Alagu Subramaniam ….The Unfolding of a Ceylonese Author

Premila Thurairatnam,  an essay that will appear in THE CEYLANKAN of May 2022 ….. with highlghting imposed by the Editor, Thuppahi

Further to my article in the November 2020 issue of The CEYLANKAN  entitled The Extraordinary Alagu Subramaniam, I present the findings from my research into how this short story writer formulated some of his stories almost a century ago.  He was commended in the Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English as an exemplar of professionalism in the short story and that he wrote fiction of merit1. So, I think my effort on his work is worthwhile.

Alagu in 1947 aged 37 when he returned to Ceylon from England




Let’s begin with what is considered his finest short story ‘Professional Mourners’ where he points out the inhumanity of the caste system2. The narrator is a child remembering the details of his Hindu grandmother’s funeral and the importance attached to the presence of a group of lower caste women hired to wail there. Subramaniam demonstrates how the upper middle classes displayed their social significance at the expense of such women. The story was first published in the 1940 Spring edition of the Indian Writing magazine, when Subramaniam was living in London3. Two years before that, his younger brother had died in Ceylon aged 19. He had contracted tuberculosis at the boarding house whilst studying for a medical degree in Colombo University College. This sad incident may have inspired this story and since he couldn’t travel back to Ceylon for the funeral, he wrote it at the age of 28. He even recalls the words used by the professional mourners:

Answer for the sake of your loved ones!

Open those eyes that are shaped like a fish!

Like those of Minakshi, famed goddess of Madura!

Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!

Your grandson has come, wake up my darling!

When the story came out in the Indian Writing magazine, it caused a stir in Bloomsbury and the commentary of the following issue claimed that the new issue did not smell quite so highly of mortality in response to an otherwise sympathetic critic who described them as ‘Professional Mourners’3.

Subramaniam travelled to England in 1933, just 23 years to study law. Most of his stories were written in his twenties and thirties. His next great story ‘The Mathematician’ appeared in the 1940 Summer edition of Indian Writing3. It achieved a distinction of being included in the German volume Briefly Told: The Finest Stories in World Literature and being compared to a piece of humorous raillery  by the great Russian author Anton Checkhov2. There, male dominance in the Jaffna society is depicted, through the restriction imposed on the wife against walking abreast with her husband; she, being educated, walks half a step behind, unlike an uneducated wife ruled by one step. In this one and several other stories, he uses the names of his family members, for instance, Subhadra and Chandran are his niece and nephew, respectively. But, in the story Chandran became Chandram; perhaps, because he thought it was a better name for a professor.

Next, we will look at the story ‘This time the Fan’ published in the magazine Left Review4, in London as early as 1937 when he was 27. When he included it in The Big Girl book published in 1964, he had edited it in his early fifties and changed the title to ‘The Fan’. He had also changed the name of one of the main characters from Rajan to Kirupa, latter being his baby brother whom he was fond of and dedicated the book to. The evolution of his writing can be seen here. In London, he was continually writing for several media outlets including radio, literary magazines, while thinking, reading, talking about writing and literature. As a result, over a very long period, he honed a particular style, a ‘quiet’ one — meaning, that the details in his stories are very selective – hard to appreciate because you don’t see all the material he could have used, only the material he chose to use. Likewise, there are many themes he could have selected, but the more knowledgeable and experienced he became, the more themes he rejected, since others have encompassed them. In this way he developed themes and ideas uniquely of interest to him and, in a distinctive way, he developed a distinctive voice. Eventually, his technique and voice became integrated with the thematic material, allowing its presentation in very subtle (and economic) ways, until each seems inseparable: the mark of the greatest and erudite writers.

