The E.C. Gunasekera Inaugural Memorial Oration
at the NAVARANGAHALA, Sri Lanka, June 2000
by Lalanath De Silva, LLM
If I were asked to pick out one personality from my days at Royal College - I would have no hesitation in naming Mr. E. C. Gunasekera. He occupies a very special place in my memory of College days. We all called him kataya (behind his back of course). So did all those who went before and after us! How and why that nickname came to be coined for him is a great mystery. I have gone to great lengths to discover its history, but failed miserably. The explanations are as numerous and diverse as those who offer them.
My earliest recollections of him are dark and foreboding - a thin tall man with a cane who walked round the school using it freely on those who fell short of his expectations. A man with a fiery straight face and peering, piercing eyes - a quick gait and alert ears - agile and commanding. Like the roar of approaching monsoon rains, deafening silence preceded his daily walk through the school. Each class he passed was filled with beaver-like, frightened and worried looking students. Unfortunately, most students perhaps left the college with that impression and years later moulded themselves likewise - never really having seen the man beneath the rough exterior. Others looked upon his corporal punishment gratefully, acknowledging that they were the better for it. For a few, the hatred and dark impressions never left their hearts.
But then, I asked myself, why is it that old boys of the College have gathered together to commemorate Mr. E.C. Gunasekera? Obviously, there was something special in the man and a multitude of old boys seem to recognize this fact. Given my own experience with Mr. Gunasekera, I was perhaps, one of the least qualified to deliver this inaugural oration. While in College I had twice challenged his authority as a Prefect and there were other old boys who had a much closer relationship with him. However, I accepted with a deep sense of humility.
I have a deep respect for the man. He was honest, hard working, forthright, courageous, disciplined and to quote from Shakespeare's Othello, full of 'the milk of human kindness'. In these aspects he resembled my father and I had a great admiration for him. I had the privilege of experiencing his kindness first as a student and then as a prefect. Perhaps, this is my qualification to deliver this oration tonight - a qualification, which many others will share with me. In this sense I can make bold to say, that I am one of many and perhaps will speak like the many.
As I said earlier, my earliest recollections of Mr. Gunasekera were negative. I received two strokes on my posterior with his cane for failing to name my fellow students who had shouted "kataya" as he passed. The whole class of 40 stood on our chairs as he went round the class caning each student, one by one. The student in front of me had long hair. After caning him, he was asked why he had not cut it short. With great trepidation my friend lifted the lock of hair on his left side and showed Mr. Gunasekera a deformed ear that was well hidden by the long hair. Mr. Gunasekera's embarrassment was manifest - he left the boy alone and moved on with his task. Long hair may be justified but failure to bear testimony against offenders and harboring them was unforgivable.
My own impressions began to change when I was in the tenth grade preparing to sit my 'O' levels. The school bell had corroded and fallen off its post! The substitute bell could hardly be heard around the school - certainly not in my class located near the pool. We all followed "the herd" when school closed - the underlying assumption being that someone at the head must surely have heard the bell. Unfortunately, all it took was someone mischievous to lead and the rest to follow. One such day as I scurried down the corridor with a dozen other boys dreaming of lunch at home, we were stopped in our tracks by a familiar voice. "Get back here and stand at the back of the class". Mr. Gunasekera had ventured into a class where the teacher was absent and was taking one of his improvised lessons when we had run past it!
He was teaching the boys the meaning of "geography". "Geo means earth" he said and "graph means to draw". My mind was on the punishment that would ensue - for it had then struck me that the bell had not yet been rung! Soon the bell rang and the class was dismissed. Cane in hand he approached. "Why did you run away before school was over?" He asked the first in line. The boy received two strokes for responding with silence. Two others followed suit. I was the fourth in line. When questioned, I summoned up all my courage and said, "Sir, I cannot hear the new bell in my class - I left since all the others did - I actually thought school was over - I am sorry". I closed my eyes and braced myself for the sting. It never came and instead I heard his voice. "All right" it said, "that's a good explanation... you can go"! I did not wait to see what happened to the others.
