The Story of Ravana & Mandodari: giving womankind their say

9 Jun

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Victors it is said, write history. India might have its version(s) of the Ramayana but over in Sri Lanka, Ravana remains a tragic and misunderstood hero. A hero to this day loved and mourned by his people.

His tale continues to be enacted and re-enacted via drama and theatre in the Serendib isle. One of the foremost artistes of the isle to keep on studying and revising Ravana’s character and story as he gains new insights on them, is Professor S. Maunaguru – an authority on Sri Lankan Tamil drama and theatre.

Professor Maunaguru was a youth of 22 when he first wrote a now iconic play in Sri Lanka called Ravanesan, produced and staged by his mentor Professor S.Vithiyananthan. He also acted the main character of Ravana in the play, staged at the University of Peradeniya back in 1965. Now a retired academic and veteran artiste of 73, Professor Maunaguru has rewritten and re-staged his play many times over, most recently in November 2016 during a countrywide reconciliation festival between the war-torn North and South of Sri Lanka.

Ramayana Sri Lanka Feminist point of view

Professor Maunaguru with his theatre students

There was a time in Sri Lanka’s recent history he reminisces, when theatre artistes could not portray contemporary life without threat to their lives. Southern artistes faced the same kind of restriction but for their fellow artistes in the North and East, the threat was double. Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the LTTE were open to criticism, and contemporary life being full of war and chaos caused by both, could not be well-reflected in the arts unless one was willing to risk one’s life.

“Many of my colleagues and friends left the country and urged me to do the same but I preferred to stay on in Sri Lanka, even with its constraints rather than be free in exile. My consuming passion was theatre and the different art forms of Sri Lanka and I couldn’t contemplate a life without them. Since times had changed to such an extent that I could not be a modern artist depicting contemporary situations, I turned to exclusively researching indigenous art and producing only mythical / historical productions. Which as in the case of Ravanesan could still land me in trouble,” he says.

Still from 2016

He explains how that came to be. As he evolved as an academic and artiste, the professor gained new insights about his main hero, which he infused into his characters interpretation in the script.

“I heavily re-edited Ravanesan for a Year 2000 production. With insight as an older man, I tried to portray Ravana as a more human character. Rather than the usual arrogant portrayal, I depicted him as someone who brashly entered war, realized it was a mistake but was too proud to back out. The next thing I knew, I was getting angry calls based on some interesting and innovative interpretations of my meaning in the play. I had a lot of trouble defending myself against inferences in the then contemporary context which I still don’t want to talk about.” 


He might have chosen to stick to ancient, mythical lore rather than focus on contemporary stories – but a good artist will always elicit feelings of connectivity in the audience. To an audience undergoing a contemporary war, the enactment of an ancient mythical war upheld many parallels they could relate to. Which in turn led to inferences that he had obliquely critiqued a contemporary character who was very powerful at the time.

                                            Women’s perspective

In the meantime, the Professor was also criticised for not bringing in a perspective that was much needed, yet often sidelined. In Sri Lanka both during war and post-war, the fall-out has affected women tremendously in a myriad ways. Yet their perspectives; their fears and pain, do not find much scope for expression in mainstream media or the arts. From the time of Ravanan to the times of Prabhakaran and Rajapakse, the tales remain focused primarily on men and their triumphs and losses.

Whether it was the story of Draupadi in the Mahabharatha, Helen in the Illiyad or Sita in the Ramayana, men simply relegated women to being props to raise the tale of their own varlour,” explains Professor Maunaguru.
What happens though when one of these male storytellers has a feminist wife? We don’t know about Valmiki, Homer and Kamban but in the case of Professor Maunaguru, he had to re-write his script. Professor Chitralega Maunaguru, an academic and feminist activist in Sri Lanka did not let her husband get away with giving a bit part to Mandodari, Ravana’s wife.

“The original Mandodari I wrote was a cry-baby but Chitra was scornful of my interpretation. Even as the war unravelled in Sri Lanka, she was travelling the country listening to and documenting women’s stories. She let me know what women would have had to say in Mandodari’s place, and I re-wrote my script accordingly,” says Professor Maunaguru.

Thus in his new version, in tandem with the war-cries of Ravana are the anti-war cries of his wife, who relays firsthand the grief of women who have had their agency hijacked by men, yet pay the steepest price in the repercussions of war.

Many a war-affected person in Sri Lanka, especially its women across all ethnicities, tend to identify first hand with Mandodari’s rage and anguish in this play. It depicts not only Ravana the tragic anti-hero too proud to back out of a war that he knows will devastate his family and citizens, but also his wife, the tragic feminist icon who knows all too well the repercussions of war, and seeks to counsel her husband that the concept of honour can take many forms. She, like many women, knows that there is no cowardice in backtracking or extending olive branches instead of thumping one’s chest and raising battle cries. Battle cries of the men that would end with the wails of their widows and children, as she forewarns.

Mandodari & Ravana 2016 (1)

Mandodari bringing Ravana to his knees in her impassioned plea for peace and not war

 

And so with the revision of this iconic play in Sri Lanka, we no more have the men alone telling the story of war from their vantage viewpoint. The women are being given their due space too. As a culture evolves, so do the voices of its legends. “The story of Mandodari and Ravana continue to live on in the minds of their people, but as living legends I told Maunaguru that they have to evolve with the times,” says Chitralega, when asked about her input to her husband’s famous play.

And thus this tale as old as time, reverberated with its audience in both North and South Sri Lanka where it was staged recently. The thespian has done his job once again in getting his audience to connect to his story. And this time we can put a name to the woman behind his success.

Chitra and Maunaguru

Professors Chitralega and Maunaguru

Heritage Sites of Jaffna’s last kingdom

16 Jan
Nallur temple

Nallur Kandasamy Temple – Photo courtesy T.T Mayuran

Jaffna was once a Kingdom with its seat in Nallur.
The Nallur Kandasamy temple, originally built by the Kings of Jaffna, has a recorded history going back more than a thousand years, and is still the cultural icon that many people identify, with the peninsula of Jaffna. The temple’s famous annual festival which drew pilgrims and tourists from all over Sri Lanka has recently concluded. What many people are unaware of however is that there are many other historical sites to see in Nallur, apart from the main temple. Jaffna’s last kingdom still has remnants of its heyday dotting the area. Listed below are just a few of the sites you can visit to get a glimpse of its historical past. Note however that we’re telling the stories of these places as per local folklore. There hasn’t been much research to corroborate the community’s claims about them, but they’re fascinating nonetheless.

King Sankili’s statue
Statue of King Sankili

Just a few meters away from the Nallur temple, on the Jaffna – Pt.Pedro Road is a gold plated statue of Jaffna’s last king. The old white statue made of stone was damaged during the war, so this is a new one, installed after war ended in 2009. King Sankili II’s rule ended in 1619 when he was caught and executed by Portuguese invaders. He was not necessarily known as a popular or benevolent king according to the local people.  They report contradicting anecdotes as to his claim to the throne – differences of opinion exist as to whether he was in fact the previous king’s nephew or illegitimate son.

