6 min read

Being in the Circle

by Uthpala Wijesuriya

Uthpala Wijesuriya is a history and political researcher and aspiring archivist. He is interested in fields like art, culture, and anthropology, and in how human beings behave and interact with each other. He can be reached at wijesuriyau6@gmail.com.

It was a quiet evening. I was lying on the couch, watching TV. The phone rang. I picked it up. I was the only one home on that particular day.

“Is this Uthpala?” the voice on the other side asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Congratulations son, you got 190 marks for your exam!”

I had lived the first 10 years of my life in Mataluwawa, a small village in the Kurunegala district, located in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. I had spent my childhood here, and it had been my world for as long as I could remember.

I had studied at a local school, Polpithigama National School, where I made my very first friends. Though I had spent a rather ordinary childhood there, I had managed to get myself involved in a number of activities.

The exam to which the voice on the other side of the phone referred was the Grade Five Scholarship, an annual all-island assessment that gives students who have completed their primary education an opportunity to obtain their secondary education in schools with better facilities. Out of 200 marks, I had obtained 190.

My family were quite happy, and immediately got busy selecting a school for me. They had different ideas about where I should go. My father had studied at a school in Kurunegala, Maliyadeva Boys’ School, and wanted to send me there. But some relatives insisted to my parents that they should send me to Colombo. Given my result, they asked my parents to send me to Royal College, a school founded in 1835, one of the oldest in the country, and a haven if not magnet for scholarship holders across the island.

Ultimately, they decided to send me to Royal. I entered there in January 2014. Having spent the better part of a decade in a close-knit village and community, I felt nervous leaving behind the world I had grown up in.

I still remember my first day at Royal. It was a Thursday. We had taken an early morning train to Colombo and had breakfast in the city, reaching school at around 9 am.

Royal College had been founded at the heyday of British colonial rule in Sri Lanka, and as a result was strewn with Victorian architecture. Though I knew nothing about Victorian architectural styles, I remember feeling out of place when I saw the red-bricked buildings for the first time. It was like being transported to another time. 

After an orientation program, we were promptly directed to our classrooms. Before coming to Colombo I had been told by various people that these would be top-notch classrooms. As it turned out, they were no different to ordinary classrooms. This was a relief to me, since it helped me familiarize myself with my new setting better.

There remained the issue of where I would be boarded. The obvious solution was the school Hostel. Following an orientation, my parents boarded me there. Having finalized everything, we returned home. We would return the following week.

We spent that weekend preparing everything for my stay at the Hostel: bedsheets, towels, uniforms, specifically five for each day of the week. The plan was that I would spend all five days at the Hostel, then return home with my father for the weekend.

I looked forward to exploring my new surroundings. This time around, we went to the hostel in our vehicle. My parents had talked to the parents of another boarder from my village, Kurunegala. They had come early that day to reserve a bed for me next to their son’s bed in the dormitory, one of two dormitories reserved for Grade Six students.

The room contained four bunker beds. There were two others in my room. One was from Ambalangoda and the other from Matara, from the country’s Southern Province. Though Sri Lanka is a small island, it plays host to an extraordinary array of cultures. Through my new friends at the Hostel, I found myself absorbing these cultures.

We got busy getting to know each other. Suddenly, we were disturbed by an alarm bell. It was apparently time for lunch. We were all escorted to the dining hall. Once lunch was done, we resumed our conversations, familiarizing ourselves with each other.

Over the next few days, I explored my new school. The following month, the Senior Prefects at Royal took us on a tour around Colombo. This was the first time I saw a film in 3D. We were then taken to the National Museum and the Zoo. The Senior Prefects ended the day with a series of activities. From dusk to dawn, they made us all feel part of a group. Slowly but surely, my feelings of unease left me.

This was true of everything else. From the beginning, I realized that my new school hosted different kinds of people and communities. Unlike my earlier school, which had been located in a village that housed only members of one community, Sinhala and Buddhist, at Royal everyone seemed to have a place. As time went by, I appreciated the secular character of my new school. For me, it seemed to make it more inclusive.

In those early days, however, I faced a problem. Around half the students I knew spoke and, it seems, thought in English. Since I had come from a background where everyone spoke in the vernacular, Sinhala, this somewhat intimidated me.

Living away from my parents complicated these matters further. Many of my friends cried. They could not adjust to their new homes and wanted to be with their mothers and fathers. Some of them had never heard an English song until they came across the school anthem. Many found it hard to adjust. A few even returned.

One could not really blame them. Colombo, the capital of the country, stood a world away from our homes and communities. As we went along, we confronted one new experience after another. In our villages, for instance, life had always been slow and quiet. But in Colombo things seem fast, sped up, full of sound and noise. We felt intimidated by it all, and though we eventually adjusted, it took time.

Unlike many of my friends, I did not cry for my parents. But I still missed home. I thus spent whatever free time I got pursuing as many activities as I could. Since English was my biggest concern, I decided to focus on becoming more fluent in it.

I came from an environment in which no one spoke, still less thought, in English. In our village English was regarded as a sword, a weapon which could and often was wielded against those who could not speak it properly. Those of us who were not fluent in it saw it as a challenge to be overcome. As I went along with my studies, I soon realized that, at my school and pretty much everywhere else, those who spoke it well held or were elevated to positions of power. To wield English, put simply, was a privilege open to a few.

I realized, however, that forcing myself to be fluent in English, in the long run, could make me forget my own language and culture. I did not want to do this. Although my school was regarded as an elite institution, I did not want to join an elite while letting go of my past. To have done so would have meant erasing my identity.

Some of my friends faced this challenge in other ways. Many of them hailed from regions where people spoke in different dialects. Over time, I discovered that this made them the butt-end of one joke after another at school, mostly among those who had grown up in Colombo. In response, many of my friends forced themselves to speak in a different dialect. I sensed they were eager not to be seen as village bumpkins.

I understood their dilemma only too well. But seeing them made me realize how futile it was to suppress my own identity. That I came from a village was no cause for shame. Moreover, my school was reputed for its atmosphere of inclusivity, its diversity. What purpose would it serve if I strived to forget and neglect my origins?

My response to this was thus to involve myself in as many sports and co-curricular activities as I could. These included basketball, football, boxing, and cadeting. I taught myself to read and speak in English, without neglecting my language. At the end of the year my efforts paid off when I won the Grade Six English Language Prize.

To me, this was something of a surprise. The English Prize was a prestigious award, and it was seen, not wrongly, as the preserve of those who spoke and operated in English at Royal College. I had competed not just with my classmates, but with even those who spoke and wrote primarily in English. That I somehow prevailed over them and had won it shocked me. I suspected it shocked them too.

It was then that I learnt the biggest lesson I would pick up during that period: that you did not have to be anyone other than yourself to fit into a larger crowd.

As my first year at my new school ended, I looked back with some consolation. I had set out to prove myself to others, and had done so while being sincere with myself. To assert my identity in a new surrounding was a challenge. In my own way, I had met that challenge, and learnt how to be part of a new world without forgetting my origins.