PERADENIYA CAMPUS and UNIVERSITY is etched deeply into my soul: with diverse memories of places, events and personnel. Many of the friends I met within its spaces have, alas, passed away; but remain as alive as afresh in my mind.
I had been placed in Ramanathan Hall as a freshman in mid-year 1957 and shared a room with Ranjit Samaraweera. His conviviality aided my adjustments to the new ‘terrain’. So did my interest in sport. The skills in cricket, soccer and athletics that I had developed at St. Aloysius in Galle were now expanded to encompass rugger, while the indoor facilities at Peradeniya also encouraged my participation in basketball, table tennis and badminton on the odd occasion.
I had my sister’s kabal-bike aiding my trips to the lecture halls and the large indoor gymnasium that was such a godsend to so many of those sports-minded. My standard day involved (A) attending lectures and work in the library; (B) a ride down to the sports-fields at about 3.45 or 4.30; (C) tennis initially from say 3.30 to 4.45 with tea taken (illegally, as gajaya) at Arunachalam Hall; (D) then one of cricket, rugger or soccer practice depending on the day; and (E) thence to the gym at dusk for one of its sporting options; and (F) a ride back to hall for shower and dinner …. and then (G) studies of some sort till whenever.
JFK Labrooy … one of my key History Lecturers
Peradeniya Campus’s greatest asset was the geniality and conviviality of its undergrads: friendships blossomed and deepened; camaraderie was rampant, often cutting across ethnicity and class-upbringing. By way of example, let me stress the assiduous degree to which Ananda Wickremeratne and I shared notes and thoughts when both were pursuing a History Special Degree in our years two-to-four. We were blessed by a cluster of lecturers in the world class: Fr. Pinto, JFK Labrooy, S. Arasaratnam, KW Goonewardena, Lakshman Perera, et cetera.
Ananda, moreover, was a Trinitian from the town of Kandy next door and came from an upper-middle class family with a large house in the city. This home became one of my homes whenever I wished to visit the campus in the holidays; while the Dunstan Taylor household on the road to Kandy was yet another residence I dwelt in on occasions.
Apart from these dimensions, what Peradeniya Campus offered was girls; …. GIRLS. Some blokes were quickly efficient: they consolidated a çatch’ and had a partner to relax with before the night-curfew times intervened. Night was not a problem for these amorous adventurers; there was the weekend where organised hikes to the Hantana hills meant opportunities for deep attachments to develop.
For Roberts, alas, the hiking route was not an option: sporting contests in cricket, rugger, soccer and/or athletics absorbed his attention on most weekends. He represented PERA-Uni in all four of these realms. This interest also meant occasional weekend visits to Colombo for contests with the teams from Colombo University; or bus journeys within the Central Province for contests with plantation clubs. Sport, of course, nurtures camaraderie. Some of my deepest friendships beyond Ramanathan Hall were with guys who were my mates in rugger, cricket and soccer.
I also represented Peradeniya on one occasion in a swimming contest against Colombo campus held at St. Josephs college pool – where one of my opponents was my pal Johnny de Silva from St. Aloysius. Swimming!!! Yes: there is a large pond above Jayatilaka Hall that could be used …. and swimming was second nature to a lad bred in the fort of Galle.
Sports were not the only leisure activity. There were extra-curricular societies of all sorts at Peradeniya University. Talks from leading politicians cropped up every now and then. The dramatic societies in the different mediums presented plays. The campus had a captivating open-air theatre and, in my era, I was fortunate to see Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s presentation of “Maname” stun a huge audience …… with Benedict Sirimanne (an Aloysian teacher no less) in one of the lead roles.[i] THAT was truly a classic moment.
…. and last but least, there were girls …. a variety of girls: in frocks, skirts, sarees. The bold and smooth quickly found regular mates. The rest of us, well, we ogled, looked, sighed, ventured … withdrew. Do not get me wrong: I did secure good friends among the female ‘flock,’ especially via the Student Christian Movement, but my tentative overtures yielded no memorable hugs … only drawing warm friendships – several of which have lasted decades: Ranee Pathirana (became De Alwis), Ira Samarasundera (become Unambuwe), Noreen Fernando (became Cooray), Cynthia De Soysa (became Vandendriesen), Maureen Elhart (became Dhanapala), Anoma Peiris, Pat & Jean Spied, Ranee Saverimuttu, Myrtle Perera, Lilani Tambimuttu (became Ramanaden) and Vinitha Welagedera (became Green) to name a few.
A central ‘forum’ sponsoring these friendships across gender and class was the church for the Protestant denominations tucked away in one of the valleys of the campus with Fr Lakshman Wickremasinghe as dynamic leader and inspiration. The Sunday church outing when I was on campus and the occasional talks and functions organised by the Committees associated with the church provided many moments of camaraderie and inspiration. This line of interest was especially poignant and meaningful during the Christmas season because carol singing came to the fore.
And, …. yes, and …. there was “Father Lak” as leader, guide and shining star – a star that did not dominate or demand, but one that led: a person who marked the way. My bonds and friendship with Fr Lak ran deep: we continued to meet when I returned to Sri Lanka in 1966 as a lecturer in the Department of History after completing my D. Phil in Oxford. Father Lak and I discussed political issues in some ‘measure’ of communion. He was invited to be a key platform speaker in two conference settings organised by the Ceylon Studies Seminar in the 1970s.[ii] .
Thereafter, in 1981 when I was in the island for a year, Bishop Lakshman (as he was then) asked me to join a small coterie of Tamils and Sinhalese intellectuals at his precinct in Kurunegala to address the Sinhala Tamil confrontation in the island.[iii] Our discussions were earnest and well-intended.
But, needless to say, they led nowhere. We had no clout. The island peoples’ problems and rifts were far too deep for little coteries at the margins to make a difference. That Bishop Lakshman passed away on the 23rd October 1983 aged 56 meant that he did not live to see the shattering of his desire for ethnic reconciliation in the mighty godless manner that occurred between 1983 and the year 2009.
[ii] One seminar gathering was held in the Senate building of Peradeniya Campus in the year 1972 (date forgotten) and included Prof AJ Wilson as one keynote speaker. The other conference was held at the Bishop of Colombo’s Seminar Hall off Buller’s Rd in Colombo and involved morning and afternoon sessions. Speakers included V Karalasingham, Bishop Wickemasinghe, Dr CR Silva and myself; while Dr Mark Cooray (a good friend from my Peradeniya days who was a Lecturer at Law College) served as Chairman.
[iii] The small cluster included Karthigesu Indrapala and Luther Jeyasingham from Jaffna University and Gerald Peiris & SWR de Samarasinghe from Peradeniya University.