The Halpes: Amiability and Aesthetics Personified

Michael Roberts

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My association with the Halpes did not begin at Peradeniya but at Galle. Bridget Abeykoon attended Sacred Heart Convent, while her twin brother Clarence was at the brother college, St. Aloysius, next door. The Abeykoons lived in Magalle and thus fell within Murphy House, my house too though I lived within the Fort quarter. Clarence was, if I recall correctly, maybe one year senior to me. He was an outstanding sprinter for Murphy House as well as St. Aloysius. As such we were thrown together on the athletic field, not least as part of our two relay quartets. He was known as “Doon” among friends and I recollect the occasional visit to his house.When I entered the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya Campus in 1957, therefore, it was pleasant to see Bridget there. Our circles of interest were different however and beyond a smile and hallo when we passed each other, we were not buddies as such. One can safely presume, too, that once she linked hands with Ashley she was far too pre-occupied for reminiscences about Galle.

Later when I returned to Peradeniya Campus in 1966 after my postgraduate researches to teach in the Department of History, it was with Ashley rather than Bridget that I interacted. Ashley has always been amiability personified and a man of wide interests. Many of these pursuits were, and are, in the literary, painting, theatrical and artistic fields, domains where my capacities and interests have always been limited. So our exchanges were invariably within that unpretentious and homely site, the Arts Faculty Common Room. Here we did chat about university affairs and this’n that.

I was heavily involved in running the Ceylon Studies Seminar from circa 1968 and was part of the small band that launched Modern Ceylon Studies in 1970. I cannot recollect Ashley being among those who engaged in the CSS seminars …. So, hmm, a little cross against his name in my black book is called for. But there is a bright, multi-coloured, sunny book where Ashley gets many, many plus-ticks for collegiality and congeniality on the one hand and, on the other, for his engagements with pressing university matters (unlike the silent dons).

And believe you me there were many crises during our time together as members of the Arts Faculty 1966-1975. In the late 1960s there were the shenanigans of I. M. R. A. Iriyagolle, Minister of Education, with his inclination to extend governmental control over the universities. And then, the cruellest cut of all, when ex-Peradeniya dons in high places after the electoral transformation of mid-1970 spearheaded a far more rigorous take-over of the universities and targeted Peradeniya in particular because it offered the most resistance. Ashley Halpe, I recall, was a measured and sturdy voice in all our concerned discussions, in corridor as well as the proceedings of the Teachers’ Association.

Because of our different social interests I did not socialise a great deal with the Halpes at this point of time. Invariably, too, sabbatical leave and journeys meant that our paths did not always intertwine. By 1974/75, moreover, I knew that I had to get my family out of the country for financial reasons because penury was looming. Happy circumstances enabled me to secure an Alexander Von Humboldt Fellowship in West Germany from mid-1975, one of those rare fellowships that did not have a conduit through the Minister of Education where I would have been – like all the Peradeniya dons who signed a Open Petition in the newspapers against their schemes – marked down as “enemy” [‘Such is Sri Lankan life is it not?].

When, eventually, I was tremendously lucky and landed a job at the University of Adelaide from 1977, it meant that the Halpes and Robertses remained many miles distant. But my field of research remained focused on Sri Lanka and Australian conditions of work enabled many research visits to the island. On every such occasion, invariably, my feet took me to my university alma mater Peradeniya, where meeting old colleagues and friends was both convivial and intellectually invigorating. So Ashley remained a friend and colleague.

In 1986-87 my researches involved a long stay in Sri Lanka completing work on the processes of symbolic domination inscribed within life in Colombo during the British period and beyond. While my sister’s place in Colombo was the main base, I spent a fair amount of time at Peradeniya and happily accepted an offer from the Halpes to stay with them at their university house off Peradeniya Road.

It was during this spell that I really came to know Bridget the dynamo. She conducted music lessons and was engaged in range of activities in Colombo and Kandy. She kept Ashley on his toes. And Ashley was as active as Bridget, but in such a languid manner that one did not sense any sense of pressure or haste. There were constant trips to Colombo on various artistic engagements. The house was a hub of visitors. Amidst all this, Ashley remained as calm and amiable as ever.

The two older children had left home for working careers by then. Aparna remained. She even provided an anecdote that was of value to my work on disparaging epithets and their implications. She told me that there was a young Burgher lad of sallow, white colouring who often passed the vicinity of her school, the Kandy Convent and was referred to by the girls as “polkudu suddha” (coconut-refuse Whitey). The collection of such anecdotal gems was an ingredient in the deciphering work that enabled me to work out the underlying semantic pattern in the way (some) Sinhala people have looked askance at aliens and others of mixed descent (whether caste-mix or ethnic-mix); and how the demeaning epithets cross-hatch with those directed at low-caste people. This was one of the critical themes that ran through my chapter on “Pejorative Phrases: the Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” which is the central opening chapter in the book People Inbetween. The Burghers and the Middle Class in the ransformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s (Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services, 1989). So Aparna Halpe enters that book/ in footnote citation 56 for Chapter One.

“From small acorns are great oaks built” is the dictum arising from this little tale about Aparna’s role in my historical-cum-sociological edifice. But it is also a dictum that, with necessary amendments, can be inscribed as epitaph within the richly-textured cape that we drape over the shoulders of Ashley and Bridget Halpe’s lives and lifework.

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