A life spent planning the future
By Hiranthi Fernando
An architectural draughtsman of many years experience, A.W. Aluthwatta has had an interesting career in both the Ceylon Army Command and the Public Works Department (PWD). He was involved in drawing plans for military buildings in the South East Asia Command headquarters as well as for the first buildings of the Peradeniya University.

Architectural draughtsman: A. W. Aluthwatta

Attached to the Chief Engineer's Drawing Office of the Ceylon Army as a civilian draughtsman since 1942, Aluthwatte, then known as A.W. Perera, had served at the South East Asia Command (SEAC) headquarters located at the Museum building in Colombo. When SEAC headquarters was moved to Peradeniya, he had moved too. He explained that he changed his name from Archarige Wilson Perera to Archarige Wimal Aluthwatta, with a notification in the Ceylon Daily News of September 27, 1946, because he wanted a more Sinhala sounding name.

Aluthwatta vividly recalls the war time. "I remember on the morning of April 5, 1942, I had gone with my mother to the Pettah to do some shopping," he said. "We heard the sound of sirens and I saw above me, a group of ten Japanese planes. There were concrete air raid shelters by the roadside and we quickly entered one. In five minutes the sirens sounded again. Then I heard the sound of bombing. After the siren sounded the 'all clear' signal, we came out of the shelter. Pettah was undamaged. I saw people scurrying to continue their shopping in preparation for the approaching Sinhala New Year."

That night many people evacuated the city fearing that the Japanese would bomb Colombo. Aluthwatta and his family took the train to Kandy, where his grandmother ran a shop for wedding goods. He returned to Colombo to join the army in August that year.

Aluthwatta recalls that the Museum building was given over to SEAC headquarters in 1942. "I worked there until they moved to the site at the Peradeniya botanical gardens at Galaha Road. The Colonel had one room and the architectural team occupied another. From the war office in England, they got down the drawings needed for military buildings. From these drawings we had to prepare the plans for the temporary buildings. We had to draw the plans with pen and ink."

Five or six inexpensive structures were put up, he said. Some sheds were also put up at the new Peradeniya station site. Aluthwatta proudly displays certificates from Col. R. Wilbraham, Chief Engineer, Edward Betteridge, Chief Draughtsman and the Head of Establishment of Chief Engineer C.A.C., commending his services for SEAC.

Realising that SEAC would only last for a few years, Aluthwatta applied to join the Irrigation Department. "I did not want to be stationed out of Colombo as I was following a technical course. Although the Director, one Mr. Guthrie, who interviewed me, promised to keep me in Colombo, I was sent to the Gin Ganga Scheme in Galle in 1946." It was at this stage that he changed his name.

Disillusioned he resigned and joined the Railway Department. "It was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire," he remarked. There he had to draw nuts and bolts and not buildings, as it was a mechanical post. After a short stint, he finally joined the PWD as an architectural draughtsman in 1947.

"When I resigned from the Railway Department, an Englishman called Freer who was the head, admonished me that rolling stones gather no moss. However, I survived and served 30 years in the PWD with no break in service." He served in many parts of the country, obtaining his promotions to Class 1 and the Drawing Office Assistant's grade in due course.

"I did the drawings for the Engineering Department'" Aluthwatta recalled. He said he requested a transfer to Kandy, which was his hometown as he was feeling unwell at the time. There being no vacancies in Kandy he was given a vacancy in the Peradeniya University scheme.

Retired for many years, A.W. Aluthwatta, now 83 years, has been married for about 56. He lives with his married son while his wife, who is also ailing, is looked after by his daughter. Medical bills today are so high, they cannot live together and manage on his pension. Although frail and sick, Aluthwatta has a good memory and finds much pleasure in nostalgic reminiscences of his life and work.

Poison at your doorstep
Parents should be aware of the dangers of lead poisoning in children
By Dr. Lakshaman Abeygunawardene
Lead is a metal that has no known value to the human body. Its poisonous effects are harmful especially to children whose growing bodies are more sensitive. They also process lead differently from adults. Younger children in particular tend to have more hand to mouth activity, and they absorb more lead than adults, from what has been taken in along with food and non-food items.

Lead is still widely used in industry as it is a very useful metal. By banning the use of lead in paint and gasoline (petrol), and the food industry not using lead soldered cans, etc. the US Federal Government has taken many steps in recent times to reduce the amount of lead in the environment.

