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Memories of the Peradeniya Campus
(By V. Vamadevan, Retired Deputy Inspector-General of Police)
The University of Ceylon at Peradeniya was the RESULT of several years of debate and planning. A few small faculties had moved in 1951, but the move of the Arts faculty scheduled for October 1952 was the big event. The Vice Chancellor during this historic move was none other than Sir Ivor Jennings, not a stranger to any arts student of Government. His books were like the Bible, and all students read and digested them. I happened to be in the first batch of Arts students to move into Peradeniya. We were to have one term in Colombo, that is June to August ’52 and then move to Peradeniya in October that year.
The selection to the University at that time was by a competitive exam followed by a viva- voce. The board of selection was invariably chaired by Sir Ivor. The time I presented myself for the Viva in March 1952 the board included, if my memory serves me right, Sir Ivor, Mr. Labrooy and Prof. H. C. Ray. I had travelled from Jaffna a week earlier and my brother had taken me to GRERO’s at Maradana a popular tailor at that time, to equip me with a white suit for the interview. I was told that satin drill was the material in vogue at the time and so that was what I was going to wear.
On the day of the interview I was the last to be called because the names were being called in alphabetical order. Along with me was Ashley Halpe who was a science student aspiring probably to be a doctor. He went in just before me, and the gentleman that he was, he waited until I finished not wanting to let me be alone on my return. May be he guessed that Colombo was new to me and that I was at sea in that environment. On our way back after the interview Ashley told me that Sir Ivor had advised him to switch from Science to Arts and study English. His wisdom was proved right when I learnt that Ashley was at a young age made Professor of English. This is a good illustration as to how important and useful those interviews were and the impact it had on students.
Our first term was at Thurstan Road campus. Ragging was not as bad as it turned out to be in ensuing years. There was good and clean fun.
There were a few of us who used to cycle from Borella for lectures. Some of the Seniors in the group advised us to carry a tie in the cycle basket. We complied, and on one of our return trips one of the seniors spotted a wedding reception in progress at the Women’s International Club Hall and asked us to put on our ties and follow him. He took us to a table and we sat down and were soon served with very delicious short-eats and we enjoyed the evening tea. All that was left to be done was to shake hands with the bride and groom and depart.
Sir Ivor used to put out notices which were a treat to read. For example, if he wanted to stop cycles being parked under the porch, the notice would read ‘You may park your cycle under the porch and pay a fine of Rs. 20’.
The first Union election for office bearers who would hold office at Peradeniya was held in Colombo before we closed for the first term. There was a lot of canvassing. The candidates were either Rightist called ‘Juntas’ or leftists dubbed ‘Trots’ or ‘Commies’. Candidates printed handbills and cards giving their names and asking voters to vote one way or the other. On the day of the count, Sir Ivor was busy collecting these cards, and some candidates were falling over one another to have the honour of seeing their cards in Sir Ivor’s hands. After the election was over a notice appeared which read "The following students who have enough funds to print election literature will forfeit their Bursaries." The list beneath carried the names of all those students whose cards Sir Ivor had collected. Sir Ivor instilled discipline by outwitting the students.
Even at Peradeniya in the early years the freshers did not have to contend with venomous ragging. Freshers were made to stand sentry outside the halls with a broom in the ‘Present Arms’ position and salute the seniors as they came and went. They had to run errands to the girls hostels delivering flowers as instructed by the Seniors. The worst was when a insomniac Senior put them up at 4.00 a.m. for physical exercises in the court yard and barked out commands he had learnt as a senior cadet at school. How and when ragging deteriorated to the low depths of degradation to which it has descended, I don’t know.
Arunachchalam hall was called ‘A’ Hall for convenience, while some called it Al Hall because it had rooms with a cubicle and wash basins, not to mention good teak furniture. The only other hall that could boast of such facilities was Jayatilaka Hall. Activities in the halls went on into the wee hours of the morning. The common room was the centre of all activities. The radio was on all the time. Those who listened to western music looked down upon those listening to oriental music. Even among those listening to oriental music, those listening to Hindi music looked down upon those listening to Sinhala and Tamil music. There seemed to be a class distinction based on the type of music one favoured.
It was customary for left wing politicians to be invited to the Union Society to address the students followed by dinner for them at one of the halls. Dr. N. M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva were an instant hit with the students and were listened to with adulation. Government party politicians had learnt through the years that discretion was the better part of valour and gave Peradeniya a miss. The few who ventured, like Sir John Kotelawela learnt their folly, never to be repeated.
First woman Union President
The Union society was also a forum for promising and ambitious students to make their mark. The first woman president was Sudharma Alles (later Mrs. Manthi Ranawake, and now domiciled in Australia). She steered the Union through the rough and abrasive early days in Peradeniya. R. Sundaralingam who was in later years to carve out a niche for himself in the Police, cut his teeth in the Union society. He had the distinction of being elected uncontested as the President perhaps for the first time in University history. Both sides (i.e.. the Kultur & the Trots) thought he was their candidate until the nominations were over. A tactician and strategist like Sundaralingam, appear rarely on the face of the earth.
Speaking of Union Society elections one cannot forget to mention the Hindagala boutique where the election strategies were planned and plotted. The discussions there, used to go on for hours on end. If there was any place that needed to be bugged for espionage by the Special Branch it was the Hindagala boutique.
Being a residential University, there used to be interesting after dinner debates. Father Pinto and Professor Ray were popular draws, and usually found themselves on opposite sides. Each of them, made the other the butt of their jokes, to the amusement of the students. Both were historians, Fr Pinto in European History and Prof. Ray in Indian History. Prof Ray had a humour peppered with sarcasm which was all the more stinging because of the sarcastic smile he wore on most occasions. Fr. Pinto was quick to take a swipe whenever an opening presented itself. The result was a hilarious evening.
