By Mahesan Niranjan –
Last week started well for my friend Sivapuranam Thevaram, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow who is my drinking partner in the Bridgetown pub that stretches my intellectual creativity. Earlier in the week, he spent several hours, checking exam scripts from UpNawth University in Sri Lanka, an institution to which he acts as an external moderator. He was pleased to see some of his suggestions from the previous year had been included in the teaching of the module he was helping with. He had also, with some difficulty, set up a post-graduate scholarship which his department had offered to a junior member of staff from UpNawth. Thevaram was pleased that in some small ways he could engage with that institution and wished he had the time and energy to do more.
Whistling his favourite tune from the beautiful film Vasantha Maaligai, Thevaram started a long drive to Wales to attend the wedding of a cousin. Manimekalai, his wife, and two of his children, Senguththu and Sarivakam, were in the car. Thevaram enjoys long drives with the family – an opportunity to tell the children about his culture, teach them a little Tamil and tell them wonderful stories about his great grandfather, back in the oor (Sinhala: gama, English: village).
The wedding, the Thevaram’s uncle had suggested, was to be held according to Hindu tradition and the guests were to dress accordingly. This meant Thevaram was to be in a verti (a wrap-round rectangular piece of cloth with patterns on the border, yet not really clear when the verti became Hindu), a shirt (even less clear when this became Hindu) and a salvai (another rectangular piece of cloth to put on your shoulder, which could also be folded neatly and wrapped as a turban on your head, should the priest be minded to instruct you to crack a coconut as part of the ceremony).
“Can you speak Sinhala, also?” Senguththu asked the father. “Is it a difficult language for you to learn, given that you are Tamil, and you said Tamil is a Dravidian language and Sinhala has Indo-European roots?”
“Quite easy, really,” said Thevaram, “I usually speak Sinhala to people who are already multi-lingual, i.e. they also have a reasonable English vocabulary, so there are some simple rules by which you can get by.” He went onto explain a rule he had learnt from his friend in BusyTown University, an expert in computational linguistics:
<noun> eka <verb> karnna.
For example, constructs like “car eka reverse karanna” and “chair eka lift karanna” are perfectly legitimate, and would pass as fluent Sinhala.
“So how many people have a reasonable English vocabulary, back in the gama?” challenged Senguththu, to clarify if this trick has effective.
“Quite a few, actually” Thevaram said with a sense of pride and went onto give a five-minute lecture on some key statistics about post-independence Sri Lanka, literacy rates boosted by free education, improvements in infant mortality rates due to free healthcare, the public health inspector (PHI) talking his grandfather into building water-sealed toilet, and so on. The narrative ended with the usual story of calibration, which the kids have heard mentioned on nearly every car journey in which they were captive audience: “You see, back in the late Fifties, when my mother went to University, three hundred miles from her home in the oor, lived in a hostel and made friends with people across the ethnic divide, women were still not allowed to some high table diners in Bridgetown, remember!”
“Oh, yeah, we remember, you have told us this before,” said Senguththu.
“Again, and again,” sighed Sarivakam.
“But it all ended in disaster,” Thevaram said, “because some people thought their culture was better than the other fellows’ culture.”
“It is the stupidity,” he went on to say, “of thinking we came here first, so ours should be the way of life in these parts.”
Several miles of silence followed.
To be suitably attired at the wedding, Thevaram and Manimekalai had gone to a suburb of Londinium the previous weekend verti-shopping and had made a fascinating purchase. Now, those who have tried it will know that a verti, particularly the silk one, is a difficult thing to wear. Friction is lower for silk than it is for cotton, and for a middle aged man with paayaasam belly, the knot giving way and the verti slipping off the waist is a real danger to be reckoned with.
“The velcro is recommended if you use the verti for night-wear, Sir,” explained the salesman, “it gives you quick access. I also suggest you use a belt if you are wearing it at a formal occasion. You don’t want to take a risk, no? And see the pockets are large enough to hold your wallet, car keys and mobile phone.”
He was a very good salesman, who struck a nice balance between modern convenience and cultural symbolisms.
“And the material is flexible, you see,” he continued, you can lift it and fold it half way above the knees to express anger and battle readiness!”
During the wedding party, Thevaram read his email and was informed of the recent violence on UpNawth University campus. Students have clashed across ethnic lines over whose cultural symbols were to be displayed at an event to welcome the new intake. Stones have been pelted, sticks and rods had been used in attacks and a dozen students have been treated for injury.
“Thugs!” Thevaram said to himself. “These thugs do not deserve university education. And for free!”
Please, let us not explain away thuggery by trying to theorize on the context and say “post-war reconciliation has not progressed because there is still a lot of military presence in those areas.”
Please, let is not analyse the microscopic details of how the University’s rules are set up regarding cultural events on campus.
Please, let us not compare similar incidents elsewhere and say, “these things happen, no?”
Please, let us call a spade a spade!
Thugs defending culture /Photo via twitter.com/uthayashalin
And there is only one lesson to take from it when we move forward: “Thugs should have no place on campus.”
On their return journey from Wales, Thevaram family continued to discuss linguistics. Sarivakam had quickly learnt the Sinhala grammatical trick the father had explained earlier and showed he can generalize it to Tamil.
Historians and archaeologists who have influenced the thinking of the political class in Sri Lanka — theorizing on which tribe came to the island first and which one the kallathoni (illegal immigrant) is — would readily agree that learning something from Sinhala and adapting it to Tamil is the right sequence to be practiced.
On a roundabout where the signs weren’t clear and Thevaram was a little confused as to which turn to take, Sarivakam, spotting the correct direction said:
“Appa, tak endu oru left adiyungo!”
(Approximate English translation: “Dad, take a quick left.” More expressive Sinhala translation: thaaththaa takgaala left ekak gahanna.)
“tak,” in the above constructs is a unit of time, common in Sinhala and Tamil, the duration of which has to be understood in context. It is possible that “tuk tuk,” the three-wheeler, is derived from this measure of time. Similarly, “adi” in Tamil and “gahanna” in Sinhala are multi-purpose words, which also have to be understood in this particular context to indicate an action the driver was being instructed to take.
The dictionary meaning of these words (assault, hit) is precisely what was practiced by the idiotic students of UpNawth University last Saturday evening.
Back in the Bridgetown pub, when we raised our glasses and drank to the preservation of our cultures, with his thoughts firmly fixated “back in the oor,” Thevaram concluded as follows:
“If you have to resort to thuggery to preserve your culture, machan (buddy), that culture is not worth preserving.”