By Mahesan Niranjan –
Have you been in situations of embarrassment from which you wanted a quick exit? You might do it by suddenly changing the subject of conversation to get out of the difficulty, weather forecast being a popular trick. The South Indian Tamil author Jeyakanthan beautifully captures a variant of this in one of his short stories about a middle class family switching their conversation from Tamil to English: “the foreignness of the language masks the embarrassment of the topic being discussed,” he explains. My story today is about a young boy who found himself in such a situation and had to be rescued by his father’s wits.
The boy lived in Nallur, a fairly affluent suburb Jaffna town. If Jaffna had a system of postcodes, Nallur probably would have been allocated the number seven. It was a historic place, because in the 16th century, the Portugese took several attempts to defeat its king. There is a famous temple and an equally famous ice cream parlour in Nallur. Many political discussions among Tamils end with reference to the temple occupant in despair: “If that is what you say, even Nallur Murugan cannot save the Tamil people!” Recent history of the Tamil people has shown that saving them has never been high on the list of priorities for Murugan, yet he serves as a convenient source of hope. Apart from that, the temple offers a much cherished opportunity for middle class Tamil women to display their collection of gold jewels.
The period in time the boy lived in Nallur was the late Seventies. Those were days of rapid rise in Tamil nationalism, admittedly as a response to the hegemonic political process played out from Colombo, but it also had a momentum of its own. It was around then we firmly established the existence of a majority community with a minority complex and the mirror image of it, a minority community with wannabe majoritarian tendencies. Both were manufactured belief systems that went unchallenged, and they bootstrapped off each other. “There may be just a few of us in comparison, but we certainly are cleverer,” was the driving philosophy drummed up at election meetings and propagated via media such as the Suthanthiran paper.
A particular topic of grievance upon which much of the political discourse took place had to do with tertiary education. Candidates for university admission sat the public exam in their respective mother tongues – Sinhala and Tamil. A disproportionately large number of Tamil medium students gained admission to universities, particularly on the most sought after professional courses. Variants of “You guys go to university in large numbers because exam papers are easier in your medium, you cheats!” versus “We do better at exams because we are cleverer, haven’t you noticed?” were often heard in media, political platforms and Parliament. The government tried to deal with this imbalance by introducing a system known by the term standardization, initially conceived as quotas for the two streams, and later modified to be in terms of population distribution across the districts. It was a policy that attracted high levels of emotional discussion, particularly when the taken in the context of other attitudes seen then, some of which linger to the present day.
Of the young boy, it could be said that he was not particularly clever and had no useful skills such as fixing a bicycle tyre or catching a cricket ball thrown at him. But he could do calculus very fast. From that alone his future was predictable. Good exam results, entrance to engineering school, job in the government, marriage to a fat dowry, and a ‘happily ever after’ life!
One evening, at a dinnertime conversation with his father, he raised the topic of university admissions and complained about the discriminatory policy of the government. “It is not fair,” he said, “I have to score 70 marks to get in, while some idiot from Hambantota or Mannar who can’t do calculus as fast as I can, only needs 55 marks.”
“How level is that playing field?”
After listening to the young boy’s outburst with considerable patience, the father asked him to review his day.
“I woke up at 05:00 AM, had a Marmite drink; cycled to tuition, taught by a brilliant mathematics teacher; came back and had a bath; had breakfast; cycled to one of the best secondary schools in the country; taught by some of the best teachers in the country…” the young boy described.
The recipe for the Marmite drink is not complicated. You take some boiling water in a mug, take a teaspoonful (heaped) of Marmite and dissolve it by stirring clockwise for two dozen rotations. Hey presto! You have a nourishing and refreshing drink which also leaves a delicate after taste of considerably long time constant in your palettes. It has been noted that the yeast extract has properties similar to Tamil nationalism and the fruit Durian. You either love it or hate it.
Getting back to the father son conversation over dinner, “now think of a boy your age in Killinochchi,” the father said, “that boy would also have woken up at 05:00 AM; he would have gone into the field and helped his parents with irrigation, after eating some left-over rice from the previous day; he would have helped in milking the cows; would have walked to a school with no good furniture, let alone laboratory provision; he probably would not have had teachers who could teach the full syllabus in calculus and physics…”
“How level is that playing field?”
That conversation firmly established in the young boy’s thinking a position “more to the Left” in the political spectrum.
A week or so later, when the boy cycled back from school, he stopped to talk to a schoolmate. The venue was an election rally of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) at the Amman Kovil (temple) grounds in Nallur, reportedly the site of a major battle between the invading Portugese and the local king. The schoolmate, let us call him Jonathan Crinkle-Bottom, for I do not wish to reveal his real name, also lived in Jaffna Seven, and the family were known to the young boy’s family. Uncle Crinkle-Bottom was not the young boy’s real uncle, but in Sri Lanka we refer to everybody about fifteen years older than ourselves as uncle/aunt to avoid saying their names – a kind of Sri Lankan English, if you please.
There were speeches charged with high emotion at the rally. They promised to separate the country, and teach the oppressors a lesson by drinking their blood and making slippers out of their skins. Jonathan was highly excited by all that. He took out a sharp instrument from his pocket (was it a shaving blade or a Swiss army knife, I do not recall), made a cut on his thumb, ran up the stage and made a blood pottu on the speaker’s forehead.
The young boy was unimpressed. “This is madness,” he opined, “how can we, numbering less than a fifth of the population in the island, fight against the four fifths and defend a border that stretches over two thirds of the island’s circumference?” he asked. Jonathan claimed that would not be difficult because our interfering neighbour India will walk in and sort it all out – just as they had done in Bangladesh. The two had an argument. The young boy predicted that the particular path being advocated by the speakers at the rally was going to lead to a massacre of the Tamil people in Jaffna within about five years. Jonathan was angered by the doom and gloom stance and came close to hitting him. The young boy, having predicted this possibility, got on his bike and made a rapid retreat in the direction of Nallur Temple.
Later events were to prove the young boy wrong on two counts. The massacre he predicted did not happen in Jaffna (it was in Mullaithievu), and it was not in five years (it happened three decades later).
That he had to run away under threat of assault hurt the boy’s ego very much. He wanted his revenge.
The opportunity came the following Saturday, when uncle Crinkle-Bottom visited the family with the latest issue of Suthanthiran. Full of excitement triggered by one of its article on discrimination in university admissions, the uncle made a bold claim about his son.
“All because of discrimination against us,” he stated, “my son Jonathan was a victim of standardization,” and continued, “If the admissions were fair, he would be in university now, reading Engineering.”
The young boy pulled the knife out.
“Uncle, even if all the five thousand six hundred and seventy eight places in the universities were given to Tamil medium students,” said the young boy, “Johnny aiyaa (older brother) wouldn’t get in!”
There was an open wound, and the young boy’s knife was driven straight into it. He knew the capacity of Sri Lankan universities was somewhere in the region of 5000 students per year, but his manufactured precision in the figure 5678 enhanced the credibility of his claim. He could have used the Tamil word “annai,” instead he chose the Sinhala word “aiyaa,” just to make sure the knife went an extra inch deeper.
Uncle Crinkle’s face went blank and a socially most difficult situation arose in that living room. Everyone there could feel the tension in the air.
The boy’s father came to the rescue. “Did anyone hear the weather forecast on radio today,” he asked.
“Did they say it was going to snow this evening?”
[Postscript: A few years later, in 1984 to be precise, Jonathan Crinkle-Bottom was killed during an attack on an army garrison. Johnny annai was fighting for a cause he certainly believed in.]