By Rajan Hoole –
What is Education about?
A major anniversary of our school leads us to affirm its greatness, reminisce on the good times and the eccentricities of the teachers who acted for our own good. The scenery and environment stay fixed in memory; and we take pride in the achievements of fellow students who made their mark in the world. In the memory of a little boy in the age of innocence, I am awed by the beams of sunlight pouring through the foliage of tall mahoganies that seemed to reach up to the sky. It symbolised the greatness of the institution we were part of. In remembering and reaffirming this in the company of old students from all parts of the wide world, we assure ourselves of our place in it and it is no mean corner of it that is ours. I indulged in such thoughts when I wrote 25 years ago, but that seems out of place against present reality.
I now write as one of the exceptions in my class, whether at Chundikuli or St. John’s, that actually lives in Jaffna. Many people in this country, in view of the past tragic decades have decided this is not the place for their children. Being at the tail end of the Psalmist’s life span, I see very few of my old mates. A number of them came to Jaffna after the war ended to reclaim their properties, smiled, exchanged pleasantries with old friends, or thanked those who had protected their belongings and said their last good-byes after getting the best prices for their land, often to the detriment of those left behind.
Many would claim that they had no alternative, but there should be no pretence that they left behind a healthy society and schools, and share no responsibility for the fate of a people who were their neighbours for generations. On the surface things could appear normal, but behind it lurks loneliness, absence of civic sense, coupled with a fear of going beyond personal interest and standing up for what one believes is right and decent.
It has a debilitating effect on education. Another writer in this series has referred to my mother Jeevamany Somasundaram, an old girl of Chudikuli who sat for her Cambridge Senior (O Levels) about 1934. A story that moved me deeply was related by my piano teacher Miss. Abbey Hunt. She said that during lunch intervals, when the girls were amusing themselves with various pursuits, my mother sat beneath a mahogany tree, working riders in Euclidian Geometry. It was an injunction setting a standard: once you take a problem in hand, think it through to the end. It is not a story about one woman, but about a school, an atmosphere, the teachers and their personal interest that challenged students to a high level of intellectual rigor.
Until about the 1970s several schools in Jaffna had teachers who identified capable students and took a keen interest in their future. A student of my age at Hartley told me that his Mathematics teacher, R.M. Gunaratnam, once caught him in a vice-like grip in Pt. Pedro town and warned him about his absence from classes. Today that link between teachers and students has greatly diminished, and teaching has largely been sub-contracted to tutories. It has led to a marked fall in intellectual standards and the near disappearance of intellectual life in Jaffna.
Tutories are not about teaching students to think, but produce good grades in A. Levels. My experience in university teaching too has been that few students attempt tutorial questions, but wait for answers to be given in class. It has resulted in a culture of not wanting to think through a problem. The university training amounts to teaching people to apply formulae and get results, and not bother with foundations. Many of them emigrate and get jobs abroad, which makes me suspect that we are good at producing engineer-clerks and doctor-clerks who perform their routines quite well.
Leaving behind a desert
I have referred to the ongoing sale of expatriate properties in Jaffna, which are followed by the capricious appearance of high rise buildings and the disappearance of tanks and drains. Common sense points to danger. The most damning indicator was the flooding of Jaffna Hospital during the last rains when medical staff and patients were knee-deep in water.
Coming to the issue of thinking a problem through to the end, the building spree in Jaffna has been promoted by persons in authority promising modernised water, drainage and sewage systems for Jaffna. When there is prospect of huge foreign loans, perks and contracts, basic constraints are swept under the carpet. Foreign experts are all for it and, and of our own experts who sold it, few will ultimately be rooted in Jaffna. Novel possibilities were talked about for many years and dropped; such as desalination in Vadamaratchi East, water from Iranamadu Tank for Jaffna only in flood years, or finding new sources, all of which showed that something was wrong at the root of the idea. I must digress a little.
