Friday, July 12, 2013

Confessions of a doubting Royalist

I didn't go to the school. I was sent there.  There was nothing voluntary about that decision. To me it seems like a conspiracy to deprive me of the fun that I gotten used to and was quite happy to continue indulging myself in for as long as I lived. I was taken to Royal with as much mental resistance to the idea of school as many of my soon to be pals.

While I can’t remember physically kicking and screaming, I know that I did bop my parents with a few teary reminders that I was not here of my own volition. Our class teacher, as far as I remember, was one of the bubbliest people around and her initial verbal gambits which had all the kindness and care of her sweet soul behind it only managed to upgrade my general emotional status from “mild disquiet” to “absolute terror”.

The only practical activity of any worth was frequent, furtive glances out the door and windows of that small class room for a reassuring sight of the mother.  As the day wore on, it became apparent that she, along with a clutch of other mothers who were skulking beyond the row of trees lining the playground, were all wearing the same look of - wow - worry! This cheered me up greatly and well, it all started to make real sense to me. None of us involved in this skirmish were relishing it. All of us, teachers, students and parents were engaging in an interaction that was supposedly needed but none of us had a great deal of heart for and the collective relief at the tin-ti-tin-ti-tin-ti-tin-ti-tin lets-all-get-the-heck-outta-here bell underscored that fact. mmm… that, as far as I remember, with hindsight observations of course, was me first day at school. “Not the best, could’ve been worse” sort of feeling is what comes back to moi from thirty eight years ago. The rest of the year was a series of mid-day intervals that gave me a welcome reality check on the fact that school was a temporary, uncomfortable hiatus in my world of fun.

Mrs. Samanasinghe, our second grade class teacher was way cool. I think she was my first love but hola, wasn’t I a bit too young to be thinking such things? Probably.  Decades later, I guess it’s just a smile and fond remembrance of a really great lady who was far kinder than most other strangers I had met up with until that point. Pradeep (Jegga)’s mother was probably the only other person that I would feel comfortable with and  trusted if I needed the bathroom in a hurry and didn’t have the technical know-how to face the combined challenges of squatting pans, water buckets, and an extra  pair of shorts. Over the years, that lady was very significantly responsible for honing some of my better known abilities and I cannot speak of Royal without mentioning her since my teacher-student relationship with her was woven very prominently into the tapestry of the whole learning experience.

We students got along relatively well I think. The occasional disagreements were usually agreeably neutralized except I think when, as far as I remember, Chandimal was unfairly punished by the principal. I mean, if a chap wanted to thump one of his friends, let him do so and have done with it without getting the cops, legal system and ultimate school authority also involved in a nothing thing, surely?

Anyways, apart from a few rare incidents similar to the one mentioned when I actually did a bit of thinking, I lived my school life from second grade to fifth grade with all of the protective armor, physical agility, mental prowess and emotional strength of a slug.

It’s a bit of a laugh to think about it now and realize that there was precious little that I really learned apart from the fact that not doing that badly at the exams meant extra time to have my kind of fun which was to read Enid Blyton, do puzzles and play cricket.

Fifth grade. Scholarship year. The larger-than-life Mrs. Peiris was our class teacher and she used a formidable battery of weapons not least of which was her booming, intimidating voice to make sure that we didn’t embarrass ourselves at the scholarship exam. She never had to use a cane. If I felt bad about the treatment being meted out to me, I felt even worse for her son whose arrival on this planet was so badly timed that he ended up in his mother’s class in the very first year that we had an academic challenge to face. I really felt for that guy who was womanhandled around even more than the rest of us and for the first time, I had a vague sense of foreboding, knowing that my own mother was part of the staff of Royal at the time.

I also downgraded myself from slug to potato.