For the first time it dawned on me that one could actually defend one's actions with Mr. Gunasekera and that he was prepared to consider it and accept it if reasonable. He did ask me my name on that occasion and never ever forgot it during the rest of my stay in school or thereafter. I had two further experiences with him while I was a Prefect. As Prefects we had the privilege of working closely with him - planning the Prefects' duty rosters for the Royal-Thomian and Bradby Shield matches and discussing day to day discipline.
The first occurred within a couple of months of my appointment as a Prefect. Our Head Prefect had decreed that the inner room attached to the Prefects' room was sacrosanct and that it was only for the "senior" Prefects. All complied for awhile, but soon a few of us led a rebellion and "nationalized" the inner room - entering and remaining within it and putting up a poster to that effect! Our Head Prefect was horrified but calmly summoned an emergency Prefects' meeting. What we did not know was that he had arranged with Mr. Gunasekera to grace the occasion half way through the meeting.
The meeting commenced and proceeded with fiery force - after all there were no less than half a dozen English and Sinhala debaters in there, not counting the gallery remarks coming from cricketers, ruggerites and hostel prefects. The argument centered on the "authority" of the Head Prefect to reserve rooms for a few and whether there was in fact a class of prefects called "senior" prefects. Suddenly there was a knock on the door - someone opened it angrily - and in the doorway was a stern looking Mr. Gunasekera. We all rose as he entered and took his seat next to the Head Prefect at the head table. "Carry on" he said looking round at some of us who appeared flustered. The Head Prefect slowly got the meeting going again. One of my fellow-prefects continued explaining his point of view.
Mr. Gunasekera's presence was unexpected and it became clear to me that it had been carefully "arranged". Something had to be done to counter this move - some show of resistance to this act was called for. Again, I took courage and rose to a point of order. "Mr. Chairman" I said, "I would like to know who is chairing this meeting, is it you or is it our vice-principal?" There was a deathly silence - I seemed to have been guilty of heresy. The Head Prefect conferred briefly with Mr. Gunasekera and responded. "I am presiding at this meeting" he said "but Mr. Gunasekera can intervene at any time as the Vice-Principal". I stood my ground. The fat was in the fire and there was no turning back. Two others joined my motion. "Sir" I said, "There cannot be two chairmen at a meeting - the rules of meetings that I know don't allow this - I must know who presides at this meeting". The response of the Head Prefect was the same.
Mr. Gunasekera was growing impatient and then suddenly tapped the table with force. "Stand up de Silva, stand up... all of you have challenged my authority and you will withdraw what you said and apologise" he thundered. My colleague who seconded my point of order followed the prudent course and tendered amends. He was warned never to repeat the offence. I was the last in line - I reconciled myself for expulsion or suspension and said "Sir, I refuse to apologise - I have committed no wrong". "What do you mean?" asked Mr. Gunasekera. "Sir, the reason I raised this point of order is because I believe that it is the duty of the Head Prefect to vacate the chair in deference to you and to invite you to preside at this meeting". "The rules of meetings call for one presiding officer Sir, and when you are present at a Prefects' meeting it is you, and you alone who must preside."
There was a painful silence as Mr. Gunasekera contemplated my answer - he never took his eyes off me all that while. I stood frozen expecting the worst. Finally he said "de Silva, knowing the constitutional pundit that you are, I will accept you explanation - I am presiding over this meeting from now". I sat down in a cold sweat, relieved. The meeting continued and we were duly chided for our rebellion, but the inner room was opened to all and we ended up with tea at Mr. Gunasekera's expense!
The final incident I wish to share with you was at the end of my tenure as a Prefect and on the eve of my leaving school. It was almost the end of term - a time when Prefects climbed the roof of the main hall to write their names into history. The all-important Prefects' photograph had been arranged. I was full of the nationalist spirit. I asked Mr. Gunasekera if I could stand for the photograph in national dress. He declined saying that the Prefects' uniform was white coat, College tie and white trousers. A rule was a rule and must be complied with.
