By Mahesan Niranjan –
Last two weeks, I travelled in Sri Lanka, participating at two conferences at the Universities of Jaffna and Peradeniya. This is the first of a two-part diary of random events and thoughts. Previous diaries can be read here and here.
Thursday: Straight after a workshop in Winchester, I take a bus to Heathrow giving me just two hours before the flight takes off. Much is said about the management of Sri Lankan airlines, but one cannot complain about their generosity with on-board service: I ask for a gin and tonic, she offers me two. Perfect. A fellow traveller sitting across the aisle is a Buddhist monk. Cabin crew greet him with immense respect, bending, kneeling and addressing him in very polite language (oba vahanse – ඔබ වහන්සේ etc.). To serve food, they spread a clean white cloth across the table. Buddhist monks are people who have detached themselves from our usual bonds of family and ownership. They live by alms given by random people. In return, we offer them respect, recognition of an elevated place on their trajectory to nirvana that we ourselves are not courageous enough to reach. Fair enough.
But after dinner, the monk who had detached himself from all earthly bonds made some purchases from the duty free trolley. He opted to pay by American Express. “Unfortunately we don’t accept Amex,” the stewardess was profoundly apologetic. “Never mind,” says the Robed One. Out comes a Mastercard. Is this what Siddhartha Gautama had in mind, I wondered.
Friday: I reach a friend’s place in Colombo in the afternoon. Over dinner and a couple of shots of arrack, we catch up on local gossips. I am deposited safely in an overnight bus to Jaffna. Comfortable bus, I get a good few hours of sleep. In the middle of the night, the bus makes a brief stop somewhere in the Vanni. The arrack has worked its way through. I ask where the toilet was. The kiosk guy points at a footpath outside. It is dark, and I cannot see the toilet. To the left I get foul smell, less so to the right. OK, I got it. Pressure on the bladder helps tolerate sensation on the nostrils. This is a curse when travelling in Sri Lanka. Public places do not have clean toilets. It helps me plan though. Before eating or drinking anything I ask myself where I would be when the stuff wants to come out at the other end.
Saturday: At 4.00 AM, the bus drops me off at the junction near the railway station from where it is a short walk to the hotel. I take a shower and get to work, reading through 32 posters to be presented at the workshop. I was to be one of the assessors. The event was beautifully organized by the Jaffna Computer Science department. On arrival the guests are offered a tray with holy ash and sandalwood pottu (பொட்டு ) for your forehead. I politely decline, such religious symbolism not to my taste.
The poster session from undergraduate students was rather good. After agreeing the winners with my co-assessors, I do a small experiment. I log into my home university and pull out 32 pieces of work from my own undergraduates and compare the quality distributions. I find them very similar. That is an impressive place to be in ten years since the end of the war for a young academic department. I know mine is not an unbiased judgement, given the staff there are my friends and I am an external examiner for that Department. Even then, it was a good show.
“What can we do to improve further?” is a question often asked in these situations. “The technical content of the work is good,” I respond, “but the students need to be more articulate in explaining their work.”
In response to the question “why?” the answer I often get is “Cantilever Sir told me to try this.”
[Note protocol demands “Sir” has to follow the name. For a lady teacher, it would have been, for example, “Curvature Madam told me so.”]
“How would you fix it?”
I give bold answer. “Just knock off a fifth of your curriculum and replace it by English lessons, spoken and written.” Better command of English would open many doors that are closed to young people there at present: access to wide archive of knowledge, greater confidence to debate their ideas and to communicate what they have achieved.
“But will it work?” I hear you ask. No is the answer. There will be objections from senior members of the community there. “Your suggestion is coming from a colonial mind set,” will be their response – a sickening drawbridge mentality.
Sunday: I was invited to a graduation party, of staff and students. Great food. Graduates spoke of their campus experience and future plans. Staff spoke with messages of congratulations. There was some singing, too, but it was quite clear that those in the gathering have trained their vocal chords to write Java programs. Towards the end of the event the students reacted in a way I had not seen happen in the past. They approached the staff one by one, kneeling before them, touching their feet as a gesture of offering respect and receiving their blessings. I was deeply uncomfortable seeing this and looked away. Two of the more adventurous students approached me. “Won’t work on me,” I warned, “I play football. Anything spherical near my feet I kick a good 30 yards!” I stand up, shake them by their hands and wish them well.
