Colombo Telegraph

Mirage – The Great Tamil Novel Of Our Time

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

H. L. D. Mahindapala

When two distinguished authorities on the history of Jaffna — Bishop S. Jebanesan of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, and Richard Fox Young who holds a Chair in the Princeton Theological Seminary, USA., – collaborated to translate the novel Mirage (Kanal in Tamil), depicting the plight of the despised Tamil outcasts (Dalits) of the North, it automatically raised the significance and the value of the novel to a level way above the rest of modern Tamil literature. In addition to recognising its literary merits, their selective act to translate this particular novel conveys the measure of respectability and socio-political meaning they attached to the narrative written by K. Daniel, a Turumbar, the lowest of low-castes in Jaffna. The Turumbars were the dhobies to the dhobies of Jaffna.

A low-caste writer achieving this recognition is a rare honour. This translation opens up an opportunity for the silenced voices of the Tamils oppressed by the Vellalas, to be heard in the wide world and the translator (Bishop Jebanesan) and the editor (Young) must be congratulated for undertaking this task. Theirs is valuable service because it throws light into the hidden horrors committed behind the ubiquitous cadjan curtains of the Jaffna Vellalas. Unlike other scholarly studies which tend to drift in the conceptual/theoretical levels, Daniel’s delineation of the existential experiences that were etched into his memory exposes Jaffna as the hell-hole of the Tamil outcasts. Reading this novel would certainly make you wonder how the world was taken for a ride by the Vellala propagandists who diverted attention from their historical role as victimisers of Tamils to be the victims of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority.

The two scholars who produced the translation describes the novel as “historical fiction”. Daniel too confirms that the novel is based on incidents that occurred in his little village and adds in his preface : “All of the characters who pass through it were people I saw with my own eyes. Some are still living (in the eighties). Each incident that occurs in the novel actually happened.” (p. xiv). Daniel states that only difference is that he had changed their names. For instance, he introduces a Christian priest to the village as the alternative to Hindu Saivite Vellala oppressor. But he changed his name from Fr. Gnana Prakasar, a towering figure of Jaffna in his time, to “Cwami Nanamutar”. So there could not have been a more sensitive and truthful eye witness of the Hindu Saivite Vellala crimes against their own Tamil people than that of Daniel, who viewed the dialectics of his caste-dominated, hierarchical, dichotomised, oppressive society through Marxist lenses.

Mirage, which was written in the eighties, has been hailed by those acquainted with Tamil literature as a mini-classic. But its value was played down by the Vellala elite who defined and determined, at all times, the parameters, the contents and the icons of Jaffna Tamil culture. For instance, they hero-worship as a literary lion Arumuga Navalar, the caste fanatic who revised Saivite Hinduism to elevate the Vellalas to the apex of the caste hierarchy. At best, he unearthed the old Tamil texts from S. India and reproduced them which led to a revival of the past glories of Tamil literature in Tamil Nadu. His works did not lead to a lasting Tamil renaissance in Jaffna. But the outstanding creative writer of Jaffna, Daniel, who exposed the savagery of the Vellahla oppression is marginalised. His greatness is not only in breaking away from the artificiality of the rigid, formalised, conservative style of traditional Tamil that was in vogue and writing in the spoken idiom but also in daring to penetrate deep into the most oppressive and cruel culture of Jaffna society and exposing their hypocrisy and horrors which were hidden from the public eye.

It is in this context that the translation of Bishop S. Jebanesan, edited by Richard Fox Young, (2016) sweeps in as a breath of fresh air opening up the hidden culture of the Vellalas. It lifts the novel from its obscurity to the English-speaking readers in all communities. It also elevates the novel as a brilliant study of the divided society of Jaffna in the throes of changing in the early decades of 20th century when Jaffna was still trading in fanams. In very light brush strokes Daniel dramatizes the evil and dehumanising culture of the Vellalas who denied the outcast Tamils to walk this earth even with a modicum of dignity. Daniel exposes, in quiet and sober tones, the Vellala masters who warped Jaffna society with unrelenting Vellala violence down the ages. The underlying theme that comes out of every tragic episode highlights the misery of the Tamils struggling to escape the inhuman cruelty of the Vellala overlords. This is something the Vellalas hate to admit. They loathe being confronted by their brutalities that reduced their own people to subhumans.

From feudal and colonial periods to modern times Jaffna remained as an abominable gulag of Vellala violence. They dare not face their guilt. Their defence is to parade in the theatre of the world at large as the innocent victims of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. But Daniel, a Catholic turned Marxist, refuses to focus on this aspect which looms large in the minds of the Vellalas. His silence is a virtual rejection of the Vellala accusation. There isn’t a single reference to the politicised accusations of “Sinhala oppression” or “discrimination”, the common cry of Northern politics, His narrative is focused entirely on the internal factors that turned the hidden layers of Jaffna society into an everlasting damnation from which there was no escape.

