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Monday, May 4, 2015

A Comment on "The Wind of Change" by Mahendra (Speedy) Gonsalkorale

I am publishing this as a new post although it was originally meant to be a "Comment" under ND's "The Wind of Change". Mahendra (Speedy) found it to be too long to be accepted in the comments section (there is a limitation to something in the order of 4800 characters). He has therefore sent it to me to be published as a separate post.
Seasoned  Bloggers may have noticed that MG had not commented on this thought provoking post by ND, and wondered why. Well, the explanation is simple. I have been rather preoccupied with arrangements for the Spring Meeting and Dinner Dance of the SLMDA (Sri Lankan Medical and Dental Association in the UK). It was held yesterday and was a great success. OK, now that is out of the way, let me get down to business.
The period ND is referring to was perhaps a watershed time. As noted  by ND, Sri Lanka (Ceylon then), entered a transition period following independence. The “In” crowd in this early post-independent phase, (speaking in general terms with particular reference to the Urban population), were English speaking, more aligned to Christianity and with more than a touch of disdain for the Sinhala speaking, “can’t speak good English; hot-pot, post oppice” type. People tend to follow what is trendy and feel comfortable, either when they stand out for behaviour regarded as desirable, or when they are unnoticed. For this reason there were many devotees of this attitude.
With resurgence of National Pride and increasing rebellion against whatever was identified with our Colonial Masters, factors such as Buddhism, Swabasha and the National Dress became the new culture. The inability to converse in English, or converse with mispronunciations, was gradually ceasing to be a liability but almost a virtue.
During this period of evolution, the education in schools reflected this changing pattern.  The elite Colombo schools adapted and moved towards a sensible model of recognising, retaining and fostering some of the undoubtedly desirable “Western” values (not unique) such as punctuality, discipline, respect for elders, respect for knowledge, while embracing the long suppressed indigenous culture and values of a resurgent Ceylon. I always maintain that the emphasis on discipline, respect for values and appreciation of others points of view, as existed in my years at Royal College, which I consider one of the best schools in the Island, helped me to become what I am today. Of course my home environment and the influence of my wonderful parents were the biggest factors. Even then, there were some who turned up their nose at those who could not speak “proper English (aren’t there such people even now?). How often do we still see famous personalities struggling in English when all they needed to do was to speak in their mother tongue and use an interpreter, as so many International dignitaries from non-English speaking Countries do?
“I think therefore I am “ – Descartes.   I am using this famous expression with my own interpretation, i.e. we are what we think we are. Part of the problem with those who feel that some of the Colombo schools were snooty  (ND, Lucky, I am definitely not referring to you!) is their own perception of themselves within that context. If you feel that you are regarded as inferior, even well meant actions and words may be misinterpreted. Communication is a complex process and when people talk to each other, language is just a part of this process. Body language, interpretation of words and actions, the context, all these matter. I can think of a striking example of this in my own personal experience. I returned from Amsterdam with an English colleague of mine and one of us was searched and most of my Sri Lankan friends thought I was the one subjected to the search whereas in fact it was my English friend because I was Asian.
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.


  1. Much water has flowed under the bridge since the time when Anandians had to face barbs such as this from students of so called elite Colombo schools.

    "We are Ananda collage bois
    We come to school by tram
    We buy one cent gram
    We are Ananda collage bois"

    Suffice it to say that we have many Old Anandians in top international posts today who speak perfect English. A good example of the younger set is
    Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva and Consul General of Sri Lanka to Switzerland.

  2. Mahen
    Thank you for shedding some light on our discussion of the dim and distant past. We experienced the change and know how it all panned out. Soon we will be leaving it to the historians to research and write about that period of transition which affected the whole country. Politicians will see it differently from the general public. Those from the big cities will see it differently from the villagers. Each one of us will have our own opinions and explanations. In the context of this discussion the Colombo medical graduates of 1962 have emerged from it pretty well. We have to ask those who were disadvantaged during that period to get a balanced view.
    Perhaps it would be fair to say that schools like Ananda and Nalanda lead the way in bringing to the forefront national consciousness. However, they do not own the sole copyright for patriotism as all schools have long traditions of supporting national values and customs.
    It is wonderful to remember what is good and positive about our schools. I am certain there are things the schools could have done better. Such thoughts are best left buried deep, as we have done.

  3. You are absolutely right. There always opinions and impressions based on our own experiences and that of others close to us. To me the main thing is to recognise and rejoice in what was good rather than focus on "what might have been" or "what could have been done better", unless it is for the sole purpose of learning from the past to make the future better. I chose the comparison with Football Clubs as I have seen how fervent these supporters are, but they still respect the other clubs and recognise their strengths and weaknesses. When it come to Cricket, I am always for England APART from when they play Sri Lanka when there is absolutely no doubt that my allegiance lies with SL. I suppose it is the same with Royal. Ananda, Nalanda, Wesley, St Joseph's, St Peters, Richmond, St Aloysius are all great schools but for me "Come on Royal!" . Just a brief distraction, I do worry about generalisations. For example, some of us who stayed on in Sri Lanka and gave yeomen service to the Country (not all of us I hasten to add), regard those who chose to live abroad as ungrateful and may be a bit treacherous and I hasten to point out that very few were motivated solely for patriotic reasons, not to seek pastures abroad. Of course there are some admirable people who did so but we are all driven by circumstances which unfold without pre-knowledge and we react accordingly. Without looking at individual circumstances which led to the decision "to stay or not to stay", it is not possible to come to conclusions. Accept people as they are now and for what they are and we shall all be better off.

  4. Mahen
    There you touched on another contentious but interesting topic - Staying behind or leaving Sri Lanka to continue our professional life. Let us write about it. We must have our own stories to tell. We are now old enough to have a sensible discussion and have lived long enough to acquire broad shoulders and thick skins to accept the fallout. It is great our stories now have a forum.