28 October, 2020

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Building Peace In Sri Lanka: A Personal Story

By Christie F.J.Richards

 

Christie Richards

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.

Drifting Apart

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?

Only Rod.

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.

Remembering Rose

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”

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Latest comments

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    Christie F.J.Richards And other friends;

    When I finished the reading of this article,
    there are tear drops coming from my eyes.

    we have lost many loved ones,family members,friends, neighbours for the futile war.

    any body ever learned any lessons??????????????/.

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    We have much to cry over, but it is becoming harder to shed tears. Some cannot shed any tears anymore, because their tear glands have been over used. Such persons are to be found in all war-affected areas.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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    A very poignant lesson of love and understanding transcending race and religon. Those were the days where all communities in Ceylon as it was then known were united in spirit and purpose. I visited Jaffna and Batticaloa in the sixties and remember the peace and harmony that existed.

    Many of our best teachers hailed from the schools in the north. Many of the medals at the Tarbat were won by athletes from schools in the north. Many brilliant students in or class were tamils.

    Today people in the North are struggling as prisoners in their own homes and we are being deprived of their talents and enterprise. May the govt see the futility of its policies.

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    And some others can not shed tears anymore as their hearts have turned to be hardened. They behave like Shylocks.

    Comments in these columns are self explanatory.

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    Hi Christy, Thank you very much for this moving story about you, your family and our common friend Rod, whom we knew as “RD” at Arunachalam. You never mentioned this wonderful encounter when we met a year ago at a surprise meeting arranged by our common friend Galba (Nihal) Seneviratne, former Secretary-General of Parliament. While your experience with Rod is very special, we also had good times at Peradeniya with special bonds among those of us at Arunachalam, and completely unaware of ethnic and other parochial boundaries. You must remember how we, from different ethnicities and religions, were united in committing robberies and trying to impress girls, the former more successful than the latter. Due to your efforts, I as your roommate, got a chance to share with you the choicest room at Arunachalam, on the second floor, overlooking the Arts Block. The next year, when you graduated, I sacrificed that room in favour of sharing a room with another friend, who happened to be Tamil too, Rex Casinader.

    I know this comment it very personal, in fact too personal, for a website with a wide and varied readership. I hope the readers will understand and forgive. I trust the editors of Colombo Telegraph will see that underneath these very personal comments is the message that people, left to their own devices will do fine, and will live in harmony. The problem is not with the people but politicians, and their hypocritical programmes of “reconciliation”.

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    Aha HL my former room mate and fellow conspirator!

    Your remarks brought back happy memories of Peradeniya Campus days. We were there at the best of times in the late fifties. We were fortunate to have had as our co-conspirators the likes of “Galba” Seneviratne (former Secretary General of Parliament), Milroy Ratwatte (former Mayor of Badulla), Joe Karunaratne (of Ceylon Tobacco fame),K.B.Wijekone (later a member of the Cabinet), “Jaffa” Jafferjee (of Jafferjee Brothers), Sarath Amunugama (Member of Cabinet), T.Jothilingam, Lal Mendis, Rod Perera, “Thosai” Thambyah, “Lobster” Kanapathipillai (later Professor of History), Noel Vethanayagam (Of Bank of Ceylon fame) and a host of others. I think we were involved in clean fun although at times our youthful exuberance got us into a bit of trouble. One of those occasions was when I had my first taste of arrack during a celebration of Campus election victory. Not knowing how to handle it, I took a quick sip of two glasses of arrack in a matter of couple of minutes. Soon I found myself under the table unable to get up. At the end of the party about six of us were carried back to Arunachalam Hall on the backs of our friends. I was in an alcoholic coma for two days. When i got up, I went for a campus show which was appropriate for the occasion “The Big Sleep”

    The robberies or the midnight raids were fun. We stole jak fruits from Father Pinto’s garden which we could have got just for the mere asking. But then it would not be fun! Once we were stopped by the Marshalls coming back to the Hall with Jak fruits and a javelin. The explanation for having a javelin was that we were practicing for the Sports Meet. It was well past midnight! Then of course we stole the roast chickens from Thosai Thamyah’s room on a regular basis. These were gifts to him from her aunt Miss Mathiaparanam, the “dreaded” warden of Hilda Obeysekera Hall. The most interesting episodes were taking nips out of the bottles of Whiskey which one of our friends had in abundance in his room. Sometimes, we felt sorry for him and would replace part of the lost Whiskey with a yellow liquid of the same color. This liquid was considered healthy and was even drunk by a former Prime Minister of India. Whereas the PM drank his own liquid, our friend had to contend with the supply of our own liquids and not his!