The opening line in ‘This time the Fan’ (version 1) “The whole school was mortally afraid of the Headmaster” has been omitted in ‘The Fan’ (version 2). Many sentences in version 1 have been made succinct in version 2; “He then used his fan, and the cool breeze refreshed his limbs and also prevented him from sneezing too frequently” became “He then worked his fan and the resulting breeze soothed him and arrested the recurrence of his sneeze”. “He kept his students attentive with his fan” became “He canvassed the attention of his students with his fan”. Similarly, the vocabulary became sophisticated; “Noise was re-echoed by the walls of adjoining classrooms” became “Noise reverberated in the adjoining classrooms”. “He beat them sideways” became “He beat them on their flanks”. ‘Aesthetic joy’ became ‘Aesthetic delight’. “She was happy and full of excitement” became “She soared skyward on a rocket of surprise and delight”. “He then joined his father in the field” became “He partnered his father in the open”. “Bala had great admiration for Rajan” became “Mylan evinced great admiration for Kirupa”. The deliciously funny “His fat wife stood by like a wine barrel without legs” is missing in version 1. The protagonist in version 1 is Bala but Mylan in version 2, probably because “Oh Myla! Oi Mylan! Ohe Myloo! sounds far more absorbing than “Oi Bala, Oh Bala, Ohe Bala”. Additionally, version 1 mentions the rich boy as the son of a successful lawyer, but version 2 mentions him as the son of a high court judge which is closer to biographical detail, their father being a district judge. Interestingly, version 1 says how Bala could not bring a letter from his father for being late unlike his classmates, simply because his father couldn’t write and the fact that a letter from him wouldn’t have any effect, implying he was considered a low caste. This has been omitted in version 2. Was Subramaniam holding back from overtly exposing the prejudices of society and avoiding trouble? Letters from professional parents will be accepted but those from a poor farmer, disregarded and his son was cruelly afflicted.

He certainly did that even with the story ‘Conversation’ which later became ‘Tennis’ where he decided to refrain from conspicuously writing about his sister and brother-in-law. Latter had been the youngest (aged 35) Ceylonese recipient of the O.B.E in 1943 for laying essential communication lines during WWII. ‘Conversation’ was read on the home service of the BBC in 1945. Presumably, he wrote it in London soon after the great event. The story is about two wives at a tennis court boasting about their husbands, a lawyer and a doctor, and at the same time denouncing other women who talk about nothing else but their spouses. In the course of the conversation, one asks the other if she was going to Leela’s garden party. Leela, the engineer’s wife was hosting it because her husband had been awarded the O.B.E. When the story was included in The Big Girl, 20 years later in Ceylon, the title was changed to ‘Tennis’ and there was no mention of the O.B.E, other than a promotion. What he didn’t change was that when one wife enquires why he was awarded the O.B.E/promotion, the other cynically remarks, “For putting up some electrical installations or telephones, I don’t know which,” hinting that the achievement was rather insignificant.

 Figure 2: Radio Times February 23rd, 1945 (from the BBC archives5)


  1. – ‘The Customer’s Always Right’ written and read by Albert Saphier
  2. – ‘Conversation’ an Indian story written by Subramaniam, and read by Coomi Kharus

Remarkable that we can still find out what the radio program was for a given day, 76 years ago. It’s doubtful that it will be possible with today’s programming. This is a significant issue for social historians. Thanks to the BBC archives and Radio Times, the script of the story with its annotations and clarifications in order to be read on radio (Fig 3) are preserved.  Corrections made in a radio (or story) script would now be made in digital format with the original version overwritten.

 Figure 3: Script annotated for reading (from the BBC archives5)

Note: D refers to Doctor’s wife & L to Lawyer’s wife

 Thus, although Subramaniam was critical of his seminal society, he was sympathetic with it, when he matured and emerged as a professional, didactic and naturalistic writer. To quote one of Sri Lanka’s eminent scholars Dr E.A. Gamini Fonseka, former Senior Professor in English at the Dept. of English & Linguistics, Ruhuna University, “Although Subramaniam was a Christian, he was rational and not bound by any institutionalised form of thinking and his unassuming nature is vivid in his intolerance of false pride at any level.”


  1. Eugene Benson, L.W. Conolly, Encyclopeida of Post-Colonial Literatures in English

  1. Alagu Subramaniam, The Big Girl (1964), Reprint 2018
  2. British Library, Indian Writing, Shelfmark ST-1803
  3. British Library, Left Review, Shelfmark P.P.5938.baw.
  4. Permission to include has been obtained from the BBC archives

 The authoress Premila Thurairatnam

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