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The early years of Dickmans Road and its environs



by Hugh Karunanayake

Dickmans Road in Bambalapitiya was given its name at the end of the 19th century. The road itself connecting Galle Road to Havelock Road (then called Bambalapitiya Road) existed even before the 1880s and at the time was one of the few roads linking the western seaboard with Colombo’s hinterland, but in its early years did not have a name.

There is no information available on how the road got its name. It was possibly after Cornelius Dickman a descendant from the Dutch who compiled and published a Manual of the Ceylon Civil Service. He was appointed to the Civil Service in 1868 and was Assistant Auditor General for 18 years before he retired in 1886. He however lived most of his life in Dematagoda, so there is a question mark against that possibility.

What we know for certain is that the Dickman name was tagged to this road around 1901 and remained so for more than a century until it was changed a few years ago to Lester James Peiris Mawatha to honour the well known film director who took up residence on that road in recent years.

The prominent landmark situated at the Galle Road end of the road is that of the Church of St Paul at Milagiriya built in 1848 on a large plot of land granted by the government. The area from Galle Road right up to Jawatte was called Milagiriya after a Portuguese church dedicated to Our Lady of Miracles which stood on the site of the Jawatte cemetery. At the site of the church was a well which supposedly had healing properties. St Paul’s Church, Milagiriya was located in a largely uninhabited area at the time known as Bambalapitiya.

St Paul’s Girls School which was established as a Parish School attached to the Church in 1887 is a national school today with over 4,000 pupils. At the turn of the twentieth century this area consisted of coconut and cinnamon estates. Among these was Bambalapitiya Estate a coconut estate of 42-acres and Bamabalapitiya watte, a cinnamon estate of 37-acres both belonging to Mudaliyar Pereira of Kollupitiya. Mrs Jeronis Peiris owned a 14-acre cinnamon estate also called Bambalapitiya. Stuart Peiris owned Richiewatte a 42-acre cinnamon estate which occupied much of the land between Lauries Road and Dickmans Road. Most of today’s suburb of Thimbirigasyaya was a 48-acre coconut cum cinnamon estate called Thimbirigasyaya owned by Adrian de Abrew Jayasekera.

Havelock Town was opened in 1901 with the creation of Layards Road, Elibank Road, and Skelton Road all leading off Dickmans Road. Havelock Park was also opened up during that time; the name commemorating the gubernatorial work of former Governor of Ceylon Sir Arthur Havelock. The Havelock Golf Club had its humble origins with a four hole course on the Havelock Park in the early 1900s.

The Burgher Recreation Club was for many years known as the Bambalapitiya Recreation Club also found its home on the Havelock Park in1906. The club itself was established in 1896 , its foundation meeting held in the verandah of a house called Ardgowan belonging to Mr. FJ Lucas Fernando Snr a wealthy landowner who was one of the first to build in the newly established Havelock Town. His property, “Norwood” on Layards Road extended into Elibank Road and its large grounds were used by the Bambalapitiya Recreation Club for its sports activities including cricket until it moved to Havelock Park.

Mr Fernando’s family including his two sons-in-law, Dr DC de Fonseka and JB de Fonseka and extended family were pioneer settlers in the Layards Road, Elibank Road area where successive generations resided for over a 100 years.

St Paul’s Milagiriya originally stood on extensive lands part of which were sold to finance the building of a new Church adjoining the site of the old one. The sale of land which occurred in1902 realised Rs 44,000 which went towards the construction of the new church. Mr HJ Peiris, a well known renter and plantation owner purchased some of the land which was later gifted to his elder daughter, Bernice, who married Dr EA Cooray one time member of the State Council, in 1911.

A few years later the Coorays built their palatial home, Belvoir, which stood opposite the church across Galle Road. Dr Cooray also gifted to the church the clock and its chiming bells which are in use at the church to this day. They also built two large two storied houses on Dickmans Road one of which was named Doniford which were for decades leased to Brown and Co as residence for its Chairman. Mr W. A. Mudie who was appointed Managing Director of Brown and Co in 1938 lived in “Doniford” for over 20 years. Those buildings were later amalgamated to form the Havelock Tour Inn during the 1970s and today form together with Belvoir, the Belvoir International School.

