Service to humankind: Venkateswaran father & son

I: N. Venkateswaran, 1900-1973

My Father  N Venkateswaran was a graduate of St Thomas’ College in Kerala, a Jesuit institution & it was not surprising that he found his niche as a teacher in another Jesuit institution, St Aloysius’ College in Galle, Ceylon. Pedagogy was his love and geography was his mistress. Though many a colleague tutored privately for money, he was very firm and stated time and again that he will not prostitute his profession. His values were all passed onto his children and they have done well, all of them Aloysians and students of Sacred Heart Convent.

Mr N Venkateswaran His knowledge of geography was so good that he could describe any city or country as if he had just been there. Our home was like a tutorial school, the lounge filled with chairs, desks and a black board. On Sundays after Mass at the College Chapel, the seminarians from Kalegana seminary would descend on our house for tuition and help, which he actually looked forward to giving. Saturdays were special class days conducted by him for the HSC class.  He accepted the honorary post of “management of benevolent fund for the staff”. Many a morning his breakfast was totally disrupted by the arrival of colleagues applying for loans which he had to sanction and once he sanctioned it The Rector never questioned it. The confidence expected of him was kept like the confidence of a confession.

When the government was trying to muzzle the schools by cutting the aid, my Father and a few like him sacrificed one quarter of their salaries to try to keep the school running. Later on after retirement he and a few others returned to work “gratis” to try and keep the school afloat. But when the aid was completely cut and the stranglehold was almost total, he threw in the towel both with sadness and disgust.

To his last day above his bed hung a framed “school staff” photograph.

Strangely Fr De Mattia and he were very close friends, with the same date of birth and passed away on the same day, as told to me by the one of his students. I was surprised when a detailed two column obituary about him was written up in the Daily News by one of his students, when he passed away. There were so many things about him that I had never known. Unfortunately that cutting has been lost.

There are many of his students scattered all over not only Ceylon but overseas. I was surprised when last month one of his students (K.H) from Melbourne called me up and on the same day another (B.W) from Colombo. For me it was a step back in time. He will live forever not only in the memories of his family but also in the memories of the extended family of students and colleagues.

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II. My Life at SAC, by Dr Venki Vekateswaran          

VENKI Venki as sturdy as ever

One day in 1945 my Father told me, “Let’s go to College and meet Fr Gaspard. I tagged along. There he was in the Parlour, downstairs in the Father’s bungalow, a portly looking priest in cassock, surrounded by a haze of cigar smoke, chomping on an expensive cigar, a pleasant fragrance, a two toned beard, and the most captivating thing about him was his piercing blue eyes that looked right through you with an inscrutable expression on his face. My Father, who was a member of the staff, explained to Fr Gaspard that he wished to have me admitted to the school. He looked me over, patted my head and told my Dad that I should do fine. Luckily I never let him down during my entire stay. I was assigned to Mrs Ernest’s Std 3 E class. A very kind hearted lady but could be strict and if she meant business she used the word ‘sir’ at the end of a statement.  She would say statements like “Please put your hand out, Sir”, before two choice ‘cuts’ were administered across the palm. By default I was appointed class monitor to come 15mts. early to distribute the inkpots, place the duster and chalk ready for the day. My good friend Shiraz Cassim who felt he should have got the post kicked me around the ribs next day, but I never tattled against him, which earned me his life long friendship. Many of us wore khaki polo hats to school. My hat was kicked around, stepped on and sat on. With the loss of three hats in two weeks, I stopped wearing them. After the war and the victory, patriotism was still high. We were once asked the difference between Africans and Europeans, the Chinese and the Japanese, the English and the Germans. Like a Jack in the box, my hand shot up and I blurted  “the Germans are cleverer in discovering surgical instruments, machinery and writers of classical music, whereas the English only borrowed or stole these ideas”. She was livid, called me unpatriotic and packed me off to the Prefect of studies Fr Gaspard to whom I had to explain what I had said. He wanted to know whether I believed in what I had said and I had to agree. He smiled broadly and told me not to repeat these things. On my way back I met Fr De Mattia who asked me what it was all about and when I explained it he asked “Didn’t you know that Fr Gaspard is German”!!! That explained Fr Gaspard’s amusement. And the penny dropped. That was the year of “The Golden Showers”, 50th anniversary of our school. A Gala carnival, with rides, sweet stalls, games stalls, bright souvenirs set the mood for the festivities. Time moved on.

