Jaffna offers little hope of recovery. People talk much of an intellectual revival but I see few signs of it. Indeed, there is no sign of English revival. Without it, there can be no intellectual revival. I see greater hope in the visibly evident emerging service industries doing more for us than the university where there is a great problem in the use of English. The much touted Engineering Faculty is running aground with few Ph.D holders teaching. The signs are that the Dean too will flee as his term ends. His efforts at recruitment are opposed by his staff threatening to strike should he bring in people of good quality.
One good sign is that Dr. Mahendran Thiruvarangan of the Department of English is able to sustain a fairly regular seminar, even attracting people from outside Jaffna. I often see about 50 attendees who are usually all able to raise questions in English and engage in discussion. On closer scrutiny they are from translation studies and English studies. This will help only a tiny section of the university as most academics do not attend because they can neither understand nor contribute.
On 1 Feb. 2024, the speaker organized by Thiruvarangan was V.V. Ganeshananthan who did readings from her latest book, Brotherless Night. The venue was the Thanthai Chelva Auditorium at Jaffna Central College, a modern complex suitable for intellectual meetings that had been financed by SJV Chelvanayakam’s son Raveendran.
V.V. Ganeshananthan is McKnight Presidential Fellow and Associate Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. She earned her BA at Harvard, MFA from Iowa, and MA in Arts and Culture Journalism from Columbia. Her journalism articles cover a range of topics, some from rather dangerous places.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ganeshananthan is the author of Love Marriage (Random House, 2008). The novel is set in Sri Lanka and some of its diaspora communities, was long-listed for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World’s Best of 2008, as well as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick.
Her work has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Columbia Journalism Review, and Ploughshares, among others. A former Vice President of the South Asian Journalists Association, she has also served on the board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is a member of the board of directors of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.
he was previously the Delbanco Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan
V.V. Ganeshananthan’s first novel, Love Marriage, published in 2008, was long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her second novel, Brotherless Night, came out in 2023 and was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a National Public Radio Best Book of the Year.
This is not meant to be a book review. This is written to tell young people, especially young women, how much it is possible for them to accomplish. Following the lead of other Sri Lankans like Ganeshananthan, they too can rise very high professionally and creatively as she has.
As a New York Times Review puts it, the theme of terrorism in her book brings out “the moral nuances of violence, ever belied by black-and-white terminology.” Suffice it to say that the book is set in Sri Lanka during the period of the LTTE. It is written in the first person by the chief protagonist Sashi who wants to be a doctor. She was not in the LTTE but worked in their field hospital thereby allowing Sugi to draw from opposing views and experiences.
The reader must read the novel and discover for himself or herself “the powerful but simple writing” as described by a student at the seminar. To say just enough to give you a taste of the book, I will take from The New York Times Book Review (Omar El Akkad, Jan. 1, 2023:
The book follows the life of its narrator who begins the story as a teenager living in the majority-Tamil city of Jaffna, near the northern tip of Sri Lanka, in 1981. We witness Sashi’s life in the years before and during Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war — another term that imposes a binary divide on a conflict that the book rightly portrays as something far more fractured.
“ ‘An inconvenient sister’ among four brothers, Sashi is even-keeled, determined, on her way to becoming a doctor. Then she meets K, a charismatic and academically gifted boy who lives down the road. The relationship between the two, which begins with a searingly memorable encounter and develops into something neither fully platonic nor romantic, anchors many of the ugliest years of Sashi’s life, as war breaks out in her hometown. In response to bloody repression by the Sri Lankan government, a number of Tamil militant groups begin to take shape, most notably the Tamil Tigers. Disillusioned and angry, K joins them.”
The discussion on 1 Feb. brought out that K’s story mirrors that of Thileepan. Critical questions posed by the audience were answered well by Ganeshananthan. She described the historical research that went into the book, strengthened by her training as a journalist. She also relied on civilian accounts, such as The Broken Palmyra and Palmyra Fallen, in addition to the many interviews she did over a decade and more.
The book is 348 pages long and priced at about Rs. 3000 in Sri Lanka. It is divided into 5 parts with 20 chapters in all, roughly covering the period 1981 – 1989.
In sum, there are good signs of intellectual life as at this seminar.
India: Nehru or Gandhi?