By the 1950s Dickmans Road and its connecting roads, Dickmans Lane, Dickmans Path, Bethesda Place, Ebert Place De Fonseka Place, Anderson Road, together with Layards Road, Elibank Road, and Skelton Road had developed into a tranquil cosmopolitan suburbia with much sought after homes of distinctive character. It is the aim of this article to recall some of the homes and associated personalities which breathed life to this area in mid twentieth century Ceylon.

The area was then populated with homes that were spacious and elegant and owned and occupied by professionals and landed proprietors who could afford an establishment usually with three or four domestic aides including cook, houseboy, chauffeur and the ubiquitous “ayah”. The average house had neatly tended gardens and in keeping with the trend of that era each house had a distinctive name often an anglicised one also in keeping with the times.

One family that lived on Dickmans Road for over 100 years is that of Magdon Ismail whose house was called Noor Mahal located at the Galle Road end of Dickmans Road opposite the St. Paul’s Church. Magdon Ismail was Director of the company called Taylor and Mackay and it was at his home that the inaugural meeting of the Havelock Golf Club took place in 1904 and he was elected its first President. In recent times this house was subject to an armed home invasion which attracted much publicity.

A couple of doors away was the home of lawyer Abdul Cader. On the opposite side was Donegal the two storied home of Heptula Abdulaly whose father established Eastern Aquaria in the back yard of their home and was a centre for the sale of tropical fish for many years. The Abdulalys continue to live in the house which is a well known landmark on the street. Dickmans Path which ran on the side of this home has been subsumed by the newly constructed Duplication Road running parallel to Galle Road. Among the well known residents of Dickmans Path was Dr C Amirthalingam, then Director of Fisheries and JL Silva, for many years General Manager of Ceylon Insurance Co.

Dickmans Lane which was on the opposite side to Dickman’s Path has also been obliterated from the map being swallowed by Duplication Road. Bethesda Place named after Bethesda Hall which adjoins it is a small road with about a dozen homes connecting De Fonseka Road. Bethesda Gospel Hall is a large building standing back from the road and carrying a banner permanently encrypted on the front facade of its main entrance porch with the words “The Lord Jesus is coming again . Are you ready?”. Hundreds of thousands of passers by would have over the years, read these words which could still be seen 95 years after they were inscribed.

The hall was built in April 1919. The land and the hall were gifted to the church by Isabel Amelia Loos a wealthy lady and wife of F.C. Loos, leading attorney of the day. Further on the same side of Dickmans Road was “Gitanjali” for many years the home of leading criminal lawyer GG Ponnambalam It was from this home that his son, Kumar, attended school at Royal College. The Ponnambalams later moved to Queens Road taking the name of the house to their new residence.

Lester James Peiris, the film director lived in this property. A few doors away from here was the home of Dr Turab Fazlebas, ENT Surgeon who moved to his newly built home “Gulistan” from Castle Street where he previously resided. Turab’s daughter, Sakina, was a well known speech pathologist working from the father’s home. Turab was the son in law of A Mamujee, a well known businessman of the day whose portrait was immortalised with its appearance in the much sought after book on Lionel Wendt published by Praeger in 1950.

Around here was Stubbs Place which had about a dozen homes including that of AM Rahim, the first Ceylonese MD of Henderson and Co. Two doors away was lawyer E.G.(Guy) Wikramanayake’s home “Sri Mahal” which stood beside Ebert Place. He migrated to Australia in the early 1970s where he passed away a few years later.

There were a few homes in Ebert place which was a “cul-de-sac”. A long resident family was the Seneviratnes headed by Postmaster-General Seneviratne and a large brood of children of whom the boys attended St Peter’s College. Almost every evening school friends and associates of the Seneviratne boys used to assemble at the turn off to Ebert Place and hang around chatting away even long after evening shadows had fallen. This very informal group was for some years in the 1950s/60s a part of social life in the area and participation extended to other young men from near and far.