Iranamadu has an average inflow of 147 MCM (Mega Cubic Metres), adequate for cultivation of 95 percent of paddy in Winter and 30 percent in Summer (World Bank, 1984). Supplying Jaffna means pinching 10 MCM of inflow to be piped out. A very basic constraint can be worked out from variations in river flow studied by older professionals like R. Sakthivadivel. The studies which are available on the web have been ignored. I worked out in my book Palmyra Fallen (2015) commemorating Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, that the 75 percent reliable flow into Iranamadu is 80 MCM. Nature has a cycle of about four years, and once in those four years (25 percent of the time), you could get 80 MCM or less, even though the average is 147 MCM.
In such lean years sending 10 MCM to Jaffna would be very hard on the local farmer. There are years of severe flooding but that excess has to be allowed to run to the sea. That is the short explanation of the problem. Funds were rolled out, pipes were sunk and holding towers were built. Going by press reports the matter has been at standstill from before 13 January 2019 (Sunday Observer), against protests in Killinochchi.
Although we had some of Jaffna’s leading professionals on the job, they did not think the problem through. They simply defined the problem as water being available at Iranamadu (the average inflow) and laying the works for piping it to Jaffna. The cyclical variations of river flow (Kanagarayan Aru) were simply ignored by those who should have known best.
The problem comes down to present-day Jaffna lacking an educated critical mass with the motivation, ability and connections to look after their basic interests like a clean environment and drinking water. Those with money and power have their interests elsewhere. The problems faced by many residents in Jaffna are not dissimilar to those of civilians in Rathupaswala, Gampaha, three of whom were killed on 1st August 2013 over their protest for clean drinking water.
One Jaffna family saw a hotel and a high rise building coming up on the lands of well-to-do former neighbours, which they had looked after during the war. Prices offered from black money were what their left-behind neighbours could not match. The well water in the area remains undrinkable or murky in addition to noise pollution. In the absence of a sewage system they do not know how human waste is being disposed of. Excessive drawing of water from one urban well could cause others in the neighbourhood to run dry.
Black money came, according to the well informed grapevine, in post war years from funds connected to the departing rulers held by selected businessmen. In time this black money made connections to political and similar funds in the South and in an unhealthy way fills the present gap our once independent institutions are unable to fill, particularly in health and education.
The Church that sustained Jaffna’s premier institutions in education and health fell victim to emigration and division. There is no local vision or qualified presence in Jaffna to sustain the education up to tertiary level and the medical network it pioneered. Money-centred education and medicine have thrown up a class of nouveau riche, whose impact could be classed along with that of black money.
Absence of a civic voice for Jaffna
Between Chundikuli and St. John’s, it was C.E. Anandarajah who, as principal, stood forthright as a leading voice of civil concerns in Jaffna until he was killed by the LTTE in 1985. I see the two schools as having remained timid on social concerns since. Chundikuli produced in Dr. Rajani Thiranagama a rare voice of defiance, courage and compassion, whom I was close to in the path-breaking finale of her activism ending with her assassination by the LTTE in 1989. Her civic sense as a doctor led her to treat an LTTE injured when no one else could be found. She then became involved with the LTTE. Having then become disgusted with its inhumanity, she stood up and challenged it in Jaffna itself out of compassion for those it was destroying. What she was up against is illustrated by elite politics in a society that still extols an ideology; one that in its last stand in 2009 held hostage 300,000 civilians under fire, in order to strike a deal for the safety of its leaders.
I began with the importance of educational training that urges one to spare no effort in thinking a problem through. It applies equally to the state of our politics. There was no strong resistance in Jaffna society when G.G. Ponnambalam, who was our leader in 1948, cooperated with Prime Minister Senanayake in nullifying the rights of Up Country Tamils. Ponnambalam was only following the line of several notables from the North; many of them not his supporters (A.J. Wilson, Political Biography of Chelvanayakam). The damage we did to the Up Country Tamils hurt us grievously in the long term. Since then we have been crying over spilt milk – the large numbers of dead and the exile of our brightest and best to Austroeuramerica.
