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Saturday, April 9, 2016

My life as a boarder at Wesley College

By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

In his epic “The Tale of two cities” Charles Dickens inadvertently summarised my life in the boarding in his own distinctive style.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way .....
Charles Dickens - 

Memories of school are ever present. Certainly, dwelling on happier former days is synonymous with getting older.

I joined the boarding in 1952. There was peace in our country although the dark storm clouds of discontent were gathering in the horizon. My father was in Government Service and had to move from town to town every 3 years, what was then euphemistically described as "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 University life. By the time I left, however, the famous Old Wesley College smoothness had rubbed off. My social skills blossomed to everyone’s surprise!!

We were lucky kids; we spent a happy childhood living in Karlshrue Gardens. It was long before the advent of political correctness and health and safety. Climbing trees and creeping fences became second nature to us. Memories of life in the boarding can fill a book. I will only select a few that stand out and I can recall with clarity. 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 and anchorage. It was a sublime experience.

Overnight we had gone from the luxury of home life to almost total captivity. The first day at the boarding was full of tears specially when wishing the misty eyed parents good-bye. For many families, if childhood has a final moment, this is it. As the car doors close parents and children go their separate ways. Time passes swiftly.  We then emerge from school as adults.

I was ten years old. Nothing could have prepared me adequately for this trauma. It was the large frame of Mrs. Hindle, the Matron, who welcomed us. The first night is the stuff of myth. The early weeks were tricky. The loneliness and bewilderment was overpowering at times. There were times I wanted to run away to my aunt in Dematagoda. All our worldly 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. In the beginning we all had to endure an arduous time. In such 'incarceration' some behaved well, others less so. We saw the best and worst of human nature. Humour was invaluable in the darker moments. As a group the boarders were self reliant, resourceful and developed amazing skills of leadership and survival.
The Matron was the Queen of the boarding. She was a fair skinned woman with a big bosom, called Mrs. Ruth Hindle. She lived in a room by the Junior Dorm with her son Waldo who was my age. Mrs. Hindle ruled supreme in the Junior section and occasionally would call out- WHO DID THIS? But She was a kindly lady and looked after us well.

There is no place like the boarding to get to know the fellow students. There are people you meet and then spend rest of the years avoiding them. There are others you meet on a corridor and then become friends for the rest of your life. The Saints, sinners and the scholars reveal themselves in the fullness of time. There is no better preparation for the life outside.

Our lives were controlled by the the large golden bell rung by "Tarzan" who certainly looked liked the real thing. In the boarding we were confined to the school boundary. Life began at 6am with the bell. Wash and ablutions were done in the communal bathrooms where Kolynos chlorophyll toothpaste and purple Lifebuoy soap comes to mind instantly. Chlorophyll was said to remove the odour from the mouth. Interestingly, some years late I recall seeing in the DR Lawrence Pharmacology:
The goat that stinks on yonder hill. Grazed all day on chlorophyll
There was a large concrete tub full of water where some brave lads had an early morning bath. We had PE at 5.45 am taken by a monitor (usually a masochist) for about 10 minutes. Study time called Prep started at 6.45 finishing at 7.35 when we all assembled in the dining room for breakfast. Bread jam and tea was served sometimes hoppers like flying saucers and string hoppers hard enough to kill a man. These were served with mouth watering seeni sambol packed with a stick of dynamite.

The school started at 8.15am. From 4 -6pm all boarders were expected to indulge in sports which most of us enjoyed. Study time called ‘Prep’ was done in 2 prep rooms on either side of the common room. We had our own desks securely padlocked. Many of those padlocks were called "Master" made in Milwaukee USA. The desks had broad sloping tops that opened. We kept our books pens and pencils in those and also a few of our priceless possessions.

There was a hostel master or a prefect on "guard" to make sure there was no chit chat during prep. It was a serious business and no nonsense was tolerated. After doing our homework we prepared for tests and examinations. Reading story books was strictly forbidden. I have received the regulation slap from teachers for breaking the rules at prep.
Dinner was served at 8pm and prep started again at 8.30 until 9.15. We retired to bed at 9.30pm when it was "lights out".