The inevitable smoke was bought from the “kadai” adjoining Ebert Place which by itself was a popular shop in the locality for vegetables and groceries. Next to the kadai was the Havelock Town Post Office a popular public institution in the area. The home of Dunstan de Silva, the first President of the Aero Club of Ceylon founded in 1928, adjoined De Fonseka Place which led off Dickmans Road. Further down the road lived C.I Gunasekera famous cricketer and tennis player and vintage car enthusiast.

Around here was Anderson Road which is no more a cul de sac .Among the more notable residents on Anderson Road was Hildon Sansoni, reputed tennis player and ADC to successive Governors. His wife Barbara was equally renowned as a pioneer promoter of handloom fabrics and the founder of Barefoot in Kollupitiya. Their home became a sales centre for handloom fabrics in the sixties.

The Dickmans Road /Havelock Road intersection was the site for the second set of traffic lights to be installed in Colombo-the first was at the Turret Road/Galle Road Junction. At the end of Dickmans Road on the opposite side were the Bogala Flats built by graphite magnate Sir Ernest (E.P.A.) Fernando who built these apartments in the late 1940s on a site previously owned by a Maldivian and called “Didi Villa”. Sir Ernest opened his private nine hole golf course in Nawinna in 1958 but died not long after and the property was acquired by the government for the Ayurvedic Institute which still functions there.

Proceeding towards Galle Road on the left hand side of Dickmans Road was the home of AL Jayasuriya, later occupied by Dr CJC de Silva. The Jeevanjees lived a few doors away. Around here was “Cliveden” the home of Dr Leembruggen and “Clovelly” the home of Electrical Engineer GB Misso whose son, Vincent, a tea planter known to some Ceylon Society of Australia (CSA) members may still be resident there.

The turn off to Skelton Road was here and this road too hosted some well known families of that era. Among them was Sir Donatus Victoria who owned Victoria Hotel in the Pettah and who ran the railway catering service for many years. He lived in a house called “Alcoque” almost opposite to his brother JS Victoria’s residence on the same road. Architect Alles was another resident and Dr Thillainathan lived in a home called “Land’s End” which was located near the Wellawatte canal which skirted the end of the road.

Between Skelton Road and Elibank Road were a few houses on Dickmans Road. At Elibank Road at its corner with Dickmans Road stood the home of Mudaliyar Silva, a ship chandler. Next door was “Delmar ” the home of Dr Leo Peries whose brother Wilfred lived two doors away in his home “Leawood”. Wilfred Peries was Produce Broker at Mackwoods and later Director of the company. His only son Tony an esteemed former President of our CSA was the first Ceylonese Chairman of the leading mercantile firm of the time, George Steuart and Co.Tony would certainly have pleasant memories growing up in that area.

Other well known residents were the Ebramjees who lived in “Sadikot”, Dr Eric Schockman in “Havelock House” and Dallas Gunasekera brother of the cricketer C.I in “Thurlestone”. Former Chief Justice H.H. Basnayake lived in “Elibank House” to which he moved in the 1950s from his home on Havelock Road. His house had a reputation among legal circles for its well stocked library mainly of law books.

While the Lucas Fernanado property was easily the largest down Layards Road with its sprawling home “Norwood” it also had a large tract of unbuilt land adjoining it which was used as a place for drying laundered clothes by a cluster of washer families who were given access to the property. A couple of years after Lucas Fernando Jnr’s death in 1958 his family blocked out the land and was fully built upon . Among those who acquired a sub division was Mr Kasi Choksy a former. Finance Minister.

Almost opposite Norwood was the popular Trevine Gardens run by Ian Oorloff. The property was first owned by Phillip de Silva, a plumbago mine owner from whom the Nagel family acquired it. EF Don who was a former Secretary of the Havelock Golf Club during its tenure at Havelock Park lived down this road in his home named “Myrtles”. Another well known resident was Lyn Ludowyke who had the distinction of being appointed Professor of English at the University of Ceylon at the early age of 30 years.

