My memories of ,
Colombo Medical Faculty, 60 years ago
It is so wonderful to return to the Faculty of Medicine even in our dreams. The quiet Kynsey road, the familiar façade of the grey administrative building and the sentinel Clocktower stands unchanged. I am simply mesmerised by the elegant sweep of those majestic buildings. In that dreamy state it is so easy to be enchanted by the constant whirr of the Vespas in the dusty parking bay behind the Milk Booth and be overwhelmed by the smell of smoke that fills the air. In our mind’s eye the faculty will always remain as we left it all those years ago.
Entry into the Faculty was the culmination of years of toil and sacrifice. There was such a great sense of myopic optimism, we lost ourselves in the adulation. We dreamed it was our passport to fame and fortune. The idyll soon faded as the harsher truths of real life intruded. Life being more like a game of snakes and ladders, always has ways to end that utopian vision and bring us back to reality!!
The Faculty was our Temple of Wisdom and also our gilded cage. There was an air of confidence and a touch of vanity which came from being a medical student. Life then was a dream. I developed a sinister arrogance and an assured sense of entitlement. I dreamed of living happily ever after. It was not long before part of that charm and fantasy began to wear thin.
The common room was the social hub of the Faculty. It was housed in the drab grey administrative building of the Faculty of Medicine in the shadow the Koch memorial clock tower. The tall tower with its colonial elegance was built in 1881 in memory of Dr E L Koch, the 2nd Principal of the Colombo Medical School. The Milk Booth with its red and white stripes gave a bit of colour and provided the medical students with sustenance and cigarettes. Smoke and noise filled the ‘dust bowl’ behind the booth which was the parking space for a multitude of cycles, scooters and motor bikes that entered and left the area with monotonous regularity.
My first encounter with the common room wasn’t a pleasant one. It was the baptism of fire in the infamous rag week. I needn’t elaborate on the psychological vandalism of this archaic practice, a remnant of British rule given a psychopathic oriental twist. That is how I see it now from the sanitised world I live in. But I must confess I didn’t see it that way at the time and considered this as yet another hurdle on the way to fame and fortune.
The common room merged into the canteen and the two were inseparable. Many preferred to take their tea-punts to the common room. The cigarette was a fashion accessory and smoking was rampant in those days. The canteen and common room were full of smoke all day long. The common room had a radiogram with numerous records ranging from classical to jazz and popular music. The table tennis was keenly contested. Perched on his ancient wooden chair ‘Marker’ controlled the billiards corner. He had his “potha” the exercise book which gave us the order of play for billiards. For some students billiards was not only a game but a way of life. Some veterans played their entire game with a cigarette precariously perched on their lips, just like a scene from a 1930’s Hollywood movie. There were several Carrom boards ‘greased’ with talcum powder and in constant use. It amazes me still how the Bridge players found time for their hobby as the games went on forever. There were guys poring over the chess board often seen in deep thought ruminating on the last move and fretting over the next.
In those days feminism was a profanity. Although called a common room it was common only to men. Women were not officially barred but whenever they arrived there were wolf whistles and cat-calls reminding them plainly and unequivocally it was a men only area. I have witnessed this spectacle with many girls running away in extreme embarrassment. Girls were often seen in the canteen with their friends and partners.
The common room was a very special place for us medical students. It was our own retreat and shelter from the storms of faculty life. Our teachers never used the common room and we were left to our own devices. We gathered there to chat and socialise. Racy jokes and saucy humour filled the air. Those friendships made and firmed within those walls have a special closeness that have lasted a lifetime. The common room was also a cauldron of emotions and a place of refuge. Those who have had a tough time at appointments or being repeated sat down alone in a quiet corner or stood with friends to be comforted. Posting of the examination results on the notice board and our desperate search for our names, is a ritual I can never forget. I have seen the despair in the faces of those who had failed. They were consoled by friends. The sheer relief and joy of those who passed often spilled out of the common room to rendezvous at the Lion House or Saraswathy Lodge. Those who failed too quietly drifted in late to drown their sorrows. The common room must retain many memories of the agony and the ecstasy of life in the Faculty.
