This blog is about new entrants to the Colombo Medical Faculty of the University of Ceylon (as it was then known) in June 1962. Please address all communications to: email@example.com.You may bookmark this page for easier access later.
Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
I was born in Kandy, that splendid city
nestling in the central hills of Ceylon. In 1942, the World War was raging and peace
must have seemed far away. It was Douglas Walbeoff Jansz who severed my
umbilical cord and slapped my back to help take my first breath in an
unsettled world. My grandma was eagerly waiting with her watch to time the
birth to cast my horoscope, but had forgotten to do so in the confusion of the
delivery room. By some strange coincidence, Jansz was a Lecturer in Physiology
during my time at Medical College. Despite its magic and charm, Kandy was never
to be my home. Even after all these years, when I visit this idyllic city my
past connections remain a magnet for my soul.
My earliest recollections are of
Bogawantalawa at the foot of the Kotiyagala range. It was in the middle of tea
country with many European Planters rushing on their motor bikes. Everyone
woremufflers and sweaters and rain was
never faraway. Then we moved to Kadugannawa near the Dawson Column living
sandwiched between two railway lines. The steam trains huffed and puffed at all
hours and how we slept amidst that mayhem still remains a mystery to me.
In 1947, my parents decided I was of a ripe
old age for schooling. My grandparents then lived in a large house at 56,
Church Street, Nugegoda, just beside St John's Girls School. There I spent three
uneventful years but for a slight mishap when my mother in her enthusiasm, sent
me to school after a heavy dose of laxative with disastrous consequences. We
lived opposite the Anglican Church and witnessed the baptisms, weddingsand funerals -the full gamut of Christian life.
still recall our independence from British rule in 1948. Although I was too
young to realise its importance,I do
remember the joy and happiness in the faces of the people. They were now
released from the shackles of bondage that held them down for nearly 500 years.
With freedom comes the responsibility to unite and strengthen our country with
hard work. We were swept by a wave of nationalism. There was an overwhelming
desire for change and the British and Dutch street names became the first
casualty. Overnight, the well known landmarks in Colombo lost their links with
the past. It disorientated the older folk and disillusioned the young. Many
still ask themselves whether this was ever necessary. The cost of this
exercise was borne by our sagging economy.
The early 1950s was a time of idyllic
splendour and tranquillity in Ceylon. As a nation, it was our age of innocence.
The Galle Face Hotel, the Queens Hotel Kandy and the Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya
were the only hotels with any star quality. The affluent and the not so wealthy,
indulged in a weekend flutter on the horses at the Race Course in Reid Avenue.
The Parliament was by the sea and the breeze helped the politicians to think
rationally and clearly- or so it seemed. During April, the rich went
"upcountry" to Nuwara Eliya to escape the Colombo heat. Galle Face
Green on a Sunday was packed with people sucking Alerics Ice Cream.
Colombo in the 1950s was a city of
contrasts with the beauty of prestigious estates with pleasant houses in some
areas, and slums, shanties and tenements in others. The poor with large families
lived in a single room in screaming poverty. The falling plaster, broken
windows and fences, corrugated iron roofs were the hall marks of the poverty we
saw. It is a scene straight from the annals of our urban life of that era. For
many, the new found political independence did little to give them home or hope.
me, real life began when I started at Wesley College at the bottom of the pile.
The journey to school on the narrow gauge Kelani Valley train with friends was
exciting. I felt grown up carrying the money to buy my own ticket. All Railway
Stations had that special smell of steam and coal which hung on to our clothes
for days. My father was in Government Service and had to move from town to town
every three years, what was then euphemistically called "transfers". In
their wisdom, my parents decided to send me to the hostel, at great cost to
themselves. It was to give me a stable life and teach me the social skills and
discipline. I achieved their goals only to lose them in the rough and tumble of
Memories of life in the boarding can fill a
book. I was lucky to belong to a generation inspired contemporaneously by great
teachers and principals. They gave us lofty ideas, great inspiration, self
respect, firm discipline andanchorage.
It was a sublime experience. The first day at the boarding was full of tears
specially when wishing the parents goodbye. Nothing could have prepared me
adequately for this trauma. It was the large frame of Mrs. Hindle, the Matron,
who welcomed us. The loneliness and bewilderment was overpowering at times. All
our possessions were crammed into a large metal trunk and the clothes had our
name tags. In the first term, they all called me "new boy", a strict
reminder of the pecking order.
