Selected Writings by
Sachi Sri Kantha
Garland to My First Love
is my first love. Today, she reaches 65. By current demographical
yard-stick, she enters the senior citizen category from today. I will be
48 next month. There is a generational gap between us. It has to be,
because she is my mother (Amma). Thus I write this ethnographical sketch
about her - snippets of her moments of joy and anguish in her life. Thousands
of Eelam Tamil women in the diaspora are in my mother's situation now. I
write about Amma since I know her story best...
gave me an update on the recent activities of her beloved Mano Akka (a
maternal cousin of hers) - a sprightly, 78 year-old widow, who was
married to an apothecary. This old lady is now staying in Vanni with the
Iyakkam fighters, serving as a consultant 'doctor', nurse, chef and
surrogate mother for the past 10 years or so...There exists a
professional breed of Tamil women in Colombo, who boast about their
studies in Harvard and other western universities in air-conditioned
conference parlors, and then - in a class of their own, there are
doughty women like Amma's Mano Akka in their late 70s who work to bring
some smile to Tamils against all odds. In my esteem, the reality gap
between these two categories of Tamil women is akin to a mud horse and a
live horse. "
She is my first love.
Today, she reaches 65. By current demographical yard-stick, she enters the
senior citizen category from today. I will be 48 next month. There is a
generational gap between us. It has to be, because she is my mother (Amma).
Thus I write this ethnographical sketch about her - snippets of her moments of
joy and anguish in her life. Thousands of Eelam Tamil women in the diaspora
are in my mother's situation now. I write about Amma since I know her story
After a gap of more
than 13 years, I met Amma in Hamilton, New Zealand last month. Before that,
our last meeting was in Colombo in late 1987 - when MGR was alive,
J.R.Jayewardene was the President of Sri Lanka and Rajiv Gandhi was the prime
minister of India. After my sister and I left the nest, she was living with
our father in the unit of government flats, Bambalapitiya, then owned by us.
During the 13 years which lapsed, her health has taken a beating too. She
complains of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She also has survived a
gynecological operation in 1992, carried out in Colombo.
Sometimes I ponder
that teenage marriage and motherhood has been a bane for Amma. First and
foremost, her nominal schooling came to be stopped.
biographical record was not unusual for young Tamil women of Eelam of her age.
When she completed the 7th standard by 1948, her schooling was interrupted to
look after her sickly mother and to carry out household chores. She was asked
by her parents to marry my father at the age of 16, in 1952. My father was
then 28 plus - an age difference of 12 years. The marriage was fixed by the
elders of the both families, since my maternal grandmother and paternal
grandfather were cousins in Point Pedro.
Amma handed to me an
unusual gift in Hamilton, a gift, which is older than me - a 49 year-old
wedding invitation, the only remaining memento of her wedding day. It is a
curious piece of ethnographical source material for a Jaffna wedding - a
wedding invitation, printed on a postcard, only in English, with the bride's
name spelt wrong. My maternal grandfather was then working in a coconut estate
as a store keeper, and he probably would have liked to show off the auspicious
event of his family to his British bosses who manned the estate. For the
record, I provide what this wedding invitation states.
Mrs. A.Thiyagaraja request the pleasure of the company of ....at their
residence on Monday the 21st April 1952 at 10.30 pm on the occasion of the
Marriage of their daughter T.Pooneswary with Mr.S.Sachithanantham (Clerk,
Hospital Clerical Services).
The glaring spelling
error was that the bride's name appeared as 'Pooneswary', whereas the correct
spelling is Puvaneswary. Despite the proof-reading error and lack of
professional esthetics, this now-yellowing wedding invitation has become one
of my most cherished possessions - almost equivalent to my birth certificate
and passport, since it tells about my origin. I value this printed document
originating from Point Pedro, which has survived quite a number of family
moves within Ceylon, catastrophes which befell on Tamils like the
Sinhalese-induced riots of 1958, 1977
and 1983, and finally the trans-oceanic
passage to New Zealand.
There is no
photograph of the wedding of my parents. I guess that my maternal grandfather
who organized the event had not thought about recording the event on camera,
though such a service would have been provided by a couple of photographers in
Point Pedro in 1952.
I was born in Chilaw,
where my father was working at the Base Hospital in the government clerical
service, when Amma was barely 17 years and one month. So, she gained the
status of 'clerk's wife' [in colloquial Tamil, 'clarker pompillai']. She then
moved with my father, living in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu,
until 1958. Then she lived with her parents for an year assisting farming in
Thachchadampan (a village in the trunk road between Mullaitivu and Mankulam),
while my father began working in Colombo. Following that, for an year she
moved to her dowry-house in [Hartley] College Road, Point Pedro, living alone
with us (me and my younger sister). Then, my father brought us and Amma to
Colombo, where she had lived since 1961 until the end of 1998.