The end of Layards Road connected with Lorenz Road which commenced from Galle Road. Lorenz Road was bordered on one side by the grounds of the Wellawatte kovil and on the other by an uninterrupted row of houses running almost the entire length of the road. The entire property including the section that abutted Layards Road originally belonged to Bambalapitiya Estate of Mudaliyar Pereira and later by his kinsman Wellawattage William Peiris whose descendants still live in adjoining homes at the end of Layards Road.

The Dickmans Road – Havelock Town area is now part of a bustling metropolis partly blighted by subdivided housing and commercial buildings that have had an impact on the area’s serene genteel tranquillity. It is only inevitable that the environmental impact of changing land use patterns and skyrocketing land values will bring in its wake social change. The blight of commercial tide which will eventually overrun this once elegant and fashionable neighbourhood seems inevitable, however unwelcome. These notes will hopefully help evoke some pleasant memories of a not too distant past especially to those who have known the area.

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Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?



President Ranil Wickremesinghe presenting the government’s policy statement in Parliament on 07 Feb.

In his policy statement during the inauguration of the 5th session of the 9th parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that the solution to the economic crisis lies in economic and scientific measures, not political ones. However, he draws inspiration from Confucius and urges citizens to introspect and cleanse their hearts, which can be seen as a political measure beyond being framed as moral or ethical. In the meantime, he has asserted that his government has achieved a significant transformation and provided a concise progress report, highlighting the remarkable recovery of the economy. President Wickremesinghe has emphasised that the economy, once in dire straits and requiring intensive care, has successfully emerged from its critical condition, exhibiting a robust V-shaped recovery. (See Table 1)

President Wickremesinghe claimed that this record-breaking breakthrough achievement in a brief span is truly a world record; he compared similar situations such as Greece, which took almost a decade to recover. Refuting allegations that he is engaging in secret agreements to conceal the true situation from the public, he has emphasised that every step taken was transparent, offering opportunities for discussion and debate both within and outside Parliament, with nothing hidden. The accuracy of this statement has to be verified by the concerned parties.

Going by confidence that people will eventually recognise and appreciate his decision-making, driven by the country’s growth rather than political gain, the President does not seem to have learnt from the defeat he experienced in the past including the last presidential election. Despite implementing relatively better governance with initiatives like increasing tax revenue and anti-corruption measures, the electorate prioritised different concerns, such as the “inna ratak” outcry. Consequently, they not only failed to acknowledge or appreciate these efforts but rejected the regime altogether, leading to the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2019.

The President appears aware of the risk of truth manipulation, deceiving both the nation and its people, yet he seems to take insufficient action to effectively prevent such occurrences.

Facing opposition from major media institutions, the President should proactively direct his media unit to implement a robust awareness program. Relying solely on the passage of time for people to become aware of his administration’s achievements is not sufficient. To effectively communicate the positive initiatives, the President and his government must engage in proactive efforts to counter the negative narrative. Failing to take assertive action may lead to a repetition of mistakes, as people are less likely to recognise and appreciate the purported “good” work without an active and strategic communication strategy.


·  Recognition from international institutions.

·  “Urumaya” program for land rights to over two million people.

·  “Asvasuma” program improving living standards for 2.4 million poor individuals.

·  130% increase in tax network (from 437,547 to 1,000,029 registered taxpayers).

·  Successful debt restructuring.

·  Establishment of an economic commission.

Future Initiatives:

·  Eradication of corruption.

·  Simplification of the investment process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and corruption risks.

·  Social modernization.

·  Target of attracting 5 million tourists annually.

·  Emphasis on technological advancement, renewable energy, and establishing the International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka.

·  Increase productivity of agricultural land in the dry zone (double or triple).

·  Restructuring of foreign relations with non-aligned policies.

·  Pursuit of free trade agreements with China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (Singapore agreement already in full operation).

·  Intent to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

·  Diversification of economic activities away from the Western Province to cities like Jaffna, Trincomalee, Bingiriya, Hambantota, and Kandy.

·  Plan to complete over 50,000 houses for low-income urban residents.

·  Positioning the country as a service center and economic hub in the Indian Ocean by developing three new ports.

