A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Antony Powell is one of the most impressive fictional works of the last century. The narrator comes across different characters in different settings over the years, and I was reminded of this as I saw so many old friends coming in here today to celebrate Parvathi Nagasunderam and her work.

I was delighted to see Prof Wilson, who was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura when Paru and I

began our work there, and was a tower of strength. Dinali Fernando was one of those we recruited along with Paru, and I also see here Madhubhashini Ratnayake, who is now at USJP, though I am sorry to say we did not succeed when we tried to recruit her then, way back in 1992.

I see Lakshmi Cumaranatunga, who headed the Higher Institute of English Education when Paru taught there, before we persuaded her to come to USJP. Then there is Prof Narada Warnasuriya, who was on the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, when I chaired it in 2004. And I see students such as Lalith Ananda and Sarath Ananda and Palitha Dissanayake, whom Paru taught at the Pasdunrata College of Education, whom she introduced to the Asset Course I ran while at the British Council, and who subsequently joined either USJP or its Affiliated University Colleges when we began English courses there in revolutionizing English at universities.

And then there are Paru’s sisters, including the one I know best, Dr Fernando. When I say I know her, I should say that this is not directly, it is through her husband, Dr Joe Fernando, who was Secretary of the Ministry of Health, who was a constant visitor at my home because he lived nearby and would often drop in on my father during his relentless healthy walking round the block.

I discovered, in the dance of different characters to time’s music that we come across, that Joe was Paru’s brother-in-law. This happened because there was a news item, about 20 years ago, to the effect that the Secretary to the Ministry of Health had developed aids – which as we know from Joe’s continuing healthy walking, was not the case – and I mentioned this to Paru during one of the long journeys we would take together to the AUC at Belihuloya which later became Sabaragamuwa University. Paru laconically said that she would ask her sister, who was married to the Secretary.

I am delighted then to see Dr Mrs Fernando and another sister here, because I feel I know them well. They belong to a very distinguished family of educationists from Jaffna. I am sorry I never met Paru’s  eldest sister, who was Principal of the Kopay Training College, though I did regularly meet the second, whom Paru looked after when she had to leave Jaffna after her elder sister’s death, since the family was then scattered far and wide.

I have not come here with a prepared text, because I wanted to see the type of audience there was before I spoke. The vast numbers of young people here, I am told, are Paru’s students from USJP and from Pasdunrata, and their presence here is a tribute to the deep devotion they feel towards her for her commitment to them. I thought therefore that I would talk about the challenges that Paru has faced, and how she has overcome them to move from strength to strength, in the hope that the range of her work will inspire these youngsters too to become teachers like her.

I have known Paru now for over thirty years. She was a student when I first began teaching at Peradeniya, though I hasten to add that she is somewhat older than I am. Most of my students then were older, partly because of the delays endemic in our education system at the time, and partly because the English Departments had thought up a splendid scheme to justify the large staffing they had. This was to allow serving teachers who did well in the first external exam to come in as internal students, on the grounds that it would make them better English teachers. Several teachers took advantage of this, and came and learned all about literature and linguistics, and were then expected to go back and teach in secondary schools. Since they were supposed to teach language, and they wanted now to talk about Shakespeare and all the wonderful authors they had studied, they were not very successful – and many of them instead tried to stay on at the universities, so they were not of much help to school students.

Paru escaped that fate because she did not get a class. She has held that against me, because after I had persuaded her, as one of the cleverest of our students, to do a Special Degree rather than the General that she was following, I then resigned on a political issue. I was not then actively involved in examiner her at finals, by when Prof Ashley Halpe was back. The year before Paru’s got lots of classes, because Halpe was away and his successor was very liberal with his marks, but the old order was back by the time Paru took her finals.

But that was a boon to school level English. Paru was a good teacher, and was soon snapped up by the newly opened Pasdunrata College of Education. She worked there with David Woolger, perhaps the best English Trainer the British Council brought out, and he then took her to the Higher Institute of English Education, headed by Lakshmin Cumaranatunga, which ran fantastic trainer training programmes for a few years. We also had excellent British Consultants such as Jamie Drury there in those years, and they were a wonderful team.

But perhaps they were too good, for envy set in. A new Minister downgraded the HIEE, and in time it was abolished, and trainers have not been developed properly now for nearly two decades. Pasdunrata too suffered. Whereas its early products were superb teachers, and are still much appreciated, the President, Charlie Gamage, who had done a fantastic job, was got rid of – as was the visionary head of the NIE, D A Perera – and Pasdunrata began a steady slide. This was so bad that, when I was asked to look at the place a few years back, when I was a Consultant in English at the Ministry of Education, the students said nothing when I spoke to them, and then a few boys chased my car to the junction and slipped me a note to say the situation was awful, but they had been told not to say anything. I think things are a bit better now, but the days when it was a flagship institution are long gone, and as with the NIE, no one seems to care about the decline.

