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The making of The Island

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by Vijitha Yapa, Founder Editor, Sunday Island

The person at the other end of the phone calling from Nallur was very angry. “Mr Editor, you have killed me in your paper today”. I did not ask him where he was speaking from, as he may treat it as an insult. I did not know what he was speaking about and asked what story he was referring to and after listening to him, told  him to call me back in half an hour. There were no ubiquitous  mobile phones at that time nor easy access to telephones in the eighties.

The story revolved around the Coroner of Nallur, Mr Francis, committing suicide and Dr Watson  performing the autopsy. The call was from Mr Francis who said it was the other way round. I asked the sub editor  for the original story submitted by the Nallur correspondent and what the sub editor had  edited and compared it with what had been printed in the Island  that morning.

Mr Francis was correct. The Nallur correspondent had said that Dr Watson committed suicide and Coroner  Francis performed the autopsy. I screamed angrily at the sub editor and asked him, “What the hell have you done? Why did you do this and what can I tell this Coroner?” The sub editor submitted his lame excuse. “I tried to contact the correspondent and could not get through to Nallur. This seemed a ridiculous story and I felt the Nallur correspondent had got it all wrong. Why should a medical doctor who makes pots of money commit suicide? I felt it is the coroner, a poorly paid public servant, who had every reason to commit suicide and changed the story to reflect that”.

 It was the most incredible explanation and he was a senior sub editor. What could I do? I apologized to Mr Francis when he phoned and said I am carrying an apology to him in the next day’s newspaper. This is the only time I ever apologized to anybody because I am a strong believer that facts printed must be correct and the editorial staff should be fully responsible to see  that the true facts should be   followed to the letter. The story is recollected on the 40th anniversary of the Sunday Island and it is an indication of the trials we faced and the difficulties we encountered.

 Upali Wijewardene asked me to be the Editor of the Sunday Island in March  1981 when I submitted my resignation as the Media Officer at the GCEC (Greater Colombo Economic Commission) he chaired. From  April 1981 I  had accepted an offer from Dow Jones and Co of USA  to look after their interests by procuring advertisements for the Wall Street Journal and also to import and distribute the Asian Wall Street Journal in Sri Lanka.

But even by August  he had not found anyone and he sent his Mercedes Benz to my residence and asked me to come immediately to his home. There he said, ” I want you to be the Founder editor of  the Sunday Island which will be born on October 4,  because I have confidence in you”. I felt very sorry because here was a man who had wealth and power but was frustrated because he could not find an editor.

I told him I will accept the offer for six months until he found another person but as I have started my own business it was difficult for me to devote full time to the newspaper. I asked for a virtually  impossible five figure salary, the highest for any journalist , a car with a driver to take my children to school and since I had some commitments with  some foreign newspapers for journalistic  assignments I requested leave whenever the need arose. He said okay  and “You can  start tomorrow”.  I told him that to start the newspaper I will need to recruit immediately and cannot waste time on red tape. He gave me permission to approach any journalist and where necessary to double their salaries on the condition that they start work immediately from the next day.

I contacted many of the well known journalists and asked them to come for an interview and basically within a week we had the staff. It was a bold move because we were asking people in secure jobs to give up their positions in other newspapers and commence work with us within 24 hours. Ours was an establishment which was not publishing any newspapers except a weekly cartoon paper. The majority of those approached had the faith  to take the plunge and we began work immediately.

Because of the problems we faced there was not even a dummy copy which we could produce before the date of publication,  October 4. But somehow the birth took place that day though the first issues did not reach the public in the morning but late in the evening. I had returned home about 1 o’clock in the morning having finished the editorial work  and was shocked to find that even by the afternoon it had not even  been printed!. I rushed to the press and found that the plates were never sent to the printing press in Homagama because the technical staff  were found wanting. There were blank pages and I ordered that some ads should be repeated and also some articles and sent the pages.

Though late the paper was received very well. It was in colour and we were the first to do computer printing of a newspaper in Sri Lanka. The pages were clean and people appreciated the pictures and layout. Gamini Weerakoon was the deputy editor, Rienzie Wijeratne was the pictures editor and Ajith Samaranayaka was the editorial writer  responsible for features.

Gamini Weerakoon’s wife Rajitha was working for the Sunday Observer and I had to tell Gamini to make sure he does not talk in his sleep.

We also got some people from the Times group.Some of them were the first females to be recruited to the Upali Group head office, an all male domain. The ladies who came from the Times newspaper sought permission everyday to go to Fort about midday. They never explained why and I had to finally ask them the reason for this as our transport was limited to one vehicle at that time. They all appeared as a delegation in my office and said sheepishly,” We have to go to Fort because there is no toilet for women at Upali’s!”. It is an area which we had neglected and I immediately phoned Mr Upali Wijewardene and within 24 hours a special toilet with locks in the male domain was made available to the ladies.

Within one month of our publication Mr Wijewardene came to the office and said, ” I want to start the daily newspaper from November 16″. I was lucky not to have suffered a heart attack as we still had teething problems. The technical office once came and asked me why I could not give Page one and the sports page two days earlier like the feature pages so that he could give the paper on time.

