Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

The Group of 56

With Errol fernando

Members of the Group of 56 with Chemistry teacher Mr. Errol Fernando.

I had the inordinate privilege last weekend of attending the 60th reunion of my classmates.

On 17th January 1956, sixty two new boys, 7 to 8 year old youngsters clad in the lower school uniform of blue shorts and white shirts, filed into the classrooms at the northern end of the primary school block at S Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka. We were assigned to either Form IB ( class teacher Mrs Joy Jacob) or Form IA ( under Mrs Karunaratne) .

We were an eclectic group – with names as diverse as Abeywardena, Bartholomeusz, Cassim and Daniels, not just Christians (as one may have expected from an Anglican school called S. Thomas’) but also Buddhists, Hindus and Muslms, born in places as far apart as Nallur and Tangalle.

Over the years this original cohort expanded – enlarged by the arrival of boys from other primary schools (such as STC Prep, most of whom joined us when we reached the Middle School in 1960) and those who joined us in the College Forms in 1964, having done their O Level examinations elsewhere (such as at STC Gurutalawa). There was also the gradual absorption of boys from the class a year above us who, required to repeat a year, were thus afforded the privilege of joining us.

So the original class of 62 grew into the group of classmates numbering over a hundred who are are now proud to call themselves the Group of 56.

Thanks to the initiative of Nesan Asirwatham (now domiciled in England) who floated the idea mid last year and then kept the ball rolling – plus the yeoman efforts of those in Colombo such as Major General Lohan Goonewardena and Captain Gihan Fernando – no less than 75 of the Group attended the celebrations.

From as far afield as Edmonton in Canada, Melbourne in Australia, Edinburgh in Scotland and Los Angeles in the USA they came – to join the fifty or so living in Sri Lanka – to mark the historic 60th anniversary of our joining S. Thomas’ College.

The celebrations commenced with a service in the College chapel on Sunday 6th March – conducted by Rev Sunil de Silva (also a classmate) , where the sermon was preached by the current Warden of the school, Rev Mark Billimoria. The service was attended by members of all faiths, not just the card carrying Christians in the group!

This was followed by a Kiributh breakfast in the old dining hall and a walk around the school allowing us to recall, amid much laughter, half-forgotten stories and relive old memories.

The main celebration took the form of a formal dinner at the Kingsbury on Monday evening that was well attended by members and partners. It was good to see old friends who had not seen each other for decades chatting away as if the years had just slipped away.

Ma Ren Wei, now a respected architect in Singapore, was seen  chatting to Sivakumar Nithiananda, recently retired dental surgeon from Cardiff; Ralph D’Silva, a very successful businessman in Melbourne, kept us entertained with his stories while Lasantha Perera, well known pharmacist from Negombo, kept us entertained with his singing, showing us that his singing voice had not lost its lustre over the years. The anniversary cake was cut by the Warden, our old teacher Mr C. Coperahewa, Dr. R.G Rajaratnam and Mr. Rakhita Jayawardena.

Modest as I am, I cannot help recording here that the Group of 56 has produced many illustrious sons who have served Sri Lanka well. Attorney General, Foreign Secretary, General Manager of the Railways, Chief of Staff of the Army,  Warden (Principal) of our own school S.Thomas’ College – these are all posts in this country that have been held at one time or another by our members.  We have contributed in no more small measure to academia and the professions, to the armed services and the police, to the worlds of business, commerce, aviation and sports. We have done well not only in Sri Lanka but also overseas. Most important,  The Group of 56 has produced citizens who, as Warden Buck exhorted ‘are men and gentlemen always’ .

Interestingly, the Group does not count among its number any serving politicians – which is in keeping with George Bernard Shaw’s observation in his 1905 play Major Barbara about someone who “knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points  clearly to a political career”. Of course this might explain the large number of former students of Royal College who are currently in parliament and in the cabinet.

The Reunion afforded many now domiciled overseas to visit Sri Lanka – where they enjoyed a meal specially prepared by famous Australian chef Jimmy Shu ( an old classmate) and then travelled to Dambulla to spend a day in the home of Palitha Kohona, our former permanent representative at the UN (also an old classmate).

It was a wonderful week of camaraderie, memories and the rekindling of old friendships.

Even if I do say so myself, 1956 was certainly a vintage year that has produced men who have fulfilled the exhortation of Warden Buck: “You belong to one of the best schools in the world, a school with a tradition. Be proud to be a Thomian – and make the college proud of numbering you among its sons.”


Book: Tales From my Island