A Final Educational Fling – 2. Setting priorities

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I had enjoyed working with Mahinda Samarasinghe when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and also during our many visits to Geneva when we staved of the efforts of the British (and then the Americans after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State) to stop us eliminating terrorism in Sri Lanka.

Mahinda gave the impression of being laid back in his approach, but he worked hard and studied his briefs. He was also capable of sharp insights and, on becoming Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, he worked out very quickly what was needed. Before asking me to help, he had identified three major problems, and I suppose he knew from my track record that I was the best person to help him resolve these.

First and foremost was the need to update courses, and in particular to introduce English and other soft skills. I had been the first to introduce Core Courses into universities, when I joined Sabaragamuwa University way back in 1997. This built on what Arjuna Aluwihare had started when he set up Affiliated University Colleges, but it was only at Sabaragamuwa that we introduced Critical Thinking, with exercises designed to make students recognize systems, understand the concept of variables, and ensure attention to relevance. Initially the students protested about what they saw as games playing, but later I recall a group telling me, when I attended a wedding of one of the brightest, that it was such aptitude tests that they were set when applying for jobs.

We also made both Sinhala and Tamil compulsory for all students, in addition to English. When I insisted on a Third Language, my Sinhala and Tamil staff declared that students were no longer taught to write properly in mother tongue, and this should be remedied. I also introduced library studies, because I found that students had no idea how to find material in books, since they had not been taught the use of a contents page, let alone an index. I used to feel immeasurably sad, if for instance I asked them which countries neighboured China, as they rifled through the pages of the atlases we gave them instead of checking first where the relevant information was to be found. Continue reading

A Final Educational Fling – 1. Accepting another task

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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

When, just over a year ago, I was not put into Parliament, I thought it was time to call it a day. I had a house to live in, and a beautiful country cottage, I enjoyed reading and writing, and there seemed no point in knocking my head against brick walls. Though I continue to believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa did more for this country as its leader than his two predecessors, I had registered the appalling nature of those who dominated the last years of his government, and had indeed dissected them throughout 2014 in numerous articles, in particular the series called ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs’. So I did not regret having worked for Maithripala Sirisena’s election as President in January 2015. But I realized that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka had been right in predicting that, decent though the President was, he would be dominated by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

I had hoped he would realize soon how awful both of them were, and how out of touch with the country at large, but this seemed to be taking a long time. He had allowed himself to be dragooned by them and their allies into calling an early General Election, contrary to his commitment to ensure that Electoral Reform was enacted before Parliament was dissolved. However I thought he then made the right decision in putting President Rajapaksa on the UPFA list for the General Election, since without him the UNP would have romped home.

But sadly polarizing forces made it impossible for the two of them to work together. I later told President Rajapaksa that he had to appreciate how nervous the President had been made by the pronouncements of some of the candidates on the UPFA slate, that they would destroy the President if they won a majority. Mahinda told me that the President should not have taken such pronouncements seriously, since they were uttered by youngsters, but it was a pity he did not rein such people in.

Indeed even experienced politicians such as Vasudeva Nanayakkara behaved foolishly in claiming that, with the election going well, the main task at hand was to make sure that those within the UPFA who had supported the President would not be elected. I told him this was utterly foolish, since campaigning in such a manner would confuse the voters. But once Vasu gets an idea into his head, he cannot think straight. Indeed he told me later that they had all been wrong in insisting that, were a vote of No Confidence in the Prime Minister to succeed before Parliament had been dissolved, a Prime Minister acceptable to the UPFA group should be appointed.

He claimed that this was because they were a majority in Parliament, but he had obviously forgotten, as Ranil did way back in 2003, that the President had the power to dissolve Parliament whenever he wished. Continue reading

New Horizons – 15 – Transitions

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After Chanaka’s death I had to take charge of the Liberal Party, for there was no one else left of the intellectual giants Chanaka had gathered around him, or even his close friends, who had formed the core of the party. Asitha, who had been his principal ally when the Council for Liberal Democracy first went into action during the 1982 referendum, had let him down after the 1994 election, and joined the Muslim Congress to ensure he kept the Parliamentary seat of which he had deprived Chanaka. Before that, Rohan Edrisinha, Chanaka’s other great friend from schooldays, who had taken longer to part conclusively from the UNP when JR was in charge, had left the party along with Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu when we decided to support Premadasa in the 1993 Provincial Council elections.

