In Royal College, Colombo, in the late ‘fifties’, there was a group of students who called themselves the “Buccaneers”. And true to their name they engaged in all manner of mischief much to the amusement and the occasional discomfort of their peers and superiors. Some illustrious names were among them. The late Minister C.V. (Puggy) Guneratne, the former Chairman of the Coast Conservation Department, the late Sumantha (Summa) Amerasinghe, former tea planter, the late Kumar Gunetilleke were some of them.
The late Dr. S. Mahalingam, former Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, Peradeniya, who passed away a few days ago, was the last of that illustrious group, I believe. As to the antics and reputation of the Buccaneers, suffice it to say that it was only the late Kumar, who would actually admit to being a member or to the group’s existence in their later years!
Dr. Mahalingam (or Magsie, as he was universally known) – academic, confirmed bachelor, raconteur par excellence and a distiller’s best friend was many things to many people, and no doubt, many different things would be said, and remembered, all over the world, at this time of his passing for he was not one to hide his light under the proverbial bushel. His mischievous bonhomie and inimitable good humour were spread and shared with all and sundry. But my best memories of him are from my childhood.
I first met Magsie at (where else?) the Peradeniya University Faculty Club, when my father went up to Peradeniya for his interview for a lecturer’s post some 36 years ago. The ‘Faculty Club’ was at the former Golf Club premises, where the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital now stands. Magsie was surrounded by the likes of R.O. Thattil, Rex Clemens and assorted budding Veterinary and Agriculture academics having a “sing-song” to –as he put it – pay their last respects to a pig, the remains of which, devilled, curried, roasted, lay scattered about on plates interspersed with numerous bottles of “Lion Lager” and the occasional “Old Arrack”. I was ten years old.A month later, my father took up his post at the Medical Faculty, Peradeniya, and we moved to Kandy. As the years passed, Magsie and my father became firm friends and so did we children. For Magsie loved children and we, children, loved him to the point of hero worship. To us, he was like Bertie Wooster come alive. Wherever he went, laughter and good fun followed. We imitated his walk, imitated his talk, and treasured his spontaneous jokes and witticisms in our memories for later use.
My brother and I would long for the weekends when our parents went down to Colombo and Magsie would move in to “baby-sit” us. We would meet up with Magsie at the Queens Hotel lobby after school and head straight to Lyons for a “Lyons Special”. The waiters at Lyon’s all knew him, some of them harking back from his undergraduate days. We would then head to the Faculty Club (on foot to save money!). Magsie would sing German war songs while we marched in step from Kandy to Peradeniya, with him yelling out garbled marching orders which he claimed were from his days as “Company Quartermaster Sergeant” in the Royal College Cadet Corps. Apparently he was cheated of his due promotion to Regimental Sergeant Major due to – as he put it - “jealousy in high places”.
At the Faculty Club, my brother and I would play table tennis, eat chips and drink lemonade, while Magsie and friends “exercised their elbows” as he put it, quaffing mugs of “liquid bread”. Around midnight, with none of us looking forward to walking all the way back to Kandy, Magsie would persuade one of the others at the Club to drop us home. Invariably it was either the late Prof. “Pep” Jayasena or Prof. “Muggy” Varagunam who obliged. Having secured a ride home, he would then work on “Pony” Thangarajah to invite ourselves for lunch the following day, as by now we had finished the money my parents had given us for the weekend, and it was only Friday night.
The next morning, we would, once again, march to Augusta hill where Pony lived at the time. Mrs. Thanga invariably put out a spread of thosais, iddlies, stringhoppers, crab curry etc., into which we would happily dive. We would leave the Thangarajah’s after tea in the afternoon and march on to the Faculty Club, once more, for a repetition of the previous night. Sunday lunch, he would get us an invitation to the Varagunam’s, who thankfully, lived just a short walk away from our house.Magsie loved music. New Orleans jazz and classical music in particular, and he had a fantastic collection of records. When we were learning to play the piano accordion as kids, he bullied, cajoled and coaxed us into learning to play the “Greats” as he put it. Verdi, Offenbach, Beethoven, Ella and Satchmo. Every time he came home, he would get us to play for him.
Magsie also loved Science and the “pursuit of knowledge”. His dedication to his students was without question. His room at the Vet Faculty was an open house for us kids to wander in at any time and be “entertained” by his “cultures” of calf liver cells etc. All narrated in his inimitable self-effacing style of wit and humour. He would actively encourage us in our studies and he would be one of the first to inquire as to our O/level, A/level and later, University results, taking more personal pride and satisfaction in our successes than, perhaps, we did ourselves at the time. He would inspire us and kindle our desires to explore the world of knowledge, with his own experiences at Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Toronto, all narrated with side-splitting humour.
Once when I inquired how come he had an M.A. (from Toronto), when he was a scientist, pat came the reply – “It was there that I Mastered the Art of Scientific Research”! When my brother finally made it to Cambridge for his post graduate studies, Magsie was over the moon, and when, finally, my brother and I returned from our studies to join the staff at Peradeniya, where Magsie was still teaching, he was prouder than a hen that had laid its first clutch of eggs! And it was not just the two of us. All the kids who grew up as “Pera kids” at the time would agree that we were all fortunate to experience and be touched by his particular magic.
At the end of the day, many would consider it their privilege to have known Magsie and be touched by him during the course of their lives – be it his students, his colleagues, family or friends. But it was us, kids, who were the most privileged – for he truly loved us, and we, children, of many faiths, races and hues, all loved him. Let’s all raise a final glass to the last Buccaneer – may he rest in peace!