24 September, 2020

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“Para Dhemalā”: Response To ‘Confronting Charlie Ponnadurai’

By Charles Sarvan

Charles Sarvan

At the outset, allow me to clarify that well over forty years ago I legally changed not my name but their order, and since then have been Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan.

I have distaste for confrontation (see title above) but must explain that the brief note on ‘Para Dhemmala arose because two friends, one in Australia and the other in Canada, wrote independently of each other to say that “Para” did not mean “foreign”. Discussing the matter with them, I said: It was reading Michael Roberts several years ago that brought me to another, and far more significant, meaning of ‘para’, namely ‘foreign’”. I added, again quoting Roberts, that it is not the only meaning of “para” but one of several, depending on usage-context. My comment that even those who have expressed disappointment with Roberts should admit his extensive reading on Sri Lankan history and anthropology was not intended as a “swipe” at him but as a reminder to them that, in all fairness, his specialised knowledge should be acknowledged.

Roberts is inclined to place me as someone (a) “far from moderate”, (b) a “Tamil nationalist” who (c) hinders “reconciliation”. What follows are some of my thoughts on these three, rather than a reply to Roberts.

I wonder if in certain contexts the concept of moderation is applicable. For example, if a country oppresses and suppresses females, even to the extent of attacking with acid little girls who have the temerity to try to go to school, can there be a “moderate” position? One may be supportive or oppositional; fearful, silent and inactive or indifferent, but can one be “moderate” vis-à-vis an unjust reality?  Would moderation then be ethical, laudable? How would such “moderation” manifest or express itself? Since some readers are quick to misunderstand; to take offense and become abusive, let me emphasise that the question is theoretical. I am not drawing a parallel with Sri Lanka but merely “thinking aloud” about the concept of moderation. Is “moderation” always advisable and admirable? What, I ask myself, does it exactly mean to be a moderate in a situation of injustice and discrimination? Remember the witticism: “I can tolerate everything, except intolerance”?

“Reconciliation” (differentiated from resignation and unhappy acceptance) is defined as the restoring of peaceful and friendly relations. Reconciliation, therefore, must be seen as positive, while resignation and helpless acceptance are negative. If indeed genuine and concrete steps are being taken by the Sri Lankan government (not just by groups and individuals, however noble, brave and selfless) to bring about reconciliation, then any Tamil who stands in the way must be in the mould of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third  who enjoyed conflict, and had nothing but contempt for peace. Reconciliation is a first step to ushering real peace. Real peace, as distinct from enforced peace, implies justice. Peace and justice in turn mean harmony and happiness for all. Therefore, reconciliation is a corner-stone; a desideratum, an ideal passionately to be wished, and ardently to be worked, for – not hindered. If, indeed, there are Tamils who don’t want reconciliation, and all that precedes and follows genuine reconciliation, then I am glad I don’t know them.

In answering Roberts’ charge that I am a “Tamil nationalist” I am compelled to be personal, “personal” not about others – that I always try to avoid – but about myself. Looking back, I see that I was a “para Dhemala” (in one of the meanings established by Roberts) in Ceylon. I was an Asian in Africa (Nigeria, Zambia); a non-Moslem in the Moslem Middle-East, and am now a non-white in generally white Europe. In other words, to be a stranger is not a strange, but a familiar, experience. Ethnic and political exiles, as distinct from economic exiles, are those who, not having been permitted to feel “at home” in what was once home, left it. Now, not having a “Heimat”, when they travel, they neither leave home nor return to it. (The experience of those in immigrant countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA may be different. Fortunately, it’s different with the succeeding generations.) I state the above without a trace of self-pity, being fully and constantly conscious that millions fare far, far, worse than me. Some of those without a “Heimat” are blessed in having found their home “Zuhause” in a relationship.

