(08.08.1951 - 27.08.1995)
Vidanelage Pemasiri Rajakaruna De Alwis, (or "Raja Alwis" as he was popularly known), (1951-1995) was arguably the best tutor of mathematics Sri Lanka ever produced, who taught the subjects of Pure Mathematics and Applied mathematics for hundreds of thousands of G.C.E. Advanced Level students. He passed away under tragic circumstances on 27th August 1995 while holidaying in New Zealand.
Raja Alwis began his teaching career at Royal College, Colombo, in 1975. His unique teaching techniques soon became popular among students, and he soon started tutoring in "Nalandaramaya" in Nugegoda (a Colombo suburb) to cater to the massive demand created by his well-liked ways. A few months into his new venture, students craving to enrol into his classes multiplied hundred-fold, resulting in him resigning from the academic staff of Royal College to dedicate himself to full-time tutoring, a step that would benefit thousands of students in the years to come.
From the late 70's until he met his untimely death in 1995, Raja was teaching advanced level mathematics to tens of thousands of students a week, in many locations around the island. The popularity of his tutoring was such that the student numbers in his classes continued to grow even until the very last class of the syllabus. The most packed class of them all probably was the one conducted in the Rotary Hall in Nugegoda, in its main hall downstairs, where he used to lecture most days of the week. He also conducted classes in Wellawatte (another Colombo suburb) and also in Kurunegala, a provincial capital in the North-West of Sri Lanka.
Innovative ways of teaching
His innovative ways of teaching and the trademark colourful language used are still fondly remembered by students. Raja was best known for his gifted talent of explaining the most difficult of advanced mathematical theories with absolute ease. There is also little doubt that he was generously helped by his lively vocabulary, and anyone who is lucky enough to have been a student in one of his classes would vouch for this.
Total commitment and enthusiasm in teaching was a way of his life, and thus he made sure there was nothing in the syllabus that the students found difficult to grasp. Raja's methods always paid off and their success was evident by many of his students achieving good grades, and a large number of them gaining admission to university. Many considered Raja as their saviour when it came to Advanced Level mathematics, and for some he was a demigod to worship.
On many occasions, Raja Alwis went well beyond his duty as a teacher to help disadvantaged students. It was well known in the student circles during those times that Raja even paid boarding fees/rent of needy students from rural areas who had come to Colombo but could not afford accommodation on their own. Many students who couldn't afford to pay the tuition fees simply didn't have to, because he was an extremely generous gentleman who allowed them to attend his classes for free.
Just a few months prior to his death, he refused to take up a confirmed offer of employment in New Zealand due to his concerns that his emigration would disrupt studies of thousands who counted on him for the subject.
Due to his worsening throat-condition, Raja Alwis was under caution by doctors not to overwork himself when conducting classes, and he - by his own admission - was suffering badly as a result of over-exposure to chalk-dust, an inevitable element in old-school teaching. He had twice had to undergo throat operations as a result. When the matters came to a head, he was sternly warned by doctors to rest his vocal cords for at least 20 hours a day, for his own sake. However, Raja being Raja, students' education always took priority over his personal matters, and hence he did not take kindly to those "unreasonable" demands. He was more concerned in sharing his knowledge and covering the syllabus in good time, and was conducting lectures over the top of his voice in a chalk-dust filled environment for most of the day, seven days a week. More than his own health, he was worried that any time taken off due to sickness would jeopardise any plans to cover the syllabus on time, thus stuck to his guns, dismissing doctors' warnings.
Raja Alwis left for New Zealand on holiday soon after the Advanced Level examinations of 1995 ended, meeting prior to his fateful journey many students who had written for exams just concluded. Arriving in New Zealand, he was met by his loving wife and only son, who were already living there.
They were intent on having a good time and decided on going on a trip with a few friends. On that fateful day of 27th of August 1995, they were on their way, travelling in a number of vehicles with Raja driving one of them. While driving at speed on the motorway his car was involved in a fatal head-on collision another car travelling in the opposite direction. The exact cause of the accident was not known. Unfortunately Raja Alwis succumbed to his injuries instantly due to the devastating impact of the crash, which also killed the driver of the other car involved in the accident. While the crash left his wife - the sole passenger in the car - seriously injured, his son was safe as he was travelling in another car in the group.
The news of his sudden death was met in Sri Lanka with utter shock and disbelief and then caused an outpouring of public grief that lasted a couple of weeks. As in any accidental death, there he was, the almighty saviour Raja Alwis, in all good health and with many more generations of students pinning hopes on him for rescue, and the next minute he was gone. Many students found it extremely hard to come to terms with his death, and some still cannot.
Due to the reason he was a New Zealand citizen at the time of his death, and also due to bureaucratic red tape and logistical issues, his family was unable to have his body flown back to Sri Lanka until 10 days later. Throughout the time when his body was kept at his home in Boralesgamuwa, all the nearby roads and villages were overflowing with past and present students who had come in their numbers to show their last respects to a loving teacher they adored.
Raja's funeral was held on the 9th September 1995 at the Borella Cemetery. There he was farewelled by tens of thousands of grieving students, fellow tutors, friends and general public who had come there to bid farewell to the best mathematics tutor Sri Lanka ever produced, an extraordinary gentleman of the times, and one of the most generous human beings you ever knew.
By the time of his death, he was only 44 and at his prime. Raja Alwis still had so much to offer, and the thunder of his silence is still felt by many. The huge vacuum that followed his sudden departure may never be filled.
© Yasiru Samarakoon - 2007
Note: This is an originally-written article. No part of this document may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the author.
Raja Alwis Picture Gallery
I only have a few pics! These pics are all from the pre-internet era, back in 1994 & 1995 when digital cameras were unheard of! Any fancy idea to capture a zillion images of 3MB each on your camera-phone would have been just that: a fancy idea.
All these pics are scans from originals and the resulting quality loss is inevitable.
The last day of the 1994 A/L class, Rotary Hall - Nugegoda.
(Raja solving a "Probability" question from a past examination paper)
This pic was taken on the last day of the 1994 A/L class.
(L-R) Me, Nalaka, Raja Alwis & Nilantha
Raja, posing for a pic on the last day of the class of 1995, 4 weeks prior to his untimely demise
The last day of the class of 1995, just 4 weeks prior to his demise.
Raja left for New Zealand on or about 20 August 1995 to join his loving family; he probably had little idea what was to happen in a week.
A hand-bill distributed at Raja's funeral
Another hand-bill distributed by a group of grief-stricken students
An appreciation written by a student which appeared in the Ceylon Daily News on Raja's first death anniversary in 1996
More photos welcome!
All submissions will be given due credit!!
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