Sometime in the mid-Fifties, students from schools in the south were sent to schools in Jaffna, virtually the last hope for concerned parents. Jaffna schools had a reputation for education and discipline. Some of us were privileged to enter the portals of Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai. About this time, students from Malaysia were also being enrolled, because college education in Ceylon, as this country was then known, was said to be better than in Malaysia. We entered the college as boys with a shaky past and an uncertain future, and we left as men well equipped to serve our nation. Most of the Malaysians went back and took up responsible positions in their country. Those who stayed back did extremely well too.
One of our peers at Jaffna College was Briareus Hercules Susunaga Jayewardene, affectionately known as Bassa. Quiet at first, not only because like the rest of us he was coming to terms with the new environment, but more because he had lost his dear father, Francis Jayewardene, the Crown Proctor of Kuliyapitiya, a few months before. He was proud of his father, and would often refer to him in the course of a conversation. It is therefore fitting that his ashes lie beside those of his father in the family grave at Kuliyapitiya.
Over time, and when he took up journalism, he acquired more aliases, including “BHS” and “Jaye”. Mahes called him Briareus. He would alter his personality to fit the character of each alias he was expected to project. He was, however, at his natural best as Bassa, in the company of close friends and colleagues.
Bassa did himself proud at Jaffna College. After an initial misunderstanding with the faculty, he came to be liked, respected and much sought after, especially after he left the institution, by the stalwarts of the education system in the North of that era. They included Rev. Bunker, Dr. Rockwood, president and vice-president of the college, Dr. Holmes, K. A. Selliah and Lyman Kulatungam, principal and vice-principal, K. C. Thurairatnam, who taught English, and Professor K. D. Arudpragasam, hostel warden, among others.
Early in life, Bassa developed the ability to move with persons holding responsible and respectable positions in society. His room-mate K. B. Y. Seneviratne, an ex-Trinitian like Bassa and now an established Kandy lawyer, recalls that Bassa was the favourite of Gordon Burrows, the house-master of Trinity's Alison House.
Bassa enjoyed hostel life, and although he wanted very much to be part of the action, he was cautious. When his mates went on fowl raids, he would trail behind, nervous that, if the raiders were detected, his size would prevent him from making a quick getaway. He was sporty enough though, to lend his only sarong, which was soaked in water, to cover the unsuspecting fowls roosting in the branches of neighbourhood trees. On those special sarongless nights, Bassa slept between the bedsheets; his reward being one leg of chicken!
Bassa’s generosity went beyond the sarong to giving Manikam, the bare-chested hostel cook, a generous hand-out every Wednesday, which was mutton day in the hostel. The cook responded by giving him an extra large serving. Meanwhile, this writer would sit next to Bassa in the hope of getting the crumbs that fell off his plate, which were substantial!
Gajendran and Bassa were the poets in our group. Their romantic poems reflected their hopes, feelings and frustrations. The subjects of their poems were two co-eds, whom they eventually married. The writer standing on a table in the hostel lobby would read the poems aloud, accompanied by appropriate actions, as light-hearted entertainment to a ready audience. Little did we know that Cupid was shooting his arrows in the direction of the women’s hostel.
Gaj and Bassa were at different times associate editors of the Northern Undergrad, probably now defunct, with Elizabeth Verghis and Mahes Kandavanam as the respective editors. Eventually Elizabeth, also known as Sheila, married Gaj, and Mahes married Bassa. It is said that marriages are made in heaven. These two were made at the printing press. It is correct to say that Bassa cut his journalistic teeth and honed his caring ways at Jaffna College.
Many tributes have mentioned how Bassa always went that extra mile to help colleagues and friends, to whom he freely gave both financial support and advice. While he gave freely, unfortunately, he hardly accepted, especially advice given in good faith. This tribute would have been many moons away, had he heeded advice.
Bassa had a keen sense of humour and enjoyed a good story, often inventing his own. The story is told that he called his daughter Romaine and told her that her mother and domestic, who were taking their sick dog to the vet’s, had set off in a three wheeler, leaving the sick dog behind!
In its tribute to Bassa, The Asian Tribune, for which Bassa was the Colombo correspondent, said that Bassa’s family was his universe. He and Mahes invested in their children’s education; of the three girls, two are accountants and one is a PhD in Mathematics and a senior lecturer at the University of Colombo, and their only son is a chartered shipbroker working in Malaysia.
Hercules was his middle name, a Greek mythological hero famed for his courage and strength. Bassa may not have had physical strength, but he had the courage and strength of his convictions. His battle against corruption was demonstrated time and time again in his journalistic career. He even lost his job in the process.
After Bassa’s death, Mahes discovered a few pairs of new, unused shoes in his wardrobe. These shoes were offered to relations and friends, but they fitted nobody. This is symbolic of the man – nobody can get into Bassa’s shoes. He was unique. He was Bassa.
Bassa will be missed. He will be missed when we next meet at the Wadiya to reminisce about the old days, which Rajan Kadirgamar, a teacher during our period and later principal of Jaffna College, described as the school’s “golden era”. We will miss him when we discuss the latest political develops in the country and hear his interpretation of things. We will miss his brand of humour and his chuckles.
To Mahes, Ianthe, Romaine, Tamara, Sanjeeva, his in-laws and grandchildren, to whom his home was always halfway point, a haven, we extend our sincere condolences, and pray that Bassa will rest in peace in the near presence of his Creator.
CIONA - a close friend