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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
M.K.Eelaventhan - a Tribute to a Mentor
12 April 2004
It is gladdening to read in the TamilNet news of April 9th that Mr.M.K.Eelaventhan has been officially nominated by the Tamil National Alliance as one of the two national list parliamentarians, through the Thamil Arasu Katchchi (ITAK). What a turn of events for a bona fide Tamil activist who was an Eelam refugee in Tamil Nadu from 1983 until the end of 2000, when Indian Poo-Bahs deported him unceremoniously to Sri Lanka. I have not met Eelaventhan personally for the past 23 years, but he remains a mentor for me, since I saw him for the first time as a school boy in the early 1960s. While he is about to begin his role as a Tamil legislator now, I reproduce below a tribute I penned for him following his deportation from India. [This originally appeared in the Tamil Nation website of December 13, 2000]
A Man With a Mission
When it comes to painting the peculiarities of the minds of Indian Poo-Bahs, none can do better than R.K.Narayan. In one of his essays entitled, ‘When India was a Colony’, written to the New York Times magazine, Narayan reminisced as follows:
‘I had a close relative in the I.C.S.[i.e., Indian Civil Service] who could not be seen or spoken to even by members of his family living under the same roof, except by appointment…
The I.C.S.manual was his Bible that warned him against beeing too familiar with anyone. He was advised how many mangoes he could accept out of a basket that a favor-seeker proffered; how far away he should hold himself when a garland was brought to be slipped over his neck. It was a matter of propriety for an average visitor to leave his vehicle at the gate and walk down the drive; only men of certain status could come in their cars and alight at the portico…it dehumanized the man, especially during the national struggle for independence. These men proved ruthless in dealing with agitators, and may well be said to have out-Heroded Herod. Under such circumstances, they were viewed as a monstrous creation of the British. An elder statesman once defined the I.C.S. as being neither Indian nor civil nor service…
The British managed to create a solid core of Anglophiles who were so brainwashed that they would harangue and argue that India would be in chaos if the British left, and called Mahatma Gandhi a demagogue and mischief maker, and would congratulate Churchill on his calling Mahatma Gandhi ‘half-naked fakir’…’[in, A Writer’s Nightmare – Selected Essays 1958-1988, Penguin Books, 1988, pp.222-232]
Well, Gandhi and Churchill have passed into eternity. But the I.C.S.mentality portrayed by Narayan still lingers on in the successors who followed the steps of Narayan’s I.C.S. kin. This is how I reconciled myself to the recent news of M.K.Eelaventhan’s deportation from India.
Eelaventhan became a recognizable personality for me around 1963, when I was a 10-year old at the Colombo Hindu College. Since then, until mid 1970s, he was a familiar face to me and to other Tamil school children and university undergrads in Colombo, since he frequently delivered lectures and actively participated in the annual Saraswathi Pooja celebrations and other art and dance festivals held in school premises and in public event halls like Saraswathi Hall, Saiva Mangaiyar Kazhagam Hall, Ramakrishna Hall, Vivekananda Hall and New Kathiresan Hall.
What impressed me most about him was his diminutive physical feature, penetrating and enthusiastic eyes, infective smile and quick strides. He was always a man in a hurry, like Mahatma Gandhi. Even in the 1960s, long before the Eelam campaign began in earnest, he became an active one-man propagandist for Eelam – by adopting the name ‘Eelaventhan’ [literally, the King of Eelam], by which he came to be known to Tamils. His given name was Kanakendran. He was born on September 14, 1932.
Like a sponge, by watching his activities, I also imbibed his passion for Tamil culture and his bilingual (Tamil and English) talent in expressing his views to an audience – even to those who openly disagreed with him stridently. He could quote extemporaneously verses from Saint Manickavasagar and Saint Karaikkal Ammai, and also speeches from Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, S.J.V.Chelvanayakam and S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike to buttress his point. It is not an exaggeration to state that he was in fact a walking encyclopedia on Tamil history. A couple of his oft-repeated favorite kitchen-related Tamil proverbs and idioms still ring in my ear. He used to say, ‘Aar kutthianaalum arisiyaanaal sari’ [Whoever mills, what we need is the rice.], and ‘Engallukku silusiluppu vendaam, palahaaram thaan thevai’ [What we need is the sweets and not the rattling noise in the pan.]
