Walking back and forth under the intense heat around the huge National Museum complex established by Gregory exactly 140 years ago, searching for its Auditorium was somewhat strenuous for a septuagenarian. I was perplexed for a moment why of all the auditoriums in Colombo City, the organisers selected this venue.
Language learning concepts, an innovative idea by Madhubhashini Dissanayake Ratnayake was to be launched in printed format titled, Grammar through Literature and a memoir - A Thousand-Voiced Choir. As per the news release the specified hours were from 2 pm to 5 pm. It was when I was inside the spacious newly-furnished modern auditorium which I guess could accommodate more than 400 people, that I realized she had chosen the correct venue.
Madhubashini, who won The Gratiaen Award for her first novel, ‘I Have Something to Tell You’, in 2011, preceded by two short listings in 2002 and 2004, preferred to begin the event in the afternoon’s drowsy hour that stretched till 5 pm. However, the author ensured the occasion which was open to the public to be an overwhelmingly entertaining and educative one without a single dull or boring moment. Two students of the Sri Jayawardenepura University who learn English from Madhu madam at its English Language Teaching unit, [which the VC said would be elevated to the status of a Department soon], amply demonstrated their unreserved and heartfelt gratitude to the English teacher par excellence using the opportunity accorded to them by her. They released all their ‘accumulated energies’ at their disposal. ‘Adey.., Madhu Madam’ or ‘Adey…Sir enawaa…’ according to one of them, is an affectionate involuntary expression by the students on sighting a good teacher approaching or passing by.
- A new language is a new life’. ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart as well
- It take years to put pen to paper in writing a book and months to design, edit, proofread, lay out, and released for printing which usually is the end of a long strenuous journey
Usually at ‘book launches’ a couple of ‘experts’ deliver boring theoretic sermons which are invariably lackluster and drab and are described as keynote addresses. [once at a famous venue for Book launches, a confused guest speaker after arriving late commenced his talk about a book written by a different author; it was later revealed that he was supposed to deliver the key note for it at the same venue on the previous week, but did not attend] The audience at the museum’s auditorium on Saturday 23 was given an unforgettable experience by the lady who successfully read for her Masters in creative writing on a Fulbright assignment with NY University. Language is a ‘biological instinct’: babies are born with the ability—they don’t learn to develop speech. Creativity is a ‘biological instinct’ too; it could be developed by learning the intricacies— only by a conflict - free mind.
There wasn’t the usual ‘specialist’ Master of Ceremonies, the void was filled by Dr Sujeewa Hettiarachchi, a senior lecturer and the author’s former pupil, who conducted the almost three-and-a-half-hour programme with absolute competence.
A common lament at every campus according to well known writer Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi from Peradeniya university’s Sinhala Language faculty was ‘Manngnang subject ekata ennema lassana madamlane.’ I wanted to inquire from island’s number one authority on Sinhalese terminology, expressions and the colloquial, Professor J B Dissanayake, the father of Madhubashini madam for the meaning of the term Manngnang at the end of the programme, but the busy academic who allowed his three-year old daughter to click one letter on his typewriter, while pleading, “thaththa mata eka akurak…?”, was too busy talking about more important things with his former students who are now senior academics.
Liyanage expounded a psychological drawback in our students. He said, a student weak in the language is always a bit hesitant to go before a good-looking female teacher feeling uneasy and nervous, therefore he continued, ‘English is Mangnang and worse Madhu Madam is beautiful….’. He went on to add that it was Madhu nangi and few others who helped him to break the shackles of foreign language anxiety, or xenoglossophobia. He too suffered from the feeling of worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced in learning or using English in his undergraduate days. Amarakeerthi, amply displayed the quality of the huge personality within him when the modest man swiftly related his past, how he struggled to overcome the barriers, and repaying his debt to ‘Madhu nangi’who always encouraged him as did with all her students, commanding “You can; please do it.”
Chief Guest, Professor Sampath Amaratunge, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, the tri-linguist, who used many interesting anecdotes related to learning Japanese language in Tokyo was the most hilarious of all who spoke at the meeting. With no English signs or labels that are seen around in our remotest villages, and with all the Xs, Ys and Zs converse strictly in their own language only, our academic had a trying time for the first few months until he mastered the foreign language in six months - the deadline fixed by his professor which reminded me of the famous Japanese sayings, ‘A new language is a new life’. ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart as well.’
The scholar used his creative skills to drive a point to the vast student population; instead of sermonizing with theories or talking directly he related his personal experiences, a creative approach. Reaching the academy by foot from his dormitory, he made it a point to talk to every single Japanese person he met on the way, often repeating the same inquiry again and again, “what’s your name, your pet’s name…” etc to repeat the questionnaire effortlessly on the very next day as well. A lesson on how one could learn to speak a foreign language.
Vishaka Nanayakkara, Head of the Decision Science Department of Moratuwa University who was the Director of the HETC Project at that time commented on the memoir.
It takes years to put pen to paper in writing a book and months to design, edit, proofread, lay out, and released for printing which usually is the end of a long strenuous journey. The non-traditional grammar book that uses a novella and the classic poems of English literature written by the author, the Head and Senior Lecturer of the English Language Teaching Unit of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Ms. Madhubashini Dissanayake Ratnayake should be highly commended for her splendid work in writing the books and organizing the launch.
Let me speak the truth; the organisers disappointed me when Madhu madam’s husband Pradeep Ratnayake, the maestro of the Sitar, who was also described as “Ravi Shankar of Sri Lanka” by the Guest of Honour, Ms. Parvathi Nagasundaram, former Head of the Department of English, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, was clad only in his formal dress, sans his musical attire, walked in with their two daughters indicating that a scintillating sitar recital like the one that mesmerized me when she launched her Gratiaen Award winning novel a few years ago at Sri Lanka Foundation Institute’s auditorium was not in the cards for the day; though in fact the whole affair was a combination of entertainment and knowledge.
But I soon realized that the teacher had other ideas on a diversion when a well deserved opportunity was given to the students choir to sing the golden oldie, ‘By the river of Babylon…’ made based on the spiritual that was sung by the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC, changing into Sinhala version of Clarence singing alternatively with ‘Kandukaraye seethaley, meedumthira ya-kere… …gewamu api jeewithe’ reverberating university’s ELTU Choir’s rendition with three more songs.
Sans politicians to ‘decorate’ the head table, it was a memorable evening away from political jargon that pollute the environment day in day out.
Thank you Madhu Madam.