Tuition Experiences at Jaffna College – The Island
by ECB Wijeyesinghe
When I was an eight-year-old schoolboy at St. Benedict’s College, Colombo, I was made to stand on a platform and recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” With great enthusiasm, I rendered the passage, “Cannon to their right, Cannon to their left, Cannon behind them flew and thundered,” fingers pointing to the appropriate compass points. I thought the war was grand, especially when the audience started cheering like crazy.
Many years later, when I and three others stood on a hill just 1,800 yards from the Japanese positions on the Arakan Front and watched the real things – Allied guns and dive bombers blowing up enemy strongholds all around us – our blood almost froze in our veins.
As I told you last Sunday, there were four of us: AC Stewart, editor of the “Times of Ceylon”, GJ Padmanabha, deputy editor of the “Ceylon Daily News”, KVS Vas, editor of “The Virakesari,” and myself representing “L’Observateur de Ceylan.” Stewart was the wealthiest of the four musketeers invited by Lord Mountbatten to see the final stages of World War II in Burma.
His brandy bottle, like the bottomless pit of Puttur, never dries up. So we huddled close to him, especially on a cold night in a God forsaken place called Comilla, on our way from Calcutta to Chittagong. It wasn’t just the low temperature that made us shiver. The Japanese were flying too close to us for our comfort, and the pristine white banyan and the cloth of Vas, the Brahmin, made us something of a sitting target for enemy snipers, who were everywhere.
When it came to this mission, it wasn’t so much the rigors of the battlefront that stuck in my mind as the fun interludes in Chandpur, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and Maungdaw and finally the adventures on the streets of Calcutta.
If you ever travel from Calcutta to Chittagong, I advise you not to travel all the way by train. Take part along the calm waters of the Meghna River, one of the main tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The train to Chittagong from Kolkata leaves the city just before dawn and as one travels east the glory of the sunrise seen from the train can only be compared to the view one gets on a clear day from Adam’s Peak.
After about six hours, the train reaches a small station called Goulanda. It is on the banks of the Meghna and anchored next to a floating desk of books that is a steamer, with a flat bottom and paddle wheels. Probably the show-boats on the Mississippi, made famous by Negro song and history, were greater models of these picturesque craft.
Padmanabha, who seemed to be in the mood for a little song about the black man’s burden, could not obey this impulse, due to the noise made by a gang of laborers carrying their burdens accompanied by a song resembling the song of the Volga boatman. . Some men were loading mysterious packages probably with deadly potential, while others were engaged in the more mundane task of shoveling silt with shovels and pickaxes from the riverside.
TO EAT LUNCH
We boarded the ship around noon, after an eight hour train ride. In the small dining room, boys in red turbans are busy setting the table. The smell of cooked meals invaded the nostrils, whetting the appetites already whetted by the sips of cognac from Stewart. When the boat whistled, the romantic little craft was released from its moorings and someone said it was time for lunch.
No more than 20 people could be seated at one time, but that was more than enough, as there were no more than 20 people on the upper deck, although there were many more in other parts Of the boat. The soup tasted good. The fish, caught in the very waters where there was turmoil, was better. The next item was the Irish stew, and Stewart, the Scot attacked it with fierce intensity.
For the three men from Ceylon, however, it was the rice and the curry that appealed the most. On small mounds of snow-white, thin, long-grained Delhi rice, large chunks of chicken, Indian-style curry, were placed. There were plenty of dhals and papadams, which our Brahmin companion was very pleased with.
Next to me sat a big builder from Borah from Dhaka. He walked through every course with a zeal worthy of a better cause. When it came to the curry, he thought he should say a few words. “It’s done in our Bengali style,” he said, smacking his lips after consuming two plates of rice. He helped himself to two more pieces of chicken and asked me if I liked it, but there was none left.
My neighbor Borah, in a loud voice, then called for the pudding. You could close your eyes and say he liked it too. He didn’t like coffee. The cups were too small for his liking.
The siesta in the two-berth cabin was disturbed by the call of tea. As we ascended the bridge, we were told that we passed the birthplace of CR Das, the great Indian nationalist. So, through the silence of the waters, interrupted only by the cacophonous cries of kites and seagulls, we reached Chandpur, the last stop on the road to Chittagong.
