When I entered Law College, my class mates at Royal College, who had entered Medical College, as their parents had dreamt, said, at our batch get-together, that they were happy that the most notorious thug that Royal College had produced had entered Law College, as the Law College was deemed to be the refuge of [...]

Sunday Times 2

From booruwa to billiards: Those were the days!

Reminiscing his Law College days, senior lawyer Hemantha Warnakulasuriya recounts why a witty Lalith Athulathmudali called him a ‘criminal’ and shares other memorable anecdotes

When I entered Law College, my class mates at Royal College, who had entered Medical College, as their parents had dreamt, said, at our batch get-together, that they were happy that the most notorious thug that Royal College had produced had entered Law College, as the Law College was deemed to be the refuge of scoundrels, who had failed to enter Medical College.

I said “you are calling me a thug because I saved your life when that man Dole ran after you to hit you with his knuckle dusters and I saved the day by giving him the thrashing of his life time”. They replied, “You did not assault him alone, your lorry drivers did that for you.” 

Group photograph of the most exclusive and permanent members of the 'cut table'.

At Law College, we had a galaxy of teachers, including the late great Lalith Athulathmudali, Harihara Aiyar and J.A.L. Cooray.
Mr. Athulathmudali made it a point to intersperse anecdotes to his lectures to make it interesting and thereby prevented us from spending time in the canteen while others were engaged in a more lucrative pastime of participating in the ‘national past time’ or at playing ‘booruwa’, at the cut table. Once Mr. Authulathmudali said in a more jovial manner, “you know, like this word ‘Grundnorm’ I was interested in the word ‘midwife’. The whole class laughed and the girls giggled.

Who wants to be a civilian?

Then, I raised my hand and asked him, “Sir, when did you get interested in mid wife, before or after you got married?” He could not help but laugh, but was not to be outwitted by some student, who had come from a village. He immediately asked the students, ‘Please raise your hands, those of you who wish to become civilians after you leave College. ‘Civilian’ meant those who wished to practise civil law. The majority of the students raised their hands. He then looked at me said, ‘Warnakulasuriya, I always knew that you’re not a civilian but a criminal’. The whole class laughed at me.

At Law College, we had long intervals between lectures and some of the lectures were so boring that quite a few of the students did not attend them, including some of the girls. They were in the Ladies’ Room, whilst some of us were in the Canteen and some others, in different places. 

We spent most of our free time in the canteen, not drinking plain tea and smoking a cigarette, but playing ‘booruwa’ for stakes. That was where 15 or 20 lawyers, who got together and carried out the noble traditions of our forefathers, who had played the game before us. It was said that it was nothing but fair not to let the old boys of Law College down, so we upheld their tradition and played ‘booruwa’. It was the most lucrative pastime for a few of us but not for some others who had a disastrous time, even gambling with their college fees.

There were some card sharpers who knew how to produce the correct card in their favour. They were hounded out from the exalted congregation. There was no magic in this game and there was no complexity. It was called ‘booruwa’ because I believe even Homosapiens, with donkey’s intelligence, could play the game and understand it. Sometimes, it went on till 11 or 12 in the night and we used to even have visions of winning and losing.

When we came to Law College, we had heard about Mr. Pulle, the Principal, who was a stern disciplinarian. Students used to tremble to go into his room. He was aware that the students played ‘booruwa’ in the canteen. However, as some of the students were sons of Supreme Court judges and sons of other well connected people, he turned a blind eye and never walked out of his office into the canteen.

One day, we found a man with a goatee walk into college. We decided to rag him, when he returned, only to be warned by a peon that he was the new principal. Old Mr. Pulle had retired and the new person looked like a rebel with a cause. He therefore also looked much more tolerant and kind. When he became our new principal, I was told that he was a cousin of one of my great friends, Hemal. 

Praisoothy was the oldest student at college. He had been a student from time immemorial and never seemed to sit or pass exams or follow lectures, but was always in the canteen. He was skipping exams and using this as his excuse to stay at Law College. He was living with a watcher of Law College, in his small apartment, inside the college premises. He never played the card game, but always supported us and brought in new students, inveigling them to participate in the noble game.
There was a student just out of school who had entered Law College, but was frightened or shy to participate, but was hovering around the table enjoying the spectacle of his friends winning or losing, sometimes losing a grand sum nearly 100 rupees. Remember, these were days when a gallon of petrol was only Rs. 1.10.

Justice Oliver Wendell

Praisoothy turned towards the student and asked him, “Have you heard of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes?” Our young friend said, “No Mr. Praisoothy, I have only heard of Sherlock Holmes”.

“He was a great American judge. He had once said ‘before you know your case you must know your judge’. How do you come to know your judge otherwise, by intensely studying him? So before you study your law books and study the facts and become a master of fact, you must first intensely study human nature and how human beings act in a given situation. 
“The study of human nature will help you to study the judge. So, the forefather of Law College had thought about this and had introduced our national pastime to Law College, though it is not a part of the curriculum. If you want to be a successful lawyer, you must play our national Game of Booruwa”.

