Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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A Chronicle of Consequence

Book Review:

S.Sivanayagam: Sri Lanka: Witness to History – a Journalist’s Memoirs, 1930-2004, Sivayogam, London, 2005, 684 pp. 20 pound sterling, US$ 40.

by Sachi Sri Kantha

"Subramanian Sivanayagam is a chain-smoking, dapper man in a Madras shirt who repeatedly lights incense, the scent of it pervading his small office.  A Tamil, he was a lawyer and magazine editor before going into exile in India; he fled by boat in 1983 upon learning the Sri Lankan government planned to detain him"

was the 1988 thumbnail sketch of journalist Sivanayagam, as presented by Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson, in their book, ‘War Zones: Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds’ (Dodd, Mead & Co, New York, 1988, p.196).  In their book, the Anderson brothers provided a synopsis of what they had heard from Sivanayagam, then living in Madras, about his traumatic escape in 1956 from Sinhalese hooligans, while on his way from Jaffna to Colombo by train.  Sivanayagam’s life could have ended in 1956, at the age of 26.  But Providence saved him, and we are the beneficiaries.  That he has reached 75 years is worthy of celebration.  That in his 75th year, Sivanayagam’s memoirs have been published in London deserves a bouquet as well.

Among the chronicles which provide the popular history of Eelam Tamils in the 20th century, five stand out. These, in chronological order of publication, are as follows:

(1) Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots (by Tarzie Vittachi, 1958, 124 pp)

(2) Satyagraha and the Freedom Movement of the Tamils in Ceylon (by S. Ponniah, 1963, 198 pp)

(3) Broken Palmyra: The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka – An Inside Account (by Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K. Sritharan and Rajani Thiranagama, 1990, 464 pp)

(4) The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation (by V. Navaratnam, 1991, 344 pp)

(5) The Will to Freedom – An Inside View of Tamil Resistance (by Adele Balasingham, 2001, 380 pp).

The merit of Sivanayagam’s book is that it spans the whole range of political events – from 1955 to 2004 – covered by the authors of the above-mentioned five books.  Sivanayagam also shares some threads of his life with the authors of these earlier books.  Like Tarzie Vittachi, Sivanayagam is a distinguished journalist who was hounded by the political powers for the stand he took; but unlike his predecessor, he did not turn into an apologist for J.R. Jayewardene in his later years.  Like V. Navaratnam, Sivanayagam also suffered from political detention (Navaratnam in Ceylon; Sivanayagam in India), but, unlike Navaratnam, he is not a politician who became a legislator in the parliament.  Like Adele Balasingham, Sivanayagam also lived in Chennai during the growth phases of the Tamil militant movement and came to admire the tenor and vigor of LTTE leader Pirabhakaran.  But unlike Ms. Balasingham, he personally experienced events in Ceylon during the pre-1972 period.  Like the academic authors of the Broken Palmyra book, Sivanayagam also lived in Britain, but unlike them has not been infected by the self-loathing virus which induces some academic heads to sneer at the political aspirations of Tamils.

The political ingredients presented in the book are more or less known to many Tamils.  What distinguishes and elevates this book from a pedestrian attempt to a polished gem is the proper mix of author’s inter-twined personal experiences with that of Sri Lankan political events, from 1930 to 2004.  Especially of value are the five autobiographical chapters (chapters 1, 3, 16, 18, 27 and the final 36).  For me personally, Sivanayagam had two separate identities for decades.  The first one was as the newly married faceless husband of one of my school teachers at the Colombo Hindu College in mid 1960s.  The second one was, in mid 1970s, as an elder Tamil journalist who had a style and defiant heart to project the political views to which I subscribed in English.  Only in the mid 1990s, after reading one of my essays on my teenage reminiscences about my days at the Colombo Hindu College, did Sivanayagam himself reveal (to my pleasant surprise) that the man behind the two separate identities was the same fellow.  The confusion is understandable, since I have yet to meet him in person, though we have been corresponding like pen pals.

What I like in the book is the flavor of Sivanayagam’s penmanship, which glitters in his thumbnail profiles of heroes (big, defiant and eccentric) and a few mischievous spirits (innocent and deceptive).  One should have the courage of conviction to call a spade a spade and Sivanayagam has it in abundance.  Here are some of my choice selections:

C. Suntharalingam: ‘who represented in parliament the frontier Tamil electorate of Vavuniya could even be considered the father of the Thamil Eelam concept (he spelt it Eylom), but as a mere general without an army the Tamils never took him seriously.’

V. Navaratnam: ‘the Federal Party theoretician and MP for Kayts, who did make a forceful claim for Tamil self-rule, but found himself one step ahead of his own party and paid the price for it!’

James T. Rutnam: ‘Ever-green octogenarian scholar, a man it was a pleasure to have known, loveable, always bubbling (to my great embarrassment he used to address me as ‘darling’) and bearing a striking resemblance to Leon Trotsky.’

Ven. H. Dhammaratna Thero: ‘A renowned scholar who was to found the Saraswathie Pirivena in Nawalapitiya; a man who translated Tamil classics such as Silappadikaram and Manimehalai into Sinhala and Sinhala works into Tamil.’

