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!”