Three Vantage Views
Before reading Grandfather’ Letters, I had an anecdotal view of C. Suntharalingam (CS). In 1958 as a six year old, I was terrified when classmates talked of Sinhalese marching to Jaffna to slaughter us. CS (in the climax of the book) held the line in Vavuniya, distributing unlicensed-guns and placing dynamite in culverts. One day as lorry-loads of men careened down Chemmany Road Nallur to Vavuniya, I ran alongside the convoy behind senior boys (including our Sinhalese baker’s sons) shouting “Thamilarukku Jai” (Victory to Tamils), wondering what the Hindi word jai meant.
Our high opinion of CS was formed from such experiences. When a Tamil Hindu is clever, Tamil society was ready to adulate him regardless of his principles. Both CS and Ponnambalam fell in this mould.
CS’s brilliance was unquestioned. His eccentricity was well known. The only academic blot seems his 8 years doing his MA Oxford. Although I like him for his forthrightness, his awareness of his own intelligence comes through as arrogance. His brilliant genes show through when his grandchildren and even great grandchildren got admission to Cambridge and Stanford from Colombo, even as the granddaughters Gnanalakshmi and Dhaniyalakshmi Gnanalingam admitted to engineering degrees, suppressed their talents and chose science degrees close to home.
Then I married, Gnanalakshmi’s close friend growing up in Colpetty. Gnanalakshmi believed religiously in living by the Hindu Shastras. Through my wife and common friends in Colpetty I had another window into their lives.
Now I have a third view which CS sought to project through his letters to his grandchildren. The claim in the introduction that Ceylon got independence without bloodshed with CS’s mathematical manoeuvring perhaps is the grandson’s excess in excusable exuberant affection. I will examine some of the glaring contradictions.
CS readily admits his admiration for and association with Sir Pon Ramanathan who opposed equal seating and the franchise for the oppressed castes, and yet is passed off as a national hero. In the 1960s when oppressed castes were denied entry to Maviddapuram Temple, CS vigorously stood with the oppressors although he had no claims on the temple. As a result, Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger labelled CS “a caste fanatic.”
In the book’s first letter, to Gnanalakshmi, he advises her that he rejected proposals to women with fat dowries and fatter physiques, and that she must “choose someone after your own heart, of your standing and of your caste, and don’t commit yourself to any proposal without speaking to me first.” We see the attitude continuing when granddaughter Dhanyalakshmi fell in love with an IIT qualified Lankan they considered not up to their standard. A Colombo Librarian from the family even tried to use security guards to prevent the suitor from entering the university. To no avail, however. Dhanya married privately with the help of an aunt. She is happy.
The book reveals that of CS’s father’s three brothers, one converted to Roman Catholicism “may be for his job and for his bride,” returning to Hinduism later. Another married an Indian Tamil from the estates “for beauty.” Both were cast out by CS’s parents.
In his letter to grandson Prof. Gnanalingam Anandalingam, CS boasts of “the position in the social order in which your Appah’s parents belonged.” That is himself. After describing their caste, he gives the purpose of his communication: to know that “life is influenced by heredity and the early environment of home life and home gossip.” Anandalingam, despite the advice, home life and home gossip, married a Catholic Malayaali. Curiously, after advising the difficulties of arranging marriage to children if one marries below caste, CS urges Anandalingam to value men by their intrinsic worth rather than their parentage.
CS witnesses to his faith in astrology when he describes to Gnanalakshmi his own father going to the best astrologer in Jaffna to cast his first son’s horoscope. The astrologer forecasts that there will be five children in all but he would die before any of them reached manhood and that the first would not live beyond his early manhood. CS then adds, every word proved by events to be correct. In contrast, however, even CS in his 70s had shown his palm to my wife telling her, “See. My lifeline says I would have died in my sixties. But I will live to 90.” And he almost did, to 89+!
According to CS’s relations, his mother was a widow with five young sons finding it difficult to make ends meet. She thereupon married a rich man for the second time, who educated the children in Colombo. If this is so, the second marriage of CS’s mother is a serious violation of Hindu orthodoxy. There is no mention of this in the book. CS, in contrast, says that his uncles collected incomes from her properties and gave it to her for her children’s education.
Christian Bashing Tamil Militancy
The greatest value of this book is CS’s description of the 1958 riots. He puts down Tarzie Vitachi’s Emergency 58, which has been reprinted and distributed by many Tamils: “It did not contain a true account of the racial riots in the Northern area,” says CS. The book needs reading for his contrarian views.
