Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My distant memories about Professor S Mahalingam - Rasika Suriyaarachchi

"Don't go to Peradeniya", a friend of mine advised me strongly when he heard about my intention of studying Engineering at Peradeniya University, "the teaching staff there are BAD for students"!

Of course, I did not listen to him.

Peradeniya was my dream.

But, it was not a dream about engineering at all. My dreams were rather about Hanthana Mountains, Mahaweli River, Lover’s Lane and walking paths coved with Roberrosia petals. That colourful dream was painted in my mind by all those novels, short stories, poems and songs that I had devoured with enthusiasm while studying horrible chemistry, boring pure mathematics, a bit better physics and not-so-bad applied mathematics for the advanced level examination.

As I later found out, my friend was correct, well, at least to a certain extent.

We had some horrible lecturers during our first year with notable exceptions of witty and entertaining Ranatunga, can listen to Ranaweera, somewhat sleepy Maliyasena, neutral Samuel and the sleepy surveying lecturer whose name is not in my mind any longer.

Ours were the days when students at the Peradeniya Engineering Faculty who have definitely done very well at the extremely competitive advanced level examination to get selected to study engineering, were performing very poorly and failing miserably in their university examinations. At the end of our first year of studies, out of batch of 250, about 35 of my fellow batchmates failed to gain entry to the second year of study despite having two chances to pass five out of seven subjects.

However, more or less the same number of students from the batch a year senior to us, had already joined us by that time having had the same fate a year or so before. Therefore, there were still about 250 students at the end of our second year to sit the examinations.

Thirty five students (out of 250) failing to proceed to the second year of study may sound a disaster. However, that was a much better situation than the previous couple of years (before our entry into the faculty) where as many as sixty students have met with the same fate two years in a row.

I have heard some argue that language difficulties faced by students are the main reason for these mass scale failures. That may be just one contributing factor but not at all the end of the story.

We had Sinhala and Tamil lectures for Thermo Dynamics, Fluid Mechanics and Materials Science during most of our first year. That did not mean at all that students performed well in those subjects. Besides, Workshop Technology which was entirely taught in English was perhaps the subject that everyone fared well. Sanath Ranatunga who lectured Workshop Technology undoubtedly won the best lecturer trophy in our first year.

It was pretty obvious that the way knowledge is disseminated to the student by means of lectures was a critical factor in horribly poor performance by otherwise bright students in the faculty. Needless to say, lecturers had a lot to answer here, if they had any concerns about the plight of the students, that is!

I was with a group of senior students working on the one-man musical show of Cyril Galappathi when the news broke out that Thureirajah has been elected as the new dean of the faculty replacing Jayasekara. I very well remember how joyful our seniors became when they heard the news. They were of course still bitter with Jayasekara, having undergone a lengthy struggle during Jayasekara's Deanship to get a decent timetable for year-end examinations. Thureirajah was known as a kind hearted man and an excellent lecturer as well. But he was only teaching third and fourth year students who specialised in civil engineering.

Our second year was not any better when the lecturers are concerned. Needless to say, Gunawardena who lectured applied electricity (or electronics as it was better known) was the worst of the lot. He was more fearsome than Jayatilake and Sivasegaram who lectured us Physics II in the first year, put together.

Fortunately, Mahalingam who lectured us Mechanics of Machines was a dream-come-true for all of us. He was definitely from a different world than the world the most of the other lecturers came from. Mahalingam was extremely methodical in his teaching, neat and precise in his writing on the blackboard, courteous towards students and most of all he was very handsome and charming. He won the hearts of all of us within five minutes of his first lecture itself.

Lectures on Mechanics of Machines required a lot of geometrical diagrams and equations to explain the concepts. Mahalingam came to the lecture theatre equipped with a large wooden compass with a piece of chalk attached to one arm and he drew perfect circles and arcs on the blackboard using that. I think, he also carried a large wooden divider as well and used that wherever it was required to divide a line into equal segments. He also had a good collection of chalks of different colours and his teaching paraphernalia included his own duster as well to wipe out the board once it is needed to write on again.

With all that near perfect qualities as a lecturer, not only he was able to teach us the concepts of the subject effectively but also he did enable us to take good quality complete notes.

Mahalingam also carried a set of hand written notes with him in a file and he would refer to them while lecturing and drawing on the board. When he turned pages of those notes, if you are sitting in one of the front rows, you would notice that they are pretty old and fading in colour. It was an often cited joke that those notes he was using are from the 50s, when he started teaching the subject.

The other thing we noted was that being a mechanical engineer he was still using the mechanical slide ruler to work out the answers for examples he used in lectures. During the study leave period when we work the same examples out we see that the answers we get using our electronic calculators were always a few decimal places different from his answers.

There is no shame in saying that as undergraduates at the Faculty of Engineering at University of Peradeniya, most of us were quite afraid of lecturers such as Jayathilake, Sivasegaram, Gunawardena and to a certain extent Jayasekara. If we see them walking towards us in the faculty corridor, it was always advisable to avoid facing them or walk with your eyes set downwards. Often said story about Jayatilake that he would even keep his eyes on students walking on the road connecting the faculty building with Gampola Road with special rear-view mirrors in his car was not just an urban myth as we found out on 4 March 1985. Furthermore, who would ever forget the "heh, heh, heh, Kalu Banda!" freaky story about Gunawardena once you hear about it?

However, seeing Mahalingam walking along the corridor from the faculty car park close to the canteen towards his office in machine lab or walking along university roads close to Sangamitta was always a pleasant scene. In some of his evening walks, we have seen his wife joining him as well.

Despite being there at Peradeniya for four years and despite being lectured by him in my second and fourth years, unfortunately, I have had only two opportunities of talking with Mahalingam.

I will write about those two encounters in the second part of this article.

Link to part-II:

-Rasika Suriyaarachchi [E/81/214]



  1. You should write kalubanda story as well.

  2. Interesting... i think that the distance between students and the lecturers make this "mahalingam" story very narrow.... how odd.. should have been friendship type relationships among students and their teachers.. as i think the lecturers must have the blame for that mostly.. thanks...

  3. Good article Rasika. Our favourite lecturers in the first year(it was a very long one- July 1987 to April 1990)were Sanath Ranathunga, Mahalingam, Milton Amarathunga, Abeyruwan, Abeykone and Ranaweera. At the end of our prolonged first year the exams and repeat exams were not that tough. Therefore only around 10-15 students couldn't pass the five subject barrier


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