By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
My parents in conversation with Kurt Waldheim, President of Austria and former Secretary General of United Nations. My father passed away five years ago, just a few months short of his 90th birthday. Since his demise, my late brother Rajeewa and several others have written extensively about his accomplishments. However, I felt at a time when our country is facing an unprecedented social and economic crisis, it would be useful once again to share with readers the qualities of a man whose life was built on pillars of honesty, integrity, ethics, the rule of law and a deep love of Sri Lanka. The country desperately needs loads of such men to state the obvious if we are to reverse the decline.
A quarter-century ago, he perceptively identified the country’s most significant challenge. In an article published in The Island of August 6, 1997, Thathi wrote ‘the country is in shambles, the ‘tragedy is that society as a whole has failed to throw up a community of principled men who can stand up to our rampaging politicians and put them in their place.’
Public Servant par excellence, Nationalistic fervour and saying “No.”
As a public servant, he served the country with skill, a sense of duty, loyalty, dedication, and pride. A recent editorial in the Sunday Island, encapsulated these qualities saying, “the late Stanley Jayaweera was a career diplomat at a time this country had a public service as different to what we are burdened with today as chalk and cheese.”
My grandmother used to relate how his intensely nationalistic feelings would cause headaches for my grandfather in the period leading to our independence. A large contingent of youngsters from less well-off families used to attend night classes at the Pirivena along Pirivena Road, Ratmalana, where Thathi used to teach English. He, therefore, had a sizeable number of loyal “followers.” He occasionally led a procession of them shouting nationalistic slogans in front of homes of those they considered loyal to the British! No sooner the march started, a message would be conveyed “anna Jayaweerage rasthiyadu kollo tike enawa.” Many windows and doors were quickly bolted and closed until the procession passed. Several would, after that, stop talking to my grandparents!
Soon after graduating from the University of Colombo, majoring in Philosophy, he took up teaching. He taught at Christian College, Kotte, Dharmapala Vidyalaya, and Dharamaraja College. His first love was teaching. His parents, however, firmly convinced him that he would not be able to support a family on a teacher’s pay and forced him to sit for the Ceylon Civil Service entry examination. Although he came third, he was absorbed to the Foreign Services as he was slightly overage.
His first overseas posting at the age of 31 was as Deputy High Commissioner to Singapore. Earlier, when designated to open the Embassy in Moscow, he conveyed his reluctance to go as he felt he would not be able to work with the person named as the Ambassador. Permanent Secretary Gunasena de Zoysa could not change his mind and therefore took him to meet then Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike. Asked by SWRD why he was unable to work with so and so, Thathi had revealed the reasons with trepidation. SWRD had roared with laughter and said, “Gunasena, send Jayaweera to Singapore where he can be his own boss.” Those days the High Commissioner was based in Malaysia.
Interdiction, challenges, and defiance
In July 1965, my father was interdicted by the Dudley Senanayake government purportedly as some files were missing from the citizenship division of the foreign ministry of which he was the head. It was nothing more than a political witch-hunt as he was perceived as a leftist loyal to Mrs Bandaranaike. The government failed to bring charges before the Public Service Commission (PSC) for over four years despite Felix Dias Bandaranaike raising the issue in parliament on several occasions. The PSC enquiry did not last more than a couple of hours and the charges against him were dismissed. He was immediately reinstated with full back pay. However, he and the family were subjected to severe hardship as he was paid only 25 per cent of his salary for the first two years and then increased to 50 per cent.
Coincidentally, his brother Neville a senior civil servant was promoted by the then government as Chairman SLBC. He, therefore, was close to both Dudley and JR Jayewardene. On several occasions, they had told Uncle Neville to tell my father to come and say “sorry” and that he would be immediately reinstated. However, despite my mother, his parents and parents in law pleading with him, he said, “why should I say sorry when I did nothing wrong?” Despite the severe impact on our lifestyle due to the meagre financial resources, he stood firmly by his principles. He also refused several offers of employment from the private sector. He was determined to clear his name. Aiya, my three sisters and I are mighty proud that he did so, and our experience during those challenging times have stood all of us in good stead and no doubt shaped our personalities.
