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Dr. DW Devendra the Oldest Living Nalandian

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(The oldest of the old Nalandians is a Devendra) (The oldest of the old Nalandians is a Devendra)

Dr. DW Devendra, now in his 99th year, is the youngest brother of my father DT Devendra. The youngest son in a family of eight, he came from a humble home in the village of Kalegana not far from Galle. Their father, determined to give his sons a better education than was available in the village school and in spite of a meager income, admitted his older sons to Richmond College, where they did well. DW the youngest, however, spent his first school years in Galle’s St. Aloysius College. It was, perhaps, during this period he acquired his other name Edward, by which he is widely known.

Nalanda Days
Meanwhile, his brother ‘DT’ had become a graduate teacher in the fledgling Nalanda Vidyalaya having volunteered to be a pioneer teacher seconded from Ananda. He lost no time in getting his brother DW to Nalanda in 1928, not long after the school was founded in 1925. DW was initially enrolled in the ‘Special Class’ where students from ‘lesser’ schools were assessed and knocked into shape before being released into the normal stream.

The school head at the time was Mr GKW Perera who succeeded the founding Principal Dr GP Malalasekera who had been recruited by the University College. After a brief period he was succeeded by the educationist Mr JN Jinendradasa, who was also a local politician. Though unpopular with the students he succeeded in raising this new school to a high standard. He led his closely knit team of teachers in many extra-curricular activities. Most of them were enthusiastic young idealists in their thirties. Memorable were the staging of John de Silva’s patriotic operatic plays.

Of the teachers who taught him he remembers best his Class Teacher T Kandasamy, WE Fernando, DC Lawris, GP Kumarasinghe, Cyril Strange, MD Gunawardena, Miss Swaris, ME Dharmadase and Miss Alice Wijayanayake the Art Teacher .The last two married after quite a romance, he recalls.

However, the character most engraved in his memory is Sinhalese teacher Ariya Sumitra. He was pitch black in complexion, had a bushy moustache, ‘bothal adi’ specs and was strangely dressed in impeccably white cloth and coat.  He had been an object of great fun for the boys who tweaked his long curly locks and bolted. My uncle had done this once - but could not untangle his guilty fingers and was thoroughly trounced. His eyesight was so poor that to read he had to hold books close to his nose. The boys’ nickname for him was “kalabaraya” [Jack of Spades].  His English was less than perfect and Uncle still remembers his hilarious translation of the Selalihiniya’s ‘varchas pidak’ as “a drop of droppings”!

Among  the classmates who linger in his memory are UAS Perera [later ‘Siri Aiya’ of Radio Ceylon], PS Dayananda [later Professor of Mathematics in Singapore University], BGEC Fernando, KJ Perera, Samson Samaranayake, Hector d’Alwis [the poet], Tudor Munasinghe, Anton Gunaratne, EGB Kalyanaratne, MY Chandrasena, Leopold Perera and his arch enemy  Ruberu with whom he grappled with at every turn.

He was a Junior Cadet the year Nalanda won the Tarbet Shield. When he was a Senior Cadet Nalanda won the Herman Loos Challenge Cup. The Cadet Master responsible for this success was Mr DS Gunaskera [irreverently nicknamed “Thattaya” for obvious reasons].

After Nalanda
During his schooldays he lived with his newly married brother DT’s family in a lane off Baseline Road. DT was a founder teacher at Nalanda. The family moved to Campbell Place to be within walking distance to Nalanda for my eldest brother Tissa who had just joined the ‘Baby Class’. Uncle lived with us till he passed the Cambridge Senior and qualified for admission to Medical College. His hopes of becoming a doctor were doomed by his domineering father who insisted that he should follow his immediately older brother and qualify as a Government Apothecary. His two graduate teacher brothers’ offers to finance his studies were scornfully rejected by their father. Uncle went on to qualify as an Apothecary.

However, his appetite for adventure was fulfilled when WW II broke out. He initially joined the Ceylon Army Medical Corps as a Volunteer but was mobilized into the Regular Corps not long after. He served in many garrisons and has interesting yarns of his days in Trincomalee and elsewhere.  This was when DW, an inveterate animal lover, adopted a monkey which he named Trinco. He was demobilized in 1946 and soon after rejoined the family of his brother DT – now in Colombo.

He had a fruitful career, working in many outstation dispensaries and hospitals. Perhaps his most interesting spell was when he was equipped with a snazzy red Jawa motor-bike on which he travelled, far and wide, inspecting medical institutions. His last assignment was in the supervisory position of District Registered Medical Practitioner, Colombo District. During this period he was also Hon. Secretary of the Ceylon Hospitals Formulary Committee. He was always a keen trade unionist and held office in the Government Apothecaries’ Association till his retirement in 1975.

Retirement and after
DWD now lives in active retirement in Boralesgamuwa with wife Swarna and daughter Dayadari. They are in lively conversation (via Skype) with his son Sirimevan [Commander SL Navy rtd] in Boston and daughter Nilmini in Alberta.

Now in his 99th year he is no museum piece but as active as he was a few decades ago. The common ailments of HBP, cholesterol, diabetes and arthritis do not bother him. He keeps abreast of all medical advances and is an excellent diagnostician – even of visitors’ ailments. As such he decided that a recent hospitalization was unnecessary and quietly left his ward and ‘scooted off’ – causing near panic in the Hospital who informed the Police to send out a search party. By this time the runaway had got back to the bosom of his family – in perfect health!

The antics of marauding monkeys, slithering snakes, inquisitive iguanas and birds nesting in the rolled up bamboo tats in his neighborhood keep alive his abiding interest in nature.

Civic minded to a fault, he determinedly walks up to the polling booth to cast his vote and is enthusiastically supportive of whatever cause he currently espouses – religious, political, cricket or otherwise.

He still climbs ladders to hang flags for Vesak, attends to minor mechanical and electrical repairs and is a dedicated gardener. These are formidable feats, performed by touch as his vision is not what it was. His hearing too is weak and this deprives him of listening to news bulletins or spouting angry comments when ‘hora’ umpires target Sri Lanka’s cricketers! Space fiction, inter-stellar activity and alien visitations are his other interests, which he shares with us. In fact, his sci-fi story “Hera, the Lost Planet” was published in 2013 when he was 96 years old!

Few, if any, Nalandians can match the vim and vigor of DWD – the oldest of them all.

Nalanda and the DT Devendra family
Our family’s connection with Nalanda Vidyalaya began when Father heeded Ananda Principal Kularatne’s appeal to be one of the team of pioneer teachers to set up Colombo’ s second Buddhist Secondary School. He happily volunteered and taught there for many years.

Father then moved ‘en famille’ to Dharmaraja College in Kandy where Kularatne was Principal. But our family’s friendship with Father’s former fellow teachers in Nalanda remained strong and they were surrogate ‘uncles’ to us children.

We were back in Colombo in 1948, when Father joined the Archaeology Department.My other brother Somasiri now joined Nalanda to complete high school and enter the University. He found his cousins Lee and Harry already there.

Some years later, my sister Yasmin joined Nalanda as a teacher in the Primary school and found Father’s former colleague Mrs. ME Dharmadase was on the staff – as well as Diyonis the pioneer Peon !

Strangely, I am the only one of our family who never went to Nalanda. BUT I believe I have made amends with this article

Last modified on Saturday, 07 March 2015 17:00

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