From inclusive Ceylon to excluding Sri Lanka: Grandfather’s Letters. Letters by C. Suntharalingam (1895-1985), edited by C. Anjalendran, Sailfish Publishers, Colombo, 2016.
Time is unredeemable; what might have been is an abstraction ~ (Adapted from T S Eliot’s poem, ‘Burnt Norton’)
Chellappah Suntharalingam (1895-1985; known variously as “Sun”, “Sunth” and “Sunthar”) passed with distinction in Mathematics at Oxford University. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service but, energetic and restless; bored with signing gun licenses, he resigned. For a while, he was vice-principal of Ananda College (unthinkable for a Tamil in Sri Lanka today); later the first Professor of Mathematics, Ceylon University College. Entering politics and winning the Vavuniya seat, he was a proverbial “stormy petrel”; individualistic; fearlessly frank and outspoken. D S Senanayake, before he became independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, frequently visited Suntharalingam, and “Sunthar” personally knew many of Ceylon’s political leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil: “I met Arunachalam in London in 1920 when he came as Leader of the Ceylon Reform” deputation.” I met Ramanathan in 1915 in London when he came to save the Sinhala people from the atrocities of British imperialism (p. 61). The book is not without humour: “educated and recruited in England”, young Suntharalingam on his return received proposals of marriage from some of the richest “Thamil” (see below) families of the day, but the prospective brides were fatter than their fat dowries (p. 19).
The cart-drawn journey from Jaffna to Colombo took five to six days. Suntheralingam was about fourteen when he travelled from Chunnakam to Urumpirai by train for the first time (p. 33). Though his mother was illiterate, “Sunthar” says she highly educated. A wise and strong widow, through careful planning and frugality, she educated five sons in then-faraway Colombo. As a child in Jaffna, “Sunthar” walked to school, sat on a floor smeared with mud and cow-dung, and wrote out the Thamil alphabet on sand. (He uses the phonetically more accurate “Thamil” rather than the anglicised “Tamil”.) Even as a Professor of Mathematics, he would mentally calculate in Thamil while lecturing in English (p. 30). He recalls that some children brought nothing to eat at school, and physical hunger affected their mental performance (pp. 46-7). He quotes with approval the Latin saying, ”Mens sana in corpore sano”. Before beginning homework by lamplight, he would wash, say his prayers and wear holy ash: the attitude to studies was almost reverential. Supper was served only after homework was completed. (No doubt, their cooking was done over a wood fire. I remember the short hollow tube, black with use and soot, through which my mother blew to encourage the fire, the flames casting a red glow on her.) As a child in Jaffna in the 1940s, I recall that if a pupil accidentally dropped a book, any book, she or he would pick it up and touch the forehead with it as a sign of contrition. If they were caned in school, children usually didn’t tell their parents for the reaction most likely would have been: “What! You gave the teacher cause to beat you?”
The way of life of a people, their values and attitudes (all summed up in the word ‘culture’) cannot be separated from the physical environment. The high value placed on education is not surprising. Jaffna didn’t have lush plantations nor industry and factories; the soil was arid, demanding much patient labour. It’s therefore not surprising that many “Thamils” moved out in search of employment (some beyond the shores to Malaya). Their self-discipline and industry led to a success that was felt to be disproportionate to their number, in turn exciting deep resentment and anger. (To blame British favouritism for alleged disproportionate Tamil success took away credit from one side and self-reproach from the other.) Comparisons have been made with attitudes to the Jews in the various countries in which they existed prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948.
The emphasis on studies did not exempt “Sunthar” from physical work. In many a Jaffna well, a man or boy would walk the beam (the “thula”) from which the bucket was suspended. As he walked forward, the bucket dipped into the water. When the man (woman, child) at the well began to haul up the bucket, the man or boy walked back, thus helping to bring up the now full and heavy bucket. This process was repeated until the garden or field had been watered. Whether the practice still exists, I don’t know but “Sunthar” writes: “I was trained to tread the well-sweep, to water the vegetable beds, to look after cattle and to drive a bullock-cart. On some days I had to tread the well-sweep between four and six in the morning”, have my morning meal, and run over three miles to school, “lest I be summarily caned for being late” (p. 45). A staunch Hindu but with an inquiring, wide-ranging, mind the first of many school-prizes he won was for his knowledge of Christian scripture (p. 199).
Under British imperial rule, there was “impartial recognition of Ceylonese merit” (p. 74), and students “were judged solely on our individual performances”. University scholarships were won, among others by, L. M. D. de Silva, P. de S. Kularatne, Gregory Weeramantry, D. J. Telesphor (later, Liyanage), and T. D. Perera, borther of H. V. Perea, QC, and Walter Samarawickrema (p. 73). So too, in politics: the only seat available at the 1911 Ceylon Legislative Council election was contested by (Tamil) Ponnambalam Ramanathan and (Sinhalese) Marcus Fernando. Ramanathan won. Students sometimes didn’t know to which community a particular fellow-schoolboy belonged (p. 38).
