By Mahesan Niranjan –
Last week, I travelled to Sri Lanka on a very short trip. My task was to conduct a review of a degree programme in the recently established Faculty of Engineering at the University of Jaffna, as part of an accreditation exercise. It was a poorly planned trip on my part, too short to visit friends and family. Before travelling, I had to set aside my prejudices relating to quality assurance processes in higher education. These, pioneered in the UK and adopted elsewhere, add excessive bureaucracy to the job of scholarship the likes of me came to pursue. I have often stated that quality assurance processes are necessary but not sufficient indicators of quality, but never managed to wake my own University Senate from its deep slumber on the topic. But this week, I had a job to do. So I keep private views private.
Monday: Arrive in Colombo. Sri Lankan airlines makes welcome announcements in three languages. The Tamil she reads sounds funny, clearly not a speaker of the language but is making an effort by writing it out in Sinhala script and reading it: “ongo lukku nal vaa ravu kooru kiraar, ([the captain] welcomes you)” splitting the syllables in all the wrong places. Just as Hindu priests would do, writing out Sanskrit mantras in Tamil font and memorising them. Lucky for them, it is unlikely they will have a Sanskrit speaker in the congregation. And God has so far not commented on it either.
I take an airport taxi to the hotel in Fort. As on previous occasions, I start a conversation with the driver who expresses delight that an expatriate, settled in London (for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is referred to as London here) would come back to teach here (for that is what I told him I was here to do — translating “accreditation by professional body” into Sinhala was somewhat beyond me). He says Tamils and Sinhalese are very similar people. Our Gods are also the same, he claims. Kataragama is his example of our common God. For us, mortals, being the same, he picks as example some leader whose son is married to the daughter of another leader. He cannot recall who these leaders are and stammers, “Eh ara mahaththaya (that Sir)…” I help him with the polysyllabic names of Vigneswaran and Nanayakkaara.
Then he makes his strongest argument towards the need for unity. His trump. His Conclusive Proof. “The real problem are the Muslims,” he claims. “Unless we Tamils and Sinhalese are united, we are in serious trouble,” he predicts. I felt uncomfortable nodding, the desire to reach my destination taking priority over making a political statement.
Interesting Monday night. The hotel puts on a Sri Lankan cultural event. A devil dancer who was chasing ghosts away and a young Chinese lady showing off a bit of martial arts movements. It was pretty basic stuff, lacking in skill, subtlety or even synchrony with the drummer. Perhaps having a Chinese national in the team was significant. She could take over a piece of the Hotel’s land, should they fail to pay her salary on time. The two for one beer deal was, however, a nice enough compensation to suffer the show.Tuesday: Train journey. I leave at 5.30 from Fort and reach Kilinochchi at 11.30. Early parts of the journey had the train showing off six degrees of freedom in its movements, far better than what the young lady managed the previous evening. From about Vavuniya and beyond, however, the tracks are on concrete sleepers and the ride was smooth.
At Kilinochchi is a new campus of the University of Jaffna, with the Faculties of Agriculture and Engineering. There is also a new addition – Faculty of Technology – of which I have not managed to learn much. I think of the last time I visited here, back in 2014. Then, a temporary building had just been set up, a gravel access road cut through dense shrubs and the first batch of 35 students sent letters of admission. There now is a fully fledged campus with teaching laboratories, lecture halls, student accommodation, keen students and committed young staff. They have done an amazing job in just four years.
It is difficult not to reflect when you are here, for this place was the centre of attention during the long running dirty war in our country. Of blind carpet bombings. Of killings. Of conscriptions of children. Of rebels running their own government. Of callousness of a chauvinistic political class. Of warped logic of hope from nationalistic thought. There is only one conclusion you can reach. One theorem you can prove.
And most importantly, from a selfish point of view, there is a nice guest house on campus. There were two occupants when I arrived there. A mechanical engineer who collaborates intensely with the University who was visiting the past three weeks and about to travel back to the USA, and a professor specialising in the mechanics of soils who had just arrived. These are friends whom I have not met in years and it was a delight to see them there. We exchange notes and, most importantly, I inherit a mosquito net from the senior. Hooray! Safety assured now.
Wednesday: Work. I hold lots of meetings with administrators, staff, students, a random sample of graduates from the Department (both of them), and some industrial contacts of the Department who hire graduates. We end the day with a nice dinner and great conversations. A long session of great food and necessary lubrication.
Thursday: Work. I go through lots of files relating to teaching in the Department, studying their course material and assessment. I calibrate the material against what is taught, at what level and in how much depth in my own university in the UK. A visiting team, also with the purpose of quality assurance, is on campus. I recognise a member of that panel – smart guy with goatee beard – who used to beat me a lot back in 1977 — in chess at the Jaffna Chess Club! We end this day, too, with a nice dinner and great conversations. A long session of great food and necessary lubrication.
Friday: I take a day trip to Thirunelveli, the main base of the University where I have several friends. There is a corner of this campus which I call Krushestra, because my friend Aacharyya works there. Arriving without notice, I am taking a risk. He might have gone to teach (obviously) like last time. He was in. Buried behind big thick files. Aacharyya seems to be carrying out the second function described in the epic, Mahabharata. Of offering professional advice. You do need to study a lot of papers and stick post-it notes on them to offer advice. Of rules. Of regulations. Of previous attempts at solving the problem. I think he will have a lot of trouble with that. It says so in Mahabharata. Offering advice is hard to begin with. But in its reception one encounters frictional forces such as willingness to listen and capability to understand. The adorable young man will soon grow long grey beard, I predict. But I don’t tell him that.