The Consul General for Jaffna, Shri Raakesh Nataraj, took the trouble to come to Ganeshananthan’s reading and was seen hobnobbing with Jaffna folk. It is rare for a diplomat to do so.
India is a country that many of us in Jaffna look up to. India encourages this intellectual vibrancy that Jaffna occasionally shows and is to be congratulated.
Many see Mahatma Gandhi as epitomizing the best of India. However, Gandhi exhibited many oddities that I pointed out to his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi when he visited Michigan State University. He agreed that he had seen the caste prejudices that Gandhi had exhibited in his newspaper The Harijan (Harijan, Vol. IV, December 19, 1936 and January 9, 1937), saying that the lower castes had only the intelligence of a cow. Elsewhere, Gandhi refers to the palsied hands and the palsied intelligence of lower castes.
For me, the best of India is really epitomized by Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his dalliances mentioned in the book Reminiscences of the Nehru Age written by M.O. Mathai about his experiences while working as Nehru’s private secretary. Trysts are regular with a holy woman at midnight and later seen by Mathai in frock and bobbed hair. The book was subsequently banned in India, but I got a copy by interlibrary loan and kept a photocopy.
The book P.J. Alexander, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian Polity in Perspective (Raj Publication, 2024) brings out Nehru’s greatness. Among his virtues are i) upholding democratic and secular values as the best. Soon after the declaration of India as a republic, Nehru asked Sukumar Sen (then Election Commissioner) to initiate steps for general election when he could have easily postponed the election and clung on to power,”because it was a new start; ii) He entrusted the task of drafting the Indian Constitution to Ambedkar (a Dalit and Columbia PhD) when the entire Congress was waging war on him; iii) Nehru personally tried to avert clashes between Hindus and Muslims. stopped his car near South Avenue to save a Muslim who was being beaten by a group of Hindus. “Nehru jumped out of the car, ran to the policeman, grabbed his baton and charged at the group. The attackers disappeared in no time seeing Nehru”, writes Cyriac Thomas, a Vice Chancellor.
Thus it was that we all looked to India for moral leadership. Many of us want a solution to Sri Lanka’s problems based on the Indian Model. But with Modi?
PM Narendra Modi Ruins India
Modi, a low-caste tea vendor on railway station platforms, overcame the oppressions of caste to the Nehru-Gandhi vision. Yet he is pushing all the horrible Hindu iniquities that kept him down, and ironically is using the same system to rise further by stoking religious hatred. With Modi, the India we looked to is just another communal state with little to offer the world. The suggestion Alexander has for Modi is: “Try to be more inclusive. The government should be for everyone.” Alas!
The Los Angeles Times of 2 Feb. 2024 is harsher. Bob Drogin a former reporter and editor writes, when Modi led the consecration of a vast new Hindu temple atop the ruins of a demolished Muslim mosque in the town of Ayodhya, it showed how far he will go to secure his reelection this year. He rode to power, and clings to it now, on the back of militant Hindu nationalism and the menace of anti-Muslim violence.
In 2005, Modi, then the top official in the Indian state of Gujarat, became the first and only person ever barred from entering the United States under a little known immigration law that makes foreign officials ineligible for visas if they are responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The visa ban was lifted only when he became PM in 2014.
Today Modi’s brand of militant Hindu supremacy has replaced political pluralism as India’s dominant ideology, threatening the nation’s status as a secular republic.
As a foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, Drogin saw the beginnings of India’s anti-democratic slide on a sunny day in December 1992, on contested ground in Ayodhya.
He witnessed thousands of Hindu pilgrims who had gathered for a political rally suddenly storming the historic Babri mosque, built in the 16th century by Babur, the first Mughal emperor, on the site of the supposed birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. The mob tore the Mosque apart, brick by brick, with pikes, pickaxes and their bare hands. Foreign journalists were chased and clubbed. He was whacked with bamboo and hit with a brick.
A Newsweek cover famously warned of “Holy War” on the subcontinent; its rival Time deemed the communal violence an “Unholy War.”
Three-plus decades later, much of India came to a standstill Jan. 22 to watch as Modi consecrated Ram Mandir, a richly decorated $220-million temple built over the destroyed Babri mosque. In many Indian states, it was a public holiday. Stock markets and most schools and offices were closed. Government offices shut for half a day.
