Herbert Fernando PhD – A tribute

I just received the sad news that Herbert Fernando has passed away at the age of four score and ten in Canada.

He was born in the then impoverished village of Wenappuwa, the eldest in a family of three sons. His parents hoping to give Herbert a sound education moved to Colombo and admitted him to St Joseph's College, Colombo.

Herbert had a razor sharp mind, entered the University of Ceylon and graduated summa cum laude in Biology. Winning the university scholarship he entered the University of London, where he obtained his Doctorate. Returning he was appointed an Asst .Professor.

None expected Herbert to go the distance. He was daggers drawn with his Professor, a thoroughbred Darwinian. Herbert rejected Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, describing it a bag of nonsense and there was nothing original about it since it was a rehash of the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation written by an anonymous author and published decades earlier. Given his strained relationship with his Professor none expected him to get a First but he did outstandingly well, forcing the University to award him a First Class in Biology.

My connection with Herbert came about in a strange way. One can describe it a danse macabre, the dance of death. I and Upali Ranasinghe were the only two students from St Joseph's summoned for the interview, before we were finally admitted to the Faculty of Engineering. We had passed in all four subjects, Advanced math, Pure math, Physics, and Chemistry. The bar for entrance was high, two others Kappadiya and Ramalingam, who had passed in three subjects were not invited.

We were standing outside with few others from other schools on the ground

floor, which those familiar with College House know, one has to climb a few steps to enter. I was in a white drill suit. So was Upali. Two on a cycle, one seated on the pillion came, placed their cycle leaning on a hedge, entered the ground floor and began demanding money. All caved in but I refused. One shouted you bugger you want to enter the University without money, and pushed me into a puddle of muddy water left behind by drenching rain the previous evening covering my suit with mud .I then had bulging muscles and strong as an ox, and could take adversaries solos cum solo (hand to hand) and put them to flight. In a rage, took the bike, bent it into two and kicked the junk into a drain. Collecting what was left, the stunned thugs fearing I might do the same to them, made a hasty retreat. Later I came to know they were from the Union Hostel, a sanctuary for those refused entry to Aquinas and Brodie.

My friend Upali asked, looking at my muddied suit, are you going for the interview like this? I said yes, and tell them what the hooligans did to me. As I entered and sat for the interview, Sir Ivor Jennings, that being his last year before leaving for Cambridge as Vice Chancellor, who was presiding said so you are the great athlete; when Prof EOE Pereira, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, butted and remarked also an accomplished cricketer. Sir Ivor then asked whether it is the first time I am wearing a double breasted suit and questioned why the mud. Then I related what happened. Turning to Prof Mylwaganam who was in charge of Discipline, Sir Ivor said, Myla do something, discipline has gone to the dogs.

Dusk had fallen when I came out. I was the last, and my Josephian school mate Upali, who went before had noticed the mob and stayed to warn me. If he too had gone I would have innocently walked into the ambush, forced and taken to Union hostel, scourged and crucified. Pointing towards Thurstan Road he said look. To my dismay there were about 50 bikers on the road blocking the gate. I told Upali to leave taking my folder of certificates and drop them on my bed in the dormitory for boarders, and walked towards the rear gate and found it also blocked with a smaller number.

Then came the miracle. The appearance of a Seraphim in the garb of a Good Samaritan, none other than Herbert, whom I had not seen or met in my life. He asked me what the fracas was all about. After I described what happened he took me by the hand and said come with me. When I asked is it safe he kept on walking towards the gate holding my hand. When the barbarians saw us coming they dispersed and did not interfere, allowing us to walk along Thurstan Road up to the bus stop near Bishop’ College, and waited until a Gamini bus came to take me to St Joseph's. Only one question was asked by Herbert at the stop. Which school? When l said St Joseph's, he smiled and left. Never did I see him again until my brother Roy, a sprinter and a ruggerite, and Herbert married two sisters.

Years later. I wore the satin drill suit again. This time with a sparkle, because it had journeyed through a laundry. As I walked wearing the cloak at the convocation to receive the certificate I remembered that incident of yesterday as if it had happened that day. The suit is still with me among my souvenirs hanging proudly in my wardrobe, alongside my University blazer.

After a stint at the University of Ceylon as a Professor, Herbert left for Canada with his family and joined the University of Waterloo, as a Professor of Biology. His numerous books and papers which he read in front of distinguished scholars and printed in scholarly journals were a testimony to his outstanding talent. He had great artistic power and could frame a sentence in rhythmical and exquisitely beautiful English. A distinction which would have persuaded the likes of Disraeli and Gladstone to describe him as an English worthy.

In the ancient tombs were written not the familiar requiescat in pace, rest in peace but the unfamiliar dormit in pace, sleep in peace. As I shut the doors of Herbert's sepulcher, I wondered what made Herbert enter College House that fateful day, after dusk had settled and the windows drawn to take the hand of a stranger and lead him to safety, and wondered more, how he managed to survive in a cesspool of Rationalism.


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