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If Colombo was changing only slowly in the seventies from the sleepy city it had been before, social revolution was in full swing. The early seventies had seen the introduction of standardization with regard to university admission, and this had hit Colombo hard. Mine was the first year affected by the change and, whereas most of my sister’s schoolfriends, just one year senior to us, were in university in Sri Lanka (as the country now was officially), many of mine had gone abroad. Practically none of those were to come back permanently.

Others had gone into the private sector, and were doing well, earning much more than those of us with degrees could. Thus, as always, the Colombo elite rode out this storm, and in some cases benefited from what had been intended as social engineering on behalf of those less fortunate. But the children of Jaffna, the other District worst affected, fared much worse.

Prabhakaran, born in the same year that I was, would have found himself suddenly facing a closed door as far as higher education was concerned, the ambition of all clever youngsters in the North. It is no coincidence I think, then, that the terrorist movement began at that stage. And it expanded in leaps and bounds from 1979, not only because of Jayewardene’s brutal efforts to quell it through introducing the Prevention of Terror Act and sending his kinsman, the aptly named ‘Bull’ Weeratunge, to the peninsula, but also because standardization was reintroduced, in another form, with a deliberately racist tinge.

The United Front’s standardization was well meaning, if utterly insensitive to the plight of those who would be deprived when positive discrimination came into play. It certainly benefited rural Tamil children, and Members of Parliament from previously deprived Districts expressed satisfaction at the measure. But with no private sector worth speaking of at the time, not in business to any appreciable extent outside Colombo, and certainly not in higher education, the bright young things of Jaffna were doomed to suffer.

In 1977 therefore, having made much of minority suffering under the United Front, Jayewardene’s government abolished standardization. But, a year or so late, when all university admissions were based on merit alone, Cyril Mathew declared in Parliament that Tamil examiners were cheating, and that Tamil medium students were getting higher marks and entering university in disproportionate numbers.

The reaction was typical of Jayewardene, though whether it was to placate Mathew or to promote him we will never know precisely. With no inquiry conducted, the system of admission to universities was changed, to give great weight to district quotas, whereby once again Colombo and Jaffna suffered. Once again Colombo students, with a flourishing private sector now, and exchange freely available to go abroad, suffered very little. The Jaffna students, contrariwise, were devastated. Not only had expectations been dashed once again, but this time they were in essence told that it was because they had succeeded earlier through cheating.

Endless efforts to correct the situation have failed over the last thirty years, with a small minority of students who benefit from the current system resolutely resisting change. Sadly, those who argue in favour of positive discrimination, and cite examples from other countries, fail to note that in such countries there is relief for those deemed to have advantages, in that they can have recourse to private institutions. For a decade now the debate has been in abeyance, with the deficiencies in the northern education system caused by the depredations of the Tigers reducing demand. But, now that those deficiencies are rapidly being repaired, we must have facilities for higher education for all those, or at least a much higher proportion of those, who are capable. Fortunately the present Minister and Secretary of Higher Education have both the capacity and the will to promote reform, without which many of our bright youngsters will languish, their promise unfulfilled.

Way back in 1975 my friends from school had to go abroad to flourish. Harin Dias, now in Dubai with a Belgian wife after England and Belgium, Prithi Harasgama, now in Rumania with a Turkish wife after England and Switzerland, Ranjith Ellalasingham, about to go to Texas with a Russian wife after England and Russia (and who called me after forty years last month), and many others seem lost to us for ever. And many even of those who qualified or worked here have gone too, Kevin Seneviratne from the university, David Hallock, Mazhar Rauff, whose brother I met a couple of months back, and thought had a familiar face, again forty years after I had last seen Rauff.

So in 1975 there were very few of my schoolfriends around, and the first I rang told me he was very busy, but would arrange something later. I thought I had been forgotten, and did not pursue matters, being occupied in any case, in the short time I had, with relations and family friends and a couple who came down from Oxford. So it was only just before I left that Graham de Kretser had a dinner party, where I caught up with a few of my contemporaries, Rohan Ponniah and Steve de la Zylwa, and some others whom I have not forgotten, not surprising if Nicholas Casie Chetty was amongst them since he would not have drunk with the same enthusiasm as the rest of us. And it was there that I properly met Richard de Zoysa, who was much younger and whom I had not really known in school.

The party lasted late into the night, and I think Richard and I walked back home, in a time before three-wheelers, and then drank and talked for a few hours more.  That set the stage for a friendship that was perhaps the most intense of my life. It was also the most entertaining, though the end was so tragic. He was just seventeen at the time, and died less than fifteen years later, taken away by one of the then UNP government’s goon squads and shot.

In a couple of weeks, it will be twenty one years since he was killed. Many poems were written for him then, some of which figure in anthologies I have edited, and in the book produced in his memory a decade ago. I reproduce one of them here, not the most forceful, but to me the most evocative, since it refers to those extraordinary productions of literary texts that we put on at the British Council in the mid-eighties, another time and another world also now long forgotten.

Alfreda de Silva


The dreams of many seasons were

woven in your short summer’s warp and weft.

The stage that you adorned

is now bereft.

Still in the quiet of that hall

one hears the haunting resonance of your voice,

that brought to life this character

and that in solo theatre.

Children’s laughter pealed with wild delight

as they pranced with you through Kipling’s jungle land

and youth sat marveling

when you peopled an evening

with the world that Dickens wrote about.

Then again, in different

vein, there were the plays

where you explored some inner dark,

and an audience went

reliving their own lives

in the tragic roles

you made so real.

Yet, for all that restless

energy and camaraderie,

there was in you a stillness

and a transcience

and like the dragon-fly

that basks in sunlight a little while

spreading its brilliant wings

for all to wonder at and gaze upon.

one moment you were here, and the next gone.

Sunday Observer  13 February 2011 – Colombo Changes: Standardisation hits university admissions