I went back to the Prefects' room and did some research. On the wall was an earlier Prefects' photograph with Philip Gunawardene or one of his sons in national dress. I was elated that I had found a precedent that I could cite in my favour. I thought that Mr. Gunasekera's commendation of my premature knowledge of the law would hold well again. I took the photograph off the wall and evidence in hand met Mr. Gunasekera in his office. "Sir" I said, "I have found a precedent for the national dress in the Prefects' photograph - Should I not have the benefit of that precedent?". He took the photograph from me and looked at it carefully with a smile. "You never give up do you?" he said after thinking awhile, "de Silva, a precedent remains a precedent, it never becomes the rule" he said declining my request.
I was disappointed and disagreed with his decision. I asked for permission to appeal to the Principal Mr. L. D. H. Peiris. Mr. Gunasekera said "yes you may appeal to the Principal, he is my head and can over-rule me." So I went to the Principal and made my request to him informing him honestly that Mr. Gunasekera had refused it. Mr. Peiris looked at me curiously and in his deep voice said "No...no...you cannot come in national dress". That was the end of my appeal. I then asked the Principal if he would allow me to stand out of the photograph altogether if I could not wear the national dress. He permitted me to do so. Five years after I left College and had begun to practice the law, I was privileged to have Mr. Peiris as my client in his father's testamentary case!
On hearing this last ruling, Mr. Gunasekera said to me "de Silva that is not an option I would have given you - but he is our Principal and has the last say". So it is thus that in the 1978 Prefects' photograph, I am 'absent'.
In all of these experiences, Mr. Gunasekera appeared to me as a person willing to give a fair hearing and ready to be convinced on a matter with which he had disagreed. On many occasions he revealed a kind-hearted personality, full of simplicity and honesty. On many occasions I have spent time discussing controversial issues with him in his office. Every time I came out edified by the discussion and often educated as well. When I left Royal College in 1978 and joined the Law College, he had given me the confidence I needed to study the law. Although my desire was to become a professional musician, he had advised me to follow career in law.
Given my experience with Mr. Gunasekera, I would like to use the rest of this oration to raise some current social issues with you - issues which I am sure would have been the subject of discussion with Mr. Gunasekera had we been in College now. Over the past two decades, our nation has been in a state of war. Since 1971, from the time I was an adolescent, this nation has been governed under emergency regulations most of the time. My father served in the Prisons Department and I have lived through these periods cohabiting with arms and ammunition, hearing the cries of parents over dead or missing children and seeing the misery of the refugees of violence. I have also experienced the great fear and anxiety that comes from having a parent in a public service that requires risk of life and limb. My generation and those that came after, are children of violence and war. What is our hope and what is our future? Is there hope and is there a future for our children?
We were often taught in school about the greatness of the civilization of our forefathers - the great irrigation based civilizations of Ruhuna, and Raja Rata. When we look at these civilizations and the great Veheras and tank systems built by our ancestors over two millennia ago we marvel at their achievements. However, when I look today at our society and our people, I wonder whether it was people like us who created these wonders? Were they different? History teaches us that such civilizations were built in situations where society could be organized and disciplined. Often there was a natural catalyst like scarce water resources. If that were so, were our forefathers far more disciplined and organized than we are? If not, why do we not have great achievements to show in our own time - achievements that we can claim as our own - achievements that are indigenous and not with foreign support - achievements that are "great", in the same tenor, as those of our ancient forefathers?
In the middle of the last century Sri Lanka had a higher Gross National product than Singapore. We were seen as a "model developing nation". Today we have been reduced to a nation at war with its own people - with no solution in sight and with 25 per cent of our national budget being diverted to arms and ammunition and the maintenance of the war machine. The arms dealers are the direct beneficiaries of this war, while most of its victims are innocent civilians who crave to live a normal life with security and hope for their children. We cannot also forget the lives lost on both sides and the legion of differently-abled persons that the war produces - all of them an ensuing responsibility and added cost to society. Yet there are politicians who preach the gospel of ethnicity.
As a person associated with the performing arts, I have witnessed the rising tide of dramatic and other creations that seek to mirror our society and through this art raise issues of conscience. Several films have been made that have the same objective. Political and social groups have been mobilizing with a call for peace. Despite these efforts the tide has not yet changed. The peace lobby has not yet gathered the force that is required to force and end to this war. Yet we all know that if we do not achieve peace quickly, this nation's chances of rising from the ashes will recede into darkness. It is only we as a people who can resolve to stop this violence and bloodshed and enter into an acceptable and visionary political solution.
