Arjuna Aluwihare, book shop, British Council, Chitra Wickramasuriya, CIDA, David Woolger, Geetha Premaratne, GELT, Janaki Galappatti, John Keleher, JVP, Mahinda Palihawadana, Neil Kemp, Nirmali Hettiarachchi, Paru Nagasunderam, Rex Baker, Richard Jarvis, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Valerie Young, Wilfred Jayasuriya
Though there was less work to do at the Council, I had much to do outside. First was a massive project with the Canadian International Development Agency to produce low cost readers. John Keleher had put me in touch with the CIDA head, a dynamic woman called Valerie Young, and we hit it off at once.
She had agreed to help with a new course the government had instituted, to teach English to prospective undergraduates before their university courses began. The former Commissioner of Motor Traffic, Wilfred Jayasuriya, had been put in charge, but he proved not only efficient but keenly interested in the subject. He had elaborate plans about the texts that should be prepared, but Valerie agreed with my suggestion that we produce small booklets in a range of subjects, and he fell in with the idea.
Wilfred was indeed a refreshing person to work with after the formulaic approach I had seen previously with regard to university level English. In addition to establishing a network of nearly 100 centres islandwide for the General English Language Teaching (GELT) Project as it was known, he had a series of training and other seminars. The one I remember best happened at the height of the JVP terror, when they used to declare days of mourning and forbid people to go to work. I was able to take the risk, since the Council was so near to my house, but my mother’s worries when I set out on days when hardly anyone was moving suggested how serious the problem could have been.
The last of Wilfred’s seminars was on such a day, and none of the participants turned up, except the keen old lady who coordinated the Centre at St. Servatius in Matara. She had obviously come to Colombo on the previous day, but how she managed to walk to the BMICH defeats me.
Instead of participants we had officials, including half a dozen Ministers. They all spoke positively about the need for English, and I told Wilfred that he should prepare a position paper incorporating their remarks, and put it to the Ministry for action. He thought it an excellent idea, but told me he was going abroad himself that night, on a scholarship the Americans had arranged for him, so he wondered if I could do it myself, and pass it on. I did, but nothing came of it. Despite Wilfred’s abrupt departure, possibly caused by worries about what the JVP might do, his staff continued with the project, and four years later I in fact inherited it and them.
The book project I did for the GELT course was administered through the Council, but John allowed me a free hand. We hired Nirmali Hettiarachchi to coordinate the work, and a couple of bright and enthusiastic youngsters, who between them did a tremendous job. We selected a range of writers, with invaluable assistance from Janaki Galappatti who put together a team of committed university academics to produce the science texts.
Valerie was pleased with the project, and also my suggestion that we should print extra copies and sell them so that there could be reprints. The books were cheaply produced, on newsprint, so we were able to sell them at I think Rs 10, and they proved immensely popular. It was then that Rex and John allowed me to start a bookshop at the Council. It did roaring trade and, because it was in theory run by the English Association by agreement, it lasted for a couple of years after they had left.
When the Council began to frown on book production, I asked CIDA whether they would help, and they gave the English Association a massive grant to produce primary readers. There was also a component for training, and Nirmali and I had a great time conducting workshops round the country, aided by David Woolger who had developed a wide network of enthusiastic teachers during his several stints in the country. We also used Paru Nagasunderam, who had been a student of mine at Peradeniya, and had then worked with David at Pasdunrata, and was now at the HIEE, which had been turned into simply another Department, that of English Education as opposed to English, at the National Institute of Education.
Much of our work was in Amparai and Moneragala, and we became habitués of the training centre at Buttala, and a quaint hotel called the ‘Victory Inn’ at Moneragala. In Amparai we ended up usually at the Rest-house which was run by someone who had been a student at S. Thomas’ when I was Sub-Warden, and who helped shelter us from the drinking centre such rest-houses usually are.
All this helped with the other project I undertook while still at the Council, which was to advise on the English programme at the Affiliated University Colleges that were being established. I had been talking to the UGC Chairman, Arjuna Aluwihare, about the need for a new type of English course, and he told me that this was precisely what he was planning, and he would put me in touch with the person in charge of this, Prof Mahinda Palihawadana of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
Prof Palihawadana called me up the very next day, and we got on very well from the start. I was surprised to find a Professor of Sanskrit in charge of the programme, but it seemed that the traditional English Departments at the older universities had sniffed at the idea of a course for students who had not done English for the Advanced Level and might not have very much English to begin with. USJP then, which only had English as one subject for a General degree, and just a couple of members of staff, had volunteered to help, under the guidance of its broadminded Dean, Prof Palihawadana.
The person in charge of English was a young lady called Geetha Premaratne, who was in the process of putting together a watered down version of a traditional English course. She was quite prepared to listen however and, with David and Nirmali’s help, we put together a course that stressed language skills, in particular speech, as well as literature in terms of reading and understanding texts. I was also asked to produce the textbooks for the course, and found that the ladies of the USJP English Language Teaching Unit, who had been asked to help, willing to adapt to the new specifications. The Consultant who had supervised the project previously, Prof Chitra Wickramasuriya who had recently retired from Colombo, proved game to try new ideas, and proved an invaluable ally. I felt enormously pleased when she gave her approval to the book I had had the most trouble with – and had had to change a lot – when she beamed and declared that, ‘Objects has been transformed.’
Geetha also asked me to help in revising the internal USJP syllabus, and I was enjoying doing this too, when she suddenly asked me if I would consider joining the university. I was surprised, and said I was quite happy helping while staying on at the Council, but she said that she had been granted permission to emigrate to Australia and would be leaving herself. With Prof Palihawadana also about to retire, the programme would collapse unless I took it over.
Put like that, it was difficult to refuse, and in any case I was finding the Council increasingly tedious. Neil had left, translated suddenly to much higher things as he described it, and had been replaced by a much more honest man who was however quite eccentric. Though he had followed Rex in previous postings, he had nothing like his charm, and indeed Mrs Baker, indiscreet as always, regaled us with horror stories about him. These included how he had kept a dog on a flat roof in Baghdad, forgetting that the cement would get heated; the dog had been unable to bear the pain and had jumped to his death. Predictably, in trying to poison the crows he claimed were ruining the Council garden, Richard Jarvis managed to poison the Council’s dog Curfew.
So I decided then to leave, after I had applied for the position of Senior Lecturer at USJP. In April 1992 then, after just over eight years at the Council, I left, with Jarvis, though clearly relieved, being extremely conciliatory. The Council even funded a final trip for me, to attend the Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies Conference in Jamaica, so that between resigning and taking up my new position at USJP, I was able to visit not only Jamaica, but also Cuba and Guatemala. I did not have a visa for the latter country, but having gone to Belize and explained to the Consul on the border post how much I admired the Mayans, he took me to the frontier and got the guards to let me through. So, courtesy of my former employer, I saw Tikal and Antigua Guatemala and Havana, and attended a gaudy at Oxford on the way back, before once more resuming a university career, twelve years after I had so dramatically resigned.