In 1996 I tried to persuade both of them to come back, but by then they were well entrenched in the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which they had set up ironically enough with Bradman Weerakoon, who had been Premadasa’s right hand man. They thought now that they could achieve more through that, and Sara indeed did so in the years that passed, showing himself in the end inclined to move towards a UNP perspective. I was left then with relative newcomers, Harim Pieris who had been Deputy to Chanaka’s Secretary General, and Kamal Nissanka who had joined us as a paid researcher. They had proved reliable enough, but neither of them had the intellectual stature of Chanaka or Sara or Rohan. Shalini Senanayake, who had been employed as a Secretary, also continued to help, though we could no longer afford to keep her on in a paid position. Her sympathies were more with the UNP, for family reasons, rather than Liberalism. Unfortunately Nirgunan, who would have provided intellectual strength, had by now settled down in Singapore, though he continued supportive from afar.

I found the party in debt, for the projects that had funded the administration had long dried up. Indeed it turned out that the most recent one, to produce a manual of Liberalism for South Asia, was nowhere near conclusion, though the money advanced for its production had all been used up. Mrs Delgoda of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which had funded the volume, was desperate that it be finished and, with much cajoling and editing, I was able to oblige within a few months. Fortunately Chanaka’s articles had been in advanced draft form, and provided a thorough base for the volume, and Rohan and Sara eventually produced what they had agreed to do. Continue reading

New Horizons – 14 – Gathering shadows

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While I was engaging in all these other initiatives and much travel, I realized that I should really be settling down too to something more. The GELT course was not a full time occupation, and in any case the Chairman had indicated that he did not think pre-University English should be the responsibility of the UGC. Meanwhile the AUCs that had become universities were suggesting that I might like to join them full-time.

If I were to do so, the most appealing was clearly Sabaragamuwa University, which had been made up of the AUCs at Belihuloya and Rahangala and Buttala. Its principal academic in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages turned out to be the sister of my cousin Kshanika’s former husband, Jeevaka Weeratunge. I had first met the family properly soon after the wedding in 1975, on my way back to Oxford between degrees. Dr Soma Weeratunge was our ambassador in Moscow  then, and his younger daughters, two very lively girls, looked after me energetically before and after the main point of that visit, a journey to Tbilisi in Georgia, the old Tiflis that I had always wanted to visit.

I went by train, a magnificient journey through the Caucasus mountains. The old ladies in my compartment seemed to love me, as well as the other young man there, since we had given up to them the lower bunks we had. They insisted on feeding me throughout the journey, while the youngster gave me vodka, and chased away some Muslims who came in to claim kinship by asserting loudly that I was a Christian (this had been established early on). I was reminded then of the long train journey I had made way back in 1972 from Budapest to Kiev, going to join my father who was on a Parliamentary delegation in the Soviet Union. The babushkas who looked after the carriages were still there, with their samovars full of tea, supplied frequently at very low cost.

Tiflis was a joy, culminating in the open air opera where the performance was of La Traviata. Two boys who befriended me insisted on buying my ticket and, when I asked what I could do in return, said a Led Zeppelin record would be nice. I had never heard of the group, but I duly found one when back at Oxford and posted it on. Continue reading

New Horizons – 13 – Consolations

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In those years of constant change in the mid-nineties, continuity in terms of family life was provided most solidly by my aunt Ena. We had become great friends way back in 1983, when my adventures at S. Thomas’ had prompted her to seek to get to know me better. We got on superbly from the start, and as she said on her 90th birthday, when it was clear that she was dying, there was no reason to be sad for we had had such good times together.

