By Mahesan Niranjan –
Yesterday, in the pub, my partner – the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram – and I discussed education. It is topical in Sri Lanka, because we hear a lot about senior appointments, killing dogs, private medical education, admissions and the cruel treatment of freshers. My friend has observed some of the good and bad in the system, and the comparisons he makes with institutions elsewhere make interesting topics of conversation. Today we drifted into the medium of instruction, educating in Sinhala and Tamil, known as Swabasha. Thevaram described to me his early encounters with this policy, from his childhood memories.
One evening, the Sivapuranam family were seated at their dining table for a candle-lit supper. “Candle-lit?” you ask. You are annoyed that the family suffered from a colonial subject mind-set, trying to keep up appearances. Pause, I beg you, electricity had not reached the northern village of Karainagar, so candles and kerosene lamps were the sources of light.
Yet the villagers – who had neither electricity nor running water – had a thirst for knowledge. Just the previous month, several had gathered round a radio, listened to the running commentary on short wave of the Apollo 11 Mission and cheered loudly when the moon-landing was announced. Sivapuranam, Thevaram’s father, had enlisted two guys to climb up coconut trees in the backyard and construct an antenna for the valve operated radio, powered by a car battery.
Their dinner conversation started with the classic middle-class Tamil mother’s daily question to the son: “Putha (son), what did you study at school today?”
“We studied about carbon-di-oxide, mummy,” Thevaram replied.
Now, Sivakami did not know any Chemistry. But, having attended the village posh school, she knew English. This was enough for her to grasp that there was something called carbon which is the stuff she burnt in the stove, something called oxygen, which was essential to keep the fuel burning and somehow you needed one of the former and two of the latter to make the substance of which her offspring had become knowledgeable. She was pleased, yet a little humbled because she herself had spent three years in Hilltop, studying Sanskrit.
“Of what use is that?” Thevaram often teased her of her Sanskrit education.
“That is what scholarship was all about,” she would reply. “The suddha went to the posh schools of Eaton and Winchester, followed by Oxford or Cambridge to read Latin. So we did the same. And why do we need the suddha’s dead language, when we have our own dead language?”
Suddha did, we did, and we did it in ours. But we were proud when we did it in ours!
Joining the conversation, Penelope, Thevaram’s grandmother, also wanted to know what it was the boy had studied. “Enna raasa (what darling)?” she inquired. Penelope loved her grandson dearly and was very proud of the little brat. She insisted the grandson was fair skinned, though no sensitive optical instrument could detect this. He was just the same as the village farmers who spent the whole day in the scorching sun.
She had in her mind a hierarchy that was black and white — a ranking maintained to this day the world over, including in the marriage advertisements of the Ceylon Daily Noise and the Virkesari.
Now grandma Penelope did not know any Chemistry. She did not know any English either. Thevaram wondered how he could explain this newly acquired knowledge to his grandma.
There was a solution to Thevaram’s problem. It came from Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon) Official Languages Department, an outfit established to facilitate bringing modern knowledge to our people via our own languages.
“Out with the suddha (white man), suddha way of life, suddha dress and suddha values,” thundered the nationalist Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. “From this day on, it will be us first, our way of life first, our dress first and our values first.”
His name was Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike and he was educated in Oxford!
He hired many pundits and set up a department to invent terminology in our local languages so our people can have access to knowledge. The creation of any advanced knowledge, however, was not to be our business. The suddha was to continue with the pursuit of new knowledge, leading to discoveries and inventions. We only needed to invent our very own terminology as a way of communicating in our very own languages. So, thanks to the pundits in Solomon’s service, Thevaram had a solution.
“Ammamma (grandma), we studied about carboneeroxide,” replied Thevaram. Written hyphenated as carbon-eer-oxide, we note the Tamil prefix “eer” inserted before oxide says there had to be two oxygen atoms.
Penelope did not find this particularly helpful. She extracted the “neer” in the middle and thought this had something to do with water. She topped up Thevaram’s glass from the jug of water on the dining table. Sivakami gave her mother a disapproving look. Realising quickly that she got something wrong, Penelope repeated her question: “enna raasa?”
Such situations, too, have been thought through by Banda’s pundits. In a second line of defence, they had invented another term for the substance, focusing on a functional description.
Thevaram answered: “Ammamma, we studied about kariyamilavaayu.”
Penelope knew vaayu was gas, but the remainder didn’t make any sense. “What is kariyamilam?” she queried. “That – kari amilam — Ammamma, means kaachcal soda (fever soda),” he explained, referring to carbonated water, the fizzy drink Penelope would offer him whenever he had a common cold or fever – a drink made by dissolving carbondioxide in water.
There is no medical basis of carbonated water curing any illness, but Penelope was a talented salesman. It was well known in the village that she could sell ice cream to Eskimos. Had she lived in modern Britain, she could have been the salesman who took the British Labour party to power and the country to war. Such was her skill that she exploited placebo effects to the maximum and persuaded Thevaram that his fever was being cured by this magic medicine — carbonated water.
But what caught Penelope’s attention was the “kari” in “kariyamilam”, which meant black (or charcoal), and she was profoundly uncomfortable with this. How could her fair (skinned) grandson think she was feeding him some black liquid? “Illai raasa (no darling),” she objected, “kaachchal soda karuppu illai, athu vellai (the soda is not black, it is white).” Sivakami – with no knowledge of Chemistry, but with decent command of English – kept quiet.
She knew she was the lucky one.
Some forty years later, at a conference held at UpNawth University in Sri Lanka, two friends were seen in the audience, listening to a research paper being read. One of them – with balding head and payasam belly — was my drinking partner. The other was an adorable and energetic young teacher in that university, who had an admirable level of concern for the plight of the people around him. Listening to the seminar, the friends looked at each other, their eye contact speaking a thousand words. They then stared at their toes in embarrassment. The social science question the researcher was reporting was poorly posed, the statistical methodology flawed and his presentation appalling. “Where and when did it go wrong and where do we start to fix this,” the friends asked each other, without uttering a word.
The following day, with considerable sadness, Thevaram reported what he and his friend witnessed to Sivakami, in one of the last conversations he had with the mother, during which they also remembered the carbondioxide conversation with grandma Penelope.
“It started with Swabasha education, putha” Sivakami sighed, “the rot that set then, we had no chance of reversing.
“To know the hypocrisy of those who favour that step, all you need to do is to ask where Banda’s children schooled. It is all about recommending to others’ children what you don’t to your own.
“Gullible masses and adventurist nationalists fell for the tricks.
“Just the same way they sent thousands of kids to war and death.
“But never their own.”
Back in the pub, “but, you were judging from a single conference talk,” I objected. “What kind of statistical inference is that?”
“I was educated in Tamil medium, machan,” Thevaram retorted, “with our very own approach to scientific methodology of thousands of years. We don’t need the Suddha, no?”
“How so?” I asked.
“The state of a pot of rice, you can tell from a single grain,” he claimed with noticeable Tamil pride, translating an old proverb.
“Cheers,” I said, raising my glass of Peroni.