“Memories of an Engineering Faculty” - Published in E Fac Golden Jubilee Magazine

 

In the latter half of 1998, I received an email message from a batchmate, Rohan Abeyaratne, about the Golden Jubilee of the E Fac occurring in the year 2000. Some weeks later I received a request from the Publications Committee for an article to be included in the proposed Jubilee Publication. The request had been cleverly deflected to me by Rohan, who is now a busy Professor at the USA's most prestigious University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

Since leaving E Fac in late 1975, I have had no physical contact with the place and it seems to have been a lifetime time ago, that I walked those corridors. However, sitting in my small study 24 years since completing my final exams, in a small town in South Australia, many memories come flooding into my mind. The memories are not chronological, nor are they in any rationally classifiable form, but they are a mix of faces, incidents, lecturers & lecture rooms, laughter, meal times, thoughts, batch-trips, sadness, course-works.... all tumbling into the conscious present as if it were just the other day.

 

I remember going to Platform 5 - Fort Railway Station on the morning of December 12th, 1970 carrying a pillow and other luggage, with my parents - who were feeling rather anxious - to board the Kandy bound train, for what was the beginning of a most memorable period of my life...........

 

Having a school mate, Mahes Witana, also enter E Fac at the same time and be allocated the same Hall of Residence, was good fortune and the journey to Peradeniya seemed like a holiday  trip as we journeyed up to Peradeniya on the Podi-Menike chatting with other school mates. Akbar-Nell Hall is the first building that comes to mind, and getting a room allocation was the first duty. The sub-warden seeing to us seemed a roly poly type character and we were not surprised to find he was aptly nick-named 'Bu', after a cartoon character who was a lovable elephant!  Soon the holiday feeling would evaporate as the stares from not too friendly looking seniors at us raw freshers, were enough to send shivers up our spines. Mahes & I were in room 1/23 in Nell Wing and very soon 'got to know' the seniors on our floor.

 

The first meal in the hall lunch room was a bit strained as we had been instructed to bring our forks and spoons to table! Obviously they were out of place, and kept hidden in the pockets, fearing a senior would ask you to do some tricks with them! Close to finishing my first lunch, I was asked by a Senior to come to his room straight away. I thought this must be for the dreaded rag - I knew it had to be endured & thought it better to get over with sooner than later. I was led to a room on Akbar 1st floor. He asked me to sit down and took out a sheet of paper and asked me to write a few lines in English. He seemed to like my best hand writing and produced a rough hand written script , which I had to re-write on fresh sheets. I recall it was something about films and was obviously an article he'd written, but was not legible enough for submission. I can remember thinking, if this is ragging, I didn't mind it if went on for more than the stipulated two weeks! I still have the first issue of 'Gauge' - the News-sheet of the Engineering Students' Union which came out in December 1970 a few days after my arrival in Peradeniya. On page 4, I see an article by R.L. De Silva (4th year Civil Engineering) entitled 'On appreciation of Cinema'. I feel some connection with this article, as I know that the final copy sent to the printer was in my hand-writing!

 

The Rag period went by and after two weeks we were inducted as worthy citizens of Akbar-Nell Hall in a colourful ceremony. Any shyness had disappeared in the two weeks and one got to know most of the batchmates who resided in the same hall quite well, owing to meeting them nude when summoned for mid-night baths etc. One batchmate, Godaliyadde, even recalled years later that I had promised my younger sister's hand would be given to him, during the very first week! Hall life was fascinating in the sense that it was a good melting pot - there were students of diverse backgrounds and an ideal way to learn so much from so many varying characters! My room-mate and I were from Colombo but we had floor-mates from Kurunegala, Chundikuli, Kandana, Matale Nallur, etc. I can recall translating Kipling's poem 'If' (which hung over my desk), into Sinhala on request of  our batchmate Embuldeniya, who sadly is no more. Seniors who had seemed rough and rude very soon became known faces and sources of advice. Akbar Nell being adjacent to the E Fac, had a majority of Engineering undergraduates. Although by this we missed the more colourful life of those 'on the other side of the river', we had a slight advantage when it came to early E Fac life, since we were known by a larger circle we would interact with in the Faculty.