If I had even a marginal chance of affecting my immediate environment in the years before, that year saw that privilege removed. Teachers, parents and even peers were uprooting me, chopping me up, cooking me down using me for all sorts of fancy decorations – all in the name of some stupid exam that meant nothing to me - and there was jack I could do about it all. Thankfully, since Royal Junior students were not eligible for scholarships it wasn’t that bad but still, passing – and passing well, as we were all never allowed to forget, was a matter of pride that reached life and death proportions. All in all, the best I can say about that year is that I didn’t crap my pants on the day of the darn exam and did pass fairly well. Also, thanks Mrs. Peiris and a grudging salute to Mr. Atlas Hall.

Seventh grade was all too short. Courtesy of the mother unit who was a senior staff member of the college, I was yanked out of royal Junior school (whose environment I had, through a slow and painful process of assimilation, become not too uncomfortable with), and dumped in Royal College and into the company of some of the best “scholarshipped” eleven year old minds from across the country. I believe that I was the first student to be “amalgamated” with the senior school. My junior school buddies were to follow a year later, but at that moment, sitting in one of those humungous classrooms in the senior section of college, for the first time in my life, I came face-to-face with that monster known as “academic competition”. They were all a bunch of pretty nice blokes really. Yet, all those boys had gone through some sort of baptism of fire via the scholarship that I had no inkling of.  And here they all were, and the feeling that they were pawing and ground and foaming at the mouth to prove themselves to be even better than they had already done was…mmm... intimidating - to say the least. I just couldn’t face that beast so I cut and ran, or rather, hid my head under my desk and pulled it back out only rarely all the way to the O/L’s.

As far as I could figure it out, there weren’t any “grades” between the seventh and the tenth. It was simply one long battle to come out tops at the O/Ls. Mind you, I did, on occasion, pop me head out of the barrow into which I had slid myself and in those few moments, apart from the fact that I simply wanted to get right back into that comfy hole, I did meet some very nice human beings apart from my peers.

Best amongst the students were the senior prefects. Just a dozen or so of them were taking on the whole school and what a job they did. Gafoor, Schooman, Gomez, Parakrama, Sasidharan to mention a few were the type of Royalist that I really longed to become. Leaders (as their varied subsequent careers proved to all) of an ilk that is now a rarity. I was more worried about what they thought of me than the teachers. The teachers had a default power differential but these boy-men were of a different caliber. They had earned our respect, commanded us not at all and yet, ensured that we were top notch Royalists with that spirit that we had come to associate with the school over the almost century and a half of its existence. Loosing face to those prefects was, at least to me, tantamount to committing spiritual suicide. Needless to say, I never got myself in a situation like that - at least, not until they had left school.

From amongst the teachers, the late Mr. Viji Weerasinghe, Mr. Cooray, Mrs. “Bombe” Dharmasiri who was anything but a bomb although she seems always very ready to explode, Mrs. Jeganathan, Mr. Sawad and Mr. Munasinghe  stood out as  the type of teachers that every teacher should attempt to emulate. Indeed, in later years, as a teacher of many things from piano to guitars to mathematics to computer science to holistic development, I have tried my best to live up to the standards of excellence that those men and women  showed us by making examples of themselves. That I enjoyed reasonable success in these activities is in no small measure, thanks to them … although no personal thanks will do justice to what they “taught” me about teaching. The best thanks I can probably give them is by pointing to about a dozen of my own students who are now emulating them and say “See, Sir, Madam,  those young  boys and girls have become superb teachers because of you”

During that four year lead up to the O/Ls, I was happily flunking in everything but music and English (in which I was up amongst the top three more through a natural ability than by applying myself in an academic sense).  I was also playing chess. Quite a lot of it actually. “Playing for college” took on an insane significance and thank you, Arjuna Parakrama for inculcating this sense of “mission” in me. All through those years, while playing for college, I never lost a match of significance to anyone and “anyone” counted national players to whom I would loose like a dog in “national circuit games”. Chess was not a fun activity when one was carrying the Blue’n Gold. We played for blood and neither asked for nor received any quarter. Due to that mindset, I suppose, Royal College (Juniors) never lost a schools chess tournament in the years I played and we never went below number 3 in the senior division. Although I never was the competitive sort, through that single activity, I excorcised  all of my competitive zeal and thank all the gods there may be for the fact that as a result; I completely exorcised every vestige of it from my soul *laff*.  