Reggie Michael: Editor of Ceylon Daily Mirror (in the 1960s); ‘a flamboyant figure, a hard drinker with a racy style of writing, and charming in many ways, especially towards women.’

A. Rasarathinam: ‘A tragic figure, deeply sunk in the Tamil cause, he led a hard life and died a virtual pauper and a victim of bronchial asthma at the age of 49, leaving his wife, his five children and a few devoted friends to mourn his loss.  He authored a book titled, ‘The history of Thamiraprarani’, a scholarly historical work which remained unpublished.’

K. Kanthasamy: ‘Founding father of ‘Saturday Review’ and a leading company lawyer in Colombo; he was an extraordinary human being.  He thought precisely, spoke little, ate little, led a Spartan life, and worked like a beaver.’

S.C. Chandrahasan: ‘As a son of the late Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and son-in-law of another Tamil leader Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan, he had not only the right credentials but also had shown greater political motivation than his elders in the TULF…When the Indian Prime Minister ordered RAW to start arms training for Eelam Tamil youths, it was to Chandrahasan that the Indian agents turned.  In fact, the RAW man in the Indian High Commission in Colombo had already been cultivating him.’

Shanker (Sornalingam): ‘An aeronautical engineer, a close ally of Pirabhakaran.  Once, he produced a sophisticated looking hand grenade and asked me to guess the country of its origin.  What did I know of hand grenades, except seeing such objects in films?  He said with a grin that it was a sample of what they were producing in Tamil Nadu itself!  Since then, nothing used to surprise me.’

I, for one, would have liked to see a few more thumbnail sketches on the author’s contemporaries among journalists like, S.P. Amarasingam (editor of Tribune weekly) and his namesake S.T. Sivanayagam (editor of Sutantiran, and later Thinapathi and Chintamani) as well.

As in any book, there are a few factual slips.  One which deserves mention is on the vote on the 'No-Confidence motion' debated in the Sri Lankan parliament in July 1981, on the then Leader of the Opposition, A. Amirthalingam.  According to Sivanayagam, two legislators S. Thondaman (the then Minister for Rural Industrial Development, a Tamil) and Shelton Ranarajah (the then Deputy Minister of Justice, a Sinhalese) declined to vote on this No-Confidence motion.  Yes, it was true that both declined to vote.  But there was a subtle, but vital, difference.  While Thondaman abstained from voting, Ranarajah defied the party whip and voted against that racist display of oral terrorism.  By this deed, Shelton Ranarajah saved the honor of Sinhalese on that day by showing to the Tamils that there indeed live in the island a few politicians, even at a lopsided ratio of 1 per 100, who can take a principled stand.  I have to mention this, since even in the political biography of Amirthalingam (The Murder of a Moderate; Political Biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam, by T. Sabaratnam, 1996), Shelton Ranarajah’s solitary dissenting vote has been inadvertently overlooked with a factual slip, "the no-confidence motion, the only one in the world against a Leader of the Opposition, was adopted without a dissent."

The last chapter of the book entitled ‘A Memoir 1993-2004; That Unseen Hand that Dictates One’s Life’ is indeed a beauty which can melt one’s heart.  And the ending of Sivanayagam’s chronicle, with the last two lines stating, "How many readers would have heard that old popular melody, Que Sera Sera – What will be, will be,"  is poignant; and one that even Doris Day would gladly agree with, if she learnt about the peregrinations of the author [India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Africa, France and Britain with delays and detours] during a span of 11 years.

Not many know that Doris Day who sang that Que Sera Sera song for Hitchcock’s 1956 hit movie ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ did not initially believe in those lines.  Here is an anecdote about that all-time favorite in Doris Day’s words.

"We went to their [lyricists Jay Livingston and Ray Evans] music studio, where they played ‘Que Sera, Sera’ for me.  I thought it was fine for the spot in the picture where it was needed, but later, when I saw Marty [Melcher; Doris Day’s agent and then husband], I expressed my disappointment that it did not have a broader appeal.

‘What do you mean?’ Marty asked.

‘Well, it’s a kiddy song.  It’s sweet, and perfect for where I sing it in the film, but I was hoping it would be more than that.  You know – ‘Whatever will be, will be’ – that’s not really my kind of lyric.’

‘I think you’re dead wrong.  Hitchcock and I both think it’s going to be a big hit.  You’ll see.’

Of course, I’ve never been wronger about anything than I was about ‘Que Sera’.  I recorded it for Columbia and for the movie album and it became the most popular of all my songs." [source: Doris Day -Her Own Story, by A.E.Hotchner, 1976, pp.146-147]

That Jimmy Stewart-Doris Day movie also had a plot based on happenings in Morocco, to a couple vacationing with their young son.  It is hardly an exaggeration that the sketched peregrination experiences in Africa and other plot twists in Sivanayagam’s chronicle have material worthy of a Hitchcock-grade movie.  Any Tamil entrepreneurs among the movie fans are welcome to check out the book.  But for reasons of propriety, please consult the copyright owners first and the author himself before plunging into production haphazardly!