“But what has booruwa got to do with being a great student of a judge”? 

Praisoothy replied, “My dear brother, only the most observant people can play ‘booruwa’ and win. You must carefully observe the cards. You must carefully observe the dealer. One must carefully observe the person who holds the pack and who cuts it and his reactions, closely and intensely, you must observe how the dealer deals with his sleight of hands. You must carefully place your bets and you must carefully watch everyone else who places their bets.

You must have 100 % concentration when you play ‘booruwa’. Similarly, when you go to Courts, before you master the facts and the law, you must first have a knowledge of the Judge and observe the manner in which he smiles, the manner in which he talks, the manner in which looks at you, the manner in which he pounces on the police, the litigants and the lawyers and the dry jokes he cracks and you have to laugh obsequiously.

Even if you have obtained a ‘class ‘ from Law College, you must go through this game and undoubtedly only then you will be a successful lawyer. All those who cram and get 1st classes, without playing the game, end up being Legal executives at banks or they may become judges or join some firm. But you will see the truth of what I say in another 30 years or so. Most, of those who play the game will become great lawyers. Everybody laughed and I saw my friend immediately placing a bet and winning it!

One day, around 4 in the evening, when there were about 25 students around the table, lo and behold, who walked in — R. K. W. Goonasekera, the principal. He made a straight line towards me, who was then supposed to be the biggest veteran at the Cut Table. He said, “Mr. Warnakulasuriya and Mr. Devapura, both of you come to my office.”

I reminisced of what happened to me at Royal College when Mr. Bogoda Premaratne was the Acting Principal. When Bogoda Premaratna wanted to cane me, I said “Sir wait there is a huge bug on your coat” and tried to remove a nonexistent bug from his pure white coat while rubbing all the dirt on to his coat. Then what happened was history. 

I walked behind Mr. Goonasekera to the office room. In the room I could see the photographs of the past principal and judges. They seemed to be frowning upon us, virtually requesting the principal to kick these two ruffians out of Law College. But, instead Mr. Goonasekera spoke patiently and said, “You know I don’t object to you playing cards in the canteen. These games are played amongst the elite and in very exclusive clubs and manors. But my only objections is that my two watchers, who get a paltry salary, also play cards with you and their wives have complained to me that they do not give any money towards the upkeep of their children as they have no money left after gambling.”

This was the only time we knew that he was aware that we were playing booruwa in the canteen. “Surely”, he asked, “you should have something better to do with your time?”

I was speechless, but my friend Devapura had no such problems. He said, “Sir, sometimes our lectures start at 8 in the morning and by 10, lectures are over. Then we have to wait till 1 o’ clock doing nothing in the canteen until the next lecture starts. We have no other recreation other than to play cards. Not even a chess or carom board Sir, but if we have a billiards table we will assure that we will not touch a pack of card even at a funeral Sir.”

‘The question is funds’ the principal said. Then Ranjit intervened, “surely Sir Law College is the educational institution in the country, the board of management could easily sell some stocks or shares they have invested in South African Diamond mines sir”. 

The Principal smiled, “I don’t know about the South African Diamond Mines but find out the price of a Billiards Table and let me know’. Devapura and I quickly got into my Karmanghia and ran round Colombo in search of a Billiards table. In the shortest possible time we found one. No sooner had we found the table, it was installed in the boys common room and Ranjith proudly opened it by playing the first game. As promised we gave up playing ‘booruwa’.

Then, I reminisced what the oldest student Mr. Praisoothy had told us about our future in the profession. Therefore, I suggested that we all should walk to Jonathans Studio and take a Group photograph of the most exclusive and permanent members of the ‘cut table’. This photograph was taken in 1970. The photograph is reproduced here though, I promised the members not to name them I believe most lawyers and clients and readers would be able recognise them. 

For your information, Parisoothy’s prophecy was correct. We have two ambassadors. Four President’s Counsel , an owner of international corporate law firm in Melbourne, another jet setting corporate lawyer, attached to a prestigious law firm in Hong Kong, another having a lucrative practice in Britain, another one, who was in the working committee of a world federation of sports, two former secretaries and a former president of the Bar Association. Some of them have migrated back to their hometowns and have established themselves in their respective Bars, as leaders of their Bars, and have contributed immensely to make Sri Lanka a better place.

Only three joined the Attorney General’s Department, but as Praisoothy prophesied two of them resigned from the department and established their own practice and excelled at it, except one who is unfortunately no longer with us but ended as the Deputy Solicitor General. Then my best friend Hemal migrated to Australia and was with the legal aid in Australia. Now retired and practicing in Sydney.

Those were the days we had one of the best principles Law College ever had, who eventually became the foremost human rights lawyer in Sri Lanka. Praisoothy, long after, graduated and donned the black coat.

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