By 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