The year was 1992. Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya. A senior lecturer was speaking to the new batch of students as part of their orientation programme. I was at the back of the hall along with other English Instructors attached to the English Language Teaching Unit (ELTU) at the time headed by Ms. Sumi Dharmadasa.
It was a lecture about propriety, how a medical student and a doctor should conduct him/herself. The man was convinced that there’s only one way of being for a doctor or anyone else and that was the way of the British. He was utterly insulting of all things Sri Lankan and totally condescending towards all other professions.
While there is nothing wrong in looking nice and respectable and seeking to win the trust of patient using such things, but to assume that a person who does not quite look the English Country Gentlemen would necessarily be looked at with disrespect and doubt by potential clients is ridiculous. I was amazed at what a warped mentality this senior university lecturer had when he bellowed at a student in the front row.
The boy stood up.
‘Why are you wearing slippers?’ he thundered.
The boy, clearly intimidated by position, height and growl, stammered something which I didn’t hear.
The abrasive don screamed: ‘You don’t have wounds on both feet do you? You could have worn one shoe and one slipper! Since you are new, I will not throw you out, but I will not let anyone into my class without shoes!’
There was dead silence. No one spoke. I was disgusted, I remember.
Last night, I heard a story about another member of the Peradeniya Medical Faculty. I won’t name names, but this is man who can boast of a distinguished career, longevity and exceptional talent as a pianist would, over the period of more than half a century give rise to hundreds of stories. I don’t know if what I heard actually happened, but this is what my friend, himself a doctor and an academic said:
‘It was a simple exercise in finding out which garment suited Sri Lankans, the trouser or the sarong. He “guinea pig” in this experiment was a lab attendant by the name of Pinbanda. Pinbanda was required to carry a kapuru bolaya (mothball) in his person, specifically somewhere underneath his sarong, the dimensions of the mothball having been measured beforehand. He was asked to walk a specified distance for a specified period of time. Thereafter the dimensions of the mothball were measures again.
‘Pinbanda was then required to repeat the exercise, this time wearing trousers. The mothball was measured beforehand and measured again after Pinbanda completed his exercise. The figures were compared. It was found that the depreciation was greater when he wore a sarong, indicating that this was the garment more suited to the climate of a tropical island like Sri Lanka.’
This man, clearly far more ‘qualified’ (if indeed qualification were required) to be the English Country Gentlemen that the aforementioned professor thought he was and wanted his male students to be and moreover far more distinguished that the latter in terms of knowledge and qualification, including issues of propriety and status, had voted for the sarong over the trousers not for sentimental reasons or on account of post-colonial hang-ups but demonstrated superiority!
Voltaire once said ‘give me 5 minutes to talk away my face and I will bed the Queen of England’. It was not about ‘scoring’, but about effective communication. If any professional has to depend on the trappings of office, reception, dress and makeup to convince client of ability then he/she is a quack. Or at least second-rate. One doesn’t have to wear rags just to make a point, but cleanliness and decorum are not things that are predicated on any particular dress code. Our pompous professor clearly lacked the intellect to figure this out, or perhaps it was not intellect but a strange cocktail of arrogance and servility.
Students graduate. They become doctors. They learn a lot of things in school, in medical school and in life-school. Some are swayed by the ‘truths’ thundered by people with a misplaced sense of importance, some by the indisputable logic of fact.
People carry themselves not on account of their clothes but in spite of them. I am thinking of two professors. Doctors. One of them is sitting somewhere in a white vest and sarong with the most unassuming smile I can imagine. And the other is strutting around in a pair of shoes. Somehow I feel there’s a limp, as such one might suffer if wearing shoe in one foot and bathroom slipper in another.
This was first published in the 'Daily News', November 12, 2010