On a more humorous note, in exhibiting his anger towards the then government, no sooner any by-election results were announced, he would light firecrackers as invariably the UNP lost all such by-elections. This was around 2 a.m, and we woke up all our neighbours, mostly die-hard UNP supporters. Our immediate neighbour, who was the chief government printer would the next day inform Dudley and JR that “Stanley Jayaweera lit firecrackers last night to celebrate the UNP’s loss.” Invariably Uncle Neville used to get an earful!
Despite what Dudley Senanayake and his government subjected him and his family to, it did not prevent Thathi from opening a book of condolences in 1973 at the High Commission in Islamabad when Dudley passed away. An anonymous petition conveyed this decision to the foreign ministry in Colombo. An explanation was called as no such instruction had been given from Colombo. He replied that the death of a five times Prime Minister demanded such a courtesy and found fault with the ministry for not initiating such a move. His explanation was accepted.
The consummate diplomat
When working overseas, a strength was his ability to build strong relationships and network with politicians and foreign office personnel in the countries he served. Some of them became family friends with whom my parents kept in touch even upon return to Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had a very cordial relationship with him despite knowing that Thathi was also in touch with one of his strongest adversaries, Abdul Wali Khan.
When overseas, we used to bemoan the number of dinners and cocktail parties he would host exclusively at our residence. He used to say that entertaining was an essential tool in networking and building relationships. However, he did not believe in entertaining at hotels and restaurants, saying that the country cannot afford such costs. So, my mother, assisted by my sisters, would invariably prepare the meals, Aiya would serve drinks, and I would be assigned to clean the house! We often asked him whether our cost of labour could be remunerated. You can imagine the response we received! In fact, at times, he would return his monthly entertainment allowance to the ministry, saying that it was not utilized.
I recall a humorous incident arising from one such function at our residence in Islamabad, Pakistan. A lady diplomat of European descent had excitedly approached my mother and said, “Seetha, can you please introduce me to that gorgeous man who looks like Omar Sherrif?” When the concerned person was identified, my mother being somewhat conservative, was shocked and perplexed because it was our Pakistani chauffeur, Mujibar! He was present to supervise the serving of drinks! For sure, the guy was a carbon copy of Omar Sherriff.
Love of India and refusing to ask/plead for an overseas posting
Thathi had a great deal of love and admiration for India because of their great struggle for independence. He often told us that the failing of Ceylon/Sri Lanka is that we never fought for our freedom, which resulted in the absence of truly patriotic leaders. Early in his career, he identified that our relations with India were of paramount importance. Therefore, unlike some of his peers who sought postings to European capitals, he wanted a stint in India, which was granted by posting him to Madras as the Deputy High Commissioner.
He and a few others played a crucial role in putting together the Sirima- Shastri pact. Despite being based in Pakistan, he still had many contacts in the Indian foreign ministry in New Delhi. When Mrs Bandaranaike visited Pakistan, he had made a presentation which resulted in her asking, “Stanley kohomada ochchara danne Indiava gane Pakistan indan?” (Stanley, how do you know so much about India despite being based in Pakistan?)
Thathi was sidelined by A C S Hameed, the Foreign Minister, for seven long years between 1978 and 1985 and was confined to the ministry in Colombo and consistently overlooked when overseas postings were made. He refused to seek or plead for an overseas posting because he believed there was no need to ask or beg for a posting when his seniority entitled him to one. Ultimately Prime Minister Premadasa and senior ministers like Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake forced the hand of President J R Jayewardene to appoint him as the Ambassador to West Germany. But, again, he stood by his principles and was prepared to stomach the indignity of many of his juniors being appointed as Ambassadors/High Commissioners while he languished in Colombo. He constantly said, “I am not going to carry that bugger’s suitcases!”
Family man, social activist, and a true Buddhist
After his retirement, he was a social activist and an opinion writer who contributed to newspapers and journals without fear to discuss many burning issues impacting the country.
