I was lucky in that I attended St. Benedict’s during its vintage years. For over half a century the Brothers had struggled and striven to put the school on the educational map. At last the dawn of a new era was in sight. The rains of disappointment and despair had come and gone. The harvest was ready for the gathering and the voice of the turtle of triumph was heard throughout the land.
Secret of Success
The Brothers had, somehow, discovered the secret of success. Gregory Weeramantry had swept the board at the Cambridge Local Examinations with over half a dozen distinctions, following it up with winning the University Science Scholarship. U.D.R. Caspersz came immediately afterwards and stunned the academic world by repeating Weeramantry’s performance. From mouth to mouth the word went round that St. Benedict’s had the most efficient teachers in the land. It created a tradition that is being maintained up to the present day.
It was also the time when Brother Symphorian was producing English scholars that were the envy of Warden Stone who presided over the destinies of our venerable neighbouring institution, St. Thomas’ College.
In charge of Mathematics and Science in the higher forms was Brother Octave, a pint-sized Frenchman with an enormous head, who had the reputation of writing textbooks in Conics and the Calculus, then being used by the French Military Academy.
There was also Brother Abel the friendly friar from Alsace Lorraine who suffered fools gladly. No wonder some of us loved him so much. He built up a reservoir of affection and goodwill for the school which will not easily dry up.
Brother Luke, who was destined to be the first Black Pope of his Order in Ceylon, had just begun to cut his wisdom teeth. His ferocious devotion to duty made him the terror of the slacker. His hypnotic eyes transfixed you with a glance and the most innocent victim felt like a criminal in his presence. The guilty suffered with the not-so-guilty in the stern disciplinary process.
He came from Jaffna
He came from Jaffna and brought his Mathematical brain along with him. No one could deny he was a great teacher. The word ‘failure’ was not in his dictionary, and when the examination results of his pupils were announced, even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer. No wonder he climbed to the utmost rung of the educational ladder.
Age has mellowed him. He can rest on his oars, reflecting during his retirement on a life well spent in the service of his master. His pupils, of whom I was one, will hope he has many miles to go before he sleeps.
Thinking of my old teachers, the mind automatically switches back to Brother James, who is now an institution nearly as old as St. Benedict’s. His age is a secret which will die with him.
In my time he taught English and was also in charge of the De La Salle Literary Union. Culture was written all over him. His accent was flawless. He spoke the tongue that Shakespeare spoke. One would have thought he was born at Stratford-on-Avon, and not on the banks of the Irrawaddy.
Rules of etiquette
He knew the rules of etiquette from A to Z and was a firm believer in the old adage that ‘Manners Makyth Man’. No boy passed through the Court of Brother James without being a gentleman, at least trying desperately to be one. He reminds me of another illustrious Burman, U. Thant, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. In another dispensation Brother James, might have blossomed into a great diplomat. He would have been an ornament to any Embassy.
Other teachers who made a significant impact on the college, to name just a few, were: Brother Ignatius who lived and worked and died among the kindergarteners; Brother Philip, the Bharatha autocrat of the boarders’ breakfast table; Brother Michael, an artist with coloured chalks, who was also in charge of the venerable clock in the tower. He used to blush like a rose at the slightest provocation, despite his dark complexion, and was promptly nick-named ‘lamisi’ (a coy maiden); Brother Cajetan, a Frenchman with a straggly ginger-coloured goatee. I do not know in what lycee on the continent he picked it up, but somehow he knew his Shakespeare.
When he read the part of Shylock, one felt that the old Jew had to come to life-gestures, voice, inflexion and all. In that role he would have put the celebrated Matheson Lang in the shade; Brother Anthony, the gay cavalier from Mutwal, who laughed his way through life; Brother Francis, from Malabar, simple and saintly, in charge of the refectory, turning a blind eye on those who occasionally raided the larder; Brother Alexander, the tall and bald Dutch Burgher with a sharp tongue, head of the commercial classes, and a keen follower of cricket. Addressing a lazy fielder he once said: “If you whistled to the ball it would have stopped.”
E. J’s Droll stories
There are so many pleasant memories of the old days that come rushing to the mind that I do not know where to draw the line: E.J. Perera’s droll stories; Bonnie Fonseka’s semi classical ditties; Reggie Philips introducing a new hair style called the ‘Oxford Jack’; George Atkinson exercising his globular biceps; Justin Gerreyn’s comic sketches; Charlie De Silva’s flights of oratory; Joachim Halahakone’s soaring sixers into the convent premises; Maurice Mendis waiting impatiently in the morning for the key to Hall’s Algebra before he started on his home ‘work’; Eric Caspersz’s basso profundo thrilling the Cathedral congregation every Sunday morning; Sonnie Jayawardena (son of the late Emmanuel Jayawardena, M.M.C.) coming to school on horse-back all the way from Dematagoda; Quintus Delilkhan mouthing sonorous phrases from Burke; Cyril Fernando practicing hurdles in the Madampitiya graveyard before every athletic meet; Abraham Chittampalam Gardiner in immaculate china silk suit and Panama hat, standing under the banyan tree dreaming of picture palaces; the Pulle brothers, Dionysius and Peter, being cheered all the way from the pavilion to the pitch, as they went into bat; and last of all, the tolling of the bell every half-hour to remind us of the terrible fact that the eyes of the Almighty were on us every moment of our lives.