In Sri Lanka the decision taken by the government to ban leaded petrol even at this late stage is most welcome.

As it is unlikely that lead in petrol is the only source of lead exposure, the availability and use of unleaded petrol alone will not prevent more and more children falling victim to lead poisoning. This is an opportune moment to create public awareness on the problem of childhood lead poisoning.

It does not take much lead to poison a child. Even though there may not be any obvious symptoms when the amount of lead in the child's blood is small, it may still cause severe and permanent damage to the body. The only way to know whether a child has lead poisoning is by doing a blood test. Higher levels of lead in the blood may cause a variety of symptoms such as loss of appetite, stomachache, constipation and vomiting. The child may be excessively tired, cranky, hyperactive, or lose interest in playing.

Lead poisoning may also reduce intelligence and attention span thereby significantly lowering the performance of the child. It may also cause reading and learning disabilities, loss of hearing and delay a child's standing, walking and talking. At very high levels of lead in the blood, the child may develop convulsions, become unconscious and if untreated even death could occur.

Sources of lead
Lead-based paint and dust, and soil contaminated with lead from petrol are the major sources of lead exposure in children.

If lead-based paint in houses peels off or becomes flaky or chalky, it will form a fine dust. Touching this dust and then putting their fingers in their mouths may poison children, or they may even eat paint chips. Children may also chew on toys, furniture, windowsills, etc. which have been painted with lead-based paint. Lead can also get into drinking water from lead pipes in older homes. Some vinyl mini-blinds, lead-glazed ceramic ware, lead crystal, car batteries, bullets, fishing weights etc. are other less common sources of lead. Parents who work in lead related industries or have a lead-based hobby, might accidentally bring home lead dust on their clothes. This lead dust may also poison children in such households.

How lead gets into the body
Most commonly, a child gets poisoned when lead is absorbed from the intestines after it gets there along with food and beverages, or when a child takes in contaminated dust and soil through the mouth. Younger children have the habit of putting their hands and other objects into their mouths. A child can also inhale lead dust particles.

An unborn baby in its mother's womb can get poisoned if the mother has been exposed to lead, and the level of lead in her blood is high. Lead can pass from the mother to the unborn baby through the umbilical cord.

Lead testing
As mentioned earlier, lead poisoning does not always produce obvious symptoms. The only way to detect it is through a blood test. In the United States, children are almost routinely tested for lead at 12 and 24 months.
Whether the problem exists or not, it is not a bad idea for parents to adopt a few practices that would protect their children from many other illnesses and not necessarily from lead poisoning. Proper hand washing before meals and after playing are very important practices that children should be taught to follow.

As good nutrition is also important in preventing many illnesses including childhood lead poisoning, children should be offered three nutritious meals and two to three healthy snacks every day.

Less lead is absorbed when a child's stomach is full. Children should be served with foods with a high content of iron, calcium and vitamin C. Adequate intake of these nutrients also minimizes lead absorption.

As most of the harmful effects of lead poisoning cause permanent damage and because treatment options are limited, it is best that lead poisoning is prevented. Lead poisoning of children is entirely preventable.

(The writer is a Health Education Consultant, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Programme, SC Department of Health and Environmental Control, USA)

Neville Jayaweera continues his recollections of his batchmate Mervyn De Silva
'Butter marches' and 'boos'
Talents unfulfilled and an intelligence of star quality never given an opportunity to shed its lustre. An inner life, riven by diffidence which he would not confront, but seemed constantly to be running away from, and an outer life lived at high intensity but without cohesion or visible fruitage.

During those chaotic months at Peradeniya we also saw how vulnerable Mervyn was to the lure of politics, not national politics, but just any politics, and not just as an interested spectator or commentator, but as an agitator.

Mervyn led the first students' revolt on the campus. One day the students of James Pieris Hall decided that their warden was consuming the butter that should have been given to them and that they were being given margarine instead. Caught up in a frenzy of revolutionary fervour the students decided to launch an agitation, to march in procession with packets of the offending margarine on their heads and hold a protest meeting on the cricket field by the tennis courts. The Vice Chancellor declared the demonstration irregular but the students decided to march notwithstanding. By the time the demonstration reached the cricket field the margarine had all melted away, but never mind, some one had hired a mike and loudspeaker and the revolutionaries went ahead with the meeting.

