Colombo Telegraph

Life And Times In Old Jaffna: A Review

By R.S.Perinbanayagam

Prof. R.S.Perinbanayagam

The Yaal Players by Vimala Ganeshananthan (Colombo: Kumaran Books Ltd)2013
Life and Times in Old Jaffna. A Review.

This work contains notes written by a woman, Emily Gnanam, who lived in Karativu, an islet off the coast of Jaffna in the early years of the last century. It is also interspersed with commentaries by her daughter Vimala Ganeshananthan who also is the editor of the volume. Emily Gnanam,it appears, spent her early life in a large farm in Karativu before getting married and moving to Trincomalee. Her descriptions of her life in the farm reveals the existence of a semi-feudal system in Jaffna with various castes living in or around the farm and providing services to the landowners and receiving compensation in kind and cash.

Emily Gnanam’s notes give us a fascinating account of the lives of the various people of the household as well as the life of the village in rich detail. She describes the procedures and customs observed in everyday life as well as the nature of the marriage alliances contracted by the members of the household. It describes the ceremonies connected to the weddings, the nature of the arrangements that were made to consummate these contracts etc. It appears that cross-cousin marriage was still the preferred form. Further, since the family were Christians living among Hindus, and having of course inherited some Hindu customs as well, had to make various amalgamations in their rituals. For example a Christian wedding was conducted in church but nevertheless they also used the Hindu ritual of tying the golden chain with the sacred pendant—the thali kodi– around the neck of the bride by the groom. In the Hindu customs the pendant was inscribed with sacred Hindu symbols but Christians inscribed the image of the Bible on it. She describes the clothing and the jewelry worn respectively by the young girls as well as the different styles worn by the more mature ones and their grooming before the wedding ceremony and so on.

All in all, it’s the work of an astute observer of the social scene, and has given us, without much aforethought, a wealth of information about the life of a particular segment of Jaffna society at a particular time: a wealthy, landowning, socially and culturally dominant and high-caste segment, that is. Equally significantly they were Christians living in harmony in a Hindu culture and with a deep commitment to education. Further, it is written in a very simple style without unnecessary elaborations and ponderous analysis. The teachers at Vembady High School for Girls,where Emily Gnanam studied, do seem to have taught her a thing or two about writing too.

It is however the sociological and economic implications of the life of the family as an index of the Jaffna community that is the most valuable contribution of the work. The Gnanam family were converts to Protestant Christianity but seems to have had many Hindu relatives with whom they had not only cordial relations and even at times intermarried with them. They appear to have taken full advantage of the increasing opportunities provided by the schools that were opened by Christian missionaries. Emily Gnanam’s father was in fact a teacher in the school run by the American mission in the neighborhood after having been educated in one such school earlier. Emily Gnanam herself studied here and then transferred to Jaffna town to study in the school run by the Methodist missions called Vembady School for Girls. She didn’t just study and learn the feminine and domestic styles of life that the Christian missionaries tried to impart to their women students but went on to pass the Cambridge senior examination. She was perhaps one of the first among women in Jaffna to have obtained that distinction. The family in fact moves to Jaffna town so that she and her siblings could be educated in the city schools, she and her sisters at Vembadi, and her brothers at Jaffna Central College. The architectural styles of houses in Jaffna town favored by Dutch over that of the Portuguese too merits the attention of Emily Gnanam. These two occupying powers, besides their architecture,left their genetic footprints too in the light skin and blue eyes that some people in Jaffna sport and even this does not escape comment from the Gnanam!

While that the girls were given an education uncommon at the time in Jaffna society was significant enough, it is the story of her brothers and cousins that is of distinct sociological and economic significance. They were educated in these Christian schools–either at Central College or at Jaffna College, the premier school established by the American mission, and they seem to have obtained various qualifications: the Cambridge Junior certificate or the Cambridge Senior certificate or what was called the first-in arts –later to be called, I believe, the intermediate in arts, which was a prelude to the bachelor of arts degree. It not clear from her notes however which of these qualifications were obtained by which member of her family but they all seem to have dedicated themselves to getting an English education.

