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.