|Monday, 21 July 2003|
Creating an elite
by Haris Hulugalle
Younger readers may find my commending an elite in this country more than offensive. The reason is that the word no longer has the meaning which it had in our time. It was used to describe a group of people who were educated had fine values and conducted themselves with a grace which was distinctive.
There is no such class now because the modern culture of pursuing financial and political success has become an acceptable norm. Sociologists may not readily agree that the present state of our country, engaged as it is in tribal warfare, is as a result of the extinction of an influential elite; but to the lay mind it seems obviously so. Thinking in modern Sri Lankan society is now of a much more basic nature.
The conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese arises out of what anthropologists would call the "territorial imperative", an impulse which drove animals, in their primitive state, to defend, to the death, territory which they had acquired for their exclusive use. Domesticated animals have lost that compulsion. They live in an interdependent society sharing the resources of their common habitat.
Humans, certainly in the West, have been through bitter experiences of killing each other to have learned to live together sharing and caringly together across thousands of miles among millions of disparate people. True, this process of advancement has not developed fully. Blair is accused by his own of having killed his way into Iraq, for the oil. Yet elsewhere the Europeans have come very far in human development to be able to live inter-dependently and peacefully and prosper.
These virtues were not achieved in the killing fields. They were acquired by learning from other human beings who had thought out better ways of living. It is this developed group which was called the "elite". They did not pride themselves in their swords and guns nor wealth but in their books and speech, in their manners and gentle lifestyles.
The late Professor J. L. C. Rodrigo whose 108th birthday we commemorate in July for his relevance to us in these hard times, was typical of this class. He not only belonged to it but continued throughout his career to try to expand and educate that elitist group. The British Empire and the stability which it had brought to the subcontinent, in which we lived, had a semblance of permanence and a prospect of lasting forever.
It is from this kind of background that the elite of this country arose. While there was continued exploitation of our land, we were also more than blessed with the finest and the most dedicated men whom England produced, to teach us new ways of social order, justice and morality. Prof. Rodrigo had the privilege not only of absorbing it all, but passing a lot of these decent values to my own generation.
The British gave him the opportunity of a secondary education at Royal and Trinity which was as good as what they provided for their own in England. He had a further chance of developing his talents with a scholarship to Oxford in England. Here he devoted his time to a deep study of the very roots of European culture, of which he had a foretaste in secondary schools in Ceylon. Plato's "Republic" and Aristotle's "Politics" provided the foundation of his liberal values and he was one of our first scholars who condemned the growing communalism which had so decimated our country in modern times.
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was one of his contemporaries at Oxford. He had described the Professor as an outstanding personality, who was extremely popular. "He combined a great charm of a manner with the ability to talk intelligently and interestingly on a wide range of subjects. He was a special favourite with the undergraduates, a fact which certain persons attributed chiefly to his grey hairs (even as a boy he was grey), which encouraged them to treat him as a kindly uncle! He used to come occasionally and drag me out of my room and take me for long rambles in the country".
In England, he passed out as a Barrister-at-Law at Greys Inn and obtained a Diploma in Journalism from the University of London, in addition to his degree from Balliol College, Oxford. When he returned to Ceylon he was successively the Editor of the "Morning Leader", Head Master, Wesley College, Professor of Classics, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the Colombo University and the Education Officer in the Ceylon High Commission in London.
A greater part of his active life was spent in an environment amid the elite to which he belonged. They all lived in grand houses, with numerous male servants from South India and women from our villages and adopted a domestic style and decorum, which was disciplined and orderly at all times. This enabled such people to live in a atmosphere of leisure and scholarship. They were not selfish because they had no immediate problems of their own. Their concern was primarily the people of this country and its society.
The Professor married the daughter of Dr. Solomon Fernando who was the first Sinhalese to pass out in western medicine in England. Dr. Fernando died on stage while making an impassioned speech on behalf of the Sinhalese at a time when they were being persecuted by the British for rioting against the Muslims in 1916.
I am indebted to Professor Rodrigo for a singular reason. At the request of my father he had taken an interest in the aberrations of my adolescence and gave it a quick fix. He had me appointed as a master at Wesley College teaching English to boys of almost my own age, while I marked time between Royal College and the beginning of the university term. I cannot describe this act of compassion between better than in my father's own words.
"J. L. C. Rodrigo", wrote H. A. J. Hulugalle, "was at heart young and could understand and sympathise with the young as very few men of his age were able to do....his students looked up to him as to a benevolent uncle interested in their welfare.
The gaiety of his spirits and the sparkle of his intellect were known to a larger constituency through his genial essays contributed to the Press, under a thinly veiled pseudonym. He was, in short, a delightful combination of the pedagogue and man of the world".
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