These were first and foremost at Aluwihare, her wonderful home in the hills, which she had transformed into a magic retreat, full of colour and exotic artefacts. In addition to the batik and the embroidery done by her girls, as she still called them a quarter of a century after they had begun working with her, she had created employment for the boys of the village too, a carpentry shed and then a brass foundry. And then she had also started a restaurant, not one but two for she had no sense of restraint, K1 as she called it down the hill from her home where meals could be booked by tour groups, K2 on the roadside, which was not only a Kitchen but also provided rooms to stay.

The first was catered to by her own cook, Suja who she claimed could not boil water when she had first come to work, but who now produced the most marvelous concoctions. The other provided work for the middle aged ladies of the village, some of them relations. Though they exuded confusion as they bustled about, they were quite charming, and those who stayed and those who ate were entranced. The American ambassador, Peter Burleigh, used it seems to stay there often, which may well have been for nefarious purposes, but he was dearly loved by the ladies.

We had gone down often to Yala in the eighties, with memorable holidays during the times of turmoil, when we had the Park practically to ourselves. But when the JVP insurrection was over, more and more people began to visit, so we found other places too, Uda Walawe and Horton Plains and more frequently Wasgomuwa, which was a relatively short journey from Alu, over the Knuckles range to the Eastern plain. Continue reading

New Horizons – 12 Constant movement

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Most of my foreign travel during this period was to French Indo-China, with which I had fallen in love after my first trip to Cambodia in 1991. I had friends in Phnom Penh as well as Hanoi, with whom I could stay as long as I liked, writing and reading, while going off on excursions.

I had been to Vietnam way back in 1984, but only to Hanoi where a great friend was Deputy at the Australian Embassy there. But I only got to Ho Chi Minh city in 1991, when I stayed at the Kim Do Hotel, and even crawled into the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong had hidden in its extraordinary overcoming of the Americans. I thought I was stuck, and nearly developed claustrophobia but the guide saw me out.

That year I went to Laos too for the first time, and loved Vientiane, the most laid back capital in the world, with a fountain with coloured lights as its centre. From there I flew up to Luang Prabang, the return journey being in a tiny old Russian plane, which brought the jungles below incredibly close. Luang Prabang was magic, lovely old temples where young monks played in the courtyards and seemed terribly pleased to talk for hours with anyone who knew English. I went to the beautiful wooden Royal Palace, and had a river trip by myself past lovely waterfalls. It was also nice to enter into the spirit of the place, seeing an old Western film in the decrepit theatre where youngsters came to smoke cigarettes.

In 1991 I also went back to Hanoi, and walked round the little lake I had loved back in 1984. It was much more tranquil than the lake in Cambodia, where the guide who had picked me up on a motorbike and stuck with me for the rest of my stay, and also future visits, took me to see the taxi girls who thronged the boat restaurants. Continue reading

New Horizons – 11 The old order ends

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I was rarely at home during the two years after I left USJP, not only because of work requirements and my travels, but also because I was finding the situation unbearable. My niece and nephew seemed a nuisance, not least because they were clearly a strain on my parents. My mother shouted much more than was good for her, so much so that I even once remonstrated with her on my niece’s behalf, only to be told sadly that she was doing her best to get her straight, but did not think she would succeed.

Upset though I was by the children’s presence, I realized too that I could hardly blame them, certainly not the little girl, who was too young to understand why she had been sent away from her parents, and naturally reacted badly. When finally the whole family was together again in Australia, she seemed to settle down, which suggests that the trauma of separation is something that should be avoided. But by then it was too late to tell my mother that a refusal in 1994 to take on the responsibility might have served everyone better.

When in Colombo I found refuge at Nirmali’s, in the office that had been used for the various book production programmes the English Association had taken on when the British Council decided it should not take bread from the mouth of British publishers, as one memorable directive went. Initially we had had an office in Bagatelle Road, when the Association worked for the Council on the first CIDA book project, and we had used the place also to house Scott Richards when he came out for various workshops. This led to entertaining stories about what he claimed was attempted seduction by the caretaker the Council had put in place, but all this had to stop when the Council withdrew.