·  Collaboration with India to develop Trincomalee as an economic hub.

Some of these objectives appear contradictory and need clarification. For instance, the goal of constructing 50,000 houses in urban areas, mainly in Colombo, seems to contradict the broader plan of expanding activities away from the Western Province. Additionally, there is a seeming contradiction in developing Trincomalee as an economic hub while simultaneously positioning the entire country as a service centre and an economic hub in the Indian Ocean.

The President has said that merely condemning and blaming the crisis without delving into its root causes is ineffective. However, this stance apparently runs counter to his plans for eradicating corruption and promoting social modernisation. The question is how he can conclude that addressing the economic crisis is solely dependent on economic solutions, and dismiss the relevance of political remedies. Many analysts argue that a political solution is primary, with economic solutions being secondary. Historical observations indicate that political changes, such as a regime change, precede the implementation of economic solutions by new political leaders. Without political change, the emergence of these economic solutions is challenging, if not impossible. These statements raise concerns about the possibility of individuals responsible for the crisis being absolved, despite the Supreme Court’s determination and punishment of those accountable and identification of root causes.

He has acknowledged the importance of addressing these issues but has not explicitly deemed them necessary. Perhaps, his emphasis on these matters is an attempt to garner support from the SLPP for his presidential campaign. However, it is crucial to note that he repeatedly emphasises the need to address root causes and hold those responsible accountable.

Finally, the President poses a series of questions: Why is it challenging to embrace an open perspective? Despite our diverse ideas, ethnic backgrounds, languages, provincial residencies, faiths, beliefs, and political affiliations, why can’t we unite in a shared vision for the country’s well-being and the future? Why can’t we collectively understand the benefits for our nation’s youth and join hands to reach great heights? The answers, for many, are not ambiguous. The rise to power by ultra-nationalists and corrupt politicians is often facilitated by divisive tactics. Many politicians faced imminent convictions, and without regime change, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several could have ended up in jail. We clearly witnessed manipulation of emotions to set different communities against each other as a route to political power. To counter such tactics, he should advocate for the implementation of strong laws and systems to prevent the propagation of manipulation through mass media.

In conclusion, vital statistics illustrate a remarkable turnaround in key economic indicators, signaling progress under his administration. However, certain contradictions and concerns arise, particularly regarding the alignment of various objectives and the perceived emphasis on economic solutions over political remedies.

The President’s call for heart cleansing and unity, inspired by Confucian principles, highlights the importance of fostering a shared vision for the nation’s well-being. Despite the accomplishments outlined, challenges remain in navigating political complexities, addressing root causes, and maintaining transparency to win public trust.

The proposed initiatives, including eradicating corruption, social modernization, and economic diversification, reflect the administration’s ambitious agenda. However, the potential contradictions warrant clarification.

The assertion that the economic crisis resolution lies predominantly in economic and scientific solutions contradicts the notion that political remedies are secondary. Analysts argue for a holistic approach where political and economic solutions complement each other, emphasizing the need for effective governance and accountability.

The President’s reluctance to name the people, who are responsible for the crisis, raises concerns. This ambiguity may stem from political considerations or an attempt to garner support from the SLPP.

The reference to manipulation of emotions for political gain highlights the need for strong laws and systems to counter divisive tactics through mass media.

Hence, the President should address the underlying political forces that contribute to the root causes of the crisis. Cleansing hearts is not an economic solution; it is fundamentally a political issue.

(The writer, a senior Chartered Accountant and professional banker, is Professor at SLIIT University, Malabe. He is also the author of the “Doing Social Research and Publishing Results”, a Springer publication (Singapore), and “Samaja Gaveshakaya (in Sinhala). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institution he works for. He can be contacted at and

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President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy



President Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

Even as the date for the presidential elections approaches, there are increased speculations regarding those elections, not only who might win but also whether those elections will be held at all.  There is also a debate being generated whether the presidential elections ought to be held at all.  There are many who feel that President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be given more time to take the country to development. United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, might be one such. He has described Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as one of the greatest comeback stories in the part of the world he deals with. On the other hand, there are others who argue in favour of abolishing the presidency as soon as possible.  This would also do away with the need for a presidential election to be held.