But that disaster proved beneficial to the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. I had gone back to the university system in 1992 because of the AUCs that were opening up. For years I had objected to the type of English degree offered by several universities, because they all produced literature experts like me, who were of no use with regard to the crying need of the country which was better English teachers. I was told by Prof Arjuna Aluwihare, who was

Chairman of the UGC, that his efforts to get new English courses going had been rejected by the other universities, but USJP had agreed, and its then Dean of Arts, the visionary Prof Mahinda Palihawadana, got in touch with me and persuaded me to get involved.

When plans were proceeding well, he dropped a bombshell and said the then Head was about to go to Australia and he himself was retiring, and he persuaded me to re-enter the university system. He did assure me that his successor would be extremely helpful, and so it proved. Prof Wilson helped me to hire at least some of the staff I wanted, chief of whom was Paru. Having been her teacher at Peradeniya, and then a friend and colleague when she worked at Pasdunrata and the HIEE, I now became her student, since I knew little of teaching English Language, which I wanted to be the focus of the new courses.  Prof Warnasuriya, for instance, just asked me about the propriety of teaching Grammar at university level, but I noted that, when he and I were learning English, Grammar was easily picked up. This was no longer the case by the seventies, let alone the nineties when I put the new syllabus in place, and so we introduced two subjects for the degree in the form of English Language as well as English Literature. Paru helped me devise new titles for these courses, which we put in place at USJP as well as the AUCs.

But it was not all easy sailing. Prof Raheem mentioned that Paru had been head of the ELTU, though this was never the case. I had wanted her to head this when we took her to USJP, and Prof Wilson appointed her, but this led to such a storm of protest by the less knowledgeable ladies who dominated the ELTU that he had to reverse the appointment. There was also some racism, with at least one lady in the ELTU denigrating Paru as Tamil and claiming that USJP had not had Tamil staff previously, which I think was nonsense. I am glad however that easily the best teacher in the ELTU, Oranee Jansz, stood up for Paru, and in time she was loved there too for her readiness to help.

I’m afraid I left Paru after a couple of years, or rather, my contract was not renewed and I moved on to other work. Paru however continued to help, notably when I was finally able to reintroduce English medium into the school system. She and Oranee were the mainstays of the teacher training programme we began, and that kept the programme going even in the dark days when it ran into much opposition and indeed elements in the NIE even tried to kill it.

Paru also helped in expanding the External USJP degree when I asked the universities to introduce English Language Teaching into degree programmes. The other universities refused, but Paru added ELT to what we had initially introduced way back in the early nineties, namely English Language and English Literature.  This is now the most popular external degree in the whole university system, and Paru faithfully marks hundreds of scripts each year. I should note however that she too has now adopted the principle of training students to do better than she did herself, and she now has a host of graduates of USJP who studied under her who have taken on much of her work.

She was also enormously helpful when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the NIE and we tried to introduce radical changes into all school syllabuses. I think, because of Paru’s help, the new English syllabuses were particularly innovative and though, after the membership of the Board was changed,some of our innovations were got rid of, at least some good things have remained. I can only suggest to Prof Warnasuriya, who still serves on that Board, that now that the proposed education reforms vindicate the suggestions we made seven years ago, he does his best to reintroduce some of those radical changes.

Seeing so many of Paru’s students here, remembering the excellent work they have done wherever they have served, I would like to sum up her achievements in lines I always remember, expressed by yet another academic innovator at USJP at the time I worked there. I refer to Mr Wickramaarachchi who had started an Accountancy degree course which was amongst the most prestigious in the Faculty of Business Studies, which was described I think rightly as the cutting edge in those days of the University system. Wickremaarachchi, in asking me to raise the standards of the English programmes the ELTU had been giving his students, noted that there was no point in being a teacher unless one’s students turned out better than oneself.

Paru has striven for this all her life. She has also, as Kipling suggested, turned disappointments into opportunities. When she did not get a class or join the staff at Peradeniya, she served school students faithfully and was chosen to move on to Pasdunrata and the HIEE. When those were being wound down, she moved on to Sri Jayewardenepura. She has thus taught at school, at university, at teacher training college and at a trainer training institute, which makes her the most experienced of English teachers at all relevant levels. While she worked in such institutions, they were all at their best, providing innovative and excellent courses to their students.. And through all this she was devoted to her family, looked after her sister, and also mentored the now eminently successful children of her eldest sister. And she has continued to mentor her students, urging them on to better and higher things. This book, written after her retirement, is yet another milestone in a universally helpful career, and I have no doubt it will not be the last.

Sunday Observer 30 Dec 2012http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2012/12/30/mon05.asp

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