22 May, 2019

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R. Panuthevan – An Intellectual, St. John’s College Jaffna Was Blessed With

By S. Sivathasan

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.

R. Panuthevan

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”

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Latest comments

  • 11
    0

    Banuthevan was a great teacher who drove some sense into the petit bourgeois mentality of most St. John’s students who believed Physics and Mathematics were the alpha and omega of education. He made them realise there were other things in the world – like society, history, culture, etc – worth paying attention to. His translation of Dr. N.M. Perera’s speeches at the Jaffna Esplanade was a treat to watch. A gentle soul with a powerful intellect.

  • 2
    0

    Thank you Mr. Sivathasan.
    Correct me if I am wrong. He went as Banuthevan, not Panuthevan. He also taught Economis I think, but my memory may not be accurate as I was a science student.

    Although I never studied under him, he always gave me a smile when we crossed and that was a great thing for me as a student.

    After he was fired from St. John’s — unfairly in my judgement, a view upheld by courts of some sort — I always felt bad because at the time Christians involved in the strike as leaders were allowed to resign and move on while Mr. Banuthevan was dismissed. The strike was over some older teachers (Indian graduates) being paid below scale while new recruits from University if Ceylon were paid the government scale. As I recall it was RS. 250 versus 600 or 650 per mensum. The government position was that Indian graduates were graduates. I say this based on conversations between my elders I overheard in my OLs. I hope I am not misrepresenting them in any way.

    I therefore as a member of the Christian community felt bad especially when Mr. Banudevan moved to Colombo and I lost contact with him.

    I returned from the US in 1995 and lived down Sagara Road in Colombo. It was my pleasant surprise to discover him walking regularly in front of the flats. My first encounter was with some trepidation — did he harbour any ill-will towards Christians for the way he had been treated? But no. He was too great for that.

    I looked forward to meeting him and having little chats thereafter and he too reciprocated my feelings.

    He was sick and would be breathless after walking a short distance. I think he was walking under his doctor’s orders.

    I lost touch again and had assumed his sad demise. I am so glad to learn from this article that he lived this long
    after that and was rewarded with many more happy years since. I see it as his divine reward for his loving service in God’s vineyard despite the wrongs done to him in that vineyard.

    • 4
      1

      I had seen and heard Com.Banuthevan whenever the LSSP leaders held political meetings meetings in the late 1960’s.
      He was the person who interpreted perfectly and accurately in Tamil the exact gist of the speeches in English by Drs. N.M. Colvin Bala Thampoe, Bernard Soysa, Edmund Samarakoddy and such others.
      I had not heard or seen anyone as versatile as him with the capacity to put forward the message with such impromptus.
      The Royal Pharmacy which was situated opposite the Jaffana Hospital was a favourite haunt of his in the latter 70’s. He was a friend of the manager whom I too knew.
      He was unjustly dismissed by the Principal of St.John’s College, I think it was uncharacteristic of the said principal whom I came to know much later.
      I believe it was Mr. N.Satyendra(subject to correction) who appeared for Banuthevan in the litigation proceedings at the end of which he was ordered to be reinstated with back wages by the College. But Banu a sensitive person I think refused the offer but continued to teach in a private institution in Jaffna. I regret having lost contact with him over thirty years.
      May he RIP.

    • 1
      1

      SRH Hoole

      From day one to date he was Panuthevan to me because in the Tamil alphabet we have P but not B. In 1954, Principal announced that in 1955 there will be a GCE AL class for Economics to prepare students for the London exam. Mr. Panuthevan taught economics for that class.

      Whatever that happened was in the third term of 1967 and virtually everybody was with RP. To err he was too principled and he won the case. All his students owe much to him for their success in studies and in life.