I quote Professor Suntharalingam: “It is not realised by many people in Ceylon that the Soulbury Constitution did not grant full Dominion Status to Ceylon. It was therefore necessary that in constituting the first Cabinet every step had to be taken to make it inevitable to have the Soulbury Constitution converted to a full-fledged Dominion Constitution at the earlies possible opportunity. The National Unit comprising Sinhalese, Thamils, Muslims, Burghers and others had to be a matter of show if not of substance: it had to be displayed to make the British Government believe that the demand for responsible government knew no communal difference. Oliver Goonetilleke and Lionel Kotelawala were D. S. Senanayake’s emissaries to persuade me to join the Cabinet” (p. 87, italics added).
Inclusive Ceylon soon metamorphosed into excluding Sri Lanka, and by the time Professor Suntharalingam realized his mistake and presented an appeal to the Governor-General (24 June 1950) it was woefully too late: see p. 163. His brother Nagalinam was acting Chief Justice and acting Governor General but could never be made permanent: “Yes, unfortunate days have fallen on the Thamils of Eelam” (p. 17). “In our day we could work hard and depend entirely on our merit to progress in life. But in your day, you may be thwarted for no other reason than that you are born an Eelam Thamil boy” (p. 60). Another brother, Amirthalingam, retired as Director of Fisheries and went on to become a professor of Zoology abroad. Seen only as a Thamil, he was not allowed to “give of his best to the land of his birth” (18): a feeling of deep regret shared by several others. Unlike in former Ceylon, what counts most in Sri Lanka is ‘race’ and, secondly, subscription to religion, specifically, Buddhism. One “cannot deny any more that there is no impartial recognition of merit, not only towards the Eelam Thamil boy, but towards the Sinhala boys who are not Buddhist” (p. 74). Erich Fromm in his Escape From Freedom distinguishes between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. The former can be seen as emancipatory while the second, building on this foundational freedom, gives scope to the individual, among other things, to develop and express her or his talents to their full potential. “Sunthar” would probably have said that though ‘freedom from’ still exists, there’s little of the ‘freedom to’ for Thamils in Sri Lanka.
Volatile, credulous and easily excited, the people were ever ready to take rumour for fact, and to disseminate it. The Governor-General phoned and asked “Sunthar” about poor Sinhalese fishermen being murdered in Mullaitivu. On investigation, it turned out that “not a single fisherman or any other had been harmed” (p. 147). During the 1958 riots, I was one of those who found refuge at Gampaha police station. From the window I could see a mob gathering, with Buddhist monks at the forefront behaving in a most un-Buddhist manner. As perhaps the only one of the refugees with whom he could talk, the officer once told me that a train was coming from Jaffna, each compartment packed like sardines with the bodies of murdered Sinhalese. “Why did your people do this?” Marooned, disorientated, I had no answer but of one thing I was certain: if there was indeed such a train, then when it steamed into Maradana station, I would be killed in Gampaha. Of course, the grisly, ghastly, train never existed. Looking back, what remains in my mind is the total conviction of that officer. Taking rumour for fact, his question was not whether but why. He believed the story because he wanted it to be true. In turn, it would confirm and justify his prejudice and hatred.
There are points in the letters at which one pauses: I mention just three. First, to engage in the “Ifs and buts” of History as Professor Suntharalingam does is futile because there are so many unknowns and variables. He reports what Bandaranaike told him in conversation, and what was generally believed in and expected: “Monck-Mason Moore will be Governor-General for a year, D. S. will succeed him and I will succeed D. S. as Prime Minister” (p. 91). If Bandaranaike had not been “ousted” he would not have resorted to the “Sinhala-Only” slogan, “a slogan especially invented by him to rise to power” (p. 92). But one wonders: Do politicians create venomous, divisive, group-emotions or do they cater to, incite and excite already-existing feelings in the populace? Isn’t it too easy to lay all the blame on politicians, and so exculpate ourselves? Then again Professor Suntharalingam urges his grandchild to remain true to traditional Thamil values and patterns of conduct (p. 20) but isn’t culture dependent on political, economic and social realities? Thirdly, following the Bhagavath Gita, he believes that when Dharma decays and Adharma prospers, there will be Providential intervention to right wrongs. Though such miraculous and dramatic incidents are related in all religions, they hark back to distant time. To my knowledge, there is no modern example of divine intervention in public-life and History. Again, it’s too easy to leave it all to god or the gods. Prayer must be prelude and preparation, and not a substitute for human endeavour.
The Editor, in a ‘Last of the Mohicans’ fashion, says in his Introduction that he is now the only one left in Sri Lanka of what was once a large and closely-knit family. (Etymologically, “diaspora” is derived from to “scatter”. You will be scattered in all parts of the earth: Deuteronomy 28:25). The title, Grandfather’s Letters, may lead readers to think this is a substantial, if not a comprehensive, collection of letters but they amount to only twenty in number. The letters are not dated and the reader must try to work out historical context by internal reference, for example, the assassination of Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike. Readers would also have been greatly helped by editorial exegesis relating to certain details and now-forgotten individuals mentioned by Professor Suntharalingam. However, these letters form a valuable document – interesting, informative and ultimately tragic. The Editor is to be thanked for attempting to preserve them for posterity.
Finally, I thank Mahesan Selvaratnam (retired Deputy Inspector General of Police) for kindly sending me a copy. We have been friends since Gurutalawa days in the early 1950s.