Reminiscences of a Pioneer Student of Marrs Hall

Diamond Jubilee University of Ceylon, Peradeniya


By D. D. M Waidyasekera

It is not easy to go down memory lane for 60 years but the memories of those early years at Marrs Hall from its very inception bring back nostalgia of the days gone by, years what for most of the pioneer students, were undoubtedly some of the best years of our lives.

Those were the halcyon days of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya under the Vice – Chancellorship of the internationally reputed Sir Ivor Jennings and studded with such brilliant academic stars as Prof. E.F.C. Ludowyke (Ludo) (of Dramsoc fame), Prof. G.P. Malalasekera (Pali), Dr. S. Tilakasiri (Sanskrit), Dr. Ediriweera Saratchandra (Sarath) (of Maname fame), Prof. J.L.C. Rodrigo (Classics) ("Rodda" to the students), George Wickramanayake (Wicks) (Classics), Prof. W.J.C. Labrooy (Labby) and Fr. Pinto (History), Prof. Nadaraja (Nada) and Raja Goonesekera (Law), Messrs F.R. Jayasuriya (F.R.), Dr. H.A. de. S. Gunasekera (Hades), G.V.S. de Silva (GVS), S. Rajaratnam (Tawney), Ian Vandendriesen (Vandy), Dr. A.D.V. de S. Indratna all of the Economics Department, Dr. I.D.S. Weerawardena (Polweera) (Political Theory), A.J. Wilson, Dr. Ralph Peiris (Sociology), Dr. K.N. Jayatilaka (K.N.), Dr. Sarkar (Phil Sarkar) and Miss Mathiaparanam (Mathi) all of the Philosophy Department, Prof. Kanapathipillai and Dr. Vidyananthan (Tamil), Prof. Kularatnam and George Thambiyapillai (Geography) to name only a few, with the affable H.J. Balmond as Registrar and the erudite Ian Goonetilleke as Librarian. Academically the University could hold its own with some of the best in the world.

Marrs Hall was named after Prof. R. Marrs. C. I. E., M. A. (Oxon) who was the first Principal of the then University College in 1921. He was succeeded in 1940 by Sir Ivor Jennings who was really the person who energetically addressed himself to the task of establishing a residential University at Peradeniya after the "battle of the sites" between those who wanted it retained in Colombo and those who favoured a residential university near Kandy, was won by the latter. Being an internationally reputed scholar and constitutional lawyer from Trinity College, Cambridge, Jennings’ dream was to establish a residential university on the lines of Oxford and Cambridge on the location which undoubtedly is one of the most picturesque in the world. To quote his words "There is not the slightest doubt that if the University is worthy of its location it will be one of the finest small Universities in the world" ("Road to Peradeniya" Sir Ivor’s Autobiography, p. 183).

To achieve this he laboured very hard and it was largely due to his enthusiasm and energies, assisted no doubt by his influence with the country’s then leaders D.S. Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke with whom he was associated in drafting the constitutional arrangements leading to Independence, that Peradeniya became a reality. It is indeed ironical that it took over 50 years to at least name a Hall of Residence, Jennings Hall, to mark the memory of the man whose name is inextricably associated with the establishment of the Peradeniya University. One can remember that when he relinquished his duties in 1955 and returned to England to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, all the students gave him a right royal farewell with the students lined up on the University Galaha road complete with a motorcycle escort right up to the campus boundary for Sir Ivor’s last drive in his old blue coloured Austin car EL 3489. One can remember Willie Perera (Willie Bada) on his motorbike and Bandula Silva (also on a motorbike) leading the escort.

The preparations for the transfer to the Halls of Residence began in late September 1952 and it was, I believe on October 2, 1952 that the first batch of students occupied Marrs Hall. We were however not the first students at Peradeniya, as a group of Law and Agriculture students had been in occupation of Arunachalam Hall earlier. These included Lakshman Kadirgamar, John de Saram, K. Shinya, R.K.W. Gunasekera, W. Vidyasagara among others as far as I recall. Nevertheless, the first major transfer was in October 1952 when 820 students of the Faculties of Arts and Oriental Studies went into residence. Our first term for the academic year 1952-53 was still in Colombo and it was the second term of that academic year that commenced in Peradeniya. The University was officially opened on April 20, 1954 by the Duke of Edinburgh in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II when he declared it "more open than usual."

One can still recall the suppressed excitement, hustle and bustle, the nervousness and expectations of the students and also the authorities in preparing for the historic shift. Sir Ivor had prepared a special set of notes and instructions distributed to all students on the shift, giving details of the Peradeniya climate, the conditions to be expected, the modalities of the shift, transportation and I remember, even the type of clothing recommended to be taken. Some of the students found their way to Peradeniya on their own but for most of the students, the authorities had arranged a special train from Colombo Fort to New Peradeniya station. It was on this famous train that most of the students embarked to Peradeniya and at the New Peradeniya station it was all chaos with loads and loads of luggage and male and female students (quite a few of whom had by this time found their future life mates), all agog as the vans for transportation were found insufficient and out of schedule. They ware transported to the four Halls of Residence for men - Marrs, Arunachalam, Jayatilaka and Peiris and the one Hall at the time for women, the Hilda Obeysekera Hall under the Wardenship of "Mathi" (Miss Mathiaparanam, lecturer in Philosophy).

