Of Bonds and Boundaries via Biographical Moments

Wilfred Jayasuriya

Fortunately the priest was walking by the ward. He wore a black hat like a gentleman of my father’s vintage, when they wore such hats as a style when the British ruled us. He was also quite dark skinned like my father and had well chisselled features, a round chin, a proportionate nose and mouth—what my mother said about my father in spite of him being quite dark skinned that he was a handsome man. And this priest was well dressed in his white cassock and black waist band and he had a cross with Christ tucked in it. “Father,” I asked, “are you a Catholic priest? Can you come and see my friend? He is very ill. In this ward.” I pointed to the interior where the 12 o’ clock crowd had already filled the spaces between the beds.

We went through to the nurses table and the nurse, when I told her, “I’m looking for patient Wijay Nithiyanandan,” said “There!” with her outstretched hand, and in our sight, lying on a bed  by which sat a balding but healthy attendant in a cloth and overshirt,  was the small, shriveled man in a beard, breathing hard with his mouth open, very thin underneath the cloth and his face quite worn out, his skin like brown parchment, his eyes closed, that we had come to see. He was not conscious. The priest sized up the situation immediately and pulled out a small bottle of oil from his cassock pocket and anointed the sick man’s chin, lips, cheeks, eyes, mouth and neck and eyes with the oil of extreme unction, the final sacrament that the Catholic religion provides for those who are passing to the next world. He did not say a prayer aloud but silently and I accompanied him with my own silent prayer while two visitors at the next bed, a man and his son, eyed us curiously and a young woman in a skirt and blouse at another patient’s bed hung on to a half wall in a provocative pose.

When the extreme unction was over I told the priest a little of the patient’s background. “His name is Wijay and he is a well-known lawyer, writer and politician and he lived in Jaffna till he fell ill. His sister is a doctor working in Colombo.”

“I have to see another person.”

“Thank you, Father.”

When he left the attendant named said, “He hasn’t eaten anything.”

The man on the bed seemed to be talking to himself. We looked at him for a while.

I noticed you speak both Tamil and Sinhala. I am Joe Perera. We were in politics together. We were in the same party, Samasamaja.”

“He told me all about you, after you visited him last. I think he was okay till the day he went for the party meeting and he ate sandwiches.”

I had brought Wijay back home to his sister’s house on Marcia’s Road after the meeting. He could hardly stand. “Hold me!” he said when I tried to walk him to my car from the meeting hall. When we reached the house this attendant, whom Wijay called “Lasantha,” had come out and virtually lifted him.

“He said you were in school together.”

“What did he say about me?”

The man on the bed continued to talk to himself.

“He said you were very good friends.  Every time someone came to see him, after he went, Wijay would tell me all about him. He gets so excited he will tell me in Tamil, Sinhala and English, as much as he could.”

Lasantha spoke Tamil and Sinhala equally well.

“I lived in Jaffna when young. My brother’s Galle Bakery in the town gave bread to many and I made bread, sold it and delivered it That was thirty years ago. In the thirty years Jaffna was destroyed. What a place it would have been. The best place in our country. The people were so good to us, so civilized. I would sit on the pehdura mat in their homes, in the homes of their best people, and eat with the highest. Such good people. But we had to come away and start life again. Very few were from Mr. Chelvanayakam’s Federal party. Most were Samasamaja. ”

Wijay continued to breathe hard struggling for his life. “Why did he become bad? Wasn’t he improving? Suddenly what happened?

I think he got depressed when the war started again and the bombs fell and no one could say what was happening.”

“Yes, but he was okay till about three weeks ago.” Lasantha looked at Wijay calmly. “Perhaps he will awake and eat something.”

Lasantha covered a foot which was peeping out on the bed. “Thank God you are in Colombo” I told him and he said, “ But my friends there are suffering.” Perhaps he didn’t want to live away from Jaffna. You know when his friend Nirmalan came to see him on his fifty ninth birthday he brought Wijay’s horoscope. “How is it?” “Good! Nirmalan said, “you’ll be well! Soon! Weren’t you there?”

Lasantha nodded, “Yes there were some cakes and short eats. But Wijay didn’t eat anything.”

“When Nirmalan said, “You’ll be well soon Wijaya said, “But I don’t WANT to be well” very sharply and loud. I was stunned.”

