Time, passing, introduces us to activities which we will have, we suddenly realize, to continue with for ever. I recall still my sense of disquiet, way back in the early seventies, when my mother was diagnosed with high pressure and had to take tablets. When I asked her for how long, she said for the rest of her life, with an equanimity I could not share. The fact that she was growing inexorably older was not something I liked.

I had had a similar sense a decade earlier, when I started at S. Thomas’ and realized I would have to set off each morning, for school, and then for work as I saw my father doing, for the rest of my life. Most children do not understand the rigours of the walls closing in on them when they start school, for they do this when very young. So they have got used to their lifelong prison by the time they are old enough to appreciate the relentless forward march of time.

But I had had a reprieve.  I had begun in the Kindergarten at Ladies College, and then my family went to Canada, and I found myself free again, since the age of schooling there was higher. I could spend mornings at home with my mother, when my brother and sister, muffled up against the cold – we got there in the October of 1958 – set off for school. And when I was bored, I could go downstairs and play in the front garden. It stayed enormous in my memory for a couple of decades, but turned out to be tiny when I revisited the place in 1979 while waiting for my doctoral viva. It was there and then, in that first winter, that I stopped a lady in the street and asked if I could throw a snowball at her. I saw the incident, when I wrote ‘Explorer’s Diary’ about my voyage round the world in 1986, as the first sign of a thirst for adventure, encompassing the trivial as well as the exotic. Unfortunately for me what I thought of as an anonymous encounter became a tale to be told to entertain visitors, when the lady saw me with my mother at a supermarket and made the connection.

But that sense of renewed freedom was a joy I have never forgotten. The downside was that I was therefore able to register, when school began again in earnest back in Colombo, that my reprieve had been unusual, and that this was reality, and it would last for ever. Admittedly Oxford, with its wonderfully loose way of teaching and learning, was an exception, and I have been lucky in my employers and my employment since. There was never any sense of confinement, and I have enjoyed all my work, even now, when I was cajoled back into harness when I thought retirement would be fun.

But there have been other elements of irreversible decay, compelling one to register that the world will not be one’s oyster. There has been advancing grey, on head and face and chest, and pills as my mother was given, for sugar and pressure and cholesterol. Income tax forms have to be filled in each year, and light and water and telephone bills paid each month.

But this month I had another reprieve. Over half a century ago I began wearing spectacles, and since then every morning began with my putting them on (or seeking for them if I had been careless the night before). But last month, after my annual medical check up, in which I had started to include my eyes last year, I was told that the cataract that had been but a shadow then was now ripe for removal. The surgeon was reassuring and efficient, and put in a new lens last Wednesday. And when the bandage was taken off next morning, in the comfortable surroundings of Sri Jayawardenepura Hospital (I had stayed over, being prone to panic), I found that for the first time since 1961 I could see well without something perched on the end of my nose.

There had been contact lenses earlier, in 1997 I think. It was then I felt the freshness of the wind on my face, which I had not relished for the fifteen years during which I relied on spectacles. But contacts needed to be put in and taken out, whereas on June 2nd I had nothing to do to be able to see the world as it was.


Heaven knows I needed some sort of reprieve, some sense that life would not necessarily be downhill all the way. The previous two years had been full of misery. My father died in August 2014, and three months later his doctor, who had looked after us all so sympathetically for the last several decades. Vimala Navaratnam, who had been a beacon too to one of the doctors who looked after me during the cataract operation, had been a tower of strength when my father lay dying, able to bring a smile to his lips, to ensure that he did not suffer overmuch, to stand firm against efforts to keep him going at the cost of discomfort and increasing anguish.

Then last year the other great rock of my life, apart from my parents, my aunt Ena, died. She was in decline, but before she went down to Colombo and fell ill, I was able to cajole her out onto the lawn, and we sat as we had sat and talked for thirty years as the light waned. The day she got really bad, her 93rd birthday, she told me not to be sad, for we had had such good times together.

And just a month afterwards my boss at the British Council, Rex Baker, died, after an adventurous 20 years of retirement during which he had travelled, to exotic places he had missed out on during his Council career. He was the most delightful person I have ever worked for, and I learned from him all I know about management. It was clearly a lot, for the Additional Secretary when I was Secretary to a Ministry, and the Director General of the Commission where I now am, have both noted how much they have learned from me about administration. But that was all due to Rex Baker, who was both methodical and imaginative, full of insights and great fun.

Four mentors taken away in less than fifteen months. I recall then what Prof Palihawadanatold me when my mother died, that, however old one is, one feels orphaned. It was because of him largely that I left the Council, to go back into government service, when he told me that the revolutionary new English programme we were setting up for the university sector needed me if it were to survive. The Head of Department I had advised was emigrating to Australia, and he himself would be retiring. So I bit the bullet and entered the unknown, where I think I did the state some service. There were lots of ups and downs, but more people have obtained degrees in English as a result, and from a range of backgrounds, and those experiences helped me too to reintroduce English medium into the government school system.

But is any of that any use? A couple of weeks back I read through the latest Skills Gap Survey prepared as a desk study by the International Labour Organization. I had been introduced to it by them when I complained about the Report prepared for the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission by consultants who were quite hopeless. They had been hired at the behest I was told of ILO itself, conveyed through the Additional Secretary who handled the matter. He is now Director of the National Budget, but he did answer this query (he seems to have dodged an earlier one about an equally dodgy consultancy contract), only to deny any involvement.

But ILO confirmed that their dealings had been with him, and indeed that they had specifically advised against the Consultancy firm that was chosen. For their part, they had produced a report themselves. That was without fieldwork, but it was admirably done, and made clear to us how we should move.

But whatever we do, we shall merely be picking up the pieces. For the study makes no bones about the basic problem, which is the mess in secondary education. It says categorically

Going by recent sector-wide skills assessments, it appears that Sri Lanka’s general education system is failing to develop the cognitive skills of large numbers of its graduates. It has also failed to impart several urgently needed technical skills such as the ability to write and communicate clearly in even the mother tongue, let alone English. Therefore as a first step, the general education system needs to be overhauled in such a way that it shifts out of the business of imparting facts and moves into building the skills necessary to process and analyse facts, make connections and see the big picture, and then communicate the analysis clearly and succinctly through presentations and report writing.

Elsewhere it stresses the need to conceptualize. But I do not think anyone with responsibility now for education will understand what is needed, let alone be capable of the conceptualization needed to at least address, if not solve, the problem.

Ceylon Today 14 June 2016 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160321CT20160630.php?id=2491