A Tribute penned by his grandniece Premila Thurairatnam: one initially published in THE CEYLANKAN magazine Nov 2020 issue …………….. while an abbreviated version appeared in the Daily Mirror newspaper (21 Nov 2020) – Revised and published in ‘Closing Time’ book…. while some highlighting has been added here by The Editor, Thuppahi
Alagu Subramaniam (1910–1971) was a barrister-at-law, short story, radio script writer and playwright who hailed from Jaffna. His father was a judge and his grandfather a literary personage. Alagu had successfully combined in himself, his father’s legal career and his grandfather’s literary genius.
Alagu was a prominent figure in London’s Bloomsbury literary circle1 in the 1930s and 40s. He wrote short stories that capture the behaviour of people whether it be Ceylonese during the colonial era or contemporary English life during and prior to the war. These stories were broadcast on the home and overseas services of the BBC. His short story ‘The Mathematician’ has been compared for its good-humoured raillery with one of the greatest writers of short fiction in history, Anton Chekhov2. More recently in 2014, Senior Prof. E.A Gamini Fonseka, of Ruhuna university wrote a paper on the story ‘Professional Mourners’ which has attracted over 4000 views from an international readership across the world3. His subsequent review of the short stories compiled in the book The Big Girl, which appeared in the Sunday Island dated June 23rd, 2019, has had over 1000 reads4. These stories were also reviewed by an Australian, Rodney Hall, which appeared in the Sri Lankan e-paper Daily FT of February 16th, 2019 and has had 216 reads5.
Birth and Early Life
Alagu was born in 1910, the year that the famous Halley’s comet which graces our skies every 75yrs appeared. He was the eldest surviving son of judge A.R Subramaniam and wife Gnanamma and grew to be a striking handsome figure of over 6ft. tall. He spent his childhood in Trincomalee where his father was posted as district judge. They lived in the district judge’s bungalow within the fort with a sentry placed at the entrance. Later, the judge moved his family to Jaffna and built a house on First Cross Street. Alagu completed his schooling at Jaffna Central College (JCC) and his Senior School Certificate (conducted by the University of Cambridge for Ceylon schools in those days), at the age of 16, in Dec 1926. He may have completed a science degree at University College Colombo, but no record could be traced. He was then sent to England to study law. He went by ship with a photograph of his sister in his possession which he was instructed to present to his brother-in-law to be, who was reading Engineering at Imperial College.
Move to England
Alagu was admitted as a student at Lincoln’s Inn (one of the 4 Inns of Court) on the 26th of April 1933, to do his bar exam. He was called to the English bar on the 25th of June 1941. These dates are derived from the black books of Lincoln’s Inn6. He was called to the bar by the treasurer (head of the Inn), Sir Herbert Cunliffe. He had been proposed for the bar by William Cleveland-Stevens, one of the Inn’s governing body known as benchers.
Alagu would have done his bar examination course with the Council of Legal Education (CLE) in London. The CLE was at the time the supervisory body for legal education for the bar on behalf of the Inns of Court. The course lasted a year and consisted of a series of lectures and classes on various subjects which culminated in exams. In addition to passing the exams, to be called to the bar, Alagu would have had to ‘keep term’ by dining in the Hall of the Inn. They had to dine 6 times per term and do this for 12 terms (72 meals in all) which would take at least 3 years! This was a throwback to times when much of a student’s legal learning was done in discussion with barrister members during mealtimes. Also, they had to be 21 years of age and have their names screened in the public rooms of their Inn for 8 days in the term they were to be called in.
Lincoln’s Inn is one of the largest Inns of Court situated on 11 acres. Its history dates back to the Middle Ages (1422)7. Shakespeare performed Twelfth Night (likely at Christmas) for the first time there. The Inn’s most famous use as a court is in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House opening scene with, ‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall’7; Dickens was known for his opening lines. This would have been the Old Hall built in 1489. The new Great Hall built in 1843 features in Harry Potter films. During the dining sessions which took place in the Great Hall, along with legal discussion, there must also have been a good deal of entertainment there, perhaps including performances of Shakespeare’s plays. This would explain the following recollection by a gentleman living in Sydney who heard it from his mother who lived in Jaffna during Alagu’s time there. Who knows, Alagu may even have taken part in those performances!