A feature of my father that I admire most is that whilst being a practicing Buddhist, he taught all his children that all religions are equal and, if followed correctly, are all good. My father rarely visited the temple. Instead, he practiced his religion within the confines of his home and never tried to convince anyone of the merits of Buddhism. The net result of his broad-mindedness was that three of his children married Roman Catholics, and the religion of the person they married was never an issue. Neither were there any tantrums or requirements that his grandchildren should be brought up as Buddhists.
He also had great empathy towards the less well off. Post his retirement; he spent many hours at the Victoria Home for the Incurables in Rajagiriya teaching English and providing companionship to many whom society had neglected and forgotten. I remember the anguish of many at the institute when Aiya and I went to inform them of his passing. He used to lecture English during the weekends at the Colombo University post his retirement, which I believe was pro-bono. Many a graduate sitting for the foreign service entry examinations would visit him at home and prepare for the exams.
Despite being taskmaster in office, he was pretty relaxed and broadminded as a father. He never demanded that we get the highest marks when sitting for exams. He said a person’s development based on sound values and principles is more important than passing exams. When I was in London as a student and highly stressed before an examination, he called me and said, “Chutta, remember that failures are pillars of success”.
Unlike Aiya, who kept a close tab on my career, my father did not say much about my job. Given his years of public service and socialistic ideals, he may have silently disapproved of my working in the private sector. However, on a few occasions, he did ask me, “Chutta, why do you need to drive such a big car?”
Both Aiya and I were allowed to have girlfriends at a relatively young age despite my mother’s protestations! His view was that boys needed to be boys!
He was very much a family man who liked to enjoy quality time with all of us. He would enjoy a couple of drinks every evening and play western classical music with the family around him, and we all used to narrate various humorous stories and have a good laugh. He also loved listening to Sunil Santha and C T Fernando.
His wife and my mother Seetha, whom he used to call “baby”, yes, he was far ahead of times, predeceased him by five years. She was constantly by his side in both good and bad times for 58 years and confirmed the saying, “behind every successful man, there stands a woman”. She was undoubtedly the rock on which the family was anchored. Her sweet demeanour made him often say, “Ammi is a better diplomat than me.” Her passing resulted in him going into a shell. His interactions with others were after that limited. Aiya took over the responsibility of looking after him post our mothers death.
Finally, I wish to borrow a comment from one of Aiya’s articles where he wrote, “Being a man who lived by his ideals and principles, he left no riches. His lasting legacy to his five children were the ideals and principles he endeavoured to impart albeit by example.”
May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana.
Path to disaster
Either we as a world have failed our human expectations to lead a normal life of peace and progress, or our leaders are nowhere close to offering that satisfactorily. Interestingly, war and destruction are not new phenomena to our civilization or to the world. We have been fighting wars in one way or the other. It seems we have been unable to evolve the right way to live with lasting peace.
The longer the Russia-Ukraine war goes on, the further hope of peace and recovery is pushed away. After all, months have passed, and everyday destruction and destitution have increased, not only in the war zones but beyond.
BY PRAVESH JAIN
It is a new-age world, intensely interconnected and interdependent like never before. What happens locally may soon spread globally. The longer the Russia-Ukraine war goes on, the further hope of peace and recovery is pushed away. After all, months have passed, and everyday destruction and destitution have increased, not only in the war zones but beyond.
The possibility of ending the war is not high. Today, the situation is such that everyone in the world is anxious about the morrow. The war is not just making the two warring nations bleed every day in many ways, it has impacted many other nations.
Europe is anxious to save itself from a hard winter, many others are concerned about how to revive their economies that the war has ravaged without visiting their borders. Thousands are dying, millions have become homeless, many innocents have gone to the grave for no fault of theirs, and many more cannot come out of closed doors in the war-impacted zones.
Inflation is growing exponentially, businesses are shaky, and the high hopes of a post-Covid boom have given way to terrible gloom. With rising unemployment, the youth are feeling hopeless. The scale of poverty is set to rise phenomenally; nations and governments around the globe are clamoring for solutions that are simply not there.
