I began lecturing in Peradeniya on January 2nd 1980. Getting up before dawn to catch the train had not been easy, since the 31st of December had been spent at the usual Ponniah party. My last act of the seventies had been to introduce Gowrie Wignarajah to Rohan, having overcome her diffidence about going to a party with a crowd considered irredeemably fast by Colombo High Society. The acquaintance flourished, and Gowrie still accuses me of, or thanks me for, changing her life, for worse or better, depending on her mood. Thankfully, her father seems quite happy with his son-in-law, and the family still flourishes at Mangalagiri, another wonderful old house.
There was no one in the room at the university at which I had been told I was to lecture. After some time a bearded gentleman (as I remember him, though the beard may have appeared later, as the hair on his head vanished), who seemed much older than me, turned up. This was Walter Perera, one of my third year students, of my own age as it happened, given the enormous delays in entrance to university that the disruptions of the seventies had caused. Since no one else came, I sat him down and talked to him for the prescribed period. He was surprised I did not talk at him, since that was the regular practice – one of my colleagues actually read out notes about Dickens to be copied down, though he was thankfully very much an exception.
Before long however I had got my students to write regular essays which were discussed in class. I think they enjoyed this, and they certainly benefited from exchanging ideas, for of the five of them two ended up on the staff and one headed the English Department at NIE. The first year also did remarkably well, the most interesting amongst them, Yuvi Thangarajah, becoming a Dean at the Eastern University, and Acting Vice-Chancellor before the Tigers captured him and nearly killed him. He had to flee to England, and now has to wait until his children finish their education, though I hope he will return as soon as possible after that. He has much to contribute.
The students were fun, but there were very few of them doing English and opportunities for interaction with the others were limited. The most sophisticated of my students, Margot Thomas, introduced me to Jayadev Uyangoda, who had finally got to University after being the 4th accused for the 1971 JVP uprising and spending some years in jail. I was delighted to see the friendship between him and Margot, who had been at Ladies College and whose brother David had been with me at S. Thomas’. Their father had been vicar of St. Luke’s Borella, and she reminded me of birthday parties in the expansive church grounds in the sixties. Sadly, perhaps inevitably, the whole family is now away, the youngest sister having married Sheikh, a Chinese contemporary of David’s and mine at school.
Uyangoda ended up marrying another Burgher lady who also specialized in English. He was much more anxious to discuss literature with me than politics, and I found him astonishingly well read, much more so than me in European theorists and what I might call practitioners of literary theory. He had obviously used his time in prison well, but equally obviously he had an astonishingly broad intellect, and one wondered about a system that had driven youngsters like him into armed revolution, instead of nurturing their talents more positively.
Of course armed revolution was the fashion at the time, all over the world, so perhaps the violence that generation embarked on in Ceylon, as it then was, was inevitable. But it struck me then that we really had to change the system of education since, while it provided basic opportunities for all, it did nothing to promote excellence, and to empower the outstanding in deprived areas to compete on an equal level with the elite.
Ranil Wickremesinghe had by then been appointed Minister of Education, and I had high hopes that he would ensure the necessary reforms. I think he tried, and his White Paper on Education, produced by a superb team that included E L Wijemanne and D A Perera, would have achieved much had it been properly implemented. However it was combined with proposals regarding Higher Education that were divisive, and were tactlessly addressed, by Stanley Kalpage, a Peradeniya Professor turned professional politician and then made Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education. This had been hived off from Education when Ranil was appointed – Mrs Bandaranaike’s erstwhile Permanent Secretary of Culture, subsequently Diyawadana Nilame, Nissanka Wijeyeratne, having made a mess it seemed of the joint portfolio – and taken over by the President, who basically let Kalpage run the show.
The result was disaster. Kalpage had it seemed been ill-treated by students when he was at Peradeniya, and he certainly seemed determined to deal with them in similar fashion. His saddest step, which put the case for private initiatives in education back for years, was to establish what was termed a Private Medical College at Ragama. This was an excellent idea in itself, and I saw nothing wrong in its administrators providing places for their own offspring, many of whom were able but denied admission to university because of the new District quota based system that the government had introduced after Cyril Mathew accused Tamil examiners of cheating.
Where Kalpage and his crew went wrong was in allowing the Private Medical College to be parasitic on the state. It was permitted to provide degrees from Colombo University, which was of course manifestly unfair to students who had completed their courses from Colombo. Instead of developing an independent mechanism to assess quality, the Jayawardene government set up a system that would have allowed students of a private institution to claim parity with graduates of a more prestigious body. True, Carlo Fonseka has argued that the Colombo University Medical Fraternity promoted the measure, as a way of maintaining standards, but it is unlikely that his colleagues were as idealistic or naïve as Carlo, and did not understand the sleight of hand that was being practiced.
That was an issue then that roused emotions, and a newly resurgent JVP, released from jail swiftly by Jayawardene so they could join him in persecuting Mrs Bandaranaike, rose to the challenge, and managed to have the White Paper withdrawn. This was not fair on Ranil, even though he was told to proceed with much of what it suggested, and did so. Because Jayawardene, intent by then on more insidious stratagems, did not want to confront the students head on, accepting their objections to some measures in the White Paper but standing firm by the bulk of it, implementation was haphazard. Good things were not entrenched, and were changed when there was a different regime, the next UNP one in fact, given the more populist and parochial approach of Ranil’s successor.