Sarath Amunugama, in The Island, where the title runs “Our Debt to Hilary Abeyratne” … the change of title being a liberty that I have taken because I knew Hilary and I am a friend of Sarath, Web Editor.
A few months ago I had a postcard from Hilary Abeyratne who was then critically ill in Australia. I had done him a small service and he had taken the trouble to write to me and recall the time when he was our teacher at Trinity. The last time I had seen him was when I had called over at his daughter’s residence in Nawala a few years ago. He had asked to meet me in office but I had insisted that I must visit him. This was probably his last visit to Sri Lanka and had been asked by some old Trinitians to comment on the state of our old school. We had a chat over breakfast and all the while he spoke about what we could do to improve Trinity and make it more responsive to the needs of young people in the country.
Hilary’s postcard moved me deeply and for some time, months before news his death at a ripe old age reached us, I had begun to reflect on what he had meant to me. I suspect that many of his students at Trinity of my generation had similar feelings. We have now suffered a personal loss and have been diminished by his death.
Whatever educational experts may say, the truth is that young people learn by idolizing their teachers. They establish a personal bond with outstanding teachers and try to emulate their intellectual concerns as well as their life styles. We study because we want to be like them. My classmate Jayantha Dhanapala in his note on Hilary has quoted what I had written earlier about our teacher. “He was the personification of what every intelligent student would like to be.”
Trinity in the late fifties was as near as we could get to a perfect public school. It had a small number of students who were mostly boarders, a superb staff and library and other facilities and a Principal whose dedication to work and play was legendary. Many of the old boys who have written about Hilary have referred to the superb teachers encountered by us at that time. Schoolboys tend to coin nicknames for their teachers that captures the essence of their style. Those nicknames may be cruel but they are appropriate. R L Kannangara of the middle school was a master story teller would stop his lessons half way and begin with stories of Jean Valjean and Sherlock Holmes which held us spellbound. He was afterwards nicknamed “Pachaya”, probably because he led us into such realms of the imagination. Our Cadet Master Theodore de Silva was predictably “Tuffy” who would not hesitate to slap a buck private who was out of step and admonish him to use ‘the other left’. The somewhat Chinese looking Ivan Jansze who taught us geography, and was fixated on identifying Chinese cities on the map, was called “I Chang”. There were other names like “Gabo” and “Combina” whose origins were lost in the mists of time. But what was most popular and universally used in the school was “Honker” which seemed to me to be a nickname lifted straight out of “Boys Own” magazine.
The proud bearer of this nickname, which we fondly, and as it happened erroneously, believed was unknown to its subject, was Hilary Abeyratne. Even senior students would not dare to address him as Hilary – as kids in International Schools often address their teachers nowadays. ‘Mr. Abeyratne’ was too formal for a teacher we admired and loved. So it was “Honker”. Of course out of his hearing.
But “Honker” beautifully caught the essence of our teacher. Whatever the college activity, he was in the middle of it, giving his opinion with a ‘devil may care’ attitude; often he was sarcastic, opening his intervention with “Well, you fellows” blah blah blah. He knew so much on every subject so that we could only be speechless in wonder. If some information was necessary from the outside world, e.g. the Peradeniya University – a rare necessity in our school regime – he would call a friend on the school telephone with the squirming student beside him and say loudly “This fellow is so anxious to know about it that he seems to be doing something to his trousers.” Guffaws were heard from the eavesdropping office staff and the student began to curse himself for taking his problems to ‘Honker’. But within minutes the problem was solved.
Hilary taught us western history. His lessons were so fascinating that we went to class well in time so as not to miss his dramatic entrance. He would be seen walking about the corridor for a few minutes after the starting bell, pulling deeply on his cigarette. After a few puffs he would flick the barely smoked cigarette, eagerly watched by some members of the class who would retrieve it later for their own enjoyment. He would then fling the exercise books containing our homework at us underlined, commented on and graded by him. He was generous with his marks and encouraged his students to express themselves freely. Then he would launch a remarkable exposition of Napolean or Mettemich or the Concert of Europe. The use of ‘Concert’ would set off a snigger among the boys used to musical concerts. (“It’s not what you fellows think”). Concerts were associated with Gordon Burrows our Latin and music teacher. The best lectures were about the Corn Laws and the epic political battles between the Conservatives and the Liberals, personified by Disreali and Gladstone.
Our teacher had strong socialist leanings. It was an amalgam of his studies among leftist students in London and his Christian conscience. With his outstanding qualities and his connections he could have got any job he wanted. But he preferred to teach, and it was rumored, his small income was supplemented by grants from his mother. All this however did not stop him from investing in a posh sports car which added to his ‘charisma’ as far as his students were concerned. My classmate Emil Van der Poorten has written about Hilary and his influence on his brothers Mickey and Tony who later emerged as Leaders of a Trotskyite faction in the UK. Michael became Michael Banda. I recall the Van der Pooten brothers and their friend Miles Christoffels selling Sama Samaja newspapers in Kandy town when we, as younger kids were a captive audience in a queue for inexpensive gallery tickets for movies at the Wales Theatre. But to the best of my knowledge Hilary did not join the LSSP though his brother, Earnest, was close to its leaders. Hilary happened to be in England when the left was having a romance with the cinema. British documentaries glorifying workers engaged in the war effort, sailors, soldiers and especially the RAF flyers, came out of the British left. Unfortunately the sympathizers of the hidebound Trotskyite LSSP could not see any good in war propaganda.
Hilary made a decisive change in our lives when he promoted film appreciation in college. Week after week we would assemble in the Hall in the evening and watch cinema classics from Russian master film makers to French and British directors. Over a time span of 50 years I can still remember screenings of “Battle Ship Potempkin,” “The Straw Hat”, “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Odd Man Out” which were organized by our Film Society.
Perhaps even more important were the short films on film appreciation. Sequences were analyzed shot by shot and a commentary took us behind the scenes in movie making. An analysis of “Overlanders” with cutting of images of the stampeding cattle is still imprinted in my mind.
Two aspects of Hilary’s influence remains. The first is his encouragement to all of us to strive to be the best. Be it in class or in the playground he wanted us to give of our best. He would not tolerate sloth and shoddiness. A bold schoolboy essay would always draw a commendation and ‘a good show man!’ from him. He would follow our careers in the University with genuine interest. When Ahamed Marikkar and I entered the Ceylon Civil Service he got the then Principal Cedric Orloff to talk about our success at the college Assembly and sent us letters of congratulation on behalf of the school. It is a letter I treasure even today.
The second was his social conscience. Behind that fascinating “Playboy” image, the man who had it all, including the most beautiful of Kandyan girls of his time, he had a genuine concern for the oppressed and the weak. Acts of snobbery or injustice – as sometimes manifest in elite schools – enraged him. He had a passion for what was right, according to his Christian convictions. Unfortunately this universal concern did not fit the petty insular considerations of Governors of Trinity College at that time. As a result the College lost the ‘best principal it never had’.