Tuesday, March 21, 2017
My memories of the Common Room 1962-67
By Dr. Nihal D. Amerasekera
The common room was the social hub of the Faculty. It was housed in the drab grey administrative building of the Faculty of Medicine in the shadow the Koch memorial clock tower. The tall tower with its colonial elegance was built in 1881 in memory of Dr E L Koch, the 2nd Principal of the Colombo Medical School. The Milk Booth with its red and white stripes gave a bit of colour and provided the medical students with sustenance and cigarettes. Smoke and noise filled the ‘dust bowl’ behind the booth which was the parking space for a multitude of cycles, scooters and motor bikes that entered and left the area with monotonous regularity.
However timeless and imposing, the Faculty is not just a set of buildings but a vibrant community. My first encounter with the common room wasn’t a pleasant one. It was the baptism of fire in the infamous rag week. I needn’t elaborate on the psychological vandalism of this archaic practice, a remnant of British rule given a psychopathic oriental twist. That is how I see it now from the sanitised world I live in. But I must confess I didn’t see it that way at the time and considered this as yet another hurdle on the way to fame and fortune.
The common room merged into the canteen and the two were inseparable. Many preferred to take their tea-punts to the common room. The cigarette was a fashion accessory and smoking was rampant in those days. The canteen and common room were full of smoke all day long. The common room had a radiogram with numerous records ranging from classical to jazz and popular music. I remember playing music of Frank Chacksfield which was also a special favourite of Lalantha Amerasinghe . The table tennis was keenly contested and we had some excellent players of national standard like NG Lucas and Buddy Reid. Perched on his ancient wooden chair ‘Marker’ controlled the billiards corner. He had his “potha” the exercise book which gave us the order of play for billiards. For some students billiards was not only a game but a way of life. Some veterans played their entire game with a cigarette precariously perched on their lips, just like a scene from a 1930’s Hollywood movie. There were several Carrom boards ‘greased’ with talcum powder and in constant use. Lucky Abey was our carrom champion. It amazes me still how the Bridge players found time for their hobby as the games went on ad infinitum. Poring over the chess board were Satchie and Asoka Wijeyekoon both fine chess players often seen in deep thought ruminating on the last move and fretting over the next.
In those days feminism was a profanity. Although called a common room it was common only to men. Women were not officially barred but whenever they arrived there were wolf whistles and cat-calls reminding them plainly and unequivocally it was a men only area. I have witnessed this spectacle with many girls running away in extreme embarrassment. Girls were often seen in the canteen with their friends and partners.
The common room was a very special place for us medical students. It was our own retreat and shelter from the storms of faculty life. Our teachers never used the common room and we were left to our own devices. We gathered there to chat and socialise. Racy jokes and saucy humour filled the air. Those friendships made and firmed within those walls have a special closeness that have lasted a lifetime. I recall with great nostalgia the hilarious banter and dialogue between Chanaka Wijesekera and Sunil De Silva which occurred regularly. It had everyone in stitches and helped to lighten our load during those grueling 5 years. This impromptu comedy script was hugely amusing and entertaining. When Asoka Wijeyekoon joined in with his one liners, it was priceless.
There were times when Prof O.E Abhayaratne and the Medical Officer Dr EHC Alles arrived in the canteen unannounced for a tea and a fag. They surveyed their territory enjoying a smoke. The Prof. with his large frame and husky voice would have frightened the boldest. Beneath that intimidating and fearsome exterior was a kind and considerate man loved and greatly respected by the students. His superb lectures from squatting plates to malaria control were delivered in such elegant prose with a poetic feel. To digress, I have seen squatting plates in my years in the dry zone with the toes together and the heels far apart perhaps in a clever attempt to combine ablutions with the benefits of Tai Chi. Dr Alles came into my life briefly like a flash of lightening at the medical examination on entry to the Faculty. I recollect very little of it now but remember Bernard Randeniya’s amusing and farcical experience. During the examination Dr Alles had asked him to undress. So he did and stood there stark naked wearing only his wristwatch. Dr Alles examined his scrotum and counted the testicles making sure both had descended. Through sheer embarrassment he laughed uncontrollably much to the annoyance of Dr Alles. It seems Bernard was severely admonished and sent on his way. Bless him, Bernard had this overwhelming desire to laugh at the most awkward moment. This often caused great embarrassment. Once doing his Prof Rajasuriya’s appointment, which was daunting at the best of times, he was examining his own patient who had a palpable typhoid spleen. That is gold dust to a medical student. Many students have pummeled this patient mercilessly before. When Bernard started his palpation the patient has had enough. He loudly expressed his displeasure, took his bags and wanted to get discharged and leave. Bernard saw the funny side of this incident and started to laugh. The Prof was not faraway and heard the commotion. Everyone Knows about Prof’s volatile temper and the harsh punishments. He came to Bernard and having heard the story was greatly annoyed. Bernard was severely reprimanded but was not asked to repeat the appointment. Bernard was one of life’s gentleman, a real joy to be with. I miss his friendship, company and his irresistible guffaw. Although he left this world in 2004 in my quiet moments I can still hear his laughter!!