Just before the end of the party, I grab the microphone and congratulate the staff and students. I made it a point to record my delight at seeing the group of staff working as a team with a common goal, something unusual in the context of Jaffna as anyone observing political developments there would note. Fragmentation is the norm.
I take that opportunity to ask the graduating students a favour. “Tell me about this practice of ragging,” I ask. “Write to me with ideas on why this ugly practice persists in the public university system and how you think it might be dealt with.” Ragging is an initiation ritual, supposedly a welcoming one, organised by senior student already on campus. What started as gentle humour during times of my parents at university, grew to bullying and harassment during my time, and now features violence and sexually explicit torture. Students have been scared to enrol, some have left the universities and a few have taken their own lives. A student I met on a previous visit had told me he was hard of hearing in one year due to ragging. Slapped. Burst ear drum. The situation is desperate. The senior-most bureaucrat in the system, the Chair of the University Grants Commission, recently made a passionate plea regarding this menace. See his speech here. “But come on,” I feel like saying to him, “what is your solution? Is anyone taking responsibility for failing to curb this all these years?”
A few of the students wrote to me: “Students want to show their superiority to their juniors. So they use ragging as a medium of it.” “Seniors always wanted juniors to obey them and to create an image that they are powerful.”
Why this need for superiority, seniority, obedience and respect in what ought to be a collegiate environment of curiosity, learning and the pleasure of discovery? Why perpetuate such hierarchy by constantly hiring junior faculty mostly from an institution’s own graduates? Is it because senior people in the system expect recognition of superiority and obedience from junior folks acknowledging the image of being powerful? Is this what gets passed down in the form of respect for the teacher by falling at their feet to receive blessings? Is it then a small step that junior-most members already in the university (students in their second year of study) seek someone beneath them to boss over?
I have no answers, but I am uncomfortable with hierarchical relationships. The addressing of people as Sir and Madam for respect, to start with. So I refuse to be called “Sir”.
In the afternoon, my friend and I drive to the island of Karainagar, where my roots are. There is a navy check point at the entrance to the village. With a few questions, they wave us through. They were polite and pleasant, but it wasn’t clear what they were checking. National security works in mysterious ways.
The sunset from the causeway was beautiful and we stop photograph. The very same sunset my grandfather and his great grandfather would have seen, for we can trace back six generations on my paternal ancestry, farming the same piece of land in the village. The environment of that arid land is harsh and the soil not very rich, yet one’s sentimental attachment to roots is strong when the history runs a century and a half and you have been thrown out of that land for some reason. I certainly left the place by choice, seeking and finding greener pastures. My sentimental links are easily satisfied by an occasional visit and a selfie.
But not everyone can claim such luck though.
My friend Abdul is one such. His family have farmed the same piece of land for six generations on the West Bank in Palestine. One hundred and fifty years of recorded family history. Then came a knock on the door. Someone claiming an even longer history to the land. Two thousand years. It says so in the book. 2000 being a mightier number than 150, Abdul and his family got thrown out. Abdul himself, being good at calculus, escaped from that environment and made a decent life for himself elsewhere, but his extended family are living under squalid conditions of an open prison. The new arrivals claim national security as the reason for evicting the helpless people. Their first harvest of olives were from the trees Abdul’s grandfather planted, which they consumed with no sense of guilt.
We have examples closer to home, too. Of 2000 proving to be mightier than 150 in the interest if national security. But we, Sri Lankans, are not good at recognizing these for we are skilled at closing our eyes, shutting our ears and burying our eyes in the sand. All in the interest of our national security.
