Funday Times - Our Heritage

Bandaranaike at Oxford: faces invisible barriers
Gaveshaka recollects the undergraduate days of a Prime Minister

Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the victim of an assassin's bullet fifty years ago, was known for his oratory from his undergraduate days at the Oxford University. Equally interesting was his writing. He was an undergraduate from 1921 to 1924 and returned to Sri Lanka in 1925. A few years later, he recollected the university days in a series of articles he wrote to a magazine.

He begins by relating why he selected Oxford. "Oxford, to me, was not just an accident. My father, when I was quite a boy, asked me, perhaps half-jokingly, to which University I would like to go – Oxford or Cambridge.

I expressed an emphatic preference for the former, and my choice must have coincided with his own. My name was entered soon after, in the books of Christ Church, about ten years before I actually went up.
I think my choice of Oxford was due to certain novels which I have read with avidity, and which had made a profound impression on my boyish imagination. Indeed, I can still remember small details vividly. These books were "Tom Brown at Oxford", and "Verdant Green".

I still smile when I think of all the wonderful things I decided I was going to do at the 'Varsity'; the heroic leadership of the undergrads in a "town and gown" fight, the winning of a first in classics and the easy achievement of a "blue", the endurance with a courageous smile of the dark rites which caused such terror to Verdant Green, and lastly, the dazzling of the Union by the brilliance of my oratory. Beautifully tinted bubbles in the air! But not all.

I remember one day, when out riding during the holidays at home, thinking out a fine peroration for the Union speech. In the moment of inspiration I dropped the reins to gesticulate, and as a result very nearly dropped off my seat. Well, many years after, I used this same peroration in one of my best Union speeches, and, as a storm of applause greeted me, could scarcely refrain from bursting into laughter at the comic recollection of my ride."

Those were the days of going by ship to England. Being the days following the end of World War I, large numbers were going to England and it was not easy to get a berth. Young Bandaranaike remembers getting a berth in "a Bibby boat" and "at long last launching on my great adventure".

After reaching England, he vividly describes his train journey to Oxford. "In my compartment were a number of undergraduates, whose chief ambition appeared to be the desire to pose as undergraduates. They smoked continuously and talked and laughed mannishly. The climax was reached when they began to call each other "chaps".

I looked up, and caught the eye of the only other male undergrad in the compartment. We both smiled and he offered me a cigarette. The friendship, thus curiously started, continued during our 'Varsity careers'. "
He meets the Senior Censor, Mr. S. G. Owen, destined to be his "friend, philosopher and guide" and gives his first impressions.

"Here at last was something in keeping with my pre-conceived ideas of Oxford. Old Owen was obviously the typical don, antiquated, fussy, untidy, living in a world of his own, but withal kindly. He wanted to know what "Schools" I intended to take, and when I said classics, frankly indicated to me his feeling that it was unwise for anyone but an English public school boy to read the Literae Humaniores. However, he was not unwilling to give me a trial".

To young Bandaranaike, the first year in the University was a period of disappointment and frustration. "In all directions I found myself opposed by barriers, which, though invisible and impalpable, were none the less very real.

I wrote a story for our College magazine, the "Cardinal's Hat", which was politely returned. To get even a trial for one of the Christ Church tennis teams was apparently an impossibility; a few half-hearted attempts to catch the President's eye at Union debates proved futile. But the most humiliating
disappointments were reserved for the social sphere.

The trouble was far more subtle and deep-seated: in a variety of ways one was always being shown,
politely but unmistakably, that one was simply not wanted. It is terribly wounding, after laboriously patching up an acquaintanceship with one's neighbour at dinner in Hall or at lectures, to be passed by him in the street as though he had never seen one, or, still worse, to see him hurry off with a hasty nod through fear that he might have to walk with one along the street, or again to notice the embarrassed manner in which an urgent engagement is pleaded whenever an invitation to lunch or tea is extended".

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