The Destruction of Jaffna
Even after the war years which destroyed much of what is good in Jaffna, little of value has been rebuilt except the service industry which brings severe environmental problems with it. The most destructive has been the loss of English competency with the outflow of good teachers. As far as I can tell, only the Principals of Uduvil Girls’ College and Chundikuli Girls’ College can write good English among the school Principals of Jaffna – and to say something sexist, that is because women feel greater shame in speaking bad English. Like fear and anger, shame too serves to guard and advance our interests and protect us.
Unfortunately in Jaffna, to our great detriment, there is a tendency to self-affirm what and who we are by scoffing at what we lack – English competency in particular. Those who have been to university will know that the buffoons who rag and torture new students target those who speak English well. The importance of English, although privately recognized, is diminished by advancing the politically correct, self-destructive view that “It is not our language. Why is it so important?”
A Cosmopolitan Culture
I do not need to overstate the case for English – a source of knowledge as the most international language since it contains much of the important educational literature including that on the internet. Indeed as the expert-reviewed archival literature on our own national languages and cultures is written more in English than our languages, English is also a more reliable window to our own cultures.
Cultural pride is fine but the expected culture in the modern world of business is a culture-neutral dress-code paradoxically built on a western model – trousers, shirt and tie, or a full dress or blouse and skirt/trousers. At a time Europe has filed cases against employees wearing religious symbols to work as seen at the European Court of Human Rights, Jaffna has an excessive display of symbols with university lecturers including those who teach English wearing liberal daubs of holy ash and huge pottus. While it is their right to do so, the fact is that there is a strong link between the wearing of these symbols on the one hand, and lack of English proficiency and cultural hegemony on the other. And we are judged accordingly. Knowing that link, these who assert these symbols in Jaffna, leave them behind (or use ash daubings sparingly) on their occasional visits to Sinhalese areas. Praising our lack of competence as a badge of self-respect and patriotism, and daring to criticize those advocating the discarding of the public display of symbols, they have taken Jaffna down the path of self-destruction to hide their shortcomings.
When we think as I have written, many monolinguals in Jaffna will call us good colonials. The way to respond is not to stop trying to learn English-speaking and cosmopolitan as they would want us to. The right way to address them is to say “Boo” to them and carry on building up our careers and cosmopolitan dimensions of our educated culture.
Jaffna’s Elite as Seen at India’s Republic Day
A vivid example of Jaffna’s cultural backwardness was on display at India’s Republic Day celebrations in Jaffna. The invitation to Jaffna’s elite — some of whom asked to be invited — implored and entreated us to be timely and to wear formal or business/casual clothing. Come 7:00 pm, the appointed time, half the hall was empty and the Chief Guest, His Excellency Suren Raghavan the Governor, who came promptly on time, had to be hidden away in a room on a different floor. Some who did not know this would have thought, when the Governor was finally brought in, that he was late. Poor Dr. Raghavan! A few, including representatives, drifted in after his entry in ordinary clothes without neither tie nor shoes, and some of these laggards left early thereby wasting their lavishly set places that had been paid for at the Jetwing Northgate Hotel after they had sent in a positive RSVP response. If this is the example our elite set, we in Jaffna certainly have a long way to go to reach the rest of civilization.
This situation also brings fear into those professionals who wish to stay in Jaffna and serve. For it is a death sentence on their children who will turn out to be proud mono-culturists. It adds to the problem as those with credentials flee.
The only way to progress and worldly success in bringing up our children is to make them be multi-cultural and cosmopolitan.
Enter the Rajekulendran Women
Many readers might not have heard of Mr. J. G. Rajakulendran, member of the Second State Council who was the Principal of Kathiresan Central College in Nawalapitiya (a city made famous by the birth there of M.G. Ramachandran) some 40km from Kandy. A Christian being principal of that Hindu school testified to his cosmopolitanism. He must have been intelligent for the unique career path that a Jaffna man had carved for himself. Imbued with his intelligence are his two daughters Vimala Jebanesan and Swendrini Kadirgamar. They perceived what Jaffna lacked and started the Rajakulendran Academy of Western Music, Speech and Drama. Even the music through singing ties up improving English to acquiring a wide vocabulary and learning a natural pronunciation.
Joy of Christmas
On 29 December last, my wife and I were privileged to be the chief guests for the Rajakulendran School’s “Joy of Christmas – An Evening of Variety Entertainment.” We started promptly at 3:30 pm as scheduled. “Joy of Christmas was a treat better than anything I had ever seen in Colombo or in my many years in the US. (Here I must congratulate University of Jaffna for starting their international conference on time on 6 Feb.).
The professionals who stayed on in Jaffna had a big void filled by making their children competent in English, and making it easier for them to decide to stay on in Jaffna and contribute. Every student participated. All of them, I venture, will do well in foreign exams where they usually fair extremely well in the quantitative portion but are undone in the verbal portion as well as the analytical portion which requires understanding the subtleties of English.
The programme highlights that evening are Western Orchestra with Singing in Parts, Piano Solos, Piano Duet, Choral Recitations, Group Dance, Group Descant Recorder Item, and the main event of the evening: Christmas Carol – A Drama Adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous work.
I must mention some whom I particularly noticed. Swasthi Gobishankar participated in many items but I noticed her because of her ever-pleasant smile as she performed, and her cosmopolitan hairdo and neat slacks stopping a little above her ankles. She ably rendered the Vote of Thanks, and looked quite modern while being very much a Jaffna girl.
The rendering of Christmas Carol was heartwarming, given the season. Actors went through many changes of clothing to suit the different scenes and that period. The Academy had spent lavishly on this. The Ghosts that haunted Scrooge were dressed to look truly like Ghosts as we imagine them to be, and dressed to suit. Given Jaffna’s demographics, 80% of the artistes were Hindu.
Whom I would call the star of the evening, Srisankarshan Srisatkunarajah who played Scrooge, was amazing for the variety of emotions he brought to stage – from my front row I could see real tears welling in his eyes and running down his cheeks as Scrooge regretted his past life and cried.
I must not fail to mention Visahan Nanthakumar, a young man who had taught himself Michael Jackson dances that his elderly teachers could not teach him, and a departure from the classical rest. His mother had contracted a viral infection at hospital which was not responding to treatment. His father and grandmother were there to cheer him on. The good news is that the mother is now responding a little to treatment.
The Final Bow at Trimmer Hall Jaffna
The final bow wishing us all a Merry Christmas was an opportunity for all to show their happy faces again. Jaffna may take long to be resurrected but I am sure that these children with their skills in English, confidence and poise have a bright future ahead of them. If I have a regret, it is that in Jaffna’s culture of “Become a Doctor or Engineer or Lawyer or Accountant, or you are a Failure,” young Srisatkunarajah will never be allowed to make a career of acting which he demonstrated to be his forte.