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A great personality with guidance and inspiration

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Professor Carlo Fonseka

At the first death anniversary of Professor Carlo Fonseka, I would like to bring the focus of the reader to the legacy of our beloved professor through his services to learning and research in the field of Physiology and Medicine, to university education, and more generally to the Sri Lankan nation. His contribution was made in a wide variety of fields, but also in the exemplary life he led which, in my understanding, epitomised the qualities of mettā, karunā, mudithā and upēkkha, the teachings of the Buddha. It is a well-known fact that in the early stages of his university career Carlo Fonseka was a committed socialist, and a prominent activist of the ‘Lanka Sama Samaja Party’. He also proclaimed that he is a ‘Rationalist’.

‘Rationalism’ has many definitions and interpretations. Quite often, it is misunderstood as an ideology that rejects all religious beliefs and devotional practices. But if one were to read Professor Fonseka’s compositions in the volume titled ‘Essays of a Lifetime’, it becomes clear that ‘Rationalism’, as professed by him, represented the basic principle in scientific endeavours according to which, in generating knowledge, ‘Reason’ is superior to emotion and to objectively unverifiable perception.

As most of us are aware that there is no dearth of writings on Professor Fonseka published both before as well as after his passing away. In view of that, there is hardly any need to repeat the glittering details documented on his academic achievements. However, I shall briefly outline that Professor Carlo Fonseka obtained MBBS with first class honours at the University of Ceylon in 1960; and was awarded the Andrew Caldecott Gold medal for the greatest competence in that examination, Maneckbai Dadabhoy Gold medal (for the greatest competence in Obstetrics and Gynaecology), Perry Exhibition “for the greatest competence in a 3 -year period, Distinctions in Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Pharmacology and Forensic medicine. His studies leading to the MBBS degree were embellished with many such distinctions and prestigious awards which, I think, only a very few in the entire history of the Medical School in Colombo could have matched. He obtained his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral thesis work has been quoted in textbooks of Physiology.

He joined the academic staff of the Department of Physiology of the University of Colombo in 1962 and rose steadily in rank, gaining recognition here and abroad as a brilliant researcher and an inspiring teacher, to be elevated to a professorship in Physiology. Later he moved to the newly established Faculty of Medicine, Ragama, as its founder Dean, and the person who was instrumental in developing the Faculty to take wing.

He authored many widely acclaimed publications in his field, focusing on specialties such as neuroendocrinology, pain and memory.

The Master’s degree in Medical Education was obtained much later in life (1999) underscoring his positive attitude towards learning throughout his life.

He was a great teacher in Physiology and had a passion to instill knowledge in his students. His students at Colombo and later at Kelaniya had almost worshipful admiration and affection for him. One of his pupil admirers has stated that his name ‘Carlo’ should be regarded as an abridgement of the Sinhala term ‘Kālōchitha’ – an interesting statement!

Outside the confines of teaching, research and academic administration, he continued to maintain a refined level of interest and involvement throughout his career in a wide variety of issues. For instance, a book authored by him has a focus on the vital necessity of promoting peace and inter-group harmony in order to alleviate poverty, and achieve equity and social justice in Sri Lanka.

He was an ardent campaigner for eliminating narcotic and tobacco consumption, and provided his fullest cooperation and leadership to the related government efforts, regardless of the political party affiliations of those who required his services.

When entrusted responsibilities in academic administration, he never became a ‘yes’ man of political bosses. He was guided entirely by his own convictions, even when his steadfast stand caused displeasure among the powers that be.

We have often seen that he was associated with the glitterati of our performing arts in theatre, cinema and music, but not with the objective of pursuing the limelight. That association was due entirely to the elite performers in those fields pursuing him, because he had the competence to contribute to their interests and aspirations.

I find it difficult to think of any other person in our university community whose record could match his versatility and competence in such a broad spectrum of fields. Yet, he interacted in perfect ease with those at all levels of our society, including rural youth, not as a ‘pundit’ distributing wisdom or a political bigwig harvesting votes, but as a friend expecting to engage in a dialogue.