Needless to say, there was no television, no
computers, and no mobile phones. We made our own entertainment and amused
ourselves. Despite the hustle and bustle of life and the regimentation, we had
time to put our arms round our pals and share in their joys and sorrows. We
shared our secrets and exchanged stories about our parents, brothers and
sisters. There was a certain closeness which was rarely seen in friendships
later on in life. We talked about our dreams and aspirations for the future and
assumed we will always be friends. It fills my heart with sadness to think many
of us never met again as adults. It is a horrible reminder of our own mortality
when we read or hear of the death of school friends who played, laughed, sang
and fought with us all those years ago. For me they will always remain fifteen,
healthy and smiling. It is hard to believe they will not be playing those
elegant cover drives ever again or be ready for a pillow fight.
Unlike at present, the students had no voice
at all. Parents took decisions for us at home and the teachers did so at
school. On looking back, we believed teachers wielded immense power and perhaps
they did. But law enforcement was done with knowing restraint influenced mostly
by their faith. Others depended firmly on the swish of the cane. Punishments at
school were a necessity to keep the riff raffs on the straight and narrow. The
types of punishment were brought to Wesley by the British Principals from
English Public Schools like Eton, Rugby and Harrow. They were harsh and on
looking back, unnecessary. There were times when I raged at the injustice of
punishments. In this 21st Century of human rights, corporal punishment is
looked down upon as demeaning and humiliating for which there is no real need.
Reading the reminiscences from the first half of the last century, we get a
glimpse of those hard times. It would be a mistake to apply the liberal values
of this modern age to life at school 50 years ago.
Sports dominated my life at school. Cricket
in those days was played by gentlemen. Umpires' word was law. We congratulated
the opponents’ achievements in the field. We walked away when we felt it was
out though the umpires did not see . The spectators dissent and applause was
confinedto areas beyond the boundary.
No streakers, foul language or efforts to intimidate the batsman at the crease.
When we lost, though crest fallen and frustrated, clapped the opponents back to
the pavilion. Those injured in the heat of the battle were comforted by the
captain of the opposite side. My generation grew up with peace. This
gentlemanly behaviour on the pitch, merely reflected the peaceful and chivalrous
times of our youth. In the 21st century, these seem rather tame as the
cricketers have given up being gentleman for the high stakes they play for.
The enchantment of the cricket matches of
my childhood still haunts me. At school, Cricket was not only a game but a way
of life. My lasting memory of cricket at Campbell Park is the sight of the
setting sun behind All Saints Church and its lengthening shadows. The Church
bell rang at 6 o'clock. As the bails were lifted, we all departed discussing the
ups and downs of the day's play. Losing a match in those days was like the end
of the world, but we always bounced back. It was certainly a good training to
face the peaks and troughs of our own lives. The songs we sang and the friends
I made, are etched deeply in my memory. After leaving school, I went for some
matches in the following year. The magic and the aura of this extraordinary spectacle
seem to have gone, not being an integral part of it anymore. Thereafter, life got
too complicatedbuildingmy own career.
In common with the development of road
transport worldwide, bus operation in Ceylon was pioneered by private
enterprise. Private entrepreneurs Ebert Silva, High Level Bus Company and
Ceylon Tours provided the service with many other companies whose names I
cannot now recall. Demand continued to increase with population growth and the
private companies found it difficult to change, invest and improve. The service
began to crumble. The Government nationalised bus transport in 1958 and the
Ceylon Transport Board was born. The red reliable British Leyland single and
double decker buses then were apart of
the Colombo scene. Quickshaw Taxis competed for business with the Morris Minor
Cabs. Rickshaws in the 50s were confined to Fort and Pettah. Trolley buses
were popular for a decade in the 1950s, running between Borella and Pettah.
Bullock carts were seen on the roads well into the 1970s.
1955 saw the emergence of Rock 'n Roll
music. The first Rock 'n' Roll record to achieve national popularity was
"Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets . I queued for hours
in the heat of the day to see the film at the Savoy. Bill Haley succeeded in
creating a music that appealed to youth because of its exciting back beat, its
urgent call to dance, and the action of its lyrics. The booming base and the
twang of electric guitars produced a foot tapping sound. Haley abruptly ended
the ascendancy of the bland and sentimental ballads of the crooners popular in
the 1940s and early 50s. I was then in the boarding, singing, clicking my
fingers and gyrating to the music coming through the Rediffusion set in the
Hostel common room. Music of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard and the Shadows
was all consuming to us teenagers. The Colgate Hit-parade on Tuesdays was as
good as watching cricket on a Saturday. I cannot believe nearly 50 years have
passed since those exciting times in our youth.
