Vaddukkottai Memories: Jaffna In The 1960s

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By Glenn Yocum

Prof. Glenn Yocum

Confessions:  I’m an American, now almost 70 years old.  I spent a year in Vaddukkottai, Jaffna in 1967-68.  Technically, at that time I was a “missionary,” though I never converted anyone or wanted to.  Impelled much more by adventure and wanderlust than any sense of “calling,” for me it was an “intern year” during (or rather out of) a theological education (Protestant, liberal, etc.):  an opportunity (for me) that came out of nowhere after a year spent at the University of Oxford.  But I’ll spare you those details.  From the perspective of the missionary sending organization, which was a descendant of the American Congregationalist Protestant Christians who had founded Jaffna College in 1823, I was holding open a “visa position” for some permanent employee/missionary to replace me for a full five-year term.  So I landed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) sometime in October-November 1967, knowing I think only that Ceylon was an island, its capital Colombo, and its fame for tea.  I’ve never been the same since.

I landed in Sri Lanka a lower-middle-class American from Pennsylvania who considered myself extremely fortunate at that point in life to have had six years of what I  thought was an excellent post-secondary education:  three years at a very good small “liberal arts college,” one year as an “exchange student” at the University of Hamburg in Germany, one year at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and one year at the University of Oxford.  At the time I actually thought I was a bit educated; I was young, I was naïve, I was not dumb, but fortunately I did not feel myself entitled by dint of upbringing, education, or accomplishment.  Within about two hours of landing at Colombo Airport in 1967, I realized that my six years of excellent post-secondary education had not informed me about the world I was entering (which represented for me, at least in retrospect, at least two-thirds of the then existing world).  I suspect this is a familiar story:  the 1960s American naif arriving in a non-European country and being “blown away” by what he encountered there.  For most Americans (like my spouse) it was a Peace Corps experience (for her, in Turkey); for me it was being the undergraduate chaplain (a totally new, amorphous position) at Jaffna College, Vaddukkottai.  We 1960s Americans who were so fortunate (I’m tempted to say, blessed) probably did little good in these “exotic” environments.  But our experiences abroad committed us (at least my wife and me–and I think we were not atypical) to lifetime involvement with and study of what we had experienced, of where we had been.  Certainly I did not convert anyone in Vaddukkottai; rather, Jaffna converted me.

So, after my year in Jaffna (more about which below), I returned to the U.S., having found my “vocation”:  I wanted to go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. in the study of Tamil religions, teach at a small liberal arts college like the one I had attended, and thereby hoped to provide students with a somewhat broader perspective on the world than the one I been given.  Well, all of that happily came to pass.  But during and after graduate school my research came to focus, not surprisingly, on south India and its religious traditions rather than on Sri Lanka (Tamil Saiva saints and their poems, Saiva temples, Saiva mutts, etc.).  Indeed, prior to a quite unexpected, fortuitous trip to Kandy in December 2012, I’d only been back to Sri Lanka once–and then only briefly (two or three days) to Jaffna in 1973.  So I’m hardly a Sri Lanka expert.  But I do harbor vivid, happy memories of being in Jaffna in the late 1960s.

The Jaffna peninsula in 1967-68–and Jaffna College in particular–were a wonderful place to be a wide-eyed, naïve foreigner.  People were invariably friendly and helpful.  The pace was slow.  The skies were clear.  The landscape, though very flat (and I’ve never been very fond of flat) was nonetheless new and appealing with its palmyra palms studding the horizon.  I came to love the lanes, the vegetation, and the birds, especially the birds.  But it was the people who changed me.  How so?  Certainly by their openness, patience, and overall willingness to respond to, indeed to tolerate, the constant questions of the ignorant foreigner that I was.

Jaffna in the late 1960s was a very peaceful, relaxed, slow-paced place.  I remember riding my bicycle, sometimes on the open (i.e., non-lane) road into Jaffna town, watching the Indian rollers perched on the electric lines and then swooping into the paddy fields–and the beautiful paradise flycatchers rising and dipping across the compound in which I lived.  I came to love string hoppers and sambar and red rice, though I did have to learn how to eat with my fingers.

My students were attractive; they were probably much too respectful of someone only a few years older than they were who knew so little at the time about their society and culture.  They were overwhelmingly, perhaps exclusively, male.  They were mainly Tamil Hindus, but some were Tamil Christians, some were Sinhalese Buddhists, a few were Burghers.  My faculty colleagues at Jaffna College were more often Christian than Hindu; all in my memory were Tamils.  Sharpness of mind and generosity of spirit were the norm.  If the names Silan Kadirgamar, Rajan Kadirgamar, Luther Jeyasingham, Sabapathy Kulendran, Balan Chelliah, and “Bubsy” Arulampalam are familiar to people in Sri Lanka forty-five years later, these are the people I knew best then and from whom I learned the most.  There was also the college librarian who was a Tambiah, of whom I was very fond.  And, of course, there was a student, more my own age than that of my faculty colleagues, M. Eugene, from whom I gained much in knowledge and outlook.

