11th March 2001

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Book Review

  • ECB's men and memories
  • Ups and downs of a trail blazer in the English language

  • ECB's men and memories

    The Good At Their Best-Selected Writings of E.C.B. Wijeyesinghe, actor and journalist.

    By Anne Abayasekara

    E.C.B. Wijeyesinghe would have been 100 today. It is admirably appropriate that his eldest son, G.C.B. Wijeyesinghe has combined with his father's old friend, F.A. Ranasinghe, and with E.C.B.'s great friend H.A.J. Hulugalle's son, Arjuna Hulugalle, to publish the recollections of a bygone era so delightfully penned for posterity by ECB in feature articles written mostly for the Sunday Observer, but also including a dozen from the old Times of Ceylon and one each from the Daily News, the Sun and Focus. The book is being launched this evening at the Archbishop's Palace in Borella. (Incidentally, Doreen, ECB's wife, shared the same birthday as her husband, but was eight years his junior).

    The memories recorded here may be said to have been recollected, in tranquillity, for all these articles were written after retirement and when the author was over 75 years of age. Perhaps that's why they have the taste of wine that is long pent up, mature and sweet, but with that piquant touch and that particular brand of wit and humour that characterised ECB. He was an inimitable raconteur and I can picture him now, his expression deadpan as he related some uproarious anecdote, and then broke into a loud guffaw of mirth as he shared in the laughter he evoked from his audience. A long, long time ago, we used to play carrom in the old Lake House canteen during the lunch hour - ECB and the pretty Chitrafoto receptionist of that time, Deanna Jansen, my husband and I. How frequently we would subside in laughter over some remark or observation of ECB's. Similarly, in later years, how much we enjoyed sitting in their home with him and Doreen who with her quiet charm was surely the ideal partner for this ebullient man, talking of old times and old friends in conversation that was always and invariably laced with laughter provoked by ECB as he sat in his favourite armchair.

    As I sat engrossed in this book all last week (I found it 'unputdownable'), I could echo Haris Hulugalle's words in the tribute published among the introductory features that precede the collection of 82 vivid pen portraits of famous men and women - "I can still read them with a chuckle in these days of darkness, 25 years on." ECB's humour was never tinged with malice and if he sometimes made a sly reference to the more human qualities of a subject, it was done in terms that gave no offence. So he brings to life a wonderful galaxy of people - newspaper tycoons, editors and journalists, professionals in all their variety, actors and theatre folk, politicians and poets, teachers and university dons, churchmen and Buddhist leaders, veterans of two World Wars, playwrights and producers and film directors, philanthropists, and planters, ambassadors and artistes, orators and statesmen and sportsmen - the list seems endless.

    Among the women to whom ECB has devoted space are Dr. Mary Ratnam and Miriam Peiris (later de Saram), but he has picked out many more for honourable mention in the course of articles focusing on others. Mrs. Naysum Saravanamuttu, wife of Dr. Ratnajothi Saravanamuttu, then Mayor of Colombo, is remembered as the only woman in the old State Council in 1938, in a scintillating piece about the celebrated Saravanamuttu brothers entitled: "Saras_The Mighty Six"; then in a tribute to Dr. Mary Rutnam and the Lanka Mahila Samiti which he calls "the finest legacy Dr. Mary Rutnam left to this country," apart from her brilliant progeny, he writes a paragraph about "that great woman journalist," Betty Hunsworth of the Daily News who was also Colombo correspondent of the The Christian Science Monitor. Mrs. Hunsworth put the Lanka Mahila Samiti on the world map when she wrote a full account of it for that prestigious daily, says ECB adding that it was as much an advertisement for the Samiti as it was a boost for the beauty and grace of Sri Lanka's womanhood.

    Standing by the pretty girls in the picture were two attractive Samiti sevakas, Violet Rajapakse and Loranee Senaratne, then in their prime..... "the passage of time has left no wrinkles on either of them." He claims that Violet Rajapakse (nee de Zoysa) "is a match for any of her brothers." I was both tickled and very pleased to find he mentions that Violet is "ably assisted in her work by Anoja Fernando who was once called 'The pride of Ladies' College".

    Senator Cissy Cooray, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Lady Coomaraswamy, Mrs. F.B. De Mel and Mrs. N.S. Perera are also named as among the stalwarts of old.

    In an article written to mark the centenary of the law firm of Julius & Creasy, the last paragraph is about other legal offices watching "with bated breath, the experiment tried by Julius & Creasy in introducing a female element into the upper reaches of its administration". This was Mrs. Lena Charlotte Fernando who "made history once by being the first woman to pass out as a proctor" and who repeated it when she was appointed a partner of J&C.

    Writing about a play entitled "The King's Wife", in which ECB was given the role of the villain and the heroine was played by Serena Peeris," "petite and attractive daughter of perhaps the wealthiest man in the Uva province," and who "came to Colombo with the reputation of being Badulla's brightest student," ECB discloses that by the final curtain Serena "had scored a big hit off the stage" in capturing the heart of one of the most promising stars in the political firmament, Dr. N.M. Perera who had been in the audience. "Before Dr. Perera could say 'Will you join the Lanka Sama Samaja Party?', Serena found herself joined to her suitor in the bonds of matrimony."

