Jeremy De Lima of Melbourne … with highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi
When Avishka asked me for an opinion of his book, I thought of presenting this to him in a review, but was hesitant, as this has been done before, at greater literary levels that I can ever aspire to. All these have been so comprehensive, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to write without resorting to plagiarism i.e. reproducing the words and ideas of another without attribution. However, not wanting to stoop to this and/or to refuse this genuine request, I thought I will instead, accompany the young author on the rocky road he has journeyed in publishing this book on the story of St Joseph’s College, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
I first became aware of this achievement through an email circulated by Mr. Victor Melder, the doyen of Sri Lankan news, here in Melbourne, Australia, which he in turn had received through a Josephian Mr. Harry de Sayrah. As soon as I read this, I knew it was genuine, as it showed the book launch in full colour, graced with no less a presence than His Lordship; the Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo, amongst other notable dignitaries.
I immediately called the number on the email and the impression I got of Avishka right from the first conversation was very positive. He came across as exactly what he is, certainly no embellishments, a young man of 22 years, living with his family and studying to be a Pilot. In spite of the phenomenal success of his book which is now in its 3rd print, he has not gained any pretensions of himself and still displays the traditional Sri Lankan friendliness together with an inborn respect for elders.
He feels honoured and privileged to have met many wonderful people as a result of his book, and his only regret is that Fr. Stanley Abeysekera who started the process did not live to see it to fruition. His is forever in debt to others, like other Rectors, teachers and non-academic staff as well as school mates of his own ilk who spent innumerable hours in editing, proof reading, designing and indexing the work. He acknowledges with special gratitude Mr. Kevin Caspersz, a very gifted Josephian, now resident in Melbourne whose lifelike sketches adorn the pages. Avishka came across Kevin’s work by chance and it was their virtual conversations during the Covid-19 lockdowns that produced these sketches. Kevin’s art needs more exposure as his pictures paint a thousand words.
At the time of writing this, I have still not met Avishka, but I am content that I can see in him, the future of writing. He has published many articles from the very young age of 14, which have appeared in prestigious publications like the Sunday Times and the Catholic Messenger. What he has achieved now, in 6 years of research will be permanently etched in the annals of that hallowed Catholic school. The title, which he has cleverly chosen, “TILL THE MOUNTAINS DISAPPEAR” will be repeated in song whenever Josephians around the world sing the 6th line of their school anthem.
Hearing of the obstacles he faced increased my desire to promote the book and I immediately began spreading the word locally and internationally, even phoning friends as far as Sri Lanka and Canada. The response was overwhelming and here in Australia, alone, over a hundred copies were snapped up as far apart as Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, even Perth and now New Zealand. This of course is in addition to the thousands of others, both in Sri Lanka and worldwide, who, on their own volition, have bought the book, sometimes against unexpected barriers
I never realised until I read this book, the underlying influence on St Joseph’s College, of the priestly order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). Every Josephian knows the Bonjean name from our great hal,l but it was indeed touching to read that the start of our school began with a seed of thought from Msgr. Bonjean, an OMI who went on to become the first Archbishop of Colombo. I sadly learnt that he passed away before his thoughts came into fruition but the first 5 Rectors also being OMI’s definitely followed his direction.
As shown in Avishka’ s cleverly displayed chronological listings of Rectors, the longest serving of more than 20 years each, were Fr. Le Goc and then Fr. Peter Pillai, both OMI’s who created what this school is now. He presents facts and figures of every Rectors period without any impartiality, not diminishing the great contributions of other priestly orders. Avishka is very grateful for the invaluable information provided by one of the youngest Rectors, himself a Josephian, the late Dr. Quintus G. Fernando through scores of valuable interviews.
Moving on to the infrastructure that still stands more than a century after they were built, Avishka confirms what all Josephians know in their hearts, that St Josephs was made to last. In the words of Fr. Justin Perera “St Josephs may change, but St Josephs will always remain”. The Bonjean hall and the revered Chapel certainly stir Josephian emotions while the swimming pool elevates us to the first school in the island to have an Olympic standard structure. The recent addition of the Sports complex cum Auditorium, seating over 3000, also makes very interesting reading.
In addition to the physical structure Avishka has also presented either deliberately or unknowingly, the unseen requirements of grooming a complete Josephian in knowledge and in virtue, as the college motto displays: In scientia et virtute. I had already heard about our choir, St Cecilia’s, assiduously trained by Mr Francis D’Almedia and it was good to see on page 149 that they were blessed to sing in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem as the great hymns states “where Jesus prayed, the night he was betrayed”. Academia of course receives pride of place in Josephian achievements with Sports, Arts and Drama getting equal coverage. Avishka has really tugged at the Josephian soul by reproducing on page 193 a hitherto unknown poem (at least to the writer!) written in 1913 by a great teacher of the time, Mr T.L Minor:
Ite Ad Joseph – Go to Joseph,
Kneel at his feet when you wake,
Just for a moment stay,
Just for a moment pray,
Short thought the prayer you make,
Bright is the day begun…?
Light is way you run!
Avishka is to be commended in no uncertain way for having the courage and determination to undertake what would have seemed a very perilous literary journey. As he sums up in his Afterword on page 236: “The task is completed but the journey continues. I hope many will read, refer and research further” This is certainly very good advice from such a young mind and it is my fervent hope, that I live to read much more about this great school which forever moulded me and is eternally in my debt. I must mention here, the final wish of a dearly departed Josephian here in Australia, Mr Patrick Scholfield who requested that flowers not be placed on his grave, but the funds sent to St Josephs. What a better way to show – Ite ad Joseph
In spite of the disparity of ages between Avishka and me, I don’t think he will view it as condescending if I conclude by offering this young man, the words of wisdom from a verse of the well-known poem, “IF” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
The Reviewer Jeremy De Lima was a student of Fr. Don Peter from 1960 to 1970. He migrated to Australia in 1984 and has been an active Josephian in Melbourne. He is a former Editor of the Old Josephians Club in Melbourne, Australia. He counts as a happy memory being re-united with his class of 1970 after almost 40 years.
*$* The (246+ XIV) page, A4 Size book is priced at LKR 2000. Copies can be obtained by calling +94766122345