I then meet with several staff and students in Computer Science. Get treated to a fine lunch. My friend drives me back to Kilinochchi, after a quick stop at the ice cream joint. I consume a huge ice cream. Against doctor’s orders. It is OK to sin in that setting, for forgiveness could be sought from the occupant next door with an “arohara (doesn’t translate, reader, assume something similar to “amen”).”
Past Nallur, we turn towards Chemmani, to get on the A9 highway. The site of mass graves. Of brutal rape and murder of a young girl and her family. Just one more of the many scars in the history of our country that do not feature in the culture shows at luxury hotels. Nor in the narrative of the long history we are proud of. No. We should only show off a Devil Dance and boast about the irrigation schemes of the dry zone, from the Anuradhapura period. Of the slopes of extremely small gradients. Of the ingenuity of the bisokotuwa, the little sluice going under an earth dam to maintain water levels and protect the dam from erosion. Recent history, we should bury. And ignore lessons from it.
As I reflect, I see a man walking past. Who, who is it? A fraction of a second in poor light, but I think I recognize him. An Election Commissioner taking a stroll with a walking stick. Perhaps there will be elections round the corner, I tell myself. I want to stop, but my friend had to drop me in Kilinochchi and drive back all the way, so we didn’t.
Saturday: The soil expert and I take a trip to Mannar. Neither of us has been there before. The west-most end of the country from where India can be seen, where Hanuman built a bridge to bring an army of monkeys for political problem solving in Sri Lanka. A touch of unexplained anti-Indianism in me I confess to when I stand there and stare in the direction of our “big brother.” Mannar had fine beauty of its own, but it was scorching hot to stand there. What if there was some shade, a little park near the sandy beach for kids to play and young lovers to hide, I wondered. We look around and find one. Declared open a few weeks ago by several dignitaries. All of them. Honourable Chief Minister. Honourable Ministers. Honourable Members of Parliament. Honourable Provincial Ministers. Honourable Members of Provincial Council. Honourable Members of Local Government. That is a lot of Honourable stuff. How many in all? Maybe the number of Honourable people who came to declare the hut officially open outnumber the builders who actually constructed it!
Sunday: I go on a trip to Karainagar with staff and students of the Department. After a swim in the beach, we visit Fort Hammenhiel and have lunch at the navy-run restaurant. This is a first for me. On previous trips I have consciously avoided boutiques, restaurants and hotels run by the armed forces. They should not be in this business, undercutting opportunities for civilians. The navy restaurant is superb. Great food and kept to high standards. Grass outside is green. The marble floor is polished. I reflect on the pavements in Colombo, the urban development attributed much to the then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. The admiration my friend Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Solomon Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela (just call him “Pol”) had developed for this bureaucrat because he had built pavements! Do we need military style governance to build simple things like restaurants and pavements? And maintain them to high standards?
“Are you guys in regular navy?” I asked the chaps who took us on the boat ride. “The three of us working on the boat are regular sailors,” he explained, “but the restaurant is run by a civilian wing of the navy.”
Fort Hammenhiel has a local name, I remember from childhood in Karainagar. “Poothath thambik kOddai (translates as fort of the brother of the pootham (ghost)). For that is what the locals thought of the Dutch invaders who built the fort there: pootham and siblings!
A famous detainee of the fort was Rohana Wijeweera, who led the leftist rebellion of 1971. I sit on the parapet and reflect. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, its causes and the way it was put down cannot be understood without reference to why Wijeweera rebelled in 1971 and what techniques were deployed to quell his rebellion. I was a witness. The brutality unleashed on hamlets along the highway between Badulla and Moneragala, and elsewhere, was something the serene surroundings of the Bandarawela public library never prepared me for. We saw that pattern repeat in the Southern war of late eighties and over the thirty-year Northern war.
Genetics and phonetics do not explain our ethnic strife. Wijeweera does.
Back in the restaurant I see three sailors of the navy watching television. They are watching Shakthi TV. A Tamil soap opera is on. Melodrama at its best. They are glued to it. Why are these guys watching it? Has the navy started recruiting Tamils? I start a conversation with them. “Can you understand without Sinhala subtitles?” I ask. One of them shows off his Tamil skills. Bit broken, but comprehensible.
Monday: I visit friends at the University of Colombo. I learn about their recent work on synthesising Tamil speech and analysing long biological sequences. Studying biology and language in the same lab is great from my point of view, for that then is the only lab I need to visit. The speech synthesiser gets most of the phonetics right, but is no better than the Sri Lankan airline announcer in its intonation: “ongo lukku nal vaa ravu kooru kiraar,” splitting the syllables in all the wrong places.
Tuesday: I sit quietly in the departure lounge of Colombo airport and complete writing my diary. The cappuccino is Rs. 520. Exactly the same price as I would pay in Bridgetown. Why should it be so expensive when normalised against average local income levels? Material? Labour? Air conditioning?
Or is it maintaining a social class, secluded from the masses, protecting its interests?
To answer, we Sri Lankans may have to consult Rohana Wijeweera’s ghost!
[ Author’s note: Part II of Don’s Diary is archived here. ]