24 January 2016

There can be mid-morning moonbeams that dispel gloom

There’s a big difference between pre-school and school proper.  ‘Big’ is key here.  In pre-school all the kids are roughly the same size.  Even if one or two were taller and broader, the only giants around were the teachers.  Enter Grade One and it’s like you’ve suddenly learnt the meaning of the word ‘dwarf’.

It’s fine at the beginning of the first day.  Fine in the big-small sense, that is.   There’s a giant teacher and a bunch of little people.  New little people, so there’s a bit of anxiety there.  New surroundings don’t help either.  But you really don’t know that you’ve ended up on a different planet until you step out of class during the interval.  Whichever way you look, wherever you go, there are giants.  They may be wearing shorts and shirts just like you, but they are still giants.  You go to the milk bar or the canteen and you realize how short you are.  It gave a lot of perspective, from what I remember. 

Giants stunned me when I entered Grade 1.  I didn’t tell anyone though.  I played the I-like-it game that I thought my parents expected me to play.  There was another thing that I didn’t mention.  There was a boy with the strangest name.  When the class teacher of Grade 1A, Mrs Rajapaksa, read out the names, I remember being confused.  There were names that were common those days. Like Dinesh, Gihan, Rohantha, Dhammika, Richard and Sujith for example; names I had heard before.  There were others that were ‘new’ but didn’t sound strange, for example, Hasitha, Subhash, Samitha and Ramli.  One name sent my head spinning: “Sandaras”. 

Sandaras.  That’s Sanda (moon) + Ras (beam).    It was Grade 1 and a new class.  I don’t know if my surprise/confusion showed, but I know that I never uttered a word about the strangeness of that name.  In time I knew him as P.K.S.P. Sandaras, later as Sujeewa Sandaras and later still as someone who always had something to say, who smiled only when he was not laughing and was genial and also gentle. Gradually the strangeness faded away.  Until a few weeks ago.

Over the years I’ve met Sandaras at various batch-events and we’ve done what all old friends do: talk of old times and update each other about work and family.  This was different.  I was the odd-man-out in a gathering of friends who were in the same A/L class, BS3.  BS 1 and BS 2 were ‘all-bio’ classes whereas the third class was for students in the ‘bio-stream’ who had opted to do Pure Mathematics instead of Botany.    Looking back some of the brightest students in a batch of over 600 students were in this class.  Anyway, this time, the conversation was mostly about school days and in particular about BS3.  It was all new to me.  

Of the anecdotes, one set stood out, for me: encounters with teachers that could have led to being reported to the Vice Principal, the formidable and feared Christie Gunasekara, better known as Kataya and usually referred to as ‘DP’ (Deputy Principal).  

“We were naughty and loud.  Even the brightest boys were like that.  One two occasions, the Zoology teacher, Mrs Peiris, not only threatened to report the entire class to Kataya for making such a noise that she couldn’t teach, she marched out of the room to carry out her threat,” Sandaras was the story-teller.

(Dr) Sudath Thalpahewa (center) with Sandaras on his left wearing an
identical t-shirt.  Just behind them is Sanjiv Gunasekara (also featured in
this story).  The others were and are as colourful, of course!
Apparently, Mrs Peiris had quickly identified the naughtiest boys in the class: Sandaras, Sudath Thalpahewa (now a doctor working in the UK) and Dushyantha Peiris (now a qualified accountant domiciled in Sydney). She order the three out as she entered the class: “Thalpaheva, Dushyantha, Sandaras eliyata yanna!”

“Thalpe and Dushyantha didn’t seem to mind, but I was terrified because I didn’t want to be out there when Kataya did his random raids.  It got to a point when Thalpe would walk out as Mrs Peiris walked into class saying ‘Miss, mama yanava’ (Madam, I am going out).  After a while she found it funny and didn’t order us out.’ 

The class didn’t get less naughty though.  They have her hell.  And that’s why she had threatened to report them.

Sandaras was never known for being studious and anyway, no one, not even the brightest, would be called ‘nerds’ (a term unheard of back then).   Sandaras quickly figured that even under these circumstances it is the better students who stood a chance of dissuading the angry Mrs Peiris.  He had pleaded with several of them to run after Mrs Peiris and somehow stop her before she got to Kataya’s office. 

“They all laughed.  It’s as if they didn’t care.  So on both occasions I had to run after Mrs Peiris.  On one occasion I caught her just before she got to Kataya’s office.  I had to grab her hand and drag her back.  I said ‘aney miss kiyana thenakata vandinnam, DP gaavata nam yanna epa’ (Please Madam, I will worship whichever place you want me to worship, but don’t go to DP).  She couldn’t help laughing.”

On another occasion, a young and pretty teacher who was probably the first ‘crush’ of many schoolboys, Mrs Herath (better known as ‘Faluda’) had wanted to report MS3 to Kataya. 

“Someone shouted out ‘Faluda!’ and Faluda said that unless the culprit confesses the entire class would be reported.  No one confessed. She was about to leave when again I intervened.  I pleaded with her and promised that we will find out who did it.  While pleading with her, I pleaded with my classmates to find the culprit.  And they did find him.  It was the quietest boy in the class!  The problem was that he was not ready to own up.  He didn’t want to get caned by Kataya. 

“So I told Faluda, ‘Miss, hoyaagaththa…eth podi prashnayak thiyenava….eya bayai DP gaavata geniyai kiyala’ (Madam, we found him but there’s a small problem…he is scared to own up because he doesn’t want to be hauled up to DP’s office).  She said ‘baya nam ai kae gahuwe’ (if he’s so timid why did he shout?) but she couldn’t help laughing.”

That’s how Sandaras saved his entire class a likely mass-caning at the hands of Kataya.  On three occasions no less.  He explained why he intervened. 

Sandaras with Ajith Weeratunga (in less stressful circumstances)
“When I was in Grade 10, Mrs Weerasuriya (better known as ‘Batti’) who found it impossible to control the class, asked Kataya to sort things out.  Kataya asked her to point out the worst in the class.  Three of us were asked to come up to the teacher’s table.  Kataya caned us.  I was first in line.  I was crying before he started on Ajith Weeratunga (a ruggerite who would later described by another batchmate and sports reporter as ‘Hard-as-nails Weeratunga).  Sanjeev Gunasekera (also known as Bamba and as Patis), Kataya’s nephew, was last, but after he had been hit, Bamba had turned back and looked at Kataya.  He to suffer another round of caning.   Neither of them seemed to mind.  But it was horrifying to wathc it.  The entire class was stunned.  The funniest thing is that after Kataya left, Batti broke into tears!”

I wanted to write this story, so after dinner I got Sandaras to relate it all over again.  He did and said “I am the only one who had the couragemachang!”  I responded, “that’s not courage…you were inspired by fear!” 

“Yes, yes!” he agreed and broke into his signature bout of guffaws. 

I called Sandaras an hour before I started writing this and asked if ‘Moonbeam’ was the correct translation of ‘Sandaras’. 

“Yes, but don’t use it…it’s a brand of condoms!” he said and laughed. 

I didn’t know he had a wonderful sense of humour when we entered Grade 1 A.  I didn’t know he turn out to be one of the most humble boys in the batch.  I didn’t know he was a giant either.   He was no teacher and was not the best of students, but he clearly learnt of books and learnt of men and of course learnt to play the game.   Sujeewa Sandaras lit things up in many ways, that much can be said.



ramli said...

A walk down memory lane, as smile inducing as ever!