But amidst all this, the rising voices of war and revenge are filling the air and more plans are being hatched to intensify the war. For whatever reasons, one thing is conclusive.
Either we as a world have failed our human expectations to lead a normal life of peace and progress, or our leaders are nowhere close to offering that satisfactorily. Interestingly, war and destruction are not new phenomena to our civilization or to the world. We have been fighting wars in one way or the other. It seems we have been unable to evolve the right way to live with lasting peace.
Wars haven’t left us, and we have not stopped warring. It has been and is still around as a monstrous reality, teaching us to justify it as a necessary evil. But the evil is growing bigger by the day, and we remain unmindful of its perils. Time and again, we promise ourselves that we will not embark on wars again, but soon we seem to forget and get embroiled in them. What could the reasons behind this madness, or if I can say self-deceit, be?
After every war, we think and talk of peace. Then the very essence of our pledges evaporates into thin air. Are we thick-skinned, hypocritical, liars, unmindful, or simply incapable of keeping the promises that we make to ourselves?
This demands deep introspection. With the advent of pacifism in the late 19th and early 20th century, it felt like the world would embrace peace and harmony over violence. Then the First World War happened. The optimism at the start of the century was gone. There was widespread destruction, millions lost their lives, and several empires were reduced to rubble.
When the war ended, political leaders of powerful nations agreed on several treaties to ensure lasting peace and the world breathed a sigh of relief. That relief, however, was short-lived. Twenty years later a bigger war broke out. The Second World War was uglier and more destructive in all respects. It was the deadliest conflict in the history of human civilization, leading to a loss of around 80 million lives with several more being brutally affected.
Nobody wanted a third world war. So, nations sat down and decided to form a global body that would work towards ensuring world peace, and the United Nations was formed. Cut to a little less than a century later, and you will agree that the UN has become nothing but a symbolic organization that serves no practical purpose.
Several nations are in armed conflict with each other, and tensions are building across an increasing number of borders. It is as if war has been our way of life. This is not to say that devastating tactics are only used by the United States. Russia too uses these often, although only half as often as the US.
That may be not because of a lack of a will for supremacy, but because of the inability to afford the risks and resources so effortlessly. China, seeking to become the dominant power in the East and later the world, has also employed this methodology occasionally. And the intent is unfolding more vigorously along with matching actions. The question arises: why does the global leadership in general and the US in particular use mean to escalate conflict rather than defuse it?
Hasn’t anyone learned a lesson from the major world wars and their aftermaths? Nuclear conflict is a looming possibility, and everyone knows there will most probably be no human civilization left to tell the tales of that war.
On global forums, all nations repeatedly warn others to avoid nuclear war, but ground reality proves otherwise, as these same nations openly or secretly acquire nuclear weapons. That is the game plan, isn’t it While big nations churn profits from war, war-ravaged nations suffer brutal damage.
Aside from the destruction of their economies, the humanitarian losses are huge. Millions lose livelihoods if not their lives, families are displaced and the after-effects last for several generations. And this is when two nations clash across borders.
With the number of provocative tactics being applied by the USA around the world and Russia, China, and North Korea, adopting an eye-for-an-eye attitude in response, a third world war seems an increasingly likely possibility. To a neutral observer, this might seem childish, or even laughable. But there is nothing laughable about war, especially in modern times when almost every powerful nation is equipped with nuclear armaments.
What is frustrating is that world leaders do not recognize this. Or if they do, they don’t do enough to emphasize the point. Do our leaders ever realize that they are chosen by the people to lead them to progress and peace, not death and destruction? Are our leaders not accountable for their karma?
The karmic theory has its own bona-fide, unfailing principles. As you sow, so shall you reap. Often, I wonder what will happen to our leaders who flaunt their strength and arrogance and unleash acts of hegemony, rather than ensuring harmony for humanity to live in peace. Do they have no fear? Do they think that their power is eternal? Or are they simply not concerned about all this, blindly driven by their own misplaced missions?