 

The first visit to the Faculty was an inspiring occasion. Seeing the inside of Laboratories and large Drawing offices for the first time was impressive.  The stepped lecture rooms with the back door entrance (or exit!) were new to us who were used to small classrooms in school. Initially nervous we would soon make friends with different batchmates just by sitting next to them and conversing. Girls sharing the same lecture room was a novelty for some of us, as we'd not experienced co-education in our school days!  Various lecturers would be pointed out to us by those in the know, and with hushed voices we would discuss the brilliance of the intellect of Dr So & So. Some of the lecturers were quite nervous as we had to be given instruction in Sinhala & Tamil, and not English as had been the practice previously. On the second day one lecturer walked in and spoke about general discipline etc. He didn't stay long though and we found out why - he was a second year student! Now years later, Kalu Bala is a lecturer in a Sydney College of Technical & Further Education - and he has had the pleasure of  lecturing to some of those 'early students' of his, this time for real!

 

A new experience for most of us was meeting students from the North. They did not know Sinhala and none of us knew much Tamil, but many of us knew some broken English! Many of them had not experienced life in the South, and gradually we exchanged information about where we came from, and friendships began to develop. In later vacations, I was able to enjoy holidays in Chundikuli and Nallur which opened to me a new window of our country. In the light of later problems in Srilanka it is my belief that separating of school education into different language streams was definitely short sighted. Mixed language streams could have possibly avoided all the present death & destruction. Memories of visits to batchmates' homes in the North, and learning to say 'Metha Periya Ubaharam' for their warm & generous hospitality, comes to mind with a tinge of sadness.

 

In the first year, the girls swooned over the good looking Dr Ranaweera, who was our Surveying lecturer & his Ananda schoolmate Dr Vickramabahu Karunaratne. Both were dashing, smartly dressed, brilliant and not long returned from Cambridge with their PhDs. They seemed to negotiate the hazards of lecturing to young females quite skillfully, sometimes resorting to calling them 'thamuse' so that they knew where they stood! Mechanical Drawing was (and still is!) a mystery to some of the batchmates - and was taught by Mr NMRdeSilva who was nicknamed Fantomas. He was  a little unpopular with the boys since we found out he was having private 'chamfer circle drawing lessons' with the girls! Graphics was taught by the soft spoken Dean, Prof. Chinnappa, now resident in Melbourne - I had the pleasure of meeting him in Adelaide last year. When remembering First Year Surveying, a figure that comes to mind is 'Mame' a well known employee of the Surveying Laboratory. He had joined the E Fac in 1950 at its inception and was a childhood associate of Prof. H.B. DeSilva. He always had a smile and a word of encouragement, but I still recall his exclamation  - "Apoi Amme!" on seeing my first effort at plotting and colouring (too dark!) my first Chain Survey. Mame's sudden death of a heart attack in mid 1973 was mourned by staff & students alike.  The Mechanical Workshops were quite a thrilling place, with the lathes, welding shop and mini foundry. Mr Amaradasa was the lecturer and he managed the place. First Year Thermodynamics was taught by Dr Sivasegaram, who was well known for his sincere views on matters affecting the 'common-man'.

 

Our attendance at lectures, was recorded on a sheet passed round the lecture room. Each student had a registration number against which we would sign. About 150 of us had started on the first day, but the number was slightly higher after the first week. One thing I always noticed was at about Number 160 there was a "Ranjith DeSilva", a neat signature followed by an added "PhD". This was no wonder since we had a lecturer by that name, the well known National Badminton Champion, and Senior Lecturer in Metallurgy. Most of us thought that it was a humorous prank by someone to always write this name on our sheet - only to find out later that we did have a batchmate by that name - a quiet and well brought up young man! (In later years the two Ranjiths did marry two sisters, Nelum - the popular girl in our batch - and her elder sister Lilani.) I had a duty to perform on every Friday during the first year, and that was to 'sign' the sheet on behalf of a friend. I think he may have only been in Peradeniya for a handful of Fridays in his entire first year. He would travel down to Colombo every Thursday, and was enjoying an early week-end while we were at Friday lectures. So even now, after 28 years, I could probably pass off a reasonable signature of the Managing Director of Metropolitan Agencies, Erajh Guneratne!

