19 September, 2020

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The Story Of A Smart Sri Lankan Child 

By Mahesan Niranjan –

Prof. 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.

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Latest comments

  • 5
    5

    Dear Prof

    Sawadee Khrup.

    I am a Kallathoni^2 as I come from Karainagar……correction KaraiThevan:)…they make fun of me in Jaffna too.

    • 9
      0

      This is the result of your inferiority complex. What is wrong in calling yourself as a theevan. No one coming from an island closer to Jaffna peninsula is a kallathoni. No one could make fun of you if you start saying proudly yes I am a theevan. Come out of your complex; assert yourself as a citizen of this country. Be a proud theevan. Don’t you know that all major seven islands have produced hundreds of eminent persons. Karaitheevu has produced eminent Supreme Court Judge who was a Kings Counsel. There have been great lawyers scientists doctors teachers writers poets (who wrote in english ) pundits vidwans religious scholars and above all well known businessmen. Can’t you remember the well known saying : There is no place crows have not flown, sameway no place karaitheevan had not gone. They went all over the places and became rich and popular.

      I heard while your late father was doing many good things in Karaitheevu, he was instrumental in changing the name to Karainagar in 1959/ 1960. May be this was due to the complex he and many others had. Haven’t you heard of black is beautiful; black pride; black power. Follow the blacks and be brave and proud to call islanders as theevan. Create theevu pride and theevu power. Call your island Karaitheevu again; louder and louder.

      • 3
        0

        This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

        For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

      • 12
        4

        The word Kallathoni though a pure Tamil word for illegal immigrant is ingrained in the Sinhala psyche because their original ancestors Vijaya and his gang of criminals are the first historically recorded Kallathonis in the world.

        • 4
          1

          GS
          Tamils of the North fared just as well as their Sinhalese counterparts re alleged illegal immigrants. They used the term liberally to refer to Indian immigrants in the 1950s and 60s (some into the 1970s as well) and even used it as blackmail to control those who were in their service as field labour, gardeners and domestic helps.
          *
          Illegal immigration becomes an issue only when there are laws to control immigration.
          Vijaya did not plan to travel here in the first place. He was exiled, like many a founder father of Australia, and even what is the USA. (An estimated 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America and the majority landed in the Chesapeake Colonies of Maryland and Virginia. Source: Wikipedia ).
          Many refugees in Europe and N. America were illegal immigrants. Quite a number of Asian settlers in Europe & N. America travelled for education or professional training and stayed on. How does one see them?
          *
          I wonder what makes all of Vijaya’s companions criminals in the view of GS? Does he have a copy of the royal court order, I wonder.

          • 0
            0

            Thanks, SJ, for that first paragraph.
            .
            Not many are capable of acknowledging the faults in their own “camp”.

            .
            It is something that is very necessary.

          • 1
            2

            SJ

            Agree. In Jaffna Indian children were brought to work as domestic workers as the families literally give them away then for survival and early expect anything back. I know Indian domestic workers even as little as around 10 years old grew up to be adults as domestic workers brought from the upcountry.

            They were exploited, abused, mistreated and called many names and one of the name calling was kallathoni, thottakattan (estate worker) to name few. The hard labour theses children had to do the house owners would never allow their children to do.

            Most of them never went to schools (99%) and they never expect anything in return. Most of them never even had holidays and only get to see their parents every few years.

            The children were headhunted/voluntarily offered to all the Jaffna businessmen who established businesses all around the country will find demand in Jaffna.

            The Indian families were ever so grateful for this too as they themselves had no rights in the first place and been through bigger abuses themselves in their life journey?

        • 0
          0

          Gnana,
          .
          While what you say is true, wouldn’t it be more effective for you to leave it to some of us to state that?
          .
          I do.
          .
          Many more would do so, if you showed restraint.

  • 2
    5

    Known as a Paki in London.

    • 1
      3

      In fact I think I am a Kallathoni^3 after coming to the UK. I should teach the National Front in the UK to call me Kallathoni in the future too:)

      If a have a brewery I will make an IPA called Kallathoni Toddy an Authentic Ayily brew God willing.

  • 11
    0

    Thanks, Prof. Niranjan,
    .
    That was an easier read than most of your stories, but most interesting.
    .
    Thanks also for selecting a word more interesting and timely than the Sinhalese for “bucket” – /ba:ldiya/ IPA modified to suit the situation.
    .
    Far too many CT readers are using the k-word when talking about V2. I’m sure that you have that ability to tell me apart from a Tamil.
    .
    Racism has indeed become the dominant force in politics – even here in the town of your boyhood years where you learnt both languages, although that was not what the curriculum in school prescribed.

    • 9
      3

      Prof MN,
      Is it more than a coincidence that both Wiggy and Dried Pumpkin have grey beards?

