Damn good thing it's not whiskey I smell, sir!
A short story by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando
After nearly twenty years, I suddenly bumped into Mr. Dassanayake in Colombo, our class master who taught us Latin in my old school. It was indeed a pleasant surprise and a joy to meet with one of my 'adorable gurus' again. Those were the days when we, as students, were so mischievous in the classroom and literally sapped the will out of him when he enthusiastically tried to get through to us with some Latin grammar. Those of us who could not grasp Latin properly were struggling to remember 'Galba, Galbai, Galbam' etc., and got the 'telling off' from Mr. Dassanayake quite often. How can I ever forget his famous catch phrase, "you really are a Galbas!" when anger got the better of him as we hopelessly failed to memorise Latin. Looking back at all those years, only now I begin to treasure his famous Latin phrase,'Facile Dictu - Difficule Factu' (easy to say - difficult to do).
There was a great sense of excitement written across Mr. Dassanayake's beaming smile when I recognised him and introduced myself as one of his old pupils. We soon started to natter like two old friends, and not like teacher and pupil anymore. Having known his favourite past-time I invited him to the Orient Club for some 'liquid nourishment' which he willingly accepted. Although he had become senior in his age he did not seem to have changed a lot physically. On my part, I too have now become matured and having lived abroad for many years had cultivated a certain degree of confidence!
After a full doze of the pale coloured 'liquid nourishment' known as Scotch whiskey at the Club, Mr. Dassanayake insisted that he must take me home, where I was staying in Pita Kotte, in his car as it was too late in the night. I was not very keen with the idea as he had already consumed a fair amount of liquor but very reluctantly had to knuckle under, purely not to hurt his feelings. However, once he was behind the steering wheel I began to relax, realizing his reflex arc was not affected by liquor at all! I was having a long conversation with Mr. Dassanayake while he was at the wheel when he suddenly jammed the brakes and the car came to an emergency stop along the Nawala Road.
We could hardly see the police officers in the dark, in their Khaki uniform, in the absence of any reflective strips or waist coats on them, but only a weak red torch light they flashed as an indication to stop the vehicle. As I got my Identity Card ready for inspection, I heard a voice from the driver's side: "Mr. Dassanayake! Isn't it, Sir?"
I knew at once that it was a very familiar voice to my ears although I could not see the face in the dark! Indeed it was one of my old school chums, Saman, whom we had nicknamed as 'Alugosuwa'. Mr. Dassayanayake could not quite recognise Saman at first, and I could not blame him or expect him to remember every face when thousands of boys had gone through his Latin class for years, yet I felt he was feeling bad that he could not recognise 'Alugosuwa' at first.
How many times Saman had been punished by Mr. Dasanayake in school! Not that he ever used a cane at all but in his half-drunken state he always used his clenched fist on Saman's upper arm or back of his shoulder. Every time the clenched fist went into a piston action on Saman's body, we from the 'gallery', echoed in a rhythmic way, 'Ara...! Ara!!...Ara....!!!' Ultimately poor Mr. Dassanayaka was re-christened among us as 'Ara Dasa'.
Mr. Dassanayake never took a disliking to Saman, despite his incorrigible activities as a student. Probably he may have put it down to growing up or adolescence! Other teachers did not consider Saman as an intelligent or brilliant material, yet Mr. Dassanayake always had thought Alugosuwa was clever, despite his energetic and negative attitude to discipline. Miss. Kanagasundaram could not handle him at all with all her over-powering skills. With 'Lucky teacher' it would have been a disaster! So, along with one or two 'problematic elements' in the school, Alugosuwa was passed on to Mr. Dassanyake's class to discipline him.
Within a very short time of Alugosuwa's arrival in our class, Mr. Dassanayake's treasured Parker 51 pen vanished. Although there were several 'hard nuts' with 'light fingers' in our class there was always an unwritten law that no one steal within their class room in our college.
Mr. Dassanayake was also regarded as the 'Cambrian CID' as he managed to resolve many a petty theft in the school with admirable psychology. He took Saman to a side one day and whispered something tactfully, of course without mentioning his lost pen. Within the hour the pen re-appeared on Mr. Dassanayake's drawer! How many times Mr. Dassanayake caught him when Alugosuwa emerged out from a hide-out smoke!
This particular evening in Colombo, Mr. Dassanayake's thoughts must have faded either with the intoxication of whiskey or my being in his company. He knew something of Alugosuwa's background while he was in school. A drunken-father and an over-strained and ever loving mother, whom Alugosuwa worshipped.
Although our school was a private fee levying college, Saman was poorly dressed most of the time. Apparently there wasn't any excess money coming to the family from his father once he settled his liquor bills. Yet he was always clean and had a cheerful resilience.