Our fragmentation and growing isolation is reflected in queries about how the dowry of a bride from Jaffna would translate into real estate in Colombo or Sydney. We cannot stop at observing that we have been poorly served by most of those who left us. The present girls of Chundikuli have as much talent as there was in the time of our mothers and aunts. What they need is to rediscover the tradition that questions everything they are told and reason them out to the end. I don’t think I am wrong when I say that what made Jaffna great in the 1930s and 1940s was the strong surge of sympathy for the Indian independence struggle. That was when the influence of Gandhi and liberated women like Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya and Sarojini Naidu, all of whom came to Jaffna, made a tremendous impact on its people.
My mother spoke of her teachers with great affection. When she was on the staff of the school and was engaged in 1947, the Principal Dr. Miss. Evangeline Thilliayampalam (PhD Columbia, 1929, aged 34) counselled her that an engagement should not be prolonged. Her Jubilee message in 1946 points to a woman who was silently politicised: “The forces which retard human progress are poverty, ignorance and class rivalry.” My mother also spoke fondly of the Mutthiah sisters, Kanaham and Yogam. I quote from Lorna Vandendriesen who said in a tribute to three Chundikuli teachers, ‘who really set high standards and ran the school regardless of who was the Principal. Gracious Miss. Grace Hensman, gentle Miss. Kanaham Mutthiah and beautiful Miss. Yogam. They were wonderful teachers. I know. I was their pupil.’
I.P. Thurairatnam, who was later principal of Union College, said that he won the ‘Mixed Doubles Championship with Yogam Muttiah of Chundikuli. Spurred by these victories we tried our mettle at the All Ceylon Tennis Meet in Nuwara Eliya in 1932 and 1933, and met with moderate success.’ Chundikuli girls long had a reputation as trend setters.
I may add that admitted to Chundikuli as a boy of seven I spent two golden years as a novice to the world of the fairer sex (1956/7). I too was pleasantly affected by my charming class teachers Miss. Nesamalar Seevaratnam (now Mrs. Yogaratnam) and Miss. Agnes Champion (later Mrs. Ponniah).
Today’s Jaffna could be a very discouraging place. In order to sharpen our analytical ability and think problems through without resting satisfied with half-baked solutions we need public discussion, friends and colleagues who would tell us bluntly when we are being asinine. When we become defensive and take offence at criticism, even a well-endowed institution like a university would fail to prepare students to think through problems and aspire to a just society, while the teachers themselves remain frogs-in-the-well.
We cannot change things overnight, but what well-wishers could do for schools like Chundikuli is to expose students to speakers who will encourage them to question everything. This we used to have in the 1950s and 1960s when visitors from India were frequent. It also means reversing swabasha isolationism.
MyView / February 12, 2021
Yes I share your nostalgia for those days when teachers and pupils had stronger bonds. It was true even in the University life, till may be the late 1970’s.
The teachers and lecturers wielded much influence on the growing minds on matters other than the gathering of book education.
When you say “Being at the tail end of the Psalmist’s life span”, I can add 15 years to that and see the gradual shifting of the values of education we have had in the past to the present.
But now with distance learning and use of technology for the students, even whatever little was left, will go away, with hardly any personal interaction after whatever lesson or class.
There will be no classroom atmosphere and even bonding of students with one another will disappear.
Would not this distance learning (though convenient in a way) go even beyond your assertion of : ……. Tutories are not about teaching students to think, but produce good grades in A. Levels…..and produce an entirely different generation.
Plato / February 12, 2021
Nostalgic memories of a wonderful past. The essayist, whom I only know too well has taken me for a walk along the corridors of History, though I was not part of it.
We are all strangers to the present milieu.
With distance learning and online whatever the future too is bleak.
old codger / February 14, 2021
Very well written. Even though I have no connections to the school, or even Jaffna, Dr. Hoole makes me homesick for Old Jaffna with his descriptions of current gentrification.
SJ / February 12, 2021
A well written tribute to a worthy institution.
Rumble 2021 / February 13, 2021
Thank you RH Sir and most appreciated.
Whenever Chundikuli is mentioned to St Johns boys is always an exciting time.