Many questions arise in both mind and soul when one thinks of these destructive leaders. In many countries, the financial systems are fast collapsing and soon many banks may shut down. The world with its aspirations for better standards of living has been pushed a decade back. Every thinking human must have apprehensions about a dark future. (The Statesman/ANN)
(The writer is Chairman and Managing Trustee, Paras Foundation and can be reached at email@example.com)
Twin personas; reaction long after the action
I am pleasantly surprised and marvel too most times I read the editorial in The Island. Why? Because they are so very apt on the most current issue in the land. The editor has the clever knack of hitting the nail right on the head and is fearless even when the nail represents a VVIP.
Friday 25 November had the sharp, truth writing editor commenting on President Ranil W and his stunning metamorphosis from a peace promoting, democracy advocating politician to a persona that he himself says is Hitler like. And as the editor has written, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Gota was expected to be a dictator; a monk called out to him to be Sri Lanka’s Hitler while his brother Basil bracketed him with the ‘Terminator’.
Ranil seems to hear cries for protection of human rights as a cover for violent protests. Gota, though an army man and later as a civilian, cosseted the army at great cost to the exchequer, did not threaten to bring the army out to quell protests. It was done once or twice: e. g at Rathupaswela and at an FTZ. These orders were not proven to be directly emanating from him nor directly connected to him. However, peace proclaiming Wickremesinghe with his new surname added on is outdoing the former army officer. He maintains the PTA and now says (probably in all truth and belief – scarce characteristics of politicians) that he will call out the army to quell protests, which have been and will be, mostly peaceful.
What this woman, a former teacher and counselor, opines with common sense and intuition is that he is going about it all wrong. He is inciting protest and lawlessness, even violence, since the youth of the country, with others, are utterly frustrated, angered, troubled and volcanic – waiting to erupt and so are the sideline catalysts: the terrorism promoting core politicized protesters of the IUSF, FSP and certain JVPers. Ranil should have been wiser and less outreaching, and negotiated with leaders of the groups mentioned, including trouble rousers like Stalin, and convinced them of the dire state the country is in. Negotiating with die-hard protesters may not be his cuppa; he shies away from direct contact with the hoi polloi. But talk to them he must. He should include persons like Guv CB to the negotiating table since Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe is one of the very few, if not the only high-up, that all respect. The rabble-rousers should be convinced, even threatened privately, that at this juncture what the country needs and the IMF promotes is encouraging money making projects, the surest and largest-inflow-of dollars earning tourism to resume and continue with peace prevailing in the country. With so many countries with so much to offer, why should tourists visit a near warring Sri Lanka? The reality of course is that this dot of an island has most to offer the tourist as pronounced by even Lonely Planet guides.
However, as is always the case, the country pleases but men in it are vile and utterly stupid. The protestors do not realize their protests will not change things immediately. But they most certainly cost the country much. These fire breathing, loud mouthed protestors and so-called protectors of peace and human rights are at present the principal harmers of the land.If after sincere one-to-one negotiation, some remain recalcitrant, then the police should be called in to deal with them.
Bang shut empty stable door
Mentioned many times before by Cass and other writers, Sri Lankans in general suffer short memories: will vilify a person today and praise him tomorrow not only because they are turncoats but because the people have forgotten and of course forgiven yesterday’s sins of leaders. Another characteristic is shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. The preliminaries of the flight of the horse are seen but no alarm is raised. Once the horse has bolted; then come forth loud hues and cries of damage done.This last character trait of the Sinhala race mostly, was exhibited and exposed in the news telecast on MTV 1 Channel on Sunday November 27.
Villagers of a certain forest area, with voices raised women to the forefront, confronted a man who was in a new built, multi roomed hut-like construction. He seemed settled down. The crowd that walked across a vast area of bare land accused that the forest that covered this area had been illegally decimated. They demanded evidence of his right to settle down there. He said the police and other officials had cleared him. Trespassing was not even mentioned. Cass’ wonder at this loud fracas was why the fuss now with land bare and a house built when the villagers surely heard if not saw trees being felled en masse. Why had they not informed authorities then? Why wait for the deforestation and illegal building to be completed before protesting? Had they been waiting all these past months for the TV cameras to arrive to act angry and national minded?
