When the late Barnabas Alexander of Trinity College, Kandy, died of a heart attack on December 14, he was in his home, listening to his electronic Bible. I may be wrong about the date and precise cause of his demise, and the circumstances of his death. These do not matter so much; what matters is the life he led.
Mr. Alexander joined the office staff of Trinity College, Kandy, in the early 1960s. His tenure of almost 50 years began when the late Mr. C. J. Oorloff was principal, spanning the tenures of six successive principals.
There were three things that struck those who met Mr. Alexander: that he single-handedly manned the school telephone switchboard, that he was a markedly musical person, and that he was blind.
Mr. Alexander would greet telephone callers with the words "Good morning, Trinity College" or "Good afternoon, Trinity College". He would recognise voices years later, and startle callers by addressing them by name.
Trinity students typically encountered him through his great gift for music. Those of us who began in the junior school remember seeing him being escorted to the lower school hall for the weekly singing class. Upper school students heard him at the piano at morning assembly, when he played charming background music until it was time for the assembly to commence. Countless students at Trinity learned to sing the school song, the school hymn and the national anthem, thanks to Mr. Alexander.
Those in the school choir, such as myself, had the privilege of being accompanied by Mr. Alexander at evening choir practice and at rehearsals. His dedicated playing on the chapel organ was an integral part of the regular Sunday services and of weekday morning worship, when school was in session. Over the decades, Mr. Alexander worked with an impressive range of choir masters: the late Messrs. Burrows, Lekamge, the Janzes, Walter Perera, Harry Goonetilleke, to name some, as well as Ronnie Thangiah Esq, now in retirement.
For several generations of students and those who prayed at the Trinity Chapel, the invitation to worship came with two distinct sounds: the tolling of the chapel bell and the strains of the chapel organ, with Mr. Alexander at the keyboard. The music he played gave vitality to the chapel proceedings, while the chapel and its scenic setting lent a certain enchantment to the music. The musical high point was the annual grand finale in the chapel, when Mr. Alexander played at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.
From his first days at Trinity, Mr. Alexander lived in quarters on the school premises. Students will recall holding him by his right hand and escorting him from the school office and up several steps to his room near the Ryde Boarding House. In his room, he would accommodate requests from students to play the piano or to listen to the commentary for international Test cricket matches on his radio. We discovered that his disability did not matter in the least in our dealings with him; the fact that he was blind taught us to think positively about the blind.
After leaving school, I gradually found out that Mr. Alexander could also be a rather prim individual in society, going beyond his genial demeanour towards students. He was steadfast in his Christian beliefs. He believed in certain standards of conduct, and bristled with indignation when formalities were breached or courtesies not followed. He had an abiding interest in the current affairs of the nation and the world. He held strong political views and made every effort to vote on Election Day.
Around 1980, Mr. Alexander married Sujatha, who had partial vision, and she moved into his new living quarters, just above Ryde House. They were a devoted couple, and she was a dedicated spouse and a gracious hostess. Her demise in November 2008 was a devastating blow to her husband. Although he recovered his stride, it was partial. Those close to him sensed he was pining for her, right to the end, which occurred on December 14.
Those who knew Mr. Alexander will miss him. He was a landmark individual in the school. We have only to think about the music he played to bring back wonderful memories of the school chapel; its murals, pillars and carvings; its picturesque surroundings; the distant Hantane "Mount of Truth ascending" by day, and the glow of candles at dusk at the annual carol service.
This then is the subtle effect of his music exerting itself. It impacted not only on what we heard but also on what we saw around us. With his playing, he enriched our perception of the place. That must rank among Mr. Alexander's noblest attainments, considering that he himself could not see any of it.