It wasn’t as if I didn’t indulge in recreation. The best activities from a “fun” perspective were “French cricket” and various forms of “ata bola”. I would get to school at 6.10 am just so that I could get optimal mileage in the recreation department before school started. That distance was further increased during the interval and after school. The “do-nothing-time” between end of exams and the closure of school was also a fantastic time for a chap hell bent on having a barrelful of fun in the process of getting nowhere fast from an educational perspective.

I did play one season of under 14 cricket but the experience was far from joyful. Predictably, once again, that idea of “competing” took all the wind out of my sails and all the flight out of my spin bowling. Scouting was fun while it lasted – or rather, while I lasted as a scout. I joined up because “Katuwa” Guneratne was me best buddy at the time and sat next to me in class clad in the same sort of worldview on things academic. I was not in the least interested in the deeper ideas of Baden Powell. Come to think of it, there was another person who joined the troop from our batch for dubious reasons. K.B.A. Silva. Seems like there was an “inter schools scouts cricket tournament” and well, the scouts suddenly woke up to the fact that they had spent far too much time getting badges and had paid almost no attention to wielding willow against leather. A quick check around the bunch of junior cricketers and the best bowler from amongst them was promptly seconded into the troop and from that day, the nickname “Bolaya” was how everyone knew K.B.A. Silva. He, unlike me, actually started to like scouting and continued to be involved for many years after leaving school. I stopped the very next year.  Katuwa was sitting in a completely different classroom you see.

About this time in my journey through college I suddenly realized that Royal was slipping by rather fast and I was sliding along without quite knowing the reason why. The whole experience felt like wet ice on wet ice which is to say in felt like nothing. It took me a while to realize why this was so. The spirit which three generations of my own forefathers had lived and breathed and transmitted to me – was hardly ever apparent. Maybe I was in hiding for too long, maybe I was too sleepy to see it when it was in full force, maybe I was too confused by clashing ideas of life and living – whatever the reason (and I am sure many of me college buddies would have diametrically opposite views on this) - I just couldn’t get a fix on it. The “spirit” of a school is ingrained in every student and in every teacher and it really shouldn’t have been too difficult to see so - if I wasn’t knee deep in it and surrounded by it as far as me eye could see - then I don’t think it was really there. Sad. 

 The only incident of significance to the “spirit” of Royal that I remember from that time was based on the circumstances of a boy in the immediately lower grade eating the detention page off his SRB in front of a prefect. The boy happened to be my brother so I had a grandstand view of the whole episode. While the details are best left to the actual “players” I know it was the result of him owning up to the prefect for some misdemeanor or other and then flatly refusing to squeal on his fellow class mates who were also part of the trouble. The prefect made the unfortunate decision to tell my brother to write out the reason for detention in the SRB and when he took it up to the prefect for signing, it read something like this: “detained for not selling out my fellow royalists”. BOOM. The prefect was up close and personal with something he may never have known existed. The Royal Spirit. Neither of them was willing to back down, one thing led to another and before long, one unit of official SRB was minus the detention page which had begun the process of digesting in the stomach of its owner. Unable to face the fallout of that supposedly brazen act of insubordination, the poor prefect went howling up to “Kuts” who, with all the sense of fair play and Royal spirit behind him, almost took the unprecedented step of giving detention to the prefect!