Either way, he is said to have come to power by killing the legitimate heirs, and became known as a tyrannical despot who ruthlessly squashed dissent.  Not content with subjugating his own people, he also made the fatal mistake of annoying the colonial Portuguese government in Colombo by beheading 600 of Mannar’s local populace who had converted to Christianity. This brought about the vanquishing of the Jaffna kingdom and his own execution. He is now remembered and lauded for fighting the Portuguese whom the people didn’t want to see taking over their land either, but  Sankili II in the end is more famous for being the last king of Jaffna than for any yearning of the people to get back under his reign.

Palace Arch

King's palace arch

The expanse of land (now reduced to a few kilometres) surrounding the Nallur temple were once known as the grounds of the Royal Family of Jaffna. The land is known, even to this day as Sankilian Thoppu (Sankili’s Garden) as the Royals had properties dotting the area, which were also thickly planted with trees.

The Royal Palace which Sankili II took over however has long since been destroyed (even before the war) except for one solitary remnant – the Arch to the Palace Gate. Carved from thick stone and worked in intricate detail at the looping arch end, it can be seen a few meters away from the King’s statue on the Jaffna –Pt.Pedro Road. This Arch alone from the original palace structure is still standing – a solitary testament to a bygone age, of Jaffna’s palace intrigues and history.

Queens’ Bathing Tank

Queen's bathing tank

The Queens and their attendants had a private bathing tank (now no longer private) behind the Palace, known as the Yamuna Aeri. According to local reports, there was once a tunnel leading from the palace to the tank so that the royal retinue of ladies (who probably practised purdah), could not be viewed by the common people as they wended  their way to their daily baths. This tunnel was seen by people until recent decades when fears that the LTTE might utilize it, led to its being sealed by the Army apparently.

Situated in a small hamlet just off the Jaffna –Pt.Pedro Road, the tank still has an aura of historical nostalgia about it. As if it were reminiscing of a time when Queens once bathed in it instead of the little boys now irreverently frolicking in its abandoned moss green waters.

The Raja Manthiri’s Mansion

Manthiri Manai

Known in Tamil as the Manthiri Manai (the Minister’s Mansion), this building is in a much better state of preservation when compared to the Palace structure.  It stands on the other side of the road opposite the Palace Arch. The Raja Manthiri’s Quarters as it is known, is a rather fascinating, picturesque old world structure which is beginning to look increasingly out of place in fast urbanizing Nallur. If buildings have personalities, this one’s is reminiscent of a venerable old man, lost in his own musings of a bygone age, oblivious to the antics of the hipster youths around him.

Manthiri Manai from the inside

Of the antics of these youths, a whole lot can be written. The ancient walls within the mansion have been vandalised all over with unseemly graffiti. The abandoned and cobwebbed nooks and corners of the Mansion seem to have become ideal Lover’s Spots away from prying eyes, and while conducting their clandestine rendezvous there, the young lovers have also left behind their eternal (or not) love for each other inked on the walls. This seems to have set the trend for other visitors to also ink their names and random thoughts on the ancient walls.  Despite this vandalism however, the building retains an aura of proud history and heritage, which deserves to be preserved, at least from now on.

 Jaffna Archaeological Museum

Museum

The museum, opened in 1978 at the former home of the nineteenth century Tamil nationalist reformer Arumuka Navalar has quite a few interesting and diverse artefacts harking back to Jaffna’s history. The eclectic collection ranges from prehistoric artefacts excavated from Kandaroadai to colonial memorabilia of the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras. From palanquins used by Royals and Nobles to wooden stocks used to punish the common people, intricately carved Hindu Gods and Goddesses made of wood and stone along with the Buddha carved in  various positions and facial expressions  & features, the museum offers an ad hoc yet fascinating view of Jaffna’s past, spanning centuries. It is open Wednesdays-Mondays from 8.00 am – 4.00 pm and is well worth a visit.

The next time you visit Jaffna to check out its culture and history, allocate a day to visit all these spots in Nallur. The history of the ancient kingdom of Jaffna is obviously deeper than this, but if you’re wandering around Nallur, it’s a compact way to get a sense of what once was.

Nallur sri lanka 14

Photo Courtesy T.T Mayuran

 

 

 

 

Writers’ Woes

5 Sep

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You know that saying, “find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day of your life?”
Can you find out who said that for me? I want to bash his (or) her head in.

As a thickly bespectacled little girl growing up with her nose perpetually stuck in books, I had only one career choice that ever made sense to me: to be a writer.

Unfortunately, conservative middle-class Sri Lankan parents had never heard of the job description. Still less had they heard of anyone having a successful career after studying Arts. “Arts? (Gasp) Who studies Arts?”
Never mind that when I moved on to non-fiction as a teenager, my nose was stuck inside historical, sociological or anthropological tomes.

“Science is the only option,” the Sri Lankan Tamil mother decreed. “Of course it is,” echoed the Sri Lankan Tamil Father.  “Good Choice” approved the Sri Lankan Tamil community at large. No-one tactfully mentioned (or even appeared to think) that ‘choice’ was a misnomer in this situation.

So came a few years of skipping biology lab classes on rat dissection days and nearly setting the school on fire on Chemistry lab days.

One particular session I couldn’t skip was an exam on dissection – we had to bring our own cockroaches. I, a born vegetarian, to dissect a live cockroach? I went hoping at least some of my batch mates would show up without cockroaches. The wet blankets that they were, they all turned up dutifully with the disgusting creatures in test-tubes, held up like trophies. “Where’s your cockroach?” demanded the teacher.

My quick-thinking skills came to my rescue. “Uh, well you see Ma’am, my house is so clean I couldn’t find one.”
Unfortunately, She didn’t buy it.

“Thulasi Muttulingam, Why did you choose Science if you don’t even like Science? Out! You have failed this exam.”And thus ended my ‘career’ in the Sciences.

The Sri Lankan parents convened to decide on my future course yet again. “Medicine and engineering are out now. What do we do with her?”
I put in my unsolicited two cents: “I want to study English Literature and become a journalist.”

It was duly heeded as per Tamil society norms.
“Accountancy is the only remaining option,” said the Sri Lankan mother. “Of course it is” agreed the Sri Lankan father.

Thus went the next seven years of my life.

“Which stage of the course are you at now dear?” asked community aunties who knew that the course had Foundation, Intermediate and Final stages.

“Uh… Intermediate Stage.”
“Weren’t you still at that stage two years ago?”
“Yes.”
“How long is the course?”
“Two Years.”
“How long have you been doing it now?”
“Five years.”