This latter feature of Professor Fonseka’s personality is reflected in a story of a visit by him to a village in Puttalam District, invited for a speech by an association of youth, mainly school drop-outs and students of upper-secondary level at a Central College. That was in the gloomy aftermath of the youth insurrection of 1971. As previously arranged, on arrival at the railway station that morning, he was respectfully greeted and escorted to the venue of the meeting in a procession of bicycles, with the illustrious ‘doctor’ himself garlanded, and seated on the crossbar of the lead bicycle, motor vehicles in that era being far less abundant compared to the present. The social setting was one of mixed ethnicity. His audience, overwhelmingly young men and women, consisted of Buddhists, Roman Catholics and Muslims, including members of the clergy. According to this tale, they listened to the speech with rapt attention, and participated in a lively discussion that lasted until mid-day. What impressed the narrator of this story more than all else was the calm, respectful and persuasive manner in which the eminent ‘doctor’ responded to even those who disagreed with some of his ideas. He had lunch with his hosts, further informal chats, and was escorted back to the Railway station, demonstrating to a small segment of our society that the barriers of the ‘Ivory Tower’ are not entirely insurmountable.

That was a rare and exemplary dimension of Professor Fonseka’s personality, the ability to “walk with kings, but not lose the common touch”, a character trait of the ideal ‘Man’ as portrayed by the famous poet Rudyard Kipling.

On a personal note, he was a very dear senior colleague to me. The guidance, inspiration and the benevolence he bestowed on us Physiologists will remain among us for many years to come.

 

Dr. INDUMATHIE NANAYAKKARA

(MBBS, MPhil, PhD)

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, Peradeniya

President, Physiology Association of Sri Lanka for 2019



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Unsung workers

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Those who write about other people to the newspapers generally select doctors (benevolent), lawyers, writers, poets, film makers, engineers, etc. Sometimes it would be about foreign personalities or films.

For my piece I thought of writing about very little-known persons who have to work in the sun and rain to do their job properly and most of the time without any supervision. These are the groundboys who attend to the maintenance of the playgrounds. In the good old days in fact, they used to do everything connected to the sports activities of the school or club where they were employed. And they attended to these activities without anybody supervising. Almost all of them looked after the playing fields and the various sports gear of the college or club as if they were their own.

I will start with the ground boy at my alma mater, Kingswood College, Kandy. He was Viyay and he was the brother-in-law of the college watcher, Hendrick, who was married to Viyay’s sister. Vijay would have been employed because of this relationship as Hendrick was a very honest and diligent worker who looked after the school single -handedly during school vacations as well as after school till the following morning.

Vijay took over the job of ground boy and gradually did almost everything in respect of the playground as well as the sports equipment. The cricket pitch was a matting wicket. The matting had to be taken from the pavilion by wheelbarrow and laid on the pitch and nailed on the sides. The transporting of the matting up and down was done most of the time with the help of the boys who were sportsmen. The versatility of the person was seen when he single- handedly marked the ground for hockey matches, then football and also the lanes for the races at the sports meet. In addition to all this he used to season the cricket bats applying linseed oil and then hitting a cricket ball hung in a sock from the roof. He also used to bind the bats when they gave way in certain places. Vijay used to accompany the teams for matches with the sports gear in a bag. All this and he used to mow the grass in the two pitches at college.

I am not aware of the ground boys of other schools in Kandy at that time except the famous Marthelis of Asgiriya grounds of Trinity College. He had to be in charge of the maintenance of the turf wicket. Just like Vijay, Marthelis too used to attend to all work pertaining to the Asgiriya grounds.

The universities too had ground boys to look after the playgrounds. I remember Peradeniya had Samarakoon who handled the cricket pitch of the circular cricket ground. This had a turf wicket, which however had to be abandoned and a matting had to be laid when matches were played.

The University of Colombo too had three ground boys, with the tall Piyasena, who came from Veyangoda in overall charge of the playground. The short Piyasena who came from Kirulapona assisted him. They too had to get the grounds ready for cricket, football, hockey and athletics. The ground boy in charge of the tennis courts was an expert. By 9.00 am he used to finish mending the tennis courts. When he resigned Jinadasa took over the job and he too did a very good job. The other ground boy who came from Piliyandala did a good job with the cricket pitch. He also mended the damaged matting.

