Colombo, Identity, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Sivahamy’s Sorrow: Mission Accomplished!

My name is Madduma Bandara — a brave young journalist working for Ceylon Daily Lies. I am going to tell you the story of a Sri Lankan Tamil woman by the name of Sivapuranam Sivahamy. What follows is consistent with the official policy of CDL, “we report, you decide.” Permit me to engage your imagination a bit.

Sivahamy comes from a farming family in the north of Sri Lanka, a poor village about 15 miles from 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, however hungry her younger siblings were, until all of the family had returned after the day’s hard work. That was optimal pragmatics, because they had to share the food equally – so the early diners don’t consume a disproportionately higher share. 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, took the unprecedented step of paying 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. You might think that in a male dominated Tamil village community, that would have been the end of story. No. Sivahamy’s mother had risen to the occasion. She put her foot down, over-ruled the husband, and made a firm decision that saw Sivahamy not just through secondary school, but also a degree programme in the (then) newly established University of HillTop. She went onto a career in teaching and now lives in retirement.

The day I visited Sivahamy, she had just received a letter form the Western Province Governor, some form she had to fill, to do with the death of her husband, Sivapuranam. She stares at the form, which is in the Official Language of Sri Lanka: Sinhala. She knows enough Sinhala to get by. She can comfortably communicate with her three wheeler driver, her maid, the local fish monger and the carpenter. But officialdom in a formal letter is rather beyond her.

Now, Sivahamy is well integrated with the society around her and does not live in any sort of isolation. Within a “bowshot from her bower-eaves” (that’s my imagination — nobody actually verified this unit of measurement under controlled experimental conditions), she has several dozen close friends, students and neighbours, all native speakers of Sinhala, who would effortlessly read the letter and accurately fill the form out on her behalf. Yet, Sivahamy experiences that horrible feeling you would not want even your worst enemy to feel: that of being made illiterate!

A successful teacher much respected by several batches of high school students, a fantastic friend and neighbour for whom your ethnicity or social class did not matter one iota, an exemplar Sri Lankan woman who could earn herself a degree two decades before several Oxbridge Colleges allowed women into their High Tables, from a country of which she has been so proud for giving her that opportunity, and an exemplar Sri Lankan who chose to work and then stay in Sri Lanka well after her normal age of retirement, was being made to feel illiterate. And that, mind you, in my country which boasts of a literacy rate figure exceeding 85%. Would you believe that? Could you justify that?

It is time for a slight distraction. Sivahamy’s good-for-nothing son Thevaram was also at home when I visited her. His interests being in theoretical social sciences, he tried to impress me with various data he had gathered to understand the current state of socio-political developments in Sri Lanka, as social scientists with  a bit of quantitative persuasion tend to do. For example, in order to calibrate how Sinhala nationalism was emerging in post-war Sri Lanka, he has been visiting internet cafes all along the A1 highway at random, looking for CV’s carelessly left by previous users on “Desktop” and “Downloads” folders. Of the 13 CVs he had observed in this way, eight apparently said “Nationality: Sinhalese.” This somehow bothers him much. I don’t see how such sociological data gathering and analysis is more useful in understanding the state of my country than this current plight of his elderly mother. “Edduch churaikkai karikku uthavaathu”   (approximate translation: portrait of a pumpkin is of no use for cooking), I concede.

Sivahamy’s emotions consist of a complex mixture of sadness, anger and frustration. That cocktail is deeply hurting to those who have experienced it, and means nothing to those who haven’t. Commentators and analysts, who understand neither its complexity nor its deadly impact on Sivahamy’s soul, readily offer solutions on how to cope with her sorrow: “You don’t belong here, go back to Tamil Nadu” and “Take some Aspirin and it will go away” are examples. Insensitive and idiotic they may be, but tend to be strong views of a vocal and powerful minority. The majority are puzzled by Sivahamy’s emotions: “Luxury buses run on A9 and Aadi vEl thEr is going on Galle Road, what exactly are you complaining about?” they ask. Fair question, no?

I watched Sivahamy’s emotions propagate in the spatio-temporal ether that surrounds Sri Lanka, engulfing it just the same way as air-pollution in the city of Kandy on a busy Friday afternoon. In time, it goes back a few decades, and in space, it travels to a beautiful coconut estate in Attanagalle, where a recently departed former leader of Sri Lanka is visiting another who departed earlier: Junius paying a courtesy call on Solomon, both eminent Sri Lankans of whom we as a nation are so proud of.


