17 December, 2017

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The Story Of Sivakami’s Tears

By Mahesan Niranjan

Mahesan Niranjan

Mahesan Niranjan

What a coincidence? On flight BA2042 from Colombo to London two days ago, I found myself sitting next to my drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram. I was returning from a visit to Sri Lanka, giving a talk at a conference on ICT for Emerging Regions on the subject of modern biology, and taking part in a PhD interim examination of two students whose research — on developing an automatic translation system between Sinhala and Tamil — I help supervise. Thevaram, when I found him, had already consumed a pint of Lion lager, a gin and tonic, and a small bottle of red wine. This was not a surprise.

What did surprise me was that the man was in tears and was staring at some lines in Tamil he had scribbled in his notebook. There were a few drops rolling down his cheeks which he unsuccessfully tried to hide from me. “What is the matter, Machan (buddy)?” I probed. “Well, it is my mothe…” I did not quite catch the last word, did he say “mother” or was it “motherland”?

“Eh?”

Have you ever wondered why we often relate the concepts of mother and country? Motherland, mawbima, thaayaham, mathru bhoomi, and thaay naadu are phrases in common use. On one rare occasion a father to country relationship was attempted (vaterland), but that did not go particularly well. We might think that this mother-country relationship is simply a convenient linguistic construct, invented once and copied in perpetuum. Largely true, but the observation also explains the audacious claim Thevaram made, in response to my “Eh”:

“My country belongs to my mother, not to the thugs who stole it from her.”

Sivakami

Permit me a paragraph of self-plagiarism, to give you the background.

Sivahamy comes from a farming family in the north of Sri Lanka, a poor village close to Jaffna town. They had enough to eat, but not much more. When the family is away in the fields, leaving the children at home, Sivahamy’s older sister takes charge of the cooking, but wouldn’t let anyone have their evening meal, until all of the family had returned after the day’s hard work, so they may share the food equally. When Sivahamy reached the age of 12, her father decided schooling was enough. An extra pair of hands in the fields would have fitted his human resource management agenda nicely. Kuruvaanavar, the school maths teacher, paid the family a visit. “She is very good in her studies,” he pleaded with the parents, “please let her continue.” The father wasn’t impressed, but Sivahamy’s mother rose to the occasion, over-ruled the husband, and made a firm decision that saw Sivahamy not just through secondary school, but also a degree programme at HillTop University. Just to calibrate that point of time in history, around the time Sivakami graduated and took a teaching job back in her village of Karainagar, several Oxbridge Colleges did not even admit women to undergraduate programmes.

uniprotestThe social mobility our third world country offered Sivakami back in the fifties, is unmatched in many developed countries even today. For instance in the UK, the best predictor of whether an 18 year old would go to university is if his/her parents had been. Free education being the strong link between mother and motherland, it is no wonder Thevaram once enjoyed the opportunity of being photographed at the picket line with striking Sri Lankan academics.

Thuggery: The word thuggery is a charitable term to describe the monotonically worsening system of governance in Sivakami’s country. More accurate descriptions bring lawyers in, and distract us from understanding a particularly sad state of affairs in our country. Terminology such as “terrorism”, “war crimes” and “genocide” are thrown about by those with vested agendas on one side and those defending with dictionary definitions on the other.

Shortly after they retired, Sivakami and her husband Sivapuranam left Jaffna. They were stopped — way back in 1991, the role of ordinary Tamil people as protective shields had already been invented — arrested and jailed for ten days and threatened with execution. Escape was only possible because one of the thugs recognized the teacher from the school he studied.

Fast forward a bit, and it was on the day our Commander-In-Chief proclaimed zero civilian casualties, Sivakami told Thevaram she knew more than a dozen who died acting the part of human shields that she herself had escaped from.

Would the term thuggery accurately capture the evils committed in the name of the Tamil people, by those claiming to represent the Tamil people, by way of the massacres in Anuradhapura, Aranthalawa, Kalmunai and Keppitigollawa, with sponsors of these crimes going through their usual motions of denial (“you are saying that because you are being paid by the government”) followed by justification (“these things happen, it is an armed struggle, have you not noticed?”)? And would it describe the eviction from Jaffna the tailor Miskin, who was contracted by Sivakami to make Thevaram’s first pair of trousers?

Would the term thuggery accurately capture the evil massacres of the Navanthurai boat passengers or the people who took sanctuary in the Navali church? And would it describe the killings of the protesting fisherman of Chilaw, the garment factory worker of Katunayake, or the bystander at the protest in Weliweriya?

Would the term thuggery accurately capture the glorification of the years of rule in the Wanni: “Under their rule there was discipline in the society, you see, women could walk on the streets at night!” Or would we be comfortable using that word to describe the stance of my other drinking partner, Pol: “What do they mean war crimes, war is crime,” as a catchphrase to sweep evils under the rug?