Finally, after settling down, when it was thought that things were going smoothly, all hell broke loose again. It was found that the kitchens which were fitted with the most up-to-date electric equipment were not working, or it was that the new kitchen staffs were ignorant or unable to operate the gadgets. The Vice Chancellor had had a hectic day rushing from one Hall to the other to see how things were going and giving hectic orders, but poor man, this was too much even for him. I remember that the Steward at Marrs Hall who was in charge of and responsible for preparing meals and serving them at the tables was in a real quandary. Mr. Karunaratne, the Hall Steward happened to be an ex-Buddhist monk who attempted to compensate for his completely bald head by trying to cultivate, rather unsuccessfully, a ferocious looking (in his opinion) moustache. This did not deter the hungry students from their usual hoots and all of us had to go to the Peradeniya town to have our meals till the kitchen was made operational which was I believe, a day or two later.

The first Warden of Marrs Hall was Dr. H.A. Passe of the English Department. He was prim and proper, immaculately dressed, with a clipped accent and a bit of a disciplinarian. However, he considered himself a father figure with responsibility for the students’ welfare and even personal problems. He used to entertain batches of students at his bungalow on Sanghamitta Hill, where tea was served and where he discussed various matters academic, social and even personal problems with his students in keeping with the practice at Oxford and Cambridge. His tenure at Marrs however, was not very long as there were problems created, if I remember right, by his sacking of the entire kitchen staff for some reason I cannot now recall. The students radical as usual, took the side of the kitchen staff and boycotted the High Table Dinner (other than two students, one now deceased and the other I believe still alive). The upshot of all this was that Dr. Passe resigned as Warden and Prof. O. H. de A. Wijesekera (Sanskrit) became the Warden. O. H. de A. (as he was called) was a mild – mannered father figure who looked after the welfare of the students as well as the administration. He was popular and remained as Warden for a considerable period of time.

We had two sub- wardens, Dr. A.D. V. de S. Indraratna (well known for his versatility in many things spoken and written) and Dr. Ananda Kulasuriya (formerly Salgado). The latter I believe, came straight from the Sorbonne in Paris after gaining his Ph. D. to Marrs Hall as Sub – Warden. The two Sub – Wardens remained in these positions for many years and were very popular with the staff and students.

Dr. Ananda Kulasuriya was a soft – spoken and cultured don fluent also in French, who married one of his students Rukmani (whom I happened to know through my cousin Padma Keerthiratne, also a fellow undergrad at Hilda Obeysekera Hall). The last time I met him was in 2002 when the Alumnus celebrated the Golden Jubilee in Marrs Hall itself. We both addressed the gathering speaking of old times after 50 long years. A few months later I was saddened to hear of his demise. Dr. Indraratna of course, was a well known popular figure. He had (in those days) a fine shock of hair, handsome, with always a smile and was very popular with the female students (like his counterpart Dento Disa of the Dental Faculty who I believe is no more). He subsequently married a doctor, is still very active and is the President of the Sri Lanka Economic Association and Patron of Marrs Hall Alumni Association. He possessed a cream coloured Austin Coupe car which was dubbed the "Catch Boat." This was once surreptitiously started by the Steward Karunaratne and went out of control down the Marrs Hall precipice with considerable damage to the car.

During my first year at Marrs Hall I shared a room with one other (the Final Year students were given a single room each). We happened to be classmates at the same College (St. Peter’s College) and joined the University together. Evan Melder was his name coming from a reputed Burgher family from Nugegoda. He ended up as a big shot at the UNDP or World Bank in Washington, with a lucrative income, but still consults me on his income tax matters! After that we were given a single room each, a far cry from today when 3-4 students apparently have to share a room!

Some of the others in the first Marrs Hall batch that come to mind are Anton Dahanayake, A. C. Vadivel, K.M. de Silva J.A. Madanayake, Fred Abeyasekera, P.M.D Fernando, C. Inthiran, Emil Wijawantha, Herbert Cooray, S.A.A. Perera, Suriyagoda, Ratnam Swami, Lucien Fernando, Petcr Perera, Percy Abeysinghe, Donald Abeyasinghe S.B. Wijeratne, Bulugahapitiya, D.G.B. Silva, Tikiri Abeysinghe, S. Weeratunga, Kelulawala, Nimalasiri Silva, V.K.B. Ramanayake, Jayantha Madugalle, Bandu Jayawardena, Upali Salgado, Edward Gunawardena, Ernest Perera, Peter Gunawardene, Roland de Alwis, R. Sivagurunathan, Shuaoib, P.H. Premawardena, Hilary de Alwis, Frank Wickramasinghe, S.A.A. Perera, S.L. Kekulawala, C. Thiyagarajah, Wijeratne Banda, Jokers Jayarickrema brothers among many more whom I cannot now readily recall.

(The writer was the first Treasurer of Marrs Hall in the 1952 Council a former Commissioner of Inland Revenue and presently the President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Taxation).

Continued next week

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