05 March 2017

Prasanna Wanigasekera and the unforgettable lessons he learnt

At the back of the main hall of Royal College there’s a panel carrying the names of teachers who served 15 or more years.  I am not sure if they considered the service years of those who taught at Royal Junior School before that institution was formally amalgamated with Royal College in 1978 and I am not sure if the list has been updated regularly.  All I remember is the caption that goes with this panel: “They toiled to mould us into men.”  

This is about teachers and teaching.  It is also about a man and his moulding.  

P.R.M. Wanigasekera was known as Prasanna or ‘Wanige’.  It is doubtful that his schoolmates ever knew his middle names.  I shall go with ‘Wanige’.

I have never associated Wanige with studies.  Always with a smile, an impish smile actually, always ready to do something naughty, always full of fun, but never a favorite of the teachers.  We were in the same class in Grade 5, but that’s not saying much.  We knew each other by name and by sight which is something considering there were more than 600 students in our grade.  I remember him attending cricket and rugger matches with a sense of duty that I never associated with him in his formal curricular activities.  He came armed with a bamboo flute and would park himself among those who seemed to be more interested in merry-making than watching the particular game. But he was much more than a ‘fun guy to have around’.  Wanige was a senior cadet, a member of the hewisi band and won school colours for boxing.

Wanige had his fair share of ‘moments’.  Naturally, not all these moments are known or even remembered.  There are a few that have emerged during the recounting that usually happens at reunions.  They are worth a re-tell.

The first involves Aruna Karunaratne (now Deshamanya) and this is how Wanige remembers:

“It was last term before the 1983 A/L exam. In addition to four subjects all of us had to learn English. Our class, 12MS5 included a bunch of mischievous boys. On that day, the fifth period was English, taught by Mr. Alfred Senanayake.  We were required to bring the O/L English text book.  Those who didn’t were to be punished. 
“Myself and Aruna, who were famous as Tola (the tall one) and Shorta (the short one) due to our significant height difference, didn’t have the book.  So we went to another class, close to the Vice Principal’s office, to see if we could borrow copies from our friends.  Since it was the transitional time between two periods, we had a few minutes to chit-chat with our friends. Suddenly Kataya (as the Vice Principal was better known) appeared from nowhere.  I quickly alerted Aruna who instructed me to walk without looking back. He was already walking.  I followed him.  As expected we heard Kataya’s signature three clap signal to stop. Immediately Aruna said “duwamu machang!” (let’s run!).  We ran.  Kataya gave chase, screaming at us. 

“Aruna ran towards the toilets, then down the stairs towards the canteen. I took the other route  which ran parallel to the building that housed the prefects’ room and took the stairs to the ground floor.  Glancing back, I realized that no was one following me.  I returned to class to find that Alfie wasn’t there.  My friends were amazed that I had escaped Kataya.  I was worried about Aruna. I can still remember how my heart was pounding on that day.  

“Aruna and I used to sit together by the window, from where we could see ‘The Parlour’ a small restaurant we were particularly attached to.  I thought I should change my seat, took my books and went and sat right in front of the teacher’s table.  

“Every second was like a year to me.  Alfie came to class.  He was clearly very tired.  He was looking for ‘Shorta’ who was trembling in fear.  I didn’t look up and pretended to do some calculus sums, quite studiously.  I remember writing the same thing more than a hundred times even as Alfie was scolding ‘Tola’ and ‘Shorta’.  

“Apparently, he had been on his way to class when he saw Kataya chasing Aruna.  Kataya had asked Alfie to give chase.  Luckily for Aruna, the swimming pool gate had been open.  He had run to Reid Avenue and then to Colombo University, we later found out.  

“Alfie was exhausted and livid.  I knew that if I got caught it would be the end.  I could hear my mind praying to all the gods to help me at this crucial hour.  They must have heard. I can still remember Alfie’s words: ‘I’m a heart patient and it’s not good for my health to run such a long distance or to get angry like this’. 

“And then the bell rang.  There were only a few days left for study leave, so neither Aruna nor I came back to school.”

The second incident happened before this.  That was all innocence.  Wanige insists that there were times when he was actually serious about his work and that this was one of those rare occasions.  It happened during the Physics period.  It was all innocent, he claims.  Mrs Madugoda didn’t seem to agree.

'The topic was “Light”.  It was about mirrors, objects, reflection and refraction.  She had been  reading out a note and the boys were copying it down.  Wanige missed something and had asked her to repeat in the usual manner — repeating the last few words heard and ending with an upward inflection.  

The teacher had repeated, ‘darpanaya idiripita athi…’ (in front of the mirror…).  

Wanige had written it down, repeating the words to himself but audible enough to reach the teacher’s ear: ‘darpanaya idiripita athi…’

Mrs Madugoda had continued:  ‘wasthuva…’ (the object)

Wanige repeated faithfully: ‘wasthuva…..’ 

Perhaps he dragged the word too long.  It sounded less like ‘object’ than ‘precious’!  

