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Wednesday, 3 January 2013






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Life Abroad - Part 9:

Students in England had a rough time with finances due to stringent exchange control regulations that existed in Sri Lanka under Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government. There were a few privileged students, however, who got funds transferred regularly to their UK accounts from parents or guardians who operated Swiss or off-shore bank accounts that helped them to afford comfortable well heated hostel accommodation.

Bedsitter experience

Others, especially in London, had to economise and confine to little rooms or a bed sitter. In fact, a bed sitter, with cooking facilities in the same room, in some instances with a bath tub in a partitioned area with sliding doors, or a ‘flat-let’ was regarded as luxury rather than having to share with others. Many Victorian houses in Paddington and Nottinghillgate area in West London had 4-5 level-Victorian houses converted especially for renting purposes with room facilities only on each floor landing.

Stringent Exchange Control Regulations compelled majority of students to engage in ‘moonlighting’ and accept whatever jobs that were available to supplement their income. The difference between Sri Lanka and in the West was (is) that particularly in England division of labour did (does) not attach any inferior label to one does for a living. ‘Everyone in this world had to work for a living’, as such the type of work one did for a living did not matter as long as a service was rendered to the society by everyone for the benefit of others. In this respect we, in Sri Lanka, still seem to suffer from negative pseudo egotistical ideology which has hindered our progress as a nation in that direction!

A family relaxing in the comfort of their home

This was clearly illustrated in the film ‘My Fair Lady’ when Eliza’s father ‘Mr. Doolittle’ who was a dustman appeared scruffy while on duty but turned up in the evenings at the pub as any other respected gentleman. In fact in England Blue Collar workers have more earning capacity being productive than white collar staff who are non-productive! We in Sri Lanka tend to brag about our centuries old civilisation, as opposed to other nations, yet keep on denuding ourselves as if we have never had any civilisation!


During the austerity period when some commodities such as sugar, onions and chilies became scarce in Sri Lanka due to import control, a few Sri Lankans decided to abandon the mother country in search of greener pastures just because they were ‘unhappy with such shortages’! Having taken such bold decisions, and burning their boats completely in certain cases, they were compelled to accept any job for survival in the UK rather than living off their savings or converted rupees to foreign exchange after the ‘honeymoon’ was over.

Speaking in general, among those who left Sri Lanka were professionals who have had free University education and attached to senior management jobs in the Government Service or Corporations.

Some such big wigs who were sent on government sponsored scholarships and/or sabbatical leave, after committing themselves to legal and financial bonds decided to stay back in England without paying any heed to their obligations or conscience! Same was with some diplomatic staff to London - from High Commissioner Grade down to home based clerical and minor staff who followed suit. The irony was that all those who were willing to erase their memory at the drop of a hat were quite willing to forego their pension rights at home, after working for more than half of their life time in certain cases, in preference to experience a ‘new life style’ in London. In such a backdrop they had no qualms about doing any menial job which in Sri Lanka they would not have thought about even in their wildest dreams!


Equally there were patriotic post graduates who arrived in the UK to follow MSc and PhD programmes who successfully achieved their goals and returned back with new refrigerators, motor vehicles, Belling Cookers etc., out of their part time job earnings, which were regarded as luxury items at the time of undersupply at home.

Another group belonged to a different category of students who were unable to get official foreign exchange permits when Mrs. Bandaranaike bolted the door for those who wanted to study abroad when courses they applied for were available in Sri Lanka! Students going abroad had to be contented with only 45 Pounds as a one-off remittance as against anyone who wanted to visit the UK had to be complacent with 3 Pounds on a passport.

However, some clever Sri Lankans found a loophole in the law to creep through such barriers and found a way of getting to the UK as ‘trainee psychiatric nurses’, which became much popular while there was a demand in England at one time.

A few agencies in Colombo soon mastered the art of sending students to various psychiatric hospitals in England where they managed to get entry permits from the British High Commission in Colombo with ease.

Once they landed on hospital jobs they enjoyed comfortable accommodation, good food (three meals a day) at hospital cafeteria and what more, in the company of many beautiful international female nurses in abundance!

For many, this became the only route of escape where they could earn around 700 Pounds a year as wages and not having to bother about domestic chores. With the increase in such student arrivals, seemingly over a period of years, such students found their way out of hospital life and managed to stand on their own feet financially and went on full time studies in different disciplines and ended up as professionals to establish themselves in many parts of the world. Simultaneously the National Health Service tightened the belt on such escapees later and made them complete their course of nursing which opened up, once qualified, in many other interesting avenues in the Health Sector such as Psychiatric Social Workers, Visiting Nurses, Community Nurses and Charge Nurses etc., taking over responsibility on human life. Nursing in England is recognised as a professional qualification.

Medagama, (Bless his soul) was a nice guy; colourful character who was largely idiosyncratic and very popular among Sri Lankan students. Squint-eyed Medagama always looked obliquely or askance. He was once the Staff Nurse in charge of a mental ward in a hospital who had the keys to all provisions of the ward. His ‘cleverness’ or skilful ingenuity was displayed once when he filled beautiful Tea Canisters bought from Colombo Tea Board and filling them with tea leaves from the Ward’s supply and presenting as expensive Christmas presents to all senior management hierarchy in the hospital bragging about the history of ‘Ceylon’ tea.

Whiz kids

Those students who were in rented accommodation had no choice but to find some means for survival during severe cold weather conditions. A novel story about three Tamil Engineering students’ ingenious work needs to be highlighted.

Three of them during thick of winter managed to interfere with the gas-slot-meter where they had to insert coins to keep them warm. They put their minds together and made a few moulds to exact size of the gas tokens, filled those with water and froze the moulds in the freezer compartment of the fridge. When it became hardened ice and matched the real coin, in shape and weight, they used ‘iced’ tokens instead of real money to activate the gas meter.

When the landlady opened the meter to collect money there was hardly any coins but water…..! This was immediately reported to the Gas Board authorities who became suspicious. Subsequent a visit by an inspector from the Gas Board it was found that water had already vapourised.

The threesome were taken to the Gas Board HQ for investigation but their frank reply about the economic hardship which prompted them to devise a method of using frozen ice tokens was regarded as an ‘innovation’ rather than an offence, and the students were granted free heating for two consecutive years by the Gas Board, instead.

As a young kid I could remember a story about a CTB bus conductor succeeding to interfere with a fool-proof German ticketing machine with the help of a wire nail!

Some cogitate that Sri Lankan intelligent level is much higher than the average person in the world, and no wonder why today many such brains have left the country and serving other nations to make foreign countries prosper.

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