 

A novel experience was attending the ESU meetings held in the auditorium. It was usually held before mid-day on Wednesdays and attendance was quite good - except when exams were getting close. The President in our first year was Cassim 'Bunchy' Rahuman and Secretary Kesara Goonewardene - both of them usually on stage. Sometimes there would be 'charged' meetings when issues of student rights,   were discussed. Sometimes one would find there were speakers on diametrically opposite sides of issues and the Chairman had to be diplomatic to steer the debate along without it getting too heated. A polished speaker, now resident in Wellington, New Zealand, was Sunil Abeyratne who had been aptly nicknamed 'Kadu Abeya'! Rajan Hoole was a gentle giant and would at times introduce his pet topic vegetarianism into any argument. A meeting that united all factions was one which was called soon after the shock resignation of the Vice Chancellor, Professor E O E Pereira, on an issue of principle over a strike by Hall Employees. A much loved former Dean of the Engineering Faculty, his departure & the circumstances was deplored by all in the Faculty.

 

In our first year was the April 1971 insurrection -which came upon us out of the blue. On the evening of April 5th we were in the Engineering Auditorium for an evening of entertainment put on by the ESU. I can recall that while watching a Charlie Chaplin film, it was suddenly stopped and the President walked on stage to announce an all island curfew had been declared and all students were advised to return to their halls of residence immediately. Being mere freshers most of us had not realised that people in the Campus had some involvement with some of the activities that occurred that month in parts of the country. The next day Campus was closed and we had to find our way to our homes. My batchmate, Gemunu Abayasekara who is now a DGM at the CEB, found out that having long sideburns was not very much appreciated by armed forces personnel, who pulled him (by the sideburns) in to a barber -shop for trimming them! Walking around Kandy with bags in hand looking obviously like Undergrads was not a good idea, since the Armed Forces were looking to settle scores from an earlier battle. Ranil Senaratne & I were fortunate when a Rohan Abeyaratne's  father turned up in his car to look for his son who seemed already to have left Peradeniya. We were invited to hop in and I can remember spotting Kumar Wijayaratna standing outside Queens Hotel with his bag! He was probably the only undergrad who thought of going to Queens Hotel to spend the April '71 insurrection! Anyway he too was invited to join us, and we were driven via Kurunegala since the Colombo-Kandy road was 'not government controlled'. A 3.00pm curfew meant we had to stay the night in Kurunegala and we were doubly fortunate that Mr Abeyratne had been GA, Kurunegala in earlier years. We stayed the night at Dr Jeganathan's and were treated very hospitably and were very comfortable. E Fac 2nd year student Nagendran, who walked into his uncle's home was surprised to find three freshers comfortably enjoying his uncle & aunt's hospitality. Our parents were grateful to Mr Abeyratne for our safe passage to Colombo, when we got home the next day.

 

Peradeniya Campus in April is a sight to behold - the flowers blooming in profusion from stately trees along Galaha Road, makes it a veritable Garden of Eden! I recall late one night walking back to Akbar Nell, after attending some function on the 'other side' and pausing on the concrete foot bridge. It was almost full moon and it was reflected in the waters of the Mahaveli below. There was a gentle breeze and my heart was full with gratitude for the opportunity that I'd had to attend this Faculty & University - a chance that very few were fortunate enough to enjoy. The words that came to my lips were the song, "If ever could I leave you" - from the recent musical Camelot. It seemed to me then, that every undergrad should naturally want to spend the rest of their days in this magical place.

