05 August 2020

Mendis is Special

Warnakula Chandana Mendis was a rascal in and out of class. Indeed it could be argued that he was THE rascal of that time at Royal College, Colombo. Put it down to ‘that age,’ add a dash of over-enthusiasm, stir in higher than average youthful rebelliousness and you might get ‘Menda.’ Might. He’s hard to describe and his antics harder to explain.

He laughs when speaking of those naughty days. It wasn’t just schoolboy pranks, although he had more than his fair share of indulging in these. He was quite the strong-armed boy. He claims he has been in no less than seven fights under the famed tamarind trees at the edge of the school ground. ‘Challenge and fight’ affairs, all.

And the reason? ‘I just wanted to maintain my chandi license!’

Menda was widely recognized as just that. A chandiya. He could and would listen to reason for there are as many anecdotes about such attributes as there are about his belligerence. He would not be averse to giving a strict teacher the runaround or even playing the occasional prank, but there was never any ill-will beyond what could be called schoolboy-fun.

He spent days and days in ‘Kataya’s boarding,’ the three or four benches and tables in front of Vice Principal E.C. ‘Kataya’ Gunasekera’s  office where the bad boys had to stay under what Kataya thought was his watchful eye.  Menda knew better.  On occasion he would get word of some fight, a friend who had got beaten for instance.  He couldn’t stay. The prerogatives of the chandi license called out to him.

“I would get a replacement.  Kataya, from the other end of the room, would look our way off and on.  When he was focused on something else, I would slip away, but only after we found someone else to take my place until I returned.  Kataya probably counted the number of boys in the boarding and if the number was right, he would be satisfied.  There would be complaints that Mendis had been involved, but Kataya would insist that Mendis could not have been involved because he was in fact “under the watchful eye”!’

Some might say Menda has mellowed. I feel that’s what he was always. Hard exterior and all marshmallow inside. Ready to laugh. Ready to fight the good fight. Ready to help a friend. Ready to shake hands. Ready to forgive and forget that which is best forgiven and forgotten, but loathe to let the important things fade away.

There was a crazy brawl following the heroics of Nalinda Premachandra and Chandana Jayakody that helped Royal hold St Thomas’ Mt Lavinia to a draw. There are many version about what set it off, but the one that drew Mendis into the thick of things was a claim that a Thomian had hit young Chandana, the baby of the team. Enough for Menda. He got into the thick of things. Things got nasty and Menda’s shirt was soon covered in blood. Here’s Menda’s account of what happened next.

‘Suddenly someone took my hand. It was Ms Chandra Ranasinghe (a much loved teacher). She wanted to drag me away. I didn’t want to go. But she insisted. She took me to where her car was parked, pushed me in and drove off. She lived at the end of Bagatalle Road, i.e. near the sea. She gave me a towel and told me to take a shower. When I came out of the shower wearing the same shirt, she asked me to take it off.  She had a fresh shirt for me to wear. Then she got me in the car again and drove off. She took me to Victory Silk Stores, which is in Colpetty, and bought me a new shirt. I think it cost 35 rupees or 70 rupees, I can’t quite remember.

‘Years later I wanted to meet her and thank her for this act of kindness and generosity. I finally met her at a past teachers’ get-together. She was hard of hearing. I was asked to write things down on a piece of paper.

‘She said “Mendis?” and smiled. Then she said that there were two boys she had slapped very hard while she was at Royal and had always wanted to meet them because she attributed her hearing ailment to having slapped them. She was very happy and I was too.'

Children become adults. Students leave school. Teachers are forgotten although they don’t forget. Some (a few actually) attribute to their teachers much of who they’ve become, usually the better parts of character.

Time passes. Things age. ‘Miss Chandra’ is now in a home for the elderly and quite active on social media. Her birthday is on the 29th of June. This year two students visited her. Two Mendises in fact, Chandana and Sunanda, batchmates and brothers of a kind. Menda, well both Mendas, would say they were privileged. It’s all good. Vintage stuff. Aged to perfection. Another Mendis special. Inimitable.

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   

Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten 
 Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds

Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays  
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer