Armed with canes, the approaching group of teachers and top administration looks out at the gate at the students being stalled outside. Standing there in his old school principal disguise, looking somewhat and sounding very much like Allo Allo‘s Gestapo officer Von Smallhousen, the principal takes in a deep breath and asks an elementary question: “Thamusela athulata enava dha? Naddha?” Whether the students would step back in or not. —- (FOG, p.282).
A few passages of Chapter 21 in my last book, the Fear of Gambling, recollects through the narrator’s memory a revolt by a group of high school students (who, of course, are sufficiently motivated by numerous agents of the school body and other interested stakeholders) against the Principal, demanding the removal of the latter. This reference, beginning in page 280, occupies the narrative space of a couple of pages. The incident, to say the least, is heavily informed by my own stay at Kingswood, more than a decade back; and by the failed coup engineered by dissent elements of the school’s wide participation, against the Principal back then: Mr. Nelson Rathnayake.
At a recent reading held at Alliance Francaise de Kandy, in which I was drafted for the day’s formalities beside Dhanuka Bandara and Carl Muller, I chose a few passages from this very same chapter to be read out to the trickle of a gathering that was housed for the evening. Following the reading, a gentleman in the audience politely suggested to me whether it is the best interest of a writer to reproduce such “negative aspects” of a school’s history; specially, since the institute has served education with a long history behind as its train. My answer at that point was that the school’s history, like everything else, has to stand by its own and that my intervention should be one that adds to “history” as a discourse and as a widening of the scope in which we, in our collective memory, may place the school.
In another more informal forum, a friend and fellow rather offhandedly (though not necessarily with offense) conceded
how my constructs often fall back / cut across post-adolescent narratives of school and schoolhood. The said colleague, on that particular instance, was referring to the strike / picket under scrutiny and mentioned to the effect that that very incident has been repeatedly reminisced on in “more than one book” I have written. This, indeed, is true: for, the same phenomenon is referred to in Stable Horse (written in 2008) as well as in several other manuscripts which I have never submitted to print. This, however, more than owing to the inescapability of the students’ strike, is because for me the writing I do and the narrativization with which I am thereby involved in is a discourse; than, of it being a teleological project. What, for instance, is one to do if the narrator of Stable Horses (CS Kaushalyan) and that of the Fear of Gambling (VK) are in some Venn-like definition agents / samples who share some common space? Are they, then, to generate mutually exclusive narrative spaces; or, in a more discursive sense, are they permitted to retrieve motifs exhausted by a narrator who, chronologically, predates the other?
The presence of college / school, as much as adolescence and pre-youth are central to both narratives which I have so far outlined. Kingswood, Kandy, – to its own dismay – has been a stimulation to many passages and collected and retrieved memory; even when, in several instances, that recovery subverts the “clean history” of that institute. In the Fear of Gambling, in particular, the school motif is indispensible as the narrator consistently travels between his past and present, insinuating and suggesting – through comparison – the complexity and the lethargy of his present. For some reason, the innocuous details related to Cricket matches played with school fellows during PT periods, Table Tennis games against Ranabima Royal ‘A’ and sentimental musings over the value of “Unplucked nelli fruit” from the college nelli tree blend together to give a sentimental meaning to life, which cannot be extracted from the hollow of the narrator’s present. The straight-faced and tedious sequences of Table Tennis matches – which San Fleursha, in a recently submitted comment to my blog quite cheekily refers to as “ball by ball commentaries” –, the detailed laying out of VSJ Bandara’s heroics with the Cricket bat, cousin CJ’s spin variations and his “world record” 40 run over off left arm spinner Gayan Asiri etc, therefore, become the foils which give value / take away value from what the narrator, years on, has matured / under-matured to be.
A wide range of Kingswoodians are lined up in the sub-text which, at one level, becomes an uncompromising billboard of propaganda. In contrast to what the gentleman at the Alliance reading (who had not heard of FOG more than what he heard that night) calls a “downplaying” of the school’s good name, there is a wider context of its own; where, juxtaposed with such “expositions”, there is a corpus of commentary, nostalgia, appreciation as well as downright, seamless “propaganda”. Perhaps, a subconscious strain that governed my writing is the fact that Kingswood’s history – unknown to many, disregarded by the rest and dulled by the dust of age and day – has never been centralized in a literary work; even though the school has much vitality to offer a “propagandist” text written along “patriotic” lines; as well as a downright assault of its “fair name”.
Re-reading my book, I also see that the text is also concerned with the idea of subversion and such power and trajectory which undermines stability. Written in and relating to a time where the government of the country is on a spree of strict regimentation and ideological suffocation of the public, perhaps, I find refuge in the book which I was writing and the subversive strains with which it, as a manifesto, is woven. The Kandy Sports Club (the rugby club), to the narrator, is a subversive agent; and he tells us that a reason why we should cheer for Kandy SC is because it is one bastion that challenges the aggressive hegemonic programme (its manifestation in the rugby field) of the government. And in elaborately celebrating the club’s (Kingswood) players such as Achala Perera, Fazil Marijah, Gayan and Roshan Weeraratne, JCG Withanage (who no longer plays for Kandy), Mohomad Jabbar and the like the school’s own contribution to a wider national destiny is located. Of course, such a location is not deliberate; and at the point of writing the book, such a resonance was not even a concept, leave alone it being a policy. But, as I re-read the book as a reader – in that very magnanimous way in which history is made – definition becomes more clear and meaningful.
The Fear of Gambling, I tell myself, is smarter than it appears. It is deeper than you would will to venture. And there is much happening there than you would never know. I know, as it was I who wrote it; and as I read the text back I am reading things I never saw or felt when I first wrote. If I meet Gill Westaway I won’t tell her that it is the best; for such conceding, indeed, would be a waste. But, as San Fleursha has outlined the book is not only a “must have”, but is one of the best of its kind – if reading, for you, is a discourse; most certainly, if Kingswood is your blind.