2nd January 2000
Who has time to worry whether our children will make it to the university when there are only a few days more for the exam…
By Aditha Dissanayake
"I'm in E.M. Forster - D.H. Lawrence country. I'm in England. At Cambridge.
I'm standing in front of a building made of massive brick walls. I can't believe I am actually here. I run my fingers over the brown stones to see if they are real. They are cold and rough to my touch....
Can you hear me sigh? Of course I'm not at Cambridge. Only my soul is. My body is seated in the "gym" sipping a cup of steaming plain tea. Photos of Marx, Lenin and Engels stare at me from the walls. The man who cleans the tables comes and peeps into my mug to see if I have finished. He walks off but comes five minutes later to peep again. I glare at him and say "evara na" (I haven't finished). He leaves me in peace after that.
Today there is a sermon by Soma Hamuduruwo. I feel it would be interesting to see him "live". I seat myself on the ground of the Dharmaloka Hall and automatically repeat the "pansil", Namo thussa ...."
What does Namo mean? asks Soma Hamuduruwo. I strain my neck to hear better. I had often wondered how people could gain merit, attain Nirvana, by muttering long lines of unknown words in Pali. Soma Himi seems to have the answers to my questions. "Namo" he says is like "Namaskara" in Hindi, meaning acceptance. When we say Namo Thussa... what we mean is that we accept the doctrines of the Buddha.
"Will those of you who can speak English raise their hands?" he asks next. The Dharmaloka Hall is filled to capacity. But not a single hand goes up. "Does this mean no one here can speak English?" Soma Hamuduruwo asks again. His audience stares at him mutely. He faces the "passive, I-shan't-bother-to-get-involved" response of the undergrads. Everybody in the audience agrees when he says a good knowledge of English is essential to survive in the out- side world. Everyone silently wonders how this could be done. "Speak in English with your friends," advise the teachers. But how does one say "Machung eeye Loku Paniya illang kawa" in English?
Touching on the topic of ragging, Soma Thera asks "how can one gain pleasure by inflicting pain on another?" He then stuns his audience with the question "Would you send your children to university?" "Our children?" The question is a stunner. Who has time to worry whether our children will make it to the university or not when there are only a few days more for the exam, when the bursary is already half over, when the uncertainty of finding a good job hangs eternally at the back of the mind? Whenever attention begins to flag, Soma Hamuduruwo raises it back with a poser.
I listen to him for one and a half hours. If he had not brought Mr. Fowzie into the sermon things would have been almost perfect. Whatever he might not be, Soma Thera is a great rhetorician.
Curiosity takes me to see the Bikshu Literary Festival at the Colombo campus. Today is the first day. The inauguration ceremony takes place in the corner of the canteen of the Arts Faculty. I hang outside browsing through a book-sale till the speeches end and the festival of the monks begins.
The "Pungya Paramitha Bikshu Sahitya Ulela" starts with "Devuram vehere" blaring out over the loudspeaker. "Thedalu Nelana Lande" comes a few minutes later. The music is chosen with care. No wailing over broken hearts, no yearning for a lost love. All the songs are "neutral". I step into three stalls. One has paintings - all about nature and the Jathaka Katha. One describes the evils of child abuse. The third is so crowded with monks I fail to read the bristol boards on the walls. Then I get lost. I can't find anything more to see. I don't feel like asking one of the Bikhus. I decide to call it a day.
A friend calls in the evening to say the "translation batch" is going on a trip to Kandy in the new campus bus and invites me to join them. "Going on a trip to Kandy? Kandy? Why not go to Bambalapitiya, instead? There's more to see there." snorts my brother, a final year "chemistry special" from the U of C.
"It's not Kandy that matters. It's the BUS! It's new and huge. The kind of thing tourists travel in," I explain with great patience. As my father says "hmp" from behind his newspaper when I ask him if he could drop me at the campus on Sunday morning, I begin to look forward to the trip.
Though I am given strict instructions to be at the thel bamma(the round-about on the middle of the campus grounds) by six o'clock, instinct tells me I need not be punctual. But my father, a stickler for punctuality, would not hear of me being late. The roads are unwontedly free of traffic and by 5.40 a.m. I am at the campus. Seated on the pavement, with my hands on my chin I watch the dawn break over the thel bamma.
It is 7.30 when we get on the road. At 9.30 we are still in Kegalle answering calls of nature. ("Just in case.....to be on the safe side"), munching pastries and gulping down cups of tea and thambili. It is 12 when the bus reaches Kandy and we trudge to the Maligawa. But some of us can't make it inside. An absurd law prevents women wearing sleeveless blouses from entering the holy precincts.
Where do we go next? The blood-thirsty leeches said to haunt Hanthana, vetoes it out of the list. That leaves only the Peradeniya Gardens and Udawattakele. By popular demand the latter is chosen. Lunch packets are brought from the Devan to be consumed "under a roof of green foliage, with the wind blowing and the birds singing". This is promptly translated into Sinhala. Not a single phrase goes "untranslated". (This being the excursion of the translators).
They charge twenty per head at the entrance. "Can't we leave our heads in the bus and go?" asks one. "Are you sure you have one to leave behind?" questions another.
It's six when we begin to head back to Colombo. I pray that for once my father would get late and not be at the thel bamma by 7 o'clock to take me home. In my mind I urge the driver to go faster and faster. But he is compelled to make so many digressions on the way, I dare not look at my watch when we finally reach Kelaniya.
For one who had been waiting for over three and a half hours with absolutely nothing to do, my father doesn't look as fierce as I had expected him to be. Taking a deep breath I open my mouth before he opens his. "This is Sumudu and this is Rosamali. We have to drop them at Thalawathugoda."
He doesn't even say "Hmp" as he gets into the car. Having known him all my life I can easily guess what is on his mind. I know he feels relieved that this is my final year as an undergrad and that I will not be going on such crazy trips ever again.
As the car screeches down hill, I turn my head to take another look at the thel bamma. It looks more eerie and desolate than ever before. The time is eleven in the night. I have now seen it in all lights!
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