“Boo hoo hoo” went my mother one day. “I am inundated by the community talking about their sons and daughters being doctors, lawyers and engineers. What am I to say when they ask about you?”

“Tell them what I am is none of their business.”

“Booo hooo hoo.”

And so it was that at the ripe old age of 26, I threw in the towel, quit my accountancy classes and joined the Sri Lanka College of Journalism instead.

In my initial years as a professional journalist, I was on cloud nine. It took some time to float down. So the pay *cough* is terrible and some of the mid level editors are fire-breathing dragons, but I was finally doing work I loved. With the fresh memory of what it felt like to work and study accountancy (think Dementors Harry Potter fans), it took a lot to bring down my initial euphoria.

Not that I am complaining as yet. I just quit another stable, well-paid job unrelated to journalism to concentrate on writing full time. The call to write is strong. But then, so is the call to …  procrastinate!

I used to think it was my problem, that I was just plain lazy – but during my bouts of procrastination, I have been researching other writers and their writers’ woes. It’s a herd disease it seems. It’s not just writers’ block, where you simply can’t write because your creativity seems to have dried up. Even when we are raring to go, brimming with ideas and stories to write, we can still be hit by a condition called Writers’ Avoidance it appears.

Writers’ Avoidance takes ghastly forms. You will resort to having the cleanest house on the block. Or cooking up various recipes you found online. Or surf the net for hours on end. Or stalk and troll people on facebook and twitter. Or – as I do – research till the cows come home on the topic you are to write on. Research until you can write a book on it. And then avoid writing, because how on earth are you going to fit all that into a 1500 word article?

Sigh!  My house is clean because my sister is a cleanliness freak; and my meals are great because mom is a cooking enthusiast  –  which doesn’t leave me much to do in those departments when procrastinating. Which leaves me – the internet?

My procrastinating bouts of anything-but-writing productivity have produced some quite elaborate facebook posts. And a reputation as an online troll. Oh well…

Back to the grind of writing the article I was actually intending to write. I wrote this while procrastinating on that article.

The Debacle of Maajid Nawaz and the Guardian

14 Aug

And what it says of the Guardian Team’s journalistic ethics

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It all started with a landmark speech that the UK Prime Minister David Cameron delivered on July 20th. All too often, the people of the West are used to seeing their leaders take to their podiums whenever issues of Islamic extremism are to be addressed, with the words, ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ and ‘This has nothing to do with Islam.’

For an increasingly sceptical audience however, such speeches needed to step up their ante. As such for the first time, Cameron, while acknowledging that the vast majority of the Muslims of the world are peaceful, productive citizens, addressed also the fact that Islamism (their coined term for Islamic extremism) is not completely independent of the religion.

In Cameron’s own words: “… simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims. The fact is from Woolwich to Tunisia, from Ottawa to Bali, these murderers all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith.
Now it is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous. To deny it has anything to do with Islam means you disempower the critical reforming voices; the voices that are challenging the fusing of religion and politics; the voices that want to challenge the scriptural basis which extremists claim to be acting on; the voices that are crucial in providing an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide along the spectrum of extremism.

It happens to be a well known fact that Cameron’s advisor for this speech was Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim reformer of Pakistani origin. Maajid, who is the founder of the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation has both his detractors as well as admirers within the British Muslim community. His wider appeal though is acknowledgedly built on a majority non-muslim base, cheering on counter-extremism work.

One would think that a national British newspaper like the Guardian, which claims to be a champion of leftist values such as secularism and liberalism, would be glad to champion his work. Yet that is sadly not the case. Championing minority communities to have the right to hold views or host activities which would not be tolerated among White Britons by contrast – such as homophobia, anti-Semitism or female genital mutilation (FGM), has sadly become a facet of the illiberal left (or regressive left) as Maajid and other progressive brown-skinned reformers fighting illiberality in their midst have come to term them.

For their trouble, Maajid and his ilk are known of as ‘Uncle Toms’, ‘Coconuts’ and ‘Native informants’. All these are highly derogatory labels for ‘darkies’ who dare aspire to ‘white’ ideals for their own communities. As many brown-skinned liberals have pointed out, this attitude arises in fact from the ‘racism of low expectations’ – which imagines progressive ideas and ideals to be only the preserve of white skinned people.

Unfortunately, the Guardian has been taking this route for some years now, which it is finding itself hard to bail out of – that of a pseudo-liberal sympathetic approach with cultural and religious minorities, whatever repugnant views they hold or activities they dabble in; along with an associated attacking of all those who dare address those issues, even if they be members of those minority communities themselves.

As such, a few days after Cameron’s speech, the Guardian’s Peter Osborne wrote a sympathetic interview-profile of the current Head of the British Hizb ut-Tahrir branch, Dr. Abdul Wahid. The tone of the article reeks all over of the typical racism-of-low-expectations one has come to expect from the Guardian, where it pats Dr. Wahid on the back for being a good little studious boy even if he is prone to unfortunately, unacceptable thought processes. ‘Pat, pat… he believes in some terrible things but it’s his right after all. We really shouldn’t expect more of him nor should we judge him; we should instead champion his rights to hold these views, as this is a democracy. Never mind that Dr. Wahid is working to destroy this democracy to establish Sharia law in Britain; that is still his right in a democracy.’
Oh, and Wahid is a GP with a quite ordinary living room, just so you know. Quite what Osborne was expecting to see in Wahid’s living room is open to debate, but he was surprised (or charmed) enough to incorporate that into his article. ‘He’s just like the rest of us chaps. He has a typical British living room. There were no decapitated human heads mounted on walls there – not to worry.’

After Osborne had thus given his seal of approval to Hiz ut-Tahrir, it was Maajid Nawaz’s turn.
First Nosheen Iqbal, the commissioning editor of the Guardian’s G2 magazine sent this admiring email soliciting an interview with Maajid to the Quilliam Foundation.

nosheen email

It seems pretty clear from this correspondence that Maajid and Quilliam could reasonably expect to have a positive article resulting from this interview. For a very public media-oriented personality like Maajid, whose foundation released the now much favoured ‘Not another Brother’ video countering the call of ISIS a few days after this – agreeing to not talk to other media for the Guardian’s exclusivity policy would have been a sacrifice. Nevertheless, he made a call, based on this interview request that to talk to Guardian, even on their unreasonable terms would be worth it. Except it wasn’t.
The Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari wrote a wretched opinion piece on Maajid, masquerading as an interview.

