Sumangalika Dharmadasa, in the booklet HANTHANA NIGHT , produced by the University of Peradeniya Alumni Association Western Australia in 2023 … where her title reads “Campus Life of Yore: Through the Eyes of a Fresher””
6th October, 1965 is a land mark date in my memory, as it surely must be in the memory banks of all the Freshers who entered the hallowed portals of the university of Peradeniya all those years ago. The sense of freedom and independence I felt after the cloistered life in school hostels was truly exhilarating. For the first time in my life, I was free to do just as I wished! I did not know then that I was destined to remain in that wonderful place for over 50 years.
I knew only two people when I entered the University in 1965, Kumari Wadugodapitiya, my lifelong friend and class mate and Violet Yakandawela, another classmate, who I believe was the first blind girl to enter university. All three of us were assigned to Hilda Obeysekara Hall and Kumari and I shared a room while Violet had a room to herself. Miss K Mathiparanam our renowned Warden, whom I remember with much affection, was a strict disciplinarian and was held in awe by all, but specially so by our friends who studied Philosophy under her. She had a quaint way of referring to objects and events as ‘ thing’ and once she set the entire Hall laughing by pointing to a directive sent by the Vice Chancellor & announcing “Sir Nicholas Attigala, has sent his thing which I’m going to show all of you.” All the girls went into peals of laughter, much to the annoyance of Miss Mathiaparanam who couldn’t understand what was so funny about her announcement.
During the first couple weeks, we awaited the inevitable ‘ragging’ with dread and excitement. We got a fair share of it on the second day itself, when Kumari and I ventured out of the hall one evening and were accosted by a group of senior boys from James Peiris Hall. Using abusive language, they kept asking my chubby friend “from which Kade do you buy rice?” Then turning to me they declared that I had “only etai hamai (skin and bones)” and was only fit to be put in a Katu soup!
There was no ragging inside our hall, as far as I can recall except during the Freshers’ concert, which was a major event in those first exciting days. Not suspecting that it was part of the Rag, we took it seriously and even held rehearsals. When D day came, we couldn’t wait for the makeshift curtain to go up. The lights were dimmed and the performance began. Absolute silence reigned for a brief moment, followed by a deafening and continuous uproar of shouting, jeering, hooting and banging on tables. We were so taken aback that some of our batchmates started crying, not realizing that it was all in fun and part of ‘undergraduate initiation.’
Both Kumari and I did English and a new subject that was not in school syllabuses then, called Greek & Roman Civilization. My third subject for GAQ was Sinhala which gave me the chance to mix and form friendships with a lot of Sinhala medium batchmates. This combination of subjects made it possible for me to study under some of the legendary university Dons of the day, like Prof. Doric de Souza ( who became my Boss later), Prof. Ashely Halpe, Dr. Kamal de Abrew, Dr, Thiru Kandiah and Dr. Yasmin Gunaratne – all of the Dept. of English. Then, stalwarts of the Sinhala Dept, Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Dr. Hemapala Wijewardene, Dr. Meegaskumbura, Prof. Ananda Kulasuriya and Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna. Finally, Prof. Cuthbert Amarasingha and Prof. Merlin Peiris – doyens of the Classics Dept. Interestingly, Prof Doric and Prof Cuthbert had also taught my father who, at the time, was, perhaps only slightly younger than these newly recruited lecturers. Prof. Halpe and Prof. Peiris, in turn tutored both me and my older daughter.
Although we were eagerly awaiting the famed Open Air Theatre Drama Festival, our batch was deprived that opportunity due a bigger drama that affected the university community. In December, barely three months after our arrival on campus, rumours began to float around about an impending ‘Strike’. Negotiations between student representatives and Authorities had failed, and before we knew it, we first years who were only vaguely aware of what the issues were, found ourselves drawn into the vortex of a full-blown Strike! These were the peaceful years prior to JVP disturbances and LTTE turbulence, when campus life flowed without serious mishaps. Seniors of Hilda Hall had decided at a hall meeting that we were categorically opposed to the Strike action and would attend lectures. We Freshers were highly excited but bewildered by it all. I can remember vividly how our pretty, saree-clad seniors, carrying colourful parasols marched up to the Arts Theatre for the 8am lecture amidst the hooting and jeering of the boys (Strikers) who hated their guts! But the girls stood their ground and attended the lecture.
By the following day, the action had shifted to the Science Faculty where some of our first-year friends from Ramanathan Hall-Strikers were on picketing duty. A fourth year Science student had tried to enter the main building. Trouble erupted, culminating in police intervention with tear gas and baton charges. All hell broke out. We at HOH heard the police sirens and realized that things had got out of hand. Just then, to our horror and utter disbelief, we saw the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge go up in smoke! Never before nor after have I experienced such a shock. The campus was declared out of bounds for all students and the University was closed for a couple of months.
A couple of months later, we returned, greatly sobered and chastened to resume campus life. A commission had been appointed to inquire into the happenings of the Strike and some of our Ramanathan friends who had been identified as ‘picketers’ had to give evidence and were duly punished with fines of Rs. 20 – a princely sum at the time! Normalcy restored, our thoughts turned to more mundane things like lectures, tutorials and what sarees to wear for lectures each day.
Having already lost a couple of precious months of our cherished dreams, we were keen to enjoy all that our alma mater had in store for us. Apart from our main agenda of academic studies, we were drawn to the numerous activities which are part and parcel of campus life. Something I enjoyed tremendously, was membership of the film society which gave us the privilege to watch internationally acclaimed films without much hassle at the jam-packed Arts Theatre (AT). We were ‘regulars’ at ‘Docs’ ( documentary films) too, shown every Wednesday, until our sub-warden solemnly warned us that our quota of late passes would expire at this rate!
Strangely enough, the AT was chock-a-block on Sunday mornings too. Not for entertainment, but for ‘Bana’ sermons by illustrious Bhikkhus of the day. The audience comprised mostly female undergraduates with a substantial sprinkling of boys who were there for more ‘worldly’ reasons! The hub of campus action, the Arts Theatre, later named the D.E Hettiarachchi auditorium, was where students of all the faculties converged for miscellaneous university activities – films, debates, political talks by national politicians (mainly Leftist) religious gatherings, singing competitions etc.
Times have changed. Sadly, the quality of Undergraduate life too has altered. Nevertheless, our Alma Mater will persist in its efforts to endow all its alumnae, with knowledge and learning and inculcate in them a sense of responsibility and commitment. The perineal beauty of the University encompassing the magnificent Hanthana mt. range, the resplendent flowering trees and bushes and the meandering Mahaweli Ganga will continue to inspire romance, poetry, music, novels, and the performing Arts in the fertile minds of the Peradeniya University community.
Sumangalika Dharmadasa is a product of University of Ceylon and had worked for the English Language Teaching Unit and had been its Head for almost a decade.
Those who wish to acquire the booklet HANTHANA NIGHT should contact Dr Sunil Samaraweera at firstname.lastname@example.org