“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past”
~William Shakespeare, Sonnet (30)
Ananda College, named after the principal disciple of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha is, more often than not, revered for her celebrated contributions to the revival of traditional Buddhist education, reckoned for her distinct accomplishments in non-academic fields and scorned and looked down upon by condescending social-climbers who missed the rare opportunity to attend the school. It still remains at the very top tier of educational institutions in Sri Lanka. I state this, not as a so-called proud Anandian but as an ordinary citizen making a mere statement of fact. Ananda’s journey over the past 130 years has led through a path of glory and disappointment; it’s experienced its share of hardships but it’s been one magnificent journey through the proverbial peaks and valleys. Ananda is not a station; it is a fast moving train taking its travellers along moonlit nights as well as broad daylight; without any favour or fervour, without any irrational emotion but a whole lot of passion.
In completing ‘Anandaya – the first 125 Years’, a dedicated team of chroniclers have made a remarkable effort in painting a marvelous picture on a broad and seamless canvas, with cold professionalism and painstaking attention to detail as one would see in an accomplished biographer. It has provided readers of every era with a timeless impression of reminiscence of their long and arduous journey. That is the inescapable essence of the chronicle that is before us. Whilst recounting the dates and times of each era, whilst presenting a factual picture of the varied struggles and tribulations of Ananda, as a collective mindset of faceless thousands who have passed through the ages of pre-Independence and post-Independence Sri Lanka, the authors have been able to maintain a remarkable sense of balance in highlighting the characters who shaped and defined the legacy of Ananda.
Many a review has already been written of the book we are talking about today. I’m not going to be judgmental of those efforts, nor am I going to be judgmental on the very institution that is called Ananda and her place in Sri Lanka’s society. Not all products of Ananda College have reached the pinnacle of society. Not all have achieved the desired results when they entered school and completed their education from their formative years to late teens. Yet we indulge in the glories of the few who went to the top of our societal ranks, whether they be of professional, academic or political turn. Many have fallen by the wayside. Many have found no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Many have grown accustomed to the discriminatory nature some of our masters and even Principals resorted to during the reformative ages of our nation as one struggling to raise her head above the water during and after colonial times.
When stipulating these thoughts and beliefs, one must grapple with the fundamental question that should be asked of an old-Anandian or anyone else. What is the concept of ‘Ananda’? Is it merely a concept, or is it a living organism? Is it the buildings? Is it the teachers and Principals? Is it what we have attained in our respective lives, professionally and personally? Is it the countless lessons we have absorbed or is it an illusion or a mirage that we store within ourselves and never try to give expression to, for fear of finding the inglorious truths hidden behind those illusions and mirages? Or is it the combination of all these aspects and influences and more? I don’t have an answer to these endless questions. I dare not choose one from amongst them. To do so would be utterly condescending, a characteristic which Anandians are not known for.
Taken in that context of contemporary historical experience, has ‘Anandaya – the first 125 Years’, the publication we are reviewing today, accomplished its singular and primary task of telling a tale of enchantment, sorrow, courage, achievement, despair, hope and valor? If the reader has the patience and insight, if he or she can absorb the niceties and cruelties of the times, from the 1880s to the twenty first century, if he has the elementary keenness to sit down and indulge in it as a book of reference which he can every now and then turn to a page and relive the experiences it tries to narrate, it has accomplished its task and done even more. It is not a Frederick Forsyth thriller which one won’t put down until the last few pages are reached and the plot has thickened to spring up a surprise. Nor is it a biography of a contemporary politician whose scandals outnumber the ‘good’ deeds he has done for the community he is sworn in to serve. It is a coffee-table-book which belongs more to those abodes where there are no coffee tables; it is a publication which has embraced a history of a nation struggling to shake away the cobwebs of colonial domination; a gem of a production whose narrative is difficult to digest because of its weighty substance. The authors must not be discouraged by that response from a majority of readers.
Ananda, as all good things, is difficult to achieve, more precious to part with, more sustaining than a victory at a big-match. Ananda is the whole experience of life; its dignity dwells in the values it has imparted to its students; not Buddhist values, not Sinhalese values, not traditional values nor modern-day values, just plain human values. Ananda’s contribution towards the sustenance of human values surpasses its own material values of which volumes have already been penned for posterity.
After all, what Ananda means to each old-Anandian is not what others tell him about it. It is what he or she has taken or not taken home from it. It is fundamentally personal and private. What Ananda represents to each and every old-Anandian who attended this great school, from the 1880s to the present, is unique and exclusive and at the same time universal and all-encompassing. On November 10, 1922, Rabindranath Tagore, considered by many to be the greatest literary figure in human history visited Ananda College in Colombo, as the chief guest at its annual prize-giving ceremony. It is apt to refer to one of his famous quotations as follows: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” In the writer’s opinion, that is the one great lesson Ananda has imparted to us. In the same vein, Ignazio Silone, the author of the timeless novel Fontamara said: “I am a Christian without a church; a socialist without a party and a citizen without a country”. Such sublime thoughts are capable of being born in many an old-Anandian. Silone also said thus: “On a group of theories one can found a school; but on a group of values one can found a culture”. Ananda founded more than a school, it founded a culture.
When a well-accomplished academic sits down in the deepening hours of twilight, in his well-lit study surrounded by hundreds of books, he may turn the leaves of Anandaya – the first 125 Years; in another far-off land, a professional who pursued his post-graduate studies in western lands might wake up early morning and before his usual morning constitutional, with a mugful of coffee in hand, glance through the pages of Anandaya – the first 125 Years and yet in a very average household in the suburbs of Colombo or in a far-off hamlet in rural Sri Lanka, the father of the household will turn the pages very proudly and try to instill in his teenage son values to follow in life’s long journey. They may occupy varied social tiers and earn varied incomes but the common thread that binds them is that they are all old-Anandians. To be part of that whole, not the singular tier, but the collective whole, makes one tremble not with fear but awe. To me, that is Ananda, the whole. Anandaya – the first 125 Years has done that awesome legacy proud.