Those schoolgirl days!

Girls’ High School-Kandy Reminiscences (1879-2004). O.G.A. Souvenir. Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara

Open the pages of this engrossing Souvenir published by the Old Girls' Association of a famous school in the hills, "Kandy High", and you are plunged into a golden age of girlhood to which schoolgirls who had the privilege of growing up in that kind of institution anywhere in the island, will relate to. As I read on, I could identify with so much that was contained in these `Reminscences', that I was instantly transported back to my own schooldays in Colombo and filled with the same kind of nostalgia for times past.

Editor Muzeen Sally, in her Foreword, writes: "Although the institution was founded by Methodist missionaries," (and run as a Church school for 80 years), "Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have worked and played together in the school, and it is significant that the proceeds of this magazine will be donated to the victims of the tsunami, regardless of religion, caste and creed." Over and over again, this theme of the multi-religious and multi-ethnic composition of the school population, with unity in diversity and a happy harmony prevailing, recurs in the articles.

Nalini Senanayake (nee Wijenaike, 1933 - 1946), gives these reminiscences a refreshing start as she recalls her entry into school life at the age of five and subsequent escapades, despite which she ended up as Head Girl. The Art Teacher at Kandy High School (KHS), fostered her artistic talent and I learnt that Nalini was, later, the first woman painter to exhibit with the celebrated "'43 Goup" of artists. So it should be no surprise that Nalini gave birth to the infant - and adult - prodigy, Senaka Senanayake.

Disenchantment is the word that comes to mind as I turn the page and read Jean Arasanayagam's long poem, "In a Colonial Classroom". Remembering the enthusiasm with which my kindergarten contemporaries and I, in Colombo, “blew bubbles in the air to catch the sun", and "sang their songs, their rhyme I mouthed, Their verse I mimicked, around the Maypole danced," etc., etc., I wonder whether Jean's mature perception of our colonial past came later, in adulthood, or whether she was really aware then, as a child, of our ready embrace of things foreign and our loss in failing to appreciate what was indigenous and our own. If the latter, she must have been a child apart.

There is also a long prose contribution from Jean, "I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes", a short story that has appeared in her book, "All Is Burning", published by Penguin in 1995. Jean Arasanayagam, acclaimed poet and writer, is a distinguished product of KHS, but one who views her schooldays with a sardonic gleam in her eye. She strikes a discordant note in what is essentially a collection of articles that looks at past principals, teachers and the old curriculum of that day, through fond lenses. However, perhaps a "different" view, too, must have its place if the whole picture is to be drawn. The story, using real names and written in her usual compelling language and style, gives Jean's own unique vision, one which may not conform to the majority view of the past as glimpsed in this little book.

The essence of that time is charmingly captured in verses with an easy flow that come with the title, "Those school girl days" by J.L. 1959 - 1964. All the bubbly schoolgirl larks, the oddities of teachers, the excitement of the sports meet, regular forays to the veralu tree (a tree which figures prominently in many an article), carol practice with the girls' own innovative version, "While shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated round a tub, a cake of Sunlight soap came down and they began to scrub".

Then carnival time with "Boys galore, the Lions roar, romance is in the air". The poem mirrors the recollections in many a prose contribution.

The titles given to most of the articles reflect the positive emotions that thoughts of the alma mater still evoke in many a middle-aged breast. Nanda Pethiyagoda Wanasundera (today's popular columnist `Nan' of the Sunday Island), writes of "My long, long connection with Girls' High School, Kandy," and gives the felicitous and memorable sentence, "Laughter still rings in the happy remembering heart." Zem (de Silva, nee Sally), writing from England, under the title, "The Dim Golden Distance", gives a vivid account of her propensity for getting into scrapes.

The heading for Chitra Seneviratne Dissanayake's informative article is, "As It Were Yesterday" and it contains some notable titbits such as that KHS produced the first Kandyan woman graduate - Mrs. Soma Samarasinghe (nee Seneviratne), who was also the first woman to win the `Tripos' at Cambridge University and, later, the first Sri Lankan Principal of Hillwood College, Kandy. We learn also that KHS lays claim to Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as an `Old Boy'; that KHS produced the first Sri Lankan woman to get a Super-grade Principal's post, the first Sinhala Buddhist to become Principal of KHS (Mrs. T.K. Ekanayake); and the first woman to be appointed Deputy Director- General of the Ministry of Education - Mrs. Hema Jayasinghe who, prior to that, was Principal of Visakha Vidyalaya. I also gleaned from this article the information that KHS had a well-known Sinhalese Singing Master, none other than Saranagupta Amarasinghe, and that it was also "the first school in the country to introduce Kandyan dancing to the curriculum," classes being conducted by the illustrious Sri Jayana.