It was suspected, if not known for sure, that vociferous Diana Gamage was a dual citizenship holder or maybe even a citizen of another country visiting her home turf. She was up front for long and since being made a State Minister by Prez Wickremasinghe, his hand guided by a crow pulling strings from even thousands of miles to the west, became prominently vociferous with forex earning projects foundationed on fun and good times. She proposed the growing of ganja plants; creating a Disney theme park; making Mannar an international gambling den and what else Cass fails to recall. Now firmly in Parliament as an elected member she faces the public rising up and declaring she is not eligible to hold a Parliamentary seat since the passage of A21 or 22. The mare had bolted to the green pastures by the Diyawanne and now people are a-rising to close the door she galloped through. Confine her at home with no powers and privileges or deport her to turf in her adopted country?
Bandula Gunawardena, holding the portfolio of Minister of Trade, held forth on the subject he thinks he is omniscient in. He claims economics as his forte of intellectual knowledge; certification of this fact being he was a tuition master in the subject. He refers to himself as Doctor Bandula G; the doctorate coming to him from where we know not. In a pontification in Parliament on the Sunday, he waxed eloquent on mismanagement of the Central Bank and trotted out figures in billions and decimals thereof of printed money. He blamed past CB persons. Why was this economist considering himself on par with Amartya Sen, Paul Krugman and Maynard Keynes, silent then when Nivaard Cabral kept the printing machines in the CB turning day and night churning out 5000 rupee notes? (PS. Cass wonders very much whether he has heard of Krugman and knows Keynes was one of the Bloomsbury Group. Cass can wager her life that he does not know who this group was).
Speaking of this Mr Cabral, he was recently seen on TV at a press interview passing the buck adroitly and proclaiming he was obeying orders to print money. Was he a robot and of whom?
A very good move was mooted recently in Parliament and will soon be law. Cass refers to the stricture that university students will be allowed one extra year after their graduating date whether they fail the final exam and wish to repeat or when they dodge sitting the final exam. Here again the closing of the loophole after damage is done. Firebrand Wasantha is said to have been in the University of Sri Jayawardenapura for eight solid years. Wasn’t this truancy of sitting the finals seen earlier? Authorities too scared to report the fact; saving their scalps by ignoring anomalies. just as they turn blind eyes to filthy and dangerous ragging in universities?
This land of ours which is truly incomparable, is derogatively a land like no other when speaking of it with tongue in cheek.
Maris Stella College in 1950s and 60s
By George Braine
Maris Stella College, Negombo, is celebrating its centenary this year. These are my recollections of the years I spent there.Maris Stella had classes from Standard Two. For lower and upper kindergarten (as they were called those days), all boys attended Ave Maria Convent, along with girls, of course. One teacher I recall is Sr. Mary Imelda, diminutive but a formidable force. As she taught, her two dogs, spoiled rotten by the children, roamed the classroom.
Maris Stella sits on the road that extends from Colombo to Chilaw, and beyond to Puttalam and Anuradhapura. Despite the heavy traffic on the road, the school displays a somewhat serene ambience because of the large, well maintained playground, and the lovely main building set some distance from the road. Two storied, with a lengthy Italianesque facade, the main building is reached along two narrow roadways lined by long, single storied classrooms. In the center, shaded by massive mara trees, is a smaller playing field – for soccer, softball cricket and gymnastics- in the 50s and 60s. These buildings, the trees, and the playing field, now a lush green, have been well preserved.
My father recalled that, during World War II, when Allied troops were stationed at the school, these mara trees were covered with camouflage nets to hide the anti-aircraft guns mounted below.