I remember once vividly Saman putting his name down to go on a school trip with Mr. Dassanayake. It was our first trip to Colombo harbour, the zoological gardens and the most exciting event, our very first trip to the Savoy Theatre in Wellawatta to see the film 'The Thief of Damascus'. Alugosuwa was very keen to go with us and he brought the deposit money at first. Then his mother came a few days later and spoke to Mr. Dassanayake for a long time. Mr. Dassanayake was a kind man with a heart of gold and he arranged Alugosuwa to go on the trip. As an added bonus he gave some pocket money too to Alugosuwa to spend during his Colombo excursion. Mr.Dassanayake, I am sure, was convinced that Saman's mother had scraped it all together for him when she paid the deposit money for the trip!
In Colombo we were busy buying little souvenirs to take home for members of our families and friends. Saman had spotted exactly what he wanted for his mother, a beautiful pendant, but it cost a great deal more than the pocket money he had received from Mr. Dassanayake.
The shopkeepers in Colombo were not a contended lot either and they were mainly trying to grasp a lot from the tourists. Their main intention appeared to make every extra Rupee, Euro, Deutsch Mark, Dollar or Sterling Pound at any cost. Of course, that did not make what Alugosuwa did was right! There could not have been any justification for his stealing an expensive pendant for his mother!
Mr. Dassanayake handled the situation beautifully without involving the police or making it an embarrassing issue. It does not matter how, but he was able to straighten the matter with the shopkeeper and Alugosuwa took the pendant home to a proud and highly delighted mother.
On his final day in college, after the GCE O/L examination results were out, Mr. Dassanayake arrived to announce the results. As he walked into the classroom he was greeted with absolute silence, something which he frequently demanded but only rarely achieved from our lot. That morning every single boy sat straight and still in his place. As the results were read out Alugosuwa surprised everyone with several distinctions and credit passes.
At the end of the reading out of exam results, Saman came forward and stood near Mr. Dassanayake's desk with a neatly wrapped parcel held behind him. He gave a very flattering and an emotional speech echoing a lot of gratitude to Mr. Dassanayake before handing over the gift in a strangely formal manner. The boys clapped. Mr. Dassanayake was moved and it was a very sad moment when everyone's eyes became wet with tears. However mischievous Alugosuwa had been, sure, we all were going to miss him later. That was the last I saw of him as I too left for London almost immediately.
Once I settled down in a different kind of school in the UK, I wrote to Mr. Dassanayake from London. Wasn't I choking with laughter in my bed-sitter when he wrote back to me and made reference to Alugosuwa! Actually, I was not, as I had known him for quite a long time and the kind of pranks he could get up to.
What actually had happened, according to Mr. Dassanayake's letter, was that a group of parents had apparently complained bitterly to the principal of the college about Saman extorting their children's pocket money or bus fares to contribute towards a gift for Mr. Dassanayake at the end of the school term!
In a very nostalgic sense Mr. Dassanayake had mentioned that there was hardly anything either the principal or he could have done about it, at that late stage, since Alugosuwa had already left school, and the English-Latin dictionary on his desk still reminded him of the 'Alugosuwa' every time he sat at his table.
That was some twenty years ago and now bending into two and standing at the security check point and leaning against Mr. Dassnayake's car, speaking to him through the driver's shutter, was a well built senior traffic police officer Saman Salgado. The Sri Lanka Police had become very strict on motorists who drink and drive and used several methods from requesting the drivers to blow to their nose and ending up with breathalyzer tests. In such a scenario Saman was in his elements, out on the road, late at night that day with his new toy, stopping every vehicle that passed his way after 10.30 p.m, whether it was a lady driver, a gentleman in a posh BMW or even an MP's Pajero, Montero or a Defender, it did not escape his vigilant operation.
"Nice to see you after a long time Sir! ……. Mr. Dassanayake ……, isn't it?" Sniffing the breath of whiskey coming out of Mr. Dassanayake, Inspector Salgado quipped, "I must say, Sir, you are looking marvellously well and haven't changed a bit. …. by the way, Sir, it's a damn good thing that it's not whiskey that I can smell in your breath! Drive carefully Sir, nice to see you again!"
I sat there still and stone cold. I was certain that Mr. Dassanayake too would have been quite pleased that one of his old and favourite pupils had recognised him at that late hour on the Nawala Road and let him off the hook for driving after excessive drinking.
On our drive back to Pita Kotte silence reigned between the two of us. As I was contemplating how to meet up with 'Alugosuwa' before I returned to London, Mr. Dassanayake said, "I say, we must try and meet again before you leave for London. Try and organize 'Alugosuwa' also to come, if he is not on duty".
I nodded with enthusiasm as if to say, 'Yes, Sir, at the Orient Club again!'
Note: All names are fictitious and bear no personal relevance to anyone
Edition: May 12, 2008 www.thecolombopost.com