To the best of my knowledge and belief, I am the second Muslim to have sought admission to Vidayalaya. And I was admitted on the 2nd of February 1921 and assigned the Number 195 in the Admission Register. This would naturally indicate that the school had not been long in existence. I could therefore justifiably claim to be an Elder, one of the “moopar”, in the clan now celebrating the School’s Golden Jubilee. It was in the same year, namely 1921, that Vidayalaya was converted into a Government aided school from that of a Recognised unaided institution. In strange and strong contrast to her present status and stature, Vidyalaya was then a Boys’ Junior School not even two hundred strong, with E.S.L.C. as the top class, endeavouring assiduously to gain support among influential parents and striving hard to win recognition among Government Officials, in competition with her elder sisters and eager rivals.
Vidayalaya was being guided by a Head Master who was quite methodical, extremely enthusiastic and greatly efficient in his administration. This was striking because in his dress and demeanour he was too unconventional for a typical English school of that era, when the West with its spell of “The White Man’s Burden” and of ‘the Civilising Mission – God-Entrusted’ had created in the minds of the Asians the many illusions by which their manhood was softened and their servility sugar-coated. Their eyes had thereby been deceived for they had mistaken the iron collar of domination, intended to throttle, for the gold chain of civilization, meant to adorn. Thus was an English school then a place where Western ways and manners held sway unchallenged and were being aped to a degree of precision not easily imaginable today. Against this attitude there were no doubt a few protests, made against heavy odds, and led by religious leaders both in India and Ceylon. And Vidyalaya represented, though in a small way, this protest and the struggle inevitable in the expression of it.
Vidayalaya had only recently gained official recognition. In those days English education and fee-levying were synonymous terms. Vidyalaya was thus compelled to keep a close watch on the number on the roll to ensure an adequate grant from the Government as there was a steady competition among sister institutions to attract fresh admissions throughout the year.
In such circumstances, my admission should have been quite easy. But there was something special in my case which could not have escaped the discerning eye of the ambitious Head Master. Between the admission of the first Muslim and that of myself, the second, a few years had elapsed, without any Muslim seeking Vidayalaya despite her close proximity. It was thus evident that partiality was being shown by the local Muslim Community towards a distant school of a different ‘denomination’. The Head Master had therefore in my admission a windfall – an unanticipated opportunity to break down the prejudices that had prevented the co-operation of his Muslim neighbours.
To this situation, many factors had contributed. In those days, Western customs and costumes exacted a deference that cannot be fully grasped by the present generation. Vidyalaya’s Head, though tried and tireless, was an orthodox Brahmin from South India, turbaned and tie-less. The Muslims, therefore, argued plausibly that while Vidayalaya was completely satisfactory as a Hindu institution it was not quite good as an English school. The prestige of the older institutions and their superior resources weighed heavily against Vidyalaya, young in years, weak in numbers and poor in finances. Though there was no English school of their own, the leading Muslim families did not favour the Hindu institution in their neighbourhood on account of their loyalty to the old school tie. Besides, the then prevailing caste-consciousness among the Hindus of Jaffna, notwithstanding the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and the activities of Mahatma Gandhi, made the Muslims somewhat doubtful of the treatment that would be accorded to their young ones. These and other factors combined to thwart the efforts of those endeavouring to make Vidyalaya popular among the Muslims.
Yet I did go to Vidyalaya. In the absence of my father, who was a practicing Proctor in Colombo, my grand-father made this choice. He swam against the current and incurred the displeasure not only of the teacher who had taught me the alphabet and inducted me to the English Primer then in vogue, but also of some of our near relations who could not get over their prejudices. My grandfather, however, resisted these forces and made up his mind, not on educational grounds. Vidyalaya was near my home. My fond grand mother would not be deprived of the pleasure of personally supervising me during lunch-time. Among the school-staff my grandfather had many fast friends and several good customers. He was thus confident that at school, I would be cared for affectionately, and through them he would keep in close touch with my behavior and progress; and he could strike a balance between promise and performance as far as I was concerned. It would thus be seen that Vidyalaya was selected on account of its site rather than its status, its proximity than prestige.
