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Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Wind of Change


By Nihal D. Amerasekera 

As the dust settled from the tragedies of WWII,  the wind of change  swept  across  the Indian subcontinent with the growth of national consciousness. 

We grew up through the dying embers of colonial Ceylon.  There began an interminable conflict  between British values and post independent nationalism. Meanwhile the schools in the big cities encouraged us to maintain British ways. In many affluent homes, English remained the spoken language. We took on British culture, manners and mannerisms. On the 4th of February 1948,  the administration and the flag changed overnight. But the cultural change took a lot longer.  At school, we were discouraged from speaking in Sinhala. “Godaya” was a term reviled by all.  The word “Swabasha” was used as a derogatory expression.  

The British introduced their own social structure and aristocracy, to help in their administration. This social hierarchy was added on to our own class  and caste system.  These hereditary titles and privileges prevailed all through the British period. After independence the aristocracy declined, but slowly. With every general election the voice of the people began to be heard with ever increasing force until the emergence of the age of the common man. Many welcomed the triumph of meritocracy but  they were less enthusiastic to accept the power of the people. 

Up until our country’s independence, Medical College was the citadel of the privileged class. The medical students were educated in the top schools and came mostly from the upper echelons of Ceylonese society. Their bohemian lifestyle and legends had entered the folklore of that great institution. In 1948 the cultural transformation began and when we joined the Faculty in 1962 it was at the tail-end of this remarkable era.  In our batch we had the rich and the poor and the many in-between.  There were those from different ethnic and social classes.  Although I would like to think elitism didn’t exist in Medical College of our time, the cliques and exclusive parties of a few would say otherwise. That was the way society had turned us out .  We often rose above those differences.  In good times and bad, as a batch we jelled marvelously well.  We remained united during the tension and turmoil of the rags and suspension. The success of the Block night and the Final year trip speaks volumes. Our fine multiple Batch Reunions are a great tribute to our members unity. What age has taught me over the years is that we are all different. But it is important we are equal. 

My generation grew up with this changing attitudes and beliefs. Sometimes we felt stranded  in ‘no mans land’.  There are many in our batch who accepted change with good grace. We are proud of our gifted musicians Zita and Mahen who sing those melodious old  Sinhala songs from long ago bringing back childhood memories.  They have brought an extra dimension to our Blog. I feel immensely fortunate to have listened to Sinhala music in my childhood and also watched the early Sinhala films which have turned out to be classics.  HM Rupasinghe, Sunil Santha, Chitra and Somapala, Rukmani Devi and others made a tremendous contribution to Sinhala music. I found some of the Hindi films  rather jolly and good all round entertainment. Their music was interesting. Many of our early Sinhala cinema took the cue from those ever popular Hindi music and films.  

Would anyone be brave enough to write a piece in Sinhala for our Blog? 

The Colombo schools hung on to British values a lot longer.  English classical and popular music remained in their curriculum as did  ballet and English drama at the expense of our own.  There was a resurgence of the local dances and drama which gradually gained popularity after independence.  Those lost arts took a lot longer to be revived. We must be thankful to those village schools that maintained Sinhala and Tamil traditions and preserved the arts for posterity. 

In many ways our generation was fortunate to get the best of both worlds. It seems we were better prepared for life.  English is a universal language and our early exposure to this at home and school  made our professional lives so much easier.   I am unaware of the situation in SL now.  The wide gap that existed between the schools of the big cities and villages have largely disappeared. The world is a much smaller place than when we were growing up.  Television and the digital age have brought knowledge far closer to everyone. I hope we have retained our national identity and values whilst accepting what is good and wholesome from the rest of the world.  

I have lived in exile for over 40 years and love the way of life in England.  I love English classical music, drama and ballet.  Visiting English country houses and gardens and watching cricket at Lords have now become a part of my great enjoyment of life. Yet, I am a Sri Lankan at heart.   Amazingly I still can speak Sinhala fluently to be understood. But I cannot comprehend the modern Sinhala spoken by Newsreaders on TV and Radio. Reading Sinhala newspapers is much harder and slower. The drift away from my beloved country  I would put down to the awesome force of destiny.  

I wish Sri Lanka will remain a country where all its people can live in peace. We have come through tough times.  We now recognize conflict and fear.  I hope we have learnt from the mistakes of the past.  As I have said earlier, the premise that we are all equal is an important one for our future peace and prosperity.

21 comments:

  1. I have the unique privilege of being able to post an article and offer a comment at the same time. This is possible, only because I read ND's excellent article in pre-publication stage!

    I agree with ND on the main contents of his article. However, I beg to disagree on a couple of statements he makes.

