Excerpted from Chosen Ground: the Clara Motwani Saga by Goolbai Gunasekara
Jaffna, the Peninsula in the north of the island, is only about 390 kilometres distant from Colombo, yet contrasts in living styles and language, the majority religion of Hinduism, and the attitudes of its people made it seem virtually another country. The Tamils of the north and the Sinhalese of the south co-existed in reasonable comfort, peace and quiet despite earlier historical depredations on both sides. Distinguished Tamils were at the forefront of the national movement for Independence, along with other great leaders belonging to the Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher communities.
Colombo schools – indeed, schools all over the island, had Tamils studying happily beside the Sinhalese majority island race. Alongside were Parsis, Indians, and the earlier mentioned Muslims and Burghers. This rich mix made up the multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious population of Sri Lanka, and has done so for as long as we remember.
Life flowed along with very little trouble. True inter-racial and inter-religious marriages were rare, but they did occasionally occur. Socially, there was no divide. Sports clubs, social clubs, Government services, the Mercantile sector, Universities and of course, schools, contained a judicious mix of all Sri Lankans. And this idyllic state continued after Independence was achieved, until a kind of crude, unfocused day of terrorism in 1983 drove the Sinhalese and Tamils irrevocably apart destroying any illusion of cordiality. Only in 2003 did peace talks at last begin.
Colombo was always a cosmopolitan city, standing, as it does, at the crossroads of the sea-lanes. The British fleets brought not only trade to our shores but also visitors, tourists … and not only just visitors from other British colonies, but also some famous Americans who were enchanted with the island of Ceylon. “My God, but it’s beautiful,” Mark Twain wrote, although he was wilting in the heat.
Missionary activity was at its height during British colonial days. Strangely however, the American missionaries got to Jaffna before the British did. There they continued to remain, and the excellent schools they founded exist to this day, albeit now under the Government’s National Education system.
Many years ago an Archbishop of Canterbury made the comment that it had to be admitted that the Christian missions to Asia had failed. Percentage-wise, converts were few among the general population, but the influence of those schools was immense. St. Patrick’s College and the Uduvil Girls’ School in Jaffna are still among the best in the island. Heading Uduvil at this moment of writing is a colleague and friend – Mrs. Shiranee Mills who belongs to the highly respected Tamil Christian Mills family of Jaffna.
That Mother would consider working outside Colombo, and in Jaffna of all places, never entered our heads. She had not visited the north, and her knowledge of the district was minimal. She had many Tamil friends of course. Her bridge foursome buddies at the Women’ International Club (where eventually she became both President and then Chairman) were ladies like Mrs. Girlie Cooke, Mrs. Podi Singham, Mrs. Nagulamba Somasunderam, Miss Alagi Muttukumaru, and others. She had also had many Tamil colleagues in the world of education. One was the gracious Inspector of Schools, Miss Chelliah. However, Mother’s friends were not necessarily in the habit of discussing Jaffna at the bridge table while bidding their hands.
Once Mother was comfortably ensconced in Jaffna, Miss Chelliah paid a visit to Hindu Ladies’ College to see how she was getting along in this totally unfamiliar milieu. Visiting my class – Grade 6 – she asked the girls if they knew which religious group worshipped fire. Thanks to my father’s Parsi guardian, I knew the answer to that one. “The Parsis,” I said. “Very good.”
Miss Chelliah was surprised. She had no idea who I was, but just to make sure we were all on the ball, she then asked if anyone could name the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. To a girl, the class reeled them off. Miss Chelliah was more taken aback than surprised. We seemed a splendidly knowledgeable bunch.
Back in Mother’s office, she mentioned that the General Knowledge standard seemed very high. This was not very good news to Mother who was having student problems she had never dreamed of ever facing. Her students in Jaffna were TOO study-oriented. But more of this later.
Mother had asked her Tamil friends in Colombo if they thought she would like Jaffna. “You’ll love it,” they replied, although on what they based this certainty was hard to ascertain. Love it we did.Father went off on one of his lecture tours in the States leaving Mother to cope with the problems of moving. Fortunately we had Cathleen still with us, and she coped easily.
Cathleen’s older sister, Nimal, a gentle and loving woman, had been mother’s maid at the time of my birth. When she left to get married, 16-year-old Cathleen stayed on to care for Su. Su had been born in America, and had spent her first years with my grandparents in Illinois. She was not too well at birth, and travel in those days was not the ’round the world in twenty-four hours’ business that it is today. Mother left Su behind and she only came out to the East when she was nearly five.
The young maid brought in to care for a homesick little girl was Cathleen. Su and she remained close till Cathleen died in 2000. Su was very unhappy at all this uprooting. She desperately missed her grandparents and voiced her fury each night at bedtime. In the hope that we would grow dose as sisters, Mother made us sleep in the same room.