Next year I was promoted to Std 4 E where Mr W. Ratnayake was our class teacher, who ran his class like a military regime. He wore stiff crisp double-breasted white suits, pointed well-polished black leather soled shoes, sported a Hitler’s moustache, and wore his curly hair parted in the middle. I never saw him smile for the whole year, nor did he ever get up from his chair once he had sat down after the morning prayers. Any student who needed to be punished knelt down in the praying position beside his table facing forward the class. Two swift strokes of his short cane on the buttocks drove home the idea. It was not the pain but the indignity. Mrs Abeytunga was such a lovely kind motherly lady who came for our Sinhalese lesson. Once out of the blue I was asked to read out a lesson, but, I had a toffee/bulto in my mouth! Without any rebuke she waited till I ate it up to start reading. She had a baby every year so much so she was always pregnant. Next year’s promotion to standard 5 E was a relief and that too on the top floor. Our ego took a boost. Mr W A De Silva, toothless, an eternal grin and a high-pitched voice was the kindest soul and never showed the unkindest events that life had thrown his way. He was affectionately referred to as “Bassa”, the owl. His son Bernard in his class always addressed him “Thatthe” Once he asked me my ambition and I responded by saying that I wanted to be the Prime Minister of Ceylon. That nick name Prime Minister stuck for ages. I was wedged in between Earl Roux and Antony Roux and Thurgood behind me to try and keep them out of trouble. How I was supposed to do it, I never knew. A lot of us felt sad to leave his class. His home had so many ‘divul’/wood apple trees and any one of us was always welcome to the fruits.

The bell for morning parade was jutting out from the top floor near standard 5 E. One day even though Fr D ‘Amelia gave his signal after ‘parade inspection’, the bell couldn’t be rung by Victor from down below because Richie Perera had grasped and held the chain at the top level. On another occasion before Fr D’Amelia could raise his hand the bell rang, because Richie from the top pulled the chain before Victor. Needless to say on both occasions Richie paid a heavy price but he became an instant hero to all of us. Strange, Richie became a Jesuit priest in later life.

Moving on to Form 1A was a growth in stature as it was a  “Form” class and we got classmates added on from standards 5 A, B and C.  There I found and formed life long friendships with the likes of DBK de Silva, KK De Silva, late Ivor Kelaart, Tony Perera, late Joe Perera, SS Nagahawatte.

Fr Basil Corera, a dynamic tall athletic Jesuit, was our class teacher who had studied for his BSc at St Josephs’ in Trichy, India. Given half a chance he would wax eloquent how St. Josephs’ was 10 times the size of our College. We were not impressed. But he was proved correct; fifteen years later I went to Trichy and saw the institution. After morning prayers he would sit down, take out a wooden block, place the watch on it and start the class. For a whole year for literature we studied “Wreck of the Schooner Hesperus” It was a nightmare. At the end of the class he’d take out a roll of paper, roll out a cigarette, tie his watch and when the bell rang light his cigarette. During the hot afternoons we would go down to the graveyard behind the cathedral, sit on the headstones and have our literature class taken. Later on, classrooms were built here. But we were polite. Before sitting on any headstone, we said a small prayer!!!  It is in this form that we first met two teachers, Mr Connie Manatunga and Mr Anton Ferreira, who were kind with never a harsh word and easily approachable by the student. Of course Mr Siriwardene came in as our maths teacher who was properly baptised as “Kiribath” as he stated its similarity to a parallelogram. Mr Jinadasa, whose surname was the same as that of a company that made a well known sweet out of sesame and palm sugar, was promptly nicknamed “thalaguli”. At this stage Fr J Pogani in his typical brownish cassock started coming to sit in on our English classes, a man we met later on.

VENKI AND CO KK de Silva, Venki, DBK de Silva and Sarath Bandara

The elocution contests were a highlight of the year. I got selected for the Sinhalese elocution contest. Mr Fernando put me through a lot of training in public speaking. On the day, on the stage, I delivered a very emotional speech on the history of “Lanka” and concluded by thumping my closed right fist into my left palm saying: “Laankika ithihasaye ran akuren liyave” The hall exploded into applause. For the part on poetry, it was about flowers “Sal, sapu, saman” etc. Somewhere along the way I forgot two stanzas and finished to a great ovation. The common feeling was that I had won. The late D C Lelwala and Samson Gunaratne were my close competitors. But the judges had noticed my omission and naturally I didn’t deserve to win.

One day Fr Corera brought us a rugger ball, never seen by any of us before. He told us the rules. That evening we played in the Bishops Garden till late. I never reached home till seven in the evening, causing my parents to go into panic mode and the whole staff were mobilised to look for me in the police station, hospital etc!!! I had a telling off from my Dad but Fr Pieris stood by me. At the year end our class was taken on a ‘study tour’ of Colombo which we had looked forward to for long. We were shown important places like the museum, harbour, Ratmalana airport etc with a lunch at Lion House, so spicy, it almost made a hole in many of our stomachs, the heat of the chillies was taken care of by an Alerics ice cream.