Two Sri Lankan Leaders: Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranayake and Junius Richard Jayawardene (Photographs taken from Wikipedia).

Junius and Solomon, resting in a sort of peace which only they understand, raise their glasses of Scotch, and toast their achievement: “Cheers!” Sivahamy knows exactly what that utterance means: “Mission Accomplished!”

  • wijayapala

    Dear Mahesan/Madduma Bandara,

    Thank you for another thought-provoking story. The above narrative was quite revealing beyond the surface of exposing the non-implementation of Tamil as an official language, and it has prompted some questions which I hope you can follow up on:

    1) How would Ms. Sivahamy have reacted if the letter was in English? Does she know English? If so, what motivated her to learn English and avoid the language spoken by the majority of the inhabitants? Who exactly did Ms. Sivahamy teach, if she didn’t know the language spoken by most of the children? Even the LTTE leader’s own father (a govt servant) knew Sinhala.

    2) I noticed that the letter in question was from the Western Provincial Council, not the central government. In other words, Ms. Sivahamy’s pain is not the result of the failure of the central government, but rather the result of the implementation of *devolution*. After all, wouldn’t devolution allow the Western PC to make Sinhala its sole “official language” (if the Eastern PC would be able to do the same with Tamil)? If so, how does devolution benefit the minorities living outside the N-E?

    I would understand Ms. Sivahamy’s pain better if she was still living in the N-E. Why did she choose to live in a province where most people do not speak her language(s)?

    3) The part about the CVs was interesting. Is this part of the story fact or fiction? I ask because I’ve never seen anyone put their nationality on a CV, and it would be quite redundant given that anyone’s nationality can be determined by looking at the name or where the person went to school.

    4) SWRD is revered by some Sinhalese because prior to 1956 the letter would have been in English which 90% of the population (including Tamils) could not read. Personally I believe that Sinhala-Only was wrong to exclude the Tamils. It would have been nice if the Tamil leadership prior to 1956 had campaigned for “swabhasha” instead of remaining complacent with the preexisting “English Only” system that excluded far more Sri Lankans than Sinhala Only.

  • SLFireBall

    “She knows enough Sinhala to get by. She can comfortably communicate with her three wheeler driver, her maid, the local fish monger and the carpenter.”

    Any one noticed the subtle inferiority complex of Niranjan in the above line. Mr. know that when you point one finger at others four fingers are pointed at you!

  • Asitha Gamage

    True national independence in any country with a clearly defined historical geographic area is concurrent with a regeneration of the national customs, language and cultural values that were prevalent during the pre-colonial periods. Real democracy incorporates such regeneration. Sri Lanka has been a colonial country from the 11th century when the Chalas invaded upto 1948 when the British granted final independence. A national language re-emerging as Sinhala thereby requiring others within post-independent Sri Lanka to be inclusive within such priority is a natural independent phenomenon. Tamil, Portuguese, Dutch, Malay or English are simply national enforcements imposed upon the country by powerful but temporary invaders. As such there is no point in crying or shouting or fighting against such natural phenomena. All Sri Lankans have to respect true independence and values intrinsic and composite within such a phenomenon as national independence. Attempted division based on ethnic fortresses created during subjugant and colonial periods will meet similar fates as attempted Eelam while causing untold misery to its intended benefactors. These are facts of life on this earth and not anything peculiar to Sri Lanka.

  • sapper

    “You don’t belong here, go back to Tamil Nadu”

    when she go there, can she get a central govt form to fill in tamil?

  • subramaniam

    @SLFireball
    when you point ahead, it is 3 fingers not 4 that are pointing back at the pointer. the thumb, which is not a finger, would have to be really rather flexible in order to be able manoeuvre backwards against its joint to point back at the pointer.

    im not sure whether the author is suffering from a “mild inferiority complex” but he is certainly highly arrogant, as a perusal of his other stories show. the problem is that tamils do not read enough and certainly nothing in the fictive category, if they did (n.mahesan included), they would be far from impressed by the satirical ‘faction’ produced by our friend above.

    amateur and pedantic. move on.

  • wijayapala

    Subramaniam, I did not understand how the author is arrogant. Could you pls explain.

