, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

I called up Arjuna Aluwihare as suggested, to find that, impressed by the work Oranee Jansz had been doing on the Medical course at USJP, he had asked her to take over. He was pleased however at my interest, and I suppose felt that my academic qualifications would help in dealing with any objections the English establishment would advance with regard to Oranee, whose first degree had been in science. The fact that she had since done what was probably the best ELT qualification available in the country, offered by the English Department at Colombo, counted for little in the backbiting world of English academics. Conversely, given my own doctorate from Oxford, it was not possible to claim with conviction that I was not qualified, though in fact I had done no work in ELT: given the relative prestige of literature, I was not to be challenged, at least as far as the Diploma and Degree courses I ran. Though they concentrated primarily on language development, the title English was seen as associated with literature, in which my credentials were unquestionable.

Oranee and I then became joint coordinators of the GELT course, in what proved a most enjoyable and fruitful collaboration. She was initially not pleased I think when I was appointed alongside her, for she had looked forward to freedom to implement her interesting ideas, which had proved so effective on her Medical course. However I was tactful and supportive, which my friends thought quite uncharacteristic. But the fact was that I had tremendous admiration for Oranee, and her commitment to hard work in a context in which this was discouraged, and I felt she should be encouraged in every way possible. In fact on the one area in which initially it seemed we disagreed, her belief (following a then fashionable ELT authority called Krashen) that accuracy was not essential, she came in time to believe that at least the basics of grammar should be inculcated. In the course of the five years in which we worked together, she became even more keen on error correction than I had ever been.

We divided the work up in accordance with our own predilections and capacities. She developed a very successful speech course, while I produced a Handbook of Grammar, based on the Workbooks I had earlier produced for the AUCs. This was not taken seriously by other ELT practitioners in Sri Lanka, but Cambridge University Press in India decided to publish it, and it was prescribed in a few Indian Universities. I still get royalties from reprints, and the publication led to CUP taking on more of my books, ranging from an updated political history of Sri Lanka to a book on what I termed the ‘Foundations of Modern Society’, an account of political and scientific thinking during periods in which civilization moved forward.

The Speech Course was incorporated in a book entitled ‘Read, Think and Discuss’, which also included readings culled from previous publications, including the series we had produced earlier for Wilfred Jayasuriya when the GELT began. We provided additional guiding questions, which included exercises in what Oranee described as lateral thinking. This, which we realized was both fun and constructive, given that students were not used to actually thinking, as opposed to taking down and regurgitating notes as required by the Advanced Level Examination, became the germ of the Critical Thinking course I introduced later at Sabaragamuwa University. Oranee devised the most fascinating exercises, and I was delighted to find that students all over the country coped admirably and imaginatively with this requirement.

We also divided up the administration in a way that gave me great satisfaction. We had a small office at the UGC, staffed by a very competent pair who had worked with both Wilfred and Clive, along with a typist who worked at great speed, and a peon who was slow and ponderous but very willing. Oranee came in on most days and took on responsibility for checking and signing the many vouchers we had to certify, since the Course was conducted at 93 Centres islandwide. I had the much more enjoyable task of monitoring work at the Centres, which meant I spent much time travelling the length and breadth of the country. I felt bad about this, since it was such fun, and asked Oranee to do some of this, but fortunately for me she was a strong family person and would not leave her husband.

Over the next five years then I had a splendidly peripatetic existence, inspecting GELT Centres in the afternoons and looking in at AUCs in the mornings. This was possible almost everywhere, except in the Wayamba Province, since I had not been given responsibility for the AUCs there, so I remember long mornings in Resthouses in Chilaw and Kuliyapitiya, working on the laptop I finally acquired. Otherwise life was hectic, but it was utterly enjoyable too, and I look back on those days with immense pleasure.

I did much of my travel during these years in a car hired from a firm called DJC which I had been introduced to by the receptionist at the British Council. He assured me that Jerome Codipilly, the owner of the firm, was entirely reliable, as were his drivers, and so it proved. Over the years he must have provided me with at least half a dozen drivers and, with one exception, they were excellent, polite, punctual and willing to help with anything, including hauling the vast quantities of books that needed delivery all over the country.

In time though I had practically for my exclusive use Jerome’s general factotum. Kithsiri was initially a mechanic, and I got his services fortuitously, when I once rang up requiring a car the next day, and was told that no drivers were available. Mrs Codipilly however, who was even more helpful than Jerome, rang me up again almost immediately and said she did have a driver available, but he did not speak English. Since the car was for me, I said this was not a problem, and duly the next morning someone who looked barely twenty turned up.

He turned out to be a superb driver, though as we got to know each other better he would complain about the ‘timing’ I imposed on him, trying to see three GELT Centres in an afternoon, ensuring that I was at the first one at 2 pm and that I got to the last just before 4.30, when the Centres were supposed to close. Despite these complaints, he never failed me, and I was so confident of his driving that I often fell asleep during those hectic journeys.

He was game for almost anything, including a three day stint in Mutur. Siron Rajaratnam had arranged for me to conduct a workshop there for English teachers, who had not I think had anything of the sort in that remote area ever before. This was the second such workshop, and the previous driver I had gone with, who was from home, had left after one night, thinking Trincomalee much safer. Kithsiri however stayed, and seemed almost to relish the gunfire he claimed he heard at night. He also took me deep into the countryside to visit the homes of some of the AUC students, and I was astonished at the hutments from which they had come, testifying to their commitment as well as the intelligence that had triumphed over such conditions. Recently I was delighted to find the smartest of those I met, who had in fact got into Colombo University rather than an AUC, a respected administrator in the area, albeit prematurely middle-aged, large now and ponderous in comparison with the lively young figure I remembered.

The only place Kithsiri refused to go was Batticaloa when both he and Jerome claimed it was the other who was unwilling. I had therefore to hire vans from Buttala, which Mrs Siriwardene obligingly arranged. After this had happened twice Kithsiri decided to take the risk, and found Batticaloa perfectly safe. I do recall however the occasion on which I visited the Centre at Tirukkovil, to the south of Pottuvil. I asked the soldier at the checkpoint whether I could go on, and he cheerfully replied that I could certainly go, but whether I could come back was another question.

All this travelling was not however to Dorakumbura’s taste. He had not been enthusiastic about my taking on the GELT course, though in the end he permitted it, for it was of course a feather in the USJP cap that it should be in charge of pre-University English for the entire University system. But it added to his feeling that I was not sufficiently committed to the University, and I fear that this was played on by the Head of the Languages Department who was not keen on a separate Department of English being established, since that would take away much of his sphere of responsibility.

What I did not realize at the time was that he was also anxious to get the Chair attached to the Languages Department, and perhaps he saw me as a potential rival. I found this out from the Lecturer in Sanskrit who had joined on Prof Palihawadana’s retirement, and who had himself expected to take over the Chair. A renowned scholar himself, with a doctorate, he would not have thought the Head of Languages would have had aspirations himself, but so it proved, and it was quite some time before the qualified scholar became Professor.

The Head meanwhile had not been supportive of the Dean, and contributed to the animosity that developed between Dorakumbura and Prof Wilson. With the resignation of the latter, the Faculty sank back into its traditional moribundity.

Ceylon Today 20 August 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=4462