The Association was then kindly given space in Nirmali’s annexe, where she also conducted classes, and I produced several books there, helped by my old Secretary at the Council who worked for us for very little pay at weekends. We also had the Thalgodapitiya girls, whose mother ran the Lionel Wendt, two noisy but extraordinarily efficient characters. Between them all they taught me to use a computer, which I had long resisted on the grounds that I was too old. The result was a stream of prose, including the novels ‘Servants’ in 1995 and ‘An English Education’ in 1996. Since then, I fear, I have never really been sociable.

Though work and travel were fulfilling, and it was salutary to discover the joys of solitude, 1995 was a bleak year in Colombo. In May my aunt Lakshmi was murdered, at the house she had built for herself in Bagatelle Road. She had moved there to be reasonably near us while also guarding her independence, which she had cherished for well over a decade and a half at the Old Place, my grandmother’s childhood home in Kurunagala. Continue reading

New Horizons – 10 Colombo constrictions

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While the world outside Colombo was figuring with increasing importance in my life in the mid-nineties, at home the lights, as Edward Grey described the onset of war in Europe in 1914, were going out one by one. My grandmother died in June 1994, on my father’s birthday, when my mother had arranged to have the British High Commissioner over for dinner. It had been a longstanding obligation, but she had wanted a date when I too was available, which had been difficult to fix. The dinner had of course to be cancelled, and I do not think I attended another formal dinner at Lakmahal until January 1997, just before my mother left for the operation in Oxford from which she did not recover.

I was still attached to Sri Jayewardenepura University in the middle of 1994, having celebrated my 40th birthday in May, with 40 guests. I had found it difficult to fill up the number, which made me realize how out of touch I had got with Colombo over the preceding couple of years. When I resigned from the British Council in 1992, I had celebrated my birthday – and the recurrence of Wesak, in the 19 year cycle of full moons – with a retirement party, which had been a very jolly occasion. After 1994, I did not celebrate a birthday again at Lakmahal, travelling to Oxford for my 50th, after I realized that one’s closest friends are generally those with whom one grows to maturity.

My grandmother had been ailing for a long time, her tenacious hold on life slipping when first she lost her sight, and then when she had to use a wheel-chair. It was odd to see her reduced to helplessness, since for most of my forty years I had thought of her as ruling over Lakmahal with a will of iron. Widowed in 1945, losing all her sons, the last two in rapid succession in 1983 and 1985, she had still maintained her authority, which I fear acted as a curb on my mother. Latterly I had begun to understand why my mother spent so much time at Girl Guide Headquarters, which allowed for the full flowering of her equally vibrant, but much more gentle, personality.

My grandmother’s death, though it left an enormous hollow, should also have been a liberation for my mother. This did not follow, because my brother, who had been in Hong Kong for the last two years with his family, decided to continue there but send his children back to be looked after by my parents. Previously they had looked after his son for years, while he and his wife were pursuing higher qualifications in England. But they had seemed to enjoy this, even taking on responsibility for the boy when, after his parents came back from England, his mother got pregnant again, and found looking after two children difficult.

But that it was a responsibility they could not readily fulfil as age advanced I understood, when I came back once on a Sunday afternoon after a trip to Yala with my sister, to find my mother almost in hysterics because her grandson had not come home after church. She was trying to convince my father, who was enjoying an afternoon nap, that he should go and drive round the church premises, to see if the boy could be traced. I tried to tell her not to worry, that doubtless the boy was hanging around with friends, as all of us had done at that age, without parents worrying overmuch. But she quelled me by saying, with a quaver in her voice ‘Other people’s children….…’ Her relief, when they called the vicar and found the boy had spent the day there, was palpable. Continue reading

New Horizons – 9 Wider concerns after leaving USJP

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The first casualty of the enmity of the Head of the Languages Department was our English programme. The papers I had prepared about introducing a Special Degree in English and setting up a separate Department failed to go through the Senate and thus never reached the UGC. I found the new UGC too less than sympathetic about all this, whereas Prof Aluwihare had been keen that I join USJP and take on the AUCs precisely because he had hoped for a revolution in the teaching of English at tertiary level in the country as a whole.
I heard him once describe USJP as the flagship of the university system to a visiting World Bank delegation and, though I was surprised at the time, I could see how under Prof Hettiarachchi as Vice-Chancellor it had been a truly dynamic place. Certainly the innovations then taking place in its Management Faculty, with a superb professionally oriented course in Accountancy having been started under another visionary, Mr Wickremaratne, justified the description in an area which was just making the breakthrough to employment oriented education.

