17th August 1997


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Goolbai Goonesekara's book 'Chosen Ground'- Part IV

The change comes in a hurry

[Image]The founding of Visakha Vidyalaya was the result of a deep seated Buddhistic feeling that some attempt should be made to break the monopoly the Christian schools had on, what might be called 'the fashionable education' of girls in Ceylon. A beginning was made in a little building and this was certainly not comparable to the spacious grounds and lovely campuses of the established Christian schools. Speaking about these early days of Visakha Sumana Saparamadu, the well known academic said, "On their way to school the girls of Bishop's College would look over the wall at the girls of Visakha and murmur commiseratingly, 'poor things'. The Visakhians did not take kindly to the condescension and bristled angrily.

Colonel Olcott, the great American Buddhist Theosophist had arrived in Ceylon at a time when Buddhism was probably at its lowest ebb. British rule had effectively undermined the religion of the country and although it remained the religion of the majority it was not necessarily the religion of a strong and wealthy minority. Along with others he revitalised a dormant population. My husband's uncle Leslie used to tell me that when he was at Royal College, which, as the name suggests was a virtual bastion of British privileged education, Buddhist boys felt pretty inferior.

"Buddhist boys put up your hands," a master would say in order to separate the students for Choir practice. Buddhist hands went up diffidently although it must be said that there was never any real discrimination in class. The British were too fair for that sort of overt favouritism. Nonetheless, Buddhists were not given to shouting their beliefs too loudly in public. When the change came it came in a hurry. Affluent Buddhists, motivated by Col. Olcott and the great Buddhist teacher, Anagarika Dharmapala, began to realise that their gentle and non-combative religion was in dire need of champions. Accordingly, Mrs. Jeremias Dias with a dream of her own, donated an extensive estate to Visakha in the heart of Colombo. To this day her memory lives on in the minds and hearts of the thousands of Visakhians who have cause to be grateful for this visionary bequest.

Very quickly attractive buildings came up but now another problem arose. In spite of hiring British teachers and even having British Principals, the examination results of Visakha were so poor, the school was in danger of losing Departmental recognition.

The threat of educational censure hung over the school like a Damocletian sword. The Manager of the School, Sir Baron Jayatileka, Leader of the State Council and an important citizen of the country, was quite distraught as well he might be. Where was he to find a qualified Principal with only the interests of the Buddhists at heart. The Universities of Sri Lanka were not in existence. A small University College had just begun and the hordes of graduates now available in this country were simply nowhere to be found in the early 1930's.

Then suddenly it was as if a passing Deva heard Sir Baron's laments and decided to heed them. He (Sir Baron not the Deva) had a letter from an old Theosophist friend in Karachi which told him that his ward would be visiting Colombo with his new American wife and he would be grateful if they were shown round the island. Sir Baron sent the couple an invitaiton to tea - the Ceylon tea party being the precursor of the ubiquitous cocktail party of today. My parents were on a delayed honeymoon. They had married 4 years earlier but as both were still students and also as Wall Street had just crashed just after their nuptials, luxuries like honeymoons were postponed for happier and more affluent times.

When Wall Street eventually began paying back something on the dollar Father had his Ph.D. and Mother her master in Education. Father felt that Mother would adjust to the East if they took what was literally a slow boat to China and then slowly sailed their way round Japan, Indonesia, Malaya, Sri Lanka and finally on to Karachi (India) where Jamshed waited impatiently.

Jamshed felt, not without good cause, that he had arranged this marriage made in a theosophist heaven. To the westernised Parsis, the fact that Mother was American was a plus point. Furthermore she was a highly educated one and Jamshed had plans for her as he had for Father.

As was the custom of the day, Father placed his visiting cards along with Mother's on a tray at the entrance to Sir Baron's palatial home in Colombo. Sir Baron gave them a cursory glance and then looked again, quite riveted by what he saw. It became a family joke as to whether Sir Baron actually saw Mother herself or whether he only saw those magical letters after her name... M. A. Education.

Now Sir Baron had not become the important State Councillor he was by postponing important decisions. He instantly nabbed Father and drew him aside. "Now Dr. Motwani," he said turning his considerable persuasive charm in Father's direction. "You are not even settled in Karachi. Your guardian tells me you are soon going on lecture tours. Why don't you leave your wife with me in Ceylon and she can join you at the end of your 2-year stint."

My parents thought this might be a good idea since whether their home was in Colombo or Karachi hardly mattered. The British ruled supreme in S. East Asia and living in Ceylon or India made not much difference in those days of Empire.

"So how did you make up your mind Daddy?" we would ask afterwards. "Well I hardly had a say in the matter," he would answer. "Your Mother took one look at the Island and recognised her home." It was a fact that apart from furloughs back to the USA and India Mother never left this Island she grew to love so dearly. In the meantime, Sir Baron had no intention of leaving anything to chance. He called at mother's hotel the very next day carrying with him a binding contract for two years.

In Karachi Jamshed tore his hair. "And to think," he almost wept, "I was the idiot who introduced them." He had not even met Mother although he knew my grandmother Eva, and had met her at a Theosophical convention in the States. "I insist," he wrote to Sir Baron, "that you send Clara to Karachi for a month at the end of the first year." Sir Baron would have willingly agreed to send her to Timbuctoo if he could have had her even briefly at Visakha.

My sister and I would often speculate on all this. Mother was only 23 years old. She was a tall, gentle, rather shy person. Her convent upbringing had not made her into what we would call a "typical American". How was Sir Baron so sure that Mother would be able to guide the destinies of Visakha and reach the heights that Visakha eventually did reach under her wise and farseeing stewardship?

"How did you impress him Mother?" we would ask her teasingly. Mother was frank. "I've wondered about that myself," she said. "Sir Baron was one of the finest persons I have ever met. He gave me entire responsibility and somehow it worked."

So just a week after landing in Ceylon, Mother walked in through the gates of Visakha. Sita Rajasooriya writing about it afterwards said that she was one of the first students to see Mother enter her office dressed in a white sari.

The outgoing Principal looked up as Mother walked in. She saw a very young face and made a natural mistake. "Are you a new girl?" she asked Mother whose confidence was already pretty shaky. "Er-no," Mother quavered. "I'm the new Principal."

The news flew round the school and as the retiring Principal took Mother on a tour of Visakha's lovely new buildings every window and every corridor was crammed with inquisitive pupils, some of whom had never seen an American before. She was from the Land of Red Indians and Cowboys which was all they had gleaned of the USA from the movies. What would she be like?

I often think that Mother's American "up at 'em' attitude now rose to the surface. She took charge of Visakha and her love for this Island and the people grew by the day. She hardly ever thought of herself as an American except when Father and us two girls would be discussing the sad state of America's foreign policy.

Her long absence from the land of her birth had caused it to assume a kind of Nirvana like status in her mind. Let the slightest criticism float in the air and Mother's verbal sward would be unsheathed in seconds.- To be continued

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