Getting on the bus in Badulla town, I asked the driver if he could let me off at the Kendegolla Maha Vidyalaya. He gave me an odd look, but said “Naginna” (get in). The small bus went along the Passara Road, turned left, and began to climb a narrow road, winding past village houses and patches of tea. After half an hour, the driver stopped and pointed to a small white speck on the highest hill, miles from the road. “That’s the school”, he said. My heart sank.
What was I, barely out of my teens, doing in remote Uva hills, hundreds of miles from home? At Maharagama training college, I had met Fawzia, and we had fallen in love. She was from a traditional Malay family, and we did our best to keep the relationship a secret from her folks. When we finished our training as English teachers, at the end of 1971, in order to be far away from our families, we asked for schools in Uva for our first appointments. Fawzia was sent to a school near Bandarawela and I got Kendegolla.
Getting off the bus, I began to trudge towards the white speck, passing a rustic kopi kade and ramshackle village houses. Idling men hung around, gawking at this strange apparition, me. The white speck disappeared as the footpath dipped or rounded a bend, and I had to ask for directions a couple of times. The walls of the houses were mud colored, and certainly not the wattle and daub or baked bricks of the low country. I later learned that the walls were made of moda gadol (foolish bricks), so called because they were simply dried in the sun, not baked, and could dissolve during rainy weather. Some roofs were of rusty corrugated iron, but most were of straw.
Tired and somewhat disoriented, I reached the school a good 30-minutes later. This was January, the air was cool and damp, and a low cloud hung over the school. Students were milling around, because it was interval time. They had spotted me trudging up, word had spread, and a few teachers were also peering down at me.
Followed by a throng of students, I reached the principal’s office, where a short, balding, older man, and a taller one dressed in “national” costume, greeted me. When I introduced myself as the new English teacher, the tall man blurted “Me lamayinte mona ingreesida” (What English for these Children!). But the other person was welcoming, saying he had been requesting an English teacher for years. He turned out to be the principal. (I’ll call him Mr. Senaratne).
After the preliminaries, I needed a place to stay and Mr. Senaratne suggested that Gunaratne, who taught economics, could help me. So I went along with the latter to check-out his boarding. We forded a rocky, shallow stream near the school, and walked single-file along a fast-flowing irrigation channel that skirted the hillside on our left, with terraced paddy fields on the right. I liked the well-built, tiled house where Gunaratne boarded, and the simple family that greeted me. I could share a room with Gunaratne, whose cheerful nature – full of chatter and jokes – I took a liking to.
Teachers & Students
The few hundred students ranged from Grade 1 to 12, divided into the primary and secondary sections. The younger students came from the vicinity, but some students in the secondary section attended school from the surrounding villages, Kendegolla being the only maha vidyalaya for a sprawling, mountainous area. I came to know students who walked four miles each way, on rough, winding, mountainous paths, to attend school, some leaving home before dawn without breakfast. None wore shoes. Every day, a couple of students, weak from hunger, would faint during school.
Recently, I dug into my old files and found a program for Kendegolla’s first sports meet, which I organized in 1972. That program listed the names of all the teachers of that time. The primary school teachers – Rajapakse, Gunatilleke, Piyadasa, Piyasena, Dissanayake, Seneviratne, Dingiriamma, Senadheera, Premalatha, Margaret, Piyadasa Peiris (some were husband and wife couples) – were from the village itself. Hayath Bee Bee was from some distance away, on the Passara Road, and walked uphill about two miles to school. All the secondary school teachers except one were from other areas. Most were recent graduates, and some traveled by bus from Badulla or beyond. In addition to Gunaratne, my roommate, they were Mendis and his wife Malini, Piyadasa, Piyasoma, and Karunaratne. Later, three more graduates joined the school. Two, Nawalage and Jayasinghe, were ex-monks. Nawalage, who was from far-off Nivithigala, had requested a transfer to a far off area just before he left robes, to avoid embarrassment to his family. From their general demeanor, even the way they walked and talked, one could discern a former ascetic life. Behind their backs, they did not escape the somewhat derogatory heeraluwa label.
Susil was the school drunk. Boyish in appearance, but permanently disheveled, he turned up late to school looking as if he had slept in a gutter. Sometimes he wore shirt and slacks, a soiled national dress at other times. The principal advised him often, but Susil, on a permanent hangover, only grinned sheepishly, not uttering a word.
One clear difference between the local and other teachers was their dress. All the local men wore the so called national dress, a long white shirt and sarong. Teachers from elsewhere, except for Mendis, wore shirts and pants.