The piece is basically a hatchet-job on the man and his personality, unacceptably taking pot-shots at his choice of club, coffee preferences, and work without much evidence to back it up. Unless you take the liberal use of anonymous quotes as evidence – and no-one in the journalism world does. Indeed, the Guardian’s Readers Editor, Chris Eliott has been obliged, due to the flood of complaints to his paper,  to put out a statement that ‘the use of anonymous quotes is an insidious way to take a swipe at public figures, and the Guardian was wrong to have used three in this way.’ The statement is not entirely acceptable however because he yet sought to protect the journalists Nosheen Iqbal and David Shariatmadari from further blame by claiming that they felt the use of anonymous sources to be necessary as otherwise those sources could be harassed online, as these journalists now are. In short, they thought it alright to attack a man risking his life among Islamists to do the extremely dangerous job of counter-extremism work, yet they needed to keep sources attacking him anonymous because they were afraid of some online heckling?

Is heckling only alright if a Guardian journalist does it, either via articles or on twitter?  One of the foremost rules of journalism is that the journalist’s presence and especially his biases should not be visible in his articles – unless it’s a column or opinion piece. This interview of Maajid was supposed to be neither, although it ended up in essence an opinion piece. Yet even as an opinion piece, it breaks way too many bars to come plunging down into mud-singling territory. They didn’t just set the bar low, they plunged it.

It’s worth reading Maajid’s own responses to this piece here and here. and also the parody account @kingofdawah’s hilarious take on it here.

David Shariatmadari’s piece is so incredibly bad, that as a fellow journalist living miles and oceans way, I am embarrassed for the journalism profession which has sunk to this new low. As once colonized countries, I suppose we still look up to British standards in professionalism. Certainly that was very much the case in my own student days at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. “Don’t look to the Daily Mirror,” we were told. That’s a tabloid. “Look instead to the Guardian. That’s the standard you ought to emulate.” Well, we are looking. Where’s the standards?

In their consequent behaviour online dealing with the backlash, especially on twitter, many of the Guardian journalists come across as juvenile.

3Guardian journalists Nesrine Malik and David Shariatmadari sniggering about the fact the Shariatmadari left it to Nawaz to pick up the tab for their drinks. After which he still felt capable of taking a swipe at Nawaz’s coffee preferences.

This pattern is especially true of Nosheen Iqbal, the commissioning editor, whose appalling use of language and grammar, not to mention manners makes one wonder what kind of recruiting procedures the Guardian’s human resource management are employing. Whatever it is, they need to revamp it extensively.

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It was outed eventually that the admiration she displayed in her email, towards Maajid and Quilliam Foundation were patently fake. The day before sending this email, she responded to a fellow Guardian journalist on twitter with this:

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Maajid’s name is not a swear name that she felt the need to asterisk it. Neither is his last name Nawaaz as she probably very well knows. She deliberately corrupted his name in her response so that her views on him weren’t searchable online. Unfortunately for her, she was still caught.

There is nothing wrong with not liking him or his work, but pretending to do so, and pretending to want to do a positive story on him when she in fact clearly planned the opposite, was patently unprofessional. Called on repeatedly to clarify why she felt the need to approach him under false pretences for this interview, she has resorted to ad hominem attacks and childish tantrums on twitter. One person attempting to engage with her, signed off calling her a ‘petulant child.’  Is this behaviour fit for a Guardian editor?

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The Guardian, over the last week has lost the respect of readers not only within the UK, but also globally.  Maajid Nawaz is an internationally well known figure doing crucial work so the media releases associated with him are closely followed.

Just because Nosheen Iqbal and David Shariatmadari set him up for a sting by asking for an interview to write about his ‘crucial work’ and then wrote a sneering opinion piece dismissing his work instead, doesn’t mean he has lost ground with his followers. His work speaks for itself. As does the work of the Guardian’s for itself. Which is rather a pity.

The Problematic Discourse on ‘Preserving’ Tamil Culture

14 Jul
Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

We have all heard this being discussed at some point in the recent past – especially after Vidhya Sivaloganathan’s tragic death: degradation of Culture (கலாசார சீரழிவு) is what led to it apparently. It is a blanket term used to blame any and all ills in our midst. We have to preserve our ancient culture (which if applied properly would have nothing ever go wrong, according to its stalwarts) at all costs.

So how do we seek to preserve it? It was the men who raped and murdered yet every time ‘preservation of culture’ is summoned like a spectre, it is the women who get haunted.  And then will begin the exorcism rituals. “Don’t wear that dress. Don’t wear T-shirts.  Don’t wear your saree like that. Don’t go out alone. Don’t go out with a male friend. Don’t go out in groups that include boys. Don’t go out after 6.00 pm. Don’t smile too much” etc, etc.  The list goes on and on…

5Amila Gamage

The minute a woman crosses any of these arbitrary boundaries, she is passed all the blame for whatever untoward incident might get inflicted on her by vigilante males. In Vidhya Sivalogananthan’s case, that is well nigh impossible. She was a young schoolgirl on her way to school at 7.00 am in the morning when she was abducted, brutally gang raped and then murdered.

Let me repeat that: She was an 18 year old girl on her way to school, in her school uniform, at a perfectly respectable time in the morning. See anything AT ALL here to pin any blame on the victim? We certainly can’t. Yet victim-blaming is such an integral part of our ‘glorious’ culture that quite a few people tried.
Here are just a few issues her family and those sympathetic to her fate had to answer to:

“Did the girl have a boyfriend?”
No, she did not have a boyfriend. Not that her having a boyfriend would have been wrong in our eyes but we are glad you are unable to follow that line of questioning any further, to cast unwarranted aspersions on her character.

“Why was she traveling alone? Couldn’t her brother have accompanied her?”
Her family has been put on the spot to say that her brother did accompany her to school as often as he could but on this particular day she had gone alone. Can’t 18 year old girls travel alone at least to school? Is that also somehow wrong now?

“Why were they living in Pungudutivu?, it is an area well-known to be unsafe for young women after all?”
Because the family is in straitened circumstances with the father who was the main breadwinner, having become debilitated with a stroke two years ago. They were not in a position to have too many choices and had gratefully received the offer of a relative to live in his vacant house in Pungudutivu.  They have been put on the spot to explain this too.

“We heard that Vidhya’s mother had reported a robbery in her neighbourhood and that is what got her daughter killed. Couldn’t she have minded her own business?”
Well done, bravo! Hereafter, every time anyone sees anything wrong happening to anyone else, exclusively mind your own business and don’t ‘poke your nose’ into helping them. Poking your nose into others ‘ affairs  is only desirable the way you do it – flexing your tongues any which way you like to hurt and blame the victims instead of seeking solutions. That’s the way to preserve our glorious culture.

Vidhya Sivaloganathan

Vidhya Sivaloganathan

The stress due to all this is telling on Vidhya’s family. Instead of being allowed to grieve the horrible tragedy that have befallen their midst, they have been made to defend themselves repeatedly  on a variety of arbitrary issues that people around here have raised, from the mundane to the downright stupid.

