Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Professor Mahalingam Memories (Final Parts) - Some personalities in the faculty AND Partial Relocation in a Second Home

Growing up in the Lower Ranks by S. Mahalingam

Part I - The New Faculty
Part II - Our First Home
Part III - Early years of the University of Ceylon
Part IV - Working in the Faculty
Part V - A change of department
Part VI - Annual survey camp

Some personalities in the faculty

When the academic staff assembled in the Faculty on the first day no introductions had been necessary. Almost all of them had been associated with the CTC as teachers (full time or part-time) or as students, and had been acquainted.

The only "outsider" in the team was the Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering, Mr. J.C.V. Chinnappa, who was to arrive a few months later from India. He was a Ceylonese who had done his first degree in India and his post-graduate work in England. Perhaps a few more "outsiders" would have done some good to bring academic variety to what appeared to be an inbred community of teachers.

Prof. E.O.E. Pereira had been appointed Professor of Civil Engineering in January 1948 at a time when the university did not have a Faculty of Engineering, or even plans for one. His assignment was to prepare plans for a Faculty while helping the CTC which was acutely short of lecturers. He had quickly earned a reputation as a teacher par-excellence and was much respected by those of us he had lectured to.

He was well known for the pipe that he often had in his mouth and the weather-beaten motorcar that he drove. This car was reputed to be held together not only by bolts and nuts but also by bits of wire and ingenuity. Its outside was sometimes covered by a fine layer of dust, and the inside always had a scattering of tobacco flakes. If anyone asked him about his car his usual reply was: "It has a very good engine".

A man totally devoted to the Faculty, he always kept an open office and was always accessible to teachers, non-academic staff and students. He believed in moderation in all things. His desk was usually covered with papers which resembled a pile of raked leaves. Nevertheless he seemed to be able to lay his hands on any document he wanted.

A few years ago when I was collecting material for a history of the Faculty, one of the office files that I looked into contained a few sheets of his lecture notes filed, neatly but mistakenly, by his faithful clerk, on his instructions.

It was an idiosyncrasy of his that he was averse to putting up sign-boards - even one indicating the Dean's Office. Right through his Deanship of nearly twenty years he operated from an unmarked room. A kindly man, he readily accepted any excuse given by a student to explain his failure to submit his coursework in time.

His sympathy and help could always be counted upon in full measure by sportsmen and those having health or financial problems. It was once said that Prof. Pereira sometimes confused the functions of the Faculty of Engineering with those of the Salvation Army!

Prof. R.H. Paul was the most experienced teacher in the team. He had begun his career at the CTC in the 1930s, on his return from Cambridge, and had built up the laboratory facilities in Electrical Engineering. He retired as Director of the College in early 1950, and joined the university staff a few months later. He had a very alert mind with an interest in a wide range of technical matters outside his own field of Electrical Engineering. I have heard him keenly discussing the merits of different types of carburettors and on one occasion the finer points of the Laws of Thermodynamics.

He was also inclined to do lateral thinking in day-to-day Faculty matters and arrive at totally unexpected and out-of-phase conclusions. He was indeed an unpredictable man.

Mr. P.H.D. Wikramaratna ('PH.') was an experienced teacher who had done much of the pioneering work in the Civil Engineering laboratories at the CTC around the time the "provisional recognition" was sought. He had carried a very heavy teaching load and had a formidable reputation when he left the College in 1946 to join the staff of the Battersea Polytechnic, London.

He joined the Faculty in 1950 and brought useful teaching experience gained abroad. A man deeply concerned with student welfare, he was also a strict disciplinarian. He insisted on student punctuality at lectures. On one occasion he spotted a student quietly slipping into a classroom, a minute or two late. "Please close the door", commanded PH. The much-relieved student walked back to the door and closed it. "What I meant was, close the door from outside", clarified PH.

When he gave problems to be done in the classroom those who hadn't brought their slide rules were curtly ordered to leave; students who failed to submit coursework on time were given short shrift. His insistence on coursework discipline led to an amusing incident which was recounted to me some time later.

One morning PH was rushing to the Faculty by taxi for his 8 o'clock lecture when he spotted an engineering student waiting for a bus. PH stopped the taxi and offered a lift, which the student accepted with some hesitation. A few minutes after their arrival in the Faculty PH walked into his classroom, and before commencing his lecture, read out a short list of names. These students were summarily ordered to leave as they had not submitted their coursework reports. Among them was the beneficiary of the morning's taxi-ride.

An interesting personality was Mr. H.B. de Silva who had once served in the Survey Department. A friendly, effervescent man, always exuding bonhomie, he had a repertoire of entertaining anecdotes which he re-counted at our gatherings. He also introduced his own brand of spicy humour into his teaching of Surveying, which many would regard as a dull subject.

The teaching of Engineering Drawing did nor nave any takers. Although the Faculty had competent teachers of the subject, they had their hands with other subjects. So, the Dean obtained the part-time services of Mr. A. Ragunather, Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at the CTC, and his able assistant Mr. N.M.R. de Silva. An affable man with a roly-poly figure, "Ragu" had been regarded as a “character" at the CTC.

He was well-known for his blunt and even coarse language, and his rough and sometimes scatological humour in dealing with student questions that he thought were foolish or frivolous. That was considered acceptable banter which even found a resonance at the Tech where he had lectured for many years. But our freshmen, straight from school, took some time to get used to him. It was said by some students that he "taught Engineering Drawing through Anatomy". Professor Pereira, too, remarked that the lecturer from "the other place" had a lively approach to Engineering Drawing, judging by the laughter that emanated from his classroom.

Partial Relocation in a Second Home

In October1952 the formal transfer of the University of Ceylon to Peradeniya took place although the construction work in the Campus was not complete.

The numerous constructional delays had exasperated and frustrated the VC who decided that enough was enough. The Faculties of Arts, and Oriental Studies together with the Main Library and the University administration moved out of Thurstan Road and set out on their "long march" to the hills. In the space thus freed the Faculty of Engineering set up its office, staff rooms, lecture rooms and drawing office. Some temporary buildings were also put up, two of them for our Engineering Workshop which was considered urgent.

We regarded these arrangements as being of a temporary nature, and none could have guessed that it would take 12 frustrating years for the shift to Peradeniya to materialise.

All the lectures were at Thurstan Road in the mornings 8-12, and the staff and students then made their way to the CTC for laboratory classes in the afternoon 1.30-4.30. It was hard on the students, many of whom came back to Thurstan Road by 5 p.m. for their sports.

In spite of the dreary and demanding working conditions the morale of the Faculty was very high and we did produce some very high calibre graduates who have done very well at home and abroad in their professional careers.

By the end of 1952, I was granted probationary study leave and in March 1953 1 set out for Britain to work for my Ph.D. The period of two and a half years as a junior member of the staff, with all its changes and chances, had given me valuable preparatory training which would stand me in good stead in my long career. It had been a big step forward from the harsh conditions of all work and no play at the CTC where only the fittest students survived.

Those early years on the staff were my spring of hope, and they will always remain in sharper focus in my memories then the less exciting and even less rewarding recent past.

The End

(This article was first published in “Memories of an Engineering Faculty: 1950-2000 Golden Jubilee Souvenir”, Jayasekara, W.P., Mahalingam, S., Ranaweera, M.P., Siyambalapitiya, S.B., Ratnaweera, V. [Editors], Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, July 2000)

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