ealization has gradually dawned on me that I am old, very old. Now, that I am 84 years, keeping young is problematic. It is fortunate that I am still restless, still anxious to learn and a voracious reader. Recollections of my early childhood bring back memories of attending the kindergarten standards one and two at Holy Family Convent Bambalapitiya. I remember mother Cazima, an awesome and burly nun, who maintained strict discipline amongst us.
It was time to move. The obvious choice was St. Peter’s College Colombo 4. In the late 1930s, St. Peter’s had no kindergarten hence the necessity to attend Holy Family. Boys I remember were Tony Don Michael, Ralph Forbes, Daffy Ingleton, Jeff Gamier and Jimmy Barucha.
On the first day, my mother handed me over to the Principal of the Primary School, Father Arthur Fernando. He was a great organiser and disciplinarian but he also had that uncanny knack of knowing what young boys liked.
I remember the Horlicks drink, we had at 10 a.m. Standard three was entry point to St. Peter’s. My class teacher was Mrs. Fernando. She was able to get the best out of some pretty distracted young boys. Then I settled down to work and discovered a penchant for English Language, Literature, History, Geography and Arithmetic. To my amazement, I found myself amongst the first three in the class. I moved the following year to Standard four.
Mr. V.B.M. de Silva was our class master. I found I was studious. However, do not run away with the idea that we were bookworms. We liked sports - cricket fascinated us. I remember adulating those cricket stalwarts - Tiger Ephraims, R.A. Stork, A. Kuthdoos and Eric Schokman. They were our Greek Gods. We ourselves played cricket, ran races and played marbles. Like my sisters, I was musical. I started playing the violin at the age of six under the tutelage of Mr. Oscar Wagn. At school, I played in concerts organised by Ms. Lalitha Savundaranayagam. I had a fairly good singing voice and sang in the choir. I also discovered I could act and took part in plays.
Days rolled by, 1939 and 1940 came and went. World War II started in 1939. The Japanese entered the World War in 1941 and then conquered most of the countries in South-East Asia and South Asia. The Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore had fallen. There was bitter fighting in Burma. Sri Lanka was exposed.
Lo and Behold! We were informed towards the middle of 1941 that St. Peter’s College amongst other schools would be taken over by the British Armed Forces. I still remember that last day in school, where we bade farewell to our teachers and class friends. I remember walking back disconsolately to my home down Skelton road. This was something our young minds could not comprehend.
My father was in 1941, the District Medical Officer in Tangalle. Our family was evacuated there. This was a double blow. No familiar school and classrooms and no familiar house and garden. Having got used to the school routine in Colombo it was difficult to adjust. I had Sinhala language classes from the Sinhala Vidyalaya close to our house in Tangalle.
English and Arithmetic were taught by my mother and two elder sisters. My sisters on the piano and myself on the violin also helped us to relax and enjoy. My Father had an extensive library from which I read a number of books and magazines thus enhancing my knowledge.
To my relief, we went back to Colombo at the beginning of 1943. St. Peter’s had two branches — one at St. Mary’s Church Dehiwala and the other, a smaller branch at the Bambalapitiya Seminary, which now houses the Bambalapitiya Flats and a shopping complex. As Bambalapitiya was closer to us, I was sent to this branch in 1943. The classrooms were rather rudimentary and had thatched roofs and half walls of cadjan. When it rained hard, we would get wet. I entered Form 1. Mano Chanmugam, joined us in Form 1 and became a great friend of ours.
Our class teacher was Mr. Cyril Ekanayake, probably one of the most distinctive teachers we were destined to get. It was Cyril who introduced us to the Classics at an early age. He taught us English Language and Literature, Latin, History, Geography, Arithmetic and even Elementary Science. I have still to meet such a versatile teacher as Cyril. He introduced us to the brilliance of Shakespearian plays, the sheer beauty of the poetry of Milton, Wordsworth, Shelly and Keats. He had that rare ability of transforming something dull into an interesting topic. He hand-picked seven of us and we became his “Glory Boys”. He also got us to read great humourists like Steven Leacock and P.G. Wodehouse. He provided us with novels and plays of James Hilton, Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Cyril followed us right upto 1945. There were other great teachers such as Mr. W.B. de Alwis, A.P. de Mel and two priests whose names I have momentarily forgotten.
It wasn’t always work with Cyril.
He even coached us in Cricket, though he never played the game. Some of those who started cricket under him were Herby (H.I.K.) Fernando, Phil Kelly, Denzil Abeysekera, Ago Paiva and Tony Don Michael.