 

In the second year, not having Halls of Residence allocated to us, we had to find our own lodgings. Some of the more adventurous chose to stay in homes closer to Kandy, where they would encounter the real world (with Kandy Girls High School & Convent close-by). Four of us, found a boarding house in Penideniya. We took rooms in 'Meewatura Waluwa', and later discovered that there were many residences with the identical name! We didn't mind our letters occasionally going to the wrong house - as long as there were pretty girls to collect the mail from! Kiribath was the daily breakfast fare, with 'miris' being very often late in preparation. Many times we would be walking along the railway lines trying our best not to be late for the first lecture. Vasantha Wijeyakulasuriya -later ESU Secretary - used to go out at strange times when we had no lectures and it was only some months later we found out he was timing his outings  to coincide with a neighbour-hood lass going to the Alliance Francaise for French class! With so many Engineering students spending a year in homes in Penideniya and surrounding areas, it is no wonder that many young girls from the area are now wedded to Engineers. You may say that Engineering is firmly planted in the hearts and minds of the people of the vicinity.  There is one home of four daughters, I understand, which has four engineers, one a batchmate of ours, as sons in law! Another romance of a batchmate, developed through an open window, as the schoolgirl's room was adjacent to the path, which seven young engineering undergrads took daily, to their neighbouring abode. The happy couple and family are now settled somewhere in Canada.

 

Batch trips were an essential part of undergrad life. There were organised trips and also ad-hoc trips as well. One year some of us climbed the famed Hantane which has overlooked Peradeniya for millenia. The Hill would have some interesting stories to tell, ever since the University was built there. A hill climb especially when the climbers do not stick to the easy routes leads to situations and encounters which certainly help with 'bonding'. A lot of the lads & lasses lost their shyness with one another after that first climb! The ESU subsidised an annual batch trip and  the boys certainly looked forward to it. Going long distance by bus with some of the lads surviving on a purely liquid diet, with music, song & dance non stop, was an eagerly awaited diversion each year. The girls appeared offended by some of the lyrics being sung, but seemed to come each year, probably to find out what was new. Dr Rambukwella the popular Electronic Engineering lecturer was always asked to come along, and always contributed a verse or two. In the Second Year we went to Maskeliya & saw the Wimalasurendra Power Station. In the third year the trip was to Rajangane - some black & white photographs in a small album I have, rekindle memories of those enjoyable days when we had hair.........There is one photograph taken of nine of us, who were all inmates on the 1st floor of the 3rd Wing at Hilda-Obeysekere Hall that year - Nimal S, Herbert J, Vasantha W, Rohan B, Chemings G, Rohan A, Dixon W and Gemunu A. Seeing the photograph brings to mind one night at the Hall, when to please my friend Paskaradevan I ate Durian for the first time. On returning to the room the doors were being slammed on the first floor as they were no fans of the "heavenly fruit" there!

 

During our first year the ESU took part in a Drama competition, and staged an English drama in the Engineering Auditorium. It was a murder mystery, if I remember right. Two of the cast Chandru Mirchandani & Mano Devasirwatham are now Professors in the USA. At the Annual Faculty Day (earlier known as Dean's day) the ESU encouraged students to do stage presentations. Imitation of lecturers was always a popular item and the students usually would enact actual episodes from the lecture room. One which I recall is Dr Gunawardene (Electronics) looking for a diode he had scribbled on the black-board, which had got transferred on to the back of his trouser!

 

In the 1970s engineers graduating faced unemployment especially if they had qualified in Mechanical or Electrical Engineering. Vacation employment schemes were started by the faculty / ESU with the assistance of Government Departments & Private Firms. In our first year there were very few jobs going for freshers. Later on more opportunities came through and the experience gained of actual engineering work places proved very beneficial. The average pay was Rs 5/= per day. A lucky few got jobs paying Rs 10/= per day and were the envy of the batch. The job selection was done by drawing lots.

