Sunday, October 22, 2017

To talk, to fight, to believe

The Debating Fraternity of Ananda College, Colombo won this year’s Sri Lanka Schools English Debating Championship, organised by the Law Faculty of the University of Colombo. This is a sketch of that Fraternity and its evolution.

The Law Faculty Debating Championship, organised by the University of Colombo, is the biggest annual debating tournament held at present in Sri Lanka. It extends to not just English, but also Sinhala and Tamil. Since the former is discernibly different to the latter two, and since I’m painfully unaware of how the latter two operate, my knowledge as such is limited to English debating. That is why it interests me that a particular Club from a particular school has moved up, done the hard yards, and won or come second place for the last four or five years. Namely, the Debating Fraternity of Ananda College, Colombo.

I first came across this Fraternity in 2012 and 2013, when MTV aired The Debater and two schools, one of which was Ananda, were pitted against each other at the Finals. Some of the faces which emerged at that competition, during those last few episodes, would make names for themselves over the years. Back then, naturally, I was piqued by the campaigns the Anandians were conducting, online and on paper. To say the least, I was impressed. Their level of commitment was unmatched, even by the school it was pitted against, which happened to be mine. That’s why I wasn’t surprised that we lost, and they won. What I didn’t know until a couple of weeks back was that 2012 and 2013 had been definitive years for these boys.

How they were, at least to me, is as important as where they are. To this end I met more than 15 members of its 30-40-plus team, on a dreary Friday evening.

The Fraternity consists of three sharply defined teams: A, B, C, and Novice. The A Team is housed by younger boys, the youngest of whom at the interview was a 13-year-old. Because of their age, and because they have to contend against elders and seniors, all they have and will need are wits, which I noticed in plenty among them. The B Team, in comparison, has older players (even from Grade 13), while the C Team consists of Ordinary Level students. The Novice Team, as the name obviously implies, is housed by those who haven’t gotten through tournaments, or in debating parlance those who haven’t “broken”.

One of the more inscrutable and hard to possess qualities for a debater is the capacity to suspend or abandon his or her beliefs. Seth Ganepola, who’s presently in Grade 12 and in the B Team, told me as much: “Debating ‘well’ means getting out those notions you have about particular topics. I may be personally opposed to smoking, but I need to dispel those opinions if I am to stand up for whatever motion I’m given. And it actually helps you to look at the other side. Take smoking. Most people believe that it’s damaging, harmful, and basically bad. But once you stand up for the other side, so to speak, you understand that inasmuch as they are paved with good intentions, the very many rules, regulations, and taxes against smoking can also distort, even harm.”

Seth has an interesting portfolio, by the way: having debated at every Law Faculty Championship since Grade Nine, he is also involved with his school’s Broadcasting Unit, English Literary Unit, and Model United Nations, and was involved for a while with English Drama.

In fact nearly everyone I met that evening are engaged with other Clubs and Societies, for the most revolving around rhetoric (the MUN and the Broadcasting Unit), language (the ELU), and performance (the Drama Society). Which brings me to another important point: the ability of all these young debaters to think beyond their age. This in turn raises two more points: the way they are nurtured, and the way they “graduate” with respect to their other interests.

The first of these is easier to delve into. Apparently, and for the most, interested candidates at Ananda are free to walk into the Club and check for themselves whether they have what it takes to talk, pontificate, and convince. “We give these candidates 10 minutes to speak about themselves,” Chanidu from the A Team told me. “As for me, I was, to say the least, quite nervous,” he explained, adding with a grin, “I was entered into various practice sessions. One thing led to another. Naturally enough.”

Each debater has his own story, a given since no two debaters even from the same Society are the same. The range of interests these young talkers and thinkers indulge in is therefore varied, diverse: Chanidu himself likes Maths, English, and Science (he’s in Grade Eight), many others prefer Maths, and Rithmaka Karunadhara, from the C Team, prefers drama to almost everything else, which unearths a special point: at Ananda, many debaters find their way into drama circles, while in other schools the opposite is true and most dramatists find their way to debating circles.

Interestingly enough this unearths yet another point, again as relevant: at Ananda, what you are interested in isn’t “categorised” as such. You can like Western music and take to it without being pigeonholed into a generalised Music Society, and you can like broadcasting and announcing without being pigeonholed into a generalised Literary Society. Students are allowed to discover themselves, to find out who they are.

