Diaspora, Kandy

Don’s Diary: One week in Sri Lanka

Saturday: Fly from Heathrow to Colombo; uneventful journey; drink gin and tonic, take long sleep. Hear that an aunt passed away just before departure.

Sunday: Catch up on sleep and go to funeral. My cousin goes through religious rituals, with the priest dragging on. He is a nice guy, my cousin, meticulously following all instructions from the priest. When in his position, at my dad’s funeral a few months ago, I had a quiet word with the priest: “Itupaththu Oraam nootaaNdu aiya, vEhamaahap pOngO (it is the twenty first Century, priest, go faster)”, and he obliged. Doesn’t matter though, because the only person at the event with good knowledge of Sanskrit was my dad, and he was dead. At my aunt’s funeral, I think of her amazingly peaceful life. “Wouldn’t hurt a fly” is most appropriate.

Monday: Email from a friend inviting me to an event on Sunday afternoon in memory of Kailasapathy, the founding President of the Jaffna University. Annoyingly, when the invitation was emailed on Saturday, I was already in the plane. I could easily have joined the event, if only she had informed me earlier. I tell her off: “Silly girl, your Jaffna habits!” She won’t take offence. Kailasapathy and I are also “He comes from Jaffna” type Sri Lankans.

I remember Kailasapathy, the great scholar whom I have met once or twice. After a seminar he gave at Peradeniya, back in 1978, I had sneaked along with the VIPs for plain-tea and vadai at a canteen. That’s how you get the real stuff – tea with the speaker after the seminar. I remember being so impressed with the man’s vision for his university, a non-sectarian, inclusive scholarly vision. A fantastic scholar of Tamil literature was warning of the dangers of Tamil (and Sinhala) nationalism. That is something about great men. It takes 30 years to establish the accuracy of their predictions – and at a massive cost!

On facebook a friend notifies: “Watch Rupavahini at 6:30”. The programme is on eco sanitation –on constructing toilets with minimal use of water, and making compost from our posterior outputs. Not just the theory, but evidence of successful take-up in dry-zone villages. “We are using this for over a year now”, a woman says in Tamil, another chap echoes the same in Sinhala. The star cricketer batting on behalf of the concepts in the programme was particularly great.

Tuesday: Kandy bus stand, when it rains, is rather a tough place. It was a miracle I protected my books and computer from getting drenched. The hotel still has very low occupancy, as on my last visit in July: Eight Europeans, twelve Indians and myself, sharing a 120 bed facility. A group of about six young Sri Lankans have come up for beer and snacks, behaving like spoilt kids.

Kandy Bus Station
Kandy Bus Station

Across the corridor, the Indian group is wide awake at 4.00AM. I open my door in anger. Pause. They outnumber me twelve to one. Is it wise to pick a fight? Hasn’t the futility of this approach been demonstrated in recent times? I need a different strategy. With a broad Mr Bean grin and Madras accent I say “thookkam varElliya aiya? (don’t you feel sleepy)”. It works. “Sorry saar”, one of them responds, “shhhh…” to the others. At 6:30 I find no hot water in the shower. No…, you don’t even think that! Some of my good friends are from India.

Wednesday: I take a three-wheeler ride to the University. The campus is as beautiful as ever. Here, the hills are alive. The river has something majestic about it: “There is more to life than simply increasing its speed”. The huge trees inspire you, if you stay quiet without disturbing the young lovers’ simulated privacy under umbrellas. Walk through campus, stopping on the way for a vadai and plain-tea. Brilliant, they still taste the same. I see portraits of Marx and Lenin on the canteen walls, just as it was then, though something tells me the current iPod generation may not be fans of these characters.

Over to the Engineering Faculty, where I settle down and do a couple of hours of serious work reading my student’s draft thesis on automatic translation between languages. I take a walk across the river to meet the new Vice Chancellor, who is gracious enough to see me without an appointment. Talking to him, I am confident he will fix some of the bad habits the institution has accumulated over half a century.

Clockwise from top left: Hantana mountains, Mahaweli river, tree and University building
Clockwise from top left: Hantana mountains, Mahaweli river, tree and University building

On the way back to Kandy, the bus stops near Regal theatre. There is Alimankada showing at 6:15. I look at my watch, 6:10. “Bahinawa (getting off)”, I shout. A very nice film it was, speaking of ethnic minority issues in Sinhala, and portraying the emotive responses. For too long, our politicians have only spoken in Tamil, to Tamil people, about how evil the Sinhalese were; and in Sinhala, to the Sinhalese people, about how evil the Tamils were. Both great vote winners. The dialogue in this film seems a welcome change. I give the film 7/10 (slow moving, unrealistic bird-watching in places and bits of Rambo). In my scale, Pura Handa Kaluwara scores 9/10. (Remember the powerful scene in PHK where the sister gets the message even before she sees the coffin — the strength of context making language redundant, and acted out first class to Schindler’s List standards?)