For a rural school in a “difficult” area, without proper roads or basic facilities, to have that many graduate teachers were a rare gift. These graduates were mainly young, dedicated teachers, and they soon produced results, sending a couple of students to university. I remember the students’ names: Premawathie and PodiAppuhamy, who both entered Kelaniya University.
Ironically, despite the qualified and competent teachers at Kendegolla, the local teachers sent their children to schools in Badulla town. These children, wearing neat school uniforms, were in sharp contrast to our scrawny, shabbily dressed students.
During my times, the school consisted of four long, single storied, bare-bones buildings, each housing 4 or 5 classes. The classes were not separated even by a wall. The roofs were tile, and the sides were open, with half-walls running lengthwise on each side. Dust blew in, covering the floor and the students’ desks and chairs. No pipe borne water or electricity, of course. A luxuriant bougainvillea bush, near the principal’s office, added the only color to the school.
Kendegolla was at a high elevation. Once in a while, the entire school would be covered by a passing cloud, darkening the area and lowering the temperature. Students, shivering in the cold, stepped out of the classroom, looking for any patches of sunshine they could find. Teaching was suspended, sometimes for hours, till the cloud drifted away.
Being the only Ingreesi mahattaya, I taught English from grades 6 to 10, every day, and an occasional lesson for the handful of students in grades 11 and 12. The government distributed free textbooks to all the students, but most had only one “exercise” (writing) book for all their subjects. Each class had 30+ students, and motivating them was the main problem. Without visual or other teaching aids, I relied mainly on reading and recitation, using the good old “chalk and talk” method. I don’t think those students learned much English from me.
Life in the village
School finished at 1.30 in the afternoon, and Gunaratne and I walked along the irrigation channel back to our boarding. Basins of water, with soap, had been laid out for us, and we later sat down for lunch. The local Sinhala haal rice, a couple of vegetables, and dhal. Fish or meat was never served, but we occasionally had an egg, and fried karawala, salted and dried fish. This was a devout Buddhist home. The simple meals were to my liking, although I missed curries cooked with coconut. At Kendegolla, due to the high elevation, not a coconut palm was in sight, and coconuts were a luxury, only available in Badulla town.
The family – husband, wife, two sons and two daughters – had their evening meal after Gunaratne and I had finished, and we usually chatted with the father while he chewed beetle. The two sons sat with us, but were respectful of the father, and barely uttered an opinion. Later, in our room, we listened to the radio, the Sinhala service of Radio Ceylon. During the previous year, 1971, the first JVP insurrection had occurred, and a public inquiry was broadcast on the radio. My former civics teacher in secondary school, Mr. Shanmugam, had joined the police and become an SP. I distinctly remember him being cross examined at the inquiry. Before 9pm, we turned off the kerosene lamp and went to sleep.
Our landlord was comparatively well off, being a carpenter. He also owned a small plot of paddy. The village was surrounded by a large tea plantation, Telbedde Estate, but all the workers there were Tamils residing on the estate. Most villagers scratched a living from subsistence farming, or a little patch of sweet potatoes, a grove of manioc, and various vegetables. A staple food was kollu (horse gram), especially among those who did not own paddy fields. One had to be very poor to be eating it, because kollu was usually fed to horses, and I am reminded of how Samuel Johnson defined oats: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
Once, in response to a survey that the education department conducted, a large number of families in the area indicated an income of Rs. 100/ – not monthly, but annually. That is, about Rs. 10/ per month. In today’s terms, that would be less than Rs. 1000/ for a family, for an entire month. How people managed to feed themselves, leaving cash for clothes and other essentials aside, was a mystery. The “plight of the Kandyan peasantry” is no cliché.
Except for the teachers, no student or villager may have seen the sea, or Colombo, or even Kandy. None may have tasted sea food. The height of sophistication was Badulla town, which glittered at night with electric lights. The town even had water on tap! The cinemas, with a galaxy of popular Sinhala, Tamil, and Hindi films, drew estate workers and villagers from all around.
The village had a small temple, at the bottom of a hill, surrounded by paddy fields. The easy going young monk formed a friendship with me. He was curious about Christianity, and I explained as best as I could, avoiding tricky topics such as the Holy Trinity. On poya days, all the students and the teachers, dressed in white, observed sil at the temple, sitting on the ground of the spotlessly clean premises, in the shade of a bo tree and a small stupa. I recall the peaceful ambience, and the monk’s simple and appealing sermons.
