He was known for two things. Mathematics and cricket. In the latter, he graduated from being Master-in-Charge of the Under 13 teams to the First XI. In that capacity, I have only brief encounters, which I will speak about presently. But he was first and foremost a Mathematics Teacher.
Upali Munasinghe and his mathematics were forced on me by circumstances. Cricket was partly to blame. He lived in Gonapola and in the late 70s, there were very few buses going that way, and if you missed one you had to wait a couple of hours for the next. We lived in Pamankada and so on days when practices kept him late at school, he would stay over at our place.
He might have felt obliged to teach us, that’s my brother and me, by way of repaying our parents’ kindness. More likely, he was addicted to his vocation. These ‘lessons’ were not looked forward to, not at the beginning anyway. Upali Sir, as we called him, was also my math teacher at school. He was not exactly strict, but he rarely smiled. In all the years, I’ve known him as a math teacher I remember only one occasion when he made the class laugh. He noticed two boys not paying attention and blurted out in their direction, ‘;uqfi,d fokakd ,õ lrkjo?’ (Are you two making love?).
Happy hours were times out of class. I didn’t relish an extension of school and certainly not at home. But he somehow seemed less strict.The ‘New Maths’ that was taught to us in Grade 6 had simply gone over my head. By the time I came to Grade 8, I was totally lost. In the mid-year exam in Grade 7, I got just 17. When the teacher who corrected our year end papers, Mrs Weerasooriya, saw that I had scored just 42, she was horrified. I remember laughing: ‘Madam, it’s a good score – I got only 17 in the previous exam!’
Upali Munasinghe put me back on track. He put everyone back on track. He taught as though the entire class knew nothing about numbers. He did not leave anyone behind. It was painful at times because he went through each step of a solution to any problem. That was he not only ensured that the weak students didn’t get lost in the numbers, equations and theorems but taught everyone the advantage of thinking clearly and methodically. Speaking strictly for myself, Upali Sir made mathematics a fascinating subject. He was instrumental in making me pick the math stream after the A/L, a decision I do not regret although I switched to Arts after the A/L. I picked Pure Mathematics as a ‘main subject’ for my first year in the Arts Faculty at Peradeniya because I loved numbers. Thanks to Upali Sir.
He was such a good teacher that in time the only period I looked forward to was mathematics. He could be impossible. He persuaded our mother to make us sit what was called the ‘Old O/L’. It was the mid-70s syllabus and was much tougher than the new syllabus and much closer to A/L Pure Mathematics. He even took us to his house in Gonapola for extra lessons.
That was when I learned that Upali Sir was more than mathematic and cricket. He was single. He had dedicated his entire life to take care of his mother. They lived in an old house. It was a ‘rubber area’ so he showed us around and through the entire process of rubber production. We learned a lot.
As cricket MIC, the one thing I remember most clearly was a speech he made at the Royal Junior School pavilion. A few weeks before that one of the most-talented cricketers of our time and the captain of the Under 13 ‘A’ team, Harith Nanayakkara had met with an accident. Harith was a member of the Under 15 ‘A’ team when he was just 11, he was that talented and everyone thought he would captain Royal one day. Upali Sir was bringing him back after a match. Harith had jumped onto the road a fraction too early, only to be hit by a vehicle. He was in a coma for a long time. The prognosis was not encouraging.
He died. Upali Sir spoke to us. ‘yß;a f.a wjdikdjka; urKfhka miqj m,fjks ueÉ tlhs fï…’ (This is the first match we play after Harith’s unfortunate death). His voice broke then. Tears fell. We were all quite disturbed and partly because none of us had seen a teacher cry. He revealed his softer side. He felt responsible in some way. He taught us a lot without even intending to.
Upali Sir was a math teacher. He was a cricket MIC. In later years, he would be a friend. He never judged people. When I asked him to be witness at my wedding, he readily agreed. When I divorced, he never asked why.
Even after he retired, he would drop by to see my parents. In full white. He had a bad heart, this good-hearted man did. He refused surgery, going to the lengths of discharging himself from hospital. He died at home of a heart attack, they said. A relatively easy and painless death, they said.
He had accomplished a lot by that time, his students would no doubt confirm.