Hilary B. Abeyratne: ‘No patient of English’

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Jan - 22 - 2012
D.M.P. Dissanayake

PERSONALITY: Given the Kandyan upbringing of H.B. Abeyratne (HB), any outsider to Trinity College Kandy (TCK) circles may have the inclination to surmise that his initials stand for Heen (or Herath) Banda. It is not to be, for he was born to the well-known, affluent and anglicized Colombo parents Dr. & Mrs. L.O. Abeyratne and hence named Hilary Bertrand.

After a distinguished school career at TCK, where he won the Cricket lion and was awarded the coveted Ryde gold medal for the best all round boy, HB completed his academics at the University of Peradeniya.

He had no hesitation in joining the staff of his alma mater after graduation, when many other lucrative and appealing career avenues were available.

What distracted such ‘lucrative’ and ‘appealing’ careers to gravitate this handsome youngster towards a seemingly bothersome and lack luster career path is not a mystery to those who occupied the TCK landscape as students during his last lap at TCK.

H.B, Abeyratne

HB evolved, to be an outstanding and versatile educator. He was a disciplinarian with a bent for contained liberalism. HB was a workaholic who enjoyed his work and got others involved, injecting them with enthusiastic work holism.

He was cognizant of the limitations of the private schools’ role, in terms of resources and the socio political culture of the environment. However he was engrossed with TCK’s objective of enriching the students with fine all round qualities needed to lead a gainful life.

Generations of students have had the opportunity of being associated with and drawn towards, the Hilary norms and culture.

During a time span of around 30 years which ended with his migration to Australia in 1975, he made an indelible impact on the students, fellow staff members, minor employees and the institution at large on many and varied fields.

HB stood tall in every aspect and activity of the school. Be it a sport event, extra curricular activity or academic exercise his involvement was virtually taken for granted.

Whether HB coached the under 17 Rugby team for 17 long years during which period there were no defeats, or checked the stroke play of the college cricketers from the sight screen, laying on discarded cricket pads yelling for perfection (though he was not the coach), or parted his knowledge, experience and wisdom in the classrooms or at numerous school societies, he had a unique style and class far above the ordinary.

Though immersed in such internal imperatives he had the foresight of the developing socio-political undercurrents of the real world beyond a ‘Bradby’ encounter or the cricket world’s ‘Big-match’.

His last decade at TCK ending in 1975 may not have been a tumultuous era as the one before, when the country underwent drastic changes in 1956 and beyond.

The rise of the ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’ and the country’s alignment towards the socialist block whilst striving to be a rebellious member of the non-aligned movement did have a deep impact that brought about enormous changes in society. The winds of change were certainly lashing the high portals of private secluded educational institutions such as TCK.

HB, the fare-skinned six-footer who was nicknamed for his deep and stern voice, married Miss Sri Lanka runner-up Nandanie, the daughter of one time Parliamentary Speaker R.S. Pelpola. The family lived on Trinity campus and they were an integral part of the institution.

Actor Ralph Fiennes who played the main character in the acclaimed movie ‘The English Patient’ reminds me of the glorious days of HB. He was handsome, energetic, very learned and articulate.

He comprehended the changing phase of the era and not being a patient of the old English colonial ways strived to nurse the strong winds of change whirling out in the society to mold the young ones within the citadel of TCK towards a leadership of moderate but concrete set of values, based on our own tradition and culture, which base itself was being challenged by the highly volatile political environment.

He was the vice principal who kept mum during morning assembly prayers, which some say cost him the post of Principal. His Wednesday school assembly chairmanship (when the principal took on the junior school) was restricted to brief announcements, assembly addresses being very few.

He announced classroom arrangements by memory and worked out staff allocations and timetables for classes by himself. He was dexterous and intelligent.

HB summoned classes for signing up of applications, for the annual GCE examinations and took care of it patiently ensuring that each student followed every step of instruction to the letter.

One of his requests that I obliged with and continue to date is, abiding by his pleasing appeal during this session; to take pride in stamping the signature in the mother tongue. Brought up in an environment of values of a by-gone era and educated in English, HB’s command of Sinhala was very poor.

The radical changes taking place in the Lankan political arena and the society in general in late sixties and early seventies, were brought home frequently by the much loved and controversial school master Saman Herath Chandrasiri through his thought provoking doses of social and political insights, during Sinhala language sessions.

A more conservative and moderate approach was adopted by HB through professional insinuations, during interactions we had with him.

The English novel ‘Citadel’ by A.J. Cronin was a prescribed textbook for English. On occasions when HB filled in for English, he read portions aloud to the class and discussed the socio-political aspects relating to the struggles of the downtrodden coal miners depicted in the book and the demeaning manner in which the main character (a doctor) attended to them.

The term exploitation relevant to the text was well discussed and illustrated. His addresses to and on SSU (Social Service Union) depicted his passion for the commoner, the beaten man in the street.

HB, being the housemaster of ‘Ryde’ for over two decades was very much involved in all major events organized. Ryde had its own style of doing the anniversary celebrations, the common room furnishing, weekend excursions and organizing annual trips that continue for four to five days.

