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17th May 1998

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Book review

More than just a nostalgic voyage down memory lane

Peradeniya-Memories of a University. Edited by K.M. de Silva and Tissa Jayatillaka. Reviewed by Jayantha Dhanapala

Upon encountering English-educated South Asians abroad Westerners assume too readily that they can only be products of “Oxbridge”. I have, consequently, derived great pride, and some perverse satisfaction, from assorting my Peradeniya degree. For those of us who were undergraduates in Peradeniya in the 1950s our nostalgic recollections are of a Camelot-like experience -without King Arthur (unless of course we are, posthumously, to confer this honour on its first Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings). For those who came after the numbers explosion of 1961, and especially the generation that experienced the bestial violence of the 1980s, their memories could perhaps be more akin to those of a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp - with the savagery of “ragging” and the deaths and injuries it has caused running through the years as an ugly sore.

Professor Kingsley de Silva and Tissa Jayatilaka have brought out a volume on the University of Peradeniya to fill a void in the volumes of essays that were published on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the University of Ceylon in 1942. That void was the story of the lives of the students who passed through Peradeniya. It is a praiseworthy publication weaving together the reminiscences of 19 Peradeniya alumni and beautifully illustrated by Stanley Kirinde’s evocative water colour paintings and drawings of the University.

The book is a voyage through four decades of Peradeniya student life with the political, economic and social trends in the country being reflected inevitably in this academic reservoir as the placid waters turned red with the blood of the victims of mindless violence.

The University of Ceylon was established by the British colonial administration 140 years after we became a crown colony of the British. For decades before that the elite sent their sons, and a few enterprising daughters, mainly to Britain to study at the great Universities of the West.The establishment of the University of Ceylon in l942 provided the opportunity of modern higher education to a wider catchment area of citizens than the elite and the middle class was the principal beneficiary.

It preceded the revolutionary step of Free Education by four years - the single act which transformed education and the national scene opening the doors of academia to all social strata in fulfilment of a fundamental democratic right of equality of opportunity. Ensuring that equality through an equitable distribution of schools, libraries, laboratories, books and even school uniforms has been the aim of successive governments. The measure of their achievement was reflected in the Report of the Presidential Commission on Youth Unrest some years ago and its bitter cri de coeur “Kolombata kiri, apata kakiri”. We have still, sincerely and effectively, to respond to that damning indictment of our society. It is against this background that “Peradeniya: Memories of a University” appears to me to be a limited exercise - a sentimental journey down memory lane of the English-educated elite. But who can deny that Peradeniya of the fifties, in the first decade of our existence as a modern independent nation, with its galaxy of world class intellectuals on the teaching staff and the opportunity of sampling the crumbs of a rich intellectual feast, was not a heady attraction for so many young men and women shedding their starched white school uniforms if only for the freedom to grow a beard, smoke a cigarette, wear the open sandals patented by the revered Sarachchandra and spout a confused mixture of existentialism, nationalism, and Marxism?

To their credit the editors have faithfully recorded the tumultuous transitions in their sensitively written Introduction noting how the student community changed.

As it is, despite the poetic evocation of those early Peradeniya days in Ashley Halpe’s supple prose and the golden showers which Hemamali Gunasinghe writes of so elegantly, it was the final chapter by Imran Markar that I found most perceptive. His penultimate section deserves to be quoted in full:

“ I went to Peradeniya primarily to study. But I cherish and value what I learnt at Peradeniya much more than my studies. Until then my conceptualisation of life was on simplistic terms, based on urban middle-class aspirations. For me as well as my colleagues in the English medium a good degree was a prerequisite to a good job, which in turn was the key to a good life. For many of my non-English medium colIeagues it was not so. Firstly the facilities at their disposal in entering university, specifically for those rural based colleagues, were pitiful compared to what we enjoyed.

“It was on graduating from university that these students encountered the greatest frustration, as they still do now. For upon graduating, even with a mere pass, there were a multitude of job opportunities available. For my non-English medium colleagues, having studied the same course, often getting better results, the door to the job market was often slammed shut. They faced the kaduwa - the lack of a proper knowledge of English was the kaduwa (sword) that decimated their hopes and aspirations of a better life - the weapon we had, which denied them the same opportunities in life though they were qualified in every other respect.”

Imran Markar’s honest admission of how some of us have benefited from a system which shuts out others is a sobering one. With the broadening of the opportunities for education and the failure of our economic policy to alleviate the poverty in our country it has gradually aggravated into serious proportions which neither Lalith Athulathmudali’s farsighted Mahapola Scholarship Programme nor all the much touted education reforms have been able to reduce to a significant degree.

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