Back to School, held annually in October, is an important event in the LOBA calendar, and one that I have always missed attending. This year, however, I did go back to a school, on a personal quest.
The early lives of my father and my aunt were spent in Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), where my grandfather K.P. Achuthan Pillai had been principal of the Vigneswara College in Jaffna District. My father had been a student there till he completed his Senior Cambridge and returned to India. My aunt had studied in the Chundikuli Girls’ school in Jaffna.
A few months ago, with the sparse inputs that I had, I searched on Google, but my emails to the schools did not elicit any response. My friend Major General Amin Naik used the good offices of a friend (the chief of the Sri Lankan Air Force), and pronto I had a response from the principal of the Vigneswara College. “Mr K.P. Achuthan Pillai’s tenure as principal extended to thirteen years. There were three other teachers from Kerala,” he informed me. The email also contained a copy of an article giving a short history of Vigneswara College.
Soon, over email, I began to get considerable information about the school in the 1930’s. I learnt that during my grandfather’s stint as principal, a parliament system was introduced in the school (“a pioneering effort”), boarding facilities were opened for orphans, scouting and volleyball were introduced, Jawaharlal Nehru was accorded a welcome, and special classes were organised to help senior Tamil medium students from elsewhere to ease their entry to the English medium. An email noted, “In retrospect, all these landmark events proved to be of permanent value. Therefore, his period can be reasonably and proudly termed as the most formative period in the long and rich history of Vigneswara.”
In one of the emails, a quote from the 75th anniversary souvenir ran thus: “It was really a treat to anyone who happened to observe Mr. K.P. Achuthan Pillai, the then Principal, a moderately hefty, tall figure, with a typical Kerala moustache, going round the school with a long cane under his arm, looking left and right through his double-lensed spectacles, in an inimitable rhythmic walk, with the airs of an Englishman. The whole school would be calmed by his appearance.”
The school authorities wrote to me, “We will be extending you an official invitation for the centenary celebration. But then, you are always welcome to Vigneswara on any date suitable to you.” It rekindled in me the desire to visit Sri Lanka and the school.
My wife and I boarded the Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Trivandrum to Colombo on 5 September. On reaching Jaffna the following afternoon, I traced out the elusive Chundikuli Girls’ school to the heart of the city. The school is more than a century old, and Principal Dushy Thuseetharan lives within the campus. My wife and I rang the doorbell. The principal graciously heard our story and welcomed us, and confessed that she had forgotten to respond to my email due to pressure of work. We spent almost an hour with her and walked around the school. She presented us with a copy of the school magazine and a CD to be handed over to my aunt.
Vigneswara College is in Karaveddy, a small town about 25 kilometres from Jaffna town, and is close to Point Pedro, the northernmost point of the Island. In the early 20th century, Karaveddy must have been a large village.
On 7 September, it took us about 45 minutes to get to Vigneswara. We were received at the gates by the principal and taken to his office, where we were introduced to some members of the old students’ association, its President Selvaratnam, and two other old students—well past 80—who were students when my grandfather was the principal. Also present were seven or eight former principals, among them Selvarajah, the longest-serving principal of the school (14 years).
After the preliminary introductions, we were ushered to the special assembly. Both sides of the walkway were lined by students, who showered petals on us. We were garlanded, the traditional aarti was performed, tilaks were applied on our foreheads, and a ponnadai (traditional shawl) was wrapped around me. The entire school, including the staff, were present at the auditorium for this special assembly, and we were greeted with a standing ovation. There were speeches welcoming us and lauding the contribution of my grandfather. Every moment was moving.
I gifted to the school a photograph of my grandfather, and the school gifted to us a photograph of the school. They also presented to me a citation. After the assembly, we joined the staff for tea, and I recorded my visit in the school log.
When it was time to leave, there was a surprise. We were told that we could visit the house where my grandfather and family had lived. The ownership of the house had changed, and the new owners were renovating the house, but much of the old structure had been retained. We walked in and around the house.
Going back to school—one’s own or with which one has connections—is an unimaginably emotional and touching journey. And when it is the fruit of months of effort, or the visit is covered by the local print media, it becomes even more incredible. Never did I imagine that I would one day address a school assembly in Jaffna.
On returning to India, I spoke with my aunt and her husband, and appraised them of the visit. I promised to meet them as soon as possible and hand over the magazine and the CD. My 92-year-old aunt was happy that I had made it to her school. I set my heart on narrating the full story to her in person. But she passed away last week.
[Ranjan Kanthy (1969) retired as Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force and lives in Greater Noida (National Capital Region). This is an edited version of his blogpost, which has more information and pictures of his visit to the schools in Sri Lanka.]