09 July 2014

No monuments for you Viji*

Several years ago, when I was at the Sunday Island, the editor, Manik De Silva, an old Royalist himself, assigned me to do a profile of Viji Weerasinghe, the inimitable former Deputy Principal of Royal College. This was as a part of a series on people of his generation, i.e. those over 70 years of age who were icons in their chosen field.  

I went to see Viji at the Royal College Union office where he had been headquartered by the school and the old boys after he retired.  I was seeing him after more than a decade, but Viji remembered me just as he probably remembered all students who had the privilege of associating him at Royal.  Time had passed but Viji didn't look any different from what I remembered of him while at school. Perhaps people really don't change much after 60. I told him what I came for and he smiled the smile that was his operative signature throughout his life. He refused to comply.

So we chit-chatted about various things and he did drop what would have been choice tidbits for a journalist attempting to write a biographical sketch.  I was there for more than an hour and we were interrupted every few minutes by telephone calls and random old boys dropping by to say 'hello' to the old man.  A cup of tea, reminiscences and a lot of humour thrown of course made a pleasant morning for me.

When I reported back to Manik, he suggested that I keep visiting Viji to collect more anecdotes so that we could piece together a good story. For the next few months, Manik would bug me, sometimes gently, sometimes with annoyance, regarding the 'Viji interview'. I dodged. Part of it must have been laziness, but it was basically about being reduced to a schoolboy by a former teacher decades after having left school and about showing respect to an old man's right to intransigence.

Viji was like that. Likeable. Utterly.  He never really 'taught' me in a formal sense. By the time I came to Royal College he had been tasked to carry out administrative functions.  This did not mean that he did not teach, however. He was not a strict disciplinarian like Christie Gunasekera, better known as Kataya, an equally colourful old boy who was Vice Principal of the Upper School, but he was not any less effective.  The same goes for his loyalty to the school. Unsurpassed if not unmatched. As student, teacher, administrator and in many ways First Senior Citizen of the Royal family, Viji's commitment to the school and the students was truly exemplary.  Many would not know if Viji had a life outside of 'Royal', he was so much a part of the school's affairs. 

Viji celebrated his 80th birthday recently and I chuckled to myself when I read many, many tributes paid to him by old boys from all over the world in the English newspapers.  There will be another flood, rest assured.

In the coming weeks, there will be many, many old Royalists paying tribute to this genial human being. They will recall with fondness their individual encounters with him. Some will place on record the things he has done for Royal, before and after he retired.  Some would argue that he was one person who could not be 'retired', neither the school or Viji himself being unable to conceive of Royal without Viji or vice versa. He had grown so much into and with the architecture that is Royal.

He was fortunate, I think. He knew he was appreciated while he was still alive and that's a rare privilege. He will not require some kind of monument. The true monument to Viji Weerasinghe has already been constructed. It is evident in the school, the programmes into which he poured the brick and mortar of heart and mind, the teachers who he nurtured into great teachers and the boys he turned into men. 

No Sir, no obelisks, no commemorative plaques, no prizes or buildings in your name. Such things would not do justice to your dedication, your service and your heart.  This school, of our fathers, is the living salute to who you were and what you created. You would probably have smiled that amazing smile of yours and remarked, 'don't be silly men!'  As for us, we can clasp our hands in gratitude for being a teacher, a friend and a father to countless generations of Royalists.


*Written as tribute after Viji Weerasinghe passed away on October 31, 2008
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4 comments:

Praveen said...

i really had thought upto middle school that he lived inside the old RCU office, wonder how many current school boys remember, the forever schoolboy uniformed sir!

Parakrama said...

I have just finished my A/Ls. I wanted my school leaving certificate from Viji, as everybody knew he was generous in appreciating even minor achievements when it came to writing certificates. I came from my home town, Veyangoda and met him at about 10am at his office.
He was busy with the school magazine. When I conveyed my requirement, he said he would be back for a few minutes, in a few hours and instructed me to wait. I waited & waited.. not leaving the premises even for lunch, fearing that I would miss the opportunity.

He came at about 4pm. When he saw me he inquired why I was waiting. When I told him, he suddenly was very angry and shouted at me: "Here I am running all over the place without taking my lunch even. You are coming here at 4 pm and demanding a school leaving certificate draft. Go..go..leave at once.."

I was very sad. I knew he was very tired and hungry and forgot about our small chat in the morning. Still I felt ashamed to meet him again in the next day. So, I made my heart to go for the other option available, to get the draft from the other Master.

Next morning I met the 'other' master. He was not interested in any extra curricular activities I had been involved in and he wrote down a short letter describing my academic life in school. I was taking the draft to the Principal's office when I met Mr Viji at the corridor.

He recognized me at once, told me he very much regret on his outburst in previous afternoon, summoned me to his room and wrote the best draft of a certificate that I could ever imagine I would have.

Very human and very humane. Sir, you were the best.

Anonymous said...

A great he was. Just that, a great man. I feel sorry for the kids in college today. They dont have the examples of Vigi or Kataya.

Anonymous said...

Greatest thing you learn at college is to tolerate things when you yourself know that you are in the right. Kataya or Viji may not have been always correct but you understand from an early age that you got to just take an illegal punch or two, since it is the price you pay for the tutelage of such dedicated people. It served many old Royalists at their work places, not to be 'yes men' but to ignore the small things and act decisively when it really mattered. I wonder whether they still have such teachers at Royal.