A few afternoons a week, Gunaratne and I collected our soiled clothes in a bundle, and, a towel draped around our necks, walked to the stream to wash our clothes and to bathe. Usually, a few older male students joined us. We first walked downstream and washed our clothes, soaping and pounding them on the rocks. Then, we clambered upstream, sat in a rocky pool, and bathed leisurely, listening to Gunaratne’s endless jokes, always ending with “Hinawela marenewa” (die laughing).
On some evenings, when we were bored, he and I strolled to the edge of a hill, from where we could gaze at Badulla town, down in the valley to our right, and the majestic Namunukula mountain range across the valley to our left. Sometimes, a couple of students came along. As twilight descended, we could see the electric lights twinkling in Badulla. We talked aimlessly, sharing the news and gossip, but were wistful, longing for what we did not have at Kandegolla.
The Namunukula (nine peaks) range loomed 3000 feet above where we sat. Even from 10 miles away, it dwarfed the surrounding tea plantations, it’s craggy visage forested a verdant
green. As darkness fell, the peaks were covered in mist. For me, born and bred in the coastal plains, these massive mountain ranges were awe inspiring.
The village had clear divisions along political and caste lines. The leftist Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) had deep roots in the Uva, and there was a sprinkling of Communists Party supporters, too. Mainly, villagers were Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) supporters. The post office was next to the school, and the postmaster was the most prominent UNPer in the village. Whatever their political affiliations, they seemed to get along with each other.
The caste differences were more apparent. The residents of a nearby village belonged to a low caste – that of drum beaters – if I recall correctly. Some teachers and even a few older students from Kendegolla village would point this out to me, although I didn’t care one way or the other. In fact, an underlying attitude seemed to be, “Are they seeking an education to be our equals?”
On one occasion, I saw this discrimination descend to cruelty. One day, an emaciated, poorly dressed man turned up, complaining that his son, in the primary school, had been mercilessly trashed by a teacher. The accused teacher stood there with a silly grin, and no one offered a word of sympathy to the father and son. Someone whispered that they were from the lower caste, perhaps meaning they deserved what they got.
One day, Mr. Senaratne, the principal, spoke to me: “I say Braine, shall we have a sports meet?” (He knew about my sports background). I agreed, but soon learned that there had never been a sports meet at Kendegolla, meaning we would have to start from scratch. A second challenge was the lack of a proper playground; all we had was a bare space between buildings, too narrow even for a 100-yard sprint.
A number of friends from Maharagama training college were now teachers at Badulla Maha Vidyalaya in town, and they helped and advised me in planning the sports meet. The first step was to form three “houses”, and Wijeya, Perakum, and Gemunu, named after three legendary monarchs, were the obvious choices. Next, leaving the principal, headmaster and the organizer (me) aside, the remaining 18 teachers were assigned to the houses. My roommate Gunaratne was put in charge of Gemunu house, a decision that led to numerous accusations of favoritism as the sports meet approached.
The sports meet was scheduled for July 22, 1972.
Becoming over ambitious, I planned a comprehensive event, with a dance performance, a march past, a cross-country race, teachers’ races, relays, and middle distance races. Thinking now of the small “ground” that was available, I am surprised that I even scheduled an 800-yard race and a 4 x 400 relay. What was I thinking!
Once the events were announced, the teachers got to work with passion. Previously, the school would be deserted by 2pm, after classes were over; perhaps a stray dog or two would be left. But now, within a few days, the school was transformed. With no background in sports, finding the most suitable students for each track and field event from each house was no easy task. So, both the teachers and students stayed back for hours, running, jumping, the school becoming a hive of activity as never before. A dance performance was planned and the students trained by the two step-children of a teacher; both had been trained in song and dance.
As the sports meet neared, the inter-house rivalries became almost uncontrollable. Heated arguments would break out between teachers during school hours, as students watched in embarrassment, and I feared physical fights. Mr. Senaratne, who traveled from home in Welimada 40 miles away, taking two buses, was not always around to settle disputes, and that fell on me, the youngest member of the staff. I hadn’t bargained for that.
Meanwhile, fund raising, requests for trophies, invitations to track and field judges, all written by senior students under my directions, went out. The program was typed by my Badulla MV friends.
For the cross country race, acting on the advice of local teachers, I planned the route through Telbedde Estate, and then walked the route with a couple of senior students.
If Namunukula mountain dominated the area in altitude, the vast Telbedde Estate covered the surroundings as far as the eye could see. The estate was managed by Mike Boyd-Moss, a legendary planter and ruggerite. He was, indisputably, the local monarch, but a benevolent suddha (white man) whom people respected. Apparently, he spoke Sinhala and Tamil fluently. I needed his permission to run the cross-country race through the estate, and also needed a back-up vehicle to pick-up struggling runners.