“I didn’t even know I was going to meet the president when the police van took us to meet him. We had been transported so many times to the police station for questioning, that we thought this was going to be one more such visit,” says Vidhya’s mother. “When our pictures appeared with him in the papers next day, we had to answer questions several times over as to why I had gone to meet the president in my house-dress and why my son was in his shorts. We meant no disrespect to the president, as they implied.  Alternately we have also been accused of sucking up to him and using my daughter’s tragedy to gain material benefits from the government. We did no such thing. The president on his own asked us about our circumstances and how we lived. The next day, it was reported in the press that we had asked him for land and a house – we had not. We have been ridiculed for that too.”

Vidhya's mother and brother at their meeting with the President

Vidhya’s mother and brother at their meeting with the President and the Northern Province Chief Minister

How much can one family take? As part of our glorious culture, can we not maintain gracious, kind speech and empathy in times of others’ tragedy?

No, our கலாசார சீரழிவு is not because women are not ‘dressing properly’ or ‘behaving properly’. It is because the mores of a bygone age, attempting to have a stranglehold on a contemporary society, will inevitably take its toll. Arbitrarily nominating just one gender to be the keepers of these traditions and culture will have its repercussions too.

Overall, this is  a culture with laxer standards of behaviour for men than women; where  the men identify as sexual beings yet scorn women who do the same; where the myriad frustrations of not being allowed to mix freely yet respectfully between the sexes leads to a male contempt for women while at the same time, yearning for them – leading to a vicious cycle of societal ills which keep perpetuating and re-perpetuating; where an increased focus on women’s morals and behaviour leads to a culture of men not bothering to examine their own behaviour too closely whilst seeking to police the opposite sex’s.

This has given rise to a noxious culture where male vigilantes feel it is OK to grope, pull and pinch at women should they get caught to them in vulnerable situations such as being alone somewhere at night, and justifying it with views such as “what was she doing out alone at that time of the night? She must have come out to meet her boyfriend.”

Whatever it was she was doing alone out at night, whether it be to meet her boyfriend or not, it doesn’t warrant her getting sexually harassed. Yet the community upholding our ‘culture’ at all costs do not concede this point easily; they tend to justify it with that old chestnut of a proverb: “Whether it is the thorn that catches the saree or the saree which gets caught on a thorn, it is still the saree which gets torn” (their brilliant allegory for relationships between males and females and how it is the females who have to take care to preserve their ‘chastity’). Some of us females caught at the wrong end of the stick here are not all that thrilled with it.

Photo Courtesy: Megara Tegal

Photo Courtesy: Megara Tegal

Not to say that all males in our community are this crude, but the culture we so like to glorify and hold on to is inherently misogynistic. It is high time we as a community learned to address this instead of brushing it under the carpet, and then blaming women’s dress and behaviour a la கலாசார சீரழிவு every time something goes wrong. Because usually, the victims of such cases are women themselves and the culture of victim-blaming on top of that is a puerile aspect of our culture which we need to call out.

Internet3

A Tamil counselor from Colombo who came to hold a prayer meeting for Vidhya in the North, shared with me his shocked receptance of what a member of his congregation had said. “We were trying to pray for Vidhya when one person spoke up and said, ‘well, who knows what kind of a girl she was after all?’ (avalum ennamathiri aanavalo, yarukku theriyum?). I am still hurting over that. Why are some people so needlessly mean spirited?” he asked in bewilderment.

It’s not all that uncommon a view to hear though, every time a case of gender based violence against women is broadcast. Someone or other will inevitably voice this gem of a platitude, wondering what the woman had done to ‘ask’ for it – thus also cementing their place in society I suppose, as upholders of our culture, and gloriously virtuous beings themselves.

It would take too much to go into for the moment so let’s leave aside all arguments for a woman not to be raped no matter what it was she had done or said. In this particular case, even  after all the microscopic exploration of Vidhya’s circumstances and background in the press, which still could  not throw up anything at all to fault her with, even by our traditional culture’s absurd standards  –  the member of that congregation harboured these doubts against her?  Seriously?

If there had been even a teensy bit of information that could have cast her character in a negative light, don’t worry – you’d have heard about it by now. So here’s a little piece of advice for all such people, men and women out there, who are inclined to blame the victim: If you ‘don’t know what kind of a girl she was’ – then don’t mention it at all. It doesn’t warrant mention. All it does is make those of us watching from the sidelines cringe with embarrassment at the cultural norms which makes it alright for you to air such reprehensible views; views that are not of any use to anybody, do not add to any discussions whatsoever, and are nothing more than air and noise pollution combined.  Some aspects of our culture such as the one you represent are not facets we are proud of. High time for some changes.

2 Amila Gamage

Photo Courtesy: Amila Gamage

Justice for Vidhya

4 Jun

Vidhya

Vidhya Sivaloganathan’s family remembers her as sensitive and soft. She had recently cried when her mother said they would have to sell the family’s goat because they couldn’t afford to keep it anymore. “No amma. She’s part of the family now. We’ll reduce our meals and share with her what we eat. Please do not give her away,” she had begged. Every evening as soon as she returned home from school, she would go straight to her ‘pets.’

“We reared the livestock –the goat, the cow and the chickens for eggs and milk but Vidhya always treated them like personal friends,” recalls her mother Saraswathi Sivaloganathan. “I often scolded her over it because she was always cuddling them and getting her white uniform dirty. She would cuddle them before going to school and then cuddle them as soon as she returned from school too. Kutty the goat would beckon with her horned head to Vidhya for more cuddling when she left for school. She would laugh and say, ‘I’ll pet you more, as soon as I get back Kutty.’ That was their ritual. As soon as she returned, all the animals would go to greet her including Chella Mani the hen, clucking all the way. She would pick the hen up, pretend that she could understand its seemingly indignant clucking and say, ‘Oh is that right Chella Mani? Amma hasn’t fed you properly today? How mean of her, here have some biscuits.’

“She would then feed the hen securely tucked under one of her arms, pieces of biscuits with her other hand while still in her school uniform,” recalls her mother tearing up at the memory. “It used to annoy me no end but now all those memories are so bitter-sweet to us. It is who she was. If I ever scolded her for talking to dumb animals as equals, she would say, ‘amma they are not dumb animals. They are intelligent sentient beings without a voice. We have to be extra kind to them.’”

Vidhya's beloved Kutty. She had gone  off that day, promising to come back  and pet it

Vidhya’s beloved Kutty. She had gone off that day, promising to come back and pet it

“The animals knew,” says her brother Nishanthan (22). “It was finally the dogs who led us to her body. On the days leading up to her funeral and at the funeral itself, the dogs and goat acted half-crazed against certain individuals, wanting to head-butt or bite them. We thought they had become unbalanced with grief just as we had and tied them up.  But it turned out the individuals the animals had been reacting against, were Vidhya’s rapists and murderers. They had had the nerve to show up repeatedly at our house to offer their sympathy until the police caught them.”