Recently, we lost a great soldier and a great gentleman - both old Royalists - Major General Percy Fernando and Hon. C. V. Gooneratne. Royal, like other schools has sacrificed many young men in this war. Each such sacrifice brings with it a catastrophe - widows and orphaned children. The tales of this war are never ending - of dead lovers and husbands and children and fathers - of maimed men having to be rehabilitated - of women and children killed in retaliation or crossfire. How many more must die before we say "enough is enough". That thought-provoking lyric by Bob Dylon, so relevant to our times, comes to my mind. I quote-
"How many times must the cannon balls fire,
Before they are forever banned?
How many years must one person have,
Before he can hear people cry?
And how many deaths will it take till to know,
That too many people have died?"
Some say the solution is with the militants. Others blame the government. But the fact is that the solution really lies with us as a people. It is we who carry the social conscience and it is our duty to bring this conscience to bear upon our leaders and the leaders of the militants.
But this oration is not about solutions to the war. Nor is it about social movements for peace. It is about discipline, that element which is axiomatic to development.
The other day I was approaching a railway crossing in my car. The gates closed and two lines of traffic formed on either side of the gates. Soon, a second line of traffic formed on the right side of the road on both sides of the gate. The train passed and the gates opened - the chaos that followed needs no explanation. Some Sri Lankans behind a wheel are like wound up toys - they will speed through narrow streets violating traffic rules, negligently and with no concern for pedestrians or other road users. Then having arrived at their destination they will laze about the rest of the day reading a newspaper, animated in gossip and shuffling their feet at work.
Is it not a national trait that when a project or persons is doing well that somebody must write anonymous letters and petitions to persons in authority? Is it not common practice that we take un- signed letters seriously - perhaps even more seriously than we take signed letters! Is it not a fact that our public service rarely responds to a letter from a citizen and hardly ever even acknowledges receipt of such a letter. Is it not a fact that members of the public who call at government offices are treated as if they were a "nuisance" rather than as persons rightfully entitled to be served? Corruption in government has reached such alarming proportions that nothing moves from one desk to another without a bribe.
Insufficient fiscal accountability of the government has become a matter of great public concern. The Public accounts committee in Parliament has been done away with and agencies take years to file annual reports and audited accounts in Parliament. Besides, a number of Government Agencies that are required by law to publicly notify (by Gazette) fees and charges for services rendered hardly ever do so. Such fees are changed (almost always upward) without any public notice or parliamentary approval and in a very arbitrary manner. Last year I took some of my friends from USA to the Horton Plains National Park. I was charged Rs. 20 and they were charged Rs. 800 each as entrance fees. At the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens I was charged Rs. 15 and they were charged Rs. 150.
On an examination of the Gazettes I found that the last approved fee was in 1973 designated as Rs. 1.50 for locals and Rs. 5 for non-residents for National Parks. The Botanical Gardens have not gazetted their charges though required by law. How could one agency of the government charge foreigners 3900 per cent more than local visitors, while another agency charged 900 per cent?
How many times have we stood in a line waiting for our turn, only to find that some other breaks the line either by force or by favour afforded by the officer at the counter. Another interesting feature of a Sri Lankan line is that the person behind must lean his/her body against yours, perhaps even push if not climb on your shoulder! There is no personal space between persons in a bus or other public area and certainly not in a line. Yet, when it is discussion or question time at a lecture delivered by an erudite person - hardly anyone will raise a controversial issue. We seem to recognise some inviolable "intellectual space" that defeats the very purpose of vigorous discourse, while being blind to the existence of any "physical space".
To oppose, question, raise controversial issues, argue or dissent is offensive - dealt with by social marginalisation. In Sri Lanka we call such people "saboteurs" and "extremists" while in the west they would be referred to by the sanitized term "activist" or "reformist"! In schools and even in our universities students have learnt to submissively copy out a note read by the teacher. They are never encouraged to research or analyse on their own and are certainly not challenged to "think on their feet". Nor, are they ever encouraged to question the teacher or raise and debate issues in class. Giving them reading material for completion before the next lesson is a vain exercise - a hard lesson that I learnt while lecturing in Building and Contract Law to Master's level students in Architecture, at the faculty of Architecture in the Moratuwa University.
