Bernard Shaw’s Homage to Jaffna

by Sachi Sri Kantha

[Originally appeared in the Tamil Nation, August 15, 1991]

What is common with the names Dr.Blenkinsop, Sir Bemrose Hotspot, Sir Dexter Rightside, Eliza Doolittle, EpiphaniaFitzfazzen, Prof. Henry Higgins, Mrs.Kitty Warren and Sir Jafna Pandranath? All these are fictional characters created by that inimitable wit, iconoclast and distinguished dramatist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).

While Eliza Doolittle and Prof. Henry Higgins have become popular worldwide due to the 1964 movie My Fair Lady, not many know that Shaw also immortalized the name of Jaffna by using it to one of his characters in the political comedy, On the Rocks, written in 1933.

It has been appraised that Shaw framed the character of Sir Jafna Pandranath after the 19th century Tamil intellectual Sir Muthucoomaraswamy (1834-1879), who was the father of reputed orientalist Dr.Ananda K.Coomaraswamy (1877-1947). Sir Muthucoomaraswamy moved among the elite circles of Victorian England and counted Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) as one of his friends.

When Shaw arrived in London from Dublin in 1876, Disraeli was the Prime Minister of Britain. In that year, Disraeli also conferred on Queen Victoria, the new title of ‘Empress of India’. In the play On the Rocks, the character of Prime Minister Sir Arthur Chavender seems modeled after Prime Minister Disraeli.

The plot of On the Rocks is set in two acts at the Cabinet room in No.10, Downing Street. The Act 1 takes place in mid July. The Prime Minister Sir Arthur Chavender is worried about the increasing rowdyism of street demonstrations by the unemployed and wants the Chief Commissioner of Police to use stern methods. The Police Commissioner suggests that the best way to keep the unemployed occupied is with terrific speeches. Then one member of a delegation from the Isle of Cats which visited the Cabinet room advices the prime minister to read Karl Marx. This he does and later delivers a fiery socialistic speech.

Act 2 of the play takes place in November at the Cabinet room again. Five Britons engaged in discussion were, Sir Arthur Chavender, Sir Dexter Rightside (Foreign Secretary), Sir Broadfoot Basham (Chief Commissioner of Police), Sir Bemrose Hotspot (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Mr.Glenmorison (President of the Board of Trade). Sir Jafna Pandranath comes to congratulate the prime minister on his new program of reform, about the nationalization of land.

I will allow Shaw to introduce his Tamil character Sir Jafna.

Sir Jafna: Hello! Am I breaking into a Cabinet meeting?

Sir Arthur: No. Not a bit. Only a few friendly callers. Pray sit down.

Sir Dexter: You are welcome, Sir Jafna; most welcome. You represent money; and money brings fools to their senses.

Sir Jafna: Money! Not at all. I am a poor man. I never know from one moment to another whether I am worth thirteen millions or only three.

Sir Bemrose: I happen to know, Sir Jafna, that your enterprises stand at twenty millions today at the very least.

Glenmorison: Fifty.

Sir Jafna: How do you know? How do you know? The way I am plundered at every turn! (To Sir Dexter) Your people take the shirt off my back.

Sir Dexter: My people! What on earth do you mean?

Sir Jafna: Your Land monopolists. Your blackmailers. Your robber barons… You were quite right at the Guildhall last night, Arthur. You must nationalize the land and put a stop to this shameless exploitation of the financiers and entrepreneurs by a useless, idle, predatory landed class…”

Sir Dexter Rightside becomes enraged by the Prime Minister Sir Arthur Chavender’s radical reform proposal and the support given by Sir Pandranath. He loses his temper and calls Sir Jafna, “a silly nigger pretending to be an English gentleman”. This derisive comment makes Sir Jafna to explode with indignation and Shaw put in Sir Jafna’s mouth, what Tamils pride about themselves.

Let me quote Shaw, in the words of Sir Jafna:

“I am despised. I am called nigger by this dirty faced barbarian whose forefathers were naked savages worshipping acorns and mistletoe in the woods whiles my people were spreading the highest enlightenment yet reached by the human race from the temples of Brahma the thousands fold who is all the gods in one. This primitive savage dares to accuse me of imitating him; me, with the blood in my veins of conquerors who have swept through continents vaster than a million dog-holes like this island of yours. They founded a civilization compared to which your little kingdom is no better than a concentration camp.

What you have of religion came from the East; yet no Hindu, no Parsee, No Jain, would stoop to its crudities. Is there a mirror here? Look at your faces and look at the faces of my people in Ceylon, the cradle of the human race. There you see Man as he came from the hand of God, who has left on every feature the unmistakeable stamp of the great original creative artist. There you see Woman with eyes in her head that mirror the universe instead of little peep-holes filled with faded pebbles… you call me nigger, sneering at my colour because you have none… I should dishonour my country and my race by remaining here where both have been insulted… But I now cast you off. I return to India to detach it wholly from England and leave you to perish in your ignorance, your vain conceit, and your abominable manners.”

After the exit of Sir Jafna, the other British characters continue the conversation, in which Shaw brings forth the snobbery of colonial rulers.

Sir Arthur: That one word nigger will cost us India. How could Dexy be such a fool as to let it slip?

Sir Bemrose: Arthur! I feel I cannot overlook a speech like that. Afterall we are white men.

Sir Arthur: You are not, Rosy, I assure you. You are walnut colour, with a touch of claret on the nose. Glenmorison is the colour of his native oatmeal, not a touch of white on him. The fairest man present is the Duke. He’s as yellow as a Malayan headhunter. The Chinese call us Pinks. They flatter us.

Sir Bemrose: I must tell you, Arthur that frivolity on a vital point like this is in very bad taste. And you know very well that the country cannot do without Dexy… I must go and see him at once.

Sir Arthur: Make my apologies to Sir Jafna if you overtake him. How are we to hold the empire together if we insult a man who represents nearly seventy percent of its population?

Sir Bemrose: I don’t agree with you, Arthur. It is for Pandy to apologize. Dexy really shares the premiership with you; and if a Conservative Prime Minister of England may not take down a heathen native when he forgets himself there is an end of British supremacy.

Sir Arthur: For Heaven’s sake don’t call him a native. You are a native.

Sir Bemrose: Of Kent, Arthur: of Kent. Not of Ceylon.”

Shaw ends the play with Sir Arthur Chavender deciding to give up politics, after discovering that Britain needs a revolution, but he is not the man to lead one. An excited unemployed mob breaks into Downing Street and windows of the Colonial Office are being stoned. Then, police mounted in horses arrive at the scene and disperse the crowd.