Mr Connie Manatunga was our class teacher for Form 2 A, a soft-spoken gentleman who was always addressed as “Aiyya” by his brother Kingsley also in the same class. Here we met Fr Gaspard again as science teacher who felt that “Heat, Light and Sound” by Mitton and General Science were the only things that mattered. A very uneventful smooth year before we moved onto Junior A, where Fr Peiris was the class teacher who by then had become the Prefect of Studies. Naturally we were quite apprehensive as he was supposed to be very strict. On the contrary he was a kind man, but attended to matters with an iron fist in a velvet glove. He breathed life into the characters in his literature classes dealing with “Beau Geste” and “Tale of Two Cities”.  One look from him, and the arctic would have felt warm. This year too we had a long anticipated “educational tour” of Colombo.

Moving onto Senior Prep A was movement into the next block and being confirmed as a science or arts student and we felt important, the classroom being sited next to the biology laboratory. More importance was felt as the science students dealt with definitive subjects like Physics, Chemistry, and Botany. Mr Ramaswamy made Chemistry appear simple, so did Fr Pogany in Physics. By now his English had improved considerably though he still insisted on pronouncing “muscle” as “muskal” and so on with a definite East European accent. A man of few words and piercing fixating looks. Mr P S Vedamuttu and Mr H S N Sharma entered our lives. Mr Vedamuttu was endearingly referred to as ‘thoppi veda’. He was a ‘kalu suddha snob’. He gave new interpretation to any lesson in his English classes. ‘Ultima Thule’, a five-page article was taught for one whole term, giving new meaning to each word. ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, came alive when he discussed it. English was his life. Sarcasm was his soul. Unlike other schools the performance in English at the O level in our school saw only soaring successes. Mr Sharma, referred to as ‘Sharma the red socks’ or ‘yel, yem and yen’ ( l, m and n ) predicted the ‘O’ level questions every year and almost everybody got distinctions. But it was a heavy price. His ‘snuff ‘ filled silver snuffbox was used to give swift sharp knocks on the head. At the end of the day there were quite a few painful bumps on the head and the hair smelt of snuff!

Getting into Senior A suddenly made us more responsible, as we had to perform at O levels to get on to the HSC class. Fr Chiriatti taught us Latin five mornings a week with Cicero’s Pro Milone and Vergil and felt that Latin was the only subject. It was taxing but in later life it was the best thing that happened and gave us an edge over many. Mr Hewawasam’s Sinhalese teaching was of such a high standard that the ‘O’ level exam was a breeze. With hard work, divine help, parental encouragement and teachers’ guidance, entry into the HSC class was on a creditable note with good performance at the exams.

I opted for the bio stream hoping to sit for the university entrance in medicine. HSC 1 and HSC 2 were gruelling two years. Mr Menon was a great Botany and Zoology teacher but Fr Dr Percy Abraham, affectionately called “The Beard” started teaching us Zoology parallel to Mr Menon. Our loyalties were getting divided. Mr Menon left, Fr Abraham also left leaving us ‘orphaned’, temporarily cared for Mr Mervyn Silva who also left. Mr Ramaswamy and Fr Pogany were towers of strength. Mr Hewawasam and Mr Vedamuttu were there for Sinhalese and English subjects. The second year was no fun. Fr Peiris put his money on me and, with special permission, allowed me to sit for the London A level exams. I didn’t let him down, securing A’s in all the 4 subjects. That extra application made it easier for my HSC at which I was rewarded by being granted an entry into the university to read for a Medical Degree. I am glad I did my Alma Mater proud. But Fr Peiris took his pound of flesh. Between sitting for the exams and going off to the university, a period of almost six months, my services were utilised as ‘stand in’ teacher whenever a teacher was away from one of the junior classes.

Fr Chiriatti was not to be outdone. He put a few of us through a rigorous training schedule for a play “Soap 13”, a runaway success that received rave reviews, creating permanent bonds of friendship with co-actors like Johnny de Silva and the late Lakshman Abeysundera

VENKUI AND KAMALA Venki and Kamala

Eventually when I did have to leave the school it was almost heartbreaking to leave many friends both amongst the students, and the staff and the familiarity of the corridors and classrooms. I left with the determination that when I graduate I’ll come back to work in and serve Galle. And I did. That’s a different story

The day I left, my thoughts were  “Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus” Psalm 116, verse 12 from the Latin Vulgate Bible; loosely translated “God, What shall we give you in return for so much.

1 Comment

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One response to “Service to humankind: Venkateswaran father & son

  1. Azhar Hameem (A. A. Hameem)

    Mr Venkateswaran was my geography and commercial arithmetic teacher and was my class teacher for Form 2E. Our class never missed his Saraswathy Pooja event held every year at his home in Kaluwella junction where he displayed his collection of dolls. How we made fun of his English spoken with a Dravidian accent! I remember when I was in his geography class in HSC 1 and made an excursion to Colombo to visit the Meterological Dept.During lunch at a leading Saiva hotel there,he told us the manner of enjoying the several course meal describing each step. I remember his polio stricken son Mani and how we played the fool with him. Azhar Hameem.

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