Teachers and students
My father had been at Maris Stella in the 1930s and 40s, and when I entered in 1957, some of his teachers were still there. Elias, dark, wizened, and with a tousle of grey hair, taught me in Standard 2. Capt. Jayamanne, a big man, tough as nails, had been the cadet platoon commander during my father’s time, and still was. Bro. Jonas had been in charge of sports for years. Obris, who taught English, had become the vice-principal. My father also recalled Bros. Nizier, Valentine, and Xavier, a Spaniard. Mahaboob, physical training instructor and Bro. Gerard had been his classmates. Undoubtedly, the most unusual teacher was Johannes, who taught Sinhala. The only teacher who wore a sarong to school, worn high up on the waist and held up with a broad belt, he had an owlish, scholarly air; our textbooks on Sinhala had been authored by him. Ms. Wallace, lustily playing the piano, taught us singing. Two younger teachers were Dabarera and Kurera.
One hilarious memory is that of Bro. Jonas, coaching the football team even during matches, running up and down the sidelines, grey hair and cassock flying. He was strict, liberal with the cane and slaps. Another is of Mahaboob, the PTI, in his impeccable polo shirt, pants, and tennis shoes, all in spotless white, taking us through various drills on the playground.
The principals during my time were Bros. Stanislaus and Peter, and the headmasters Bros. Nizier and Gerard.We were living near Ave Maria Convent when I joined Maris Stella, which meant a walk of more than a mile, crossing a railway track and walking along Main Street till I reached Copra Junction along the Colombo – Chilaw road. The street is chock-a-block with shops now, but, in those days, I only passed houses with well-maintained gardens, a couple of boutiques, a dispensary and a dental clinic. A well-off classmate was driven to school and passed me on the way, but never offered me a lift.
Most students walked to school or rode bicycles, in wave after wave. Others came by train or bus. The only person who drove was a senior student named Jayakody from Dankotuwa. This was extraordinary, when no teacher owned a car, and some rode rickety bicycles. His Peugeot 203 was parked under a mara tree while he attended classes and later stayed for football practice.
At Maris Stella, a Catholic school, most students were Catholic. But, ethnically, we were an eclectic band, marked by the Bharatha community and Burghers. The family names of schoolmates I can recall is evidence of this: Siriwardena, Jayawardena, Abeysekera, Swaminathan, Bolonghe, Salgado, Leitan, Tissera, Hettiaarachi, Jayamanne, Franke, Croos-Dabarera, Dabarera, Jayamaha, Coonghe, Aserappa, Rodrigo, Fernando, Pereira, Costa, Gomez, Mirando. Ives Swaminathan had immigrated from Mauritius, and sang French songs in a lovely voice.
After my brother entered Maris Stella, we were five cousins there: Roy and Lloyd Chelvaratnam, George Wambeck, George and Roy Braine. Roy C and Lloyd were in the Tamil stream. Two Georges and two Roys.Latin was compulsory from the Junior School Certificate (JSC) class. All that memorizations were intimidating, so I was relieved when the requirement was taken off when I reached the JSC class. But, Latin prevailed in the daily mass conducted at the chapel, and in the hymns sung there. I recited prayers and sang those hymns, without any idea of what was being said or sung.
Mention Maris Stella and sports during my time, and the name that springs to mind is Melvin Mallawaratchi. Tall and good looking, with a ready smile that lit up his face, Melvin was already legendary when I entered school. Our age gap was more than 10 years, so I had no opportunity to know him personally. All I knew was that, whenever he batted, he lit up the cricket field. I, along with other schoolmates, simply hero worshipped him.
Home games were thronged with enthusiastic spectators. When Melvin came to bat and took his stance, a collective hush fell on the ground. Soon, we were cheering wildly as the ball sailed over our heads, over trees, onto the main road, or sped along to the boundary in a flash. In his stride, Melvin was unstoppable.
In one game against St. Anthony’s College, Wattala, I watched as he scored a blistering 96 in the second innings, having scored an unbeaten century in the first. In 1957, playing Ibbagamuwa Central, Melvin had scored 96 in only 20 minutes, which included two sixers and 18 fours.
Melvin’s flamboyance did not stop at cricket. He was also a champion sprinter. Maris Stella’s rival school in Negombo, St. Mary’s, had a champion sprinter named Mello. At every meet where they met, he dueled it out with Melvin in the 100-yards sprint, running neck to neck. We stood near the finish line to see Melvin triumph every time.