Once Alagu was hauled before the courts in Jaffna for drunken behaviour. While on the dock in his intoxicated state, facing the magistrate, Alagu recited Portia’s soliloquy “Quality of Mercy” in full, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, without a single flaw. The magistrate, who was astounded by the eloquence and faultless recitation, asked, “Who are you?”. To which the prosecuting team answered, “Alagu is a barrister recently returned from England, son of district judge A.R Subramaniam.” Upon hearing this ‘Who’s who’, the magistrate is said to have observed, “No wonder! Such an illustrious family and person. Defendant cautioned; case dismissed!”
Alagu was a prominent figure in London’s Bloomsbury literary circle. The famous authors Virginia & Leonard Woolf were part of this group1, and it is highly probable that Virginia reviewed Alagu’s stories when he presented them at the circle. He was one of the founders and editors of the literary magazine Indian Writing8. Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru were two of its eminent contributors. This magazine became a platform for radical, anti-colonial South Asians based in London.
Alagu was also secretary of the London branch of Indian Progressive Writers’ Association and was involved in the anti-colonial organisation Swaraj House. He worked as assistant to Sasadhar Sinha who opened the Bibliophile bookshop in the winter months of 1935 in London. His contemporaries were, Ahmed Ali, Mulk Raj Anand, Bhicoo Batlivala, Krishnarao Shelvankar, Iqbal Singh, M.J. Tambimuttu and Jinadasa Vijayatunga. He was closely associated with Iqbal Singh, Ahmed Ali and Mulk Raj Anand, who were founding members of the Progressive Writers Association. Indian Writing was published infrequently during the war and had financial support from T.S Eliot. They published articles, short stories and reviews. The well-known author R.K Narayan too, contributed9. Other magazines that Alagu regularly published short stories in were, Life and Letters To-Day, Left Review and Tribune10.
Mulk Raj Anand was probably the most closely connected to the Woolfs, having worked for a while as editor at the Hogarth Press which was founded by them. He is notable for his depiction of the poorer castes in traditional Indian society. His short, sharp novel, Untouchable first published in 1935 against the backdrop of Ghandhi’s campaign against colonialism, was written after the author spent several weeks in Ghandhi’s ashram. Anand and Alagu were close, so if there were contact with the Woolfs, Anand would probably have been able to facilitate this.
Meary James Tambimuttu was a Ceylonese poet who played a significant role in the literary scenes of London and New York. In 1939 he founded the literary magazine Poetry London which later became Poetry London-New York. Tambimuttu was 5 years younger than Alagu, arrived in London 5 years after him and returned to Ceylon 2 years after him11. But Tambimuttu moved to the United States in 1952, whereas Alagu remained.
Alagu was interviewed as the Bohemian with a glass of beer in his hand in The London Illustrated dated 7th December 194612. He said “Intellectuals are silly but quite harmless. Bloomsbury is a port of call in their education. There’s no future in it.” So much for Bloomsbury as a cradle of the intelligentsia!
Return to Ceylon
Alagu returned to his home in Jaffna in 1947, the year before independence. He was a brilliant lawyer and when requested to appear for someone, he usually did this impromptu without preparation and won the case. Having lived in England for a considerable time, he did not adjust well to the conservative life in Jaffna and missed his English girlfriend whom his parents had prevented from marrying. Although he could have had a successful legal career, he preferred his literary pursuits. Quote by Lester Hutchinson, D. es. L., former M.P. (British House of Commons) “Mr Subramaniam could have had a sound practice at the English Bar, but he preferred to pursue his literary work, which is of a higher order13.”