Lasantha had a rather impassive face like a Buddhist monk reciting gathas. “What happened to Jaffna? It had so much money and farming. What nice houses! The farmers would bring bundles of ten rupee notes and hundred rupee notes and count them on the tea tables at the Galle Bakery  before putting them in the Bank. They grew their lands so well. Life was so peaceful and fruitful. I was very happy there.”

What did he say happened to Jaffna?”

“I asked him. The dog ate it. He said it in Tamil. The dog ate it.”

I had heard lawyer Nirmalan’s wife also referring to dogs as the perpetrators of evil. “If they know I call them dogs they will come and shoot me like a dog,” she said on the phone from Colombo.

“He was born in Jaffna Hospital. Jaffna was the best hospital in Ceylon. It was run by American missionaries.”

I remembered the advertisements placed in the English newspapers for Vellore Medical School in India. The fees are a million rupees a year. Sinhalese who could afford it send their daughters and sons to learn medicine there. You get an American medical training. Seventy two years ago “Vellore” was a hospital in Jaffna.

“The best school was Ramanathan College. It was manned by American teachers. He studied at Hartley College. He told me that you met him at St Thomas’ in Colombo. His father had studied there too.”

Wijay was with me at St Thomas’. He was the brightest of a star class. He was a strikingly beautiful boy, with red lips and fair skin, a shock of hair falling over his forehead and dazzling, sparkling black eyes. Except that he was tall and bow legged. Slightly. His nickname was “cowboy” because cowboys have bowlegs from riding their broncos. Known for his scholarship. He would converse in Greek with his father back home whenever they were in high spirits. Like breaking into song. His father was a lawyer. I could only conjugate and decline mensa mensa mensam amo amas amat, but he could TALK in Greek. That was how far away in learning Jaffna was from us yokels from the placid Sinhala hinterland, seeking boarding school education in Colombo. I couldn’t comprehend how Wijay could be so literate.” Lasantha seemed to grasp all this.

“The people loved the Sinhalese. But they hated the Muslims. I was so happy to live there and practise our traditional skills as bakers from the south. The Galle Bakery was an honoured institution.”

Wijay entered the university with me and he was so far ahead of me and everyone else. He was the only student to skip the first year and go straight into an honours course. He chose to do Classics honours, with English as a sub, the most prestigious and sought-after program in the University of Ceylon, in the brilliant post colonial twilight of western culture in the fifties. And he made every effort short of keeping off from the exams to fail—not going for lectures or tutorials, never going to the library, never talking with his fellow students who were three females named sardonically the “three vestal virgins.” He dreaded the class room so much that he became a comic figure, chased round the pillars of the Arts block by the vestal virgins at the instigation of the professor, who was suspected of having homosexual tendencies. And yet when the exam came he passed. Not surprising when he could talk in Greek at home with his father.

“Jaffna was so much ahead of the Sinhala country that the Sinhalese couldn’t compete with them. On equal terms. So they destroyed them. Jealousy. It was the best place for us to live in even as Sinhalese. For the bakery trade, for public officers, for anyone. The Railway station was the best. It had been built on a model in England, like the Victoria station.”

“Yes. That I remember,”

I once went to Jaffna by train, I remembered, when I worked in the railway, and when I landed there at the  station there was Wijay emerging from the huge crowd that greeted the train to take me to his home in the heart of the city, just a few yards away from the lagoon. I stayed there for three fun filled days, bathing at the well in the inner courtyard, eating in the cafes and restaurants where Wijay was a popular habitué, an up and coming political figure. Even the Mayor of Jaffna ate some thosai and itly with us one evening at the Governor’s café.  But unlike Leonard Woolf I didn’t lose my virginity there. Wijay was not a ladies’ man. He enjoyed their company but not their bodies. He was a complete hermit, alone with his thoughts and feelings.

The young woman who had hung on to a short internal wall like a model posing for a beach photo now moved closer to the patient, whom she had come to visit, and a young man in a white shirt, his eyes glinting behind his large, round glasses, moved close to her, as if he was keen to talk with the patient, who was surrounded by a retinue. Lasantha said, “He was a bachelor. He enjoyed life. Had a lot of fun.”

