Reflections of a Maverick Tamil Intellectual about Politics amidst OEG, DS, Banda and Others

From the Daily News, 12 July 2016

suntharalingamOn the land like unto ocean, I assume the form of a wave, And trusted dreams as a lifeI was trapped in the whirlwind of three desires, Ensnared day after day For the mound of my body I searched for food Without rest night or day I eat, eat and sleep seeing nought else, I get no gain On the shore of sorrow, I erect a tent of five virtues, I regarded thou as my mother, my son Yet thee treat me in this fashion Without interceding on my behalf Standing in-between and questioning meIs it good to remain so? Oh! My Lord! The Lover of Sivakami!! Thou who created me, oh! Natarajah of Thillai!

This poem from the Natarajapathu was translated by Suntharalingam on January 14, 1978 (Thaipongal Day) and annotated in his mother’s copy of the Kandapuranam from 1930.

What does a grandfather’s letter mean to you? Boring… pedagogical… jam-packed with advices? For C Anjalendran, his grandfather’s letters reveal a bygone grand era of Ceylon. His grandfather was a strange combination of being a professor of mathematics, lawyer and – most interestingly – a politician walking shoulder to shoulder with D S Senanayake, S W R D Bandaranaike, J R Jayewardene, Sir John Kotelawala and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.

He is Chellappah Suntharalingam who was Member of Parliament for Vavuniya and Minister of Commerce and Trade in 1947 in the DS Senanayake-led government. Although his academic excellence lay elsewhere, Suntharalingam was preoccupied in writing down his firsthand experience of Ceylon’s post-Independence politics.

“I came to know my grandfather quite late in my life,” muses C Anjalendran who read for his post-graduate architectural studies at the Bartlett of University College London, the same hallowed premises where his grandfather mastered mathematics. The grandfather-son relationship was gradually brewed owing to the elder’s immobility. Anjalendran was to have access to the world of a politician who was born before the dawn of 20th century. That collection first appeared as a series of articles in newspaper about half a century back.

AAAAAnd now the same collection is available as a memoir titled ‘Grandfather’s Letters’ as a Perera-Hussein publication.

Lingawathi, Suntharalingam’s daughter and Anjalendran’s mother, took trouble to archive the original newspaper cuttings of a series of letters published in the newspapers. That passion for archiving has passed on to Anjalendran. That habit remains faithful to him as he would leave no important document alone even to this date. “It is a curious twist,” Anjalendran writes in his introduction to the collection, “that though most of these letters have been addressed to my elder brother (as he was the eldest grandson) and the rest of my cousins, I seem to be the custodian of the only originals available. Most of my grandfather’s secretarial work was done by his daughters Lingawathi (my mother) and Lingamani (my godmother).”

Anjalendran fondly remembers those grand old days of travelling to Vavuniya and Keerimalai carrying fridges, cookers, and other household items in 1978 and 1979. Anjalendran has collected more newspaper articles of his grandfather that cover a wide assortment of subjects such as historical places and personal acquaintance of Ponnambalam Ramanathan, and other leaders from personal knowledge. Those collections would direct you to why Esela Perahera was initially held for: God Murugan, but later incorporated as the main procession for the Sacred Tooth Relic. Suntharalingam had ample, firsthand, evidence to prove that how certain misunderstood concepts should be righted.

“I have all the original documents. What I am going to do with them, I don’t know.

At the moment I am publishing what is most relevant. All this happened when I came to stay for a brief period when grandfather was immobile. He had an amazing record. He won all the mathematical prizes at Oxford University. He was the first non-European professor of mathematics in Ceylon,” Anjalendran tells Daily News.

That was in 1922, when University of Ceylon was looking for a suitable recruit overseas. They were asked why they would look for a foreign recruit, when they have the best person within their shores. Very soon, however, Professor Suntharalingam’s interests began to deviate into the politics. Anjalendran observes it in a different light.

“When you have achieved something, you develop the urge to offer something to the country. If you have principles, then you naturally take your education level to a logical level. Otherwise, you are simply sacrificing your education to a monetary gain,” Anjalendran analyses his grandfather’s entry into politics.

Suntharalingam’s letters to his grandchildren stand out as a primary source for anyone willing to study the early history of Ceylon immediately following its freedom from the colonial yoke. Plus, it transports you to the genesis of ethnic divide. Although his letters at times indicate disenchantment and a veiled depression on the political developments taking place, Suntharalingam was gentle with his children and grandchildren. “Grandfather helped a lot of people. At the same time, he used to have his own opinion, which often had to be correct. He was very opinionated. But then again, all the great people probably had their own shortcomings,”

Along with being opinionated, Anjalendran observes a mutual trait between him and the grandfather: stubbornness.

“I think he was compelled to be stubborn in such a hostile environment. He had to cope with the political chauvinism rising against him. I do not think anyone would be able to survive such a hostile environment without being stubborn,”

With that Anjalendran points to his own words in the introduction to the memoir: “With his mathematical and legal bent of history, he could spin his political opponents and even engage in debate with the archaeological commissioners of the day.”




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One response to “Reflections of a Maverick Tamil Intellectual about Politics amidst OEG, DS, Banda and Others

  1. sach

    C.Suntheralingam, one of the reasons for the bloodshed in Sri Lanka

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