It was a class on varieties of English. Prof. Manique (then Dr. Manique) said, “when I found myself saying paasport [American accent, exaggerated for effect] for passport, and baathroom [American accent, again, now smiling, slightly more cynically] for bathroom, I knew it was time to come home.” She was referring to her decision to return to Sri Lanka from the United States. There was something poetic about that admission: a hint of patriotism; a dash of nostalgia. She made it personal. For me, that day, her spell was cast. Professor Manique Gunesekera’s life and work marks a singular moment in the field of language politics and identity in Sri Lanka. Her desire to delineate Standard Sri Lankan English as a distinct variety of English spoken by a small, but privileged, minority in Sri Lanka changed the field of language pedagogy for a new generation of students, whom she simply and lovingly claimed as “my students.” Her passing is an occasion to reflect what Prof. Gunesekera’s signature in that moment was.
Prof. Manique Gunesekera, Chair Professor of the Department of English, former Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and former Head of the English Language Teaching Unit, University of Kelaniya passed away on December 4th, 2015 in Michigan, U.S.A. while on her sabbatical leave. She completed her undergraduate degree at University of Kelaniya and received her PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She joined the faculty of the English Department in 1979. She has remained one of its most distinguished and best loved professors, touching the hearts of many generations of students. Her greatest contribution to the university was the critical role she played in developing the English Language Teaching Unit of Kelaniya University. But it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that her teaching was ultimately what left her most lasting signature in the field of English studies in Sri Lanka. Prof. Manique, as we all so lovingly called her, leaves behind a bereaved circle of students, scattered across the world. Her students are everywhere in the field, living her legacy.
The paradoxical position of belonging to the Westernized English-speaking elite in Sri Lanka, but being committed to changing the politics of that privilege shaped Prof. Manique’s research and teaching. Emerging out of the heady politics of the 1970s, the questions she asked about language identity were clouded out by the seemingly more pressing Sinhala-Tamil language divide. However, we are yet to catch up with her best insights: she asked what the place of Standard Sri Lankan English speakers was in our already much divided society. How do we reconcile majoritarian language politics with an elite and privileged minority class if/when they decide to “return home” and claim their place in the nation? Professor Manique was a first language speaker of Standard Sri Lankan English, and not Sinhalese. Rather than choose the wide-skies that were the only limit for a person of her calibre and intelligence, she decided to “come home.” She showed us the limits of a poorly thought out Sri Lankan nationalism that only knew how to exclude. In the end, the chair she deserved was denied to her at that broken and maimed table, caught in the rubble of war, compromise, and moral decrepitude. She must have felt the pressure to stoop too low. She left, promising us to return in an eternally deferred “next year.” It was the only time she broke a promise.
In the late 1990s, that brief pause between two tragic decades, she trained us to fight for justice—for women, for language rights, for minority rights, for ourselves. It was all about values and ethics. She taught that language standards change. She taught that we must always know that one variety of English was only different from and not better than the other. Yet she insisted that teachers must teach the standard variety, because that would take our students to places. Once she walked in beaming, because the security guard at the Humanities gate had said “you’re welcome” to her hearty “thank you” with, as she said, “a perfect accent.” She must have been practicing and watching him. Prof. Manique taught us to respect each and every student, never to laugh at another’s accent, and never ever to judge a student by the language s/he spoke. She never humiliated anyone because she spoke English and they didn’t. Now, a decade and a half later, these values seem to have lost some of their edge, watered down into platitudinous tokenism. But back then, hearing about PC for the first time, the world opened its doors on us. She must have come a long way to open those doors. Prof. Manique always quoted the last lines from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” with such emotion that we knew she had had to make some tough calls. We knew she was there for us because she made those choices. It did make all the difference, at least to us.
Teaching English and the Professionalization of Higher Education
The Manique Gunesekera moment, if I may, was that moment of hope that English education can make a genuine contribution to positive social change in Sri Lanka. When politicians and administrators discuss the importance of teaching English, they see it from a purely pragmatic point of view: the expansion of the market and filling a few more vacancies. But Prof. Manique’s signature contribution to the field was the recognition that English language pedagogy must first acknowledge the deep class divide that characterizes the politics of English language in Sri Lanka. On the one hand, much of her research and teaching was dedicated to establishing clear parameters to gauge the character of Standard Sri Lankan English. On the other hand she was relentless in her emphasis that in Sri Lanka, Standard Sri Lankan English is a class-marker, and she distinguished it from non-standard varieties of Sri Lankan English. In her language classes she discussed the differences between the two candidly, forcing us to acknowledge the privilege that is tied to the way we speak English. She was honest about that privilege, untinged by any liberal guilt that is counter-productive to good teaching. She turned privilege into a responsibility, and institutionalized that responsibility. She wanted to turn English teaching, not into something that divided students from their teachers, but into something that bridged the gaping class gap between the two. She changed the game for language teachers at the university, and inspired us to teach, to teach English, and above all, to teach like her: with spirit, gusto, rebellion.
It was a time of great renewal: there was much discussion on the professionalization of undergraduate education. She took the lead in shifting the focus of higher education, driving us to understand job-market demands from a teacher’s perspective. She turned us students into teachers and trained us to think like teachers while we were still undergraduates. She recognized that training students to become good teachers was a very important part of teaching English. As part of that vision, she expanded the English Language Teaching Unit (ELTU) of the University of Kelaniya, establishing the first academic post in an ELTU in any university in Sri Lanka. She got the infrastructure and the teaching cadres necessary for the task ahead. This would be her greatest contribution to the University of Kelaniya: a gift she lovingly shaped for generations of students of the university to come.