    We once stole a bunch of bananas from the Arunachalam garden. The warden, Prof. Hettiaratchi was outraged. Knowing his attitude, we cut the bunch into several combs, unscrewed the boards from under your sink in the room and left them there to ripen. You were fast asleep during the whole episode. In the meanwhile Prof. Hettiaratchi, the Warden of the hostel was outraged. He established a Committee of Inquiry to find out the culprit. He did not need one since his suspicion was immediately on the innocent Hillarian Fernando, the Trotskyite leader in the Hall and the Prof’s nemesis. Since I always had a poker face, he never suspected me!I was certainly disappointed!

    As to girls, your charm was a distinct advantage. You could get any girl to turn on a dime! Lacking both charm and shekels, I had to contend with being your sidekick during your forays of the “Maname” crowd. You succeeded very well in winning the hands of Prof. Sarathchandra’s niece while I had to leave Peradeniya empty handed!

    Thanks for keeping in touch. You are one of the few brave souls of “old” Lanka. What does it take to re-create the old times?

    Christie F.J. Richards

    mnn

    mmn

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    Christie,
    I was in Arunachalam for a couple of years (1954 to 56)and moved to Ramanathan. I remember you well. Your narrative of your friendship with Rod Perera was so well done! I can’t recall him.
    However a few years ago I was at a wedding (in the Anglican cathedral in Colombo?) where you stepped forward and said some laudatory words about either the bridegroom or the bride. You were in full gentleman’s attire and walked about with such self confidence and spoke so well I thought how well living abroad has improved you. But you were always one who carried himself well and spoke with much aplomb.
    Was it at Dr Dan Perimpanayagam’s daughter’s wedding to a man from Canada or at Cuttie Jansz’ wedding anniversary.
    I am so thankful to H.L. for including me in the list of persons to whom he has circulated these memoirs. I have a website on Google which advertises my publications. You have to type Wilfrid Jayasuriya / Sri Lankan Literature.

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    Wilfrid:

    Thanks for your kind words. Yes, it was at Ira’s and Cuttie’s 50th wedding anniversary that I said a few words. The union of Cuttie (Burgher) and Ira (Sinhalese) epitomized everything that was great about Sri Lanka during our times. As you know very well, at the University Campus during the fifties, we cultivated lots of friendships but to my knowledge they were not based on ethnic, religious, caste, linguistic or class considerations. There was a little bit of distance between those who came from the better known schools from the urban areas and the lesser known schools from the provinces. This produced the political cleavage between the “kulturs” and the “Trots”/”Commies”. Having come from a backwater village from Jaffna,my sympathies were with the “Trots”/”Commies”. But that did not prevent me (a Tamil) from having friends among the “kulturs”. To this day, I do not know whether Cuttie, Ira and yourself were sympathizers of kulturs, trots/commies,both or none.

    You may recall a story I related in my speech. During the last summer holidays before my final exam, I wanted to stay back at the campus and cram for the final exam. But I did not have the money to do so. I was at the Tuckshop of Arunachalam Hall mulling over this when Cuttie came along and asked me what was bothering me. By then he had graduated and had a job. Without hesitating a moment, I told him I needed Rs.500 and why. Without hesitating a moment he agreed. You know very well the value of Rs.500 in 1957. It was nearly two months salary for Cuttie. At that time, for that sum of money I could have bought two thousand (2,000)big blue crabs in Jaffna at the price of 25 cents a crab. Nowadays, one such crab would be about Rs. 2,000.

    A few years later on my first holiday in Sri Lanka from Canada,when I reminded Cuttie about that loan, he could not really remember it. It took a lot of persuasion on my part to make him accept the repayment.

    Just as Rod Perera attributed his success at the University entrance exam to my mother, I have always attributed my performance in the final degree exam with a class to the help extended by Cuttie.

    Those were the days. I am very optimistic that if only all the good people of yesteryears and the many more since then could break their silence and get out of their comfort zones and speak and act for a really united Sri Lanka that will celebrate what we all have in common as well as appreciate our differences, we will have a truly great nation. In Sri Lanka, all of us have an opportunity to learn about most of the great religions in the world, speak at least three languages including English (a world language), and enjoy nature at its best in all parts of the country and have varied culinary experiences etc. So, Wilfrid, what is holding us back?

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