By Mahesan Niranjan –
Children can be amazingly smart. They often surprise their teachers and parents with generating insights in the most unexpected of ways, much earlier than you might expect them to.
Take the anecdote my drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram, told me about his son, Samanthiram. Once when the young fellow was about seven years old the father and son had gone shopping at a Bridgetown department store. An employee approached them with the polite suggestion: “Can I help you?” “No thanks, we are just browsing,” Thevaram had replied.
As soon as the young lady was out of earshot, Samanthiram gently asked the father: “was she checking on us because we are black?”
“Maybe, putha (son),” Thevaram had to admit in shock. The father was not ready for the son experiencing this yet. He had planned his timetable of educating junior in stages. First about birds and bees, then calculus and only after that the lives of immigrants of colour. As a first generation immigrant, certain rules were engrained in Thevaram’s thinking: Do not cross traffic lights on red, for observers see it as crime of a community than error of an individual. Do not carelessly throw away the receipt of purchase in shops, for security guards associate shoplifting with colour of customer. Do not expect equal reward and recognition for equal performance. So outperforming to get equal recognition comes naturally to Thevaram, and he does not kick a fuss about it.
But what of the next generation? They will expect colour-blind parity in the performance-recognition arena and will be disappointed, won’t they? They won’t even have the comforting fallback thought of their origins having probably been worse. Thevaram has told me about how the library in his town was torched and how he himself jumped off a second floor balcony to save his life during race riots. State sponsored in both cases. But young Samanthiram was well ahead in working out for himself the intricacies with which a colourful multi-origin society functioned.
We now turn to the story of another bright child, starting school somewhere in BusyTown in Sri Lanka, talking to the teacher about history and identity. Another child in the class had asked: “Are you Tamil or Sinhalese?”
To understand the conversation in detail, we need a short lesson in phonetics. Consider the word kallathoni [ Sinhala: කල්ලතෝනි Tamil: கள்ளத்தோணி ]. In Tamil, the word splits into கள்ள (meaning illegal) and தோணி (meaning boat). The compound then means illegal immigrant, one who arrived by boat.
The adventurer C. Columbus is good example of a kallathoni.
Though taken in isolation, කල්ල and තෝනි have no meaning in Sinhala, the compound කල්ලතෝනි is valid and widely used.
Now comes phonetics. Because கள்ள and தோணி have meaning in Tamil and rules of compounding are precise, native speakers of Tamil will pronounce கள்ளத்தோணி very differently from native speakers of Sinhala to whom only the compound කල්ලතෝනි makes sense. This difference in pronunciation can be quantified. Native speakers of Sinhala, on average, will pause for 128 milliseconds between the two parts, whereas in Tamil speech there will be a distinct dental fricative [/th/ as in Thailand] inserted to join the two.
I will bet you my last pint of Peroni that I can tell if someone is a native speaker of Sinhala or Tamil just by the way they pronounce this word kallathoni. Accurate phonetics does save lives, as some who have experience of state-sponsored rioting in Sri Lanka may testify.
Back to the classroom where the clever child was discussing her origins and identity with the teacher. Undertaking meticulous research, the child had gone past her parents and considered her grandfathers, Messrs V1 and V2, luminary figures in Sri Lankan politics.
One of them, V1, is from the South. But he used to carry a lot of respect in the North, for there was a time he knew the truth and spoke it. He could even attract substantial votes from the northern electorate. Of late, he has seen that the path to power is in the alignment with cheap nationalism. Held a portfolio of national reconciliation for several years, but has nothing substantive to show in the end.
The other, V2, has his roots in the North, but had an illustrious career in the South, carrying much respect among the southerners, enjoying all the benefits an integrated multi-origin society had to offer. Of late, he has seen that the path to power is in the alignment with cheap nationalism. Held a position of chief of local government for several years, but has nothing substantive to show in the end.
During weekends, when they shower the granddaughter with gifts, or when playing hide and seek with her in the backyard, or when they amuse her by letting her pull at their gray beards and tie them together in knots, they do not care what their own origins are. Their nationalism takes a backseat. During weekdays, however, they go back to their respective traits of behavior that secure their seats in parliament.
In that background, the child had the enviable task of understanding her own identity by studying the origins of her grandfathers.
Where did they come from?
When did they come here?
Whose language is older?
Whose culture is richer?
Does any of it matter?
But just like Samanthiram surprised his father in that Bridgetown department store, this clever Sri Lankan child surprised her BusyTown school teacher with her answer to that question: “Are you a Tamil or Sinhalese?”
“I am a kallathoni,” she declared, with justified pride in the accuracy of her finding, “like everybody else here!”
As the child was rather soft-spoken, the teacher was left wondering if there was a 128ms pause or a dental fricative between the kalla and thoni.