A Sinhala Boy at Jaffna College
Rod is R.D. Perera. We met in 1954 when he enrolled in the University Entrance class (HSC) at Jaffna College.
Before it became associated with the slogan of Eelam, Vaddukoddai’s sole claim to fame was that Jaffna College was located there. Apart from that Vaddukoddai was a cultural desert. There were no good restaurants, shops or other commercial establishments. There were a couple of thosai kadais and toddy spots under Palmyra trees for those who were inclined to patronize them (some senior students and staff members of Jaffna College included). The most exciting pastime of Jaffna College boarders was to steal the neighbours’ chickens for midnight feasts!
It was the practice those days for parents in the south and particularly Colombo to send their problematic sons to Jaffna schools. They figured that that a change of environment would help their sons to focus on studies without unnecessary distractions. The very problematic boys were sent to St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna famous for its stern discipline meted out by the Catholic priests, most of whom were Irish. The soft discipline cases were sent to the likes of Jaffna College and St. Johns College.
Perhaps Rod, a Sinhala Buddhist boy from Wadduwa, was a soft disciplinary case.
Those days, cohesion among boarders was legendary. Ragging of new boarders was a rite of passage that helped in the bonding of boarders who always acted as one body against the outsiders, the day students. It was not possible for a day student to win any of the elective offices of the schools organizations such as the prestigious Students Council or the various literary associations without some support of the boarders. Knowing this and realizing the importance of holding some of these offices to gain points at the interviews then held as part of the university admission process, I made it a point to make friends with boarders. So when I saw a timid and distressed Rod being ragged by senior boarders, I decided to cultivate his friendship. Plus I felt sorry for him, and wanted to save him. What was I to do? I could not ask the boarders to stop ragging him. So, I pretended to join in the rag. I commanded Rod to stand at attention and then ordered him sternly to march left, right, left etc until I marched him safely from the marauding raggers to his boarding house.
A year later, Rod asked whether he could be boarded at our house since he found it difficult to concentrate on his studies in the boarding house. My mother took him in as a boarder for nine months until he sat his University Entrance class. Both my mother and grandmother grew to be very fond of Rod. My grandmother would prod him to take second and third servings of every meal.
Rod got through his entrance in his first attempt. My mother was sad to see another son leave the house. Such was the bond that had been established between Rod and the members of my family. He was very much a part of us.
Rod and I had planned to stay in touch, to meet constantly after graduation. Life unfortunately had other ideas. I followed the path taken by many of my contemporaries who sensed trouble early on; after two teaching stints at Jaffna Collage, I migrated to Canada.
Unlike my brother, who placed a lot of emphasis on making and maintaining friendships, I assumed that a friendship does not need maintenance. I never realized that friendship, like a plant, needs to be cultivated and nurtured.
Busy with my new life, I lost touch with Rod.
In the meantime Rod too had migrated, to the UK. When my brother met him there, Rod had insisted on sending a gift for my mother. He told my brother that he remembered my mother being very musical. She used to sing well and played an old harmonica. She had always wished for a mouthorgan but could not afford one. She had mentioned that to my brother and me many times. Rod may have heard some of these conversations. My brother and I had forgotten my mother’s wish but Rod had not. He had bought a very expensive mouthorgan in London and gave it to my brother to be given to my mother.
Until the day she died, almost 2 decades later in 1994, my mother played and cherished that mouthorgan. Whenever my brother and I visited her on our holidays, my mother would invariably play that mouthorgan and say with much pride that it was a precious gift from her third son, Rod.
My mother often asked me to contact Rod. My inevitable answer was that it was not possible to keep in touch with him since I did not know where he lived. My mother would respond that he was in the UK . I would reply that I was in Canada and it was not exactly in close proximity to UK. I was even getting annoyed with my mother. I wondered whether she thought that Canada and UK were in close proximity like Sithankerny (our ancestral home) and Jaffna College, a distance of 2 km.
My attitude would have saddened my mother though she never expressed her disappointment.
By this time, the war had begun. At one time, my mother’s house was right in the middle of a battle zone, with the Tigers on one side and the Indian army on the other. My mother often had to be the peacemaker between these two opposing forces. They respected her and the house was spared any destruction from either party. However, after my mother’s death, events changed. The Tigers occupied the premises and turned my mother’s room into a goats’ pen.
Memories of Christmases Past
In 2012, my brother took over the property and carried out basic renovations to make the place habitable. I arrived in time to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas was always a very special time for my mother and grandmother. Several days before Christmas they would make various pallakarams (sweetmeats). The house would be colour-washed, furniture varnished and new clothes bought. My mother would get us to cut a branch of the tamarind tree to serve as the Christmas tree. An extensive meal would be prepared and relatives and neighbours would be invited. Pallakarams would be distributed to neighbours. The baker (Vijaya, a Sinhalese) would come with a freshly baked butter cake. Relatives would drop by with gifts of fire crackers, tins of English biscuits etc. The ring of the postman’s cycle bell was music to our ears. He would come loaded with Christmas cards and gifts from friends and relatives. My mother’s first name was Rose and her birthday was on 24th December; therefore there would be several birthday cards as well, most of them sporting roses. The finale was the visit of the Carol singers from the Vaddukoddai Church who would sing Christmas carols and then Happy Birthday to my mother.
As my brother and I sat recalling all these Christmases past and wishing that we could bring them back, we heard the sound of the postman’s cycle bell. We both rushed spontaneously to the gate, as eager as two schoolboys. The postman had just one card for us.
And it was from Rod.
“I have been sending Christmas Greetings every year for the last thirty years. Your family means much to me….. I would never forget how your mother cared for me, made me study, and discouraged my friends from visiting me as that would distract me from my studies”.
What more could we have asked for Christmas? Who else would have sent Christmas cards for thirty years, without a single response?
Old Friends Meet
A month later Rod and his wife came to Sri Lanka for a visit. We met after an absence of more than half a century.
It was a reunion like no other. Rod talked incessantly about how my mother had helped him to pass the university entrance exam. She would wake him up at 3 am every day with a big cup of coffee and make him study. If he nodded, she would gently tap him on his shoulders and say, “Rod, wake up”.
When Rod finally revisited my mother’s house, her beloved garden was once again in bloom. Walking around that garden with Rod made us feel that our mother too was there making an unseen and silent visit. Our mother would not have wished for anything better than to see her natural and adopted sons together at last after over 54 years.
My mother was not a rich woman. Often she was in financial difficulties. But that never stopped her from helping many people in various ways selflessly and without advertising her charitable works.
In January 2013, to perpetuate the memory and work of Rose Richards and in recognition of what she had meant to him personally, Rod established a scholarship in her name.
The Christmas of 2012 was very meaningful to us. Here was a Buddhist Sinhala from the South expressing his never ending gratitude to a Tamil Christian family in the North for a very small favour done him decades ago. Does this not represent true Christmas spirit? For all of us, it is a real lesson on how we could build harmony and goodwill among the various communities in Sri Lanka. Many of us in our lifetimes would have experienced good will from members of other communities. Some of them risked their lives and limbs to offer help to friends, neighbours and total strangers in tumultuous times. Let us remember such kind expressions of friendships. These are the meat of grassroots reconciliation efforts. Let us remember the likes of Rod and thank God for them.
*This is an edited version of a personal story that first appeared in the February 2013 issue of the Morning Star under the title: “Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka – Spirit of Christmas 2012”