Thursday: Breakfast, back to the campus. I am making myself really useful today, talking to recent graduates who want to know about research opportunities. I am saddened by the low access to journals. Regular reading of journals is important to stay abreast of latest developments in science. I give them tips on accessing stuff that commercial journals protect and tell them about the Public Library of Science initiative (www.plos.org).

Strict Instructions – where is the “please”? (Avoid taking the drink bottle out of the canteen)
Strict Instructions – where is the “please”? (Avoid taking the drink bottle out of the canteen)

The students are all incredibly polite here, having been instructed in a strongly hierarchical setting. I insist they call me by my name, and not “Sir”. That is too much of a shock to their system: “OK Sir, I won’t call you Sir, Sir.” I know how to make them change (wait till I start calling them Sir and Madam!). Nuke will come next week, guys.

Friday: Morning with a control engineer – and a good old friend, discussing the use of control theory in understanding some aspects of molecular biology. We converge on a project plan for a junior member of staff. He will contribute theory and supervise her, and I will supply the biological problem and data. It is a win-win deal.

I want to try the trains. Railway guy says there are only three trains a day to Colombo. I mention this to an engineering professor – “It is the most under-utilized parts of our infrastructure”, he says of the railway tracks. “But still they go on building highways”. He is cynical. “I think the aid agencies influence it – after getting us to build roads they can make money selling us cars, no?”

I settle for a bus journey. Where is the investment in roads? 40 km per hour is the best speed. Despite low speeds, you need to close your eyes and hold your breath when the guy overtakes, or else you think your transition between this world and the next is imminent.

Train (left) and Dangerous Driving
Train (left) and Dangerous Driving

To make political predictions, I count the number of images of the contestants in the forthcoming election. At 300 images of the incumbent I stop the experiment. In that time I saw just four of the main challenger. Given that the contest is not about any substantive policy issue, familiarity is the main determinant of success. The outcome is a no-brainer.

In a local bus to Battaramulla, I start a conversation with the guy in the next seat. A 20 year old, “I am in IT” – type guy. He is paying Rs 400,000 a year for a degree programme run by the University of Westminster.

“In Sri Lanka, you need a degree for anything”, he asserts. We chat a bit, and I gain his confidence, before coming back to the 400,000.

“Four lakhs a year is a lot of money, isn’t it? What do your parents do, to be able to afford it?”

“My mother doesn’t work”, is all he says.

“So, did you sell some family land or something?”

“Yes”, he agrees.

A plethora of foreign universities are here, offering IT and other degrees. Ambitious people, with parents willing to make sacrifices, create the business opportunities for some. From the other side, I know this phenomenon as “Internationalization”. Just before getting off, he says from the footboard: “Still cheaper than going to the UK”.

Why our own tertiary education system has not built up the capacity, I wonder. Perhaps I have no right to blame anyone for that. In my youth, I was opposed to expansion in medical education via the Private Medical College. That was the Red in me then, just like it was in the eminent scholar, Kailasapathy.

A great week it was, and I am looking forward to my next three.

  • Groundtruth

    Good tit bits which makes interesting reading.

    I wonder how far that Battaramulla guy is right. “In Sri Lanka you need a degree for anything” is not certainly true if one wants to be an MP or President!

    Hope one of the Vice-Chancellors picks up your idea of starting a degree in IT at a University. What with so many IT jobs in SL and around the world.

  • Jay Chambers

    Prof. Mahesan,

    Its good to see alumni like you return to the most beautiful campus on earth, Peradeniya. And I hope, as an alum yourself, you will be able to do something to help it catch up with the rest of the world. Peradeniya still has everyhing needed to succeed – a tranquil and peaceful environment that promotes thought, good students, old fashioned but still nice culture of respect for academics and learning, etc. But the fact it Peradeniya has fallen behind. Hopefully more people like you will return, even if for a short time, to help her out.

  • Anura

    Thanks Niranjan.

  • TMama

    Prof Mahesan,

    What did you feel about the chances of the pedestrian safely waliking home the at least 20 minutes along the Kandy Colombo. No more chance of emerging alive than a deer being chased by a pack of sharp shooters, if the guy is a European. Did you check whether Uiversities teach some awareness of basic safety in Construction and on road design. I felt that is the area they should cover most. I did not see any attention to footpaths even in the new roads being constructed on a lavish scale along the heavily d east coast like Batticaloa to Arugam Bay.

  • Prof Niranjan,
    Nice ideas and experiences 🙂
    It is very interesting to read and thank you for things you have done for the University of Peradeniya. ( Always we are GOOD students 🙂 )