Those who can recollect Alagu walking down the Cross streets of Jaffna when they were children, say how he would walk along with the air of a poet, always wore a suit, had longish hair and wore a flamboyant scarf in the tropics, not for warmth but for colour. He was frequently invited to speak at ‘After Dinner Talks’ at schools and for proposing a toast at functions. He was popular for his enthralling speeches filled with humour. Alagu’s much younger cousin recalls that they hid from him because he used to stare at beautiful girls, simply because he liked to admire them. He eventually married a graduate teacher Miss Sellakandu in the late 1950s, to whom he dedicated his second book. They were both in their late 40s at the time of marriage and did not have any children. They lived in Uddupiddy, Sellakandu’s hometown. This is where he passed away in 1971, ailing from throat cancer, aged 61.
His first book was dedicated to his brother D.K (also known as Kirupa), who is mentioned as a fictional character in the story ‘The Fan’ as the rich judge’s son, arriving at school in a sleek limousine. A JCC alumnus recalls Alagu frequently visiting the school between and after court sessions and how he studied The Big Girl as prescribed text at school. Another, Dr Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, Gold medallist at Tokyo Asian Games 1958 said, “Everyone knows A.S. lived in a beautiful house in front of Vembadi hostel End. Every weekday I would see A.S. in a rickshaw going from his house to the Courts past Central. He was very fair, dressed like a barrister. I think he smoked a pipe. I always thought of him as an Englishman.”
Two other Centralites recall how on their way home from school, they’d walk past Alagu’s house and get mangoes from him. There was an Ambalavi mango tree in the front part of the house. Alagu used to pick up fallen mangoes (nibbled at by squirrels & crows) and lay them on the verandah. The boys would call out “Sir!” Alagu would come out in his pyjamas and slippers (western attire) with an amused smile on his face and say to them, “Yes, you can take a few!” He used to borrow one of these boys’ bicycle parked at JCC, to go to the Rest House with his good friend who was a JCC school master, for a ‘standing shot’. Alagu’s second cousin Gnana, another Centralite living in England said that his mother called him Alagu when he was growing up, in the hope that he too would turn out like Alagu, a literary genius!
Figure 2: Alagu’s ancestral home photographed in 2020 by Selvi Jeganathan
His contribution to English education in Jaffna schools was highly coveted. A Vembadi alumnus Sivahambihai Sivananthan won 1st prize in the northern province oratory competition in two successive years (1957 & 1958). Her speeches were written by none other than Alagu Subramaniam. The 1957 speech was titled New Horizons for Women and the 1958 speech Future of English. This was the time when Ceylon was moving towards swabhasha education. Sivahambihai now 82, recalls the last line of the 1958 speech: “For whom does the bell toll, for you or for me?”
In 1955 when the Jaffna Hockey Association was formed, Alagu was elected as its first president. A member of this team, now a retired veterinary doctor recalls the trip made to Colombo by the team in 1956. They went to participate in the All Ceylon Inter Club tournament accompanied by Alagu along with the sports teacher and hockey coach. Alagu was well liked by the team as ‘a soft-spoken, cultured gentleman’. He did not interfere in the management of the team, rather advised the boys on how to behave in Colombo so as not to bring a bad name to the Jaffna peninsula. The manner in which he did this was exemplary, so that the boys heeded and liked him.
The Big Girl is a collection of 17 short stories by Alagu Subramaniam. They recount scenes and behaviour of the Jaffna society during the colonial era. Alagu started writing them when he was in his late twenties whilst in England and they first appeared in the Indian Writing magazine in the early 1940s, ‘Professional Mourners’ appearing in the spring 1940 edition8. Alagu’s younger brother died in 1938 aged 19. He contracted tuberculosis whilst boarded in Colombo, studying for a medical degree at the university. Alagu was in England at the time, aged 28. This sad incident in his life may have prompted him to write this, one of his best stories. As stated in the commentary of the subsequent issue of this magazine, one critic described this group of writers as ‘Professional Mourners’ for their preoccupation with morbidity! In 1964, these and other stories were compiled into the book The Big Girl and published. The book had gone out of circulation and was reprinted in 2018. Subsequently in 1971, a second book of short stories, Closing Time & Other Stories, was published. His last unfinished novel was Mr Moon with a Bloomsbury setting.