The barber came every Wednesday, being a half day. Cutting was done in the open air in front of the primary block. I often feared that flying crows will provide the Brylcreem. We wrote our names in the barber's book and that was the "batting order". We had to be motionless during the procedure to avoid the ears getting cut.

The clothes washing was done by a "dhoby" who visited the hostel once a fortnight in his bullock cart. He was called "mynah" as his long hair was knotted at the back. We had a "dhoby" book and this was filled in duplicate and a copy was placed in the bundle of dirty clothes.

Needless to say there was no television, no computers, and no mobile phones. We made our own entertainment and amused ourselves. Indoor games like carrom and table tennis were popular too. These were played in the Common Room which had a Rediffusion set to listen to BBC News, Elvis Presley or Bill Haley.

The soft ball cricket matches were keenly contested and took place in the "small park” which was a patch of gravel behind the school. It was a virtual dust bowl. Trips and falls resulted in numerous grazes and contusions. All these running repairs were done by Mrs. Hindle with iodine and spirits sending us skipping in pain. We wore tennis shoes for games. As we never bothered to keep our feet clean constant usage created "toe jam" (An offensive paste of dirt and sweat). We all had our heads full of lice or dandruff and faces full of pimples giving us a Dickensian look.

On Sundays there was no salvation for the Christians. The non-Christians had it easy. The rest had to walk to the Maradana Methodist church in the morning for Sunday school and in the evening for Evensong. It was a long trudge on narrow roads with trams, cyclists and motorists whizzing past our toes. Certainly the path to heaven wasn't easy! We all hated the journey and wished we were non-Christians.

It is perhaps this forced religion that made me drift away from Christianity. On the Sabbath Christians were not allowed to play any sports. We tried hard to reconcile the strictures of our faith with our youthful exuberance and love of cricket.The Muslims, Tamils, Sinhalese and Burghers formed one large brotherhood which we carried to the wider world in later years. Most boarders had nicknames depending on their infirmities, habits and names. There were two blind students who were greatly liked by us all. One of them , Cornelius, was an excellent pianist and the other was William. I met William many years later when he was in charge of a School for the Blind in Seeduwa. He didn't recognise my voice but recalled my name and the connections instantly. He spoke most warmly of the good times.

It would be fair to say I enjoyed the mealtimes more than the meals. As I recall the hostel food was appalling and we were eternally hungry. The boarding added lifelong glamour to dhal, string hoppers and lunumiris. Wijemanne's Tuck shop was our only hope for sustenance and was the centre of our lives. Wijemanne in later years became the person in charge of the Medical College Canteen after “Uncle” left. Without the Tuck Shop there would have been little to live for. But it had a drawback - it cost money, something which we never had enough. Trips from folks at home brought food and extra cash but never enough. There were times when I was flat broke.

Friday was the day we got our pocket money. Often the rupee we got was used to pay our debts to Wijemanne, the achcharu ladies or the Toffee man. When the money ran out some ate bread with Marmite, Bovril or Horlicks. There were others who used their ingenuity to make "invisible" hooks to pluck papaws from the neighbours. The large Tamarind tree provided a sour mouthful when the hunger was dire.

The small park was surrounded by "andara" trees which had green pods with the seeds covered by some edible white stuff. We just ate that too. Being cheap, tasty and filling a "thosai feed" was the ultimate luxury we dreamed of. Raman the gardener brought the stuff from Purasanda Café next door. I vaguely recall the boarders going on strike because of the poor quality of food in the hostel.

I joined the boarding as a child and left as an adult. In that process I noticed my voice go husky and the hairs appearing in my body. The Mount Mary girls whom I have ignored for many years became attractive and even sensuous. I went to Church and Sunday school  to see the girls and speak to them. It was a phase that remained well into our teens and beyond.

End of term exams were a serious business and a many of us worked extra to get good grades. We helped each other to achieve our goals. On the last day of school the leavers said their goodbyes and those who had the courage made a short speech after dinner. Let the truth be told, life in the boarding was never a bed of roses. The years between the ages of 10 and 13 were the worst. As we became more senior life was tolerable. Often I felt the teachers could have been a bit more kind to the boys who were far from home and at the mercy of those in charge. In those days values were different and the belief was that the boys had to be toughened up in preparation for the rigors of life ahead. Perhaps there is some truth in that too.

