I look back on my schooling at a “good” Colombo school as a prison sentence. It was neither a gulag nor traumatic. Just a dispiriting part of my life. Yet I am grateful for the experience. It taught me the evil inherit in human behaviour. Plus the skills to avoid most of the brutality around me. It colours my view of Sri Lankan society in general and my old school in particular. I mask these views with an easy indifference. Yet the last Old Boys’ Association (OBA) meeting I attended gave me very different perspective on both.
I never go to OBA meetings. I went to this one as a social event. It was in the country I was visiting. My host was an enthusiastic OBA organiser. He promised a refined experience. An evening of wine with food. No dinner dance buffet with the standard issue 1970s Baila. I found a blazer, slacks and tie (not school colours). With polished shoes and three other “old boys” I went into the winter night. Our wives had organised their own fun and were eager to pack us off.
It WAS a refined event. A dozen round tables with bread roll baskets and bottles of wine as centre pieces. Set amidst soft lighting, plush carpeting, thick table cloth and gleaming cutlery. Around each table sat men in good suits. About a hundred of them. A majority were in their seventies and eighties. They oozed the confidence of men who had prospered in adversity. A tiny minority of us were under forty. I felt like the only child at an “uncles only” event.
My sense of isolation grew through the evening. It started with the school song. Sung with gusto of a much younger crowd. The proceedings marching to formalities of colonial Ceylon. Yet it was the speeches which got to me.
They spoke about a school in another universe. Where altruism and honesty was part of daily interaction. Not slogans shouted at endless assemblies. Authority figures were variations of Albus Dumbledore. Wise owls who welded respect to silence a room of unruly boys with a rueful comment. Enduring decades of practical jokes with stoical patience and quiet humour. Which their former charges now recalled with reverent fondness.
Running through the reminiscing was a genuine love for an institution. A place that brought joy and fulfilment to those who attended it. By giving them a sense of direction, purpose and friendship. It was in the air among the gathered older boys like a rich cologne. The kind you know you can never afford.
There was a genuineness about their recollections. It came from the speakers’ inflections, their body language and the murmurs of agreement rumbling through their peers in the audience. All of which rattled the bastions of my cynicism.
It brought home L.P. Hartley’s saying “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”. I felt that the past was an alien universe. Despite shared institutions and traditions linking me to that past.
At first I blamed these sentiments on the wine. My neighbour kept pouring and pouring. I was quite sloshed by the end. A bemused Mrs C had to drive us to where we were staying.
Deep down I know it was never the wine. It took me a long time to unpack that encounter. No doubt the school of their era had its politics and conflict. Time must have dulled the memory of such negatives. The social and cultural world of their time was a different universe. So was the school. Whose purpose was to turn boys of a certain class into a collegiate elite. Bound by the camaraderie of confidence building experiences to run the colony for empire.
This reconciliation strengthened my once challenged views. Yet it gave the added comfort of knowing that cultures do change. Despite a knowing that change for the better is rare and fleeting.
I’ll never go to another OBA meeting again. Would you?