A lively and intelligent conversation ensued and we all had a good time.
Naturally the problem of returning this lavish compliment arose. We decided to invited them to dinner at the Grand Oriental Hotel where there was a cabaret. Fund raising caused no problem. We set out our restaurant table, the officers in dress uniform and we in lounge suits. We drank several toasts rising to ``His Majesty the King" and several others. Then Lakshman rose and proposed a toast which was choice Sinhala obscenity. The waiters stood transfixed and open mouthed and our guests probably thought they were admiring their dress uniforms.
I had enviously watched Doric de Souza on his autocycle, a petrol driven two-wheeler, gearless and with only a clutch and pedals for an emergency. I persuaded my father to buy me one on the grounds that my presidential duties required visits to all the various hostels. The real reason was that it offered a tremendous relief in my regular visits to the Girl. It could be then of an evening parked outside the Mt. Lavinia hotel porch while I dallied with her by the beach parapet or the garden below overlooking the sea, in the company of course of her cousins. It was also very useful in our drinking sessions to pillion-carry a friend who had no energy to ride his cycle. One morning a hangover impelled me to go to Lion House but I found no cure. Strangely three or four others were also drawn there. I then suggested going across the road to Paiva’ (meet & eat) where I prevailed upon the cook to rustle up some soup for us from anything and everything he had in the larder. It went down very well and the "SOUP CLUB" was born.
We had our first meeting at Lion House the following morning. To qualify for admission aspirants had to sconce (English slang for swallowing a glass of liquor without a pause) a tumbler full of neat arrack. Ten passed the test while one gurgled out his drink half way through He was admitted as club boy, to fetch refreshment from the liquor store. The news of the Varsity Soup Club was received with appreciation by our friends and supporters, but antipathetic scorn by the opposition.
Acting on Bernard Soysa’s suggestion I invited Dr. N. M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and Phillip Gunawardena to address the Union Society on topics of their choice. They were very well received and listened to in rapt silence and questions were answered with the expected flair. There was much speculation as to why my father’s son had invited his sworn political enemies but it was believed to be due to the tremendous interest undergrads had in these highly respected personalities. The news was received by my father with a silence that was deafening but spoke louder than words.
Waiting for the results was an enervating time. The Girl and I had been unofficially engaged for some time and I was now meeting her regularly, but still at the Mount Lavinia Hotel grounds, and she was still accompanied by her cousins. One night returning home on my autocycle after a drinking bout I fell dizzy and realized that I could not ride further. Fortunately this happened near Aquinas where Earle Wanigasekera had a room.
I left the bike hidden behind a bush and wakened Earle in his room where I begged for rest, he sternly reminded me that this was strictly against the rules. Anyway my obvious condition caused him to relent and I settled down on his floor, Very early in the morning I was stealthily descending the stairs when Father Pinto entered after his dawn constitutional walk. When he asked me what I was doing in Aquinas at this hour I had no alternative but to confess the whole truth. He asked me to come up to his room and he offered me a glass of wine saying "This will help you till you get home but you are not welcome here for three months." Poor Earle was kicked out of his room to share one with the others, but got it back after three months.
Sports had re started the war being over at long last and Ronnie de Mel and I were exhilarated with the tennis courts which were laid, prepared with hard court, good nets and line tapes. We had to bring our own rackets and balls. Three months more for the Degree final and I was playing tennis with a junior when during a lull a friend walked up and said " I say- you are playing tennis but Adrian Wijemanne is studying in the library." This brought me down to earth with a thud. I stopped tennis and liquor and grew a beard. I regretfully told the Girl that I would not be seeing her until after the Final which she took with good grace. A week before the exam Ronnie’s appendix burst and he was hors de combat. He could have requested and positively been granted an aegrotat – a degree awarded to a student unable to present himself for the final owing to illness but he refused to do so. As it turned out it was an eminently wise decision because when he sat the following year he obtained the first First Class Honours degree in History Special and I believe the only one in all faculties.
I now resigned from the Presidency and asked Ronnie de Mel to contest it, which he did. His opponent was A. Amirthalingam supported by M. Sivasithamparam (shape of things to come). The division was as before – the ``Establishment" versus the opposition comprising the strange bedfellows – Cruden and the Tamils. Ronnie won, but the opposition was not deterred. They introduced a no- confidence motion against Ronnie on the grounds that he had extracted money from freshers. I organized the defence but did not speak in the debate. The motion was defeated, much to the chagrin of the opposition whose members had to pass by looking at the celebrations of the soup club. One afternoon I was sitting in the canteen enjoying a bottle of Tanquerays Gin with a few soup clubmen when a Cruden sympathizer walked up to us and said "Somebody has sneaked to Malalasekera and he is coming down to check on you.’’ Dr. Malalasekera was acting Vice-Chancellor in the absence of Dr. Jennings who was on leave at Home. In a flash the bottle of Gin was thrown out of the window onto the grass outside and the glasses washed and filled with lime juice cordial and water. The acting V-C stalked up and drew himself up to all of his 5ft 4 ins (approx). He took one of our glasses and sniffed. He said "Hmm gin" and stared at us accusingly. We had all stood up when he arrived and I said very politely "Sir I never knew you could recognize the smell of liquor but if you taste it you will find it is only lime juice." He took down our names and stalked off wordlessly. There was no time –wasting charge sheets or inquiry. We were reported to Jennings who suspended us for two weeks. This meant nothing to me but to those in the final year it was a minor set back in respect of lectures and tutorials.
The Great Day arrived for the final degree results to be posted on the University notice boards. That day I was in the old Mount Lavinia post office in Station Road with the Girl and her cousins. It was dilapidated and run- down but it had a telephone booth.
I had asked a friend to call that number and tell me the news, good or bad. The call came and I had passed. The Girl gave me a delightful hug and a kiss. The Convocation was held soon after. I did not attend because I felt the cost of a cap and gown could well be spent on other things and I was awarded the B.A. degree in absentia. Looking back with emotions of nostalgia and self pity after all these many many years, I am reminded of the lyrics of an old song –
"Those were he days my friends, we thought they’d never end, We thought they would last forever and a day."
A few are still here and many are in the hereafter but to all of them I say "Are at vale", "Hail and Farewell."
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Last Updated Feb 07 2016 | 10:10 pm