One of Vidhya's dogs and  chickens at the entrance of her house

One of Vidhya’s dogs and chickens at the entrance of her house

Much has been reported in the local Tamil press and online websites about the case but the family deny many of the incidents thus reported as unfactual.

“Firstly, I had no idea who could have done this to my daughter. We had no enemies in the area,” says Vidhya’s mother. “It has been reported that I witnessed a robbery and reported it to the police causing this revenge-killing of my daughter in such a dastardly manner. This is simply not true.
Last year, I had happened to notice one of the houses of my relatives abroad, who kept their house locked up, with its gates wide open. I informed my relative of this –she in turn informed the local police from abroad and they had happened to catch some people on their own. I had nothing to do with it and I don’t think it has any implication in my daughter’s rape and murder.”

Bursts out her brother angrily, “What may I ask is wrong with my mother’s action? People keep blaming us for it as if Vidhya’s fate would have been spared but for this incident. We don’t think so. This island suffers under too much a climate of crime along with too much a climate of fear of exposing the criminals. That is why incidents like these happen again and again. Even in Vidhya’s case, two young boys aged 10 and 13 had seen something but had been too scared to say anything. Though they initially admitted to being witnesses at least in part to the crime, they have now been coached by their parents to retract the story and say they saw nothing.”

According to the family, when they went looking for Vidhya after 3.00 pm on May 13th when she still hadn’t returned from school, the only one to talk of seeing her at all was one particular schoolboy. He had said that he and a schoolmate had been trailing behind Vidhya on their cycles when she turned a corner ahead of them and they heard a crash. When they turned the corner themselves, they had seen her overturned bicycle and one shoe but Vidhya herself missing. One of them had also seen a flash of a yellow shirt among the bushes, but nothing more. They had apparently continued on their way to school without thinking to mention this incident to anybody.

“I screamed when I heard this story,” says the mother. “I asked the boy repeatedly why he hadn’t thought to raise the alarm at least to the teachers. At school, the teachers had merely thought Vidhya was absent for the day; but she was a girl who didn’t like to miss school even if she was sick. The rapists had planned it well to kidnap my daughter on her way to school. We didn’t think to look for her until several hours later and by then it was too late.”

The path along which Vidhya traveled to school every day

The path along which Vidhya traveled to school                                    every day

After hunting for her in all possible places in and around the stretch from her home to her school, the frantic family finally informed the nearest police station at Kurkattuwan. “There they said they couldn’t lodge complaints and to take our case to the Kayts police station. By the time we reached the Kayts police station, it was 11.00pm,” says Vidhya’s mother.

She denies reports that the police were rude to her but says that it was difficult to communicate with them as they spoke only Sinhala. “Only the three-wheel driver who took us to the station could manage a conversation in Sinhala and he haltingly explained our situation to the police. They said that with girls of her age (18 years), elopements were common but they weren’t rude about it. They sympathetically told me not to worry, that it might after all turn out to be a voluntary elopement and to go home; that whatever had happened might come to light the next day. They also told us to keep them informed of any developments.”

It was raining heavily and past midnight by the time the anxious family reached home, yet all the talk of elopement had ironically given them a sense of hope. To their knowledge Vidhya neither had a boyfriend nor was interested romantically in anyone, but at this stage they were desperately hoping that she was alright somewhere, and thus were clutching at straws. They were unwilling to let the thought of any harm having befallen her cross their minds.

“Even the local people when we went looking for her all over the place on the day she went missing (Wednesday May 13) snickered that she must have eloped,” recalls Vidhya’s mother. “When I denied that my daughter had any such inclination, some suggested that perhaps some boy infatuated with her, even without her complicity might have abducted her. All this talk confused me and lured me into thinking it might be a possibility. I kept nervously wondering how and where we would  find her but I certainly never ever thought we would find her as we did – gang-raped and brutally murdered.”

She covered her face with her hands at this point to blot out the horror of that memory. The entire family has been deeply psychologically traumatized over the horrific misfortune that befell their beloved youngest member. All of them are apparently repeatedly falling ill due to this and are constantly in and out of hospital as a result. On the day I visited, Vidhya’s father, a stroke recovery patient was at the hospital for further treatment. He had been recovering well from his stroke of two years before but this incident has again heavily impacted his health.

The abandoned house behind which her body was finally discovered

The abandoned house behind which her body was                      finally discovered

It was Vidhya’s brother Nishanthan who saw her body first. They had set out again to search for Vidhya at the crack of dawn the next morning. The father being debilitated and the sister being away at University, it was the mother and brother accompanied by two neighbours who set out on this second search expedition. Vidhya had had to travel down a sandy narrow path to school. The searchers had split into two pairs to search on either side of this path, with the mother on one side and the brother on the other.

“We didn’t consciously take the dogs with us, they just happened to come along,” explains the mother. “As soon as it dawned, we went out and the dogs who are not usually in the habit of following us outside, came too. I suppose they sensed our grief and perhaps missed Vidhya and wanted to look for her as well.” On the previous day however, Nishanthan had taken the dogs out with him in one of his frantic searches for his sister. They had run about sniffing all over the bushes as if they had sensed his mission and their role in it, and the next day had taken it up again without anyone asking them.

Vidhya's beloved dogs

Vidhya’s beloved dogs

It was eventually one of the dogs Jimmy, who led Nishanthan to his sister’s body. While the youth was scouring about in the bushes, Jimmy appeared with one of Vidhya’s shoes in his mouth. He had then led the dazed Nishanthan to the back of an abandoned derelict house, to where his sister’s body lay on a heavily accumulated pile of fallen leaves.

“I was on the other side of the path, looking into a well when I heard Nishanthan yell out ‘Ammaaaa’“ says Saraswathi,  the mother. I immediately ran over, tearing my feet over the thorny bushes in my haste, and found Nishanthan fainted on the ground. From the periphery of my vision, I saw my daughter’s discarded uniform and looked no further.  To this day, I have not looked at what condition she was found in, although I understand it has been made widely public all over the internet. I do not want to know.”

Bursts out her elder daughter Lishanthini (24), Vidhya’s sister, at this point, “Why are people doing such despicable things as sharing my poor sister’s photo like that over the internet? We as a family find it deeply offensive and insensitive to Vidhya’s memory.”

Her brother has another point to add: “They say, that photo circulating of Vidhya’s body was taken by local vigilantes to raise awareness on what had happened to her. That is not true. If you look at the picture, you can see her dry body on a dry pile of leaves with blood stains from her mouth to her chin. It had been raining the night before we found her. I was the first to see her body and it was water logged, lying on muddy water-soaked leaves and all stains including blood had been washed off from her body by then.”

“In fact,” he adds, “the police when they eventually showed up at 10.00 am told us that the rain might have done much damage in washing away whatever evidence there were. I think it was the perpetrators themselves who took this photo and then released it. They felt so invincible and proud of their actions that they felt able to do this.”