I was glad in a way that the Japanese bombed Chittagong. The very appearance of the places at that time created a violent prejudice. Crossing Main Street was like crossing Reclamation Road and exiting at Sea Street. It was dusty, dirty and unhealthy. I slept there under a mosquito net. In the morning, when I got up, I thought I had disturbed a hive of bees.
There they were, thousands of big mosquitoes trying to force, like big mosquitoes ahead, an entrance through the narrow openings in the curtain. If the net hadn’t covered me while I slept, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have been alive to tell this story.
It is almost impossible to compress into the narrow framework of this column what happened during the two or three weeks in a combat port. Or, to describe things we have seen or people we have met. For example, the picturesque sight of pretty Burmese women carrying young children but smoking big black cheroots, the vast plains near Cox’s Bazaar overrun with snipe and teal, the military transit camps where you had to walk a hundred of meters from the dormitory to the latrines – which incidentally had no doors – the bully beef diet, the wonderful physiques of the Indian soldiers fed on chappatis and a little ghee and the spirit of camaraderie of all the Allied military .
But I have to go back to Calcutta and tell you an interesting story about a stranger who made a strange request. We were at the Grand Hotel and after breakfast, while the others were spending their last coin at the Hogg market where you can buy anything you can think of, I ruminated for a while watching the parade go by on the sidewalk.
The hotel is located in Chowringhee. the main street of Calcutta, which every schoolboy knows is about five times the size of Colombo. I was deep in thought when I was suddenly accosted by a man dressed in gray flannel and a white shirt. His eyes were red, his feet were unsteady, and every time he exhaled the air was filled with the aroma of a potent liquor.
As he looked at me, I noticed something worrying him. Displeasure was written all over his face. He grabbed me by the shoulder. My heart went out to him. Here was a man, I thought, a stranger in a strange land, who needed help. Obviously he thought I was an Indian and I asked him what I could do for him. “Do ?” he growled and spat. I was about to leave him and allow him to enjoy the headache he had acquired at this early hour—it was about half-past eight—when he spoke again.
“Do you know that I come from Ceylon? he blurted into a thick plaid brogue. Until then, I knew he was European but I could not identify his nationality. Of course, things were bound to be fine after that. The magic word Ceylon made me prick up my ears. As he clung to my shoulders, I grabbed his elbow. It must have been a moving sight.
Smartly dressed Anglo-Indian girls on their way to work laughed as they passed. A British officer who seemed to sum up the situation at a glance gave a sympathetic wink and continued on his way. The usual crowd was beginning to gather. I suggested going up. He consented. We stopped at a popular joint called Firpo’s and then he spilled his soul.
He was a sailor. He had visited many countries and visited foreign countries. Forty years he had spent on the wave of the ocean. Born and raised among the distilleries of the Highlands, he had acquired a fondness for the strong brew that comes from Scotland. But his heart was in Ceylon. He told me how beautiful it was. He spoke of Colombo with a breath of air and of the small hotel in Chatham Street, named after a famous admiral, where he used to stay. I was silent. He continued to talk. Time was advancing. I could have listened to it until dusk. Finally, saying goodbye to me, he said to me: “You must visit Ceylon one day.
“I guess I must,” I muttered, and passed.
There was one disappointment on this otherwise very informative and entertaining trip. I wonder if you remember reading about the Calcutta black hole. It happened about 220 years ago when a man called Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the Nawab of Bengal, suddenly lost his temper and attacked the British East India Co.
The Nawab rounded up 146 Empire builders, all of them English of course, and in order to test some theories he had about space, he shoved them into a dungeon of less than 20 square feet. Naturally there was not enough air to go around and 123 British bodies were discovered the next morning. The other 23, who were half dead, managed to tell their misfortune to Lord Clive, who naturally took the Nawab’s cruel joke seriously.
Three thousand British troops were summoned and the English history books tell us they made mincemeat of the Nawab’s 50,000 men. Clive’s men were probably armed with guns while the Nawab’s men must have had fine swords and axes. Anyway, this was a little hole in Calcutta that I wanted to see but our guide pretended not to have heard of it. He was a Bengali.
(From the best among ????)