This personal experience and resulting consciousness leads me to tell my children and grandchildren that there is only one country: planet Earth; only one race: the human race; and one religion or morality: avoid harm or hurt to others; do the good, however little, that you can. I have stood against injustice whether on grounds of ethnic-group, religion or the colour of one’s skin. (For the last, see the article, ‘The term Racism and Discourse’ in my “Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches”.) I have stood against class exploitation – I was and am a socialist, more by nature and sympathy than by rigid ideology. I have stood against the mal-treatment of women and children; have written on their situation and experience, and am a corresponding-member of a UK-based feminist group. If justice is indivisible, then so are fundamental human rights: they apply to all human beings irrespective of group, religion, colour, sex or class. (Extending this further to the non-human, a few years ago, my wife and I “converted” to vegetarianism.)  I see myself first as a world citizen – by coincidence, “Sarvan” means “universal” – and if I have written about the situation in Sri Lanka, I trust that will be viewed as understandable. Indeed, it would be strange and unnatural were it to be otherwise. Albeit very small, Sri Lanka is a part of the whole. Concern and care for a part imply concern and care for the totality, and vice versa.

“A luta continua.” The struggle is both one of against and for. It is against domination and subordination by one group (whatever the criterion of ‘group’) of another, particularly through the use of overwhelming force. On the other hand, the struggle is for equality, acceptance and inclusion. The struggle is for the two freedoms: the ‘freedom from’ and the ‘freedom to’. I am inclined to think that we, human beings, will never win this struggle but I am also confident the struggle will never be given up because, as Keats wrote in ‘The fall of Hyperion’, if there are fanatics, there are also those to whom the troubles of this world are trouble and will not allow them be silent and inactive: “those to whom the miseries of the world / Are misery, and will not let them rest”.

By way of a postscript, when I wrote that all our roots are the same and can be traced back to India, I meant not the modern period but the roots reaching into the distant past. As readers know, sometimes because a thought is clear in our mind, we also mistakenly conclude that we have expressed that thought clearly. It was indeed “mindless” of me, as Roberts contemptuously comments, but I am grateful that I have been led to share these thoughts. I hope they will be seen as a very small but positive, rather than as a negative and destructive, contribution to thought and discussion.

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Latest comments

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    This author goes on with “Para Dhemalā” and his friends/colleagues writings/comments.

    I would like to say that Tamils have no negative connotations or derogatory adjectives added to: Sinhala or Sinhalese, Muslims, and Parangis.

    Parangis are simply a mixed race of locals and Whites. They are not considered inferior, but different.

    Tamils don’t have any animosity towards other religions either.

    However, I do agree there used to be caste differentiation,
    but this has died down over the last 60 years of my observation.

    Tamils are not xenophobic but are apprehensive of the majority submerging their identity.

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      Thiru,

      Tamils still call other lower caste Tamils, Parayan.

      Parayan, Po Da! Lower caste Tamil go away.

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    What a fine way to respond. I hear you Charles Sarvan.

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    This is only skirting around the issue. This is more deep than it appears on the surface. It is believed that Thiruvalluvar, the author of Thirukural a Tamil classic written nearly 2000 years ago by one of the non Hindu poets, believed to be a Jain, venerated in the Tamil Nadu was from this caste. Look at Dr. Ambedkar the harijan who was Head of the committee that drafted the constitution of India. Also examine the comment in relation to the origin of this concept made by Arunthathi Roy. In the north of Sri Lanka the people who are said to belong to this caste are believed to be some of the most cultured people. Any further controversy on this subject will only be counter productive to any so called struggle for equality. Bensen

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    What is wrong with being a Tamil Nationalist?

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    A well-wrought and graceful response to Roberts.If Ponnuthurai is,in Robert’s estimation someone who is (a) “far from moderate”, (b) a “Tamil nationalist” who (c) hinders “reconciliation”.
    I wonder how Prof. Roberts charaterizes himself?
    Let us wait with bated breath for his answer.I hope he keeps both the tenor and content of his opus in giving us an answer.

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      At the time these comments were made Colombo Telegraph could be accessed only via proxy sites etc.

      So, I’ve been looking at some of these old articles; what a difference the changes ushered in by the January 8th, 2016 revolution have made! I’ve got to know so much more about Charles Sarvan, but am still waiting for his e-mail!

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    “para” is a pejorative,expressing contempt or disapproval.
    “parademala” means same about tamils.
    “Sarvam” (not “sarvan”) means “universal”.