“Did he?” I thought. He hardly kept any female company, at least not sexually. But he enjoyed male company, to talk and have a drink and smoke a cigarette or two and discuss the finer things of life. We loved to gather round him at the billiard table or in the common room and sit round and “con.” Con talk was the most pleasurable of intellectual pursuits, made possible by a residential university, where wit and gossip united to provide high entertainment and joy. Conning was a fine art. “Hacking” or making fun of others in the group by sharp one liners, which cut a speaker down to size, by a display of wit was a specialized form, at which Wijay excelled. I couldn’t tell the story to Lasantha because he wouldn’t have caught the point, his English not being so literary.

Once our mutual friend Gaspar was in love with a really pale skinned damsel who used to wear nothing but a white saree and a long sleeved jacket to class, who had an elegance and Audrey Hepburn like beauty which shattered young male egos to their innermost nerve ends. Gaspar had made no headway at all in her regard, as a possible boy friend, but his imagination soared with the jet engine of his desire far into the space of virtual reality. “I shall take her in her arms and carry her to bed,” he declaimed to a few of us, who had gathered in his room for a con chat after dinner. “I shall place her on the bed and say “out out brief candle.” He stopped for a moment enraptured by the reality of his vision. “In In Brief Tool!” interjected Wijay.

That was hacking at its very best, improving on Shakespeare himself in the use of irony. I.A.Richards who was a guru from Cambridge, who once visited Peradeniya and gave a talk considered irony to be the highest quality in literature. Wijay lived irony. 

 “What happened to Jaffna? These last thirty years if it had been left alone it would have become the best place in Sri Lanka. The very best!”

“But what makes Jaffna the best?” I asked when Wijay had made a mournful groan and stopped.

Because it had a society and a infrastructure like we read about the Greeks. Because it was a peninsula it was protected from the larger world of Ceylon and India.  But within itself over many centuries the people learned to use the fertile red earth and the water from the limestone aquifers underground to grow a variety of crops that filled their stomachs and made them healthy. You know what the Jaffna man was capable of in agriculture. You would have seen when you visited Jaffna the farmer walking along the tree trunk like an acrobat to drop the bucket into the well and to pull it up by transferring his weight. What great beauty was there when the water flowed into the little canals, which the farmer built to feed the dry roots of the potatoes, the onions and chilies, the vegetables, the rice! And how grave and concerned were they in conversation about common matters because they were all one. There was a society which was like a bundle of sticks tied together.”

“You gave the image of unity but wasn’t that unity also the cause of the terrible explosion, what Wijay calls “eaten by the dog?”

“I agree. They believed in Hinduism and caste as eternal aspects of life. The beauty of their behaviour came from that.” Lasantha rubbed Wijay’s bald head with his right hand, very gently  I remembered what .my friends used to say about land dealings and double marriages in Jaffna. “The Tesavalamai was made into part of the law of the British empire. But didn’t it act as a concrete container, which had to be smashed to allow women and the other castes to find freedom? The Tesavalamai kept the land within families, within the Vellala caste. The other castes could not buy that land and they had to take it by force and drive the Vellalas or farmers out. Unlike in the Sinhala areas where land became available to anyone who had money the other castes could not do that in Jaffna? Am I right?”

“Are you saying that the Hindu religion itself brought about the downfall of Jaffna society?” Lasantha looked at the sick man stretched out unconscious by him.

I thought of the happy days of our youth in Peradeniya University and how that common pursuit too was eaten by the dog. English like the Tesavalamai had stabilized us and also enraged the others and made the pathway to destruction. Wasn’t this in a longer historical perspective part of the story of the decline and fall of the British empire, which had created an image in our minds, of a human unity which surpassed all boundaries, the magnificent vision into which the British, coming from an island so far away had stumbled on, in a fit of absentmindedness, as they claimed. How was history to be understood except in surprises? And wasn’t it surprising that Lasantha, a mere baker’s boy in Jaffna had loved and understood that society so much was also capable of expressing his love by his care for sick Wijay?



Filed under art & allure bewitching, British colonialism, caste issues, charitable outreach, cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, Left politics, life stories, meditations, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, unusual people

2 responses to “Of Bonds and Boundaries via Biographical Moments

  1. G. H. Peiris

    Who wrote this? Is Wilfred Jayasuriya (whom I vaguely remember) the author? If he is, why is your e-mail addressed to him?
    I also knew Peradeniya (as a home since 1956) and Thellipalai and Pt. Pedro (as a welcome guest up to about the late 1970s). Neither of these places were as idyllic as this essay makes out. This is just romanticism and/or nostalgia about one’s lost youth.

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