by Ransiri Menike Silva
The 125th anniversary celebrations of Dharmaraja College Kandy had me reminiscing on some lively bits from my past and the unforgettable time I had spent at DRC.
Daughters of a member of the staff, D.T. Devendra, my sister Yasmin and I had our first schooling at Dharmaraja and proud to be Rajans. For me, particularly, it will always be my first love in the field of education.
Nestling among my memorabilia is a treasured document preserved for me by my parents... my first ever school’s report, in which is recorded my date of admission to D.R.C. as 12.01.1940 and date of leaving as 25.06.1943, when I was in Std. 2 (on Father’s appointment as Principal of Anuruddha College, Nawalapitiya).
I first entered the Kindergarten (L.Kg.) or "Baby Class" under the guidance of pretty Soma Madam (Wijesundera, later married E.A. Perusingha of the staff). We occupied the furthermost room on the left on the upper storey of a two storeyed building that still stands.... which ‘historic site’ I pointed out to me delighted grandsons recently.
I next moved across to a row of half-walled classrooms located on higher ground to the left of the ornamental gateway which was the common entrance to the historic Natha Devale as well as our school (Billimoria Building). It was here that I first learned to read ‘CAT: BAT‘ etc from a bright yellow board with large black letters hanging on the wall.
The roof was of corrugated iron and it would be battered by a thunderous volley of ripened fruits that clattered down to earth below with a soft plop.
During World War 2 this section had to be handed over to the Army for use as a soldiers’ barracks.
My next class, the Upper Kindergarten (U.Kg.) was in the same building as my first "Baby Class", but at the opposite end and on the ground floor. My class teacher here was gentle, dark complexioned Agnes Madam, who, I learned later, had succumbed to T.B. when young. Her best friend was willowy Sujatha Madam, who was secretly nick –named "Katussi Madam"!
It is at this stage that my class-mates take form. There were only three other girls besides myself... Anula Kulatunga, still my closest friend, Ariyawathie and Gunawathie. The boys were Carlyle de Silva (nephew of Silva Madam with pink coral rose-bud ear-studs), Palitha Mediwaka (younger son of the then Headmaster), the Thadani brothers, I.C. and C.C. (whose younger brother Moola, now handles the maintenance of the decorative outfits of the elephants in the Kandy Perahera), Sasitha Sahabandu, (whom I met briefly last year), Dayananda, Rambukwella and Saheed. The rest is a blank.
The Staff Room separated us from Std. 2 where I found myself next. This open class-room adjoined the school hall, and had one door leading to a small room where Tamil lessons for a few students were conducted and another to the garden where the octagonal shaped office of the Head Master was situated
This was where I had been ignominiously despatched one morning with a few others for failing to learn the 7 times tables (it still eludes me!)... a closely guarded secret that was sneaked to my parents that very evening by a close family friend, N.J. Wimalasena, who happened to be our Head Master as well!
I cannot now recall who our Std. 2 class teacher was but we were visited by the two Senanayake Madams. "Sinhala" Senanayake Madam (sister of H.A.M. Senanayake) and "lngreesi Senanayake Madam; tubby rotund Mr. Ranhotti (brother of Walagedera Madam), who taught us how to yawn politely in public; and the unforgettable Roderigue Madam who was rehearsing us for a play let when had to leave.
Morning assembly was held in the school hall with a Buddhist monk administering ‘pansil’ followed by a short sermon, with the Head Master standing behind him reverently. The session wound up with a lusty rendering of the school song to the piano accompaniment of Silva Madam, and occasionally a long haired and long fingered, lanky master whose name I cannot remember (Donald Silva?) who thumped heavily upon the keys
This was also the venue for our regular end of term concerts to which every class presented an item, and many were to times I have been up on that stage.
Once a public performance of "Sigiriya Kasyapa" was staged here and I sat mesmerized, my spine turning to jelly, as the disemboided head of the walled up King Dhatusena made a dramatic speech.
Another duty performed by our hall was that of torture chamber for us victims who had their dose of Chinapodium (Chinna-podian to us) forced down our throats by health authorities in their campaign against ‘Hook Worm’ infection which was rampant at that time.
During World War 2 the space beneath the stage was used as our shelter during Air Raid practices.