I just could not live that episode down. Not because I didn’t find it a jolly good example of both how a Royalist should and shouldn’t behave but because I don’t think I would ever have had the courage to do what me bro did. I, and a whole bunch of us, was far too obsessed with being “goody-two-shoes” to do any such thing. I am not talking about run-of-the-mill general mischief which was all around us but rather the way in which a “Royal attitude” addressed such issues. The feeling of guilt was compounded by the fact that I never took kindly to that later day addition of the SRB into the lives of Royalists. Instinctively, I felt that it was an affront to the very spirit of Royal to have a personalized board on which to mark brownie points. “Red” says great and “black” says late? Oh please. Royal are a few cuts above Hogwarts surely? I kind of feel bad for the collective “us” that none had the balls to eat the whole misbegotten book with special emphasis on using exotic recipes to mulch the detention page. The episode, sadly, also indicated to me that the standards of student leaders were slipping very dangerously from a “Royal” point of view.

I passed the O/Ls – despite myself and almost entirely due to the efforts of my mother and Mr. Munasinghe who taught me mathematics. That’s about the best I can say about that apart from the fact that Mr. Munasinghe was probably the reason why I became a pretty fair mathematician in later years.  

Mathematics and chess for the A/Ls. Remember, it was really not the eleventh grade but rather the first year of the A/L. This outlook, in a nutshell, put the whole senior college existence in horrible perspective. Study till you drop because we are really not here to enjoy school but to think beyond it. My school buddies were hitting the tuition classes in droves and in brief bursts I was dragged along on this mad bus ride to nowhere. Some of them decided to say to heck with it all and played their sports and joined their clubs almost on a full time basis and I say cheers to them for their plans did not involve getting their brains fried by attempting to pass an exam as opposed to acquiring skills that would be useful for the rest of their lives.

The only teacher in the A/L classes that I had the good fortune to meet and who had any sense of proportion about any of this was Mr. “Hara” Nanayakkara. The only reason why I think so is because of the totally creative punishments he would mete out to errant students. It was not uncommon to find a pal in a dustbin with the cover over his head or curled up in a ball under the teacher’s table or groveling and worshipping a teacher he had just insulted. “Kuts” of course, was a phenomenon - but that goes without saying - and I think every single Royalist of his era has at least a dozen personal “Kattaya” stories to relate to his children. Too personal to expose to the general public and too precious to share with any but the closest. Apart from his cane and his strong belief that he could use a bottle of Dettol as a viable alternative to a phone handset for communication purposes, I think those wonderful stories are best left in the individual hearts and minds of a whole generation of students who were fortunate enough to be there at the same time that he was.

I continued to play chess as a senior member of the team and came across a phenomenon during that first A/L year that I never thought I would experience at Royal. Favoritism. Yuck. The proven Pradeep Jeganathan and Samath Dharmasiri were hoofed out of the team for not having that special talent that was required to lick the relevant rear end to the satisfaction of its owner. We fought. Yuck again. Kuts intervened in what I believe was one of the best pieces of diplomacy and arbitration I’ve ever seen. Despite the happy outcome, I felt like I had swallowed a toad and washed it down with earth-worm juice. I never was the type to gag in public but I couldn’t get the horrible taste of that episode out of my mouth for months. The happiest incident that I can think of in terms of my college career in chess (winning was not even in the picture here – we expected to win, we played to win and we won – no trick to that) was that I stopped playing chess the day I left school and never touched a chess set again – chuckles.

Other than that… well…

I didn’t understand races much and rat-races not at all so I used up the time that I was not playing chess as constructively as I could by indulging my love life to serious levels of distraction. Rewarding though that was, mark you, I hid my many amorous forays from my parents, my teachers and my fellows and at times, I suspect, even from myself and I am kinda proud that  I was, throughout my A/L years,  earnestly considered  by all to be a committee member of the “Honda Lamayge Sangamaya” if not its president – hah!

This feeling of supposedly “positive non-neutrality” towards me was the reason why I was appointed a prefect in the later part of my second A/L year and that, I am sorry to say, was what really got me goat. I was appointed a prefect not because I was a “nayakaya” but rather, because I was a “honda lamaya”.