Given the emerging neoliberal thrust in higher education in the late 1990s, there was much political pressure to produce “marketable” graduates. Everyone held it as the mantra for higher education, but no one really knew what that meant. There was only a general sense that university education had failed profoundly. In this backdrop, Prof. Manique quickly recognized that if we wanted to prevent the field of English teaching in higher education from sinking into despair and cynicism, we had to take that political demand as a genuine educational goal. That was easier said than done. She sent us out, then just graduated from university, to talk to the private sector, to ask what exactly it was that they wanted from our students. It became clear to us quickly that they were not looking for people who could quote Shakespeare or knew how to spell “parliament.” They were looking for class connections and specific job-oriented soft-skills tied to life-styles associated with a few class-markers including English. We couldn’t change the former; the latter, we could.
Her vision, however, was not to simply supply what the market demanded. She wanted to change the conditions that left the vast majority of undergraduate students out of privileged jobs: the way they talked, the way they dressed, and the way they carried themselves. We had to teach more than English to our students if we wanted the market to recognize them as “employable.” It was an idea that caught on like wild-fire. She knew that English was no ordinary sword; but she instilled in us the faith that it was a kaduwa worth yielding.
Teaching Ethics and Literature
Although Professor Manique will mostly be remembered for her contributions to the field of language teaching in Sri Lanka, our best times with her were spent reading literature (which, to her, was often an occasion to sow the seeds of dissent). She taught us moral courage in the face of ridicule. She respected intellect and never felt threatened by intelligence.
She would breeze into the class, impeccably dressed, and ask, “so, what was so exciting about the renaissance?” Christopher Marlowe would take wings and we would see the world through the eyes of the renaissance person. And what wonder and excitement! In hindsight, I know, it wasn’t the renaissance. It was her. She didn’t think that the Icarus complex was such a bad idea. To her, it was appalling that sloth was a deadly sin, and surely “greed?” she would ask cynically. And of course she sided with Marlowe’s Barabas. Once in a passionate class about language standards, someone mentioned “lower-classes”: “you can’t say ‘lower-class’ in my class, only ‘working-class,” Prof. Manique corrected sharply. She would be annoyed if we felt sorry for Miranda and didn’t recognize the injustice against Caliban.
She read out from that heart-breaking chapter describing the aftermath of the 1983 riots in Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai. She read it, not us. She paused at the right moments. She made us feel the pain of seeing one’s house burned down, a little Tamil boy’s life caught up in the quagmire of political violence. It hurt to learn the truth of that moment. She taught us that sexism, racism, and classism were beneath her students. There were several senior and accomplished lecturers in the Department of English at the time, but only she knew how to make it feel like reading Native Son and understanding why Bigger Thomas killed a white woman was a pressing political need. In those passing days of youth and dreams, Prof. Manique was the center of a world of intellectual and pedagogical excitement, full of color, friendship, and warmth. We hold onto the memory of those times nostalgically, for indeed, it was a time all too brief.
A Rare Mentor
Prof. Manique also introduced a rare culture of mentoring to us. She valued hard work and rewarded us generously: she was the first lecturer to draw smileys on our assignments, and in those pre-emoticon days, they were her special gift for good writing. She would reward us with poetry and anecdotes. She encouraged us to have fun, and joined us when we did. When the Department Bash (a party given to the graduating class) was organized, she supported us knowing full well the risks involved. Later, she would lead the dance floor, lighting it up with the magic that only she could bring.
She gave us confidence to know that no situation was above us. She told us to dress up, and never to dress down: “if you dress up and it’s out of place, people will only think that you are eccentric, but if you dress down, they will pity you,” she said. She despised begging for pity or sympathy. At a time when faculty-student interaction was rare, she taught us by example that students respond to personal attention. She knew all of us by name by the third week of class (we were a massive batch by English Department standards at the time). She encouraged us to be bold in our decisions, but respectful in how we carried them out. There is much she could have offered in this area in staff training, but often, her skills were attributed to her personality and never fully exploited institutionally.
The Passing of a Great Mind
Professor Manique turned her flair for language innovation into a tool for social commentary. At the International Conference of the Humanities at Kelaniya University, where she was the keynote speaker, she gave “going full commando” as one of her examples. She was pretty sure she could get away with that amid the sartorial demands made on female academics. She worried that we were bowing down under the pressure. She joked that we were too timid. She sensed the way we held back, only half-joking about what was going on around us. If she had returned, she would have found a new phrase to describe it all. But now, she wouldn’t.
Everyone comments on her cheerful laughter: loud and vociferous. It rings of rebellion, celebration, hope. But it is often followed by a quiet thoughtful pause. Brief. Unnoticeable unless you were really watching. She would focus on something nearby, a detail. That pause. That moment. That smile. I try to imagine what it must have been like to be such a public and open, yet so private person. In the end, she left, not in her beautiful, eye-catching, public way, but in the spirit of that quiet, thoughtful moment. In her demise, we have lost one of the greatest teachers, mentors, and intellectuals of our time, too early, too sadly, with too much left undone, too little said, and too much betrayed. I quote Regi Siriwardena’s translation of Antonio Machado’s poem “Traveller” in her honor: “Traveller, the path is/your footsteps, nothing more . . . and turning to look back/ one sees a path that never/ will one return to tread.” Hers is the path that she would not return to tread; her footsteps, the path for us, her students.