In 1946, we left Bambalapitiya for the Dehiwala branch and another set of class teachers. I remember Foster Stave, Herbert Wittachchi (Cricket Coach as well), Ambrose ‘better known as Apple’, Priests like Father Basil Wiratunga (Vice-Rector), Father Alex Ranasinghe and our great Founder Rector Father Nicholas Perera also taught us. Foster Stave was always immaculately dressed.
He had a distinctive accent. An answer given by one of my classmates was a downright lie. But Foster gently said “My dear Chap, that’s a terminological inexactitude”. Tony Pieris and Anselm Abeyeratne left St. Peter’s for St. Joseph’s about this time.
1946, 1947 and 1948 were the years when the St. Peter’s College Cricket Team were undisputed champions in school cricket. Prior to this, my first cousins Anton and Maurice Perera were players in the college cricket team. Anton was a fantastic batsman and Maurice a genuine all-rounder.
Dion Walles led St. Peter’s to victory in almost every match we played. If Dion had stayed back in Sri Lanka, I’m sure he would have become an outstanding Sri Lankan Cricketer.
The next event of note was the end of World War II and the Armed Services leaving our schools. St. Peter’s was quickly reconstructed and refurbished. It was good to be back in familiar surroundings. Another set of teachers Sueter Pieris, Granville Senanayake, Herbert Wittachchi were there to teach us. Priests like Fathers Noel Crusz, Dharmaratne, Mervyn Weerakody, and Theodore Peiris were there to guide us. Father Nicholas Perera had passed away and Father Basil Wiratunga was the new Rector. The inimitable George de Niese was our Art and Music teacher.
Father Mervyn and he had an on-going rivalry. Mano and I were Bases and Tony was Tenor in the senior choir. Unfortunately we had two conductors Father Mervyn and George de Niese. We managed to sing our solo parts, but for the rest the two conductors were a source of confusion and amusement. Besides our studies, we had a very interesting and busy schedule. Mano and I became joint secretaries of the Music, Drama & Art society. Father Noel Crusz was dynamic and a go-getter. I recollect the play “Pontine Marshes” and the fabulous concert titled “Musical Cavalcade”. Father Basil took our religious knowledge class and I was a thoroughly distracted student. I vaguely remembered Father Basil asking me what the 7 steps to priesthood were? Pat! came my answer “Brother, Deacon, Archdeacon, Priest, Monsignor, Cardinal and Pope. Then an eerie silence followed and to my amazement, I heard a chuckle which became a roar of laughter from Father Basil. He responded “If that is so, I would have been Pope by now”.
Father Basil besides being a deeply religious and devout priest also had a subtle sense of humour. He was an all-round sportsman. I remember playing tennis with him when I was in the University Entrance forms. After the Senior School Certificate, Tony and I sat for the last London Matriculation held in Sri Lanka in 1948 and we were two out of three students who passed from a quota of 76 students. To enter University, we had to complete the Higher School Certificate Examination in two years. If you did well it was the passport to enter university and the medical college. We had Mr. A.P. Gomes for Chemistry and Physics and Mr. John and Mr. Morrel for Botany and Zoology respectively.
Ashley Halpe joined St. Peter’s in the University Entrance form. He entered University doing science subjects. However, he convinced the selection board that he should join the Arts Faculty and do English as his Major. What an amazing career he had; Straight As at every exam he sat for. He got his PhD in English and was the first in the batch. He joined University as a lecturer in English at the Faculty of Arts, Peradeniya.
He became a Professor of English at a very young age. Ashley’s varied and diverse interests included Art, Poetry and Plays.
Ashley became a cornerstone at Peradeniya University. He was loved by his students. He also rose to be Dean of the Faculty of Arts. Unfortunately Ashley has left us after a brief illness leaving a deep void in our lives.
As for Tony and me, medical careers loomed ahead. Mano entered the Ampitiya Seminary but later re-entered civilian life and became a highly qualified Construction Engineer. He is even now a much sort after consultant. Mano, Tony, Ashley and I remained excellent friends and we moved in a coterie where our interests included Art, Music, Literature, Poetry and even Sports.
I wish I could go back to St. Peter’s, one still moon-lit night and sit in the middle quadrangle. I’m sure that if I close my eyes, the classrooms and corridors will come alive with the school boys and teachers of yester-year. We can momentarily relive those glorious days, we shared together.
Dr. Nihal Abeyesundere