There is indeed a strong case for the abolishing of the presidency which is generally believed in the country to be an institution that is over-powerful and prone to abuse by those who are elected to it.  This argument has been made into an election campaign theme by some of the past presidential candidates at past presidential elections.  But after they won the elections those who promised to abolish the presidency failed to do so, and instead made strenuous efforts to stay on as long as they could, which explains why the presidency continues to this day. There being little faith that those who win the presidency will wish to abolish it, there is an opinion being formed that the presidency should be abolished before the presidential elections. The fact that the presidential form of government led the country to economic disaster is another reason for the hurry. There is, however, a question as to the practicability of this proposition.

The present system of government is called the executive presidential system on account of the central role in the constitution given to the presidency.  It can be imagined that cutting out this central institution will be like a fatal wound caused to the prevailing structure of governance. It may be argued that through skillful constitutional engineering that the hole caused by the excision of the presidency can be filled.  But the speed at which these reforms can be enacted is questionable in the absence of a political consensus that includes both government and opposition on the issue which is presently not to be seen. If there is to be an abolition of the executive presidency, it is very necessary for there to be consultation with the population and political parties about the new system that will replace the executive presidency. It must be one that meets the expectations and aspirations of the ethnic and religious minorities as well. There is no such consensus at the present time.


There have been deliberations on a new constitution and on constitutional reform on many occasions. However, constitutional schemes from the past cannot substitute for the need to consult people and political parties at this time, when circumstances have changed so drastically, having experienced the Aragayala protests and economic bankruptcy. There is also need for recognition that where there is no consensus, as on the solution to the ethnic conflict and the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities into governance, change proceeds painfully slowly.  This can be seen in the change of the electoral system to the provincial councils that commenced in 2017 and has still not been completed with the result that provincial council elections are overdue five years. It is also noteworthy that 36 years after being made part of the constitution, the provincial councils are in abeyance and there is a proposal pending to eliminate their police powers which, in any event, was never implemented. Fast tracking constitutional change does not seem to be an option especially when all eyes are focused on elections.

 Public opinion polls are repeatedly showing that the opposition candidates are ahead in the presidential race by significant margins. If these poll results are anywhere close to reality it can be surmised that the vast majority of people are looking for an election.  They would see that it is an election more than anything else that could dislodge the government which is entrenched in power under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe.  Two years ago the weakness of the government was such that its leading members dared not come into the public as they feared the wrath of the mob.  Some even faced heckling at weddings where people who had come for the happy occasion started hooting those whom they accused of bankrupting the country.  Now they are able to attend public functions without fear and with reasonable confidence that their security personnel can handle any eventuality.

The prospect of losing power is never a pleasing one to political leaders with their sights on power.  Even advanced countries such as the United States have faced this situation.  At the presidential election held in 2020, incumbent president Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and claimed the election was rigged.  The desire of those in power in developing countries would be as strong, perhaps even stronger, as losing power could make the incumbent vulnerable to revenge in which the system of checks and balances fails to protect them.  The prospect of facing an unknown future in the aftermath of electoral defeat would also be unnerving to those in government, especially if the new government is composed of those with a very different political ideology.


The present government is for the most part a continuation of the government that had to face down the protest movement in which tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country participated.  During those halcyon days, protestors young and old from far and near came on foot, on motorcycles, tractor trailers and improvised lorries to be part of a historic revolution they thought was near.  The vision of a “system change” that motivated them to make big sacrifices to come to the various protest sites still lives within them, as indeed it must within all who want to see Sri Lanka politically awaken and rise to its full economic potential which is still a distance away.  The main beneficiaries of the elections to come will be those who best hold out the hope of system change that will eradicate corruption and ensure a fairer distribution of the costs of getting out of bankruptcy.

The opportunity to effect governmental change will come in October when the constitutionally mandated presidential election falls due. Those in the government would prefer if those elections do not take place or are postponed for as long as possible.  In March 2022, the government ensured that local government elections were not held by denying the Election Commission the money to hold them.  The government’s determination not to hold those elections was high. It even disregarded the Supreme Court order to make the money available to the Election Commission to conduct the elections. This was a highhanded act that undermines the principles of democracy itself. There is concern that the presidential election will similarly be postponed on some ground or the other.