The late Professor Mylvaganam, Professor of Physics at the University of Colombo (under whom I had a privilege of learning "A" Level Physics) speaking at a Convocation of that university articulated the pith, and substance of a good education as (a) the ability to retrieve information and (b) analytical skills. Any school or educational institution that fails to equip its students with these abilities fails in its mission. By this yardstick, the majority of our students both at secondary and tertiary level fail. The results of our education system are evident when we look around. We have achieved a high literacy rate, yet our students are slow to retrieve the necessary information and analyse and apply it to the problem at hand. We are literate but refuse to read - there are none so blind as those, who having eyes and yet refuse to see.
I have a theory as to why we as a people are so slow and never plan ahead. I think it has to do with the influence of the weather - and this I say not in jest but with all seriousness. In the temperate climes, there are seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter. The seasons set a regular rhythm to life and in spring one must prepare and plan for the coming winter. In this module the psyche develops a "clock" that sets a pace and forces people to plan and work hard. In the tropical climes there are no seasons - it is sunshine time mostly or monsoon time for the rest. This natural pattern does not set a regular rhythm to life. Instead it brings uncertainty, for one never knows when the next cyclone, earth quake, volcano, tidal wave, flood or drought will come and sweep away what you have done. In this regime the psyche does not develop a "clock". Instead one begins to think that there is no point in storing-up or working hard - for tomorrow may take it away - and so we simply laze around waiting for the next disaster and enjoying the bounty of nature in the meanwhile.
The war and violence of our time has shaken the very foundations of our society. We were taught that Sri Lankans are a hospitable and caring people. We were proud of this image and indeed retain some of that for the visiting tourists. Despite this history, we have seen the brutality of rising organised crime and the pogrom of 1983 brought home the brutality with which we can treat our fellow citizens. When I was a child, I recall how people rushed into help someone who fell by the roadside. Today most people walk by with an uncaring and unconcerned air even when someone falls and calls for help. When there is an accident, it immediately becomes a spectacle to be watched and enjoyed! Something in our base instincts have begun to rise up to the surface - something that has for Millennia been kept in check by Buddhist and Hindu philosophy.
The war has added to our uncertainty. It has brought with it a sense that we must take what we can, when we can - a philosophy that has led to mass scale virulent corruption on the one hand and a total disregard for elements such as the environment on the other.
That uncertainty has also led to our loosing respect for the law and common decency. As we scramble, push and shove to get into buses and trains or for services at an official counter, survival of the fittest becomes our law. The weak, the handicapped, the children and the aged are swept aside to fend for themselves as best they can and as we go home with our prize, we only think of ourselves. All the great precepts that the great religions and philosophies have taught us are thrown to the winds only to be mouthed each morning in ritual chant. Some will even argue that in a time of war and uncertainty, concern for others is a luxury.
Our parents and we as a generation have much to be responsible and accountable for - we have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind! We owe it to our children and progeny to set the record straight. While those in power try to do their duty to bring peace we as individuals have our contribution to make. In our day to day lives, we need to bring discipline to the fore - for it is through discipline at all levels that we can build renewed strength, hope, faith and love.
Are we truly the children of our great ancestors? Are we only genetically connected to them but far removed from their ways? Should we be proud of what they achieved or ashamed that we fall far short of their stature? All the descriptions of the achievement of our forefathers point to one conclusion - that they were a more disciplined people, at least during the times when the great tanks and dagobas were built.
We may be genetically connected to these great people, yet I wonder if our basic psyche widely differs from theirs. Today, we do not have the discipline or the work ethic that seems to have guided our ancestors. We have excluded their collective wisdom in many matters.
I am a lawyer and hope you will forgive my drawing upon a few examples from our legal heritage to illustrate my point. Today we have so readily capitulated to the Roman-Dutch and English law as the law applicable in many areas. The colonial powers jettisoned our indigenous law and legal systems five hundred years ago and it only survived in fragmented pieces in the Kandyan areas. Yet with advancing legal ideas and the new frontiers of science there are concepts embedded in our ancient legal heritage that we can and should draw upon.