One of the earliest impressions I cannot refrain from recording was the beauty of the old banyan tree on the hillock spreading its arms out like an affectionate mother waiting to embrace and protect her children.
It so happened that the first classroom to which I was consigned was in the shadow of that tree, just below the old stage, where a sprightly young Irishman, Brother Edward, relieved the drudgery of work with his typical Gaelic jokes.
On important occasions a vast canvass depicting a Venetian canal scene was lowered and served as a curtain. Then the foot lights came on and the carefully trained actress trod the boards. It was on this stage that men like Michael Rodrigo took the first steps on the ladder to Thespian fame.
Every prize day included some sort of musical or dramatic entertainment. On one of these occasions I saw a full length play for the first time. It was ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’. The show enthralled me and after fifty years, the performance of H. Atheling Hamer, as Aladdin’s mother, is still fresh in my memory. I went home that evening nursing the secret ambition of becoming another Hamer. The ledgers of the Ceylon Savings Bank swallowed up Atheling and he was virtually lost to the stage.
A word about the Brothers Directors who influenced the course of our lives; I started under Brother Camillus, a shy Frenchman who rose from the ranks. His scholarship was not too profound but he had the qualities that the school sorely needed at the time. He was a financial wizard and placed the college on a sure foundation of solvency.
A most interesting American swam into our ken shortly after Brother Camillus left, and brought some colour into the drab life of the Brothers’ Community. He was Brother Cyprian, a big forthright man with a leonine countenance, a bushy beard and a stentorian voice. A gold tooth glistened in his upper jaw and gave him an air of affluence.
On his first visit to our class as Director, as the boys stood up to welcome him, he gave a quick look at the class and in a sergeant-major’s tone rapped out one crisp command: ‘sit’. His sternness was just a pose, because he promptly proceeded, with a twinkle in his eye, to give us a startling lesson in logic.
Lesson in logic
He started off in Latin and asked the boys to provide the translation as he went on. It ran somewhat like this:
Qui bibit lager, benedormit. (He who drinks beer, sleeps well).
Qui benedormit, non malumcogitavit. (He who sleeps well does not think of evil).
Qui non malumcogitavit, non peccavit. (He who does not think of evil, does not do evil).
Qui non peccavit, salvuserit. (He who does not do evil, will be saved).
Ergo, qui bibit lager, salvuserit. (Therefore, he who drinks beer, will be saved).
There ended his first lesson, and he made his exit from the classroom to the accompaniment of uproarious laughter.
Brother Bolcan, a tall Irishman, came after Cyprian. Earlier he had had a stint at teaching, but was not too impressive. Thereupon he went back to Ireland, grew a beard, and came back as Director.
As I was about to leave school, there appeared on the scene, an Englishman called Brother Wulton James, an accomplished scholar. He had specialised in education at the London University. He came with a Master of Arts degree and was a match for the reigning giants in the field of education, like Stone, Highfield, Le Goc and Fraser. He was a man with an attractive personality but those who knew the other James, still regard Wultan James as James the Less.
My mind reels when I think of the galaxy of stars that shone in the firmament of St. Benedict’s when I was a boy. In this sketch it will suffice if I just mention, enpassant, of a few of my colleagues.
In the Inter-Science class, which was a sort of terminus as far as school was concerned; I had the nerve-wracking experience of sitting between two world-beaters.
One was Peter Pillai and the other was Cyril Fernando. Every schoolboy knows the scholastic achievements of Peter Pillai in London, Cambridge and Rome. Such a phenomenon occurs only once a generation, perhaps once a century. I will say no more, because he has passed into history.
Cyril left school, joined the Medical College and went on to London University where he won the Gold Medal awarded to the student who comes first in the M.D. examination.
Then there were: Marshall Pulle, methodical and conscientious to a fault. His brain functioned like a well-oiled machine. Starting as a Junior Crown Counsel he rose to be a Supreme Court Judge. His judgments are regarded as models of lucidity and reservoirs of deep legal lore. It was a happy thought of the Government to appoint him Principal of the Ceylon Law College when he retired from the Bench.
P.B. Fernando, who in addition to his other medical attainments was a vigorous, writer of English pros, making Macaulay his model. He wound up as Professor of Medicine at the Ceylon University.
Anian Joachim, who acquired his Doctorate in Science at the London University and became Director of Agriculture, before he began his monumental work at the Tea Research Institute.
M.M. Kumarakulasingham was one of a brilliant band of brothers, with perhaps the largest practice in the court of Criminal Appeal.
Quintessence of energy
Emilianus Pillai, the quintessence of physical energy, followed the family tradition, became a priest, and in course of time, was made Bishop of Jaffna. His agility on the football field is still a talking point.
R. H. Philips, a doctor’s son, of extraordinary intelligence, spruce and exquisitely clad, who in school, however, did nothing in particular, but did it very well. He has by common consent become the doyen of Ceylon’s Science masters.
The list can be expanded ad infinitum, but there must be an end even to memories. Looking back to over half a century and retracing one’s footsteps through the dim corridors of time, nostalgia fills the soul.
There is one thing however, that every old Benedictine can truthfully say of his Alma Mater:
As a perfume doth remain
In the folds where it hath lain,
So the thought of you, remaining
Deeply folded in my brain,
Will not leave me: all things leave me: