06 October 2017

John Hector Dhanapala was a man of gentle ways

John Hector Dhanapala never taught me.  I knew him first as the father of my classmate and best friend, Rajitha.  I knew him also as the brother of a far more commanding teacher, Donald Dhanapala, who taught at Royal Junior School.  

Mr Dhanapala never taught me, but for what must have been a year but felt like several years, I saw him almost everyday, Monday through Friday.  This is how it happened.

Back then while Royal Junior School finished at 1.30 pm, Royal College went on until 3 or 3.30 pm.   We lived down Pedris Road in a tiny, one-bedroom flat which was rented out just so the two-mile radius criteria would be fulfilled when admission was sought for my older brother Arjuna and I.  This, although our father was an Old Boy of the school.  

My brother and I walked home after school.  By 1.40 we would be having lunch.  Rajitha, on the other hand, would trudge to Royal College and stay in the staff room until his father finished his work. 

Somewhere in the year 1973 when Rajitha and I were in Mrs C Liyanagama’s class (3A).  My mother, who also taught at Royal College, apparently, had noticed this eight year old boy sitting in a chair that probably could have held three boys his size.  She had noticed him nodding off to sleep day after day.  She must have inquired or may have figured out that Rajitha’s father was John Hector Dhanapala, a fellow member of the tutorial staff.  

My mother had many sons (and quite a few daughters too) during her long tenure as a teacher.  Knowing her, she would have seen in Rajitha either myself or my brother. Anyway, she had suggested to Mr Dhanapala that Rajitha could stay at our place, have lunch and wait until his father could pick him up.  I don’t know if she knew at that point that Rajitha and I were classmates.  

Anyway, one fine day, Rajitha and I came home together, accompanied of course by our brother.  Those were good days.  Lunch was followed by cricket.  We played for what seemed (and is still remembered) like many hours, but of course it couldn’t have been more than an hour and a half at most.  Mr Dhanapala would come to pick up his son. 

He was quiet.  He hardly spoke.  Probably nothing more than a greeting.  I can’t remember too much of that time anyway, but I do remember him being quiet.  

He was quiet in later years when we moved to Pamankada and I would go over to ‘College’ to go home with my mother.  If I remember right, this was in 1975 or 1976, when school finished at 1.oo pm for us and we had half an hour to kill.  My brother and I would walk to College along with the children of other teachers.  There was Mrs Weerasiri’s sons, Aruna and Kalana, Mr Weerasinghe’s (BAWA’s) son, Dulcie Wijesinha’s son Saman and I think Mrs Jayatilleka’s younger son (who tragically committed suicide a few years later over a stupid rebuke).  We walked up Racecourse Avenue (now, Rajakeeya Mawatha) and jump over the wall (The Vice Principal, Christie ‘Kataya’ Gunasekara, Mr Nanayakkara (Bus Nana) and I think Mr Wariyapola caught us on one occasion, but that’s another story).  There was enough time for a quick game of cricket in the corridor between the science lab and where the tennis courts now are.  There were times I would stray into the staff room.  That’s when I would on occasion meet Mr Dhanapala.

He didn’t speak much.  He smiled.  

He was quiet in 1977 when Rajitha and I (along with Ruvinda Gunawardena) crossed over to Royal College (as permitted by a special provision for teachers’ children).  The three of us were enrolled on the same day and in the same class (Mr Sawaad’s class, 7F).  Ruwinda’s mother (whose name I cannot remember) was a tall lady.  Her presence was felt.  Mr Dhanapala, quiet and self-effacing, was less conspicuous.  

Thereafter, until he retired in 1980, there were many times when I ran into him.  I would politely say ‘Good morning, Sir’ and he would softly return the greeting. 

I never had a conversation with Mr Dhanapala that I can remember.  But I remember him as a decent and refined personality.  He never taught me, but Rajitha says he taught Christianity and Economics (English Medium).  I don’t know if he was strict in class, but I do know he was a good teacher.   After leaving Royal in 1980 he took up a teaching post in Pakistan.  He taught there for more than 25 years.  Rajitha says that his father had once ‘retired’ and had spent 4-5 years back in Sri Lanka, but his employers had convinced him to return.  He must have been a very special teacher.  

A few years after we left school I ran into Rajitha at the Big Match.  I told him that he (Rajitha) was looking more and more like his father: “උඹ උඹේ තාත්ත වගේ වේගෙන එනවා.”  Rajitha responded immediately, “උඹ උඹේ අම්ම වගේ වේගෙන එනවා!”  We both laughed.  We were like that, brothers from different mothers and fathers.  

I met Mr Dhanapala on two occasions after he left Royal.  The first was at the Mercantile Cricket Association grounds in 2012.  He had come to watch his grandson, Thiran, play in an Under 15 match.  I had gone to meet the father of a boy playing in the opposing team.  I saw Rajitha and he said that Mr Dhanapala was also there.  He was eminently recognizable, despite the years.  The smile, that’s it.  And the kindness of gaze.  And when he spoke, he took me back to 1973, a different century and almost a different lifetime.  He spoke softly.  He spoke little.  He said a lot.  He spoke about his time in Pakistan.  He spoke about Thiran, with measured pride.  Looking back, he seemed to have resolved to treat the vicissitudes of life with equanimity.  Always calm, seldom agitated: that’s how I pictured him in the everyday of his life that I had not witnessed.

I saw him last at the Royal-Thomian.  He was in the enclosure reserved for the families of the players.  We spoke about the match.  We spoke about Thiran.  He told me that he enjoyed watching the boy play.  He was proud.  And again, it was measured pride.  Right now, as I write, I have this sense that he would have hid his disappointments (if indeed that was what he felt) way back in 1984 when his son, my friend Rajitha, was denied a place in the First XI that played in that year’s Royal-Thomian.

John Hector Dhanapala died almost two years ago, on January 2, 2016.   He did not get to see his grandson and his teammates complete an improbable, come-from-behind win over St. Thomas'.  That would not be something he would have dwelt on.  He wasn't a man who appeared to have any regrets.   He was 83 years old.  Perhaps one day, those who were privileged to have been taught by him, will write the stories of his teaching.  I saw him from a distance.  A quiet, soft-spoken gentleman who clearly tread so soft on this earth that the marks he left are untraceable.  He scripted, most probably, in texts that are not easy to transliterate.  He did not burden the earth, he enriched it, I am now certain.

May he rest in pace.


Saman Hewage said...

Proud to read such nice words about a Gentleman I have not met. But I have been lucky enough to associate his son during every Royal - Thomian I've attended in the past. Also, was privileged to witness his Grandson doing the heroic act.
Rajitha is as good as he surely was. Such men are rare.