It is customary for students to wax eloquent about their teachers, not so for teachers to rattle on about their students. Strictly speaking, I am no teacher. But over the years, through my writing particularly, I have met several young people, many of whom I have interviewed and most of whom I have been in touch with. Some have lost contact over the years, others not so. This article is about two who have not, and who I believe will not.
2022 was a crisis year. Plunged into the chaos of a social and economic collapse, Sri Lanka seemed poised for a never-ending freefall. Yet by July the storm had receded, and some semblance of stability had returned, even if the political implications of that stability remain debatable.
It was in the midst of this calm after the storm that I found myself at an unlikely event. The Hostel of Royal College, Colombo had, for many months, been planning a Hostel Day, reviving an event which had paused for seven years.
It was an August night, and as the night progressed it became clear that the event had been organised with infinite care and patience. I have never been a fan of concerts and shows, particularly at night, and as far as this show went, there was very little to distinguish it from other similar “Days” and “Nights” which other schools organised.
But something made this event tick, something made it stand out. Two things, in fact: it began right on the dot and ended right on the dot, in line with the agenda, and it maintained a seamless flow from start to finish. We were living in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Yet despite the privations we had all been subject to, it began and ended on time, ahead of time.
The Royal College Hostel Day was the brainchild of the Hostel Prefects’ Council, and they had revived it, as I mentioned earlier, after seven years. When it had been planned in early 2022, the crisis had yet to begin; when the Council went in search of sponsorships, the fuel and gas queues, not to mention the hours-long blackouts, had commenced.
The Council was led that year by five Senior Prefects, with one Head Prefect and two Deputy Prefects. The Day had doubtless been the result of cooperation and collaboration. But it also owed its success to the initiative of those at the top, in particular the three at the very top. It so happened that I knew all three of them, and two of them especially well.
It was at the height of the pandemic in 2021 that I first met Uthpala Wijesuriya and Pasindu Nimsara. 10 years younger than me, they sounded wiser than their years. I found them full of enthusiasm for subjects I happened to like and to write on. They came from two different subject streams: Uthpala from Arts, Nimsara from Biology.
Yet both professed an interest in history, art, culture, international relations, and, as I later discovered when I tried to explain to them the rudiments of that subject, anthropology. At one level they thought alike, though they differed on various issues. What enthralled me was that they took to subjects that most of their peers did not usually go after, still less study.
I think it helped that, unlike most of their colleagues at their school, and like most of their colleagues at the Hostel, they came from totally disparate social environments, away from Colombo. Uthpala came from Kurunegala, and Nimsara from Ratnapura. The Grade Five Scholarship Exam has many faults, too many to list here, but ultimately it has served as an emancipatory tool for a rural petty bourgeoisie, whose prospects in life would otherwise be limited to their home and their immediate surroundings. Taking advantage of the Exam, this milieu has become a significant force in the country’s elite schools.
Lenin once wondered why an artist as rooted in his country as Tolstoy could be both revolutionary and reactionary. Tissa Devendra made a similar remark of George Keyt. A similar dualism permeates through these students: they adapt to their new surroundings quickly enough, but they retain the flavour of their villages. The anthropologist Steven Kemper has, in the last chapter of his brilliantly evocative book on advertising in Sri Lanka, commented on the role elite schools have played and continue to play for the families of these children. That role remains a significant and pivotal one, as relevant then as now. It certainly has become relevant for Hostel students like Uthpala and Nimsara.
With Uthpala and Nimsara, I sensed some innate compulsion to explore new subjects, explore new disciplines, and go beyond what they were studying. Something seemed to click between them, and as the months passed on, we made plans to research this topic or subject and that. Uthpala, in particular, was interested in writing a historical piece on the Hostel. In this, as I immediately realised, neither he nor Nimsara was moved by blind institutional loyalties. Their interest was genuine, sincere.
In 2022, of course, they were appointed to the top board of the Prefects’ Council. Uthpala became Head Prefect, and Nimsara one of his Deputies. I would like to think of this as one of the best appointments that institution could have ever made, because it enabled the Hostel not just to put together a first-rate event, but also to dig deep into the historical origins of the place they called home.
The article I eventually got to coauthor with them in this regard, which I published in another paper, owed a lot to their research. Watching the Hostel Day unfold in August, I felt convinced, as I am sure others would have, that they could be trusted with more serious projects. It wasn’t often, after all, that one came across youngsters who brimmed with enthusiasm for history, art history, sociology, anthropology.
With that in mind, after 2023 dawned and the two of them did their A Levels, I took them in as my research assistants. There were several historical projects waiting to be done, one of them involving the Anglican Church of Ceylon and another a collection of essays by a leading Sri Lankan political scientist. Both called for cataloguing, archiving, field visits, and several interviews.
Since February, Uthpala and Nimsara have fulfilled these responsibilities to the best of their abilities, and despite a few initial hiccups, both have served their roles well. A few weeks after they began these stints, moreover, they were appointed as Senior Prefects at school, and were appointed to various committees and groups that reflected their skills. Since then, they have moved on to other projects, some involving me. They have committed to all of them, and have made use of them to explore their potential.
Teachers and students see themselves in relation to each other. That relationship is often a two-way street, and it flows both ways.
Over the course of the last few months and years I have taught what I could to, but also learnt much from, both these boys. I remain, then as now, ignorant of Sri Lanka’s cultural complexities. Neither Uthpala nor Nimsara suffers from this disability, and they have managed to open my eyes to the intricacies of our culture, its beliefs, its rituals. While doing their prefect duties at school matches, they have also made me rediscover my love for rugby, culminating at the Bradby Encounter.
In turn I have tried to open their eyes to the intricacies of anthropology, a subject I have immersed myself in long enough. Nimsara remains, partly because of his love for medicine, a budding anthropologist himself: he has the gift of reading into human beings, of seeing as mundane a function as an Avurudu Festival at the College Hostel as a backdrop for the study of human relationships. This is a rare gift, and it involves a skill anthropologists can never do without, the ability to study a culture while immersing oneself in it.
Both, of course, are deeply interested in the social sciences, and though Nimsara has hopes of becoming a doctor, he remains fascinated by the possibilities of such subjects. They have proved themselves to be good researchers, budding archivists, and reliable associates. And they have reinforced my belief that the problems ailing this country cannot be down to the supposed ingratitude of “the young.” The young remain as passionate as ever. In many cases, they remain well above us.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.