And how about thuggery as a term to explain an elderly aunt of mine in London, who, on the day Luxman Kadirkamar was killed remarked: “they should have finished him long ago,” continuing with another helping of idli and saambaar ?

Obituary: “We regret to inform friends and family that Sivapuranam Sivakami, passed away after a brief illness. Mortal remains were cremated at Kanatte and ashes dispersed into the sea at Karainagar.” The Ceylon Daily News can also be sometimes accurate, readers will note.

Democracy: Sri Lanka has a democratic system of governance. At regular intervals, our people are invited to polling booth and mark crosses against names. Winners are decided by counting these votes. There are many variants of this process, and the one that our country adopted in 1978 — irrespective of the cunning plan the old fox had in mind when introducing it — is, speaking as a statistician, the fairest we know of. Critics of proportional representation prefer the first-past-the-post system which produces stable governments. The potential for lack of stability is dealt with in a uniquely Sri Lankan way: We buy the opposition.

But have you noticed we don’t seem to be comfortable with our democracy? We invent qualifiers. The old fox introduced “Dharmishta.” But that term, difficult to spell, and even more difficult to explain to foreigners, was quickly abandoned. Our diplomats did better. An eloquent ambassador declared that Sri Lanka was a “functioning democracy.” The precise meaning of “function” left undefined, the claim did gain some currency for a short period of time, but that too decayed quite quickly.

Yet another diplomat described ours as a “vibrant democracy” in an interview with an American journalist who dared ask questions about the “20-30 protesting women,”  — an estimate we believe in because it comes from someone numerate enough to count at least up to 800! Our diplomat gave the journalist a nice blow below the belt. “We are 2500 years old” he said, most eloquently and without batting an eyelid.

History for the American journalist being about a tenth of that timescale, he was shocked and confused. “Did I not study somewhere that it was the Greeks who invented democracy?” he wondered, “Are these Sri Lankans the same as the Greeks?”  (His geography is as bad as his history.) “Maybe I am confusing,” (Yes, high school was many years ago.) “Yeah, the Greeks invented yoghurt, the Sri Lankans must have invented democracy,” he concluded on his way home.

nangaiFuneral: Hindu rituals were performed at Sivakami’s funeral. The congregation being from all faiths and no faiths, the priest was contracted to a fast pace package. The thevaram (Hindu religious song) singer was not particularly good, his scales wide of the mark. But just towards the end he sang Thirunaavukkarasar’s verse “munnam avanudaiya naaman kEddaaL,” which he did rather well. (These are the lines I found my friend scribbling on his notepad.) They are the very best of this poet and recently used most effectively by Kalki in the historic novel Sivakamiyin Sapatham. Those lines meant a lot to Sivakami’s children. It was about their childhood, the beautiful village of Karainagar, the mountain town of Bandarawela, the “Jaffna Seven” of Nallur, their parents’ retired life in Thalawathugoda, and above all, a value system that precisely captured their mother’s life.

Those lines also resonated about a way of life that had been stolen from her, by a hegemonic political process that manifested callousness and brutality in its oppressive side, and a stupid misadventure of a response that rapidly transformed itself into outright fascism. Both these processes danced in tango, reinforcing each other, for over half a century since we gained independence from the suddhas (white folk), and had stolen from Sivakami the country that rightfully belonged to her, and to which she remained loyal right up to her last breath.

Tears: At the pearly gates, collecting her well-earned ticket of admission to Heaven, Sivakami pauses to look back. Far away, she sees her country being dragged towards the other place, stolen by thuggery.

Her eyes are full of tears.

They were the tears that my friend tried to hide from me in flight BA2042 the other day.

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Latest comments

  • 2
    1

    May I ask:
    Have you had time to taste arrack?
    Did you bring some to share with your drinking partner?
    You have aged a lot within an year.
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Mahesan-Niranjan–150×150.jpg
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/MahesanNiranjan-150×150.jpg

    • 1
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      anpu,in the first photograph he was thinking you see with pencil and all.When you think then you age.See our president,he never ages.I also whenever anyone asks what do you think about blah blah blah,i say that i’am not paid to think.Better to stay young than think.

  • 4
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    THUGGERY of Sri lanka.
    By the President, from the president, for the advantage of the president,
    delivered to the poor Sri Lankan through his/ her clan, acolytes henchmen , goons,.Irrespective of the masses Races, casts or religions.

  • 1
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    “I was returning from a visit to Sri Lanka, giving a talk at a conference on ICT for Emerging Regions on the subject of modern biology, and taking part in a PhD interim examination of two students whose research — on developing an automatic translation system between Sinhala and Tamil — I help supervise.” We don’t need to know all that.We know you are a big shot already.

    • 3
      1

      The CT columns give a chance for some people to blow their trumpet. After all, if no one blows it for you, and if you are not wealthy enough to buy a blower, and if your students don’t do the blowing either, it is up to you to do the blowing. No harm done.