As is usual with any
mother-son bond, since my teenage days, I have had tiffs with Amma on quite a
number of issues. To recount a few:
1. In the
mid-1960s, Amma didn't like my infatuation with MGR's
2. Also, in the
mid-1960s, Amma and I argued strongly on the worth of astrology for life.
She is a firm believer in astrology, while I (influenced by the writings of E.V.Ramasamy
Naicker alias Periyar, and polemics of rationalist Abraham Kovoor)
opposed her belief.
3. In the
mid-1970s, Amma did not like my entry into political writing in the pages of
Sutantiran and Tribune weeklies. Not that she was against
Tamil nationalism. But she was more concerned that I would become a 'marked
4. Being a strong
believer in the compatibility of horoscopes for marital happiness, since
1970s, Amma strongly opposed me in getting into romantic involvement, with
young Tamil or non-Tamil women.
I had briefly
described these tiffs in the titular essay of my 1995-book 'MGR Movies
Revisited and Other Essays' (printed in a limited edition of 100 copies).
was introduced to MGR in 1962 via his movie titled, 'Thai Sollai
Thattathe', a Thevar Films production. I was just 9 years old
then. We were living at 3, Daya Road, Wellawatte. This movie was
screened at the Plaza theater. My parents felt that a movie with such
a wonderful title ('Don't Reject Mother's Words') should be of great
educational value to my younger sister and me....In the subsequent
years, I watched one MGR movie per year with permission from my
parents....The MGR 'bug' hit me badly two months before I sat for the
first time at the G.C.E.Ordinary Level exam in December 1966....Since
then, watching all the movies of MGR (old and 'new') became a sort of
my passion. Of course I had to leave the school early to be in time to
join the queque for the 2.00 pm matinee show.
And after the
end of matinee, I had to creep back to my home, not to be 'caught' by
my mother. But I always failed in this mission. The accumulated
cigarette smoke in my hair, shirt and vest during my three hour
ecstasy with MGR inside the theater always informed my mother where I
have been to. But I always denied what I have done....
after I have tested my mother's patience by coming home unusually late
(after enjoying a matinee show), she had grabbed my suitcase of
collectibles and disposed into garbage can all my worthy collections
related to MGR. She added insult to injury by asking me, 'Will your
MGR come and feed you in the future, if you are starving?' This
unwarranted invasion of my privacy hurt my sentiments badly. I vouched
secretly that she had underestimated the loyalty of a true MGR fan....
joined the University of Illinois in 1981, I realized that my idol MGR
had even attracted the attention of academic researchers from the
USA....Even before MGR formed his Anna DMK party in 1972, [Robert]
Hardgrave had published academic papers on MGR's influence in Tamil
Nadu politics. Furthermore, another American researcher Norman Cutler
published an academic paper on the 1981
Madurai International Tamil Conference, which was organized by MGR
and where I met my idol for the only time. So I could claim that my
mother was wrong in admonishing my juvenile infatuation with MGR. If
MGR has been of value for American academics to publish research
papers, why was I punished by her?
With years, my
love for MGR has not diminished at all. As with other Sri Lankan
Tamils, I came to admire him more as a man of great heart and
indefatigable leadership qualities in the post-1983 period.... However
I'm sad that I breached one of his cardinal advices: Thai Sollai
Thattathe (Don't Reject Mother's Words), the movie which made me a
fan of MGR. I went against the wishes of my mother to marry a Japanese
girl Saki, with whom I fell in love. I wonder whether MGR and my
mother will forgive me..."
I wrote this essay as
my penance for overstepping Amma's parental authority. But for the past 13
years, she maintained a guarded silence - no direct letters and no phone
calls. However, I continued to inform her about my progress in life. I could
well understand her mind. She was miffed that I betrayed her trust.
Amma's emigration to
New Zealand in December 1998 and the new realities had evaporated her anger on
me. When I saw her last month, she welcomed me, my wife and our two children
with open arms. I was deeply relieved that she had forgiven me for marrying a
Japanese. But I could read the sense of property loss in her face. When she
decided to emigrate to New Zealand, with reluctance she had to sell her dowry
house in Point Pedro and the resident unit we had in Colombo. The ancestral
Point Pedro house was sold for five lakhs rupees. The one bedroom unit she
owned in the Bambalapitiya government flats fetched a little more than three
times the worth of her Point Pedro house. A well known Eelam musician (Thavil
vidwan) had become the new owner of our Bambalapitiya housing unit.