 

Vacation Employment also recalls the sadness we felt at the beginning of our third-year. Many of us got placements in different parts of the country at the end of the second year, and Anton Xavier, from Kandy got a placement with the TCEO in MahaOya. On the last day of 1972, he'd gone swimming in a pool and drowned. Some of us while on vacation, got the news in time to dash up to Kandy to attend his funeral. It was heart rending to see his family's grief at the untimely loss of a son & brother. He was not yet 20 years old. Another tragedy comes to mind - the death of A Vettinathan, from KKS. The eldest & only boy in a family of five, he had completed his final exams in Civil Engineering, and was working on the Katunayake Highway Project in 1975.  He was knocked down by a lorry and tragically killed before the exam results were released. Some of us attended his funeral at his home not far from Casuarina Beach. It was made more poignant that Mahes & I had visited Jaffna the previous year, and enjoyed a tasty seafood lunch in his home. Little did we dream then that we would attend his funeral in the same courtyard before long, in the presence of a his heart-broken family. When the final exam results were released, Vetti had obtained a Second Class. Although Anton & Vetti never joined us for the Graduation Photograph, the image of their smiling faces will stay forever imprinted in our hearts.

 

A special occasion that took place in our Final Year was the Farewell to Professor Bartholomeusz. The much loved Professor of Mathematics, left for Zambia in July 1974, and a special gathering of the student body was held in May one evening in the auditorium. The saying that "one man can make a difference" was illustrated in the tributes accorded to him by all the batches in heartfelt terms. His contribution had been much more than being a good teacher - his caring for the students and appreciation of their needs, difficulties & fears - endeared him to all.

 

It was in our Final year that there was the crash of an aircraft in Maskeliya. A Charter flight of pilgrims had crashed up-country and some of the more adventurous batchmates made a quick trip to see what they could do. Nimal Perera came back with a small piece of the plane to Akbar New Wing. It was probably the name of the mountain range that drew him irresistibly to the crash site - "Seven Virgins". He now resides in Canada. It was thanks to him that some of us attended the Vice Chancellor's elder daughter's 21st Birthday Party!

 

Within the first two years, the batch had been able to identify the really brilliant members  in our batch. It was not by exam performance alone, but by their ability to be of one mind with the lecturer, while most of us were frantically trying to copy down what was written on the board! Mervin Alwis would write down only about one twentieth of what was said or written. He would divide a half sheet down the middle and neatly jot down important points only - working out everything in his head. Parameshwaran & Sivakumar - now a Professor in Wollongong University -were also neat and had a full set of notes. They would be seen explaining the knotty points to batchmates in the hall & library. Britto would write his notes in exercise books, which were later maintained in his room as a Reference Library, freely borrowed by all! Britto himself kindly maintained a register in which he maintained his 'library issuing record'! (A well brought up shy lad, was Britto, and it was said that his parents would come to the Fort Railway Station to pick him up even when he was in the Final Year. He later went to Cambridge). Rohan Abeyaratne would use coloured pens and foot-ruler for underlining - his notes were like a high quality American Text Book. It was said that his answer script would be used by some lecturers, as their model answer! Haran Snell also used Exercise Books, and had neat script hand-writing. Once Dr Kumar David seeing his neat notes had proclaimed, "neatness is a sign of a wasted youth!" Nimal Seneviratne hardly bothered to take down notes, mostly in scribbled form not of much use to mere mortals - he would do a bit of revision after returning from the Cinema, lying on his bed with a cigarette in hand. He too went to Cambridge, prior to returning to Peradeniya. Kumarasena was a one off - brilliant and philosophical, sometimes teased by the more earthier batchmates. He had a marvellous rapport with Prof Barthlomeusz during mathematics lectures, and sometimes pointed out minor corrections!

 

In our final year, there being over 100 Civil Engineering undergraduates, they took up the initiative to form a Civil Engineering Society. Rohan Bandarage, now in Perth, was the first President and the committee organised student seminars which gave valuable experience in public speaking, seminar presentation skills etc, which would have been useful in later life. Not being part of the student union, the CES was able to organize it's own 'Going Down' Dinner dance, in one of the drawing offices, in August 1975, which stays in memory as an enjoyable night, enjoyed by all the batch.

 

Our batchmates are now scattered throughout the globe, but one thing is sure as we look back on that period of our lives. Where ever we reside, the years we spent in the E Fac in Peradeniya, will ever remain a fragrant and abiding memory.

 

Ranjan Abayasekara (December 1970 - October 1975)