      But there is harm in this article. The suggestion that a foreigner (அன்னியன்) gets from this reading is that the Government did ALL the thuggery. Only the insiders know that part of it was the LTTE, while the other part was the state. Is this a clever ruse used by the writer to stay in good books with the British Tamil Diaspora? Displaying people killed by the LTTE as the result of State brutality was a part of the tricks played by the LTTE and now, channel-4 collaborating with Father Emmanuel. The tamil society can never become ‘grown up’ until it owns its past sins and faces up to it, as the Germans did, regarding their own Nazi brutality. Nither the drinking partener of this IT-prof, nor Wiggles the Colombo-centered boss of the Northern Tamils, has admited the past sins and presented a base for reconcilliation.

      Unlike the vanquished, the allied forces of the world war-II have not yet admitted their war crimes — but they are the victors, and unfortunately, they write the history.

      • 0
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        Manoharan you another Sinkalam like Shankar the Sinkalam:

        The suggestion that a foreigner (அன்னியன்) gets from this reading is that the Government did ALL the thuggery. Only the insiders know that part of it was the LTTE, while the other part was the state.

        If you admit that the State was responsible for the other part can you answer the following.

        1) The LTTE has been wiped out for their part in the Thuggery except for Karuna who is hiding behind enemy lines.
        2) If the GOSL are responsible the rest of the Thuggery ( in my view they were responsible for the Thuggery) Hown can they continue to govern and be part of Reconciliation.

        The implications are TRC is dead and buried in its tracks and it cannot happen under the current GOSL whose hands are taineted with Tamil bood and the Minister Karunas hands are tainted with Sinhalese blood as he was ressponsible for the massacres which the writer has highlighted .

      • 0
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        Thuggery had been a two way process. Thuggery of majority is more explicit by virtue of being a majority and perhaps the majority is being more violent physically compared to minorities. (Riots)

        LTTE has paid its price for its thuggery, However, I do not think Sri Lankans are mature enough to learn from atrocious war.

        The root causes that lead to the war are still intact and getting worse, This has nothing to with development, winning hearts and minds or changing population demography.

        It is good governance, accountability and ensuring equal rights, that is why there is brain drain.
        Ken

        PS: Prof Niranjan’s writing is like inhaling fresh breath of air in a Srilankan beach.

  • 0
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    [Edited out], A jap (read his 1st line: Knowing the computer is a machine to help people achieve their tasks with less effort, its functions should be fully usable. Otherwise, the machine, or the computer, doesn’t make sense even if a lot of powerful functions are provided. 0 this means he is educating the natives. The next is a Swede (who always wanted to visit the golden beaches and and its handkerchief wearing males, well now he got a free ticket mate), the next is a associatiate prof at nanayang ( well, contract coming up for renewal and must show something innovative to capture those big guns at nan yang!!). And the next is Athula Ginige, in UWS, Sydney (Oh my God, a professor in IT in an Oz Uni, goodness gracious, the brightest Aussie can hardly type in MS Word and that demonstrates how IT letierate they are).

    So, my friend Niranjan was lumped with these sort of, fifth class academics for an ICT seminar in Colombo, poor man, it must have been a humbling experience.

    So my friend Niranjan hit the bottle on the journey back to Southampton, well it is one life’s tragedies.

    By the way, those guys who hacked two soldiers to death in the streets of London, aren’t the Birmingham grads ???

  • 1
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    .
    I like the way you write.
    :-)

  • 1
    0

    Excellent. Narrated like a fine short story.

  • 2
    0

    It looks like one of your admirers Dr Dayan Jayatilaka is very busy – he has not commented yet.

  • 0
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    Niranjan,
    Good one again and I read every sentence.
    But I didn’t really understand your usage of mother’s name “Siva-Kami” and Siva-Hamy” interchangeably.. Is it to generalize the name with Sinhala?
    You tried to say that Sinhale/Tamil/Muslim leadership visions made it possible for your mother to go to Uni in 50s but it was not even common in the West at that time.. I can’t fully agree with you on this. The main reason I believe your mother to get voting rights and ability to get university education even before the West was because SUDDAs did those test trails in SL before implementing in UK, but not solely by native leaders..
    I heard some people like Dharmista JR opposed SUDDA (Ivor Jennings) ideas of establishing proper university in HillTop in those days..
    Anura

    • 0
      0

      “University. Just to calibrate that point of time in history, around the time Sivakami graduated and took a teaching job back in her village of Karainagar, several Oxbridge Colleges did not even admit women to undergraduate programmes”

      I am not sure whether this statement is correct. We had female Indian graduate teachers and white female principals in some of our schools.

  • 0
    0

    [Edited out]
    We are sorry, the comment language is English – CT

  • 0
    0

    Niranjan,

    Wherever you go the Drinking Partner always pops up and I dont think it was a coincidence but pre meditated. Next time before you board the plane look over your sholuders and where was Avvai Patti this time.
    Like Anpu said you have aged within a year and I couldnt recognise you. It is the drinks.

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