Lacking even a bicycle, I walked all the way to meet him at his office, passing meticulously maintained swathes of tea bushes, the pluckers and kanganis going about their work. With endless blue skies above, and the green hills and valleys below, this was picture-postcard country. The aroma of pine and eucalyptus scented the air. The office was on a hillock, surrounded by lovely flower plants. Mr. Boyd-Moss graciously agreed to my requests. As promised, a van turned up early morning before the race started and followed the runners. The winner arrived a good 5-minutes before the others, but most runners arrived in the van, having given up. I invited Mr. Boyd-Moss as a chief guest of the meet (the other was the local Member of Parliament from the ruling party), but he did not attend, although he donated a trophy. At that time, the government was nationalizing plantations, and his absence was understandable; sitting alongside the MP would have been awkward.
Field events were held in advance, and, on the day of the sports meet, the march past, dance performance, track events, the speeches and the award of trophies and certificates worked off smoothly. My friends from Badulla MV, and Fawzia, turned up to officiate, and the local MP, who happened to be a junior minister, promised a playground for the school in his speech.
In the aftermath, Kendegolla athletes performed remarkably well at the district schools sports meet. They won nearly 20 top-three places, competing against athletes from more established schools like Uva College, Dharmaduta, Badulla MV, Vishaka, and others.
Subsequently, for a teachers’ sports meet, we did not have enough female teachers with athletic abilities. So, we cheated, getting some sturdy senior students to compete, pretending to be teachers. When we got caught, Mr. Senaratne’s nonchalant excuse was “I say, they are going to become teachers”.
More about Mr. Senaratne
In 1973, Fawzia and I married at Badulla. Gunaratna and Nawalage, the ex-monk, signed as witnesses. Because Fawzia now taught at a school in Badulla town, we rented a house there, and I began to travel to Kendegolla by bus.
This leads to the first of two anecdotes about the Principal, Mr. Senaratne, whom we fondly called “Bosa” behind his back. At most, he turned up at school about three days a week, staying at the newly built staff quarters. With me traveling from town, he found a way to send the teachers’ salaries to school, without having to go there. So, we would meet at the Badulla post office to collect the salaries in a lump sum, Mr. Senaratne would deduct his pay, and return home to Welimada. I would take a mid-day bus to school, trying my best to hide the large amount of cash I carried; the school had about 25 teachers by then. This was certainly not part of my teaching duties.
The second anecdote has to do with bathing. When “Bosa” was staying overnight at the teachers’ quarters, Gunaratne and I would go by in the afternoon, inviting him to bathe at the stream with us. He declined, saying that his wife prepared a warm bath for him when he was at home in Welimada. One day, when Gunaratne and I visited him at home, Mrs. Senaratne told us that her husband refused to bathe at home, saying he preferred the nice stream near the school. Later, Gunaratne and I had a good laugh. Obviously, “Bosa” never bathed!
Fifty years have gone by, and I recall those carefree days at Kendegolla with nostalgia. I was young, energetic, idealistic, and in love. Like one’s first love, the first appointment stays in one’s memory for a lifetime. In my reveries, those men and women I met at Kendegolla, the pastoral life I led, come alive. I was almost an alien being – a Christian, with an unusual name and a skin color – but they took me in. Wherever I went, whoever I met, I was simply the “Ingreesi mahattaya”.
In December, 1995, I drove up to the school with Fawzia and son Roy, who was by then a college student in America. The school was closed for the holidays, a thick layer of dust covering the desks and chairs, and fallen leaves the ground. It looked bleak and abandoned. I was too tired after a long road trip, and made no attempt to meet anyone I had known.
More recently, I found that Kendegolla MV now had a Facebook site, and managed to contact the current principal, Mr. Ratnayake. He is from Kendegolla, a former student of the school, and, over two lengthy phone calls, updated me on the news. The school now had 49 teachers. Most of the teachers I knew had passed away, Rajapakse, the headmaster, living to a ripe old age. Gunaratne became the principal, a strict one, but, sadly, had also passed away. The village is more prosperous now, and a bus drove by the school on a good road. In the photos uploaded on the FB site, the students were well dressed, the males in blue shorts and white shirts, the females in white uniforms and tie. The buildings were colorful, and a science lab dominated the scene. (Photo below)
The bougainvillea bush has now grown into a tree.