A major legal debate rages on today about whether animals have legal rights and personality. In a landmark study made by Professor Christopher Stone argued that the law should recognise the legal personality and rights of inanimate natural objects and animals. Justice Douglas of the US Supreme Court in a leading case has cited Professor Christopher Stone's work and argued in a dissentient judgment that -
"Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole - a creature of ecclesiastical law - is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases. The ordinary corporation is a "person" for purposes of the adjudicatory process,... So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life... The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it."
Since then several judgements of US Courts have recognised the rights of animals to sue or to be sued in their own names.
Is the notion that animals also have rights and that they have an independent legal personality something modern and attributable to western thinking? A search of our own Buddhist literature shows that we have accorded an equal right to life and freedom for animals as we have for human beings. The Karaniya Metta Sutta states in the clearest terms that our loving kindness must extend to other creatures with whom we co-habit the earth and to future generations yet unborn.
Our legal history shows instances where the rights of animals have been recognised and enforced. The story of the Cow who rang the bell of justice at King Elara's palace in Anuradhapura to complain about the King's son who had killed her calf by driving his carriage, shows us that our legal system allowed access to justice for animals and recognised their own rights. The King is reported to have meted out just punishment even to his own son by having a carriage driven over him - a clear manifestation of equality before the law and of the rule of law. The ancient chronicles says it thus -
"At the head of his bed he had a bell hung up with a long rope so that those who desired a judgement at law might ring it. The king had only one son and one daughter. When once the son of the ruler was going in a cart to the Tissa-tank, he killed unintentionally a young calf lying on the road with the mother cow, by driving the wheel over its neck. The cow came and dragged at the bell in bitterness of heart; and the king caused his son's head to be severed (from his body) with that same wheel".
Justice A. R. B. Amerasinghe in his recent judgement on the Eppawala Phosphate case has likewise cited from our ancient chronicles and from research on our traditional land tenure systems and concluded that in our law" (T) the organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people". Again the notion of "sustainable development" - a buzz-word that appears to have emerged from the report of the World Commission on Environment headed by Gro-Harlem Brundtland and the earth summit of 1992, is not new to Sri Lanka. Our ancestor not only believed that resources must be harnessed for the benefit of man in an efficient manner but also in a way that furthered the welfare of our people.
The ancient chronicles, speaking of the rule of Parakramabahu the Great says thus -
"Truly in such a country not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man...For a life of enjoyment of what one possesses, without having cared for the welfare of the people, in no wise befits one like myself...What is there in the world that cannot be carried out by People of energy?....By such words the energetic one fired their energy."
In this passage is the pith and substance of "sustainable development" - that the state must harness natural resources in such a way that ensures the best interests of the people and their welfare. This passage has direct relevance to the subject of this oration as well - for in it is the idea of that great king, that we (Sri Lankans) could achieve anything in the world if we had "energy" - a statement that can uplift us in the current crisis that we face. What is this "energy" that the great king speaks of? Is it the energy of determination, of commitment, of discipline, of efficiency and of achievement and growth through a strong work ethic and vision that looks forward - not backward?
How else could our ancestors have erected the great Dagobas and built the great tanks and canals? Yet if we walk in our villages today and ask a farmer sitting under the shade of a tree in the noonday sun "how are you Sir? (Kohomada?", his response is likely to be "I am just waiting!" (Ohey Innawa!)" Lotus eaters" is what we are called and so aptly described by Alfred Lord Tennyson, for that is what we have become. We are really not the children of our great ancestors - we are still creatures of oppression - remnants of the colonial past - perhaps oppressed and demoralised by our own elected post-colonial governments.
Is it not time that we came of our own? Is it time that we began to have confidence in ourselves as a people? Was it not yesterday that we should have "energised" our social fabric and set ourselves a common new vision? Should we not stop looking back and instead look to the future? These and other such vital issues must be raised and discussed so that we may move ahead from where we are to where we wish to go.
Finally let me thank all of you for this patient hearing. As we leave the precincts of this hallowed College of ours, let us carry with us our respect for a great teacher - E. C. Gunasekera - a legend in his lifetime. Let us through that respect develop the discipline that we need in each of our lives to enrich society. Let us teach these values to our children and colleagues. Let us have hope and with faith pursue discipline and kindness.