Obviously, all this goes back to a particular time during which everything changed, a time which had been preceded by a rather dark past. I asked those I was interviewing to fill me in on the what-was and what-almost-would-have-been, pertinent questions when delving into any group’s evolution, I believe. The reply came from the two most senior boys at the interview, Gihan Samarawickrama and Lithmal Jayawardhana, both of whom pinpointed a particular year as their frame of reference. 2012.

“Frankly speaking, there was no Fraternity in the first place,” Gihan told me, “What differentiates this team from most Clubs and Societies, at Ananda, is our repudiation of a junior/senior rift. Such a rift is harmful and inimical to any Club, any Society. Sadly, it’s that kind of rift which existed during our time. I joined in 2009, so I saw firsthand the trials, the tribulations, and the humiliations our Fraternity had to endure. There was a rampant culture of favouritism. Juniors like us weren’t trained properly. We didn’t go through the proper selection processes. Championships and tournaments hardly mattered. Even if we went, we lost. And then, just like that, at the beginning of 2012, an Old Boy came back. His name was Damitha Karunarathne.”

Damitha had completed his LL.B. at the University of Colombo and was at the time engaged with Law College. He had left Ananda in 2006. A seasoned debater, he had coached the Law Faculty Debating and Mooting Society and this despite the fact that he hadn’t engaged in debating at school. At the time, everything had been a mess.

Gihan continued: “Damitha aiya came in, instituted selection processes, empowered youngsters, and got them to practise late until about 12 or 1. He’d get us dinner, and sit there and get us to debate in front of him. He inaugurated a brotherhood between us, to be honest. Even when we ate, we would invoke that brotherhood by eating together. But of course, he was quite serious about what he was doing. Not only would he make us debate all over again if he didn’t like how we were going, he’d also make it a habit to make us listen to his speeches. Those speeches, motivational and encouraging as they were, were never less than one hour. We had to stand for that whole hour. We hated it intensely, but grew to like him.”

I mentioned 2012 as their frame of reference became a) it was then that Damitha arrived and b) it was the beginning of a new era. Not just new, but also propitious, as evidenced by the many accomplishments they went through soon afterwards: becoming the Novice Champions at the Law Faculty Debates; winning the finals at MTV’s The Debater, with a formidable team (Lithmal, Gihan, Binura Gunasekara, and Oshada Abhayasundara); restarting the longest and largest interschool English Debating Tournament in the country, the N. M. Perera Championship (reinvigorated by the teacher-in-charge, Mrs Eesha Liyanage), in 2013; and of course clinching victory after victory at the Law Faculty Debates (Runners Up in 2014, Semi-Finalists in 2015, and winners in 2016 and 2017) along with the Asian Schools Debating Competition. A reckonable history however short it may be, I should think.

And all that history has paid off. As a final point, another member, Minul Muhandiramge, remembered Damitha for me: “He could figure out what was wrong with us. He could correct us. He didn’t treat us the same way because, obviously, we had different problems. In my case, it was a tendency to speak too fast. Today I’ve gone past that.” He remembered a horde of other names as well: “Mr Gomin Dayasiri; Nishantha de Silva; the present head of the Debaters’ Council of Sri Lanka, Shan Dantanarayana; Harindra Gunaratne; and Vishakha Wijenayake. Most of them are Old Boys, the rest are well-wishers. They helped us get to where we are. It would be unbecoming of us to forget them.” And then he ponders on an ultimate, last point: “Damitha aiya started this tradition whereby Old Boys come back and help their juniors in the Fraternity. It’s a tradition that continues even today, even now.”

There’s a lot to be said for these boys. So much, in fact, that one sketchy article can’t suffice. I’ve come to believe that a group is what its members make of it, a truism that holds true even for school Clubs and Societies. The Debating Fraternity at Ananda clearly abides by this, a point which I won’t be able to comprehensively delve into here. For now, therefore, I’m done. But these boys, young as they are and matured as they are as well, deserve better. They deserve our assessment. Yours and mine.

Photos courtesy of: and the Debating Fraternity of Ananda College

Written for: The Island YOUth, October 22 2017