My memory of Jaffna—and Sri Lanka more generally—is of a peaceful, relaxed, generous place populated by intelligent, well-educated, welcoming people who despite their long colonial history did not hold my western culture and American appearance against me.  I was, to be sure, at least somewhat aware of ethnic issues—“Sinhala only,” the status of Indian Tamil plantation workers who were supposed to be repatriated to India, a couple of riots that occurred prior to my year there, the lack of political parties (apart from those of the far left) and other civic institutions that crossed ethnic lines.  But at the time those ethnic tensions seemed to me manageable, soluble.

The Ceylon of my experience contrasted markedly with the America of that time:  the Vietnam war, the assassinations during the time I was in Jaffna of Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots, civil rights struggle, and on and on.  I arrived back in the U.S. in August 1968 during the height of the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago:  hippies and yippies camped out in Grant Park by Lake Michigan staging anti-war rallies; the Chicago mayor Richard Daley shouted insults and profanities at Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff during his speech nominating George McGovern; the infamous “police riot” by the Chicago cops happened.  Believe me, the Jaffna world I had just left seemed a haven of peace and stability compared to the disintegrating American political-social scene to which I had returned.  That year in Vaddukkottai was a time that changed me greatly, a year that I will always treasure and for which I’m very grateful.  I only wish the years after my stay in Jaffna had been as placid, secure, and happy as I remember my time there having been.

*Glenn Yocum was Professor of Religion at Whittier College in Whittier, California, USA until his recent retirement

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16 Responses to Vaddukkottai Memories: Jaffna In The 1960s

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    Leela Wherever you are, it transpires that the Vaddukkottai resolution was inspired/drafted by American Glenn Yocum, an American conspiracy to undermine Sri Lankan sovereignty(?)way back in 1967.

    Native Vedda
    May 21, 2013 at 4:11 am
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      Good one! Await the usual western conspiracy theories by leela, sumane and co. !!!!

      howzzat
      May 21, 2013 at 7:06 am
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        howzzat Please don’t insult Sumanesekere for he does it very well himself.

        Native Vedda
        May 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm
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          actually its Leela who writes as K A Sumansekera

          Peace Lover
          May 21, 2013 at 9:15 pm
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    Glenn, Treasure those happy memories of halcyon days in a peaceful island that, at that moment in time, had no idea of the steady and sure descent into a hell that lasted 30 miserable years. The post mortems, alas, seem likely to last another 30 years. Those of us lucky to have the memories you recall will forever rue our inability to keep the barabarians at bay for in the words of Edmund Burke “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

    Spring Koha
    May 21, 2013 at 5:20 am
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      we need to add the memories of 30 years between 1956 to 1986 that was the period in which we sow all the seeds that brought the hell lasted 30 miserable years and continued misery in this beautiful land.

      Ajith
      May 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm
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      Glenn Too bad you hadn’t read some background material before you came to Ceylon. there was already a lot of good books to read, like >i>Caste in Jaffna Cambridge 1960 but Under the Bo Tree: Studies in Caste, Kinship & Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon by Nur Yalman (Jun 1967) ,may not have appeared as yet. But you have heard of ‘Manu Dharma’? However, did you not see that there was a monstrous oppressive society where the upper castes behaved perfectly nicely within their own stratum, and demanded utter servitude from those strata below them? The women were always one stratum below a given stratum of the males. Did you not see that almost every one who came to Jaffna College were from the land-owning upper castes, while the others, lower caste children, had lesser and lesser privileges as you went down in the strata? The British Historian Jane Russell who was studying in Jaffna during the 1970-80ss noted enough cases of women who went bare-breasted because they were not allowed to cover themselves! Did Glenn who was there a decade earlier not see that many people could not even draw water from a well to drink? Lower caste kids could not get any type of education, and there was this bulging youth demographics and lack of jobs for them. Shops did not employ anyone unless they were from suitable castes, and did not allow certain clients to come in to shops and mingle with the other customers! They had to come after hours, via the backdoor if they wanted something. The kajan fences of Jaffna hid a lot of things from a naive foreigner. Did not Glenn know that almost ALL the Tamil leaders of the time lived in Colombo, while the North was run almost like their private estate? These Colombo Periah Dorais controlled the politics which was confrontational since the 1930, when universal franchise was proposed by the Donoughmore commission, ensuring the erosion of the land-owning caste privileged society? So, although Vaddukkoddai was peaceful in the 1960s, the tamil leaders and the Sinhala leaders were not peaceful, and kicked up a fight about language, although this was hardly the real problem. It was devolving power on an ethnic (read, racial) basis that was the crux of the problem. Even today, Glenn should get hold of acopy of Communal politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947. Author, Jane Russell. Publisher, Tisara Prakasakayo, 1982 , to understand how Lanka came to end up in separatist wars. The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact (B-C pact) to devolve power had come in from the agitations of 1956-1958. Then the Tamil Nationalists in Jaffna went on parade opposing it and insisting that it is a sellout to the Sinhalese when Chelva had promised to lead them to Arasu. The Sinhalese nationalists also said that it was a sellout to the the Tamils. The B-C pact was rescinded. All that happened before you arrived in Vaddukkoddai. Clearly, as you yourself said, you knew little about Sri Lanka. Even today, the so-called western experts, diplomats, as well as Indian experts know little about lanka, and don’t understand what is going on in there. And yet, they come to Sri Lanka to propose political solutions to it. I guess a starry-eyed student out of a seminary is not the best observer of what is going on, on the face of the earth.