Mr Wijewardene would not change his mind to postpone the commencement of the daily. We gathered the staff together and told them the news, recruited more journalists and the newspaper began as scheduled on November 16, 1981. Mr Peter Harland from UK assisted us in those early days and veteran planter Leslie Dharmaratne was the CEO of Upali Newspapers. He had no experience in journalism and there were practical issues with regard to the staff. The staff wanted a festival advance but the CEO was quite adamant that it could not be done because there were very heavy expenses with the starting of the newspaper and no funds were available. This virtually led to a strike but luckily it was averted though one or two Sinhala journalists decided to leave or were asked to leave.

 It is the exposures of corrupt practices in The Island which caught the interest of the readers and the circulation soared . Mr Upali Wijewardene was the ideal publisher as he did not interfere in running the newspaper. He thought that President J.R. Jayewardene will support him in his endeavour to  become the MP for Kamburupitiya but unfortunately Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa opposed it. This led to practical problems and Mr Wijewardene certainly did not help himself when replying to a query by Mervyn de Silva, editor of the Guardian and said  his hero was SWRD Bandaranaike. J.R. Jayewardene was very annoyed and because of various difficulties, Upali Wijewardene decided to resign as the Director General of the GCEC.

 When Hector Kobbekaduwa was chosen as the SLFP candidate for the presidential election in 1982 Mr Wijewardene felt that since Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike had been disqualified from running, the one person who should be contesting the elections from the SLFP was her son Anura Bandaranaike. Anura opposed this and said he could not go against the SLFP. Mr Wijewardene then  suggested that Anura should form his own party and that the necessary finances for that operation could be found. But Anura did not take up the offer though it reached the ears of JR, who was visibly annoyed.

Perhaps one of the most sensational stories that the Sunday Island exposed was how foreign minister ACS Hameed had used funds from South Korea through the Sri Lanka High Commission in London. It was   used to procure bagpipes for schools in Akurana in  Mr Hameed’s electorate. JR and Mr Hameed were on an official visit to China at that time. Mr Hameed told me later it was  an embarrassment to  Mr Jayewardene who queried it and ordered  Mr Hameed to credit all the money that he had in the special account to the President’s Fund.

 Another important story was how cricketer Bandula Warnapura decided to take a rebel Sri Lanka team to South Africa. Officially Upali newspapers  opposed that visit editorially but carried news of it. Minister Gamini Dissanayake was very annoyed by this and phoned me and told me to stop carrying news of  these rebels and said the other newspapers had agreed to his request. I refused and said editorially we condemned the rebel tour but felt we could not ignore the need to inform our readers of what was happening in South Africa.

Mr Dissanayake was very annoyed and said, “If that is your attitude  I am going to speak to you publisher”. I knew Mr Upali Wijewardene was not in Colombo that morning but that evening he phoned me and asked whether Gamini Dissanayake had asked me to stop publicity for the rebels  and wanted to know my reactions to it. I told him the facts and what he said about contacting the publisher. Mr Wijewardene said he had told Gamini Dissanayake that he does not tell the minister  what to do in Cabinet or how to run his ministry. He said  he wanted  Mr Dissanayake not to interfere in the running of his independent newspaper.

Mr Wijewardene then  asked me what news we had of the Sri Lanka rebels in South Africa. I  said that there was a picture by  Reuters of Bandula Warnapura and colleagues emerging  out of the airport in South Africa with their luggage loaded on trolleys. He asked me where I was placing the picture and I replied that it will be on page 14, the Sports page. He laughed and then said, “Why don’t you put it on page 1” . That was Upali Wijewardene, the man who feared no one.

 Many of the journalists achieved fame through the pages of the newspaper. The paper  was a beacon of hope to the minorities, specially the Tamils, who felt they were being hounded. One of the boldest decisions I made was to ask DBS Jeyaraj to begin a column in the Sunday Island and to call it “Behind the Cadjan Curtain,’ an adaptation of China’s  bamboo curtain .The column was well read and well received.

Ajith Samaranayake was another great asset. The editorial he wrote in the newspaper soon after the 1983 July riots and the appeal to people for sanity and to think afresh was read out in full by Mr Maithripala Senanayake in Parliament. It was Ajith who asked Jeyraj who was working at Veerakesari, the Tamil newspaper, to apply for a job at the Sunday Island. I was impressed by the clean shaven Jeyaraj’s performance in the test I gave him and recruited him. Later DBS said  that impish Ajith had advised him  to shave off his moustache and beard as I did not like such growth on the faces of journalists, which he realised later was a complete lie.

 Ajith had his flings through words and once got into an argument with Gamini Fonseka. Initially the articles from Gamini and from Ajith created interest but Gamini’s replies  became a bit boring in the latter stages. I told Ajith the time has come to end the series. He agreed and I allowed  him to do the final column. His final comment was brief but rich with content. He said he was  stopping these arguments  with Mr Gamini Fonseka because trying to convince him was  like playing a Veena to a deaf elephant. Gamini never replied to that because to those who knew his history, knew there was a rich meaning in that one sentence pregnant with opportunities.

There are many more stories to tell but space and time are precious and tributes to the individual journalists who made the Sunday Island a paper the readers looked forward to read is difficult to put down on paper. But the rich history of the Sunday Island which began 40 years ago  has to be recorded and I wish the Editor and journalists of the newspaper all the best for the future.



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Path to disaster

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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 praveshjain@parasdyes.com)

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Twin personas; reaction long after the action

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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?

Short take

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.

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Maris Stella College in 1950s and 60s

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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.

Sports

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”

GEORGE BRAINE

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