      • 2
        4

        OC: What harm have pumpkins done to merit such demeaning comparison?

        • 2
          3

          SAV,
          True , any self-respecting pumpkin would be offended.

      • 6
        0

        OC
        I think that it is unfair to humiliate people with nicknames. If appearance is a measure of character or worth of a human being, you, as much as I, can name quite a few great people who were ‘ugly’.
        I vaguely remember a silly controversy leading to the use of the term Dried Pumpkin to refer to Vasudeva. But it is years since.
        His politics has been grossly dishonest since he went behind MR. But many have compromised themselves with MR and his likes for little favours.
        Is Prof. Tissa Vitharana a better person than Vasudeva, who is among many who sing for their supper. But in fairness to the latter, he has carefully avoided racist language.
        (I had personal experience of Prof. TV taking a communal line to defend himself during a book launch in London in the late 1990s. I have only narrated it privately, but there were witnesses.)

  • 10
    0

    Excellent Bro. A short story says it all. Our history , people and the course, post independence..

  • 9
    3

    As far as I am concerned all children are born equal and should be treated as the future ambassadors of the said country in which they were born.
    #
    Sadly more kids are brought into this wonderful planet poverty-stricken.
    #
    Thet say if a child is brought up with love he or she will only reciprocate in the same manner.
    If the child is brought up in an abusive angry frustrated he or she will always spit out anger, hatred and venom all the time.
    He or she will be a no use case in society till death do him part.
    #
    My only child came into this planet in February 1984, now 36 years young well
    educated working for a highly respected NGO holding a management position and is in charge of 5 poor troubled nations.
    #
    During the year 1993, my matrimonial alliance with her mother came to an end and I moved to Sydney, Australia in March 1994.
    She used to on the day of her school vacation used to fly in to Sydney when she and I spent quality time together 4 times a year.
    #
    In a finale my friends please maintain a loving atmosphere indoors and outdoors and one will be surprised at the positive results it will bring to one’s familt life.

    • 6
      9

      rj
      When did you develop your orientation towards same sex?

      Soma

      • 6
        3

        somass

        “When did you develop your orientation towards same sex?”

        Are you sure you are not looking for a partner?
        Its okay.

      • 1
        3

        SOME ASS –
        #
        Have I done a U-turn and gone into an Adam VCs Steve scenario.?
        #
        Not me am a seducer of fine Sinhala lasses/
        If you have any extra, please make contact with me.

        • 0
          0

          Lasses or lads? A typo?

          Soma

      • 1
        0

        Soma; when a comment like this is seen; let us appreciate the immense improvement in language use.

        • 0
          0

          Unfortunately, my kind comment has backfired – and rj1952 has reverted to vulgarity.

  • 12
    0

    Prof. Mahesan Niranjan,

    Satire at its best!

    Story of two Sri Lankan Children!

    It is a nice short story, Could be considered as a fable

    • 23
      18

      Demalu cannot pronounce Sinhala properly. That is one of the reasons why they did not want Sinhala only. Muslims are far better because they married Sinhala women. See the difference when Sumanthiran speak Sinhala and Ali Sabri speak Sinhala.

      “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.”

      • 7
        8

        Eagle

        “Muslims are far better because they married Sinhala women” Are you trying to say that Muslims in srilanka are a as a result of Arabs marrying Sinhalese women ? If so how do the Muslims in Srilanka become Tamil speaking even when they live in Sinhala areas ? In actual fact Srilankan ( Tamil ) Muslims are a hybrid race primarily Tamil and a Bit of Arabic blood from their Paternal side.

        It is true that Muslims abuse Sinhala women and convert them to Islam now , that is a different story. You shameless creature Seems to be taking pride in your sisters and wives being raped by Muslim men.

      • 1
        0

        Eagle Eye, please start by answering this question unambiguously. Are you H.L.D. Mahindapala?
        .
        I have told other commenters that you are not. Both are racist, but Mahindapala is simply a better writer. Sorry to say it.
        .
        It makes me happy to see a happy mixed marriage – it’s one possible solution to our problems.
        .
        [edited out]

  • 7
    1

    “Kallathoni” is given the meaning “Illegal Immigrant” by boat, as stated in the essay. It is recorded history that the “FIRST” migration of Humans started from a place in Africa, some million years ago. One such group ventured into a place on this planet Earth, now named Asia. We in Asia are supposed to be descendants of that group and in fact, Anthropologists who had done research have found that descendant roots to some families still living in some parts of India. So, my question is: Why don’t we call all of us “Kallatoni”? The only difference could be that we didn’t use a “Boat” to spread throughout the Planet Earth.