  • justitia

    SWRDBandanayake implemented Sinhala Only merely to get the approval of the majority for his own political survival. He also converted to buddhism for the same purpose. He also adopted ‘vershdi and shawl’ as national dress.This dress was that of tamils.I have seen sinhala gentlemen with a konde and a curved comb on top, wearing a coat and sarong. This was the popular dress of persons of prestige.
    SWRD did not do all this because he loved the sinhala language or buddhism. All his rhetoric was for political survival.
    Tamils in the north and east, not only in the western province, are sent official letters in sinhala even now. Even tamil Members of Parliament receive official letters in sinhala, sometimes with an english translation.
    All these people fare/feel the same as Sivahamy.

  • Chandra

    @Subramanium
    You call the author arrogant, at the same time you say the Tamil ppl don’t read much! For whom is the title a better fit, I wonder?

  • Heike Winnig

    Splendid article. Thank you.

    I may not have a clue what being Tamil is like, not in the past nor at present, but I can honestly agree with Sivahamy’s feelings. It isn’t difficult to understand the devastation of her heart and soul.

  • subramaniam

    @Chandra

    I am Tamil, I notice that the majority of people in my family and in my wider (Tamil) society do not read – and I am talking here about the supposedly ‘educated’ Tamil community (i.e. those with M.B.B.S’s, MEng’s and even LLB’s by their name).

    “Robert Holmes in his book Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980, made a poignant observation about the reading habits of Eelam Tamils. “Only a very small minority find recreation in reading. One of the best informed of the residents of Jaffna, who reads omnivorously told me, ‘Most of the people in Jaffna have no academic interest. They do not read books. Even the wealthy man who has two cars will not have a library. If he is a doctor, he will have a few medical books; if a lawyer, some law books…Only the exceptional person possesses books’.”

    My point about the arrogance of the author of these satirical ‘faction’ pieces (that delights such colombo extraordinaires as Dayan Jayatilleka) is based on his record of writings – if you are unable to decipher for yourself the thick, sludge-like arrogance and elitism embedded in these pieces, perhaps density is the issue?

  • Chandra

    @Subramanium
    1. Do you think the level of reading is of higher standards in any other community you know? Do Sinhalese read more? Do the Americans or Canadians or Eskimos read more??
    2. In Mahesan’s posts here there is a mixture of fairly harmless old jokes and personal anecdotes used to convey somewhat strong political messages. Why don’t you try and give some arguments against the points he makes (what he says about the Sinhala only project of Bandaranaike being so damaging, and so successful, in this article above for example), if you so disagree with him?
    3. Show us something you have written which targets a wider audience than DJ the CE.

  • wije

    Subramaniam,

    I also have Mr Holmes’s book, which provides a rare glimpse into Jaffna on the eve of the civil war. My critique of his narrative is that he compares Jaffna society to the West which is wholly inappropriate. As a Sinhala I would have learned more if he highlighted the differences with the other communities who live in a similar context, rather than Westerners who have a totally different culture.

    If Tamils do not read very much then it is similar to us Sinhalese as well!

  • Ila

    @Wijayapala:

    You raise a very good point as to how Sivahamy would have reacted if the form had been in English. It is true that today, a lot more people, especially youngsters, are more comfortable conversing in English rather than in Tamil/English. I personally admit that even though Tamil is my maternal language, I would struggle to fill out an official form in Tamil because I have grown up studying in English medium. However, I am not one of those people shirking my identity, but it’s a situation that arose more out of circumstances. At the end of the day, language should not be a criterion for measuring one’s level of patriotism. Both Tamil and Sinhala should be made official languages, and using English as an official mode of communication will also not hurt, but benefit our populace. Turning a conscious back on our identity is what will hurt our nation.

    Who exactly did Ms Sivahamy teach?

    How about the thousands of young students who study in Tamil medium in Colombo, or maybe she taught in English. And as to why she lives in a province where most people don’t speak her language, she knows enough to comfortably get by, and she doesn’t require Sinhala in her job, and she can communicate with people regardless of their mother tongue. Non Sri Lankan nationals move to Sri Lanka and are perfectly capable of getting by in Sri Lanka, save a few jittery conversations. Insinuating that people should only move to places where they are fluent in the local language is a very good idea to divide an already divided country.