    Maybe I've devoted too much time and space to the women he mentions, because this book is mainly, of course, a celebration of famous men in our Island Story - ranging from George Wall, D.S. Senanayake, Sir Baron Jayatilake, D.R. Wijewardene, Silva, E.W. Perera, Charles Ambrose Lorensz, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir P. Arunachalam, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, C.E. Corea and other equally illustrious national leaders, to C.E.A. Dias, Soysa, A.H.T. de Soysa, Anagarika Dharmapala, Bishop Lakdasa de Mel, J.L.C. Rodrigo, Lionel Wendt, Mudliyar A.C.G.S. Amarasekera, Carol Reed, Lord Louis Mou-ntbatten, Simon Casie Chetty, R.L. Brohier, Dr. S.C. Paul, and a score or more of other distinguished men.

    It is obvious that ECB hasn't just relied on his memory, but has carefully researched many of his subjects, for he treats the reader to true stories about the men of whom he writes so compellingly, giving us insights into their character, beliefs and attitudes. ECB has an unmatched gift for a telling phrase that immediately completes the picture - as, for example, when he says of someone that this gentleman "was under the impression that everything national had to be heavy-footed and should move with the dignity and poise of the Maligawa tusker". He constantly adds with unerring touch something that gives further insight into people one knew fairly well. Having come under the unforgettable influence of D.R. Wijewardene when still a teenager and an insignificant cog in the vast edifice of Lake House, and knowing full well how much the "Old Man" shunned the limelight, it took ECB's article in this book to tell me that D.R. had been offered and had refused a knighthood towards the end of his days.

    ECB's long-standing friend and kindred spirit, Herschel Pandittasekera (alias 'Galinago') was someone I knew from my childhood on, but it took ECB to complete my mind's eye picture of this lovable personality when he revealed that while Herschel's father had been a keen horticulturist who cultivated rare varieties of fruit and had a mango named after him, his son "was a fruit- hater. Anybody who flung a ripe plantain at him could be his enemy for life."

    The Good At Their Best has resurrected ECB in my imagination, as much as it has brought back to life all those giants of old for those of us to whom their names still hold significance. I savour the felicitious phrases, the vivid accounts, the typical humour and the memorable cameos of people who should be remembered for all time. What the younger generation will make of this book, I cannot tell. For me, it is not a book to be described, but a rich and rare reward for those who will open it and read for themselves the stories unfolded therein.

    Ups and downs of a trail blazer in the English language

    Book Review

    A Bilingual English Course: English Through Controlled Use of Sinhala - by Dr. D. Walatara.

    No other English textbook was besieged by such intense controversy and bitter recrimination as Dr. Douglas Walatara's "Reconstruction" text book, which he produced under the auspices of the Secondary Education Division of the Ministry of Education in the late sixties. It broke new ground and was based on years of experimentation when Walatara was lecturer in English at the Government Training College, where he spent decades training and, more importantly, educating teachers of English.

    Waltara called his new method of teaching English the "Reconstruction Method", which was a commonsense approach to taking English to rural children whose exposure to English was minimal or totally absent except within the four walls of the English classroom presided over by a teacher who had learnt English as a foreign language, and for whom it was foreign!

    Walatara designed his down to earth approach to help the rural learner reach the unknown language (English) through the known languages (Sinhalese and Tamil). "From the known to the unknown" and "from the immediate to the distant" are time honored principles of imparting new knowledge and skills.

    Would it be possible to offer rural children an opportunity to acquire an acceptable degree of English proficiency in their rural setting? Walatara's "Reconstruction Approach" was an exciting, trailblazing answer to the problem. Rural English teachers and their pupils lapped it up fervently.

    "Reconstruction" is a simple technique. Pupils are presented with a Sinhala/Tamil passage which they are required to "reconstruct" in simple English. This is followed by copious structural drills, at the end of which pupils master a given set of English structures beginning with the simple present tense verb forms.

    Most unfortunately, however, when the book was published and ready for distribution among schools, it was disposed of into limbo with scant regard for the time, labour and cost spent on it.

    Walatara however did not renounce his faith in the efficacy of his method. He went on to publish his book at his own expense and used it in several institutes where he and some of his former faithful students taught English under his guidance such as at the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration, the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Education, several state corporations, the Department of Wildlife (under the GEF project of the World Bank), the Postgraduate Institute of Management, the Colombo North Medical School, private companies and in the schools where his University of Peradeniya Bachelor of Education students did their teaching practice. The response to his material and method was both favourable and encouraging.

    "Reconstruction" was both a success and a failure: a success because it was a single man's effort to deliver a meaningful English teaching programme to students who did not have the privilege of an exposure to English and a failure because it was ruthlessly denied the patronage of the Ministry of Education because of the wicked machinations of mice and men."

    And now after several makeshift editions of the book on Walatara's own steam, one of his former GTC teacher trainees A. K. Hewage has published a reorganised version of the book with an attractive cover, under the title of "A Bilingual English Course".

    The demerits of the book, nevertheless, need to be mentioned not in a spirit of criticism, but because there is always room for improvement, where 'tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection". One glaring weakness is the plethora of typos that deface what is in many ways a good publication. An errata sheet is not the best thing for students to see at the beginning of a textbook! Neither does it cover the entire rash of errors that sully the book: spelling errors such as grammar and incorrect punctuation and run on words such as "Give the poor man a drink of whisky" a little ladysaid', omission of whole sentences, and even misquotations. The correction sheet does not even give the correct page on which some of these errors occur. For second language learners this is a major worry, annoying and distracting.

    Dr. Walatara must not take all the blame for the many errors in his book, but his publisher must. One wishes that before the rural second language learner picked up the errors that abound in the book, they would be corrected - in the interests of professionalism, if of nothing else.

    By C.N.S.

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