I think we had a premonition of the mass dispersal that would take place as we finished schooling. Many of us maintained autograph books, little rectangular books of about a hundred pages where we got our close friends to write a short note. The contents varied from canny limericks to Shakespeare. At the end of our stay in the hostel it became a vast collection of memories which I guarded with my life only to be a casualty of time and lack of space in later years.

I was an only child and relished the “friends on tap” atmosphere at school. 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 will never meet again. It is a horrible reminder of your own mortality when you read or hear of the death of boarders 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. Boarding school was a happy and rewarding environment.

In1958 my father moved to Colombo and it was time to leave the boarding. I left with mixed feelings. Sad to leave my friends with whom I shared six long years but glad to regain my independence and some good food of my own choice. I maintained strong links with the hostel and with my numerous friends in the boarding until I left school in 1962.

I often look back to the days in the boarding. The sands of time have moved on as I have progressed from youth to middle age and beyond. After many years, I visited the hostel in 1998 and walked the long corridors once again. The nostalgia was overwhelming but the magic of the place had gone without the friends who made it so special. Sixty plus years on Wesley continues to make immense contributions to education but the Boarding has been scaled down. A sign of the times.

I feel incredibly lucky to have enjoyed such an excellent education.

Ah ! those were the days. How time has flown.

14 comments:

  1. Nihal, the opening of your tale with the unforgettable opening lines of the 'Tale of Two Cities' is so apt and would resonate with the unsettled adolescent years of many.This is one of my favourite passages from Charles Dickens.
    I must say the rest of your tale matches its eloquence.

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  2. Rohini
    Thank you for those kind comments. It is a handsome compliment from a person who writes with such an impressive style. Rohini, it is a pity you cannot find the time to write a piece for us in the Blog.
    I have now bared many aspects of my life on this Blog!! Some may call it boastful exhibitionism. I would say it is my way of saying how imperfect and varied life can be, at times. What you see is not what you get!!
    Take care

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    1. Nihal,
      A feature of all your articles I've read so far- has been a consistent, glaring honesty.
      The beauty of it is that your remarkable writing ability makes even 'warts' fade into insignificance.
      (the lice and the toe-jam did give me a chuckle)!!
      Nothing in life is perfect -but honesty is a great attribute to be admired.
      Thanks for your comment ND.

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  3. Hi ND,
    I read through your days as a school boarder @ WESLEY with great interest. I remember my Dad relating stories of his days as a boarder at Wesley College although his family home was only 200yards away at 22, Norris Avenue. The reason this was so was because my Grand Dad was posted at Badulla during my Dad's schooling days as the Senior Shroff /Accountant with the Health Dept. until he was latterly the Chief Accountant at The General Hospital Colombo -- when my dad left the Hostel and no more boarding!!! Just as you describe he too was 'nicking' mangoes, papaws etc with his mates from the neighbouring premises - that was the order of the day I presume!!.
    I did not have the 'pleasure' of being a hosteller as I lived all my school and Med School years at home with my parents & siblings. I may have missed that aspect of life but made up after qualifying moving around as a Bedouin -- having moved home 13 times at the last count.
    ......NOW AWAITING THE FINAL RESTING PLACE!!!.....

    Raz

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    1. Razaque
      As always it is good to get your feedback. I know all your family went to Wesley and you were the odd man out. Your father captained the school cricket team. I remember your elder brother who was a fine hurdler and also a boxer. We will forgive you for not being an elite Wesleyite like the rest of your family.
      But May be next time around!!
      Regards to you and the family
      ND

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  4. Do you remember a boarder who was also a prefect , Razzack.Wonder where he is, very nice guy.

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    1. Mr Anonymous must be the one and only Indra Anandasabapathy. Greetings!! Razzark from the boarding was a prefect. He was the Whizz kid who won the "Do you know contests" held by Radio Ceylon and also the "Spelling Bee". He went into teaching and was a teacher at Zahira College until he retired. He was an active and vociferous member of the Old Boys union. Now he leads a quiet life and taking a well earned rest. I do not have any contact details.
      Its good to hear from you, Indra.