      • 6
        2

        Chu. Chivathachan

        I believe in spelling people’s names as they themselves spelt them. Please see the obituary notice below.
        According to your wacky principle, you should write your own name as Chu. Chivathachan as there is no “S” in Tamil.
        .
        BANUTHEVAN – MR R. – Retired Lecturer (CIMA) Colombo and Former Teacher of Jaffna St Johns College. Son of late Ratnasapapathy and Sevanthi,​ son-in-law of late Subramaniam and Sivakolunthu ,​ beloved husband of Manonmany,​ loving father of Ravi Banuthevan and Dr Banumathy,​ father-in-law of Nalayini and Dr Indrajit and precious grandfather of Ariya,​ Viewing & Cremation will take place in Sydney,​ Australia. Viewing – Sat – March 24 – 3.30 to 5.30 p.m. at Liberty Funeral Parlour – Granville,​ NSW. Cremation on Sunday March 25 – 10.00 a.m. – 12.00 a.m. South Chapel,​ Rookwood NSW. Ravi Banuthevan – 61416237913,​ B​a​n​u​t​h​e​v​a​n​r​@​g​m​a​i​l​.​c​o​m​034830

        • 2
          3

          Ajay
          Tamil people use various spelling options.
          The obituary proves nothing about how his name occurred in the school records at the time.
          The way things were then, the name is quite likely to have been spelt and pronounced as ‘P’.
          But since ‘P’ in the context of the name is not fashionable, members of the family could have easily have switched to ‘B’.
          *
          I know instances like a Tamil name being on record as Paalan in English but pronounced as Baalan.

  • 5
    1

    Sri Lanka lost dearly from the mass migration of Tamils . A great majority of them were honest , hardworking people of integrity , who could have contributed immensely to the country of their birth .

  • 1
    10

    This reminds me of Kamal Karunanayeke a decent bloke who was registrar of colombo campus. he sacked me from uni for bad conduct. poor bugga dead long ago, i forgive him.

    • 7
      1

      After saying you have forgiven the registrar, is it proper to use unparliamentary words like bloke and bugga against him?

      • 6
        0

        I noted

  • 1
    0

    The year was 1964 and the Edmund Samarakody and Panuthevan were not alone. There were others like Meryl Fernando and V.Karalasingam.

    LSSP was not alone to face split among the Marxist in 1964. The Communist Party also faced similar plight.

  • 4
    0

    My deepest condolences to Banuthevean family. He was my lecturer at IAS for CIMA exams in 1990’s. Though he was a hero and much liked by his students for his teaching, I never enjoyed learning his style. He gave every topic in point form and not like a story. So, it encouraged memorising and not to understand and think. This is the style in South India though it sharpens your memory will not help for critical thinking. I however, enjoyed the Cost accounting of Mr R. Sivakumaran and Law by Mr A.S. M. Perera. Even after a heavy Saraswathi Lodge lunch on a Saturday afternoon, Mr A.S.M Perera will keep you awake with his legal principles and case law. His voice modulation and style of delivery (Being Deputy Solicitor General) always kept us awake and he had a style to make us remember using mind mapping. I thank all these teachers for their efforts. Accountancy was the only escape profession in late 1980’s with strikes, bomb explosions and university closures. It gave me the opportunity to become a professional, work overseas, earn well and travel all over the world.

  • 1
    0

    Sivathasan
    Thank you for the nice things you have written about our Guru, Mr.Banuthevan. I am very sad to hear about his demise. Last time I was in Colombo, my friend Advocate Vivekanandan (old Johnian, LSSPer) arranged to take me to meet Mr. Banuthevan. Vivek himself fell ill and could not make it. I never knew that was my last chance.
    Ruminating upon the student days at St.John’s College, there are brief flashes of beautiful memories. To recall an episode: It was in 1954. At St. John’s they conducted “Withdrawal Test”, an elimination process, before presenting students for public exam (S.S.C) . I was to write the test the next morning. Previous (Sunday) evening, there was a lecture at Jaffna Town Hall by a speaker from India, V.R. Nedunchezhian, General Secretary of the nascent DMK. He had spoken at least for three hours. It was heavy rain outside. Vidwan Venthanar ( a Tamil scholar from the staff of Parameshwara College) who presided, alluded metaphorically to the “heavy downpour inside and outside the hall.”
    During the intermission, someone gently tapped me from behind. I was startled to see my teacher Mr.Banuthevan. I got up to leave. “Why? Why are you leaving?”. “No Sir, tomorrow I have the test…”, I mumbled. “It’s only the withdrawal test. Don’t miss this speech”. With this reassurance I sat through the whole lecture.
    During the LSSP split, Mr. Banuthevan, as a principled man, joined the rebels led by Edmund Samarakody and Meryl Fernando, while Northern LSSP stalwarts like A.Viswanathan, R.R.Tharmaratnam remained with the old guards led by Dr.N.M. and Dr. Colvin.
    Adieu, my beloved Teacher !