July 13, 2000 Daily News
EC of Royal: discipline, distinction and devotion were his forte
by Siddiq Ghouse (Hussein Ghouse’s elder bro)
Reference to the Mr. E.C. Gunasekera Inauguration Memorial Oration 2000 delivered by Lalanath de Silva and reproduced in the Daily News under a very appropriate and fitting caption "People of Energy". I wish to echo the sentiments of the speaker and write that he is not alone when he says that "Mr. E.C. Gunasekera occupies a special place in my memory of College".
There are thousands upon thousands who share this view including myself. EC's relationship to us was very much fatherly in nature, strict disciplinarian, feared, highly respected, but loved dearly from the depth of the hearts of all Royalists privileged to be under his "domain".
The clarion call "EC on line" and pin drop silence prevailed and not a fragment of paper was visible in the corridors of the school, although he may have been several blocks away, the silence then only being broken by the clit clatter of his footsteps emanating from the sole of his spit and polished leather shoes. Discipline he did maintain in the school at every level, Distinctions he wanted all Royalists to obtain, and Devotion to the Alma Mater were his trio Prima Forte. Outside the precincts of the College a slightly different EC emerged an enthusiastic personality, friendly, broad smiling bubbling with warmth but still emitting the aura of discipline, distinction and devotion which he was renowned for and wished carried through at all times.
Royalists idolized and admired EC in the same vein within the red bricked walls of the College, or out in the wide open world. To be an authoritarian and still loved by students is difficult to achieve, but that was what EC accomplished through his possession of some strange dynamic magnetism.
As for the mystery that Lalanath de Silva refers to in his commemorative lecture, of the origin of the name "kattaya" coined by students to the late and great "EC" this celebrated teacher, and often used freely by his students but only in whispers, my understanding is as follows. Our late beloved teacher Mr. E. Christie Gunasekera had a habit of talking with his teeth clenched and (once again behind his back) the boys coined the name katay pus translated "earthen soil in the mouth". Through a period of time katay pus evolved into a shortened form ending up with kattaya. I say the above with all the due respect and in humbleness to my respected departed educator, who if alive today would undoubtedly have accepted this 'exposure' by me in the true Royal spirit which he was nurtured and nurtured us all in.
I recall an incident vividly in the early-sixties when Mr. E.C. Gunasekera was conducting our Biology class and I was caught red handed in the mischievous act of opening the gas tap in the lab, a common 'schoolboy prank' used in Royal by many for a "break" when a class reaches the point of boredom. Location of the opened tap among the several found in the lab is a bit of a tedious process and the hustle and bustle serves as a breather when the topic of the subject taught becomes a drag.
The punishment "EC" inflicted on me was that whenever he entered the Biology class, I was to position myself outside the class. I then figured that this was a once and for all discipline and took it in its stride, but when the sentence dragged on four days it prompted in me a fit of unexplained boldness, to complain to the then Vice-Principal Mr. Bogoda Premaratne of my plight, with the grievance that I was being handicapped in my studies by Mr. Gunasekera's enforcement of this continuous punishment. I took this brazen decision, confident that EC was never ever revengeful, and he had a silent admiration for counter-action if it was correctively motivated. The Vice Principal also a renowned and highly respected educationist gave me a note, firmly addressed to Mr. Gunasekera with instructions to take me back immediately to the class, and Mr. Gunasekera obliged with no hostile reaction being shown on his part.
My earlier assessment of EC's noble qualities which gave me confidence to "report" EC to the Deputy Head proved correct, as his subsequent attitude to me was never vent with any anger, nor did he harbour a grudge against me for my audacious act of reporting him to the vice principal.
Tendering an apology to EC for this act which I explained was executed through desperation, and was also to avoid further chastisement if the news of my punishment reached my father, the reaction from EC the great gent he was, was a winsome smile emanating from the corner of his mouth, a nod, his usual sign of a hidden appreciation of my move. He then spelled out with a remark in his own inimitable style, "Ghouse, I admire your resistance and your guts to report me." Knowing Mr. Gunasekera I knew this statement emanated from the bottom of his heart, and did not carry any malice or sarcasm with it.