    • 3
      0

      Mr SIMON,
      this is exactly what I added already few months ago. We should all be “Kallathonis” going by our history.
      But our mlechcha ultra racists such as Pasqual and Eagle Eye would never see it so. Their eyes and ears should be totally impaired not being able to see it right. These men are a real threat to srilankeness. I have no doubt, Eagle Eye would have many more years to live in live. His hatreds towards minorities should find its end – so that we can depart him not wishing dittadhamma wedanieya.
      :
      These said men would not care much about the facts based on DNA research, Antropology, Archaeology and the publications available on the history of each country. They seem to be please the backsides of the RAJAPAKSHES, who are born to destroy our nation.
      Irrespective of heavy warning on Trump, he did not care much butu visited Kenesha, and felicitated keneshian police.
      https://www.foxnews.com/politics/wisconsin-gov-tells-trump-not-to-come-to-kenosha
      The very same was seen in SRILANKA a week ago, regarding that planning a roadway through world heritage – SINHARAJA FOREST , both reacted as bulls in a porcelan house. Nevertheless thanakola eaters go on supporting Gotabaya for unknown reasons.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43wrM_d6jqA

      • 0
        1

        Dear LM,
        .
        This is what happens when military men are allowed to rule – with almost no checks and balances by now. To an extent, websites like Colombo Telegraph are still open to us without “proxy servers” (i never explored those in the pre-2015 era.
        .
        There is here a request from Prof. Kumar David for expert opinion on History.
        .
        https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/how-have-i-provoked-anyone/
        .
        I didn’t try to fulfil that request, but I did say something about New Zealand, and about how selfish homo sapiens recklessly and selfishly exploit Nature. You will understand all that, said before all this about the Sinharaja was visible to me, only after you visit there.
        [edited out]

  • 5
    0

    Thanks to MN for taking time to write on these issues, and hence providing platforms for others to bring out viewpoints and facts. It is an interesting effort to say everyone in Sri Lanka is illegal and to try to harmonize this way.

    It is stated Sinhalese ancestors arrived many centuries ahead of Tamils, and also they may have been on the entire island by the time Tamils arrived.
    In 1982 itself (i.e., pre-militancy), the north (specially Jaffna) was controlled and dominated by Tamils who are pure. Only hundreds of Sinhalese bakers and Sinhalese monks were there even then. How this happened even after so many centuries is rarely realized or discussed.

    Since 1983, hundreds of thousands have died, mainly from poor or deprived communities of the entire country. It is not too late to treat every man, woman and child of the island with dignity, and also not to deny the opportunities that they deserve under any pretext. This is simply the humane thing to do, for each of our lives to have any meaning.

    • 4
      1

      Hello Humanity:
      //Only hundreds of Sinhalese bakers and Sinhalese monks were there even then.//
      Jaffna had very low economic activity. Tobacco, onions and chillies and nothing much else. So there was no motivation for Sinhala people to go and settle there. Where there was a niche market people did. The baker in my town was Sinhalese and spoke fluent Tamil. Married a Tamil woman also. That is how populations move — a natural drift in the direction of economic activity. Just the same way a large number of Tamils from Jaffna moved South and worked and lived there. Had there been better investment in the north, more Sinhala people would have moved there. I have Sinhala friends who worked at the cement factory for example. Pre-1956 several Sinhala students studied in Jaffna schools. And mid 70’s several students studied at Jaffna university. So Jaffna was not a no-go for Sinhalese. Just that there weren’t opportunities there. And in the few instances where people did go, they mixed well with the local population.
      ++
      Everyone knew everyone was a kallathoni anyway!

      • 2
        1

        Some leading Sinhalese politicians of the 1950s (like Maithripala Senanayake started at St. Joseph’s , Anuradhapura then at St. John’s Jaffna, then Nalanda, Colombo).

  • 2
    0

    Velan and SJ,
    Yes, there were Sinhalese students at high schools in the 1950s and at University in the 1970s.

    This reminded another issue that the country faced and continues to face. There were also Sinhalese children (as well as Muslim children and Tamil children from central provinces) as domestic workers. It was likely they all returned to their parents after 1983.

    • 1
      2

      Hello Humanity:
      Sinhala and Muslim children working as domestic help would have been very rare. As far as I know, such workers were almost exclusively drawn from the upcountry Tamil population. The real damage to Sinhala children is not in domestic labour, but in being volunteered to become child monks. Our society hasn’t the guts to speak up against this abuse. Gautama would not have recommended this practice.

      • 1
        0

        SAV
        I know Sinhalese children as domestic servants before Hill Country Tamil children were made domestic servants. I personally know of cases as late as early 1950s.
        Muslims, as you say, were rare in Tamil households.
        Access to poor rural Sinhalese was easier than access to plantation children at the time.
        There were poor Tamil children who were more easily accessible, but caste was a barrier.

        • 1
          0

          SAV
          Not only poverty pushes children to priesthood, desire to keep temple wealth in the family too does that. (Buddhist elite were not the only offenders here.)

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