1956 saw the beginnings of the political
decline of our country. We moved away from the Westminster style gentlemanly
politics into an abyss. The jingoism and the ultra-nationalism was a recipe for
division and disaster. It was Albert Einstein who said that Nationalism is an
infantile disease and is the measles of mankind. The rapid abolition of English
as the state language, drove many educated people away from the country. The
Burghers who formed a colourful community and contributed immensely to the welfare
of the island emigrated in their thousands to Australia, England and Canada.
They had a tremendous love for life which they showed in the way they lived. I
remember the sad goodbyes when my friends left. The first Dutch Burghers came
to Ceylon four centuries ago, when the maritime provinces of the island came
under the Dutch East India Company. They joined the legal, medical and teaching
professions and played a major role in the fight for independence. During my
time at school, the Burghers ran the CGR and did so most efficiently. The time
keeping of the Ceylon Railways was second to none. Their departure coincided
with the economic and political decline and saw the beginning of the ethnic
divisions which ravaged the island. The politics of the country was in crisis
and our coffers were empty. The many upheavals, disunity and the workers'
strikes had brought the country to its knees.
1958- I remember it well as the year when
the sport of Kings - horse racing that began in 1922 was banned in Ceylon. I am
no punter and it had no effect on me personally, but a Saturday ritual of many,
rich and poor, was suddenly taken away. The bookmakers and the customers went
underground and business flourished. The beautiful Reid Avenue Grand Stand and
its spacious turf was left to decay and wither.
1958 also saw the race riots, a tragedy
which remained to haunt and destroy us until the end of the 20th Century.
The 6th Form years at Wesley were some of
the best of my life. It is indeed a wonderful experience to look back on one’s
life 50+ years after leaving school.I
was 18 then, life was beautiful andsaw
the world in vivid technicolor. Disagreements, disappointments and the
heartaches seem to be all forgotten. All I can remember now are the pleasant
memories of happy times. I recall the sunshine and the warmth and not the
monsoon rains. Anecdotes and images appear at random. The innocence of the
fifties gave way to the cynical and raucous sixties. Beatles and Elvis Presley
were still riding high in the Hit Parade. The hippy culture of sex, drugs and
rock and roll were making the headlines and setting the pace.
At Wesley, we had the large expanse of the
Welikada Prison just opposite our front gate. Every morning, theprisoners wearing white were takenalong Baseline Road by the guards in khaki
shorts. Being so close to the prison for over a decade, I had often let my mind
wander about the life of those in jail. For many of us even now, prison is
almost an unknown place and very few knew what happened behind those grim gates
that swallowed the convicts. We imagined that its inhabitants were desperate
people and dangerous criminals. In our minds, the place was associated with
isolation, humiliation and suffering which were all part of the punishment.
Sometimes, the sheer lack of privacy and at other times,the loneliness of solitary confinement, must
be soul destroying. Time then is not a luxury but a burden to endure. A few had
the benefit of work and exercise. I would hate to think of what food they
received and of the many who walked out free, how they faced the world again.
In those days, for anyone studying the
Sciences, the choice was rather limited, being confined to Medicine, Biological
Sciences, Agriculture and Engineering. There was a belief that entry into
Medical College was a passport to Nirvana. That was just an illusion which for
a few, turned out to be a nightmare. It was only the beginning of a long
struggle with busy days and sleepless nights. I hope this popular misconception
has now been properly addressed. If I am allowed to be cynical - it is no more
a noble profession but a kind of business. As I look around the various
professions, their nobility has been eroded by the pressures of modern living.
Asa 6th Former in the sixties, I wasn't
to know all that.
I left school in April 1962, a day I will never forget. Nostalgia is my
great sin, and I remember with a sense of loss a kinder, gentler world which
disappeared forever as I left school. The most painful of all is the disappearance
from my life the people who meant so much to me, friends, teachers, chaplains
and Principals in all those years at Wesley. I stepped on the treadmill to
carve myself a career and raise a family. Now having reached the end of my
working life, I still yearn for those days at school even though more than half
a century has passed me by.
A professional career with its disruptive
routines and untold strain on my time and leisure, has invariably taken its
toll.As a 6th Former at school, I would
never have imagined life would turn out this way. Call it destiny or the will
of God, good fortune has been on my side most of the way.
I dedicate these memoirs, firstly to my
parents who provided the encouragement and paid the bills. Secondly to my
teachers who educated me beyond the call of duty, and thirdly to my mates at
school and medical college who by their friendship, enriched my life.