My journey started on a Sunday night in May, 1974, when I boarded the train from Jaffna to Polgahawela, with few of my future batch-mates. We had to change into another train there, during the middle of the night, on our way to Peradeniya. Even though I embarked on this trip with a lot of pride and excitement, being the first to become a professional in my entire family, my future batch-mates and I had to endure some humiliating and despicable ragging by some of our seniors during the train ride. When I got to Peradeniya, I checked into Akbar-Nell Hall which eventually became my home away from home during my entire four years of undergraduate days. The first few weeks were a roller-coaster ride after we got over the ragging period. Non-interactive lectures in large rooms, group practicals which did not mean much initially, and prized possessions like the slide rule and instrument set in engineering drawing class took some patience and discipline to get accustomed. I also remember that it was difficult for a seventeen year old to maintain the required energy level on rationed survival meals.
Looking back after 40 years, it was the beginning of an incredible journey, where the four years at the ‘E Fac” gave me an excellent foundation rooted in the fundamental understanding of the engineering profession. As the Chief Technical Officer of a global engineering company, I have had the privilege of recruiting, training and working with engineering graduates from many prestigious universities from every continent. After all these years, I can say without any hesitation that what we learnt at Peradeniya is as good as it gets with respect to high quality engineering education. The foundation that was laid at our beloved ‘E Fac” helped me to build a career where I had the opportunity to write three text books in Environmental Engineering and develop multiple patented technologies for the cleaning-up of hazardous contaminants.
The teachers who had a lasting impact on my educational memory, due to their own inimitable teaching methods or their idiosyncratic manners (we also had endearing nicknames for some of them as a result of their personalities or teaching methods, which I’ve opted to exclude), are Drs. Sivasegaram (Thermodynamics), Theiventhiran (Mathematics), Kumar David (Electricity), Vickramabahu Karunaratne (Mathematics), Shanmuganayagam (Structures), and Professors Mahalingam ( Machines), H.B. De Silva ( Surveying) and Gunawardene ( Electrical Engineering). One person who had a lasting influence on my life, which continues to this date even long after his demise, is Prof. Thurairajah who was our Dean. I had the privilege of getting to know him more after I graduated, and I still regret the fact I could not meet him during what turned out to be his last trip to the USA.
With respect to the day to day life as an undergraduate student during our time at the “E fac”, a few things stand out in terms of my memories. Late night “con-sessions” trying to solve all the world problems with the help of the cheap but strong pol arrack bought late night in Penideniya, standing in line after the 3 PM lecture for a piece of “hakuru” and a cup of tea, trying to find an extra meal ticket when you felt really hungry and trying to convince the owner of the canteen at Akbar to sell us a late night snack when you still had an unsettled account for a couple of months. If my memory serves me correctly, we called him corporal and based on his memory skills in remembering what each one of us owed him, he should have tried his luck at a different vocation.
I also remember the fact that we only washed our bed sheets and covers at the end of each term when we gave them for laundering before we went home. The special meals at the Lyons Café in Kandy, once in a blue moon (for Rs.6.50 per person), to celebrate special occasions were a luxury we could indulge only a few times an year. Looking back, I am not sure whether the trips to Katugastota for a late night movie and the walking back all the way to Peradeniya were a result of unbridled enthusiasm or unchecked stupidity enabled by herd mentality. For all of us domiciled in Akbar (the “drier” side of the campus), the weekly trip to the temple at the top of the hill walking past all the halls along the main line of the campus was a cheerful event every Friday.
In summing up, the four years at the “Pera E Fac” were the initiation of our professional lives, where we all became responsible adults from being teenagers. We all learnt lessons in humility by realizing that we are not the smartest individuals in the school any more. If I remember correctly, my group mate and good friend Nihal Somaratne entered our batch with the highest ever aggregate score at the AL examination, and I assume that it has not been broken yet. We all participated in various cultural activities and started to form our own political convictions. We made many good and responsible individual and collective decisions and some bad ones too. I feel ashamed at this stage of my life, being a parent myself, about the decisions to “re-direct” the food parcels sent by many loving parents of my batch-mates. I don’t feel that bad because I was also at the receiving end many times and never saw all the mangoes, jack fruits and the Horlicks bottles that my parents sent. All in all, it was a great four years.
One disappointing memory of my four years at Peradeniya is that it really ended up being four and a half years due to all the strikes and campus closures. Instead of graduating at the end of 1977 we graduated in October 1978. After graduation, I joined the National Water Supply and Drainage Board as a design engineer and left for the Asian Institute of Technology after one year to pursue my Masters degree. From there I went to the University of Toronto to complete my Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering. For the past twenty five years I have been working for a global engineering firm, ARCADIS, headquartered in Amsterdam. I am based in the US and live in Philadelphia with my wife Sumathy and daughter Shauna and son Nealon.
Picture taken in 2004 with my good friend Nihal Somaratne when I visited the Faculty