The days in the ‘Block’ were tough. Detailed study of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry filled our days and nights. We were weighed down by signatures and revisals that generated a toxic atmosphere. But there were the Colours Nights and Block Nights to imbibe the spirit of the swinging sixties and liven up our lives. Those 2 years just flashed by.
Then we embarked on our journey from the dissection rooms to the ward classes and clinical appointments across Kynsey Road. My abiding memory of those years are the long walks along those airy hospital corridors in search of patients and knowledge. We strolled like a ‘peacocks’, swinging those knee hammers and proudly wearing the stethoscopes around our necks. Meanwhile in the 3rd and 4th year we had a profusion of subjects to comprehend. I still convulse thinking of the sheer volume of facts we had to commit to memory.
The Medical Students Union (MSU) wielded great power and prestige. The distinction of being its President was a special honour. The selection was through a democratic election. There was extensive canvassing and the candidates reached out to every medical student with promises and pledges. After the election the MSU hosted an evening party in the common room. It was a lavish bash and the booze flowed freely. It began with speeches by the President of the MSU giving assurances and promises to keep those pledges and make our lives better. The vows and commitments were soon forgotten just like in politics worldwide. One of my enduring memory of this great event is Deva Iriyagolla singing that Mohideen Beig favourite “Tikiri menike ambula genalla” with such sensitivity and feeling. It saddens me to think he died so young while being the DMO at Padaviya in the North Central Province. My meagre contribution was to dance on the bridge table much to the annoyance of the bridge players. Some kind soul took me home to sober up. How I coped going back to my grandparents in Nugegoda that night I will never know. Drinking molasses in such large quantities must have been like placing a lighted stick of dynamite in the liver. Those parties were indeed nights to remember and remain deeply carved in my memory of the happy and carefree time in the Faculty.
We were immensely fortunate to belong to a generation taught by a plethora of dedicated and gifted teachers. Like us many called it the Golden Era of Medical Education. Under their influence and tutelage life was not always a bed of roses. In the ward classes and teaching appointments, there were some exchanges too painful to recall. Although a tad egocentric, they inspired us. They gave of their best to the students. We remember with affection and gratitude the dedication and commitment of our clinical teachers, professors and lecturers.
Then like a never-ending storm came the Finals. Seeing the name on the notice board was an iconic moment to savour. We congregated in the common room, the lobby and the canteen to say our goodbyes. I recall the warmth of feeling that day and the sadness that followed as we left the premises. For some it was my last goodbye as I never saw many of them again. Success was also our liberation and the passport to freedom. From the glowing embers of those undergrad years a new era was born.
Universities are places of endemic change. Every year new students join and those who have left go farther on life’s journey. As all good things must come to an end so did our sojourn in medical school. Those five grueling years brought us closer together. Perils and pitfalls and the blissful euphoria of those years will long be remembered.
“Go West young man” was the mantra that appealed to many. The political turmoil and the perilous economy of our motherland did not give us much faith or hope. One of the greatest triumphs in life is to pursue one’s dreams. Many dispersed far and wide in search of work and opportunity. Those who left the country entered the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest. Amidst the fierce competition for the plum jobs, there were the many unwanted prejudices to contend with. The many who remained in Sri Lanka reached the top of their careers in the fullness of time. I acknowledge the patriotism, loyalty and resilience of those who remained in the motherland to serve the country. They lived through some difficult times. The émigrés too played their role professionally to serve society and the communities wherever they lived and worked. Those who lived abroad made donations to a multitude of Sri Lankan charities. They also provided financial support to Medical institutions and Medical education back home.
I hope very much this account will take you back to those times in our youth and help you recall people and events. As we reminisce we are made aware of the fragility of life and the many who have now departed this world. Now the faculty is a ghostly relic of former times. After the passage of half a century the lively and vibrant common room with its unique ambience can only exist in our memories.