The common room was also a cauldron of emotions and a place of refuge. Those who have had a tough time at appointments or being repeated sat down alone in a quiet corner or stood with friends to be comforted. Posting of the examination results on the notice board and our desperate search for our names, is a ritual I can never forget. I have seen the despair in the faces of those who had failed. They were consoled by friends. The sheer relief and joy of those who passed often spilled out of the common room to rendezvous at the Lion House or Saraswathy Lodge. Those who failed too quietly drifted in late to drown their sorrows. The common room must retain many memories of the agony and the ecstasy of life in the Faculty.
The Medical Students Union (MSU) wielded great power and prestige. The distinction of being its President was a special honour. The selection was through a democratic election. There was extensive canvassing and the candidates reached out to every medical student with promises and pledges. After the election the MSU hosted an evening party in the common room. It was a lavish bash and the booze flowed freely. It began with speeches giving assurances and promises to keep those pledges and make our lives better. The vows and commitments were soon forgotten just like in politics worldwide.
My abiding memory of those parties is the music and the dancing in various stages of inebriation. Those diverse dance maneuvers defied gravity and some of the slithery gyrations were an anatomical marvel. JC Fernando and his guitar produced much of the captivating and gripping entertainment. Patrick Fernando’s golden trumpet filled the night air with music. I remember him play “Suranganeeta malu genawa” with such verve and vigor that it lit up the common room. The music transported us to a different planet. Patrick lived in Tasmania and passed away a couple of years ago. I recall with great nostalgia R.L Tambiraja singing his signature tune “Come and see the wild west show”. He became the Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Singapore. I was deeply saddened to see his obituary some years ago, aged 70. I do remember Lucian Wijetunge (now in Australia) doing a fine baila which would have won any dance competition. His swift leg movements reminds me of the Irish River Dance. One of my enduring memory of this great event is Deva Iriyagolla from our junior batch singing that Mohideen Beig favourite “Tikiri menike ambula genalla” with such sensitivity and feeling. It saddens me to think he died so young while being the DMO at Padaviya in the North Central Province. My meagre contribution was to dance on the bridge table much to the chagrin of the bridge players. Some kind soul (Lucky Abey) took me home to sober up. How I coped going back to my grandparents in Nugegoda that night will never be known. Mahendra Gonsalkorale stuck to his principles. Without taking even a sip of alcohol he had the exceptional ability to join in the fun. He was an audacious illusionist who could create this pretense of being drunk just holding a glass of ginger ale. This looked so much like the Arrack we drank. Drinking molasses in such large quantities must have been like placing a lighted stick of dynamite in the liver. Those parties were indeed nights to remember and remain deeply carved in my memory of the happy and carefree time in the Faculty.
Universities are places of endemic change. Every year new students join and those who have left go farther on life's journey. As all good things must come to an end so did our sojourn in medical school. Those five grueling years brought us closer together. Perils and pitfalls and the blissful euphoria of those years will long be remembered. When the final year results were posted we congregated in the common room, the lobby and the canteen to say our goodbyes. I recall the warmth of feeling that day and the sadness that followed as we left the premises. For some it was my last goodbye as I never saw many of them again.
In the new millennium I made many visits to my old haunt, the Central Blood Bank Colombo, before it was moved. On those occasions I have drifted into the canteen for a cup of tea and ventured into the common room. The ambience of the place had changed enormously. I didn’t hear any English being spoken unlike in my day. There was Sinhala music blaring away from a crappy radio. That I believe is progress and a return to our own values after centuries of foreign dominance. The surging tide is for equality for men and women. It would be real progress to have a common room without segregation. The place didn’t look clean as it used to be. The corridors looked cluttered and untidy. Students appeared less well attired. Their slang would have been less acceptable in our day. As I am writing this piece for the blog I have disregarded political correctness and written frankly and candidly. After living in the UK for 43 years it may be my vision is blinkered.
I hope very much this account will take you back to those times in our youth and help you recall people and events. As we reminisce we are made aware of the fragility of life and the many who have now departed this world. Now the common room is a ghostly relic of former times. After the passage of half a century the lively and vibrant common room with its unique ambience can only exist in our memories.
I wish to refer the reader to a fine article written by Lucky Abeygunawardene on this blog
Posted on the 6th of January 2017 captioned “ Marker and the Men’s Common Room” and also a series of images of the Administrative building and its surrounds posted on the 4th of October 2011. They certainly helped me to reminisce and recall those priceless memories of long ago.