05 September 2019

Prof Ashley Halpe and poetry that remains

Back in the late 1970s, as the story goes, the Arts Faculty of the University of Peradeniya was moved to Polgolla because a local MP wanted a university in his electorate. Setting up a university would of course be a costly affair. The cheaper option was to break a piece of the Peradeniya University and the Arts Faculty was the obvious choice since (as the legend goes) ‘all you require is a blackboard, chalk and a building to house a library’. This was long before blackboards were replaced by white boards and chalk with marker pens. 

The entire faculty was not moved, however. The first year students had to go to Polgolla. Those who opted to follow a special course (of four years) following the General Arts Qualifying (GAQ) Examination had to go to Peradeniya. Those who wanted to do a general degree (three years) had to remain one more year in Polgolla. It was called the Dumbara Campus (of the University of Peradeniya). 

About 7-8 years later, the then government, in its wisdom, wanted to literally break up Peradeniya University. The Medical Faculty, according to this grand plan, would be shifted to the Peradeniya Hospital, the Agriculture Faculty was to go to Mahailuppalama (where students spent their first year anyway) or Gannoruwa, the Arts Faculty would be at Polgolla (students in all four academic years), the Engineering Faculty was to be relocated in Digana. I am not sure where the Dental and Veterinary Sciences faculties were to go. The prison was to be moved to the campus or rather the prisoners relocated there. Kandy was to be renamed ‘Vidyarajapura’ or a similarly grand name. 

The logic was that being a residential university, Peradeniya was a breeding ground for insurgents. The plan was abandoned, possibly because political instability overtook the planners. The students orchestrated an exodus of sorts in 1988, and Dumbara was ‘shifted’ back to Peradeniya and remains there to this day. 

Dumbara was pretty but nothing compared to Peradeniya. There were no grand buildings graced with metaphors from the architecture of the Kandyan Period, there were no residential facilities, and the library was a distant and poor relation of its wonderful counterpart on the other side of the Mahaweli and at the base of the Hantane hills, even though the librarian, Christopher Francis Fonseka (moved from Peradeniya) did a good job of stocking it. The gymnasium was a shack compared to the Peradeniya facility. Dumbara got an auditorium only in 1986 or early 1987. Dumbara was like just another school and it was referred to as such by the students, ‘Dumbara Iskole’. 

Professor Ashley Halpe was one of our teachers. He taught me more than literature. He taught me a lot about theatre when he directed or helped with a few short plays that I was involved in. He taught me to look for the gap between word and deed. And he taught most of these things without really teaching. His life was a text book when it came to most of these things.

When the entire university was up in arms over the proposed dismantling of ‘Peradeniya’ he made a mild observation: ‘if we treat the non-academic staff as though they don’t count, then we don’t have the moral authority to protest Vidyarajapura.’ For him the university was a city in which the principle of equality had value as far as all ‘citizens’ were concerned. He didn’t talk socialism, but when things got hot and even bloody, he stood with the students whereas the leftists on campus were silent. 

Anyway, one day, for some reason that escapes me now, he had the lecture at the American Centre in Kandy. Well, it may have been the British Council. All I remember was the pretty surroundings. Maybe we were all happy to be aware from the threat of ragging, but Prof thought we were distracted by a less school-like environment. He remarked, ‘this place is too pretty for you people.’  

He was a great teacher. He knew theatre. I remember how he came up with an abridged version of Bernard Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara’ for the Inter-University Drama Competition in 1987. For some reason he wasn’t involved in the production. Peradeniya University had won the competition the previous year where the plays were all one-act versions of longer plays by Bertold Brecht. On that occasion, we did ‘Galileo’ and it was Prof who wrote that script or rather amended it. In 1987 we were bad but the judges did say they were impressed by the script. 

Prof wrote poetry. He painted. He sang. He, along with his wife, Aunty Bridget to us all, handled the ‘Peradeniya Singers’ and of course the Kandy Music Society. I’ve not been really known these aspects of his life, but I recently barged into the Annual General Meeting of the Kandy Music Society. 

Well, I was gently nudged to attend, actually. I had spent the night at The Atelier, a quaint boutique hotel owned by my friend, the architect Rukshan Vidyalankara. He had organized a poetry reading the previous evening. I planned to go back after the event, but he simply showed me around and said ‘this is the room that was arranged for you.’ It looked too cosy to pass. 

I decided to leave the following morning, but we got talking and the hours rolled by slowly. Too relaxing to pass, again. Then he said he had to attend the Kandy Music Society AGM. It was to be held at Aunty Bridget’s house. 

I was happy to see her. She was happy to see me. They have a sizable membership, she told me, but only a handful had arrived. I was impressed by their commitment. The meeting started. I declined the warm invitation to attend and even take up a position in the committee. I previous and only visit had been many years earlier, when Prof was alive. Aunty Bridget sensed I was a bit restless, I believe, and said, ‘walk down those steps…you’ll find Ashley’s grave.’

I did. 

It was a cool evening and from up there where Prof lay one could look down towards the less peaceful parts of the city. Open skies, faraway trees and flowers close by. A poem. A painting. A one act play. In a quiet, unassuming and unpretentious corner in a garden that tapered down to a city that was home, university and life to a man who was a teacher and friend to all he encountered. There was a legend etched on the gravestone: ‘sweetest love, I do not go.’  

Was it for Aunty Bridget, was it for Hasini, Aparna or Guy, his three children, was it for a university and countless students who may or may not acknowledge what he inscribed in mind and heart, was it for Kandy, I don’t know. Prof Ashley Halpe belonged to many people and many things. Maybe it’s not that he decided not to leave, but who knows, maybe it’s just that he could not but stay.   

Some poems are like that. They become part of us. They do not go. They cannot.