I studied under Hon Anandharajah and he taught us Zoology too.
He even lend me his hockey stick and always had his dinners with the hostal students.
We used to have the Jaffna area/bus stand/hospital area used to flood (not inside the hospital) then and our Mayor Hon Durriappa fixed the drains as part of a major work/rebuilding the Jaffna that solved all the problems then as I was a regular user/visitor of the bus stand and the hospital too as my sister worked their then.
Therefore I am not sure why the flooding is an issue now except something got interrupted in the drainage system?? If any building work got carried out without due consideration outside the city planning then this will happen??
Can the KKS cement factory crater be used to store rain water??
Rumble 2021 / February 14, 2021
Dear RH Sir
“It has resulted in a culture of not wanting to think through a problem”
Can we introduce the following to our children at all stages of their education..the world of Khan Academy
Let’s use video to reinvent education – Salman Khan
The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined | Salman Khan | Talks at Google
I had the similar problems and was taught by a Harley college student at Teesside University (my super lecturer) and was mentored by another genius from Hartley college at work as an Engineer in Scotland (head of my engineering department)…….I struggled with fundamentals and then the language barriers all the way for sometime…..but lucky enough to be touched by these folks in my life all the way from Sri Lankan changed my life.
Tamil from the north / February 12, 2021
Yes, indeed a well written article. Many here in these pictures are known to me. Very unfortunate Rajani was assassinated by the dreaded LTTE similar to the Principal of SJC. One of the assassins who assassinated the Principal of SJC ran away to France and I Heard he has become a Catholic priest. What a bloody coward, murdered an innocent academic then runs away and becomes a priest. These are the murderers who wanted to liberate the Tamil people and look after them. It was that short midget uneductaed fascist bastard Kittu who gave the orders to kill the Principal. What would he know about education, he had none. Then they murdered Rajani who treated Shankar in her home. She later said, whether it was an injured LTTEr or an injured army soldier, she would have shown no difference. That is a true meaning of selfless human. For that, they killed her too. There are many Tamils who would try to hide the facts that the dreaded LTTE murdered Rajani by shifting the blame on IPKF backed EPRLF/EPDP, that is hogwash. It was the LTTE that killed her.
Sinhala_Man / February 13, 2021
A great deal of feeling has gone into this article.
By writing as he has, about the school that, for a variety of reasons (including the fact that his mother taught there) means more to him than any other, Rajan has demonstrated that that part of the country belongs in a special way to him, and to those dear to him. It certainly doesn’t belong to the Sinhalese politicians (one can’t help but reject them, precisely because they give themselves all those airs) who don’t have the intimate feelings that Rajan displays.
Rajan has written more than about the school, about the Northern Province as a whole – and it’s good that he has also remembered the Up-country Tamils. May this wonderful essay produce at least half the results that it deserves to.
Karikalan S. Navaratnam / February 13, 2021
Dr. Rajan Hoole
Your nostalgic recollections have rekindled cherished memories of my student days at our beloved alma mater, St.John’s College, Jaffna and of our sister-school, Chundikuli Girls’ College, where my three sisters studied. Rev. J.T. Arulanantham, succeeded by Mr.P.T. Mathai , was the principal at that time. Mr. J.T. Chelliah, who later assumed the mantle, was my Class Teacher while Mrs. Chelliah was the Principal of Chundikuli Girls’ College. Many years later, I was able to meet both of them at a Saraswathy Pooja ceremony in Toronto, organized by St. John’s OBA, Canada. It was a blessing to me. In the twilight of my life, I miss my great teachers and pining for the good old days.
Nathan / February 13, 2021
Late Mr. J.T. Chelliah was a vice-Principal never the Principal of St. Johns.
Agnos / February 13, 2021
My high school years were in the eighties in Point Pedro. I remember R.M. Gunaratnam; in my time, he had retired but I still used to see him in school on occasion. I believe he was doing some private tutoring in Math.