Eddie and Rukmani
By 1958, we had moved to a house across the road from Maris Stella; 120 Colombo Road, if memory serves. Now, I only had a 5-minute walk to school. It also meant that we went to Sunday service at the Maris Stella college chapel.
Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi, husband and wife, were at the peak of their popularity. She was the reigning queen of Sinhala cinema, and the nightingale of Sinhala music. Eddie was less flamboyant, somewhat short, with curly hair and spectacles. He was a comedian. Even to a mere schoolboy, Rukmani’s luminous beauty and grace was overwhelming.
So, on Sunday morning, a two-toned Buick convertible would drive up regally, passing those majestic mara trees, Eddie at the wheel, and the couple would walk up to the chapel. They did not put on airs, and behaved just like the rest of us, sitting on the benches, singing hymns, and walking up to the altar and kneeling to receive communion. After the service, they mingled and chatted. And nobody asked for autographs!
I think Eddie and Rukmani were fond of Maris Stella. They attended fund raising events, like the Maris Mela carnival and a football match, which I recall vividly. Their nephew, Gamini Jayamanne, was my classmate.
Scouting, and a school take-over
Cousin George Wambeck and I were Cub Scouts, Wolf Cubs as they were called those days. The chip-a-job weeks were the best, because we got to roam all over Negombo and beyond, with no adult supervision. Most people treated us kindly, giving 50 cents or even a generous rupee for the odd “job” we did, and also a snack and a soft drink into the bargain.
One day, cousin George and I, along with another friend, visited a relative’s house in search of a “job”. He had been drinking, and was stretched out on a hansiputuwa when we dropped-in. Thinking of having some fun with us, he assumed the role of a drill sergeant, lined us up, and put us through military “maneuvers”: attention, right turn, quick march, left turn, halt. Scouting doesn’t teach marching, and we were mere 8-year olds anyway. Our female cousins were watching from behind curtains, and we could hear the giggles. But, the man did reward us well, and also insisted that we have a meal before letting us go.On another day, we walked down Temple Road to Jaya-Ruk, the residence of Eddie and Rukmani. But they weren’t home.
Perhaps the most memorable event was planned take-over of schools by the government, in 1960. The Catholic church was opposed to the move. The conflict escalated, and, as a final resort, parents of students occupied some classrooms, bringing mats and pots and pans. They cooked, ate, and slept there. They came to “defend” the school, but from whom wasn’t certain. From a new principal appointed by the government, from the police, the army?
Classes were suspended, and we enjoyed loitering around the school, waiting for the confrontation to take place. Eventually, the matter was resolved, but, in Negombo, only Maris Stella and Ave Maria Convent remain as private fee-levying schools.
When my father moved to Nattandiya for work, my brother and I travelled to school from there, by steam train. We wore khaki pith hats and carried our books and lunch in little, cardboard suitcases. Every day was an adventure. Later, when father moved to Madampe, we were boarded at Maris Stella.
What I recall most from the boarding is the constant hunger. We didn’t have much pocket money, so gouging at the tuck shop was not an option. On Sundays, a long line of boarders was taken for a walk, most often to the beach. Going through town, the aroma from the thosai boutiques was irresistible. Despite Bro. Raphael, an Italian, keeping a sharp eye, boys would take turns to dart into the boutiques and buying up the vadais. Our pockets would be stuffed and we salivated at the feast to come.
In 1962, my last year at Maris Stella, my brother and I were boarded at a home on Temple Road. Bertram Fernando, a pioneer comedian of Sinhala cinema, also lived there. Every Sunday, a game of bridge went on for hours on the verandah around a round table. A regular attendee was Eddie Jayamanne, who drove up in his Buick convertible.
All our teachers named earlier have long departed. One by one, former classmates are also passing away. When I drive by Maris Stella now, the memories come flooding back. For some, the past is a foreign country. Not for me. Even after 60 years, the school anthem that we sang so robustly is fresh in my mind.
“All ye lads of Maris Stella proudly sing
May your voices boldly ring
Face life’s trials bravely
Act upon your motto gravely
Iter para tutum”
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