Shanti and I were watching the whole circus from the embankment separating the cricket field from the tennis courts and were amazed to see Mervyn, who was not even a member of James Pieris Hall, climb on to an old pakis pettiya and harangue the student body. Pointing to the tennis courts near by he said that they should take a "Tennis Court Oath" and not relent until butter had been restored to its pristine place. Referring to the Vice Chancellor's ruling Mervyn thundered, "We may be irregular but we are not illegal" and went on to invoke the Magna Carta, the UN Covenant on Human Rights and a lot else besides, in defence of the students' right to packs of better butter. At one stage he recalled the "Storming of the Bastille" and looked as if he might stampede the student body to storm the Vice Chancellor's Lodge instead, but by that time the marshals had arrived and amidst ubiquitous hooting from the students, dispersed the assembly, but not before they had burned a copy of the Daily News and Mervyn had delivered another barb. One of the marshals who came to disperse the students was named Bolton and Mervyn roared, "What bolt from the blue is this that seeks to crush us?"

That evening Mervyn came to our room with Nimal Karunatilleke, who had marched with him, shoulder to shoulder, in the students' struggle for butter. In later years Nimal was to become MP for Matale and the two became great friends. Mervyn, fresh from his first political triumph was beaming from ear to ear. He told us how fulfilled he felt addressing a mass audience and what a sense of power he had with a mike in his hand. He said that there was no question but that politics was his calling!

One of the most engaging aspects of Mervyn's personality was his sense of humour and his sharp wit, often biting and scalding like a whip. He was not always original but the speed with which he flashed his tongue gave it the ring of authenticity. Once in a Law College vs University debate someone on the other side said, "Mervyn de Silva deserves a half blue for wit" to which Mervyn flashed, "And you deserve a full blue for half wit". Once, when he and I were on opposing sides I looked at him across the platform and said with scorn "Then there is Mervyn de Silva who cannot say boo to a goose", whereupon Mervyn walked up to me and said "boo" in my face. Touche! At another debate someone on the opposite side said scornfully, "Mr Chairman, the gentlemen of the other side have no brains" to which Mervyn responded pronto, "But that is because we use ours more often than you use yours". One of his finest was his re-naming of Hilda Obeysekera Hall. Hilda Obeysekera was walled in right round by a high rampart so that none could enter therein except by the grace of its warden, the redoubtable Miss Mathiaparanam. An exasperated Mervyn promptly re-christened Hilda Obeysekera "Waldorf Astoria".

One of my last impressions of Mervyn on the Peradeniya Campus was in November 1954, about a year after we had both graduated. He was already subbing on the Daily News and was writing a column titled "Daedalus" and I was on the teaching staff of the Philosophy Department awaiting entry into the Civil Service. The Indian Philosophical Congress which meets only once in ten years was meeting that year in Peradeniya and scores of philosophers from all over the world had arrived there and were living in Jayatilleke, Arunachalam and James Pieris Halls. The chairman of the local organising committee was Prof. G. P. Malalasekera and as one would expect of him, he had arranged to conduct all the philosophers in a perahera from Jayatilleke and Arunachalam Halls where they were all asked to congregate, to the Arts Theatre, led by Kandyan dancers, lee keli and three elephants. As the perahera led by the ponderous pachyderms wound its way along the Galaha Road to the Arts Theatre, the elephants plastered the road with liberal dollops of droppings and the philosophers had a hard time picking their way through them and upon arrival at the Arts Theatre had to spend a lot of time scraping things off their shoes. The whole effect was quite hilarious, which of course was not lost on Mervyn.

Thereupon, immediately after the opening address Mervyn sought an interview with Malalasekera and opened with a typically Mervyn pun. "Sir," he said addressing the professor and referring to the elephants, " I see that you never fail to make a weighty contribution to anything intellectual." Flattered, Malalasekera replied, "Yes! Yes! After all we are the custodians of Theravada doctrine", completely missing Mervyn's elephantine pun.

I believe that somewhere amidst the fading archives of the Daily News there must be the hilarious edition of the "Daedalus" column Mervyn wrote after his visit to the Philosophical Congress.