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    Let us not get carried away: Paradamilla used by a Sinhala merely means an alien– which is both inaccurate,Nalin de Silva ,that great historian and social scientist notwithstanding, and insulting enough in the Sri Lankan context.If Tamils are alien,so are all those Sinhales with Portuguese or English names.
    When a Tamil user adds the prefix para or parai to any noun, then it becomes an allusion to caste.

    TO JUSTICE
    “Sarvam” (not “sarvan”) means “universal”.
    “Sarvan” can mean universalist the universalist god or the god with many attributes such as Siva the :”sarvagunabothan”, can it not?

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      In Tamil I understand the word Paramporul(the great unknown thing) refers to God because god is unknown having no form,shape or colour,as god is abstract.Parameshswara means the all Supreme Lord Shiva. Now the word ‘paramount’ can be translated in Tamil as lofty,high,supreme.In that context does the the said word have any connotation to Mt.Everest, the highest mountain in the world and sacred to both Hindus and the Buddhists of Tibet.Would any one elaborate?

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    Meaning of ‘Sarvam’ is universe and everyone agrees. When one particularly a male wants to be identified himself as a universalist or internationalist and called himself ‘Sarvan’, there appears to be nothing wrong.

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    “The struggle is for the two freedoms: the ‘freedom from’ and the ‘freedom to’.”

    Can being Free be said to be ‘freedom from’ and the ‘freedom to’ or is it only being Free which is both
    Isn’t it the Observer-observed duality brought about by discrimination, which is what thought is, that brings about the division of ‘From and To’ which leads to you conclusion
    “I am inclined to think that we, human beings, will never win this struggle but I am also confident the struggle will never be given up”

    As for Scientific research into the How the Sinhalese Call the Tamils “Para Dhemala”, has any one looked into when the usage came into being.

    Was it when

    1. Vijaya and his 700 brought in Chera Wifes from South India
    2. Sangamita brought in the Bo tree with Buddhists from South India and settled them in A’Pura
    3. Over the Periods when the Sri Lankan Kings Brought in south Indian Mercenaries to Take Power and settled them
    4. The Portuguese, Dutch and the English Brought in South Indian land lords and their serfs to Clear jungles and develop agriculture and settled them
    5. Mahavamsa was written by Pali monks to protect Theravada Buddhism from the Mahayana Buddhism of the south and also from Jainism
    6. any other time and was made universal to all Tamils
    Or specific to the Tamils of North and East

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    I stand corrected.sarvan means universalist,derived from sarvam and is not an allusion to Siva.

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    Self inflicted term!

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      Fukushima:
      What a brilliant and elightening cooment and all in one sdhort line too!Please keep up with these very wiity comments…

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    The term “para-Demala” has gained a perjorative meaning today. I first heard it in that sense in the boarding house in Maradana where I was staying in my first term at the University in Colombo when the lady of the house was queralling with a group of Tamil office workers who ran a chummary next door. The issue was over the uncleanliness of the toilet after the use by the Tamil group.There was no doubt that she meant the term in a demeaning way both in the context it was used and from her body language. I was very unhappy over the use of the terminology over any human beings.
    But looking at the etymology of the terminology ‘para’ i realised how a term which originally meant nothing more than “external” or “foreign” came to acquire such derogative meaning. Examples of use in the original sense of “external” are: “para-saturu uvaduru”(harm from foreign enemies), “para-tera” (the other [opposite] side of a river or sea, “para-desi”.(foreign nationals.) Even in Tamil, as I recall,the term “para’ was used in the same sense as for example, in references like “pra-desi’ for foreign traders.
    How and when did the term acquire a derogative meaning? Among the Sinhalese, there are other such usages like”para-balla”, “para-vesi”, “para -hutti” used to derogate human beings. “Para-demala” seems to be in the same genre of usage.

    The type of parties on whom such terminology is applied are those who stand in a lower order of the society. My own thinking is that the derogative application to Tamils did not arise from historical meaning of being ‘foreign’. Such term was not applied to other foreigners who came with or acted with hostile intentions, like the Portuguese, The Dutch or the British. I also think the use of para-perjoritively belongs to the same genre of terms such as “Vesige-puta, and “huttige-puta”,which a Tamil friend of mine told me has a Portuguese origin used for cursing.
    The Sinhala usage does not seem to make a distinction between Tamils of high social order and those of lower order.Its application is situation based as in the case of bad toilet practices I noticed, or in situations where Tamils have come under adverse situations.The whole community is disgraced, not just a section. I doubt if the application of the term “Parai” (drum) to denote the Dalits (to be beaten like the ‘Parai’ as Arumuka Navalar said), has any relevance here.
    The subject seems to be needing more probing.

