The Union Hostel of the University of Ceylon


by B. D. K. Saldin

There has been a spate of letters in the press regarding the Peradeniya campus which would have no doubt brought nostalgic memories to those who had the fortune of being there in those times. However, very little has been written about the University of Ceylon at Thurstan Road and the hostels that housed the undergraduates. So I decided to write about the Union Hostel where I lived during my sojourn at the University.

The Union Hostel was situated at Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7 and consisted of two halls of residence, Jayatilleke and Arunachalam in memory of Sir Baron Jayatilleke and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam respectively, pioneers of Sri Lanka’s independence. It was implied that Jayatilleke Hall was for the Sinhala students and Arunachalam Hall was for the Tamils. This was not so when I joined the Union Hostel because there was a mixture of both communities in each hall.  Whether such a situation prevailed at the inception of the hostel I do knot know. While the Catholic Hostel, in keeping with its name, had a Roman Catholic atmosphere, Brodie catered to the Christians. The Union Hostel on the other hand was secular. Queens Hall or Q Hall looked after the needs of the female undergraduates

I entered the University of Ceylon in June 1948. There was only one University in Sri Lanka then.

My initiation to hostel life was indeed memorable. Having hired a rickshaw to transport my luggage, I cycled along with it to the hostel. I was met by a group of seniors and a dark bare bodied individual, who looked every inch a member of the domestic staff, carried my luggage in. Another person commandeered my bicycle, which I was not to see again for another week. The ragging then started. I was subject to all manner of derogatory remarks and forced to recite and sing. The domestic aide turned out to be a senior who berated me for having insulted him. The tip he received for carrying my bags however was not mentioned. The rag continued for one week during which time we had to wear coat and tie for lectures. It was not so much the discomfort of wearing "full suit" in Colombo’s humidity that was galling but the ignominy of wearing a rag for a tie and having to bow to the girls at the bequest of the seniors. The final rag was at the end of the week, when all ‘honourable seniors" were fully satisfied that all the freshers had been thoroughly humiliated to the point of knocking off any airs that they may have thought of putting on. The keenest raggers were those who had failed their first examination and were repeating their courses. Although the ragging was over till the next year and the advent of a new set of freshers, personal vendettas were often carried out in the form of "duckings" when the victim was asleep. The main switch was knocked off and since the rooms were partitioned there was easy access from above. All this was the prelude to the sadism that now goes on in our universities.

Saturday was race day at the Colombo Race course situated close to Jayatilleke Hall. The punters and their ladies togged in all their finery, to see and be seen, parked their cars at Guildford Crescent and walked past Jayatilleke Hall. They were greeted by the freshers dressed in coat and an apology for a tie with broomsticks on their shoulders chanting "Good afternoon Madam, Good afternoon Sir. We are bloody freshers, Have a nice day". One can imagine the embarrassment of a fresher if an acquaintance were to see him!

My subjects for the First in Arts Examination were Economics, European History and Latin. Our Latin lecturer was Professor J.L.C Rodrigo who used to call himself Adonis in the articles he used to write to the press. My impression of Adonis in Greek mythology as being as the epitome of male comeliness received a rude shock when I beheld this rolly polly individual for the first time. My first encounter with him was not without some trepidation on my part because of a howler I had made at the University Entrance scholarship interview. We called these faux pax’s R.S’s ( Short for wrong speech). Entrance to the University was achieved by obtaining four passes in the subjects of one’s choice. But in subsequent years all candidates had to face an interview from which even those with three passes could succeed on the basis of an interview. The Vice Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings insisted that a broad and general education was a necessary requirement for entry to the University and he considered places like Pembroke Academy as mere cram shops and their candidates unsuitable for the University.

To come back to my "R.S", at the scholarship interview, Sir Ivor asked me what subjects I proposed to read. When I said Econ, History and Latin I was asked why not English in which I had secured a pass. I replied in my naiveté that there was less reading to be done in Latin than in English.  Sir Ivor then turned to Professor Rodrigo and asked him "Is that so"? The resultant amusement among the persons in the interview panel was quite apparent. In spite of this I shared the Sakleh Macan Marikar Scholarship with T Haniffa for the best Muslim student to enter the University that year. Professor Rodrigo apparently did not remember this incident or chose to ignore it when he first lectured to his Latin class which consisted of a mere fifteen students in contrast to the hundreds following history or philosophy.

Stories about the Entrance Scholarship viva are many but there is one worth repeating. Felix Dias who entered the University with me from Royal College and later to become Felix Dias Bandaranaike was entering the Law Faculty.  Sir Ivor asked him "I suppose now that you are reading law, you hope to join the judiciary like your illustrious father" "No Sir" Felix replied " I prefer to be a Vice Chancellor!"

All the rooms in the hostel were named after well-known universities and I shared Heidelberg with Rajagopal and Dunstan de Silva at Jayatilleke Hall. One had to be in the final year to have the luxury of a room for oneself. All meals were provided at Arunachalam Hall and we at Jayatilleke had to walk a good 300 yards three times a day for our meals. Most of us wore clogs and our walking to and fro at night was a nuisance to the residents living between Arunachalam and Jayatilleke Halls.

Discipline was maintained by a committee of students. Sarongs were taboo in public places such as the Hall and anyone breaching this rule had to stand soft drinks to all who were present at that spot. This punishment for breaking the rule gradually fell into desuetude when we became seniors. Wednesday’s dinner was a formal one for which we had to wear a coat and in keeping with the attire the menu was also Western.