The theatre of all action in the Mirage is the little village of Pirikattayali where the Vellalas rule with an iron fist. It is a microcosm of the overarching Vellala fascism that reigned supreme right across the Jaffna peninsula during feudal and colonial periods until the late nineties. There are still doubts as to whether Vellala casteism has been eradicated totally from Jaffna even today. There are no heroes and heroines in Mirage. There are only protagonists and antagonists playing out their respective roles, highlighting, every step of the way, the internal contradictions clashing at all levels. Both as a political force and a Hindu ideology Vellahlaism reigned supreme riding rough shod over any rival force. They either absorbed the rival castes (e.g., Madapallis) into their fold or crushed the rivals under their jackboots.

A dark and ominous ambience hovers over the grim village of Pirikattayali ruled by the Vellahlas. Those below them survive as slaves. They were kept alive, on minimum wages and provisions, to serve the agricultural, domestic, social, political, religious (nautch girls dancing in temples) and even sexual needs of the Vellahlas. Daniel’s village is in perpetual conflict with the ruthless ruling class/caste. There are only two dominant figures that play their dialectical roles : 1. the Vellala landlord, Tampapillaiyar, ordering, threatening, or enforcing his will with force, or bribing the authorities, to have his way in the village and 2. Cwami Nanamutar, the Catholic reformer, who steps into the village as a “liberator”. The oppressed Nalavar and Palla converts expect the priest to bring salvation through the Church and take them to the promised land. In the end the Church too succumbs to the overbearing forces of Vellalas and divides the Church pews into the Vellahlas and non-Vellalas. The villagers who suffered under Vellala servitude are told by the new messiahs that they are “slaves of Jesus”. It as if they had exchanged worldly slavery to an ethereal slavery imposed by invisible dictators sitting in the skies. Before long, the Church becomes the ally of the Vellalas in maintaining the oppressive status quo.The poverty, the misery, the suffering and the hunger remains unabated. The Church goes along with the contractors who exploit the the low-castes on starvation wages. The Church becomes a part of the establishment. The mirage is in seeing the Church as the liberator.

The coming of the missionaries to Jaffna was also a period of confrontation. It was the first serious invasion of modernity challenging the feudal Hindu structure. It opened up a transitional phase which failed to deliver their expectations of escaping Vellala servitude. In any case, the Vellala Hindus, led by Arumuga Navalar, resisted the Christian invasions. They saw it as a threat to their supremacy with the Church backing the low-castes. The conversions by “the Christian beef-eaters” were limited mainly to the low-castes who saw them as their redeemers, socially, politically and spiritually. But in the end it was the Vellalas who won. The powerful Vellalas took on every new ideological, political, social, religious force that threatened to challenge their supremacy and crushed them. They remained throughout the feudal, colonial, and post-independent periods as an ineradicable force. In the last resort, when their Hindu theology was running out of steam to sustain their divine right to rule the low-castes, they turned Jaffna into an enclave of mono-ethnic extremism. Under Saivite theology the enemy of the Vellalas was the low-caste. When the ideological power of Saivism ran out the Sinhala-Buddhists became the bogeyman in the post-Donoughmore period. Their biggest selling point was to claim victimhood, accusing the Sinhala-Buddhists as the victimisers, while hiding under the carpet their unrelenting role, over the ages, as the most vicious victimisers of the Tamils.

Their success in propagating this myth is a remarkable feat in caste/class history. They turned Marxism on its head and proved that a decadent, oppressive class need not necessarily collapse under the revolutionary forces of the oppressed. The Vellalas proved, time and again, that they could manufacture “a false consciousness” and survive successfully by donning the Emperor’s clothes of saviours / liberators. Daniel’s unique place as a Tamil intellectual was in his refusal to buy this anti-Sinhala-Buddhist line. A Catholic turned Marxist, he viewed the internal struggle convulsing Jaffna in class terms. Not in racist terms.

The Vellala political elite, on the other hand, turned the tables and portrayed themselves – the most privileged community in Sri Lanka — as the victims of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. The cover-up of their crimes against their own people is the biggest propaganda coup next to that of the Jews. The reality, however, is that the Vellala cruelty to the low-caste Tamils has no parallel either in the Bible Belt of America against the Afro-Americans or the indigenous S. Africans confined to apartheid ghettoes. For instance, in segregated America the Afro-Americans could ride in the seats reserved for them in the back of the bus while the whites had the privilege of sitting in the front. But in Jaffna the low-castes were allotted only the “buck” seat – i.e., the floor between the aisle seats of the bus. They could not sit at the same level in any place in the bus with that of the high-castes. That is how low the Vellalas placed their fellow-Tamils in Jaffna.

Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger of the Syracuse University, USA, produced magisterial studies of the Jaffna caste system, in which he detailed the misery of low-castes. In Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism: The 1968 Temple Entry Crisis in Sri Lanka he wrote: “In Jaffna in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, minority Tamils were forbidden to enter or live near temples: to draw water from the wells of high-caste families; to enter laundries, barber shops, or taxis; to keep women in seclusion and protect them by enacting domestic rituals; to wear shoes; to sit in bus seats; to attend school; to cover the upper part of the body; to wear gold earrings; if male, to cut one’s hair; to use umbrellas; to own a bicycle or car; to cremate the dead; or to convert to Christianity or Buddhism.” Compare this to the hue and cry they raised to high heaven about the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 which would have affected, if at all, only the Vellala high-caste in government service. The champions of the Tamil masses, the Marxists, the Churchmen, the NGO-allied academics, and fashionable pro-Tamil (Vellala) pundits turned a blind eye to the insufferable indignities imposed by the Vellalas. This gave the Vellalas the opportunity to turn their guns on the Sinhala-Buddhists who had given to all layers of Tamils what the Tamil leadership of Jaffna refused to give their own people.

Daniel is one rare Tamil intellectual who did not swallow the racist rhetoric. Driven by his personal experiences he penetrated deep into the historical suffering of the Tamil masses which the other intellectuals refused to see. The refusal of our intellectual to examine critically the Vellala politics that warped Jaffna society has strengthened and solidified their mistaken belief that the Tamils have been the victims of the majority. Daniel is the only Marxist who had the guts to unmask the Right-wing Tamils and the Left-wing Sinhala mytho-maniacs who diverted attention from Vellala evils to Sinhala-Buddhists. In siding with the Vellala masters of Jaffna the Left-wingers and the liberals served the most cruel ruling class ever to darken the pages of Sri Lankan history. They used the vocabulary, the theories and concepts available in human rights, Marxism, Leninism etc., to serve the Vellala caste/class, abandoning their moral responsibility to stand up for the Tamil masses.

Daniel, however remained faithful to his Marxist tenets. He identified the Vellalas, the ruling caste/class, as the enemy of the Tamils. He steadfastly refuse to conform to the communal cries of the Vellala elite. Why? Perhaps, as a Turumbar, his memory of Vellala servitude ran deep in him. Can he be blamed? Consider the way in which the Jaffna Vellalas treated the slaves. Jaffna had the most number of slaves. The following statistics of the slaves were cited by Bishop Jebanesan from the Census of 1837 in his book The American Mission and Modern Education in Jaffna (Kumaran Book House, 2013) :

Western Province – Male: 393; Female 332
Southern Province — Male: 432; Female 342
Eastern Province — Male : 12 ; Female : Nil
Central Province – Male 687 ; Female 694.
Northern Province – Male: 12, 600; Female : 11,910 – (p. 157)

This figure of 25,000 slaves was quite disproportionate to the overall population. In the census of 1881 the population of Jaffna district was 261,902. (Cited in Distinctive Features of English in JaffnaSri Lanka , M. Saravanapava Iyer, p. 8., – Kumaran Book House). The Vellalas controlled and kept nearly 25,000 slaves in line by cracking the whip over their backs. They were slave-drivers who forced the Tamil slaves (atimal) to sit in “buck seats” in buses, making sure that they will never rise to their level. Daniel’s memory of these experiences of his ancestors would have been sharpened by his 1968 experiences at Maviddipuram Temple “where (low-caste) protestors conducting a satyagraha were attacked by Vellalars using iron rods and sand-filled bottles…” – (p. 296, Mirage, Afterword (2), Richard Young.) Amidst all this, who can forget Prof. C. Suntheralingam, a caste fanatic, walking up and down the inner courts of Maviddipuram Temple threatening to bash with his walking stick any low-caste pariah who dared to step inside the outermost court of the Temple!

The Vellala obscenities portrayed in Mirage make a mockery of the Vellala claim to be the victims of the Sinhalese majority. The horrors of the Vellala crimes against their own exploited people condemns the Vellalas as a brutal caste/class that showed no mercy to the non-Vellala Tamils of Jaffna. Worst was when the Vellalas, quoting Hindu texts, assumed the divine right to oppress and exploit their fellow-Tamils as slaves. Their contempt for their own people was displayed when they categorised a segment of their own people as pariahs who were kept out of high-caste Vellala society. Some of them were forbidden to walk even in daylight. The Turumbars, for instance, were allowed to walk only in the night just in case they should pollute the purity of Vellala eyes. No other community suffered the humiliating indignities as the Tamil slaves of Jaffna society at the hands of their Vellala masters. And no one is better qualified to document the agonies of the oppressed Tamils than K. Daniel, a Turumbar.

Daniel’s Mirage runs on several layers of meaning. Many of its layers are yet to be explored – later.

(Publishers : Kumaran Book House, No. 39, 36th Lane, Wellawatta)

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