All clubs in Colombo had ground boys. I remember only one of them, that is Deen of the Bloomfield Club. I came to know him as a result of my association with the University of Colombo. When the building for the Faculty of Arts was to be constructed, I went around to inspect the land that would be required for the purpose. I found a wattle and daub shed within the area. When I inquired from the who was occupying the shed, he told me that he was Deen, the ground boy of Bloomfield Club. They had the audacity to construct this contraption on the other side of the road in someone else’s property! I told Deen that the following day a bulldozer is scheduled to come to demolish the shed and asked him to take his belongings and leave. The President of the club at that time, Mr. Shelley Wickremasinghe came and met me and stated that the club had no funds to construct a shed and for the university to do so using old, discarded material. This was done and Deen shifted. I know Deen used to do a very good job of maintaining the Bloomfield playground.

All the other clubs too had ground boys who were devoted to the club and looked after the playgrounds well. As the clubs played many games the ground boys had to be fully conversant with what had to be done.

I also must mention about the ground boy at St. Peter’s College. He comes early in the morning and works in the blazing sun with only a hat to protect himself. He mows the grass on two pitches which adjoin each other, one for cricket and the for Rugger. He does the cricket pitch too which is a turf wicket, watering it and covering it in the evening. I see all that he does from the balcony. It is very rare that you get workers like this nowadays.

When Don Bradman’s team stopped in Colombo on their way to England in 1948, they were surprised to see two women attending to marking the pitch for the match. At that time, it was only in Sri Lanka that there were women attending to playgrounds.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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Can mindfulness enhance overt questioning?

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Image Courtesy: HIH, US Department of Health and Human Services

by Susantha Hewa

Mindfulness is explained as the “basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” According to the practitioners and experts, mindfulness has many benefits for the individual although some are unenthusiastic about it. However, it is said to have benefitted those who have a natural liking for practicing meditation for religious, spiritual or other more earthly purposes. For example, many people practice it to tackle stress. Students who are continually swamped with work and pressured to keep up with deadlines, top-level executives for whom tension is a regular visitor, and anybody who is caught up in the rat race are advised to do mindfulness exercises.

According to practitioners and experts, any form of meditation is beneficial for many, as it is supposed to help temporarily break the unrelenting pace of life. In her article titled, “‘Mystery’ behind mindfulness: you become what you think”, which appeared in The Island of May 6, Jeevani Senevirathne (JS) enumerates and explains many benefits of practicing mindfulness including, the boosting of memory power, resilience, moment to moment awareness, concentrated attention, capacity for looking at problems in new ways, and, last but not least, allowing relief from stress.

Avoiding or taking the edge off the continuous stress in life is one of the most useful competencies in these troubled times. Today, stress is a constant companion in life not only of adults but also of the young. All individuals – from labourers to top executives, from students to undergrads and professors, from the penniless to the filthy rich and people from every station in life have to regularly cope with anxiety, disaffection and stress. As such any technique or activity, including mindfulness, may go a long way in helping live a comparatively stress-free life. As psychologists and health experts would agree, equally effective are- hobbies such as music, painting, dancing, reading, socializing, travelling, and physical exercise, which are widely accepted as excellent methods of coping with stress, which is only one of the many benefits.

Among the day-to-day situations that make you feel keyed up are- transport problems, traffic jams, meeting deadlines, office politics, rude behaviour, harassment, exams and interviews, sickness, litigation, etc. There are also more fundamental issues like, poverty with all its associated evils, lack of employment, constant competition, social insecurity, unfair treatment based on race, ethnicity, religion, level of education, income level, social status, etc. There is no doubt that coping mechanisms, including hobbies, socializing, meditation and mindfulness would be helpful in mitigating those stresses resulting from the above problems.

It’s a fact that using any or several of the above as relief from stress can make you feel better. However, mindfulness is said to be of special value in relieving you from tension and stress. As JS states, “mindfulness provides students with tools to mitigate stress by cultivating present-moment awareness and developing a non-judgmental attitude towards their experiences”.  She goes on to say that mindfulness training will help tackle discontents graciously, “with greater resilience and bounce back from difficulties more effectively to cater for the demands of their lives.” In other words, mindfulness is in a class of its own when it comes to boosting “resilience” which would enable you to quickly get over your hang-ups and face up to the constant challenges of life.