However, on this occasion, the President’s media unit has stated that the presidential election will be held within the mandated period and according to the current timeline. It added that the general election will be held next year and financial provisions will be provided for in the 2025 budget.  The government has also stated that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting the elections and the government will be communicating with the Commission as and when required. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also reiterated to a group of MPs who met him recently that the presidential election would be held on time and there would be no abolition of the presidency. Speaking in a statesmanlike mode, the president said, “I have clearly stated several times that I have no intention to put off the presidential elections. Funds for that purpose are there. The talks about attempts to abolish the executive presidency were circulated by the main opposition.”

The president is also reported to have said that “People of this country know better than the opposition that the abolition of the executive presidency cannot be done in a hurry. There is a procedure to do that. We should not fall into their trap. Do not waste your time on this. You speak of the economic revival programme that we are carrying out.” Likewise, President Wickremesinghe can also seek to address the country’s most intractable problem, the ethnic conflict by ordering the full implementation of the 13th Amendment which would make it easier for the victor at the next election to find a mutually acceptable solution. Whether he succeeds or not he could feel contentment that he did what he had agreed and undertaken to do.

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Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’



by Ruth Surenthiraraj

I remember, with unusually vivid clarity, the first time I really noticed the presence of silence in the classroom. One of the lecturers, who was taking our undergraduate class, had assigned us reading to be done ahead of time, parts of which were quite tedious and had to be read twice/thrice over to be grasped. In true happy-go-lucky undergrad spirit, my classmates and I turned up having ‘skimmed’ the articles and nurturing the fervent hope that someone else would pick up the discussion in the event that any questions were raised. As you would imagine, it went horribly wrong. The lecturer posed a question that required some thinking, and we suddenly and silently went into panic-mode in a bid to offer something akin to an answer. A few of us tried to start things off by giving noncommittal responses in the general direction of the question and were kindly asked to explain ourselves further – at which point we fell silent once more because we felt that we hadn’t thought things through. The lecturer, instead of berating us for not reading adequately or making us feel like we were bad students, simply invited us to embrace the silence so that we could get our thoughts in order.

In recalling this incident, I remember the strong sense of discomfort that we felt as learners. It wasn’t, however, something that stemmed from the lecturer or their handling of what must have been a frustrating situation. Instead, I now read that feeling as the acute discomfort of learners who had been trained to view silence in the classroom as something negative. That incident – apart from giving me impetus to never turn up to my classes without completing my assigned reading – also invited me to begin exploring the role of silence and its presence (or absence) in our undergraduate classrooms.

Although silence in teaching and learning is still fairly under-researched and is rarely a nuanced consideration in mainstream conversations around the dynamics of a classroom, there are still broad arguments that have attempted to imbue silence with meaning. For one, our multiple religious traditions seem to have strong tendencies towards silence as a form of retreat to assist deeper reflection even though these traditions often sit in direct contrast with current trends to be constantly producing and documenting aspects of life. Conversely, there is often a ‘culture of silence’ (much bemoaned by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire) that surrounds those who are socially, economically, and culturally vulnerable – a way in which socialisation teaches people to not interrogate their realities. Linguistically speaking, silence often assists us in distinguishing speech units (i.e., the silence that marks a pause in or completion of an idea/thought), but it can be further categorised as playing various functions in establishing relationships between participants in conversations. The possibilities of interpreting silence are myriad.

In the classroom, however, I think we are often limited to viewing silence as a negative indicator. As educators working with undergraduates, we assume that learners’ silence signals a disinterestedness or a disengagement from the critical approaches that should ideally frame undergraduate classroom discussions. At an even more basic level, we often consider silence to signify a lack of knowledge and we then attempt to fill that assumed void with speech that appears to address this lack of knowledge. As a result, we educators often view silence as a thing to be disliked at best and dreaded at worst. But what could silence really mean in a classroom of learners attempting to engage with new knowledge?