At this distant date, after a lapse of forty two years, it is quite clear to me, that I was extremely fortunate in my grandfather’s choice, and that “men build more than they know and events have consequences beyond their intentions.” I now feel thrice-blessed that I did go to Vidyalaya and nowhere else. My period of stay, February 1921-June 1923, though pretty short quantitatively was extremely long qualitatively.
It was at Vidayalaya that I became first acquainted with the devotional hymns of exquisite beauty and exceeding piety for which Tamil is so famed through the ages and throughout the world. They were recited not merely on occasions of “guru-poojas” and formal assemblies but on every school day and in each class, both at its beginning and end. Of this arrangement, I was in special charge during my period as class monitor of Standard Five. The melodious metre of மாசில் வீணையூம் மாலை மதியமும் and மனமெனும் தோணி பற்றி  have ever since been ringing in my mind. At that time I did not, and could not, understand the intense thoughts, deep feelings and the eternal verities reflected in those hymns. However uncomprehended then, the hymns have been yet of profound meaning and value; for, in the words of Sir Richard Livingstone, “the mind is like a garden. Seeds, are scattered on the soil, and most are lost, but some lie inert till the outside influence of sun and moisture wakes them to activity … much perishes forgotten, but some seeds lie dormant till the quickening power of experience brings them to life…. for there is in education a law of delayed action.” ‘Simple living and high thinking’ was held up as the ideal and the heroes of our school days conformed to this standard. Saints and sages therefore held sway in our minds in preference to statesmen and sovereigns.
My joyous response to the friendliness that surrounded me at school confounded my grand father’s critics who had boldly prophesied that I would be quite uncomfortable in the alien and orthodox atmosphere which encompassed Vidyalaya. When the Prize Day came some months later, I found myself made a star with a recitation-piece which, I now recall, extolled the Union Jack. ‘Tis the Flag of the Free’ – that I believe was its title. I have so far not succeeded in tracing the text or the poet. I vividly remember the large sized flag conveniently placed on the platform, for me to address on that momentous occasion. This was my first platform-appearance and I had been carefully and well coached. The function was presided over by His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government, a rare privilege gained for the comparatively unknown school by the intrepid Head-Master. I was gaudily dressed for the occasion and attracted too much attention; yet I escaped a break-down the fear of which had been persisting during the previous hours. The audience was sympathetic and I was applauded. Several of my relations had been invited and they were present in the hall, feeling probably proud that a Muslim boy was able to perform impressively before the White Master. They were convinced that English was not neglected and the kind of attention avidly clamoured for by ambitious parents was in fact given at Vidyalaya. On that occasion I was also awarded a prize for General Proficiency. There could therefore be no further misgiving on their part that a Muslim boy would be neglected.
If I remember right, the Prize Day Speech was delivered by (Sir) Arunachalam Mahadeva, then Principal of Parameshwara. Its text and theme I did not understand or remember. But the words Arjuna and Kurukshetra so clearly and forcefully enunciated, have, however, remained. It may be reasonably guessed that he dwelt on Karma Yoga so congruous with Islam.
Vidayalaya soon became popular among the Muslims and their numbers increased to such an extent as to warrant a special class in Islam. But there had been no precedents either in Jaffna or elsewhere in Ceylon, for an aided school to cater for the religious needs of pupils belonging to a different faith or “unlike denomination”. The Ramakrishna Mission, however, followed a policy of tolerance in line with the precepts and practices of its Founders. The Brahmin Head-master was therefore able to make bold arrangements for a local moulavi to impart Islamic instruction during class hours and within school premises. This good and wholesome example was later followed at Jaffna Hindu and Shivananda at Batticaloa. It is significant that today the Government is following this policy of which Vidyalaya can rightly claim to be the pioneer.