These stories reflect scenes of Alagu’s personal experiences of a bygone era. The Big Girl presents both the contrasts and continuities between past Ceylon and present-day Sri Lanka while incorporating some of Alagu’s biographical details. And they’re full of humour like the interpreter who translates an appam (bowl-shaped thin pancake called hopper in English) maker to loafer from his knowledge of the bible and the sergeant who shouts ‘Less Silence’ to call the court to order! His second republished book Closing Time with Added Personal Notes contains more stories set in London, a representation of the life of a foreign student living and studying in London, during the blitz of WWII as he had done14. The story ‘Single Room’ is about a student arriving at a hostel in Lewisham and curiously, Alagu’s letter to his mother is also written from Lewisham Park! ‘The Kid’ features a law student who is also a writer. ‘Yuletide in London’ is a well written short tale that takes the reader to Christmas in London with a memorable analogy between the froth in open beer bottles and the colour of snow on windowpanes. He says that the guests seemed as though they’d just emerged from a novel by F. Scot Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gatsby), meaning they were lavishly attired. His experience of the war is evident in several stories like ‘The Raid’ and ‘Closing Time’ where bombers, V-bombs (doodlebugs as the allies called them), sirens and the cruelty of destruction are described.
The story ‘Son of a Judge’ maybe about Alagu’s younger brother. The imaginary town of Jhelum with its fine harbour on the mighty Indian ocean, where the judge is posted, could refer to Trincomalee, where Alagu’s father was posted as district judge. There is a real Jhelum, a city on the right bank of the Jhelum River in the district of the same name in the north of Punjab province in India. It could be that Alagu heard of this place from his Indian friends in Bloomsbury and decided to use it rather than Trincomalee. ‘A Box of Matches’ is a sardonic tale about the American, Indian and Ceylonese cultures where one is not in the habit of saying thank you, unlike the English. He writes how people annoy him by getting a match or a light from him without expressing thanks. Furthermore, they borrow the whole box of matches and fail to return it! In 1999, Raja Srikantan chief editor of Thinakaran newspaper translated selected stories from the two books into Tamil. The translated book titled Son of a Judge is held in the National library of Sri Lanka and the British library15.
In several stories, the manner in which mothers frantically arrange marriages for their sons who were about to go to England for further study, to prevent English women from ‘catching’ them reflected a common occurrence. In his case, he was too young to be married when he left Ceylon, but his parents wrote to his English girlfriend requesting she give him up. His father the judge, insisted he marry a Tamil girl with a large dowry to ‘safeguard his future’. The irony is that although the natives aspired to copy the culturally ‘superior’ English, they also feared losing their own culture as a result of colonisation. As Rodney Hall writes in his review, Alagu demonstrates the effects of colonialism while rarely depicting the colonisers, uses simple language effectively to relate deeper ideas, and an economy of means to achieve a variety of effects15. In ‘Cousin Thampoo’ the comma in the last sentence placed differently would entirely change the story’s meaning. In most stories, the final sentence has a comical or unusual twist which leaves the reader in contemplation. As Prof. S.W Perera, senior lecturer in English at University of Peradeniya, writes in his journal article, “Alagu Subramaniam captures life in Jaffna about a half a century ago with an immediacy and assuredness that others have attempted but not always succeeded.” 16
Left to right: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (neither members of Bloomsbury), Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell
FOOTNOTES & BIBLIOGRAPHY
- Wikipedia: The Bloomsbury literary circle – was a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century. This loose collective of friends and relatives was closely associated with the University of Cambridge for the men and Kings College London for the women, and they lived, worked or studied together near Bloomsbury, London.
