19 November 2011

On the journeys of W.G. Weerasinghe

They say a man roams the world in search of the truth and comes home to find it.  This is basically an observation that things are never as far as we might think they are or are led to believe they are.  Distance is erroneously defined and measures in terms of miles or kilometres, flight-time or road hours, number of coffee/tea stops, night-stops and fuel-fill-ups.  These ‘real’ things do exist of course but when it comes to truth-elicitation the perspective and experience that travel gives can be adequately compensated by a more conscious engagement with the here and now and the physical-social vatapitaava or environment. 

Some people travel far but not necessarily in search of truth.  Some leave home in search of greener pastures, some to obtain better training and some because they just cannot stay at home and not just because they’ve been afflicted with the Rahu Maha Dasawa, that particularly pernicious (but to some heaven-sent) planetary configuration which makes home-stay impossible.  There are those who go away and are happy to be away or even if not exactly thrilled are resolved to inhabiting what they believe is a better option all things considered. There may be moments of doubt and even pangs of nostalgia but the bottom line or rather the last word remains ‘settled’.  

Some have the choice of staying or leaving, others do not. Some can travel far, to the other end of the earth or to the moon, while others don’t make it outside the borders of their country. Indeed, some spend lifetimes within the boundaries marked by a radius of a few dozen miles. Some change residences like changing shirts. Some not only change residences but move from city to city as well. Some make their village their universe; some out of choice and some due to lack of choice.

I know of someone who could have gone far but didn’t.  He remained close to his native village not because travel never appealed to him or he was not interested in seeing the world.  He was the eldest.  He had to help his parents educate his three brothers and two sisters.  University was known but only as a possibility if a one-time A/L attempt yielded good results.  He didn’t enter university. He became a teacher.  

I know him because his brother was a batch mate at Peradeniya.  The brother was an excellent public speaker. He told me how this happened.  Apparently the older brother had got a teaching appointment when my friend, Premasiri, was in the 5th grade.  The Loku Aiya had insisted that the little brother prepare a speech, a short 3-5 minute affair, on some pertinent topic to be delivered at school during the period set aside for such innocent exhibitions. 

I first met W.G. Weerasinghe about 22 years ago.  At the time he was teaching in a school in Udayapura.  Quiet. He helped their father in the paddy fields.  Was happy that his brother Premasiri had ‘made it’; even though a university studentship was more a liability than a passport into the good life at the time.  

I met him again a few months ago.  This time he told me his story.  He had passed the O/L Examination in 6 subjects with a single credit pass.  On the 2nd of July 1977 he was appointed as an Assistant Teacher to the primary school in Arantalawa. Two years later he went to the teachers’ training school in Polonnaruwa. Upon completing the two year programme, he was sent to a school in Bandaraduwa, remote and with hardly any facilities. The following year he was transferred to Udayapura that is the village next to his own, Kumarigama. 

‘No one had ever passed the scholarship exam. I was given the Grade 5 class. Two children passed the scholarship exam that year. They are both teachers.  I was in this school until 1997.  On the 1st of June 1991 I was made Principal of the school. By the time I left we consistently had the best results in O/L Mathematics in the Uhana Division.’

There was so much pride in the eyes of this soft spoken man.  On January 1, 1997 he was transferred to Werenketagoda MV, Uhana.  He had 5 months to prepare the children for the Scholarship exam and the school had the best results in the Eastern Province. That year 16 passed.  In 2001, 74 out of 171 who sat the exam passed the Scholarship.  That might be an island record, I am not sure.  The following year, Weerasinghe Aiya was transferred to Udayagiriya, a school that was about to close down.  It was not closed down because the school started producing decent results.  

I think all this constitutes a journey.  All within the Digamadulla District of course but then he’s planted so many seeds that burst into plants and grew into trees, sprouted wings and flew to places he never knew existed or worried about the relevant ignorance.  In 2008 he came home, so to speak.  On the 23rd of October he came back as Principal, Kumarigama Maha Vidyalaya, his alma mater.  A year later, the school was No. 2 in the District in terms of performance at the A/L.  

It was not just the education.  ‘There was a dilapidated well. There was no water. Now there’s a tank.  The toilets were unusable.  I got all of it repaired.  There wasn’t even a flowering tree to pick some flowers to worship the Buddha. Now there are.  Earlier parents didn’t want to send children here. Now they do.  The teachers chip in with money. The Civil Defence Unit provided some material. The parents contributed labour. Rev. Senapathiye Ananda…Kumarigama Sri Pushparama Viharasthanaya helped set up a library.  We need to rebuild this school. It is my school. I have to do it.’ 

Some journeys take us far. Some people don’t travel but they precipitate unbelievable journeys.  Some build the building blocks, some build upon the building blocks. We must all do our little bit, not so that our children get to travel but they have the choice to do so.  Weerasinghe need not have done any of this. He did.  Some journeys are worthy of salutation.  His certainly is; hence this tribute or sorts.