    As I have explained in my Memoirs, on moving to Colombo from Hendala where I attended St. Anthony's College, Wattala (ND and Razaque are very familiar with that school) I had the choice of entering Royal, Wesley or Ananda. For some reason, I chose the last named Ananda College. If what ND says is correct, I am so happy that I made the right decision.

    Our Principal at the time Mr. L.H. Mettananda was a pioneer in the quest for a switch to Swabhasha. It was never a derogatory word or expression at Ananda. We were not discouraged to speak in our mother tongue. At the same time, Anandians were always in the forefront when it came to achievements that depended much on a good knowledge of English (Winners of the New York Herald Tribune All Island Schools Essay competition in 1957 and 1958).

    As for ND's challenge to write an article in Swabhasha for the blog, I would have gladly accepted it had the blog been the appropriate forum. I must add in conclusion that I can read, speak and write quite well in Sinhala - thanks to the good all-round education I had at Ananda.

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    1. Lucky/ND
      I had the honour of completing all my studies - from Infant Class to entry to University/Medical School from St Anthony's College and I was the very FIRST student from the Bio-Science stream to do so from that school & I am proud of it. As for Sinhala I am quite fluent in the language in speaking, writing, reading, metaphors/nuance to the surprise of mates and my Staff in subsequent years. So much so I have some very interesting incidents which I shall post them at leisure time permitting. So what is important is how adept one is in adapting to circumstances-- what ever the lingo. This has certainly been in my case. May I also claim that I do have a Credit Pass in the then SSC exam!!
      Razaque

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    2. Razaque
      I remember well you were a Sinhala scholar while at Medical College and spoke very well too. My Sinhala wasn't bad either all through my years in SL but it underwent disuse atrophy in the UK. All the bad language which should have been the first to be lost are the only ones that have survived. I can remember the words of those wonderful Sinhala songs from my youth including those limericks and lively ones from Medical College and final year trip.
      ND

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  2. Lucky
    I make no criticism of any of the schools who were caught up in the turmoil of the sweeping changes taking place in education in that period of transition. They all provided an excellent all round education to all their students. The country must be grateful to the schools that maintained our nation's traditions and values all through those difficult times. Thankfully the "Wind of Change" has blown right across the country and the transition is now complete.
    ND

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  3. Of course I understand ND.

    These are the comments and counter comments that you would expect in a blog. More the merrier!

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  4. Lucky
    I started a rather controversial topic in the hope more batch-mates will emerge from the woodwork to make comments. I am glad you made your point which I fully accept. I have nothing but admiration for your old school. The schools that were started by the British had an identity crisis, understandably, during the transition. The nation will remember their tremendous contribution to education and society. All is well that ends well!!!
    ND

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    1. Hi ND
      Is it a wind....Is it a gale..... It is a Hurricane!
      You've got in the thick of it! by stereotyping schools in Colombo.
      The Irish founders of my school in Colombo had no identity crisis- They seem to have known exactly what they wished to achieve ie give all young ladies whatever their ethnic or religious backgrounds a well rounded education, and have done so successfully!
      I have expressed in this blog my regret at having lost my ability to understand my mother tongue as I should- This has been entirely due to disuse over the last 40 odd years and not due to any deficiency in my education in the school In Colombo I attended. I was able to read and write Sinhala very well while in this school in Colombo- The western type education we received in this school was not at the expense of our national culture - English,Sinhala and Tamil languages were given equal importance - In fact I even had the opportunity to learn the ancient Sinhalese literature Such as the Guttila Kavya and the Sirisangabo Vannama "brought to life" by a past pupil of the school who became a teacher once graduated.That was the extent of the importance placed on our national heritage.
      Neither were our national values thrown to the wind to comply with foreign values. The school was sensitive to our cultural values, inculcated in us also by our parents. I learned ballet as a child and truly enjoyed it,but in our consertive culture it was unthinkable that a growing teenager could be allowed to flit about in a flimsy tutu, and I was then
      shifted over to learn a fully clothed form of dancing- south Indian Manipuri which I enjoyed until my early years in med school.
      This is to point out that our national values were not abandoned lightly
      to embrace British values in spite of an education in a school in Colombo.
      The western education has given us a great deal to appreciate- and as you say we have had the best of both worlds.
      As I've moved away from the land of my birth I have had sacrifices to make -It is regrettable that my mother tongue has been a casualty in the process.
      ND,In the bigger scheme of things-whether Wind or Hurricane -it is all in a tea-cup! Cheers- Rohini

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  5. Rohini
    It is good to hear you speak up so passionately for your old school, just like what Lucky did. As I have said the schools did their best to provide a good all round education during a difficult time.
    ND