It used to be said of Professor Ray that he took a walk in the late evenings with his walking stick, and on going home he would leave his walking stick in a corner and sleep in his bed. One day, the story goes that after yet another days walk he laid the walking stick on the bed and stood in the corner the whole night. I think this was some student’s fantasy foisted on the Professor because of his known absent mindedness.
Sports played a very prominent part in life at Peradeniya. The competitions between the Peradeniya campus and the Colombo campus were big events. Brant Little, though unpopular with some of the students, did a very good job. He was responsible for sending many of the teams overseas to take part in competitions. Thanks to him some of the undergraduates were able to travel overseas for the first time in their lives. I captained the Peradeniya soccer team and was fortunate to play under that stalwart of soccer, Peter Ranasinghe in the University soccer team and take part in the Inter-University soccer tournament at Hyderabad.
Speaking of Peter Ranasinghe, I was surprised to find him a household name in India. He had by then made a name by his dazzling play as Ceylon captain at the Quardrangular meet in Burma. He received so much media exposure that when the train stopped at wayside stations in remote Andra Pradesh, boys would come to our compartment and inquire who ‘Peter Ran-a-singh’ was. Brant Little did put the Ceylon university on the sports map of South Asia. He also made university colours a coveted achievement, and Colours Night was the biggest social event in the campus calender.
Romance was rife and the banks of the Mahaweli provided convenient retreats for young lovers. Much of the gossip was about those goings on. There were quite a few staff-student affairs which were the subject of the spiciest stories going the rounds. There were young lecturers (men) back from Oxbridge or Berkely in their new designer trousers who were the cynosure of all especially the girls. There was a Miss Tourqiot a French lady from the South of France, who was teaching French for those of us who had to do a paper in French translation for the Honours course. One of her classes had 12 students on the list, but when she came for the class she found about 100 students seated ready for the class.
Fantasising was the pastime of many of the students. Most of the time the other party wasn’t even aware of an admirer’s longings. Such students were referred to as Psychoing so and so. Their relationships were referred to as "50% through".
Hiking was a very favourite leisure activity in those early days. Come Saturday, boys and girls get snack packs ready and start assaulting the Hantane peak. Some of those ‘Hikes’ comprised of very large groups. I went on a hike with about 40 members of ‘A’ Hall and we climbed the Balana peak. It was a twin peak with a beautiful sight of the Balana Pass below and a panoramic view of the Kadugannawa pass and the railway embankment. It was from the Balana peak that Kandyan scouts used to keep a look out for the Portuguese, Dutch and later British troops advancing on Kandy. On the slightest sighting, signals by drum were passed in relays to the palace in Kandy to make preparations to take on the enemy.
Food in the halls of residence was very good by normal standards. The Wardens did a good job and the servants were very courteous and helpful. Breakfast was very often bread and poached eggs with quite a few variations. Lunch was a solid rice and curry meal. Dinner was normally a western dish such as steak and potatoes with a good dessert. We were looked after very well by any standard. In ‘A’ Hall we were fortunate to have Dr. D. E. Hettiarachchi as warden assisted by Raja Gunasekera and Tom Wikramanayake. They were devoted to their work and very approachable and understanding of student attitudes.
One big event that brought notoriety to the Peradeniya campus was the hartal of 1953. The students indulged in the usual demonstrations and slogan shouting which brought them face to face with the Kandy Police. The Police went into their usual Riot drill formation and brought down the batons on a mob that until now had thought the whole thing was great fun. The result was bleeding heads and quite a few spending the night in Police cells. The next day some of the students who had never taken part in the demonstration were wearing Arm slings and walking about the campus past the girls hostels like heroes back from the front. The unfortunate students who were in the Police net, had to face court cases. Thanks to Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who appeared free for their defence, they were acquitted.
This sequel had an unfortunate impact on me. One of the prime accused had my surname. In the campus he was known as "Hartal Vama" while I was ‘Vama’ unadorned. But outside the campus, I had to pay the price everywhere I went. And, when I joined the Police and got my first appointment as A.S.P. Kandy I had a difficult time convincing some of the Police officers that it was not I who had spent two days in the same Police cell that I was now supervising.
When the last year approaches, everyone panicks about a job. The more affluent students apply to overseas universities for Post-graduate courses. The less affluent write to the Principals of their ‘Alma Maters’ asking for teaching positions in their old schools. The guiding principle being ‘if you cannot study, start teaching’.
Whatever job or position one gets on graduation, hope springs eternal in the human breast. So, everyone has a bash at the Civil Service exam irrespective of whether they have a chance or not. Even if one missed the civil there were other posts such as D.R.O., D.L.O. Income Tax Assessor and other jobs that might come your way. The Civil Exam is probably the last occasion where you meet old friends and from then on it is each for himself, and God for us all.
Where the mighty Mahaweli meanders along
Where the verdant canopied rain trees throng,
Where the road to Galaha winds through the valley,
There my heart reposes. To leave - a folly?
The Senate building stands on stilts concrete,
Like a gaunt reminder of past cities of the East,
Flanked by hills where fine teas grew
Now replaced by Halls, great and new.
Mars and Marcus, the hills dominate,
And Sanghamitta, a ‘walled-off Astoria’ made
To secure ‘gals’ in their pristine youth,
From nasty barbs and males uncouth.
A bridge too narrow, for traffic vehicular,
Spans the river, now so popular
An avenue for boys of Akbar Nell-Hall,
To meet the girls under willows tall.
On the grounds where once golfers strode,
Stands a faculty, today the abode
Of lads and lasses, Lanka’s pick
Learning the art of healing the sick
The scene has changed,
The trees have grown,
Oh how I love,
To be there again!
(Author of Poem & Copyright Dr. Peter Seneviratne)
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