  • 3
    3

    Good to note Panudevan write well. As his classmate we used to call him Panuva not becasue he was thin his writing was so flimsy and went like a panuwa

  • 4
    1

    Dear friend Siva
    I believe Mr. Banuthevan was known to himself and he wrote and signed his name as “Banuthevan”. There was another teacher par excellence at St.Johns -whom we all adore and who had become a legend in the annals of the history of our alma mater. Our generation at school was blessed to have such a great scholar as our Tamil Teacher, who was well versed in Latin and English as well. His name? “SUBRMANIAM” (revered as “Kadavul ” Subramaniam). Yes, Sivathasan’s illustrious father and teacher. I wonder how you have been writing your full/family name from day one to this day. Semantics about “Panuthevan” -piffling efforts when paying tribute to a departed soul!

    • 2
      2

      Karikalan

      Thanks for both your comments. With one wrong tap, my long response seems to have got erazed.

  • 4
    3

    It was during St John’s St Patrick bigmatch that I drank pol arrack first time. Our class teacher was Panudevan, we used to call him Panuwa. I got caught with a 1/2 bottle of arrack. Panuwa was kind to me. He said “son drink, but only today”. Later he came and asked me if the bottle was empty, I showed 1/4 bottle he took it with him

    • 5
      1

      Jeganathan, I don’t know what kind of Johnian you are. St. John’s was playing their Big Match against St. Patrick’s? You must have consumed more than you admit!

  • 2
    2

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  • 2
    3

    As a old boy of St John’s during ‘Panuwa’s’ time I fully agree with Sivathasan. Butt to be honest I must say he was a strict disciplinarian. Those days teachers used to hit students both with cane and hand and ‘Panuwa’ this did to us. We were so scared of him.

  • 2
    2

    At St Johns our English poetry club meetings were held in English those days. Everytime Panuwa attended he spoke in Sinhala. One day we all rebeled. After that day Panuwa never spoke in Sinhala, only spoke in English, never in Tamil. Did he know Tamil, yes very well. Panuwa was against the diviison of the nation, I know that for sure. But after he went Sydney he changed and wanted division.

  • 2
    1

    Hoole,

    I guess he was in 90s when dead?

  • 3
    2

    Jeganathan is right. Panuwa sir was very fond of cricket and emulated us to play cricket. I can still remember Ananda team came to play St Johns and Panuwa Sir took more than extra effort to be hospitable to the Colombo lads. He brought stringhoppers prepared from home.

  • 3
    6

    My mother taught at St John’s in the 60s and 70s. She is Ms Jeyachitra Balappu. Being high caste Vellala she was a proud woman but adored R Panuthevan whom she affectionately called ‘Panuwa’. My mother is one person who vehemently fought for the dignity of Panuwa who was from ‘Rodi’ caste. Panuwa we know was eternly grateful for my mother. Even after he was sacked from St Johns’ he kept in touch with our family (my mum).

    • 5
      3

      Neither a writer nor a commenter need engage in caste references, in these columns. It is only treated as a subject of derision by the well mannered.. It has ceased to be a theme for discussion in our society. If a BIGOT had got into a sordid pastime of muck-raking, should others follow?

  • 4
    2

    John Cabralpulle, it is news that after settling down in NSW Australia Panuwa was agitating separtism in Sri Lanka. He was a diehard centralist those days

  • 4
    3

    Barathan are you low caste? I am sure you are.

    • 1
      0

      Annamma are you lowly stupid? I am doubly sure you are.

  • 4
    0

    There are so many here in Australia Tamils who have become diehard separatists and LTTE supporter since migrating here

  • 4
    0

    Annamma Nagathan

    If by chance you were born to a low caste family would you ask this quesiton?

    You try to take advantage from you high caste. Not nice.

  • 4
    0

    I’ve heard one sam pari promoting ltte in Aussie land; is she still doing that?

  • 2
    0

    Panuwa was a LSSPer. We know him.

    So he fought for minority rights but never a separatist when in Sri Lanka, His views may have changed after going to Australia and supported LTTE

  • 0
    0

    My darling Suren

    Thank you so much for sharing with us

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