      Yogi
      May 22, 2013 at 1:04 am
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        Here a foreigner who lived in Jaffna gives his opinion. A native who has never lived in Jaffna is unable to tolerate the good words spoken by him. What kind of person are you. This is all bad that you could find about Jaffna. Peaceful open brave sharp – these are the words used to describe Jaffna. Kidnap murder rape lies corrupt are the word that is used to describe you know where. Can you dare ask the polititions living in Colombo to go to their home towns. Try that Gotha to start with and see what happens. ?

        Lanka liar
        May 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm
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    Those were the days of peace and tranquility, but not to be since the storm clouds of ethnic and religous disharmony were gathering on the horizon. In 1967 we were a decade into the divide of Sinhala only and the take over of Christian Schools. The intent to communalise was manifest and working in the minds of the then leaders of the nation. Little did they know that the seeds sown by them would germinate into a destructive force that we are still trying to overcome.

    Safa
    May 21, 2013 at 6:09 am
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    I have known Glenn Yocum for the past several years, and I can and do attest that he is a fine human being who cares about people and their equitable treatment. I am shocked that one might be so shallow as to accuse him of any kind of political conspiracy, and not understand the gratitude that he is expressing to those Jaffans who were so kind to him years ago! Dear Accuser: Open your eyes and heart to his words! But, you seem to prefer that I write something ridiculous like: I know Mr Yocum to be an imperialist pig who was an agent of American imperialism since the day he entered elementary school in 1949. He has been undermining the interests of the people in Germany, England, Sri Lanka, and Turkey since 1963 and has been a recruiter of naive students to the imperialist-capitalist cause since he started teaching at Whittier College in 1973. He now pursues his nefarious designs in his Retirement, turning the local poor (in his chosen retirement city here in the USA) to enslavement by Wall Street capitalists. — You may prefer such, but I could never write such nonsense (and mean it)! — John Shuster (or “Jegan Sumanasena”, if you prefer!)

    John Shuster
    May 21, 2013 at 8:13 am
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      Hey, who are you getting so worked out at? yogi was not accusing him of anything other than his own ignorence which he himself freely admits. One thing I like to thank Glenn yocum for is his honest depiction of the those days in jaffna that does not confirm any of the claims that are made today by the seperatist terrorists.

      NAK
      May 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm
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      Thanks, What we find so unpalletable is that he said he went there as a missionary but he failed to live up to his calling. In fact he should have gone there as a travellor thus not violating his true convictions. A misionary’s duty is to proclaim the gospel to those who desparately need. Having siad that, I admire his honesty and his love for the people who are different than him.

      Mimo
      June 18, 2013 at 9:07 am
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    Memories don’t leave like people do(forget/die), They keep always coming back, whether bring good or bad. Yes, you were fortunate to spend a year when the North(Jaffna) was in almost peace.Please don,t visualise a same future.

    mohamed fazly ilyas
    May 21, 2013 at 8:37 am
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    Mr Yokum Thank you for detailing your memories and not judging . Please visit our beloved country anytime . I happen to be in the reverse position to you . Sadly when most europeans visit us they tend to lecture us on what good governance , Human rights and justice are . But they tend to ignore the huge dirt pile in their backyard and take sides . We know about all those things . our cultures and religions are steeped in them from time immemorial . It is true that we are not perfect . We are human after all . Thank you any way .

    Abhaya Premawardena
    May 21, 2013 at 6:44 pm
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      Ignoring the dirt is not helpful after all. Your government which is reponsible for protecting”ALL’ of its citizens turned its guns on innocent minority and killed over 40,000 (according to UN) in just 3 months. You will never see this kind of things in a democratic country. Simply put, you are morally bankrupt and devoid or reason.

      Mimo
      June 18, 2013 at 9:13 am
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    Please do send Professor Glenn Yocum e-mail to me.I want to send our college magazine 100th Year celebration by Colombo branch Alumni Association Thanks and Regards, Indrarajan Sent – CT

    Indrarajan
    September 4, 2013 at 1:24 pm
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