Professor Ashley Halpe: An Appreciation

downloadRough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
(Shakespeare: Sonnet 18)

My last meeting with Professor Ashley Halpe was while he was out on a walk, assisted by a helper, along Riverdale Road, quite close to his residence, sometime early this year. It must have been late January, or even early February. I was driving that way, and at the bend just after his house, I spotted him, cosily clad and walking, though assisted, quite steady. I stopped and spoke to him and he quipped that he was out to get “some air” as it were. Professor Halpe’s health had been a concern for some time, for those who knew him up close, and I was myself happy to see him up and about.

The demise of Professor Halpe last week had prompted numerous accolades and appreciations from the pan-English academy, the membership of which was known to him at multiple capacities, which includes his students of over three generations, a phalanx of colleagues and so on. The national media had been generous enough to facilitate these eulogies and words of kindness to a teacher, a lover of the arts, a drama enthusiast and a gentle person whose direction and generosity – as highlighted in most such appreciations – testifies to an indelible mark he had left in the academy.

My first meeting with Professor Halpe dates back to my Advance Level years at Kingswood College, as I happened to enroll in a tuition class for A/L Literature that he conducted, which – for reasons outside the scope of this essay – I had to after a while discontinue. It is in these classes that I for the first time came across Professor Halpe reciting poetry, as he had that memorable style of reciting the work with the full toolkit of the dramatist – how, I would say, poetry has to be taught to begin with – which I would later encounter at the University of Peradeniya, too, where he taught me Chaucer, Shakespeare and Sinhala Literature in Translation. Of the three, the latter course, in particular, left a deep impact in me at that point, in which Professor Halpe shared with class his views on a range of topics from Classical Sinhala Literature to modern writers such as GB Senanayake, Martin Wickramasinghe, Nissanka Wijemanna, Ajit Tilakasena, Buddhadasa Galappatti and so forth.

Professor, from the earliest I knew him, was encouraging of my endeavours in Literature and the arts: an encouragement that was given in an almost unseen, subtle manner, but which – in retrospect – has meant a lot to me. Still in high school, I won the Best Actor in the inter-school Shakespeare Drama contest organized by the YMCA in 2001 for my stint as Henry in Kingswood’s production of Henry the Fifth. Though I didn’t know it at that point, Professor Halpe had been a judge that year, and his recognition of my performance remains very special to me. In fact, it was sometime during the Third Year in university that I knew of his judging that competition a few years earlier, when he suggested that I take the university stage for DRAMSOC events. I told him that I “retired young”, and he genially reprimanded me that “laziness” and “retirement” are not necessarily the same thing.

My first literary venture solo was a collection of short fiction when I was in the Second Year at university, which also courted some luck in being shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2006. Professor Halpe and Professor Carmen Wickramagamage were among the gathering at the small scale “launch” of sorts a few of us organized for that book. He would also periodically invite me for readings he organized at his residence, to which I have been on three or four occasions. He also unhesitatingly recommended my candidature to several universities I sought admission to for postgraduate studies in 2009: a mission I had to abort half way, for personal reasons. These recommendations meant a lot to me at that point, and I am ever grateful to him for his kind words about me.

In a broad definition, there are three kinds of academics we often come across. The first type are those who are more focused on their research and reading, digging trenches into new areas of scholarship. The second type includes those who are more honed as teachers, disseminating knowledge and excelling at instruction and guidance (The third type, of course, are those who fall into neither category). In my estimate, Professor Halpe can be more easily located in the second category, and he is remembered – at least in the classroom of my generation – for an insight he channeled in the class on Hamlet or Lear, than for the rigour of his papers and essays.

In an appreciation written for Professor Halpe, Tissa Jayatilaka, in his grief-sharing words, had made the observation that the only post the Professor may not have held in the University is perhaps the post of warden in a residence hall. This amply illustrates the commitment and investment Professor Halpe had made at Peradeniya – a commitment that at times have moved people to make his name interchangeable with that of the English academy. He was also one of the most unassuming and gentle persons in and off the classroom, attempting to unlearn privilege when and where he could. Some of his writing, specially, stimulated by campus culture and the Sinhalization of socio-cultural spaces from the 1960s on, testify to this effect. As Halpe himself once explained to a class, though from a “postcolonial age”, his background cast him more “colonial than post”; and that his journey in life was a conscious effort to neutralize the disparity he felt between whom he was and the larger society and currents around him.

In his farewell speech given to the University of Colombo a few days back, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda had quipped, urging his younger colleagues that the struggle in education should not end in the University car park, or the entrances to the nurseries of Royal and Visakha Colleges. Uyangoda’s “bouncer”, I believe, is partly influenced by the pop-fication of the academic culture we see, with material and superficial aspects taking over from the academic concerns and commitments of the scholar. In such a context, where we see some rock n roll scholars changing their automobiles at a greater frequency than one borrows and returns library books, Professor Halpe will be remembered for a lifestyle and academic practice of an altogether different pace, if one may visualize him driving his old wagon, as wise as he was in years, down the road to Peradeniya. In fact, as a student, I had once the chance to hitch a ride in that vehicle which, as he told me, was purchased in 1971: a car that runs on three gears.

Even with ailing health, Professor Halpe honoured us by participating in two reading sessions some of us in literature had organized in 2014 and 2015. One of these forums, in which Aslam Marikar, Dhanuka Bandara, Pawan Madri Kalugala and I read, the Professor read for almost half an hour, exhausting a corpus of his writing that was a delegate of his mind at work from the 70s to the present. The second of such readings was organized by Aslam Marikar and Sri Theater, which pooled in a larger number, in which the Professor also participated.

I am sure, depending on the scale each one of us hold for measurement, the significance of Halpe and his estimate as a don may vary and differ. But, as a teacher who walked the corridors of Sri Lanka’s premier academy – and its English Department – I feel that he leaves behind a memory and a legacy that would metamorphose into legend at some point down the line. Whatever he shared with us as good and progress should be preserved and passed down the line of scholarship, as the promise of one generation to another. May his memory and his gift be appreciated and retained!

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