Su’s nightly bellows put paid to any such maternal hopes. We have pretty much remained guardedly tolerant of each other all our lives. And to add to our mental and psychological differences, our adult lives have been lived on opposite sides of the world. Su now lives in New York near her married daughter Anu, son-in-law Sumith, and her enchanting grandson, Sohan.
In Jaffna the American Missionaries had been active since the days of British rule. I have never been quite sure why they opted for Jaffna, but there they descended, and made a roaring success of the schools they founded. They naturally sought converts while they were about it. Mrs. Ranji Senanayake, wife of Maitripala Senanayake, a former cabinet minister, once told me that if one delved deep enough one would find that all Tamil Christians were related.
Missionaries encouraged the members of their flock to marry one another, and there soon emerged a highly educated and professionally qualified community of Tamil Christians. The Hindus were not slow in founding their own Hindu schools, and Hindu Ladies’ College (which Mother now headed) was one such Institution.
Tamil Hindus studied in Christian institutions, but it was natural and inevitable that a movement would develop that would aim at educating Hindu children in a Hindu environment. I was too young to recall if Jaffna had ever needed the services of a Colonel Olcott who revitalized Buddhism so dramatically. I do not know if Hinduism in the North was ever at risk as was Buddhism in the South. I do not think so.
At any rate, an American Principal, and one as well known as Mother, was a popular choice with the parents of HLC. Mother was not a missionary, but her appointment gave the fledgling school a certain cachet. So to Jaffna we went.
Our long love affair with the North started from the minute we got off the train. The crisp, dry air was very much to Mother’s liking. Even the sparse landscape suited her preference for a simple, uncluttered environment. I bonded with the Tamil girls instantly and copied whatever they did, even to the wearing of the pavada/sattai (the long skirt, blouse and half sari). I straightaway developed a schoolgirl crush on Miss Vijayalakshmi Pathy who taught History and Botany. Had she taught Mathematics, my attainment in that subject might not have been in the sorry state it was for most of my school life.
To get back to Mother’s unhappiness with Miss Chelliah’s compliment: at first she was ecstatic at the work ethic displayed by the girls of Jaffna. She was not given to breathing down the necks of her pupils urging them to study, study, study.
She wanted a balanced, well-rounded student to emerge, as it were from a cocoon, well prepared for the hard world of the day — but cultured and very feminine withal.The girls of HLC were a revelation. Never had Mother encountered the seriousness with which these traditionally reared Tamil girls approached life. Education is revered in Asia. In Jaffna it is worshipped. Imagine, if you will, a class of 25 students who hung on every word uttered by the teacher and accepted these nuggets of knowledge with the same reverence Prophet Mohammed displayed on Mount Hira when the Angel Gabriel revealed his message.
A teacher’s Nirvana, would you not say? Indeed, yes. But Mother was not a happy being. She worried that the lack of discussion and a total avoidance of confrontational issues caused the Tamil girls to lack analytical skills.
“You must not believe everything a teacher tells you,” she would say. “Learn to question even your Principal.”
The senior students smiled politely, unbelieving of such heresy, and went right on accepting a teacher’s word as an act of faith.Mother’s general impression of young people was probably that of teachers all over the world. Lassitude and a drooping of energy would follow moments of clarity and hard mental activity. This appeared normal. The sustained high achievement maintained by her Jaffna girls was a new experience.
“Teach your students how to study,” she used to direct her teachers in Colombo. “Children often need to be taught methods and mnemonic schemes as aides to memory.”
She did not say this in Jaffna. She didn’t need to. Everybody studied, including me. Mother was ecstatic at the work ethic I was so uncharacteristically displaying, and she rightly gave credit to the peer pressure exerted by my classmates and those motivated teachers like Miss Pathy and Miss Leela Ponniah. Mother never forced study times on either Su or me. My sudden self-motivation surprised her no end.
Mother had a brain like a satellite dish — always picking things out of clear, blue skies. Student questionnaires was one such brainwave. Determined to get her Tamil girls to be more aggressive, she started a series of ‘Yes/No’ type questionnaires, which forced students to think independently. The slightly horrified girls of HLC could not believe they were being forced to make judgements on “Do you find Maths interesting? If not, why? How would you like it taught?” They found it all slightly heretical.
Excitement and lively discussion, opposition to a teacher’s views, or argumentative attitudes, were not part of a Jaffna girl’s psyche at that time (1946). Those particular questionnaires did not galvanize them into becoming the sort of question boxes Mother had hoped for, but let it go on record that Mother never had to write, “Not trying” on any student report she signed in Jaffna.
(To be continued)