Jimmy. He's clearly still disturbed, continuously howling and  has to be tied up.

Jimmy
He’s clearly still disturbed, continuously howling                    and has to be tied up

Nishanthan also believes that the abandoned house behind which his sister’s body was discovered is not the actual scene of her rape and murder. “I went out the previous day along that path to search for her. The dogs accompanied me then too.  How come they didn’t sense her there at that time? I think the perpetrators had abducted her to one of their houses and then simply dumped her body there past midnight.”

The shrubbery by which she is believed to have been kidnapped

The shrubbery by which she is believed to have                         been kidnapped

Some of the arrested suspects’ houses have been damaged – fully or in part, by angry villagers. Or so the story goes. There is an uneasy suspicion on the part of some people including Vidhya’s family that this might be a good way to get rid of evidence as well.

Udeni Thewarapperuma, a women’s rights activist and lawyer following this case, has the same concern: “We don’t yet know if it was protesters or the perpetrators themselves who damaged those houses – but people should be alert to the possibility of evidences being obscured via this method and should not become unwittingly complicit in it. At this stage in the investigations we should have strong evidence collected against the suspects – and it worries me that we still haven’t heard of what that evidence is, or how strong the case against the arrested suspects is. As with the recent Kotakethana murder acquittal case, we do not want to hear some years down the line that the suspects have been let go of due to lack of evidence.”

This issue might be more of a real worry than many people euphoric over nine suspects being caught might think. According to several online websites which the local Tamils are following voraciously, the perpetrators were caught with the rape videoed on their mobile phones. It has even been alleged that this entire tragedy was enacted due to one of the suspects, a Swiss PR Resident, being in the business of extreme sado-masochistic pornography; that Vidhya was raped and killed for the sake of such a pornographic video and that this high definition video had been apprehended too.

Police spokesperson ASP Ruwan Gunasekara however denies this. “The suspects were caught on the information of local people. We have no video evidence of the crime and while forensic investigations are ongoing to match samples of DNA between suspects and what was found at the crime scene, the results are not out yet; they will take some time.”

“In any case,” ASP Gunasekara further clarified, “this investigation is not in the hands of the police anymore. A special unit of the CID is investigating the case now. The special investigations unit is also investigating whether there were any lapses in the Jaffna police’s handling of the case, due to widespread people’s protests over the issue.”

That issue in question would be on how one of the main suspects apprehended and handed over to the Jaffna police – the Swiss Resident had been spotted on the loose in Wellawatte, Colombo the next day. Due to massive people’s protests in Jaffna, he had then been apprehended by the Wellawatte police and brought back to Jaffna. A leading law academic has been implicated in the matter by the online Tamil websites and local press but he has refuted the allegations as baseless. ASP Gunasekara declined to say more on the matter other than that investigations are on-going.

Meanwhile calls to the editors of two popular Jaffna Daily papers also gave some contrasting information. According to one editor, it was unprofessional online websites which had made the claim that video evidence and thus the right set of suspects had been caught, with a strong case against them. “We did not make that claim until two days ago when Minister Rajitha Senaratne too said this seems to have been a case of pornography-related crime. We then quoted him on the matter but we did not make that claim otherwise, as it had not been substantiated till then.”

According to the other editor however, local vigilantes who had caught and beaten the suspects before handing them over to the police had reported that they had checked the suspects’ mobile phones and found the video evidence. “They said that they handed this evidence over to the police too. If the police are now saying they have no such evidence, we wonder how much of mishandling has occurred over the investigations on this case,” was his response.

President Maithripala Sirisena when he met the family in Jaffna had promised them a fast-track court and swift investigations to bring the criminals to book. That is all they have now to look forward to. Their gentle, animal-loving Vidhya who had skipped off to school on May 13th  after telling her pet goat that she would get back to pet her some more, will no more turn in  through their gate to  do just that.  All that her grieving family can hope for is that the perpetrators of the horrible crime against their beloved girl be brought to book.

Vidhya's mother with Kutty.

Vidhya’s mother with Kutty

It might not seem like much but in Pungudutivu, Vidhya’s mother had been told not to expect even that much. ”This is not the first time a horrific rape /murder has happened here. The perpetrators in each case are never bought to book, and as soon as her body was found, people told me that those who had done this to Vidhya would never be brought to book either.
I have faith however. I went to the temple and tried to light camphor to send my prayers up to God. It was raining and I couldn’t light the camphor. I raged at God for not giving me even this solace but then it stopped raining. The rain stopped only until I could finish lighting the camphor and make my prayers demanding that the perpetrators be caught. As soon as I finished and turned back to go home, it started pouring again. God head my prayer.  That very day, I heard three people had been arrested and many more arrests followed in the days after. I want justice for Vidhya.

President Maithripala told us that it was not within his power to deliver Vidhya back to us – but that he would do all he could within his power to deliver justice.  We are waiting.”

Part of the path she had cycled through that day

Part of the path she had cycled through that day

Kulanthai Shanmugalingam; a life spent in drama

12 Nov

IMG_1246

Don’t let the dramatic title mislead you; Kulanthai Shanmugalingam is indeed a stalwart of the Sri Lankan Tamil theater world. Yet he is a personification of paradoxes.  For one, Kulanthai (baby) as he is popularly known is currently a veteran of 83 years. For another, he is one of the most unassuming, undramatic people one can hope to come across.

His gentle demeanor however belies many years of experience in Sri Lankan Tamil theater; indeed his name is almost synonymous with it. One cannot talk about Tamil theater over the past several decades without mentioning Kulanthai Shanmugalingam.

Though shunning publicity and accolades generally, he agreed to be interviewed for this publication:

Tell us how you come to be known by your distinctive nickname?

I was the youngest of five children; also the youngest of several cousins in my extended family. Thus I came to be known as kulanthai to my family – and the name stuck. I was a very shy, retiring child, forever tailing behind my mother hanging on to her sari.

How did you enter the drama world?

Purely by accident. Actually purely by force. As I said, I was a mama’s boy who wouldn’t go out and interact with others. When I turned 18, my mother decided enough was enough and forced me to join our village’s youth club – the Thirunelvely YMHA (Young Men’s Hindu Association). She wanted me to become more out-going.

At the YMHA too, I hung around diffidently until the secretary there ‘invited’ me to act in one of their plays. You couldn’t say ‘No’ to your elders back then, so I was most unwillingly conscripted to act.
What got me into this was my unfortunate tendency to mimic an elderly man who came to milk the cows in our neighbourhood. I used to lampoon his quavering voice asking for a vessel to collect the milk in – and the secretary heard it. From that alone he decided I could act, even though I had no such inclination or ambition myself.
So in a way, you could say that it was my boyish mimicry of our poor milk-man Suppiah-amman, which roped me into a lifetime of theater.

 But once you got in, you got more involved and interested?