However, one may be tempted to ask whether this ‘resilience’, creditable and useful for almost everybody continuously fighting stress, is likely, to instill in you, unwittingly, a mindset of indolence – an inclination to doggedly endure and accept any pressure being exerted by the status quo, which will perhaps make you, so to speak, a ‘proud’ victim of your own resilience. There is no doubt that people with vested interests would love and applaud you for your buoyancy, which would be a great advantage to them. Can there be other techniques you may use to empower yourself to counter the relentless and, often, unreasonable demands on your resilience? Are you going to be forever dependent more and more on mindfulness or any other coping mechanism, for that matter, to keep yourself from sinking?

Though bracing yourself up for increasing challenges in your area of work is welcome, one may be wary of being too fixated about adapting yourself to whatever worsening condition, taking pride in the fact that you can be tough enough to accept anything and everything. Such an attitude would let yourself be easily exploited by others who wield power over you. It’s well and good, if mindfulness helps in any way to think out of the box, to question and look for alternative methods while enhancing your resilience. If not, it would be important, or, even absolutely necessary, to cultivate the habits of questioning, critical thinking and demanding the required and more constructive changes.

Just take a few examples. True, mindfulness may help you keep calm in many instances. In a traffic jam, a person who regularly practices mindfulness may tolerate the frustrating immovability more easily than the average person. However, in addition to using your better developed endurance to more easily reconcile with the situation, if you can think of the reasons for such traffic jams and put your mental energies to explore ways and means of averting such holdups would be an entirely different exercise that will be monitored by another part of your brain. A person who is doggedly bent on practicing stress reduction may continue to bear the stress with less vexation, but would he be equally keen on pressuring the authorities for finding solutions? It may be possible that asking nonconformist questions belongs to a realm which is different from the one focusing on what’s happening from moment to moment. What prompts social progress is the process of thinking out of the box, which involves looking for answers to those somewhat ‘troubling’ questions. Enhancing resilience alone, without turning your mind outwards to observe and understand the world of lived reality, may perhaps make you too reclusive and complacent about the status quo.

A person who is narrowly focused inwards, is less likely to invite change than a person who is full of curiosity about the active world out there with its constant changes. Critical thinking cannot occur in the absence of information to be had from outside. As a general rule, those whose minds are focused inwards are likely to be followers who would toe the line rather than deviate.

Rulers, who tend to be repressive, would adore any programme which would train people to endure and accept how things stand without questioning or saying enough is enough. That is, they want people to be compliant and keep tightening their belts eternally. That’s why they will applaud any scheme that would keep people endlessly adapting to and accepting any ruling without demur. How many of those who had joined the mass protests in 2022- surely, having exhausted their resilience- could have got their spirit of defiance from practicing speculative techniques including mindfulness? It’s worth a survey.

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Opinion

Jayantha Wannisinghe – an appreciation

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Jayantha

When I published earlier this year a book about my former students who had later become colleagues in subsequent educational innovations, I little thought that in few months one of them would die, in his early fifties, at the height of his career.

Jayantha Wannisinghe was one of the first students I registered at the Belihuloya Affiliated College way back in 1992. He was the first to be recruited to a university position after his degree, which he obtained from the Sabaragamuwa University, which had been set up through the combination of three AUCs that had specialized in the English Diploma course.

The AUCs were the brainchild of Prof Arjuna Aluvihare, the then Chairman of the University Grants Commission. They were set up to encourage job oriented tertiary level courses at a time when the established universities still dwelt in the ivory tower, they thought the only model of university education, clinging to outdated British notions that the British had long overcome. With regard to English, Arjuna wanted to allow students without Advanced Level English to get first Diplomas and then degrees in English, the only way of producing more and better English teachers for the country, given that the products of the traditional universities were steeped in literature that would make no sense in our schools.