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      When it comes to using derogatory terms, in Sri Lanka it is not new, every race uses derogatory terms to describe the other. It has been used and it will be so. The individual concerned should know how to deal with it.

      In developed countries the abuser could be arrested immediately for creating communal discord. Not in Sri Lanka though, where you need to seek redress from a court of law.

      Regarding the term ‘PARA’,
      I have heard many Tamils calling Sri Lanka a ‘Pariah state’. I have also heard Sinhalese calling the white people ‘Para Sudda’. Even the English use the term ‘Pariah’.

      If ‘Para’ means foreign and ‘Para Demala’ means foreign Tamil. Basil, the Sri Lankan turned U.S. citizen used these words to the CWC members Thondaman & gang (the Indian/upcountry Tamils) may be with full knowledge of the meaning of the words. Since the Sinhalese also came from India, Thondaman & gang should have hit Basil back by using ‘PARA SINHALA’ to address him.

      What does ‘Para Balla’ mean? Foreign dog? If Basil is called a Para Balla, obviously he won’t get annoyed as he is a U.S. citizen any way.

      On the other hand, if Para means “Parai” (drum caste) then ‘Para Sudda’ must be British of Drummer Caste. Moreover, ‘Para Balla’ must be a dog of that caste.

      I am more confused.

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      By the way, this word ‘Para’ is originally a Tamil word which found its way in to English too (Pariah). In Tamil Nadu, villagers use the word ‘para’ mostly to denote a person from the next village (over there distance between two villages could be 100 miles) and not necessarily used for someone from another country.

      There are so many meanings for ‘para’ in sinhala, and most of times there is no meaning. People just add ‘para’ to another word to degrade other. The meaning is different from word to word and depends on the situation. It can also be ‘Pure’ or ‘Real’

      ‘Para Balla’ means a real dog.
      ‘Para Balli’ means a real Bi-tch
      So ‘Para Demala’ or ‘para Sinhala’ means a real Tamil or real Sinhala.

      In Sri Lanka, the Tamils believe ‘Para’ means low caste. When the Sinhalese call them ‘Para Demala’, the Sinhalese mean something but the Tamils understand something else.

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    Dear Confused:
    Now, I am confused.
    Please clarify:
    I doubt if the application of the term “Parai” (drum) to denote the Dalits (to be beaten like the ‘Parai’ as Arumuka Navalar said), has any relevance here.
    What exactly did Navalar say and when and where did he say it?
    Thanks

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    ” I doubt if the application of the term “Parai” (drum) to denote the Dalits (to be beaten like the ‘Parai’ as Arumuka Navalar said), has any relevance here”

    There seems to a school of thought that “Parai” originated as denoting the sect of people professing faith in Christ during and after San Thome’s ( Thomas the Apostle of Christ) visit to India and made into lower caste by Brahmani-cal influence

    As for caste system there seems to be only two cultures which is built on it, The Brahmani and Rabbinical (Of Course the Rabbinical system may not classify as low and High, But in the aspect of assigning work/Profession they are similar and unique in assigning duties of religious functions) cultures and may be someone who has deeper knowledge in this area enlighten further on this.

    If there is anything to this, this may also reflect how attachment to thought and Knowledge change the meaning of words.

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    I think, moderation and reconciliation were two most important concepts in the Sarvan’s letter. I must say Sarvan should have made clear that there cannot be genuine reconciliation unless the grounds for the original estrangement are addressed, dealt with and removed. I can’t assault you, take away your rights, and much of what is yours and then, while not returning what is yours,and say: “Okay, okay, let us now reconcile”. That’s absurd and cynical.Yet most of the considerable comments seem to ignore his exploration on these two fundamental points and go on and on about “Para Dhemmala”, and the comparatively trivial matter of whether “Sarva” has any etymological connection with “universal”.