Amma told me the
darkest moment of her life, when my
father (then aged 72) was arrested on the night of November 5, 1995 by the
police and remanded behind bars at the Bambalapitiya police station. I had
briefly written about this harassment episode (not unusual for Tamils living
in Colombo), in two letters to the Tamil Times magazine of February
1996 and April 1996, while commenting on the selective descriptions of human
right abuse by the scribes belonging
to the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). Last month, I heard
directly from Amma what happened then. Some unscrupulous elements residing in
the same housing unit had informed the police that quite a number of Tamils
were visiting our housing unit regularly and funds were being collected for
the Tiger movement. On the strength of evidence and valuable support provided
by our then Sinhalese neighbors Tissa and Chitra Ekanayake, all the
allegations against my father were disproved and the police officer in charge
of the Bambalapitiya police station was forced to release him.
interrogation, my father did not deny the fact that quite a number of Tamils
were visiting him regularly, but he had stressed that they were his
astrological clients. The punch-line for this scary arrest story had humor
tinged with irony, suitable for an O.Henry-style ending. Once satisfied that
my parents had regular astrological clients, the police officer-in-charge
himself became curious to learn his 'astrological predictions' from my
parents! We had a hearty laugh on the triumph of astrology and despite my
reservations, I had to concede to Amma that on that occasion her specialty in
astrology saved the day (and probably life) for my father and her.
When my 13 year-old
daughter Sachiko asked Amma, what made her to like my father, to marry him at
the young age of 16, she chuckled. She liked that question, originating from
her grand daughter. She replied, 'belief in the wisdom of my elders and trust
in astrology'. I felt that she gave a diplomatic answer to Sachiko. Though due
to circumstances her formal studies were interrupted, I have admired Amma for
her pluck and intelligence.
She is learning
English now to adopt to the new environment. She has come to grips with
the reality that she cannot return to Colombo or Point Pedro in the near
future. Even if she wished, she cannot stay anywhere in Sri Lanka, without
being a burden to someone. Now her best friend is Svetlana, another immigrant
to New Zealand, from war-torn former Yugoslavia.
Amma yet clings on to
her deeds to the small plot of land, in the trunk road between Mankulam and
Mullaitivu. She savors her one year excursion into farming with her
parents. That is her only property link to Eelam now. She has some peace of
mind that that land is now under the control of the 'Iyakaththu
Podiyankal' [Lads of the Movement]. She told me, that when occasion becomes
feasible, she would like to make a trip to Vanni and see what is happening to
her land in Mankulam.
Memories still linger
in me also about that piece of land. I was a six year-old in 1959. We had
exotic pets in the farm (a turkey and a baby monkey) in addition to dogs,
cats, poultry and cows. I remember counting the number of vehicles passing
along the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road to the annual Vattrapalai Amman Kovil
festival. And my first memory of a political event in Ceylon was when my
grandfather came home to tell the sensational news of the day that 'Someone
had shot Bandaranaike, and he is in critical condition'. I had one year
schooling at the Olumadu Madhya Maha Vidyalayam too.
Amma also gave me
an update on the recent activities of her beloved Mano Akka (a maternal
cousin of hers) - sprightly, 78 year-old widow, who was married to an
apothecary. This old lady is now staying in Vanni with the Iyakkam fighters,
serving as a consultant 'doctor', nurse, chef and surrogate mother for the
past 10 years or so. In our family circles, Mano aunty's exploits are talked
about in epic proportions and her biographical sketch deserves a separate
treatment. She has been a veteran explorer of Vanni region for nearly five
decades. In Eelam, the trend has been for the sons to join the Iyakkam
leaving behind the mothers. Mano aunty is an exception. Having seen all the
suffering of Tamils in Jaffna, she left behind her only son, daughter-in-law
and grandchildren in Jaffna to join the Iyakkam and work full-time for Pirabaharan's
There exists a professional
breed of Tamil women in Colombo, who boast about their studies in Harvard and
other western universities in air-conditioned conference parlors, and then
- in a class of their own, there are doughty women like Amma's Mano Akka in
their late 70s who work to bring some smile to Tamils against
all odds. In my esteem, the reality gap between these two categories of
Tamil women is akin to a mud horse and a live horse.
Just before I left
her, Amma told me that she is interested in learning driving now, since she
feels restrained by the immobility imposed by her current lack of driving
skill. I nodded in agreement. She is like a bamboo tree - swaying to the
strong winds - full of inner strength - to survive calamities in life with
courage. I salute her.