Sir you are gone, but not forgotten
“His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world; this was a man”
This quotation from Shakespeare may well describe Mr. Athukorala, former Principal of Nalanda College who passed away last week. “Passed away” are the right words to describe his demise, for men like him do not die, but fade away. He lives in the hearts and minds of all those who worked under him, or had the good fortune to be his charges during the period 1969-1982.
Pages can be written, and will be written about the services he rendered to Nalanda, but in this appreciation I only mean to write about the wonderful human being he was.
Mr. Athukorala was a humanist, whose heart was full of goodwill and compassion for everyone who crossed his path. Sometimes his kindness was mistaken for weakness, but he was by no means weak. He had the strength of character to withstand all the slings and arrows that were flung in his path.
His unblemished record left him far above his detractors, as these personal reminiscences of Mr. Athukorala will show. I was a teacher at Nalanda during the Athukorala era, and I had the rather dubious reputation of being the 'teacher who wrote character certificates'. As such, I had to meet him often, because I could not write fairy stories of my own, particularly when I was writing character certificates for teachers.
Mr. Athukorala used to be on the watch out for good teachers and he often managed to lure them to Nalanda. On one occasion he brought in a young Chemistry graduate with a proven track record in an outstation school. Naturally, he had to make adjustments in the time tables in the Advanced Level classes to accommodate the newcomer.
One teacher did not like this arrangement at all. The day her timetable was altered she marched into Mr. Athukorala’s office at peak hour, when parents, visitors and clerical staff were all waiting to meet him, spoke to him in the harshest language possible. “She must be giving you something I don’t give you.” Not a word did Mr. Athukorala speak. The perfect gentleman that he was, he let her have her say and swagger out of the office as though she had won the battle. But he took the only step possible. He got her transferred to a bigger school in Colombo.
Two years went by, and one day this person came to meet me saying that she needed a character certificate to seek employment abroad, but could not get one from her present principal. I told Mr. Athukorala about this person’s request, and his reply left me speechless. “Write the best you can,” he said. That was the day I realized that here was a person who was a veritable Bodhisatva. No one else could be so forgiving.
On another occasion, the school carpenter came with a request to admit a boy to the Advanced Level class. This carpenter and the boy both happened to be from my village, but I had nothing to do with the admission. I saw them loitering near the office.
The carpenter did not have the courage to make his request, even though he had bragged that there was nothing he could not do at Nalanda. When Mr. Athukorala came out of his office, as a matter of common courtesy, I told him that the pair were from my village. I did not make a request on their behalf. Later in the day Mr. Athukorala told me, “I admitted the boy the carpenter brought. You know, these schools were meant for poor boys like this. These schools were first built with the poor man’s contributions.” My respect for him grew (It is besides the point that the carpenter had brought one of the richest boys in our area).
His tactics in handling 4000 rambunctious boys are also legendary. To them too, he was kind and gentle. One day a boy came to school sporting the long mop-like hair-style popular at that time, but taboo in schools. The principal saw him, stopped him and began walking around him. The flustered boy asked, “Sir, is there anything wrong?” Mr. Athokorala calmly replied, “No, I was just trying to find whether you had both ears”. The next day, the boy had had his hair cut.
Sir, you are gone, but not forgotten. You have touched the lives of so many young people that their love and respect for you will remain until they too are old and grey. To their children, you will become a legend.