Today I got an email from a friend from a past life. It was a common (group) email - a series of beautiful pictures of a place we both knew and loved intimately. The pictures were of Peradeniya - the University we had both attended as undergraduates and we had both been members of the academic staff. We had also grown up there, together, as children of staff members.
As a child at Pera
I remembered my life there - as a child, initially, when I developed the longing and determination to study and to teach there one day. I remembered the old golf clubhouse that stood where the teaching hospital now stands, which was the Faculty Club at the time. I remember sitting on the verandah overlooking the giant excavation which was to become the Teaching Hospital. I remember running across the flattened site in the blazing sun and climbing the excavated face on the far end with my friends pretending we were rock-climbers.
I remember sitting on my father's lap in the front of the University Bus as he took his Medical Students on a field trip to a water treatment plant. I remember - as a lad of eleven or twelve - going to the Science building on a Saturday morning, where the then Professor of Botany spent four hours showing me how to identify, classify, mount and preserve specimens of weeds I had collected from paddy fields for my school agriculture project.
I remember accompanying him one weekend on a visit to the Sinharaja rainforest (to carry his collecting bags for him) where he introduced me to the wonders of bird watching, how to look for and identify snakes in the forest and the particular wonders and unique features of a rainforest - from the "drip-tipped" leaves, to the emergent Dipterocarps with their "helicopter" seeds twirling as they were carried by the breeze. He showed me species as yet undescribed - from fungi and frogs to orchids and lichens.
I remember hunting for Icthyophis eggs, up to my knees in mud, with the then Professor of Zoology, who was raising them in his lab as part of his research. I remember - as a teenager - spending an entire day with the then Dean of Engineering in the Engineering Workshops where he showed me how to strip the engine from my father's car and put it back together again. I remember accompanying the then Professor of Civil Engineering on one of his consulting visits to the Kotmale Dam construction site (he went by bus, incidentally). I remember a poor undergrad from the Physics Department, coming home twice a week to coach me in my A/Level Physics (He needed the money and I needed the coaching!) He had shoulder length hair and looked like a cross between Russell Crowe and John Lennon (without the glasses). He also happened to be the best Physics teacher I've ever had (and I've had few good ones along the way since then).
I just realized that I haven't forgotten anything that these people taught me! They are all dead now, except (I hope!) the Physics guy and my father.
An undergrad at Pera
I remember life as an undergrad - an Engineering student. We were located across the river from the main campus and were considered 'beyond the pale' by the other students. Our particular patch on campus was known as the "dry zone" because the 'fairer' sex were few and far between in our area. We didn't even have a women students’ toilet. The few women students had to use the staff toilet. But we compensated for the paucity of the fairer sex on our side by making forays to the other side whenever we had a chance.
I remember the open air amphitheatre or "Wala (pit)" as it is commonly known, packed to capacity with students, staff, families and general citizenry of Peradeniya and its surrounds, when, during the "Wala Festival" the best of the country's theatrical performances would be staged, night after night, for a nearly a fortnight. I remember my Medical Student friend trying to feel the pulse of someone in the crowd who happened to be suffering from an epileptic fit. "Stand aside! Stand aside! I'm a doctor! I'm a doctor!" said my pre-clinical undergrad friend to those who crowded around as the poor victim lay shuddering and shaking violently on the grass. Fortunately, the victim recovered on his own, as epileptics do.
I remember taking a beautiful young lady friend with me to the "Wala" one night and the chorus of ribald hisses, whistles and falsetto catcalls that broke out as I entered the lecture hall the following morning. Apparently it had been an unspoken tradition that taking a young lady to the Wala was a public "announcement" that one was "going steady" with her (sadly not the case in that instance).
I remember the inter-hall drama festivals, where we - the Engineering students - got fed up of the supercilious attitudes of the "Kadu- Meddas" (English special students) who considered the festival to be their private domain. We decided to field an entry of our own. None of us had done drama before and in the humility of being aware of that, we devoured all the books on drama and drama production that we could borrow from the library to help us with our entry. I remember our triumph and the impotent rage of the Kadu Meddas when we swept the boards winning all the prizes in the competition other than the one for Best Actress (we didn't have a female in our cast - we were of the dry zone after all!).
I remember a student protest where the students kidnapped the Dean of Science and hauled him onto the roof of the Senate, where he was held hostage. I also remember one student climbing up onto the roof with his guitar to entertain the protesters (some of whom were on hunger-strike) and keep their spirits up.
I remember [General] "Body Meetings" of the Engineering Students Union, where we were harangued by seniors and politically minded colleagues that we needed to first "Topple the Government and free the proletariat" before we could consider resuming our studies. I remember a meeting with the Dean of Engineering where I participated as a member of a "moderate" delegation elected to present our "demands" to him. I remember embarrassedly telling him that he could disregard the last few on our list (which included the resignation of the National Government) and being told by him that we should keep it there ("In our day one of our demands was for the Americans to get out of Vietnam" he told us).
I remember the sarcasm of the Professor of Electrical Engineering at his first lecture after we returned to class. He congratulated us on our success in "toppling the government and saving the nation for our younger brothers and sisters who are waiting to come to University" as he put it.
I remember the sight of sparks flying off the sides of the Akbar Bridge in the night as police machine-gunned unarmed students fleeing across it. I remember going to visit my batchmate in hospital the following day. He had vaulted what he had thought to be a low wall in the darkness to escape the gunfire and fallen thirty feet on the other side down to lovers’ lane below. He had broken his spine and couldn't continue his studies with us.
An academic at Pera
I remember too many things, most of which I shouldn't write about. But, most of all, I remember the students. It was my privilege to have known those whom I got to know personally and my loss not to have known the ones I didn't. For they were all better than I ever was or would ever be and they taught me and gave me so much more than I ever taught or gave them.