By S. Sivathasan –
An arts graduate of the highest caliber, Panuthevan Master as we called him, joined the teaching staff of our College in 1954 at the tender age of not even two months past 21 years. An old pupil of Central College Jaffna – the oldest Mission School in the country (202 years now) – and a product of the Jennings era at Peradeniya University, he made his mark instantly. It did not take even two weeks for his reputation to spread to the whole College, evoking admiration from the student community. As students we were keen observers, sharp in our judgement and accurate in our assessment. His work was confined to SSC and University Entrance classes. His favourite subjects were, History, Civics, Tamil and Government. His proficiency in both English and Tamil, making for an easy flow of words, made the young yearn to be his students.
In the fifties, the College had developed a name for science studies. The Principal Rev. JT Arulanantham with his farsightedness, placing emphasis on science built up a fine staff – local best and Kerala talent – to develop the human resources. He supported it with well-equipped labs and lecture theatres in an aesthetically pleasing complex. Education received the expected fillip. Stunning results had an electric effect in the North.
The arts stream had its experienced and competent staff. Even so a Panuthevan was needed to complement the ensemble. Producing brilliant results was the target and it came about from the late fifties. Admission to the University was in fair numbers. More striking was selection at competitive examinations to the Administrative and other Services. This was a tribute to the teachers and Mr. Panuthevan like all others declined to acknowledge the honour. To go in for high tribute, quite a few were more than deserving. Then how does one single out a particular teacher.
The photo that portrays him may depict an image of great simplicity or of careless civility. But behind it is a man of sterling worth, of unimpeachable character, of steadfast principles and of great ways inside out. Rousseau in his inimitable style said “Richness in apparel may proclaim the man of fortune and elegance the man of taste, but true health and manliness are known by different signs”. A Tamil poem said it 1,600 years earlier. It is the feeling of goodness at heart with mental poise to match, that is real beauty. The measure of his caliber was in his objective presentations. Hence my frequent visits to his home for lengthy discussions, till I entered public service. Needless to say, I profited a great deal.
To this writer, it was his intellectuality that lay at the fount of his knowledge. Though excellently endowed to develop his versatility of interests, and even as he made the best use of the enticing volumes at college, neither the country nor its economy provided quite an enabling environment. Yet he made finest use of limited resources to cast out our sentimental propensities and mental cobwebs. With minds well prepared, he stretched our imagination, made it fertile and promoted detached and rational thinking. For our benefit he made the best use of the college library and more than supplemented it with the excellent resources of the Jaffna Public Library.
Teaching apart, broadening our horizons was his primary concern. Both in class as well as in the Hall talks, he dwelt at length on the significance of the Bandung Conference in February 1955. An event that might have bypassed us unnoticed. For two weeks it was said that Bandung became the capital of Afro – Asian nations. The seed was planted for the beginning of Non – Aligned solidarity and the growth of the emergent countries. It was in the nature of international relations that after the end of the cold war, non – alignment lost its rationale for its existence. Some of us saw it well ahead on account of the clear understanding we had had.
On account of the best mentor for the subject of Government, we imperceptibly made it our favourite subject. He took us through the best of thinkers and writers like Harold Laski, CF Strong, Sir Ivor Jennings, Professor I D S Weerawardena and for Ceylon History Dr. Colvin R de Silva. We were battered at that time by the emotionally charged issue of Sinhala Only. When Prof. Suntharalingam threatened to meet the Queen for her intervention to forestall Sinhala Only, our teacher quoted the relevant sections of the constitution and showed the untrammeled power the nation had. So with wishful thinking regarding the bases of Trincomalee and Katunayake.
Politically controversial was Federalism and threadbare deliberations made our positions clear. In this area also we had the clearest understanding that federalism never connoted separation, but was a contrivance for national unity. As teenagers we could hold our own against adults twice and thrice our age in the North. Similarly, we sneered at the vacuity of politicians of the South, who said federalism was separation. Before the power of clear knowledge, no one was too great. Our teacher imparted that confidence.
At this time, leftism made its entry in the country as a panacea for ALL ills, political, economic and social. Discussions ad infinitum was the fashion of those times. Our teacher was a well-known LSSPer. What enhanced his reputation was that he never ever mixed up propaganda with detached, objective, academic positions in all his presentations. “Virtue is always in a minority”, said Robespierre. Panuthevan’s intellectual honesty reduced him to a minority of two, together with Edmund Samarakkody, when the schism of 1963 cleft in two the communist ideology.
The College had a system of selecting a widely read staff member to deliver a learned talk to the University Entrance classes, both science and arts, about 200 students. Talented personalities from other schools too were inducted. These were once a week and quite a few fell to Mr. Panuthevan’s lot. With extensive preparation he made them remarkably enchanting. I can recall him carrying Schumpeter before a talk on economics. When he selected literary criticism for his theme he was seen with FR Leavis. As early as in 1956, he talked to us on Robots and their relentless spread. Then what will be the future of strikes a student queried. The reply was, even in the robotic age when robots rule the roost, they have to be activated by a single robot, with a sole button being pressed by a solitary worker. When he strikes, factories are paralyzed having the effect of a general strike! Such an explanation certainly kindled our imagination and sparked interest in an unbelievable invention.
Once our class wished to have a special talk on the Russian Revolution. He delivered it with his reading of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. He enlivened his talk with some quotes from the book. One I remember is “The revolution commenced beneath the belly of the horse”- Trotsky. The allusion was to the revolutionaries fraternizing with the Cossacks and the backbone of the Tsar’s state beginning to break. All discussions with him were enthralling and as years passed his fund of knowledge got on to ever expanding mode. At the benefitting end were the students.
Panuthevan Master’s tenure at St. John’s was very nearly for a memorable fourteen years. Not too short, yet long enough to leave an enduring imprint on a consummate staff and a maturing student body. Some from the latter group are past 80 years of age now, while a few can reach for memories of over 60 years. While our mentor would have watched our growth and careers, we too have never failed to observe him and his services. Destiny or chance took him away from St. John’s. But undaunted he went in for further qualifications, enlarged his area of competence and gave of his best first in Jaffna and later in Colombo, mainly to accountancy students. This service of his was for no less than 40 years.
To our pleasure we saw him married to Manonmani in 1967. As loving parents of Ravichandran and Bhanumathi their task was to mould them both in their own image. To bring happiness to their parents, they qualified as an Accountant and a Doctor. In due course they married into their respective professions. The daughter has given a grandson to her parents. In 2014 both parents went to Australia for all of them to live together as one compact family. This year saw Panuthevan Master’s demise.
What is the epitaph that may be written of him? I cannot do better than Thiruvalluvar –
“A repository of character, who will not swerve from his principles, Even in the face of a cataclysm”