Of the many events during my stay of nearly thirty months I recall one most clearly – the Visitation of Swami Sharvananda. He was brought to the school hall in a procession the like of which I had not witnessed previously. He was tall and fair, and of a magnificent presence. His discourse was solemn and stately and he was clad immaculate in the robes of the Ramakrishna Order. And yet the talk of the day centred on Pandit Mailvaganam (Swami Vipulananda) who had decided to resign his post of Principal, Manipay Hindu and renounce the world, with deliberate intent, in favour of a sanyasin’s life. The violent shocks experienced that day should have produced a mental revolution in my young mind – a dim awareness of the attraction which spirituality had even for men who could scale pre-eminent heights in the world; a vague understanding of the essential difference, imprecisely and incompletely grasped, between ‘dheen’ and ‘theen’, ‘faquir’ and ‘pakkeer’.
About September 1920, I had completed my education at the local Quran-cum-Tamil School by passing Standard 3 (Tamil) with a good grounding in the three Rs. But I knew no English, not even the alphabet. The school year in my new school, Vidyalaya, was different and I had already lost a few months of lessons there. A private tutor was therefore specially engaged to coach me in English and qualify me for the Preparatory Class. He succeeded in making me pass the special, but not too severe, entrance test held though he failed to dissuade my grandfather from sending me to Vidyalaya, a decision he had reached independent of expert opinion.
A Vannarponnai boy of that age came to Form 2 via Standard 5 (English) and Standard 3 (Tamil) with Prep., 1st year and 2nd year in between, taking about 7½ years. This compares favourably with the corresponding period of 7 years of his counterpart in Colombo educated through the English medium. I therefore had four Class Teachers during my period – Messrs. C.P. Sundara Sarma (Prep.) S. Shivasamy (1st year) A. K. Ponnampalam (2nd year) and K. Navaratnam (Standard 5).
As teachers they were not professionally qualified and enjoyed no security of tenure. But their sense of dedication made them adepts in the practice of child-centred education without any knowledge of its theory. To them I owe a great deal. And they belong to an age far remote and removed from that of the robot teacher envisaged as one that “can do everything but spank a pupil” estimated to cost about a quarter lakh of rupees. Each of my teachers had a distinct personalit of his own with his strong and weak points as well as idiosyncracies.
Sarma Master used to delight us by distributin from time to time homilies in hand bills, printed at his own expense. Some of them were citations from authors, others his own compositions. Shivasamy Master’s ever-unruffled temper evoked the admiration of us all. Mr. A.K. Ponnampalam was a stern disciplinarian and a kind of Vice-Principal. Naravatnam Master was my class teacher in a more advanced class, in Standard 5, for a longer period, one whole year, from June 1922.
Therefore I have remembered more of this class than the rest. Navaratnam Master was during this period my guide philosopher and friend. He made me monitor and taught me method. The Record Book of this class was more informative, from a curricular point of view, than many I have seen since. When I experienced loss of lessons or expressed pain of mind he comforted me with his, philosophy of “He knows best, His Grace Abounding”. Once he marked ‘excellent’ in my Report Book though my rank was 24 due to illness. At that time I had not known this term and though that it was something below ‘fair’. When I took this problem to him, he told me what excellent meant. He stated in addition that what mattered in life was not the rank or the marks obtained but the marks or the margin by which excellence was not reached. He illustrated this point by saying that if one were to obtain say 62% in a paper, I should definitely note that he had failed to obtain 38%. This incident was resurrected when in 1947 I became acquainted with ‘Some Tasks for Education” by Sir Richard Livingstone. And I was thrilled when later I discovered that Excellence is the etymological connotation of Zahira. It was he – Navaratnam Master – who first told me that my days at Vidyalaya were numbered and that on completion of Std. 5, I should go elsewhere to study Latin and Science and in course of time take up the Cambridge Senior Examination. Truly has it been said of him and teachers like him:
“Let us praise famous men,
Men of little showing.
Men whose word stays broad and deep
Far beyond their knowing.”

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