- Alagu Subramaniam, The Big Girl (1964), Reprint 2018, front page review by Sean O’ Faolâin in The Listener (London).
- EA Gamini Fonseka, Servile Mourning for the Powerful: A Critical Reading of ‘Professional Mourners’ by Alagu Subramaniam (2014), http://www.academia.edu
- EA Gamini Fonseka, Reminiscences of the Traditional Jaffna Community in Transition under Colonialism (2019),academia.edu
- Rodney Hall, The Big Girl (2019) http://www.ft.lk/ft-lite/The-Big-Girl/6-672953
- Lincoln’s archives registry, vol 3 p250, vol 6 p766, https://archive.org/details/VOL318941956/page/n249, https://archive.org/details/VOL619141965_201710
- Wikipedia, Lincoln’s Inn.
- British Library, Indian Writing, Shelfmark ST-1803
- Making Britain – The Open University, Alagu Subramaniam,
- Alagu Subramaniam (2012) The Mathematician, Wasafiri, 27:2, 25-27, DOI:
- Making Britain – The Open University, Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu,
- British Library, Illustrated, shelfmarkLD114, 7th December 1946.
- Lester Hutchinson, D. es. L., The Big Girl (1964), Reprint 2018, back cover review.
- Alagu Subramaniam, Closing Time with Added Personal Notes 2021: https://www.amazon.com.au/Closing-Time-Added-Personal-Notes/dp/B09917WRMM/ref=sr_1_1?crid=OOQH4ZHRYHAG&keywords=alagu&qid=1641711177&sprefix=ala%2Caps%2C398&sr=8-1
- British Library Shelfmark Asia, Pacific & Africa SAC.2000.a.1804.
- W.Perera 2019 Journal of Commonwealth Literature: https://journals.sagepub.com/loi/jcl,Vol. 54(4) pp. 700-714.
- Various – Journal of Commonwealth Literature: https://journals.sagepub.com/loi/jcl, June 1966 Vol.1(2), pp55-58, pp90-100; June 1987, Vol.22(2), pp90-97; March 1982 Vol.16(2) pp119-131; June 1985 Vol.20(2) pp122-133.
- Suntharesan V. (2014) Impact of Borrowings from English on Jaffna Tamil (A textbook for university students), http://www.languageinindia.com, Vol.14(6), p.426(34).
- Dr Florian Stadtler (2012) Britain and India: Cross-cultural Encounters, Wasafiri, 27:2, 1-3, DOI: 10.1080/02690055.2012.662008.
- Rehana Ahmed (2012) South Asians Writing Resistance in Wartime London, Wasafiri, 27:2, 17-24, DOI: 10.1080/02690055.2012.662045.
2 responses to “The Extraordinary Alagu Subramaniam”
Very interesting article Michael. Thanks for sharing
Very nice piece! In my bohemian Leftie youth in the 1970s-80s, I was part of a westernised urban middle class Leftist circle in Colombo with Regi Siriwardena as our principal Guru along with Charlie Abeysekara with the younger people including Sunila A, Sunil B, Ranjith Perera and several others and, given our isolation from the rest of the westernised petit-bourgeoisie due to both our Leftism and defiantly wayward lifestyle (Feminist, multi-gender etc), we liked to think of ourselves as being a Lankan ‘Bloomsbury Group. It was this group that first proposed a Marxist-Feminist agenda in a short paper circulated in Sinhala and English titled ‘Patriarchy & Capitalism’ which did cause a small stir in Left intelligentsia circles at the time It was(a time when ‘Feminism’ per se was quite exotic, although women’s rights issues were a little more acceptable. So we got further estranged and had to compromise and work hard to win back credibility with our larger sector of Leftists in general. Virginia Woolf was indeed an icon. Possibly Regi and Charlie knew of Alagu but I cannot recall any mention. Kumar J may recall better (she was a kind of Left grand dame for us).