At Karainagar, my friends and I take a dip in the sea. When we return rather late, the moon is out. Bright, golden and perfectly circular. This view of the moon has a special place in my mind, etched deep in memory. One day back in 1977, my father and I were returning to Jaffna from Colombo after a chess tournament I took part in. A friend of my father, Sivalingam (not his real name), joined us at Anuradhapura. My father and uncle Sivalingam were chatting from the seats at the window. I was two seats away recovering from the match I had lost. There were no lights in our carriage. Outside was very bright with the moon rising above the trees. A full round golden moon. But the light emanating from it was all silver. Of the friends, all I could see were their silhouettes in bright moonlit background. The silver light from the moon was shining peacefully over trees, shrubs and paddy fields of the Vanni as the train raced through. That was a scene of permanent mark in memory.
The very same moon we photographed from the causeway.
Monday: A student I was to meet wants to cancel because of an event on campus – the ceremonial launch of a new dictionary of Tamil words of local Jaffna use. She invites me to join the event, but I hesitate. “They may serve vadai and murukku,” she adds and I am soon on my way to the auditorium, purchasing a copy of the dictionary at the entrance. It is a good effort by the author. Tamil as spoken in Sri Lanka differs much from that in India. Ours is closer to the written formal language and complies better with grammar. There is good regional variation in the use of words across different parts of Sri Lanka, too. The published dictionary was a good effort to document a version of it, i.e. the Jaffna version. The chief guest, a linguistics professor from India, did a thorough review of the publication, structuring the words into groups, identifying their roots making comparisons to their usage in Indian Tamil etc. But he dragged it too long, coming close to reading the entire dictionary. That the audience had lost interest once the vadai and murukku had been consumed had no effect on him. The Chancellor made the same error, speaking at length of something not very relevant. But then, being at the top of the food chain, he would have thought of it as entitlement, being listened to without challenge, being offered respect, feet touched and blessings received and all that.
Outside the university gates, I spot several new Tamil words in everyday use in the community, written out in big fonts on shop boards: ‘restaurant’, ‘fast food’, ‘learners’, ‘overseas’, ‘quality’ and ‘tools’, none of which seemed to have been included in the dictionary! Maybe the next edition will have these? Maybe we will be bold enough to expand the phonetics of our language?
Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday: A day trip to Kilinochchi, where the University has its Engineering and Agricultural faculties. Few meetings and discussions.
Friday: I leave Jaffna early and drive to Kandy. There is beautiful landscape along the way with paddy fields as far as eye could see on either side of the road. Rain has been plenty and the plants radiate a special kind of green. Past the Vanni, we stop at Kekirawa for a break. A beautiful town, looking peaceful with paddy fields, coconut trees and a buzzling high street.
I connect to the UK and read the news. Boris Johnson had just won a landslide. His soundbites and the perpetual manufactured lies of the mainstream media targeting Jeremy Corbyn had succeeded in achieving a small vote swing, which, in a first past the post electoral system had given Johnson absolute power.
“You stupid people!” is what Rene Artois would have said to the Brits.
Maybe I should hide here for good, I think.
I have never been to Kekirawa before, but I remember the name of the place well.
Back in 1977, a couple of months after my return train journey from the chess tournament in Colombo, the JR Jayewardene government unleashed rioting on the Tamil community. Systematic, organized and meant to teach the Tamils a lesson. My father’s friend, uncle Sivalingam, whom I remember in association with the full moon, was killed in Kekirawa. Nurses in his hospital tried to hide him under a bed, covering him with laundry, but the thugs found him. He was dragged out, stripped and beaten with stones, iron rods, and bicycle chains. Efforts were made to retrieve the body. The Grama Sevaka (local government official) in the Kekirawa region managed to find the body, but ordered its instant cremation without sending it to the family for a funeral in Jaffna. Many thought of it as yet another example of hegemonic majoritarian rule we were building towards rebelling against in a dirty war of thirty years.
My father thought it was a spontaneous act of mercy on the part of the Grama Sevaka.
Others in our village could not see his point.
After a coffee with fish buns, my driver and I look for toilets. My mannerism in speaking Sinhala with the right mix of English turned out to be useful. Because I can — when it helps a good cause — sound like a spoilt brat educated at Royal College. The waiter takes us to the hotel reception and lets us use the toilet there.
This one is clean and does not challenge my nostrils.
[ To be continued as Don’s Diary IVb: Peradeniya. ]