Recently,  Divesh Alek Gunasekera, not quite six years old,  walked in to S.Thomas’  Mt.Lavinia, as a Thomian, following in the footsteps of his two grandfathers, Chamlal and Anura and father Isuru. Divesh inherits a rich tradition, a glittering tapestry stretching back to 1851, a mosaic of disparate elements, stories, written and unwritten, of the school; [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

On becoming a Thomian and inheriting a rich tapestry


Recently,  Divesh Alek Gunasekera, not quite six years old,  walked in to S.Thomas’  Mt.Lavinia, as a Thomian, following in the footsteps of his two grandfathers, Chamlal and Anura and father Isuru.

Divesh inherits a rich tradition, a glittering tapestry stretching back to 1851, a mosaic of disparate elements, stories, written and unwritten, of the school; or “College”, as we always referred to the place, in the unconscious arrogance that when one said “ College”, it could mean only STC, Mt.Lavinia and that it was the only institution which merited this title.

Divesh will integrate in to the Thomian family with ease as he has the advantage of the Thomian history and stories his two grandfathers and father will pass on to him. I did not have the advantage of a pre-Thomian indoctrination, no tales of STC carried from home, as I was the first Thomian in my family, my late father having been educated in a series of obscure village schools. Their identity is forgotten as my father did not speak of them, possibly because they did not matter to him in adult life. You learnt some basic skills and moved on. They did not perpetuate memories or traditions to be cherished once you left the school behind.

It is this difference that makes schools such as STC so outstanding, in the contribution they make towards a child’s development. I am grateful to my father that he provided me with the opportunity he never had, difficult though it may have been to secure admission to STC for his son, without the assistance of either  a Thomian connection or background.

Once you are in STC , the belief that you are in the best school of all permeates your adolescent psyche, bred in to you by a sense of elitism, the specialness of being a Thomian, the sense of a unique history and the peerless tradition that you soon become part of. This belief in an inherent Thomian superiority, in this “Thomian Grit”, the “Thomian Spirit”, becomes manifest in those annual sports encounters, enabling you to stave off an inevitable defeat, or reverse the certainty of defeat in to an improbable victory. Real or not, these were the heroic myths that Thomians were weaned on. If the inevitable happened, it was the result of the cruelty of fate, to be stoically borne till the next encounter made vengeance possible.

The College that I joined 62 years ago and that which Divesh inherits must be vastly different, as all institutions evolve and mutate in order to meet fresh educational and social challenges. But I would like to believe that the values that made this school special are still valid and are yet upheld.

My recollection is of an institution in which students were judged, by colleagues and teachers, entirely on individual merit and on one’s contribution to the school in academics or sports. One got ahead entirely on results; if you got the most marks you received the prize and if you scored the runs and otherwise performed consistently you retained your place in the team. I honestly do not recall any glaring inequities, which suggested that any student secured an unfair and sustained  advantage over his fellows, on account of perceived superiority of  background or connections, though influence peddling would not have been absent from College life, even at that time.

My indelible impression is of an institution without racial, religious or social bigotry or the exploitation of differences arising, thereby. The separation of students was only according to the Houses that one belonged to, or the class that one was assigned to. The distinctions created by being Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher or Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim, or any other ethnic or religious differentiation did not signal a departure from the singular commonality of being a Thomian, that identity superseding all other classifications.

In my time at STC I passed through three Wardens – Heads of School- the legendary “ Kunji’, Canon Reggie de Saram, a remote, god-like figure, frosty and austere, succeeded by  the marginally more accessible ‘Poeta”- Christie Davidson, followed by the friendly, excitable Reverend Selvaratnam. I understand that over time, successive heads have become less distant, in obvious acknowledgement of the reality that those who teach must have a closer interaction with those being taught. In the present Warden, Reverend Marc Billimoria, I see with much appreciation, a College head who combines accessibility with both the dignity and gravitas which are prerequisites for a man in his position.

There are other teachers whom we still talk of, with amusement and respect and in acknowledgement of their contribution to our development.  Some were great teachers and some were great eccentrics whilst a few combined both qualities. They were dedicated men and women, possibly never adequately compensated, who created a tradition by themselves, weaving themselves permanently in to the Thomian fabric.

Whilst I have no great school accomplishments to speak of, I still recall with great pleasure most of the things I did in College, in the company of contemporaries with whom I have formed life-long, cherished friendships. I loved the college library and over the years read most of the books available, even the ones I did not quite understand. In the college weights room, then  an ill-ventilated, ill-equipped, unhygienic cubicle sandwiched between the armoury and the handicraft workshop, I built some precocious muscle, which I used with encouraging results on the Rugby field. That primitive sweat-box has now been supplanted by a gleaming, well-equipped, fully modern gymnasium.

I learnt how to interact  harmoniously with a wide spectrum of personalities, with disparate points of view, representing possibly all the ethnicities and religious denominations in the country. What friction that was generated, which included bloody engagements,  were invariably,  spontaneous reactions to what any one of us was involved in at that time, and had nothing to do with what we were or where we came from.

In College, I came to appreciate the lasting value of comradeship, the unquantifiable pleasure that comes with successful team effort and, in defeat and failure,  the comfort of the commiseration of fellow Thomians. I learnt that to secure an unmerited advantage for oneself was to disadvantage another fellow Thomian. I learnt to accept punishment stoically and, through trial and error, how to break the law and still stay out of trouble. I also learnt the value of unity in adversity, especially in the face of the wrath of authority. I also learnt that there were ways and means of questioning and fighting authority, when appropriate.

The dynamics of a boys’ school must now be very different from my day. Yet, the values that constitute decent human conduct and that which should govern a just society, the concepts of integrity and honourable interaction and the easy acceptance of  social, religious and ethnic diversity, much of which, I realize in retrospect, is what one learns in school, should not be any different today. They are all part of the great Thomian tradition that we speak of and which must be fostered through each generation.

This is what I wish for my grandson Divesh- and for his brother Tarun when he becomes a Thomian – that he will emerge from College, having absorbed the best values it will impart, having experienced all that it has to offer, the pleasant and the unpleasant and, that in retrospect, on mature reflection, he will tell himself that he is happy and proud to be a Thomian; that he appreciates the wealth of his inheritance, that he has become a member of an exclusive fraternity which many aspire to, but to which only a few gain admission.

- Anura Gunasekera


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