Prof Wilson as Dean was also keen to move forward. I was a bit surprised when he appointed to the committee to put forward proposals for English another Economics Professor, an older man called Sirisena Thilakaratna. But I found him immensely helpful, able to understand and build on the concepts I had worked on. When I thanked Wilson for his choice, he explained that Thilakaratna was his old guru. Later he became Chairman of the UGC, with Dorakumbura I gathered having been the other name suggested.

That would have been a disaster, for Dorakumbura proved deeply conservative. Under him and the regime he had set in place, USJP ceased to move forward. I had some sympathy for Dorakumbura because I believe the challenge to him being appointed Vice-Chancellor, based on prejudice against him being a Librarian and not an Academic, had soured him as far as many of his academic colleagues were concerned. He had therefore fallen back on the support of the less able amongst them. The result however was that many of the innovations I would have liked to push had to be abandoned.

Part of the problem lay in the fact that, in my letter of application, I had asked for a contract position rather than to be appointed to the staff. In the interview it had been explained by Hettiarachchi that there was no difference in terms of the freedoms I would enjoy, so I had agreed to be appointed to the permanent staff. But the letter when it came specified that I was being put on contract as requested. I did not challenge this and, though Dorakumbura initially suggested that this be changed, he seemed in time to lose interest in retaining me. As a result I was not really seen as part of the Faculty, and could not press for reforms as an insider.

More seriously, the practice in the Universities was that those on contract had to ask to have their contracts renewed. I refused to do this, on the grounds that the onus should lie on the university to renew a contract or not. At the end of my first year, the university did write renewing my contract, but a year later the situation had changed. My students attempted to convince the authorities to write to me, but they refused, and told them that I should apply. I did not want to seek renewal, since I felt that my usefulness was diminishing. Though I would have accepted the offer of an extension, I thought that my requesting it would put me in an impossible position if conditions were made thereafter about what outside work I could do. And so, towards the end of 1994, my employment at USJP came to an end. Continue reading

New Horizons – 8 The pre-University GELT course and a new driver

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In 1993 I took on a new responsibility in addition to my work at USJP and the supervision of the AUC General English and English Diploma courses. This was the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) Course.  My involvement arose from meeting Prof A J Gunawardena on the flight back from my visit to Bellagio, and him telling me that he had suggested to the UGC Chairman that I be asked to run the course.

A J had been in charge of English at USJP, but had gone away during a sabbatical to become Director of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies. He found the Institute ungovernable, as indeed many Directors did, until it became a University in its own right, and its first Vice-Chancellor, Sarath Amunugama, found a way of reconciling the various interests involved while introducing some sort of discipline. A J after his stint at the Institute then moved into what was virtually a sinecure in the NIE, but he had recently been asked to sit on the board to choose a new coordinator for the GELT.

That had been set up by Wilfred Jayasuriya, a former Commissioner of Motor Traffic, in the late eighties, but he had gone away suddenly and left it in the charge of his deputy, another senior figure in the ELT world called Clive Jayasuriya. I had had some involvement with the course early on, when the British Council was commissioned to produce low cost simple readers under a CIDA Project, and with Nirmali Hettiarachchi as team leader we had done some very good work.

I had lost touch with the course however over the years, so A J’s suggestion, following on a decision of the selection board that none of the candidates was suitable, came as a surprise. It struck me as an interesting challenge however, and also complementary to what I was doing at USJP and the AUCs. It certainly made sense to ensure a better English course before students entered University, given what I had seen of the difficulties of running one with all the distractions of University life, and in particular the ragging. Continue reading