Fragments of an autobiography (part 1) By Prof. P.G. Cooray
Golden years at University College
I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December 1920, to where my parents had migrated with my brother Dodwell in 1918.

My father came from Ambalangoda, and was a reporter on the Morning Leader under that great journalist Armand de Souza, father of Doric de Souza. My mother was Una Nathanielsz, a member of the great clan of that name, which stemmed from the Rev. Zaccheus Nathanielsz, one of the earliest converts by the first Methodist missionaries who landed in Weligama.

I went to school in KL, and in 1935 entered S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia, being a boarder in Miller House, under Dr. R.L. Hayman. I matriculated in 1938, and entered University College, Colombo at the end of that year. I spent the months of April-September at home, and two events of that period stick in my mind. In May that year, my brother married Anna, a film star from Shanghai who had moved to KL a little earlier. My parents were unhappy about the marriage, and a friend of Dodwell's and I were the only witnesses at the ceremony. That night our good friends, Mr and Mrs. K.K. Benjamin had us all for dinner in their home, and so helped to break the ice.

The other event was the visit of Dr. C.H. Gunasekera with a cricket team from Ceylon to play a series of matches in KL and Ipoh, and I remember following them wherever they played. Included in the team were D.S. Jayasundera, Sago Jayawickrema, Louis Mendis, M.O. Gooneratne, Mervyn Fernando and Alex Wijesinghe, all leading cricketers of their time. They played entertaining cricket, and were much appreciated and entertained by the Ceylonese community wherever they went.

University College, Colombo 1938-1944
I entered University College in July 1938, and stayed there for the next six years, the first four as an undergraduate and the next two as a Demonstrator. Those were certainly very exciting and happy years in my life. Before entering UC, my father had consulted Mr Ginige, Lecturer in Geography and a cousin of his, asking his advice on what degree programme I should follow. He suggested that I read for an Honours degree in Geography with a view to getting on the staff if I obtained a good enough degree. In the event, that was not to be, as will be seen in due course.

And so I began as an undergrad in the Arts Faculty, reading English, Latin, Geography and Economics. We were fortunate in our lecturers of those days, as they were men who commanded respect, not only for their erudition, but also for their character and demeanor. Among them I remember especially Lyn Ludowyck, H.A. Passe, Justin Labrooy, Doric de Souza, Cuthbert Amerasinghe, B.R. Shenoy and J.H.F. Jayasuriya.

Things went smoothly for a year or two, but then Mr Ginige died, and this had a profound effect on my life. Three of us in the Final Honours Class were left very much on our own, until Miss Elsie Cook was appointed a visiting lecturer. And she came to our rescue. She almost single-handedly guided us through the rest of our degree course, leaving us to do a lot of reading on our own. Miss Cook was an excellent teacher, both in the lecture room and in the field, and she placed great emphasis on the importance of field work. She took us on a number of field trips, one of which was to the famous Embekke devale. The results of the Final examinations were disappointing - I received a Third Class Hons. Degree, and that put paid to any hopes of an academic career!

Fun at Brodie
When I entered the University, I joined Brodie Hostel as a boarder, under the Wardenship of Prof. J.L.C. Rodrigo. There were only two university hostels then, Brodie, which was run by the National Christian Council, and Union, one of whose leading lights was N. Shanmugathasan, who later became a prominent figure in the Left Movement. At that time, Brodie was located in The Masque, at 65, Horton Place, and we remained there for some time. It was a delightful place to be in - a spacious building, with a lovely sunken garden in front, and in the elitist atmosphere of Colombo 7. My room-mate was Tom Vanden Driesen, who came from a well-known Burgher family from Jaffna, and whose brothers, Eric and Harry served in the Ceylon Police Force ably and with distinction. Other Bordieites at that time were S.M.R. Rasamanicam (later an M.P.), E.C. Jebanesan and Wilmir Solomons.