Our first social event as freshers was a fresher’s debate with some lady undergraduates. I cannot recall whether they represented Q Hall or the University as a whole. I led our team with Shanmuganathan and Embuldeniya while the ladies were led by Roshan Peiris (then Dadabhoy). Iranganie Ratwatte (then Gopallawa) and another. What I remember of this debate is Embuldeniya speaking third saying "I am the third man". The film The Third Man was running to crowded houses at the Savoy at that time.

As at the University, Marxism had their votaries at the Hostel. Their idol was Colvin R de Silva whose mannerisms and speech they tried to imitate. They tried to put Marxist ideas into practice by addressing the hostel domestic staff as Sahodaraya. The domestics returned the compliment by addressing them as Sahodara Mahataya. The rest of the hostellers viewed them with mild amusement because they were more interested in another kind of class struggle, the effort to obtain a class at the final exam as a prelude to the "Civil War", the Civil Service Examination.

One night we were summoned to proceed to the Teaches Training College which was then situated at Thurstan Road. The students of both Halls ran towards it, most of them in clogs creating a terrific racket to avenge one of our hostellers who was allegedly assaulted or insulted by an inmate of the Training College. After much shouting and hooting we disbursed to our rooms having lost valuable studying time. I still do not know what the brouhaha was about. Was this a harbinger of what is happening at our other Universities today?  Some of us studied till 8 p.m at the library at Villa Venezia at Queens Road. Our study was often disturbed by shouts of Ado Crammers by groups of fellow undergraduates who were returning to their hostels after their numerous other activities

It was customary for the University Societies to hold their socials once a year so that its denizens could let their hair down. The Vice Presidents of the relevant Associations were responsible for organizing the social and it was said that they sported grey flannel trousers soon afterwards! The social most looked forward to be that of the Muslim students Majlis only because of the opportunity to savour genuine Wattalapam. The Union Hostel too had an annual social. Games were part of the proceedings and I remember one year the guests had to answer a series of questions for a prize. One question was to name an Odd Couple. The winning answer was the name of a well known University personality coupled with a twilight lady who haunted Thurstan Road. It was the following answers that merited the award. Question "What did she see in him" Answer "All bones". Question "What did she see in him." Answer "Constitutional loopholes"!

In my second year, I met my future wife, Sheila Drahaman who entered the University with her cousin Leitita Abdue. They happened to reside with their Uncle Dr M.P.Drahaman at "Merdeka" situated between Arunachalam and Jayatilleke Halls. It was customary for me to accompany them to lectures wheeling my bicycle along much to the amusement, or was it envy, of my colleagues. I did not know it had such an impact till I saw a cartoon drawn by one who fancied himself as an artist on the Hostel Notice Board with the caption "Tyre Waste………."

As usual elections for the Union Hostel Society, was another excuse for revelry. It was said that what the Union proposed today, the University accepted tomorrow and the country the next day. Many were the ribald songs we sang under the influence of Bacchus. One went like this "Ketusalem, Ketusalem the Harlot of Jerusalem. Hai Hai ______. Our signature tune was "What will you give me if ———Prem Sriyavi, Mage Premi Mama ( The rest is censored).

Every year the hostellers went on a trip to different parts of the country. Since this coincided with either the Ramazan or Haji festival and custom required my presence at home, I could not participate.

As I try to recall the names of my contemporaries at the Union Hostel who achieved fame in later life my memory fails me. I do remember Civil Servants, K.B.Dissanayake and A.M.M.Sahabdeen., Other contemporaries of mine were Diplomats N Balasubramaniam and A.C.S Mohamed, Deputy Cabinet Minister, Abdul Majeed, District Judge M.S.A.Hassan and President of the Appeal Court. K Palakidnar. Chartered Accountants like me were A.A Lateef, Welaratne, AB Jayasekera, Sirisena de Silva, and M.S.M.Thowfeek. Moonesinghe became the Surveyor General and Sivardeen whose calm and persuasive ways helped to placate raging tempers of those involved in personal disputes, had a successful career in the appeal courts.

Professor S Indraratne, who pioneered the teaching of economics in Sinhala, was in the first batch of students along with me, to offer Accountancy as a special subject for the Economics degree. We studied accountancy under K. Satchitananda and Auditing under Silva. I recall in my tutorial in auditing I wrote a long essay with all my literary skills at my command only to have it summarily dismissed on the grounds that in auditing bare facts were sufficient. Accountancy was considered a  technical subject such as medicine and engineering and hence did not find a place in the subjects for the Civil Service Examination. All manner of concessions were held out to the those reading accountancy such as apprenticeships in Accountancy Firms and exemptions from the Intermediate of the Technical College Accountancy Examinations. None of these materialized and we could not even sit the Civil Service Examination in Accountancy in which we had qualified.

I cannot forget S Rajaratnam who lived moved and had his being centered around the book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by Tawney so much so that he was called Tawney Rajaratnam. Those who could not master the intricacies of English pronunciation soon made it Tony Rajaratnam. Then there was the mild Sivakumaran Pasupathy who became the Attorney General and then turned into a "Tiger". There must be many more Union Hostellers who have joined the Diaspora and gave or are giving of their expertise to the countries of their adoption.

We hostellers met as a body twice in later life to renew friendships and talk about old times but the frailties of age and the trauma the country went through these past thirty years have prevented us from meeting more often

I have tried to give a picture of our life at the Union Hostel and the personalities that strode that stage in their formative years, warts and all. I may have missed many other interesting events but in the absence of my hostel friends who are abroad or above, whom I could consult, these events have to go unrecorded. Many of those who passed through the portals of the Union Hostel and the University of Ceylon have passed on beyond and it is left to those left behind to savour nostalgic memories. For those in the campuses of today this account may serve as an indication of what life was like in the University in their forefathers time.

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