My vague memory is that he had come to Jaffna from Kerala and settled down, but correct me if I am wrong. There was another, lesser known school near Nelliady/Karaveddy, whose principal was Thomas Eappan (or Eapen?), also originally from Kerala. Then there was Abraham Kovoor, the rationalist, whom I admired as a child. When you are paying tribute to the teachers, it may be useful to add something about the contributions of teachers from India.
On questioning everything, ironically, it was my teacher of Tamil as a language at Hartley, not some science teacher, who told me, “What we hear is a lie. What we see is also a lie. Only after a deep investigation, we can arrive at the truth.”
And there is the Thirukkural: ” Learn. Learn beyond a shadow of doubt. Once you do so, stand firmly by it.” To a great extent, it is learning such values early, rather than the degrees and university education that I got in SL and the U.S., that has stood me in good stead.
SJ / February 14, 2021
You are right about values.
One acquires values early in life when one is most impressionable.
Universities can train people’s minds to acquire and generate knowledge.
Social commitment, however, does influence one’s system of values.
Rajan Hoole / February 15, 2021
Thanks for the very relevant quotation from the Thirukkural. Yes, we must not forget the very great service done by teachers from Kerala. I quote from http://www.oocities.org/wsmano/memory/srem12.htm written by Victor A. Benjamin about St. John’s
“We had MaIayalees from Kerala with three different persons having the same surname; they were P. I. Matthai, P. T. Matthai and T.M.Matthai. There were referred to by their initials. Later arrivals from Kerala were Mr.K.K. John and Miss. Abraham.”
Miss. Sarah T. Matthai was principal at Chundikuli when I was there, and when I moved to St. John’s it was P.T. Matthai.
Thomas Eapen you mention was at Sacred Heart Girls’ School, Karaveddy. Going to the far South, Mr. Samuel from Kerala was the Principal at Christ Church College Tangalle when my mother taught there in the early 1950s.
Rajash / February 14, 2021
R.M.Gunartanam fondly know as RMG is not Maths teacher. He was in fact Physics teacher.
He is not from Kerala he is indeed a true Jaffna man.
Agnos / February 15, 2021
Thanks Rajash. I stand corrected.
Sinhala_Man / February 17, 2021
When I comment on “Jaffna’s social life” I realise, ever more strongly, that it must seem funny to many citizens of Jaffna that a total outsider like Sinhala_Man, who knows not a word of Tamil, should wish to add his two cents worth.
Rajan Hoole mentions Mr Samuel having been his mother’s principal in Tangalle. He had been my fahter’s principal when my paper came up to Bandarawela in 1945 after teaching there for twelve years. Was Mr Samuel there when he began teaching about 1933? That I will never know. It didn’t then seem important. Mr Samuel may have left the school about 1958; there was a farewell for him, and my father took me for it. I estimate the year from the fact that had it been earlier, I wouldn’t remember it.
My father passed away in 1963 (about a month after Rajan became my Gurutalawa classmate. We didn’t then realise that each of us had a parent who had worked with Mr Samuel at Christ Church College, which is now Tangalle Madya Maha Vidyalaya – the best school in that area.
To be Continued.
Sinhala_Man / February 17, 2021
I think that both Rajan and I met Mr Samuel again in the mid-to-late 1960s when the Old Boys of the Tangalle School had arranged a holiday for him in Sri Lanka. My father, by then, had passed away, but I remember meeting Mr Samuel in the Colpetty home of an accountant named Wickremasinghe. It may have been down Queen’s Road, Bagatelle Road, or Alfred Place; I know I got there via Thurstan Road.
We both remember the hearing aid he relied on.
I have known others from Kerala; remember with great gratitude Mr M.I. Kuruvilla who taught me GAQ English at Aquinas from 1978 until about 1981. Those external courses went on and on and on. Kuru used to make a point of telling his classes that he was not from Sri Lanka – had come across when he was about nineteen. He, and his Sinhalese wife, Lynette, had three daughters, and one of his sons-in-law is Chemistry Professor at SJP University, Ajith Abeysekera.
Recalling these people and the surprising links we can make us aware of how muchwe have in common.