That was it.  

All protests of innocence fell on deaf ears.  He was identified as the culprit and punished. Wanige’s ‘wasthuwa’ had bounced off the wrong mirror!

On another occasion, in June 1984, Aruna, Wanige and one of their friends from Colombo University had been near the Thurstan Road bus stop when they had noticed two ladies, probably a mother and her daughter, walking towards them.  The younger lady had been wearing a very short dress, so short that her underwear had been visible.  Their lecherous gaze hadn’t gone unnoticed.  The older lady had let off a stream of abuse which included some filthy words.  Wanige had responded, ‘Aunty lajja nadda ohoma duwata andawanna, rate sanskurthiyata, sadacharayata, sabyathwayata galapenne naha neda,’ (it’s shameful isn’t it to get your daughter dressed like this — it goes against culture, norms and civilization, doesn’t it?’)

The lady had complained to some police officer who had been nearby.  Nothing had happened. 
“We decided to ask the police officers what she had said, but as we came close to them we got cold feet, crossed the road and started going towards the school.  That’s when the police officer in charge called us.  It was SP Jayantha Paranathala.  He was not interested in listening to us.  We were taken in a jeep to the Kollupitiya Police Station.

“It so happened that this was the day that a university student had been shot dead.  We were made to sit on a bench.  No statement was recorded.  People looked at us as though we had committed a murder.  Finally they dropped us back.  We caught the school bus.  But by then the story had gone all over the school that we had been locked up for committing murder!”

Wanige didn’t commit any crime.  He wouldn’t hurt a fly.  Today he is a Dangerous Goods Regulations Specialist at the Gulf Centre for Aviation Studies, a subsidiary company of the Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC).   He is an IATA Certified Training Professional (CTP).  He is a Dangerous Goods Instructor (all categories) in the UAE, has numerous professional qualifications relevant to his field and counts thirty years of experience in the airline industry, beginning with SriLankan Airlines (then Air Lanka) and later moving to the UAE to work with Abu Dhabi Airport Services, the handling agent for Etihad Airways.

Wanige is as much a family man as he is a staunch old Royalist.  He comes for the Royal-Thomian and for Bradby quite often.  He still has the same impish smile.  He walks six kilometers every day and I am sure with wit, nimbleness and quick thinking would be as hard to catch as he was more than thirty years ago.  

He was never known as a stellar student.  Teachers didn’t exactly love him.  They misread him or he made us believe that he was misread.  He has, however, re-read his teachers again and again, he revisits not just his old school but the things he picked up in his devil-may-care vagrancy.  But he never forgot his friend.  Just the other day he told me something that shocked me.  I had totally forgotten.

“I learnt how to do the Rubik’s Cube from you. I came to you a few times, probably after school which you were at chess practices.  The scraps of paper on which you scribbled the moves are still with me.  I memorized these moves and can still do the puzzle within 2-3 minutes thanks to you.”

He remembers his teachers.  He knows how much he owes them.  And he does not hide his gratitude.  This is why he can write something like the following.

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated. Thus, we the Old Royalists of the United Arab Emirates (ORUAE) are closely involved with our teachers and have paid our gratitude to them on many occasions (2011, 2012, 2015 & 2016 ). This is now almost an annual event.”

[Please scroll down for pictures of the grand old ladies and gentlemen of Royal College who toiled to turn Wanige and all of us into men]

Each year more than 160 past teachers of Royal College participate in this event, apparently. ORUAE books a hotel, pick up the teachers from school and drop them back, after treating them to food and drink, music and games, and most importantly health check-ups. And of course there are gifts.  

It’s saying ‘thanks’ not so much for teaching a syllabus but teaching other things along the way, for moulding boys into men in ways preferred by the particular teacher.

Wanige has reflected much and for long after the incident of the mirror(ing).  As the Chairperson of ORUAE from 2012 to date he calls each and every member to collect funds.  He comes to Sri Lanka twice every year, once to set things up and once for the event. In 2014, when 60 past teachers visited the UAE on their annual overseas trip, ORUAE took care of them on one of the days while Wanige hosted them for lunch in Abu Dhabi.

Wanige never thought ill of anyone.  He was a happy schoolboy.  He was innocent.  Wanige must have been serious, as he asserts; only, even when he was it came out sounding funny.  No one would ever say that Wanige was bad.  Fun-loving and good-hearted.  Always.

A lot of people would have toiled to mould Wanige into a man.  Today, he himself is a trainer, an educationist.  He too toils to mould the young into competent and responsible professionals.  And, in his own way, just be acknowledging and repaying the debt he owes and those owed by his fellow students, Wanige teaches other lessons.  Not because he wishes to teach.  He has learnt what’s truly worth doing and does it.  He’s learnt gratitude.  He has learnt about what really counts.  He has learnt what is important to remember and what is ok to forget.  Kataya would have been proud, I am sure, that the boy who got away nevertheless learned to play the game.  He was moulded well.  

Other stories of the 'Class of 83'