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    Dear Karl sigham,
    Your position/question:
    I doubt if the application of the term “Parai” (drum) to denote the Dalits (to be beaten like the ‘Parai’ as Arumuka Navalar said), has any relevance here.
    What exactly did Navalar say and when and where did he say it?
    A number of Tamil writers have written on it, some anonymously, for reasons everyone knows.There has been no contradiction.Perhaps, Prof.Hoole can clarify better but you know where he stands in the Sri Lankan Tamil social hierarchy.
    Wasn’t Navalar quoted for saying that the Dalits were meant to be “beaten” like “Parai”?

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    Would like Ravi to enlighten us more on ‘the grounds for the original estrangement’.

    It may reveal the level of ‘moderation’.

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    Are we debating this for y/our future use Profs? You should both know how it hurts!

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    From a sociological point of view, and you both being university dons should know that you must first declare your parentage/ethnicity/DNA or your birth certificates like Obama, and also your political affiliations, so that we the readers for whom you are writing, can gage your geneology from Adam, and thereby gage your private biases, motives and prejudices before deciding the validity of your positions please.

    This is a sensitive topic and feels like 83 all over again. Next we may be debating- Tamils are darker than the Sinhalese may be with the famous input from another Prof from Princeton and absolute color-blindness; and who came before whom to be accepted in Sri Lanka etc. All the free education is wasted on us, numb skulls, it appears!

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    Ravana Balaya [An extremist Sinhalese group in Srilanka] by its name is to reveal its, advert and, proximity with Ravana, the so called Tamil King.Lawlessness was his way, so Rama under his crusade epitomize Indian land and formed the warriors of salvage to be plotted exactly in the way the map of Tamil Eelam. Those Rama warriors now living in the land of Eelam represent not only the Tamil but also the entire voluntary crusade of Ramayan for the cause of good; elicited from Indian mainland following Rama, and were speaking many languages. In the times of change and proximity with Tamil mainland they are now speaking Tamil. They did fought for the good and let the left overs as remains of the epics. This population or sanctuary of Ramayana is the remains of the great epic. We do not strain to trace it back and remember the core history of a land. We have to identify the issue by good or bad; not by language or race. These are the traces of many thousand years not of few hundred years of what we studied as text written history. A lot is taught to us by Ramayana viz., Lawlessness & Lawfulness, Polygamy & Monogamy, etc.The Judge lies in everybody’s soul to have a feel before the verdict.

    Say, if I ask ones progeny… it could be hardly traced back upto to 4 or 5 generation only. One generation or one fertile generation consists normally of 25 years… Ramayana is dated back not to thousand years… actually it is dating back to some ten thousand years. It is composed of oral version as epic only. But dynamism is there; the only truth. Or flow of matter. Here we have to substitute matter by population. Land is flown not only by rivers; but also by the movement of population. Ramayan is one such epic in recital form. It needs no proof. Like thermodynamics, fluiddynamics, population has also got its own dynamism guided by mind dynamism. Where a vacuum is created by lawlessness the good forces tend to move in that direction and reinstate karma. Ramayana is one such reinstatement. It needs no proof. It should be understood by good mind, and balanced approach to have a girth of it. And more to say. We do not worry more than the ‘Pattabisheka’ of Rama?. We dont even think what happened to those who accompanied Rama. Had all of them returned back? In a war it cannot be so? Rama only allowed his followers to stay back in Lanka and to protect the main Baratha. I think I am not over dosing? An unrecorded thing never fails to remains as fact; when the fact is fact.

    So is Ramayana. It is easy to read Ramayana than to Live the way Ramayana and Rama taught us.

    King Asoka who committed colonial offences against Indian population sailed off his progeny Vijaya and Sangamitra to Lanka who occupied the Southern parts of the land and mingled with the races of Ravana alliances. He then hid his body into Buddhism for camouflage. These alliances continue to prop in the name of Sinhalism or Brutalism not Buddhism. They have spread their political tie up with Bharatham again even to Tamilnadu with like minded Ravana team. It is the time the wave on their side lashing the plotted soldiers and their family ; subjugating them into rape and slavery.

    Oh Lord Rama. Come again.

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