Deconstructing Mervyn
Mervyn did not have many friends, except of course around the "cut table" and Shanti and I were perhaps his most intimate intellectual associates at Peradeniya, the guys with whom he would share his frustrations over Ludowyke and Doric and discuss things of the mind. At Thurstan Road, at least till we went up to Peradeniya, he was also befriended by Duleepkumar, Shanti's twin brother. Sadly, Shanti passed away prematurely more than a decade ago and now only Duleep and I are left to deconstruct Mervyn de Silva's undergraduate years.

Overall, how does one assess Mervyn's time as an undergraduate. At one level, viewed against the stereotype or liberal model of the good university student, against the Newman (The Idea of a University) model so to say, they were four wasted years. Talents unfulfilled and an intelligence of star quality never given an opportunity to shed its lustre.

An inner life, riven by diffidence which he would not confront, but seemed constantly to be running away from, and an outer life lived at high intensity but without cohesion or visible fruitage. However, at another level, viewed against the model of the writer and the artist, it was perhaps these very things, the incoherence and the chaos of his soul that were the foundation upon which he was to build, the mud from which were to bloom the lotuses of later years. Putting the most constructive hypothesis upon the anguish and the disquiet that were at the heart of Mervyn's personality one can say that they are perhaps the sine qua non, the primal substance of all ceativity. They represent the-price that all writers and artists have had to pay some time in their lives before they could create. To judge those who are so burdened (or so endowed, depending on one's perspective) by the stereotype, is grossly to misunderstand the nature of the creative mind and to miss out on the stuff of genius. Mervyn may not have been the finest mind that the English Department had nurtured up to that time, but he was certainly its most gifted writer, its sharpest wit and its most multi-faceted personality. Assuming that Mervyn had turned out to be a disciplined scholar, winding up with the much vaunted First Class, he would probably have ended his days as a Professor of English or as a Permanent Secretary and nothing would have been more grotesque or a greater caricature of the person who Mervyn ultimately could become and finally came to be, than that.

Mervyn's life and career after he left university, stands in sharp contrast to his life as an undergraduate. It was as if embers that had been smouldering and spluttering for four years at university, finally ignited and burst into flames. His career as a journalist, literary critic, satirist, political commentator, broadcaster, both within the country and abroad, is without peer, either before or since and is not likely to be equalled for a long time to come, if at all.

What or who catalysed the chaotic undergraduate Mervyn into the top class journalist and internationally recognised commentator? Who or what caused those spluttering embers to come alive? First, I think it was his wife, Lakshmi who throughout his career, more than anyone or any circumstance, provided Mervyn with an anchor and a point of reference, who supplied the cohesion and the focus that he lacked throughout his time at university. She was always there for him and he hardly travelled abroad without her. Quite literally he was lost without her. Lakshmi must have been a woman of extraordinary patience and a fathomless capacity for understanding and love! Second, it was his work itself that re-integrated Mervyn. Aspiring to be the Editor of the Daily News and Chief Editor at Lake House, on the strength of his obvious merits and excellence rather than on the basis of preferment, provided the focus for his energies and a reference point for his life.

Once I passed into the Civil Service and Mervyn into journalism, it was right and proper that we should keep within our respective boundaries and so it was that we kept a safe distance from each other. I recognised his right to criticise and lampoon me which he did quite regularly with all the zest born of interactions from the past. However, after my wife and I relocated to the UK, Mervyn and Lakshmi would often contact us when they came to London and come round for a meal. It also gave me great pleasure to help raise funds for running the Guardian.

I would like to end this piece on a personal note. I have written this evaluation of Mervyn de Silva's university years on the invitation of his son Dayan Jayatilleke who was keen to have on record an account of his father's time at the university written by someone who had been with him throughout the four years. Apparently I am the last of those who were close to Mervyn throughout his time at Thurstan Rd as well as at Peradeniya. As can be expected, like all such evaluations and reminiscences, mine has been a subjective one, my view of Mervyn being framed within my own values and standards. It should therefore be self-evident that such personal and anecdotal accounts cannot lay claim to objectivity. Besides, I have had to trawl my memory for 50 years to resurrect events and incidents which had begun to fade at the edges. It is entirely conceivable that someone else who shared those four years with Mervyn might have seen him completely differently.

In a sense we are all trapped within our respective perceptions which in turn are shaped by our own value systems. Therefore, I would ask that this be borne in mind when making judgements about Mervyn on the basis of what I have written. Making judgements about anyone tells us as much about the judge as about the one in the dock.

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