Several of the writers provide intriguing pen-pictures of past principals, notably Miss Grace Paul and Mrs. T.K. Ekanayake, and of members of staff, wickedly funny sometimes, but always remembered with affection. Indranee Kannangara Kandiah, in "Those Halcyon Days", gives us a glimpse of the unconventional behaviour of a respected teacher, Mrs. Weerasiri, whom she describes as a "fervent Buddhist and a highly-valued member of our staff ". Attendance at morning Assembly was compulsory for all, teachers and pupils, of whatever religion, "She quite explicitly showed that she was not in the least interested in these Christian goings-on, by opening a broadsheet Sinhala newspaper and reading it while prominently seated on the stage! Frankly, I admired her independent spirit and courage. Yet I like to feel that it is the very context of my school that allowed the expression of other opinions without unnecessarily making these into acrimonious issues."

And Mrs.Kandiah goes on to say that "Mrs. Weerasiri identified significantly with the school in all other aspects of its life." She makes the point, too, that although KHS was a Methodist Mission school, all races and religions were represented in the composition of its pupils - "Sinhalese (with further sub-division as up-country and low-country!), Tamils from Jaffna, Batticaloa and of Indian origin, Malays and Moors, Burghers with Portuguese and Dutch antecedents, and Eurasians, Parsis, and so on, or as Christians of numerous denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoriastians, Muslims. In those days, these differences did not matter..in a sense, we exemplified what a great nation could be, if only...."

In a short, pithy piece, simply titled, "Unforgettable", Sithy Quadira Anees turns the spotlight on the veralu tree. She recalls that a large branch of this tempting tree crashed to the ground during a lunch interval at a time when the Muslim girls were fasting. All the girls nearby ran out and "quickly picked the olives and gobbled them. Then to our surprise our Islam teacher appeared and asked us whether we were fasting or feasting. It was only then that we realised that we had broken the fast."

The temptation is great to linger and quote something from almost every article in these pages and only the fact that space doesn't permit such indulgence, restrains me. I will, however, give an extract from Carmen Wickramagamage's (nee Perera) eloquent article entitled, "Why High School Remains `High' in my Esteem", because it admirably reiterates and sums up what others have said on the theme of the racial and religious harmony they experienced in their school.

Carmen came unwillingly to KHS at A/L stage, regarding her transfer there from the Kandy Convent "as my punishment - a reform school or penitentiary". But she survived and completely changed her mind and her attitude to the institution in which she ended her schooldays and from where she went on to the Peradeniya University where, I believe, she is presently a senior lecturer in English.

This is what she writes: Although Christian in origin, the KGHS of my day with its strong Tamil medium and an English medium that had a high percentage of Muslims, encouraged students to experience and therefore respect a multi-cultural environment. Ms. Tikiri Kumari Ekanayake, a Kandyan Sinhala Buddhist, transcended all ethnic, religious and regional considerations and dedicated herself to the maintenance of strict discipline and academic excellence at school. Ms. Muzeen Sally, a Muslim, but equally caring of us all, was a highly respected teacher. Ms. Estelle Salgado, a devout Christian, was teacher above everything else at school. Ms. Jesudason, the Head of the Tamil section, is well-etched in my memory as an efficient administrator..............We cheered our gifted contemporaries, admired and envied each other's abilities. That they were Tamils, Moors, Burghers and Sinhalese, or Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, did not matter. We were, of course, aware of our cultural differences, but we respected that diversity, learnt from each other's differences and, finally transcended those differences to become bosom buddies.....Kandy Girls' High School remains high in my esteem because it has so far resisted the pressure to augment those divisions that threaten to destroy the multi-cultural fabric of this country and instead serves as a model for what Sri Lanka ought to become if it is to survive at all as a country."

It's no wonder that in August this year, Old Girls banded together in large numbers in an unofficial way, to felicitate former Principal, Mrs. T.K. Ekanayake, and forty-five of their old teachers. May the spirit of KHS, so vividly brought to life in these pages, go from strength to strength in the next 125 years.