In the mid 1970s (especially between 1975 and 1979), I was in close orbit with Eelaventhan in Colombo. While serving as the President of the Colombo branch of Tamil United Liberation Front, Eelaventhan canvassed actively among the Tamils and non-Tamils on the cause of Eelam liberation. I was one of the nearly 30-odd regulars to the weekly study sessions he organized and conducted at a location near Colombo 4 junction, prior to the 1977 general election. He held court at the front porch of a house belonging to the businessman T.Thirunavukarasu (who became the MP for Vaddukoddai in 1977). For his weekly study sessions, Eelaventhan invited a number of public figures regularly to exchange information and convey the ideas of Tamil youth. Some of these personalities whom I listened to in these meetings include the noted journalist Mervyn de Silva (editor of Lanka Guardian), Dr.Neelan Tiruchelvam, and a then budding Muslim politician, M.M.Ashraff.
Because of such propaganda activities related to the Eelam campaign, Eelaventhan became a marked person in Colombo, and suffered during the August 1977 anti-Tamil riots, which followed the general election. He was physically assaulted and his valuable collection of Tamiliana library kept at his rented apartment in Nugegoda was destroyed by Sinhala thugs. It pained us (those lucky ones who narrowly escaped from such savagery) much to see Eelaventhan suffering like Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of arrogant, unruly elements. But, the Gandhian ‘never give up’ spirit in him gave Eelaventhan the strength to continue his mission.
In August 1978, a year after the 1977 riots, when I organized a cultural event to celebrate the release of my first book, Thamil Isai Theepam (a text book on the theory of Carnatic Music, which subsequently received the Sri Lanka Sahitya Award for research literature in Tamil for 1977) at the New Kathiresan Hall, Colombo, I honored Eelaventhan by inviting him to preside that function, which he graciously accepted. M.Sivasithamparam, the then TULF President was the chief guest of that cultural function. Memories of those days are still fresh in my mind. I have grown now and I have no doubt that Eelaventhan’s words of nurture played a significant role in my intellectual growth and I’ll ever be thankful for his mentoring.
In 1960s and 1970s, I was one youngster who gained much from Eelaventhan’s self-sacrificing Tamil activism. His role as an unconventional teacher (and mentor) to hundreds of young Tamils in Eelam and Tamil Nadu for the past 40 years is worthy of emulation.
End Note in 2004
Though Eelaventhan now enters a new career as a nominated Tamil legislator, at the age of 71, it need not be emphasized that the difference between his status as a ‘national list’ legislator and that of Lakshman Kadirgamar (another same-aged ‘national list’ legislator) is as different from that of a mountain and valley. While ‘Johnny-come lately’ Kadirgamar serves a constituency of one megalomaniac politician and his contribution to Tamil rights during the past 10 years borders on zero, no sensible Eelam Tamil can doubt the sincerity and passion of Eelaventhan’s five decades-old record in the political arena for Tamil rights.
It would not be a bad idea to propose, that in the future peace negotiations with LTTE [God only knows when!] when Kadirgamar will be tasked in the token Tamil role of President Chandrika’s team, Eelaventhan will be the ideal counter-weight for him on the LTTE’s team. In polished bilingual oratory, debate and negotiation, Kadirgamar cannot hold a candle to Eelaventhan. He is also the man who knows the history and struggles of Eelam Tamils in his finger-tips; and more significantly – he cannot be ‘manipulated’ by India’s Poo Bahs and stinking skunks, though he had lived in India as a refugee for nearly 17 years. And Eelaventhan has the prime distinction of being evicted from India for indulging in non-violent Gandhian-style protests in Indian soil! He will be a good asset to Anton Balasingham, who had shouldered the heavy burden until now as the leading negotiator for the LTTE.