08 November 2014

A better-late-than-never foreword

Twenty nine years ago almost to the day, Prof Ashley Halpe, then Head, Department of English, University of Peradeniya, addressed about 400 first year students of the Arts Faculty. This was at Ratnayake Hall, Dumbara Campus.  I can’t remember everything he said. In fact I remember only the following.

‘If 100 children enter Grade 1 in this country, only one of them will go on to enter university.  This is not because the other 99 are foolish.  It is because the (social and economic) structures don’t permit it.  So, you have a responsibility to those other 99 students.  You have to do whatever you can to make sure that in the future, these numbers are changed for the better.’

There’s no law of course to force anyone to expend effort to correct such structural flaws.  It is a responsibility that one either accepts or ignores.  There are always undergraduates who not only take it as a personal responsibility but try to foist it on others as well.   Some of it flows less from a sense of social responsibility than from making plays for political projects.  It is always interesting to look around and check what the loudest idealists are up to now.  I’ve done this exercise many times over the past three decades and come up with an elaboration of Prof Halpe’s ‘project’.

‘If 100 first year undergraduates decided they’ll devote their lives to altering the structure in favor of the “99” only one would remain committed to the project by graduation time.  It is no indictment on the other 99 of course – there are structural and other reasons for “fall out”.  If 100 graduates determined at graduation-point to dedicate the rest of lives to the project, only one would remain committed at life-end.  Again, that’s no indictment on the other 99 and for similar reasons.   That one individual would be bearing the responsibility of 99x99x99.’

I don’t know if Prof Halpe gave that speech every year.  I know one person who wasn’t there that day because he entered university one year later.  T.M.S.K. Malwewa was not just another wide-eyed undergraduate.  He was one of those one-of-a-hundred young men.  He was in the thick of student politics in the latter half of the eighties.  Unlike others who had some say in the student movement, Malwewa never lost his cool.  He wasn’t into debate and discussion.  He held his views and didn’t hold personal grudges against those who disagreed.  He was, to me, someone on ‘the other side’.  ‘The other side,’ I felt then and still feel, was mostly made of those who would slip into the ‘Group of 99’ on graduation day.  There was no reason to believe that Malwewa would be an exception.

I ran into Malwewa more than 25 years after leaving Peradeniya.  He was following a mass communications course conducted by the Sri Lanka Foundation.  I had been roped in to teach English and was pleasantly surprised to find one face that was familiar. His.  He had got a teaching appointment upon graduation.  He was also the school’s scout master.   He kept in touch and a couple of months ago wanted me to write the foreword to a book he had written, ‘Let us create a production-oriented education’.  I didn’t meet the deadline and that saddens me.  He didn’t badger me to write it.  ‘If you have the time,’ he said in a voice as soft as it was the first time I met him way back in 1986 and through those antagonistic us-them years that followed. 

It’s not that Malwewa aspired ever to be judged positively.  I doubt if he ever wanted to inhabit other people’s versions of his reality or that he strived to live up to someone else’s expectations, but to me he is ‘exception,’ one of those ‘1/100’ people.  Well, one who carries without complaint 99x99x99 fellow citizens in heart and mind.   

 He dedicated the book to ‘Adults who love this country and its future generations’.  That’s a confession of ‘life interest,’ I feel.   The book is about skills development.  It is at once a critique of the entire education system and a proposal for a new way of thinking about knowledge acquisition.  It sees a different kind of education as a necessary foundation for a different kind of society. 

Malwewa was not a slogan-shouting, picket-holding, speech-making kind of student leader.  He was quiet but there was no doubt that he was a decision-maker.  There were many like that.  Most of them were killed.  Reading this book and talking with him confirmed once again that this country is so much poorer because it lost the best men and women of an entire generation.  We should be thankful that a few, like Malwewa, survived and lived lives in ways that help alter equations. Quietly. Effectively.