Not really. I just went where life took me, and it took me through a lifetime of theater.  I have never been ambitious. I went along with the flow of life’s twists and turns. All that happened in my life, just happened to happen. I never planned for any of it.

Weren’t there any specific efforts you ever made of an ambitious nature?

There is only one that I can recall. I didn’t do my A’Ls adequately, and after a few years at the YMHA, my mother packed me off to do my B.A in India – again, against my will. While there, the Indian theater cum movie actor Cho Ramaswamy was my batch-mate. He was one of the live-wires at Madras University in organizing and directing plays, but I was still uninterested and did not get involved there.

On getting back to Sri Lanka in 1957 I became a teacher at Senkundha Hindu College. I also rejoined the YMHA. Soon after, a famous baratha-natyam danseuse of that time staged a dance show at the YMHA and some of us were roped in to set up the stage for her. The ‘stage’ was made up of library desks tied together. Those desks were not evenly sized; some were sloped, some were lower than others, some hobbled; she was a hefty lady to boot. We, the stage-makers had our hearts palpitating throughout her performance in case she came tumbling down with those desks. Fortunately the event completed without mishap. Only after that could we breathe a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, at this performance, I had noticed Kalai-Arasu Sornalingam, then one of the stalwarts of Tamil theater, in the audience. For the one and only time in my life, I felt the strong need to make an impression.

When we were dismantling the make-shift stage after the performance, he stood by waiting for his car. I pretended not to see him standing nearby and acted as if I was engrossed in learning some lines for a play. The lines I chose for this impromptu demo were some rather dramatic ones from Raja Raja Cholan, a popular Indian play depicting olden day royalty.

He however paid absolutely no attention to me and went off. I was left feeling foolish.

Six months later, in 1958, someone came to Thirunelvely looking for me. “Who is Shanmugalingam? Kalai-Arasu Sornalingam would like to meet you.” That was when I realized, “Ah, it paid off, after all.”

A scene from one of his recently staged children's plays

A scene from one of his recently staged children’s plays

 

So you got a chance to become a professional theater actor with that break?

We all were and still are amateurs. None of us could be called professionals. Theater for a long time (at it still is) was a passion and a hobby, not a profession. We all had day jobs to support ourselves and carried out performances for which we only put in money; not earned from it.

But yes, getting to work with him was a big break. He wanted me to play Arjuna in a play he was directing called Theroti Mahan (the charioteer’s son) in which Karna was the hero. That play became so hugely popular that we had to reproduce it nearly 10 times over the next few years.

Sornalingam was a brilliant dramatist whose chief brilliance lay in portraying negative characters empathetically. From Shakespeare’s Shylock to the Mahabharatha’s Shakuni – his portrayal of the characters were peerless. I learned a lot from him. 

You are more famous in the theater world as a playwright than as an actor; how did you break into writing scripts?

Through necessity. We tried several times to get a famous writer of that time, ‘Sitpi’ Saravanapavan to write for us – but he was always busy. After some time, he saw a children’s play I had written, being staged. He thereafter encouraged me to write on my own as he said I had what it took. You could therefore say I became a playwright by ‘accident’ too; it was due to forced necessity.

Yet you must have realized at some point that these ‘accidents’ had made you tap into a heretofore unidentified passion or talent within yourself? Your plays are some of the most acclaimed in Jaffna today.

Again, no! I started writing because I had to and kept doing it because that was what life was leading me to do. People tell me they enjoyed my plays and that is good enough – but I don’t think I am a genius who wrote classics. Yes, my plays made it into school textbooks but most of my plays are topical. They were inspired by current events of the time and so are not going to live on in history, as timeless. That’s not what I aimed for anyway.

Which of your plays are you most known for?

Children’s plays mostly. As a teacher, my main work was with children until retirement, so many of my plays were also scripted for their sake.  As such I am credited with innovating a modern form of theater to appeal to children.

Many of your plays have also been staged in Colombo as well as abroad. Have you had to travel much for this?

I rarely travel; I prefer to let the different directors who want to stage my plays manage it themselves. Attentions and felicitations irritate me and I avoid them wherever possible. I detest the Tamil habit of lauding people by conferring the glittery shawl (pon-adai) with pomp and ceremony. It’s an absurd waste of money.

The reason I have been able to write these plays which resonate with the people is because I am heavily introverted – and thus a quiet observer of people and society, which I then bring out in my plays. Given a choice, I would prefer to sit at a corner in a back row observing people than in the front row, being the center of attention myself.

Among your plays staged abroad, which was the most popular?

Hmm, that might be ‘Enthayum Thayum’  – a play about parents who sent their children abroad and then were left alone in their last years, back here.

I wrote it in 1991, at the request of my son, who lives in Canada. He wanted something topical that applied to the Canadian Tamils; I don’t know if this play was what he had in mind but it was what he got. It was staged in several countries with Tamil diaspora presence, as well as in Batticaloa and Colombo.

 What was the feedback of the diaspora on it?

It definitely struck a chord with them, even if not necessarily a pleasant one. My friend Tarcisius, a veteran thespian himself was the director of the play in the UK. He called to tell me that people watched the play immobile, with tears in their eyes.  There was an instance of a joke in the middle of one emotional scene – and only one audience member had laughed at it, for which he immediately drew dagger looks from the others apparently. I would say it was a success.

 Final question: As someone who has seen much and recorded much in the form of your plays, what advice have you for Tamil youths? Many of us are caught between a fast globalizing modern world and a traditional culture of our own. We face the uncomfortable challenge of having to adapt to the fast-changing world as well as retain our distinctive culture. Where does one draw the line?

Culture is what is practiced by the people organically, not what the traditionalists tell us we should be like, based on what they imagine our ancestors were once like.

If there is one thing I have realized as a thespian over several decades, it is that reformative writers, playwrights, poets et al spring up only when there is something terribly wrong with society. As such, some terrible societies produce brilliant literature edifying ethics and values to be upheld. In a later time, clueless descendants of those people would look back and say, “Oh our ancestors were such wonderful people with advanced morals.”

For an example within our culture, people look on the admittedly brilliant rhyming couplets of our ancient poet Thirvalluvar or poetess Auviar, and say that Tamils once had a glorious culture. Most of the advice Thiruvalluvar or Auviar gave however were basic common-sense ethics. If they felt the need to tell people not to steal and not to harm, I imagine they lived in terribly lawless times.

I don’t recommend letting go of who you are to ape someone else’s culture – but I don’t recommend hanging on to the coat-tails of a ‘glorious past ‘either.

Culture is like a clock; it keeps moving with the times – inexorably. What the rigid traditionalists are doing, is trying frantically to stop the clock-hand marking seconds from moving – because that is what they can see. In the meantime, the clock-hand marking hours, which they can’t see and are not trying to control, is moving too. Change is inevitable. Just go with the flow.

With his wife

The playwright with his wife