Neither caterpillar nor butterfly | Sunday Observer

Neither caterpillar nor butterfly

29 August, 2021
Maal Wijayarathna

Maal Wijayarathna, an author and retired teacher of Royal College, Colombo, published his autobiography as Nacha So Nacha Angno (Neither Caterpillar nor Butterfly), recently. He has published five educational books on Commerce and Business Studies, and was also a freelance journalist for Satara newspaper. The Sunday Observer spoke to him to discuss his book, his experiences as a teacher and his views on education in Sri Lanka.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: How does this book come out as your first literary endeavour with 742 pages?

A: Several years ago, I started to document my experiences in a book, but didn’t publish it. As time passed by, I thought to add more to that earlier book. That’s how the book came about. Yet, here I tried to present my experiences through a novelistic form which is why I introduce this as an autobiographical novel. You can see in the book that there are no chapters in it, and it was written in colloquial language as well.

Q: Why did you decide to write your autobiography?

A: It was kindled within me when I started to read literature some 60 years back. I even selected a title for it. That is Nacha So Nacha Angno which means always changing. Those days, I was an avid reader and Madol Duwa by Martin Wickramasinghe, was one of my favourites. So, when I got used to read literary books, I felt to write my autobiography one day. Another reason for my decision was scarcity of Sinhala autobiographies at the time. I never read an autobiography in my school days – I mean in the 50s.

Q: Your home town is Talagaspe, Elpitiya in Galle district. As you described in the book, you attended many schools?

A: Yes, my home town is Talagaspe, Elpitiya which is a very beautiful village. People in the village always cared about each other. Nobody had any fear to wander alone. There was a unique huge rock called Naigala in our village. It was called Naigala because of a cobra living under the rock. Though we often played around it and went close to it, the cobra never harmed us. I still feel the scent of Naigala in our village. We called that scent Kiridola Suwanda.

As you said, I attended many schools. The first was Talagaspe Primary school. Second was Gonapinuwala Saralankara where I studied up to Grade Six. My third school was Baddegama Christ Church Boys’ school. I was admitted to it because of my parents’ wish who wanted to give me an English medium education. But three or four months after I was admitted to it, the English medium changed to Sinhala medium as a result of the then Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s official language act. My fourth school was Waishaaka Vidyalaya in Wellawatte. The reason for my shift was that my elder brothers moved to Ratmalana to do their jobs – my eldest brother, Hema Wijayarathna, later became a professor at the University of Jayewardenepura, is 15 years older than me. When they left home, my younger sister and I, who were left alone at our home in Talagaspe, also had to move to Ratmalana.

The fifth school that I attended was Moratuwa Vidyalaya where I studied up to Grade 8. The last school of mine was Sri Lanka Vidyalaya which was situated at Ode Pansala in Maradana. It was for my Advanced Level examination that I went to that school. After all these school education, I attended to Ratmalana Parama Dhamma Chetiya Pirivena which gave me the knowledge of oriental languages.

Q: You didn’t enter university?

A: One of my early dreams was to enter the University of Peradeniya, but I couldn’t pass the Advanced Level examination. Only two students passed from our school. If I could enter the University, definitely I would have ended up as an actor in Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s plays, because I adored him so much. However, I obtained the BA degree from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura as an external student.

Q: You say in the book that you played a role in a drama when you were 11 years old?

A: I was born in 1943. Those days my elder brothers – I have four elder brothers – had a drama circle, and they used to produce dramas. When I was 11 in 1954, they called me to act in a play which was their new play. I joined them and played a comic role in it. That was my first play, but when I moved to Colombo, my acting career ended.

Q: How did you become a commerce teacher?

A: When I was at Waishaaka Vidyalaya in Wellawatte, one of my classmates was Nihal Nelson who was still a singer. Because of him, I also had a dream to become a singer. But our teachers didn’t like me to be with Nihal Nelson as they wanted to focus on my studies. As a result, our whole attention turned towards taking a good education and passing examinations.

Ultimately, I became a teacher after leaving the school. The reason for becoming a commerce teacher was influence of my eldest brother, Hema Wijayarathna. He studied art subjects for his Senior School Certificate examination (It is similar to Advanced Level examination at present) in English at the Christ Church College, Baddegama, and became an English teacher.

Then, he attained a lecturer post at the University of Jayewardenepura. He was a person who challenged his own destiny. So, he encouraged us to pursue Commerce subjects saying it is a new subject which helps to take a job like teaching easily. And he also supported our education by bringing us Commerce books and teaching us the subject. In this way, my two sisters and I ended up being teachers.

Q: Your name Maal Wijayarathna was familiar with students some 30 years back?

A: I think it was because of my writing to Satara newspaper. After I became a Commerce teacher, Chandrasoma Perera who was the editor of Satara newspaper requested me to write to the paper. That’s how I started. But my journalism started way back in 1950s. It was thanks to my cousin Ananda Wijayaweera – my elder sister’s husband – who was a senior journalist. When I was just a school boy, he got me to write some articles for newspapers including Rasawahini magazine. At this time, I also worked at Curriculum Centre which is now called the National Institute of Education (NIE). For a long time, I gave lectures on Commerce and Business Studies in various seminars for students. All of these activities made my name familiar among students.

Q: When did you start writing educational books?

A: I became a teacher after entering the Maharagama Teachers’ Training College. My first appointment after passing out of the Training College was to Getamanne Vidyalaya, Hambantota in 1978. Before entering the Training College, I worked at St. Mary’s College in Dehiwala. While I was teaching at Getamanne Vidyalaya, the time came to admit my son to a school. Because of this, I had to transfer to Royal College, Colombo to get my son admitted to it. But when I was ready to leave Getamanne Vidyalaya, my students were heartbroken and asked me to write some notes for them once a week. This moved me very much. So this is why I began to write books for students.