In those carefree schoolboy days traveling on the footboard of the College schoolbus, a then rejected red double-decker from London Transport was what we reveled in, especially those students who lived in Colombo South. When the bus, usually packed to capacity took a deep angular turn in to Bullers Road from Bambalapitiya Junction on its last stretch to Royal, we merry making students on the footboard, (labeled by others as "Footboard Incorporated") on many an occasion had to directly confront EC as the bus usually executed the bend in close proximity to the spot where he usually positioned himself waiting for his car lift to carry him to school.
He was always there immaculately decked in spotless white clothing, mirror polished shoes, and maroon or blue tie. To avoid exposure to his hawk eyed glances the "Footboarders" used to duck for cover, but being extremely gifted with sharpness of vision he noted from this vantage point, those few who dangerously performed this 'balancing' act on the footboard, and on many an occasion the "culprits" ended up with a detention after school coupled with several thousand lines of written agony, "I will not travel in the footboard in the future".
It so happened once, that the school bus jam-packed as usual took its routine turn into Bullers Road from the Galle Road at Bambalapitiya, while the monsoon rains with all its fury and gusty winds was beating down and poor EC was there at his usual rendezvous waiting for his car lift but getting the worst of it, drenched to his skin in spite of the battle he had carried on with his brolly to protect himself from the inclement weather. Observing this the "Footboard Incorporated" gang got into action and with a symphony of continuous ringing of the 'stop' bell the boys brought the red monster school bus to a halt right opposite EC.
They sympathetically hurriedly invited him to get aboard and due to the extreme nature of the weather and having not left with much room to think but only to act; EC obliged and mounted the footboard much to the thrill of the renowned "footboarders", who welcomed him with love and sympathy and clearly not with the intention of embarrassing him. With hardly breathing space in the bus the boys gave maximum leverage for EC to get into the belly region of the bus, but this exercise EC probably found was causing further embarrassment, and thereby his presence in their midst becoming more conspicuous, he opted to travel on the footboard along with the "footboarders" covering the short distance from Bullers Road intersection to Royal.
The talk of the College that particular day was that EC had traveled on the footboard of the College bus, an act which he usually loathed and student offenders had previously to face the consequences his wrath. But on that wet drenched day EC himself was the "guilty" one, driven by the compelling circumstances. Some of the noted "Footboarders Incorporated" who had been at his receiving end for their earlier actions, quickly took evasive action fearing that EC being 'one for a day' would have made a quick note of the "Footboarders" so they confronted him with a touch of humor saying, "Sir, Is it true you were seen traveling on the footboard today in the College bus"? The true gentleman he was he took it in light vein, and preferred to ignore the questionnaires and not reprimand them, since he too stood now in the "accused box" that day.
Thereafter believing in the saying, "Practice what you preach", EC then never ventured in punishing the members of "Footboard Incorporated" but left that task to other members of the staff. Many of the members of "Footboard Incorporated" have now climbed the higher echelons of society and hold high ranking and lucrative professional positions and postings in Sri Lanka and abroad.
Mr. Gunasekera was a schoolmaster par excellence and a gentleman to his fingertips. His remembrance of names of his past students is amazing and I recollect almost two decades after leaving College I crossed him at once again the Bambalapitiya junction, and with his razor edge memory he addressed me by name and recalled the incident when I "reported" him to the Vice Principal". The meeting of this tremendous but lovable disciplinarian, even as an old boy and after a lapse of period of time, still sent the shivers and shudders and uneasiness in me, a feeling that many a Royalist feels in his presence. He observed my state of feeling and quickly put me at ease with his oft repeated remark he used in College which came out from his teeth clenched mouth as if to reflect the past, "Stop fidgeting about, put yourself together", instantly throwing me back 20 years in time, the episode finally ending in both of us bursting out into amiable laughter and interlocking of hands in warmth embrace.
EC was an "icon", he left behind a legacy at Royal which will be difficult to emulate. We Royalists old and young should dip the Blue and Gold flag in his grateful memory, and then flutter it in the breeze as would always EC's wish be, taking a cue from the College song to "repay the debt we owed, and kept thy fame inviolate".