With one or more of these qualifications in hand the brothers and cousins went forth looking for jobs and wealth to the south of Ceylon but above all to Malaya and Singapore. These qualifications that the young men obtained made them eligible for service in the bureaucracies of the far-flung British Empire as well as in its railway systems. Some of them as far as I can fathom from Emily Gnanam’s notes also went on to become doctors and lawyers too.

The young men of the Gnanam household seem to have taken full advantage of the educational opportunities and made good in Malaya. However once they settled in Malaya they don’t seem to have settled for good. There was a constant traffic between Malaya and the homeland and the hometown. The young men came home to get married or brides were sent to Malaya to get married to eligible young relatives. Some young boys were also invited by their relatives in Malaya for further education and they too settled in Malaya but they returned to get married to one cousin or another. Furthermore, the older relatives seem to have gone on long visits to Malaya too. These were no doubt arduous journeys: there was the boat ride from the island of Karativu (there was no causeway between the island and the mainland at the time and after the causeway was built it changed its name to Karainagar!), and then a ride in a bullock cart on rough terrain to the city. From there they had to take a trip in a cargo boat to reach Malaya. Yet many seem to have gone back and forth: the call of kinship-loyalties on the one hand and the call from hometown on the other seem to have been too strong to be offset by the difficulties of the journey.

This family’s story is in fact a fine microcosm of what happened to Jaffna society once the Christian missionaries began arriving in the peninsula. It nicely particularizes some general features of Jaffna society of a particular time. The Americans came first to be followed by the Methodists and the Anglicans. Catholics too had established their own outpost. In any case the Protestant missionaries, for one reason or the other, seem to have converged on Jaffna and opened up schools in practically in every nook and cranny of the territory. Originally they were meant to educate only the Christians but eventually they accepted Hindus and the schools soon became institutions that educated mostly Hindus. Again, for one reason or the other, that I don’t want to go into here, the local population, after some reluctance, took to these schools with enthusiasm and soon–at least, in a few decades — Jaffna was awash with young men educated in English looking for employment and careers both within the island and in the far-flung British Empire, mainly in the Malay Peninsula but also in Burma and some of them even went to Madras to work. The American mission established the premier educational institution in English in the remote and dusty village of Vaddukoddai and called it, somewhat arrogantly “Jaffna College” the Methodists built Jaffna Central College and the Anglicans had St.John’s College” andS the Catholics St. Patrick’s College. The education of women was not neglected either: the Americans established the Uduvil Girls School, the first of its kind in South Asia, the Methodists started Vembady soon after and the Anglicans started a school for girls in Chundikuli–all in the 19 century. The Hindus, not willing to be outdone by the Christians started their own institutions. This proliferation of educational opportunism in the peninsula accounts for the large presence of Jaffna Tamils in the administrative services and the professions not only in Ceylon but in Malaya too and not because the British rulers favored them in some way– as some ignorant scribes and racist propagandists and internet charlatan have claimed. They were given employment because they obtained the necessary qualifications. These young men worked outside their ancestral villages but came home to marry and build houses and buy land and contributed immensely to the prosperity of the peninsula. These moneys they brought back or sent home trickled down to the carpenters and blacksmiths and the masons who built the houses as well the goldsmiths and silversmiths who made the jewelery and so on and so forth. Indeed the economic impact of the work of the Christian missionaries on Jaffna society is yet be explored by scholars.

The work depicts a way of life of the old north that has gone with the wind, never to return. It has been lovingly edited by Ganeshananthan. It however is not without a major flaw: the commentaries that Ganeshananthan has inserted between her mother’s narratives. These comments, while adding some context to the narrative, should have been separated from the Emily Ganam notes, either typographically or put in as an appendix. Indeed they are quite unnecessary and we should have been allowed to enjoy Emily Gnanam’s words by themselves. I may add that a genealogical table of the family and dates of birth etc would have enhanced the value of the work.

Still, this book is of great value to the social historians of Jaffna and one must thank Ganeshananthan for giving it to us.

*R.S. Perinbanayagam is Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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