The trip to Jaffna in 1967 and the one in which we returned via Ella Wellavaya new route in the evening of April 3, 1971, hours before the April insurrection are unforgettable. During the former, we were a few minutes late for the scheduled visit of the Paranthan Chemical Corporation and the General Manager refused to let us in, despite a passionate appeal.

HB in his inimitable voice yelled; “I say mister you live in a sea of chemicals, yet don’t seem to posses a drop of common sense and decency…”

His farewell speeches on the eve of the last day of Ryde, to senior students leaving school were noteworthy. They were true and bare assessments of the boy departing.

The good and the adverse impact the leaver brought about or whether the circumstances of the school environment hindered the progress of a student, were mentioned in a simple and rudimentary manner with a hint of advice regarding the direction to be proceeded after leaving school.

Ex-Hastings Grammer School Teacher HIlary Abeyratne.(credit Mark Sundavalingam)

These mini biographical assessments brought about an impact on the fellow junior students to reassess their own performance.

As the patron of the Film Society, he discussed the elements of good film-making. To those of us, who were counting days for the next movie to surface at Wembly or Wales the two dominant theaters which exhibited Sinhala movies at the time and whose cinematic criticism was well grounded by the eminent Sinhala movie critic of the day Jayavilal Wilegoda, this was a new experience; for HB’s concentration was on the western and world cinema in general. His discussions on silent movies and Charlie Chaplin have come to stay in our minds.

Once we were summoned by the principal Lionel Fernando for disciplinary action, for in-subordinating the school authority allegedly by engaging in a particular cheering mode at the inter-house Basketball tournament.

The questionable mode was parading the quadrangle masking ourselves with white handkerchiefs in total silence. The principal had announced just the previous week that no organized cheering would be tolerated at tournaments.

After a thunderous shelling and a barrage of words, we were asked to report the following day for punishment. All my colleagues opined the punishment to be disastrous. The following day, the matter was passed on to HB for action.

He screamed at us for defying the authorities of the school, while we maintained silence in tearing eyes, utterly terrified. Then came the break through, “In a way I appreciate your courage to convey something to the authorities without behaving like a bunch of ladies clapping us all the way around….” said HB.

He got up from the seat, walked up to me and inquired, “Son tell me, why were you covering your mouths with handkerchiefs”.

Embolden by the sudden turn of attitude I muttered “Sir that was what Mr. Chelvanayakam (SJV) did at the Sathyagraha in Galle Face Green, last week”.

He stared at us for a while and yelled, “Get lost you bloody silly jack asses…”. That was the last occasion I met or saw him. (Incidentally, the handkerchief was meant for silence, a reverse strategy, for Ryde could not match the combined cheering strength of Alison and Napier, who did not want us to win the Best all round house shield for a third consecutive year by winning the Basketball trophy and SJV was in fact protesting against some prohibition of expression at the time!!).

TCK’s centenary year was 1972. HB was an energetic and vibrant organizer of the elaborate celebrations that included exhibitions, carnivals and street parades. HB compiled the Centenary souvenir with careful and meticulous attention, which included hundred years of statistics in many fields.

At this juncture HB proposed drastic changes to the boarding house culture of the GCE (AL) final year students; that they be taken off from mundane extracurricular activities and school officerships, and offer semi-independence (liberated from rigid boarding house norms) enabling flexibility towards preparing for the highly competitive AL exam.

The plan was never implemented. While a few of us ended up passing the AL examination outside TCK at considerable social and opportunity cost many others bade farewell to higher studies.

The youngster, who reverted to his alma mater chucking away lucrative and appealing career paths, migrated to Australia in 1975.

TCK lost a visionary: one who progressed upstream to instill high standards of morality, integrity and strength of character in students; the one, many had high hopes in navigating TCK through the fall out from rough storms of instability and chaos the country’s political turmoil brought about; the genius who was capable of preventing TCK from slipping into the tidal institutional debasements.

Video of Hilary Abeyratne speaking about education at Trinity College Kandy. (Video uploaded by Harendra Alwis)

He may have honed in the students’ young minds, the virtues of rich English traditions, those that were compatible with our own; but never honked the horns of shallow bourgeoisie pettiness, for he was not a patient of the popular culture of the English educated class of the ‘Bamunu Kulaya.’

If it is mistakenly propagated that TCK by and large produced a horde of citizens of a corporate and plantation management culture of flimsy values; let it be stated that TCK’s vision of moulding the youngsters towards a ‘Great Society’, from the activation of grass roots through able, honest and hardworking moderate leadership, was kept alive and lively by master educators such as HB.

Hilary Abeyratne is the brother of late Dr. Ernest Abeyratne of Maha Illuppallama fame, Dr. Michael Abeyratne and Dr. Mrs. Beatrice De Mel. The late Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne, the tireless campaigner for Aids patients in Sri lanka, was the wife of Dr. Michael Abeyratne.

Written by D.M.P. Dissanayake (as appeared on the Dailynews Newspaper)

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