Q: When reading your autobiography, we feel that you have a talent for writing. Why didn’t you write fiction?

A: I also cannot fathom. I think my literary ability is attributed to my interest in literature. Besides that, I had some good teachers in my school days. One of them was Amara Hewamadduma who was my Advanced Level class teacher at Sri Lanka Vidyalaya, Maradana. He greatly encouraged me towards literature. Sunanda Mahendra was another teacher in our school. All these teachers directly or indirectly influenced us to write.

Though I didn’t write fiction, I once engaged in helping Godage Mahattaya to organise literary events. Thanks to these events, I could know about many writers as well. Once, when I was sitting on a chair at the bookshop, Prof Sarachchandra entered the room. At once I stood up and was ready to give him the seat. But he said, he had to leave soon, and asked where Godage Mahattaya was. I said he wouldn’t come soon. Then, he gave me the manuscript of his book – I think it was his novel Vilasiniyakage Premaya – and left saying he would come another day.

The second day when he came to the bookshop, he said Godaga Mahattaya in front of me, Aaa, mama eda potha manager mahattayata dunna (Oh, I gave the manuscript to the Manager the other day.) Then, Godage Mahattaya said while laughing that I was a Commerce teacher at Royal College and showed one of my Commerce books to him. At that time, Prof Sarachchandra begged forgiveness saying “Ane mata samawenna!” I never saw such modesty in such an influencial person. As I said earlier, I definitely would become a member of his drama circle if I entered Peradeniya University. If my destiny was ever cruel to me, this was one occasion.

Q: But you could have associated with him without being a student?

A: Yes, but because of my busy life, I only met him at book launching ceremonies. For instance, when Sunil Ariyarathne’s book Baila – Kapiringna was launched at Lumbini Hall in Thimirigasyaya, he participated in it.

Here I should tell you one incident: though Sunil Ariyarathne’s book was published by Dayawansha Jayakody, Godage Mahattaya also came to the ceremony. He and I sat side by side behind the first row while Prof Sarachchandra sat at the front row with Dayawansha Jayakody. But when he had something to say, he turned his face towards us or Dayawansha Jayakody and said it. At the ceremony, popular singer Nanda Malini was the one who sang Baila as examples to highlight the content of the book. When hearing Nanda Malini singing Baila, Sarachchandra told Dayawansha Jayakody ironically, “Nanda kiyanakota baila unat hari lassanay ne! (Baila is beautiful when Nanda sings it!)” He was such a witty person.

Q: In your book you say you were unable to take English medium education as a result of the then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s official language policy. Don’t you agree with his language policy?

A: No, I don’t agree with him. Under the old system, students had a chance to become fluent in both languages, Sinhala and English. And they also acquired a vast knowledge about the world because of their English knowledge. But we couldn’t have that knowledge. I personally suffered from the lack of English knowledge badly. We just became frogs in the well because of this language policy.

Besides that, this caused a 30-year-long battle in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala Only Act that was passed in 1956 by Parliament was a great injustice to Tamil people. If a government’s letter reaches a Tamil person in Sinhala, isn’t it wrong? Now we know both Tamil and Sinhala languages are established as official languages. But why couldn’t Bandaranaike do that in 1956? Even, Sir John Kotelawala asked Bandaranaike to have two official languages. Yet, he couldn’t do that as he only gave ear to Sinhala extremist opinion. However, I don’t blame only Sinhala politicians. All these problems we face emerged due to British colonialists. They were the main culprits in this regard, who wanted to cause disagreement between Sinhalese and Tamils in this country.

Q: Now we see a teachers’ strike which has caused tremendous difficulties for schoolchildren who struggle in the midst of Covid. How do you see this strike?

A: There is an issue of teachers’ salaries, but the issue emerged some 20 years back. Here, we should praise former Education Minister Richard Pathirana who solved the salary issue. He established the teaching service. But, after that, various problems started to emerge with regard to salaries of teachers because some people at the teaching service got their salaries increased with political influence while neglecting others in the same category. With time, the problem began to be serious. This is the cause of this strike.

Q: Do you agree with the strike?

A: How can one approve neglecting schoolchildren’s lessons? But this problem has to be solved immediately. In my view, teachers should stand with schoolchildren. Unfortunately, teachers’ unions seem to exploit the Covid situation. I think these union leaders had strong foreign support because most of the unions are NGOs.

Q: Do you think online education is fruitful?

A: It is a fake. You cannot learn properly through online education. Even Australian educationalists pointed out this fact. If you can remember the time when the JVP violence erupted in 1989 – 90s, there was a three-month curfew. At this time, the Education Ministry proposed some main schools in Colombo such as Royal, Ananda, Nalanda, Visakha to prepare a study pack for children, which was to be posted to rural schools.

I think that method is suitable even at this time. However, my main suggestion is to teach children through television by using drama. It is very unfortunate that we don’t make use of the potential of drama. In that sense, I admire the program Television Iskole on ITN. In fact, we should not teach children. We should make children learn on their own.

Q: Finally, why did you launch this book as an author publication?

A: If I published this book through a publisher, they wouldn’t keep this price– Rs. 700. Most probably, they would double the price. But there is another reason to publish it myself. All the expenses for this publication which was about 400,000 were undertaken by a student of mine living in Australia. He wanted to distribute this book among schoolchildren as a tribute to me, though it was not practical during this pandemic. So, this is why I published it myself.