Looking around me, I was horrified to see that many of the new batch of prefects were of that same shameful group. As prefect material I was definitely a terrible choice.  I knew I had never ever shown any true leadership qualities throughout my years at college people. It was not in my nature to be such a person. This should have been easily recognized by the powers that were at that time and I should never have been considered to be “made of prefect stuff” but the appointment was not entirely unexpected.

Teachers and students were far removed from each other and that rift was increasing with each passing day. Students rarely connected with each other due to their obsession with passing exams. I never knew half the guys in my own class let alone any other class or grade for heaven’s sakes! So, the worst possible scenario for making choices about leadership were present and the only way that a teacher could do so was by the mechanical means of saying “that guy is the president or captain or secretary of some team or club or society or other so he must be having some leadership qualities so lets reward the nut by sticking a piece of metal on his shirt”. Sheeesh. I ask ya? 

There were about a dozen blokes in our batch that were capable leaders and they should have been quite sufficient. Unfortunately, circumstances and social pressures were dictating otherwise and so, I was, miserably, made a prefect. The amusement that was just below the surface of students in lower grades when a dozen “prefects” descended on their class rooms make the mockery of “leadership” all too apparent and thus, I never did much “prefecting”. Stayed away as much as I could and excused myself by saying I had to study – study? Laughs. Frankly I couldn’t have cared less. My journey was almost over and I realized that when one has been slowing down from the first grade, thirteen years down the road one is moving at much the same speed as the slug one compared oneself to so many years earlier. There wasn’t going to be a bang. Just a gentle petering out of a questionable sojourn in a relatively safe place.

All my batch mates were moving on to other things. Entire class loads of us (including me – unfortunately), were on our way to those great portals of universal learning or in a strictly Sri Lankan context – portals of universal striking where happily, I had a six year vacation courtesy of the general political climate of Sri Lanka.

Some would never forget the joy of their college experiences and others would be glad to have done with it. Many would be neutral to the school and more than a few would factor it into their lives only if they happened to have a son they wanted treading in their footsteps. Most would faithfully attend the cricket match, the rugger match and the stag night. I am more than a little worried that I could never find a sufficiently good reason to do any of these things. Not then and not now. I do have warm feelings towards my old school but nothing that reached a point of obsession. So, on the 19th of September 1983, on that day when, quite shockingly, I earned myself a “B” for Advanced Level Applied Mathematics, I left Royal College – never to return. 

(Apologies to my buddies from Royal, was checking out all me pals on FB and thought of this piece, dug it up and posted it) 


  1. Re the SRB-eating incident. Let me put the record straight. Here's what actually happened. The teacher, also our class-teacher, Mr. Wickramasena (Dela alias Del-Thattaya) was late. Naturally there was noise. Prefect Mahasen (alias Mahasona), every ready to pounce and throw his (light) weight around, pounced. We went silent, but he caught me stuffing waste paper into my neighbor's school bag. Liyanage was the 'victim'. He accused me of theft, i.e. robbing cleanliness. This was around the time I really got interested in school. Mrs. BHPR Weerasooriya had taught that certain conditions had to be met for an act to be considered a sin. I knew these and quoted. He got angry and gave me detention. I had to write down the reason, 'misbehavior in class'. I was pissed. I wrote it down with a pencil in bad, big, HARD, letters. He said 'me akuru nemei hakuru...kannai thiyenne'. So I tore off that part..meaning a single line's worth of paper, and ate it. He sent me out of the class. Dela arrived. The matter went up to Kataya, who inquired. Dela defended me, saying 'he did what the prefect asked him to do'. That was it. Didn't eat the page. Nothing of the heroics described above. But Kataya referred to me as Page 25 thereafter, and I was known as 'the boy who ate the SRB'!

    1. LOL ... thanks for putting the record straight. Sona should've been shot for his stupidity. I thought you went through this piece before it got publicated! I suppose things become romanticized in the telling of the tail and its healthy overall :)


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