We practiced for the sports meet (the Lime and Spoon Race being particularly arduous) in the park near the Natha Devale, and the event proper conducted on Dharmaraja Hill where the Upper School and grounds were located. This was hallowed territory where my father and eldest brother Tissa were enshrined. My other brother, Somasiri and I attended the Lower school in town where we were dropped at and picked up by father each day
When still in Std. 5, Tissa was once entrusted with the care of our teacherless class .This was one of the extra duties expected of those exalted seniors and I was proud of the reflected glory. He kept us glued to our seats and our slates by showing us on the black-board the easy way to draw a cat. Believe me, I can still draw that cat!
When school was over, Somasiri and I would sit on the steps of the ornamental gateway awaiting father’s return. He had his own cohorts to frollick with; I had none. So I would slink away unnoticed behind the pillars to practice my newly acquired ability to whistle.
War time had soldiers passing through, when they would greet me with a cheery "Hello Mary!" and, occasionally gift a toffee, which made my brother and his friends envious.
Banda, peon and general factotum, who had a deep gash on the back of his left fore-arm, lived in a small cottage on the premises with his wife and daughter. Hanging from an outside rafter of this was a solid piece of iron, resembling a part of a rail-track that served as the school bell... Banda clanking it with a piece of iron rod at the end of each period.
Of the varied duties expected of him was that of vigilante during the ‘toku’ season. Then he strode through the class-rooms ransacking desks and confiscating ‘toku’ ammunition which he hurled over the edge of the compound into the roadside gully below. This was his anti-’toku’ war-fare drive, which resulted in many "swollen heads". The discarded artillery was regularly requisitioned by enterprising combatants on their way home, and the exercise continued unabated till the end of the ‘toku’ season.
‘Toku’ vanished from my horizon with our departure from Kandy and resurfaced some years later in Ratnapura... in a comically altered form, when its large cream coloured mimosa, type flower head was transformed into a benign. Eskimo!
A new set of walled in toilets with a row of ceramic urinals was constructed near Banda’s cottage. One morning Carlyl raced there on urgent business but his bowels won the day. He spent the rest of the morning touring the urinals dolled up in one of Bandadaughter’s frocks until it is laundered as rompers dried in the sun.
St. Paul’s school situated behind the church had a new set of class-rooms running parallel to ours. Envious of their modernity we would hover around the fence after school shouting insulting slogans (at the empty rooms!) ....
"St. Paul’s ‘parippu
Thuttu dekey serappu" or
"St. Paul’s Parippu
Kunu karola maskatu!"
The only school gear carried with us daily in those sensible times were our slate, slate pencil, reader and refreshments. At the beginning of each year the teacher marked parallel on one side of the slate and squares on the other, with the aid of a sharp pointed scissors and a foot-ruler. This enabled us to master the intricacies of writing and arithmetic.
Our termly requirements were one sheet each of Bristol board; glazed paper and black cartridge paper. A pair of round-ended scissors, a bottle of gum and a scrapbook lasted the entire year.
With these simple basic ingredients we turned out a variety of creations that were stored in the class cupboards. "Gok-kola" from the adjoining Natha Devale compound introduced us to traditional decorations. At the end of each term we rode home proudly, the rikshaw overflowing with our colourful ‘hard work’.
The Kindergarteners had an occasional outing at Udawattakele, strolling leisurely through the hushed forest and subdued by its majesty. We ended up at a small park where we played games like "What’s The Time, Mr. Wolf?"; "The Farmer’s In His Dell"; and "Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush." Then we were shepherded back, gloriously happy.
It would not be fair for me to end this rigmarole without mentioning our beloved "Kehetha". Afflicted by Down’s Syndrome he was harmless and glowed with childlike innocence. Dressed in over-sized blue shorts and white banian he would smile benignly at us from his sanctuary, the compound of the Natha Devale ... our own untouched innocence preventing us from finding him scary.
Going back there in 1996 for the D.T. Devendra Memorial Lecture, Anula and I found that our beloved school had undergone many changes. With the excavations going on around the historic Natha Devale some landmarks important to us in our childhood had vanished but the main Billimoria Building had been left untouced. We were thankful for that.