On the 10th year since last meeting him — that, too, in an examination writing General English — I am in search of Rangana Jayalath: a classmate for 12 years of high school life, who was never a close friend — more a person who was in the background — and who seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. Of old acquaintances I keep track of, none seem to be in touch with the short, dark, stocky Jayalath, and a recent status update I put on Facebook (demanding “Is anyone in touch with Rangana Jayalath?”) didn’t even fetch a single ‘like’.
W.G Nishan Rangana Jayalath was in my class right throughout Primary school and then, from Grade 7-11, in the Secondary Junior school. We were in the same A/L Arts class for two years. The only year in which we didn’t share the same class register was Grade 6. Rangana Jayalath was among the first in our class to show open resistance towards human rights violations that were imposed on us in the name of “school norms”, and the pernicious weight of “teachers”, which was thrown on us in the guise of “discipline”. Entering adolescence, at the gong chime of 13-14, there were already many friends / fellows in our parallel classes whose hormones were running wild (there were 225 students in our grade, put into 5 parallel classes). Rangana was openly resistant of our class master in Grades 9, 10 and 11 (mainly 10 and 11), quick to defy an “order” to tidy up his hair, or to tuck in his shirt.
In fact, I rarely remember Rangana being aggressive to other teachers except the said class master — Mr. Wimalarathne — who, on hindsight, can be categorized as a sort of a prick. The charges often brought up against Rangana were the fact that he wasn’t “quiet” in free periods, that his hair was brushed back (as opposed to the two-part spread the school advocated) and that he let out his shirt balloon “baggy”. 1999-2000, if you may remember, was the time the “baggy culture” bagged the Sri Lankan psyche. Looking at Rangana and a host of other “troublemakers” in class, we were quick enough to brand them, like one does the prisoners in the Bastille. However, it takes very little conviction to look back and realize that the only “crime” committed by the caliber of Rangana and co. was their being “normal” — whereas, the school and the teachers tried to impose abnormal standards and (more crucially) were not prepared to meet Rangana (or the kid seen as a “dissenter”) on equal terms.
Why should Rangana — or anyone — be obliged to brush back his hair, just because a suspicious “tradition” tells him to? Why should he tuck in the shirt when it is normal to have it out baggy? Why should he bother to take the shit from a pathetic teacher who is arrogant and choleric as a whole? A better friend of yesteryear — Suneth Wijesiri — would gallivant wherever it was that he went to in between periods, and walk into class without the customary “Excuse me, Sir” to Mr. Wimalaratne. Of course, he has been cashiered for this many times, but Suneth never changed his way — and after 3 years of this “hormonal display”, even Mr. Wimalaratne didn’t exact “order” from Suneth as much as he used to in the 9th Grade.
Though I was always neutral to these “admonishing” of kids for their “ill-behaviour” — and also amused and entertained, at times, depending on the actual scene — I feel that, unconsciously, I was of the belief that the “teacher was right”. Little incidents — which are almost deceptive and seemingly innocuous — such as the Sinhala teacher (again, Mr. Wimalaratne) getting the three Muslim students in our class to read out loud Classical Verses from the Kotte Era only started acquiring the true shape of Racist Horror only a year or two later, when I was in the Advanced Level class. The Master, while marking the register, would never call out Feirooze Farookh’s name as “Farookh”, but as “Paaruk”, which is an almost negligible but detrimental discrimination. The linguistic “P” (ප) in Sinhala is a sound with derogatory connotations and the “F” (ෆ) was an alien sound, newly brought into the Sinhala system. The Master would always refer to A.M. Luthfi (who later played as a Second Row forward) as “Lukshi”, refusing to read the name out correct.
The Advanced Level class marked a huge change in me. If I was a dormant, law-abiding kid in the O/L class, I broke every known norm in the A/L class. For two years, I only did what I wanted to do — I, without stirring any bubbles, was virtual dictator of my own “timetable” and routine. The leap from O/L to A/L is a tangible one, and I was making rapid progress “understanding” myself and carving a personality of my own, which I could take seriously. By the time I entered the last term of school in Grade 13, I was so “at home”, that my Grade 13 attendance was 97% without a single forged attendance marked. During the A/L days, I had already started looking back on the likes of Rangana Jayalath and the treatment of teachers, who were quite interested in exhausting their insecurities on the back of students. Rangana, by then, had a wide reputation as a “soosthi” enthusiast (and was, in fact, nicknamed “Soosthi”) and was very vocal against the rising cost of living which had forced him (or so he said) to demote his taste from cigarettes to beedis.
In 2008, when I wrote Stable Horses, the book was dedicated to the high school memory of Jayalath, Gayoom Noor and Suneth Wijesiri, with a fervent hope that “you haven’t changed…much”. The anxiety of my not being able to see the pathetic treatment of the above for what it really was — i.e, ruthless, arrogant imposition — only became more and more severe, as the years went by. I was guilty of not identifying fact for fact and payback was the only compensation that lay in my way. Both in Stable Horses and The Fear of Gambling (2011), I make references to a young adulthood which is influenced by my own stay at Kingswood. Farookh, Luthfi and Noor feature in both texts, while references are made to the Class Master and Jayalath.
Chapter 9 of Stable Horses is a self-conscious tribute to Rangana Jayalath. It was first written as a short story in 2006, meant to be published in a collection which never came out (in fact, I am now reworking some of those stories in that 2006 manuscript which I hope to publish next year). The words and the description of Rangana show my own anxiety, trying to seek a “moral purification” from my own guilt. The memorable opening of the chapter runs: “Rangana was the name. The rebel. The daredevil leader of a class struggle. Who tried to liberate one’s self. One who coughed and spat on the Oppressor’s right cheek. Spat again, if the Oppressor held out the other — they usually didn’t” (p. 62).
By then, Rangana Jayalath, on my workbench, had metamorphosed into the icon of a class struggle: the struggle of sanity against the regimental conditioning channeled through “school”. This was merely 5 years since leaving school — since taking that last leave after the A/L General English paper, during which we collaborated in perfecting his answer script — and I was in my final B.A year. The guilt should not be compromised by the romanticization:
“It’s too late, now… we have taken leave of each other. Parted in our ways. But, posthumously, I felicitate you: in the memory of that Dead Past, you would be seen sitting by a crystal spring. Singing in that hoarse voice your own lines of freedom. You would be smoking your favourite joint. Crystal spring and in this memorial setting, I will hear you sing” (p.63). The imagery is unmistakable —- it is a Bob Marley-like resonance of which the above description woos.
10 years later, I am in an urge of meeting Rangana Jayalath. I find myself talking about him in talks I give and in various lecture rooms. He could be anywhere, but he seems to be nowhere. A cynical colleague even suggested that he may be behind bars, or possibly dead. The last I saw him was at the final day of the GCE A/L paper, and that act of “copying” was the only thing I had ever assisted him in accomplishing. I am not sure what I am going to say to him if I ever meet him again, but I am certain I can come up with an appropriate line or two. That meeting, however, is crucial.