Firstly, it is very likely that the learners in our classrooms are expressing a deep-seated, culturally taught fear: the fear of giving the ‘wrong’ response. Sad as it is, it is still common to find educators who berate students for giving unacceptable answers. Instead of engaging with why the answer might not best reflect the desired response, we often shut students down when they don’t meet our (sometimes undefined) expectations. We rarely realise in the moment, though, that learning is a process in which ‘mistakes’ are as important as so-called successes. In fact, mistakes and errors often pave the way for deeper understanding of how what works and why. When learners begin to internalise the message that they don’t know enough to answer, they will simply opt to remain silent despite having a working knowledge of a subject. On the contrary, our classrooms should be safe spaces for ‘stupid’ or partial answers that encourage the students to reflect on why those responses require more thought.

In a constructivist view, learners are not blank slates which we fill with information: rather, they are intellects with existing knowledge structures (schemas) which are formed based on their experiences in life. When these existing schemas meet new knowledge in the classroom, the learner is required to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the new knowledge. This accommodation requires time and the capacity to be reflective, which in turn enables a more integrated worldview. Indeed, if education is meant to be transformative, repeated opportunities to integrate new and existing knowledge structures must be offered to learners within our classrooms. In short, I believe silence could also indicate an unspoken request for space and time to contemplate the significance of new knowledge. Sometimes, we give our students too little time to fully turn ideas around in their heads before requiring them to respond to us. I’ve observed many good educators allowing their frustration at silence to compel answers from students – resulting in responses that might be superficial rather than actual reflections of learning. A better way to undercut our impatience with silence would be to invite learners to hash out their fledgling ideas among themselves before attempting to articulate a holistic and/or individual response. This preliminary discussion often assists in integrating new and existing knowledge in the relatively safer space of peer groups.

Over centuries, educators have also played directly into the problem of sanitising education – separating theories and practices from the contexts in which they originated or detaching them from the sociocultural impacts they may cause. In turn, learners gain an ‘education’ that is removed from its everyday consequences. This also makes it difficult for learners to assimilate such unrelatable concepts, leading to more awkward silences in our classrooms as they attempt to collect seemingly detached pieces of knowledge.

Finally, silence is further compounded in classrooms where students are expected to respond in their second languages. With increasingly more undergraduate study programmes opting to shift wholesale (and almost overnight, in some cases) to the English medium instruction, many more undergraduates are going to be struggling to articulate their thoughts in a language that is not part of their repertoire. Educators (especially those other than language teachers) must be doubly attentive to these unspoken difficulties when interpreting silence. There are a heartbreakingly large number of stories where perfectly articulate and knowledgeable students are deprived of their classes (not to mention jobs) simply because they have not mastered the art of the second language yet. In wrongly categorising such students as ‘below par’ or not having the requisite ‘skills’, we relegate them as incompetent rather than critique our own skewed standards. I have often admired a student in my class for her comfort with awkward pauses as she attempts to construct a sentence that accurately reflects her thoughts as well as ‘acceptable’ language structures. But this is also possible only because I have now taught myself to never rush learners as they navigate new knowledge in a language that they are not fully familiar with. As a teacher of English as a second language, the tendency is to jump in with the necessary vocabulary so that the silences/pauses cause minimal discomfort to the learner. Yet, how will our learners ever be comfortable with the pauses that are inherent to language use and language learning if we do not (want to) confront our own discomfort with silence?

Learner silence, therefore, could act as a signifier of multiple underlying processes and problems. I am not in any way suggesting that silence cannot be associated with a lack of knowledge or with disinterest. However, to boil nuances in learner silence down to either a lack of knowledge or a sense of apathy regarding their discipline is to view learners reductively; we rob them of their right to be considered and accommodated as complex intellects in our classrooms. In rephrasing our questions (to better shape the silences in our classes) or in simply limiting our impatience at the lack of sound/response, we begin to create an atmosphere that is supportive of deeper engagement with our disciplines.

(Ruth is a teacher of English as a second language at a state university.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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