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    2. Hi 'Anonymous',
      I do not know who I am replying to? Please identify.
      Nevertheless, I do not know of any Prefects who was a boarder as well. Non of my family were boarders & as for prefects, only my sister who was House Captain and School Vice Captain ---- I am not sure what 'vices' she was up to if any???

      Razaque

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  5. Nihal, reading this account of your childhood and teenage years was indeed like reading Jane Eyre. The language is unique and you create vivid pictures in our minds. We share your emotions. The story rolls over smoothly and indeed we become more than just spectators. Thanks for letting us share your experiences of those golden years 60 or so years ago. Zita

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  6. Zita
    Thank you for those lavish compliments which I do not deserve. You are a very kind person helping us to keep in touch.
    Nihal

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  7. Thanks ND yet again! I said it once, I said it twice and I said it again..... and again..... you should write a book! It would become a best seller without any doubt. Your literary talent, the ability to "draw on canvas" with words is amazing. When I read your account, images of my own childhood reappeared before me as there were so many things I could relate to although I have never been boarded as a school boy. I often wondered about how hard it must be for a child in his tender formative years to be boarded, away from his loved ones, to become a sort of pseudo orphan. Like with so many things in life, there are good aspects, bad aspects and ugly aspects I suppose. In my case I try not to reminisce too much as I firmly believe that we must move on....but may be I am missing something! One of these days, I shall post something about the terror and fear I experienced during the Rag. I thought then and my view remains unchanged that the Rag, which is an excuse to justify inexcusable cruelty should have been banned and the ban strictly enforced. It was the playground for sadists, chaps with chips (on their shoulders) and deviants to run riot.

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  8. Mahen
    As always you give encouragement to the many who contribute to our Blog. Thank you for the kind comments and glad you like my story from way back.
    Do write about the Rag. At the time I didnt mind it but on looking back it was a blank cheque for masochists and sadists. Should never be allowed. So much better to have a welcoming party for the new entrants and give them a hand to integrate. It appals me that Rags still go on in SL despite deaths and serious injury.

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  9. This is about the third time I read about ND's hostel life at Wesley. I must however add that I always read ND's articles more than once. My special affinity for this particular article is because it takes me back to a two year period in 1975 - 1977 when my young family lived in a rented apartment at Karlshrue Gardens, just behind Wesley College.

    I have already written about how I missed being a Wesleyite by a whisker. But I reproduce here an extract from a chapter in my "Memoirs".

    "My father was very keen to admit me to Royal College, but in addition to Royal, he also sent in an application to Wesley College and on my request, to Ananda College as well. Royal College turned down my application on the grounds that I had to be 10 years and 6 months of age on January 1st 1952. I was underage by about three months. I faced the admission tests at Wesley and Ananda and was successful in both. I probably would have had my own religion in mind when I opted for Ananda – the premier Buddhist educational institution".

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  10. Dear ND,

    I enjoyed this beautiful narrative as much as all your other writings.You really should write your memoirs and I will definitely be one of the first customers.

    Schooldays for me was" the best of times" I missed out being a boarder as my mother insisted on keeping us at home even when our father was posted" up country".In hindsight she was right particularly for me as I may not have quite adapted to the rough and tumble of the boarding.

    The STC hostel was quite big and was divided into four houses.Chapman(our Founder),Miller, Copleston and Claughton all previous Wardens.Boarders considered themselves special if not superior to day scholars.There was an element of truth in this as most of them did excel in sports.Unfortunately the same cannot be said of their academic prowess.

    We got to know much about the boarders and the boarding from our classmates including Bora who was our medical school colleague.I remember their whinges about food which was probably more to do with monotony than quality or quantity.Day after day it was beef curry,parippu,and polsambol.I too have tasted these as the cricketers were given the same fare on match days.

    The only times I slept in a school boarding was at Trinity and Richmond when I played as a member of the junior cricket team.These trips were memorable for the fun and camaraderie,even more than the cricket.The night before the Trinity encounter we hardly slept but still managed to win.Such was the strength and exuberance of youth.

    The STC boarding gets a mention in Michael Ondaatje's book the Cat's Table.He describes how he nearly drowned in the flood waters of a huge concrete drain in the school and was saved by an older student.These drains would become mini rivers during
    monsoons.

    I believe the boarding has now downsized.It's a pity as this was a noble institution within an even nobler institution.

    Kumar

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