The traditional universities had scorned this, so for Colombo by recruiting Jayantha to have acknowledged the transformation we had achieved was most satisfying. Jayantha, having done well in the Diploma course, then joined Sabaragamuwa University to do his degree, spending two years more on the Major Minor combination that its first Vice Chancellor Prof Somasundara had introduced. He was already in place when I joined the University as Professor of Languages, and worked hard to get a very good degree. Within a year recruited by Colombo University, he taught at its Sri Palee Campus, Horana, where he worked well with its Rector, Tilak Hettiarachchy, who later became Vice Chancellor of the University

I was delighted but also surprised when Colombo selected him, for one of the senior members of the English Department had been one of the most critical of the Affiliated University College English programme.

I asked her how Jayantha had been chosen, for I knew that a former lecturer at Sabaragamuwa who had a doctorate from Norway had also applied, but was told quite simply that he had been the best candidate. This seemed to me high praise, for the course as well as for him.

Jayantha was the son of a farmer in Amparai, and his commitment to English was astonishing, given the deprivation he had suffered in this regard at school. But he was determined, as indeed I found when he was in the forefront of opposition to the practice I had instituted of making students pay for textbooks. But when I explained that they were charged simply the cost, Rs 10 in those days, so that I could arrange reprints without asking again for aid—it was through Canadian support that I had initially printed the attractive books we were able to supply to students—he thought for a moment and then agreed that what I argued was acceptable. Given his natural leadership qualities, I had no difficulties after that with the principle I laid down.

Soon enough he was not just a student but also a good friend, and his wife reminded me when I went to condole of how he had been amongst the good students I had invited to tea, on Oxbridge lines which I had been told would not work at Peradeniya when I joined that university. Indeed, they did not work at Sabaragamuwa for the student union objected in time, and when I was opening up this social event to less able students, they forbade them from attending.

Jayantha in time confided his financial difficulties in me and, though I could not help him direct while he was a student, I was able to do so after his degree. I realized he would be at a loose end with no financial support at all when the course ended, and so I asked him then whether he would care to look after the bookshop at the British Council which had been handed over to the English Association when the establishment there decided that it was not the business of the Council to take bread from the mouths of British publishers, as one character memorably put it to me. Why they used this argument when all we were doing was providing material to encourage reading in English to those who could not afford foreign publications was beyond me. But the decision was a great boon to the English Association, and also provided temporary employment to several youngsters who needed support.

Before Jayantha, all those who had worked for the English Association at the bookshop had hailed from Colombo. So, I was particularly happy to have him work there. Since he needed accommodation, I put him up at my house, which was round the corner from the Council, and where he provided company for my father who was still suffering from the loss of my mother. Those were days in which I was away from Colombo a great deal, at the university and also in looking after the GELT course, and with other work too at various places. So, it was good for my father to have someone with him during meals, and Jayantha would tell me that he learnt much from him.

But, of course, this was no career for him, so it made sense for him to apply for academic positions. I was not sanguine about this, but then Colombo selected him for a lecturer position at its Sri Palee Campus and after that he went from strength to strength. Having got the job, he got married, to his girlfriend from AUC days, and so fond was my father of him that he provided his car for the occasion. I had forgotten this until his distraught widow mentioned it.

Over the years he got his doctorate, from a university in Hong Kong. He fell prey there to changes of supervisors so that he had to deal with different demands for changes, and I was happy to help when he turned to me for advice, and I think what I said enabled him to make the thesis more coherent, and get the degree. And with this under his belt, he could contribute to the Master’s Degree in English and Education which had been resumed at Sabaragamuwa University after a lapse of several years since I had got it going. It was immensely satisfying to have as colleagues taking modules on that course, apart from Sabaragamuwa staff, former students at both Colombo and Kelaniya.

Jayantha was able himself to innovate at Sri Palee to take his students forward. He made English compulsory for all students in their first year, and it is available for credit in the next two years. And as importantly, he also started a new degree programme in English Language Pedagogy and Practice. Most satisfyingly, he understood the need for soft skills, and introduced on this course modules in Guidance and Counselling and in Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation.

He never forgot his past, and how well he had done in comparison with what would have been his most optimistic expectations while he was at school. Like any good educationist he strove to give even more opportunities to the students committed to his care. Though it is said that no one is irreplaceable, I fear that the Sri Palee Campus will not be able to do as much for its students in the future as was accomplished by him.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

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