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    1. Dear ND,
      Having publicly declared my predicament with language I was honour-bound to come out of the woodwork to absolve my school of responsibility for it.
      The last para in your article is also my sincere wish for SL
      Cheers

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    2. Rohini
      You have done it most eloquently. I have the same issues with my Sinhala as you do which is of little consolation , I know. Our years abroad has taken its toll. We can't have it all.
      ND

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  6. Having been to the same school as Rohini, I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by her. We certainly got the best of both worlds. During my school days, my parents tried their best to make us appreciate "traditional Sri Lankan culture", and my mother, though not a Sinhalese, never let us wear a dress to a party or formal function. My sister and I had to wear the "lama sariya" and go bare footed right upto the time I entered Medical College. The Sinhala I learnt at school came in very useful in later life, when I had to give lectures in Sinhala at various fora including the major Universities. I was equally conversant in Sinhala and English, and can still follow the Sinhala news and various talk shows. All this is mainly due to the sound all round education we received at Ladies' College. It is a pity that today's youth do not have the opportunities and education that we had.
    Sriani.

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    2. Sriani
      I must remark on the grace and poise with which you make your point. You have done so most elegantly. I wish I can speak Sinhala like you do. It is to the great benefit of the country that we have schools of the calibre of Ladies College.
      I can hear my nieces cheering and applauding.
      ND

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    3. Sriani,
      Your mum herself upheld SriLankan traditions remarkably.
      I do remember her visiting the school always attired in Saree though she was non-Sinhalese as you say.I also remember Nim in "Lama Sariya" though I can't remember the occasion.They were days when going barefoot with anklets was almost a symbol of status! - the good old days!

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  8. To all

    I am glad “The wind of change” has induced comment and discussion. Independence from British rule was a time of tumultuous shift in emphasis on national consciousness. The denominational schools have done remarkably well all through the years to provide a good all round education and some did it better than others. Both Sriani and Rohini are quite right to point out the part played by the parents.

    We as students were caught up in a game played by politicians. I attended Wesley College which was a government assisted school . All denominational schools because of their connection to Britain lost their financial support from the government. This happened a few years into independence with disastrous results. The resultant financial constraints were enormous. Many teachers and students left for other schools. The school and the students suffered enormously. Despite this it managed to survive and provide a fine education. I cannot falter its commitment to national consciousness. The schools that were fully private, thankfully, did not have this extra tier of difficulty.

    As I have said we have all had the best of both worlds. Most importantly, we in our batch have grown up to be useful citizens of this wonderful world. All schools currently have a similar ethos as regards to its social values.

    I wish this article will be accepted in the spirit it was written in the hope we can lay to rest the ghosts of the past.

    ND

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    1. Dear Nihal,
      If my initial comment on your post appeared harsh or critical ,I am truly sorry- it was not meant that way. I know your intention was also not to be critical of any of the schools . Please accept my sincere apology if I seemed insensitive or hurtful in anyway.
      With Warm Regards - Rohini

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  9. Dear Rohini
    Your comments were neither harsh nor hurtful, neither callous nor careless. They were merely passionate in support of your old school. I admire your courage and determination to put the record straight. I must admit I never thought of your comment in that way. Just a passionate reply. The article invited forceful comment and I have nothing but admiration for those who expressed their opinion. Your comments on this Blog have always been thoughtful and thought provoking.
    Warm regards
    ND

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    1. Dear ND
      Many thanks for your response.It makes me feel at ease now.
      Cheers Rohini

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  10. My long overdue comment (busy with SLMDA event in Manchester) was too long and I sent it to Lucky separately. The following is a small extract.

    I have nothing but praise for the way Royal College educated us. Dudley De Silva, our Principal at the time, was a far thinking and wise man. He promoted communal harmony by having Classes where we were not segregated according to our language; all the Forms had a mix of pupils and we started the day in one class room as one Form. For some subjects which were taught in Sinhalese, Tamil or English, periods were formed for the relevant lessons according to the language used. The result was that from a very early age, I had friends from all communities and I never had a problem with ethnicity. We had an English Literary Society as well as Tamil and Sinhala, with equal importance. Swabasha was never looked down on. Any superiority we felt among schools was purely because of the strong sense of identity we had, just as football fans regard their favourite club. Other Schools were regarded as lower than Royal in the League within our own minds. St Thomas’s had prime status as enemy No 1 through a long tradition of rivalry, but Ananda and Nalanada were below us not because of language or religion but purely because Royal was the best. I can’t deny that some had the superior “we are not godayas” mentality but such an attitude was certainly not fostered by the School.

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