As "freshers" we went through an initiation ceremony in Brodie, but there was nothing vicious, harmful or hurtful in what was done to us, and we took it all in good fun (unlike the sadistic 'ragging' that goes on today!!). We all owned bicycles and rode each day to and from the University. Often on an evening we would ride to Fountain House in Union Place, which had a super open-air restaurant, for a 'mixed grill' or 'sausages and mash', depending on how much money we had at the time, or to the Empire or Majestic cinemas to see a film, sitting in the One Rupee seats in the front of the cinema. I also rode my bicycle twice to Queen's House in Fort, to have lunch with the Caldecott family. Sir Andrew, who was Governor at the time, was a friend of my father's, both being Rotarians in KL, and when he knew that I was studying in University College, invited me over.

They made me feel quite at ease and we discussed the work I was doing at the Varsity and we talked about Malaya. My contemporaries in those happy days were Ellis Grenier, Hugh Colin-Thome, Luka Musoke (from Uganda), Bonnie Fernando, Walter Gunasekera, B.A. Abeywickrema, Morgan Tambiah, M.D. Dassanaike, M.U.S. Sultan bawa, Bala Tampoe-Phillips, Carmen Mendis, Sama Ellawala, Sybil Navaratnam, Sybil Pate, Stanley Senanayake, R.E. Kitto, R. Prasad (from India); and Felix Dias Abeysinghe, Esmond Wickremasinghe, Lyn Illangakoon, Donald Kannangara, C.H.Fernando, Royce de Mel, and Ray de Zylva among the seniors.

On the stage
The Dram. Soc. was one of my chief interests outside my studies, and I was elected President of the Society in my last year. In earlier years I had taken part in Shaw's 'Arms and the Man' as an army officer, and then in "Lady Precious Stream", where Tom and I were the property men. We had a great time, sitting on stools on either side of the stage, facing the audience, dressed in black trousers and hand-out blouses. We sat as nonchalantly as we could (we were supposed to be invisible), apparently unconcerned with what was going on the stage, moving across and chatting to one another, and moving the properties as and when required.

Sporting days
Sporting activities were an important part of life in UC, and our teams took part in all the major tournaments that took place. Some of the leading athletes of the day were undergraduate contemporaries of mine, and I remember especially H.M.P. ("Humpy") Perera, Ellis Grenier and R.E. Kitto as runners, A.C. Dep as a pole vaultist., Sathy Coomaraswamy as a cricketer, and several tennis players, among them L.P. Ernst and Lynn Wickremasinghe. We had a strong hockey team, of which I was a member for six years playing as centre forward, with Henry Roberts by my side, and we made a good combination.

E.B. Tissaveerasinghe, who later played for the Tamil Union was also in our team. We played under Peter Roberts as Captain, and Henry, EB, and I were awarded our Hockey Colours at the end of our first term as freshmen. The UC blazer was a rich maroon colour, and we wore our blazers with some pride. I still have my UCHC crest and a bit of the breast pocket on to which it was sewn, and I will be presenting it to the University of Peradeniya for its archives in the near future. Henry and I continued playing hockey for the YMCA after we left the university.

Undergraduate life
Those four years were, indeed, good years, and I consider them to have been some of the best in my life. We had no serious obligations except to get through our examinations and justify the hopes our parents had in us. We studied hard and we played hard, our leisure hours being spent in drinking tea and playing bridge ('auction' at that time), and reading whatever we could get our hands on, especially Penguins and Pelicans. (Someone once called this "penguin neuritis"!) We made friends and enjoyed each other's company, irrespective of race or caste or creed; and we courted and loved as intensely as we did everything else. We spent our time between lectures and tutorials in the Library, which was behind College House, or chatting in College House itself or in the corridors of the Arts Faculty.