Ram is the Faith of India
Nonstop TV coverage showed the prime minister placing a lotus flower by the jet-black Ram idol in the temple’s inner sanctum, prostrating himself before it and all but declaring Hinduism a state religion. On June 24, 2023: “Ram is the faith of India, the foundation of India,” he told a rapt crowd according to the Times of India. “Ram is the thought of India, Ram is the law of India. … Ram is the policy [of India].”
Such a notion would be anathema to India’s once revered founding leaders, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Government should embrace all religions, not impose one over the others, they argued. Those secular values are enshrined in the Indian constitution. Human rights groups say non-Hindus are increasingly treated like second-class citizens.
Surely this way is harmful to Sri Lanka.
India’s 75th Republic Day 26 Jan. 2024
The occasion was celebrated at Valampuri hotel requiring formal wear. I did not go because India is now a poor example to follow.
There was also a dance show on 1 Feb. at the Cultural Hall in Jaffna, another generous gift from India whereby Jaffna people now have an important meeting place. My wife and I went after Consul Nataraj personally invited us, but I told him my reservations.
That day, the Consul rushed from Ganeshananthan’s event to the Cultural Hall where Odisa, Katakali, Manipuri and Satriya dances were performed by artistes from India. It seemed to me that the dance troupe leader was looking me in the eye like a friend. That made the dance so personal and the dancers personable.
Unfortunately, caste and Hinduism were foisted on us, detracting from an otherwise good artistic event. Consul Nataraj gave an introduction to dance forms and put Bharatamuni’s Natya Sastram in focus. He should know that for us Sudras of Jaffna, the 4 Vedas are prohibited reading, although everyone here pretends not to know this and chants and recites from the Vedas as if experts, not knowing that by Vedic rules they are inviting perdition on themselves.
As Bharata Muni describes, the Sudras complained to Lord God Brahma that not letting them read the Vedas was unfair. So Brahma wrote the Natyasastra for us Sudras, taking “the Pathyam (recitals) from the Rgveda, Gitam (music) from the Samans; Abhinayas (histrionic and gestural representation) from the Yajurveda and the Rasas (sentiments) from the Atharvaveda. In this manner the charmingly graceful Natya Veda having its origin and connection with the Vedas and Upavedas was evolved by the noble souled holy being Brahma.”
As if adding salt to our wounded egos, there was a dance that was said to be based on Gandhi’s favorite hymn, where the preamble says that a person of whatever religion, if he worships Vishnu is a true Vaishanavite. And then in the dance, Jesus Christ, the Buddha, and Mohammed appear, with their prayers set to music from their own religious texts, to worship Vishnu.
Is this a sign of Modi’s invasion of Jaffna? India must use independence day to remember the values of Nehru and reinforce them; not to foist the Hindu religion (including caste) on us. Or India would be reinforcing the Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony from which we are hoping for help from India and its pre-Modi values.
Another down in Jaffna is the ineffectiveness of the Church whose raison d’etre is to preach God’s love to humankind created as equals in His image and thereby counter the intrinsic inequality imposed by caste. Bishop Dushantha Rodrigo, seeks to surround himself with weak persons who are in eternal gratitude to him to defend his weak administration. He has appointed someone as Archdeacon Nuwara Eliya who has been caught in several adulterous activities in Kilinochchi and Vavuniya; his wife, feeling cut off from the love of God, attempted suicide by dousing herself with kerosene. K. Maniwannan, an active Anglican, has complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury against Bishop Rodrigo saying the said priest had been interdicted by the previous Bishop for 2 years. Manivannan’s complaint is now in wide circulation and many wonder if the Bishop and his priests are like our politicians or God’s ministers. Senior, more reputable, priests ask by what criteria they were excluded in favour of this tainted priest.
A positive for Jaffna is 6 Feb. 2024 when Uduvil Girls’ College will celebrate its bicentennial. It is a truly Christian occasion when the school will really be 200 years old. The three other schools claiming a 200+ year history are wilfully inaccurate to seek posterity – Jaffna Central College (Methodist, nationalized now), St. John’s College (Anglican) and Jaffna College. Men like Bishop Rodrigo and Bishop Padmathayalan tried to fool God by thanking him for 200 years of his bounty to St. John’s and Jaffna College. Like church attendance, it is only thanks to women that Christian principles are being kept intact.