That CS was an extremist in Tamil matters is accepted. Unwittingly admitted, perhaps, is that his electoral losses were reversed only after DS Senanayake urged Sinhalese in the Vavuniya-Mullaitivu-Mannar area to vote for him. His ego puts his regular losses to “cash, cassock, and crookishness”, despite his formation by Christian schools. After the initial glamour of his resignation, he continued to be defeated, presumably because he opposed the FP: when asked to be present at their convention, he thundered, “I would have no truck with the Federal Policy, plan, or program.” It is at odds with his attempted parliamentary motion detailed in the book for Tamils to separate.
CS studied at Christian schools – CMS Kopay Christian College, St. John’s (where he presumably studied mathematics under my grandfather the Rev. Canon S.S. Somasundram previously of Maviddapuram Temple), and St. Joseph’s – won a scripture prize at St. John’s, was a teacher at St. Joseph’s (a position for which Christians were almost exclusively preferred), and was a member of Interim and Organizing Committees of the Student Christian Movement House at University College London in 1917. Did he, like his uncle, move into Christianity and then revert to Hinduism? In the last chapter he says his 5 years in England almost made him a Roman Catholic, but that transformed him into a modern Hindu. Roman Catholicism in the UK while dabbling with the Protestant SCM? A modern Hindu looking at his lifeline?
It has been said that CS’s children had no interest in politics. Gnanalingam’s harsh words about Ponnambalam, however, show his strong political feelings. Moreover, after my return to Sri Lanka in 1995, I got a letter from Anandalingam whom I am yet to meet, abusing me at length for not supporting the LTTE. He seemed to think that a Tamil returning to Sri Lanka was a public message that all is good for Tamils here, whereas I wanted to assert my right to Sri Lanka as home. It would seem that CS’s fanaticism lives on at least in one grandson.
Some Tall Claims?
I have heard it commonly said that CS was Queen Elizabeth’s tutor in mathematics. CS does not mention it in his biography or letters. The only references I have seen are in Anandalingam’s Wikipedia page and a review by Chelavathamby Maniccavasagar (best known for writing exaggerated biographies of Tamil Nationalists) in the Daily News (16 Feb. 2012) and Deirdre McConnell in Colombo Telegraph (21 Feb. 2012).
When CS left the UK in 1931, the Queen was hardly 5 years old.
CS claims he “introduced the [Ceylon] Engineering Faculty” in 1925, although it was not formed until 1954. He was one of the few to oppose the appointment of Sir Ivor Jennings and resigned his chair in 1940 when Jennings was selected to succeeded Principal Robert Marrs, although Jennings is considered the best VC we have had. CS thought a Welshman with no knowledge of Ceylon was inappropriate. He also objected later to Jennings’ vision of the university at Peradeniya, arguing it would be a White Elephant. CS admits that the Governor prevented him from continuing his part in the controversy – that is, asked not to speak on the subject.
On p. 120 CS refers to “hoodlums leaders.” On p. 42 is the phrase “about he being a Thamil”. I think “he” should be “his”. On the word Thamil, I think he is off. If we Tamils can Tamilise Englishman to Aangileyan, I think the English too can Anglicize Thamil to Tamil. Other issues concern his interchangeable use of the correct “Yours affectionately” versus the incorrect “Yours Affectionately.” Similarly “Northern” for “northern” in mid-sentence. These are just a few of the language mistakes in the book, whose early pages are unnumbered. An index would have been helpful. The grandchildren called CS “Appah” and their father “Aiyah”. Until one gets used to it, these references are confusing, especially when one does not know the named addressees of the letters.
The editor of Grandfather’s Letters, Chelvadurai Anjalendran (son of CS’s second daughter Lingawathie), is a much-sought-after architect in Colombo. The book (David Robson, Anjalendran – Architect of Sri Lanka, Tuttle, 2009) is just about him. Anjalendran was a friend at Moratuwa whose charm and kindness girls found endearing. I recall lunch hour when he would lie on a long table in a chronic cap with six or so girls standing around him feeling safe with him, adjusting his cap and engaging in banter.
Anjalendran entered a major political controversy when in a New York Interview, he stated that “I was born a Tamil but I am a Sri Lankan and I have had every opportunity to engage in my profession and to achieve the heights of excellence as I have done. Nobody stood in my way. There was no discrimination. …. The LTTE was not really fighting for the rights of Tamils at all.”
I wonder if his first cousin Anandalingam, harangued him too. Anjalendran, however, seems to be the only grandchild to share CS’s love for Ceylon and make a successful life here.
Suntharalingam is a villain to many Sinhalese because of his separatism so he is not a National Hero, like Ramanathan who too was a caste fanatic. And villain to Tamils because of his enmity towards the Federal Party. So he is not Thanthai (Father, as Chelvanayagam is), although he was the first separatist. His being caste conscious has never mattered to Tamils as clear from Navalar and Ramanathan, our heroes. So why is he not feted the way lesser beings are?
The book is an important window to one of Sri Lanka’s most colourful, intelligent, and even lovable characters as he wanted us to see him.