There were no stoppages due to strikes, and no demonstrations against the staff; nor were there clashes between groups of students holding different political views, as there are today. And we completed our degrees in the scheduled three or four years. We had three Vice-Chancellors in those years - Prof. R. Marrs, Prof. S.A. Pakeman, Professor of History and very much a military figure, and Prof. Ivor Jennings, a thin, bespectacled figure who strode around the campus with a tin of cigarettes in his hand. I am deeply and sincerely thankful for those four wonderful years that I spent in University College, Colombo.

On completing my degree, Miss Cook had me appointed as an Assistant Demonstrator, a position I held for two years, until 1944. One of the things I did during those years was to keep a scrap book of cuttings from the newspapers and magazines of items relating to any geographical topic.

It is an activity I have continued in recent years, and I now have several scrap books of cuttings on all sorts of topics, including the environment, geology of Sri Lanka, the Knuckles and Sinharaja Forest regions, and many others. It was during those 'Varsity days that I met D.N. Wadia, the doyen of Indian geologists, who had come to Ceylon to set up the Department of Mineralogy (later the Geological Survey of Ceylon). I was closely associated with him, Dr. R.L. Brohier, Fitzroy Gunesekera, Douglas Baptist, S.F. de Silva and others in the running of the Ceylon Geographical Society, at that time a very active society. Wadia was a Fellow of the Royal Society, well-known for his work in Himalayan geology. He was an inspiration to me and I have no doubt that he, more than anyone else, influenced me into wanting to become a geologist.

On my own
When the Japanese invaded and occupied Malaya in 1941 I was completely cut off from my parents and without any source of income to support me. Just before that, I happened to be on holiday in KL, and one evening my father phoned from the office to say that a Japanese cargo boat was leaving Singapore for Colombo the next day, and I had better get on it. (I think he anticipated what was to happen in the coming months). So we drove overnight to Singapore, and I remember very clearly that our driver had a parang (a curved scimitar) under his seat, as there was enmity between the Malays and the Javanese at that time. We drove overnight to Singapore (a distance of 250 miles), and I boarded the ship as a 'deck passenger', with a camp bed and lots of tins of sardines and packets of cream crackers, which were to be my staple diet for the next few days!

Fortunately, the parents of my good school friend Harold, who was serving in the RAF in England at the time, Dr and Mrs. R. Willengberg, took me under their wing and I stayed with them until I was able to get on my feet. Dr Willengberg was Medical Superintendent of the General Hospital in Colombo and lived in the large bungalow at the corner of Kynsey Road and what is now E.W.Perera Mawatha, and it was from there that I used to ride by the side of Joan Loos' rickshaw when she went each morning to Training College in Pamankade! (I was courting her at the time!)

About that time Miss Cook helped me to earn some money by arranging for me to teach Geography to a senior class at Sri Sumangala College in Panadura, once a week, I think.

Among the class was Maya Kularatne, who later became Mrs. Stanley Senanayake ( I wonder if she remembers those days!); and I also gave private tuition in Geography to Gamini Corea, who later achieved eminence in UN circles, as the Head of UNCTAD. I then took the job of Sub-Warden of Brodie Hostel, where Dr. Eric Fonseka was Warden, which lasted until I got married in March 1946. The Hostel moved from place to place and the last location I was, was in Ward Place, I think, where I had an upstairs room with a balcony. Sam Wijesinha, then student at the Law College, shared my room and the arrangement was that, in return he would give me a book each month. I do not remember how many books Sam gave me, but one he did I still have with me- "Selections from Baudelaire"!

The Shell Co. was at this time looking to appoint young Ceylonese to management positions, and Sathy Coomaraswamy was already one of them. I answered an advertisement and was called for an interview, at which I remember saying that I would like a job that took me to the field as I did not fancy sitting at a desk in an office for the next so many years.

I did not get the job, but I received a very nice letter from Shell saying that they were quite impressed by my performance at the interview, but regretted that they had no 'field' job for me! Then in January 1946 I was appointed an Assistant Geologist in the Department of Mineralogy and that is where the next fragment of my autobiography begins.
(More next week)

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