Yesterday, in the pub, my partner – the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram – and I discussed education. It is topical in Sri Lanka, because we hear a lot about senior appointments, killing dogs, private medical education, admissions and the cruel treatment of freshers. My friend has observed some of the good and bad in the system, and the comparisons he makes with institutions elsewhere make interesting topics of conversation. Today we drifted into the medium of instruction, educating in Sinhala and Tamil, known as Swabasha. Thevaram described to me his early encounters with this policy, from his childhood memories.
One evening, the Sivapuranam family were seated at their dining table for a candle-lit supper. “Candle-lit?” you ask. You are annoyed that the family suffered from a colonial subject mind-set, trying to keep up appearances. Pause, I beg you, electricity had not reached the northern village of Karainagar, so candles and kerosene lamps were the sources of light.
Yet the villagers – who had neither electricity nor running water – had a thirst for knowledge. Just the previous month, several had gathered round a radio, listened to the running commentary on short wave of the Apollo 11 Mission and cheered loudly when the moon-landing was announced. Sivapuranam, Thevaram’s father, had enlisted two guys to climb up coconut trees in the backyard and construct an antenna for the valve operated radio, powered by a car battery.
Their dinner conversation started with the classic middle-class Tamil mother’s daily question to the son: “Putha (son), what did you study at school today?”
“We studied about carbon-di-oxide, mummy,” Thevaram replied.
Now, Sivakami did not know any Chemistry. But, having attended the village posh school, she knew English. This was enough for her to grasp that there was something called carbon which is the stuff she burnt in the stove, something called oxygen, which was essential to keep the fuel burning and somehow you needed one of the former and two of the latter to make the substance of which her offspring had become knowledgeable. She was pleased, yet a little humbled because she herself had spent three years in Hilltop, studying Sanskrit.
“Of what use is that?” Thevaram often teased her of her Sanskrit education.
“That is what scholarship was all about,” she would reply. “The suddha went to the posh schools of Eaton and Winchester, followed by Oxford or Cambridge to read Latin. So we did the same. And why do we need the suddha’s dead language, when we have our own dead language?”
Suddha did, we did, and we did it in ours. But we were proud when we did it in ours!
Joining the conversation, Penelope, Thevaram’s grandmother, also wanted to know what it was the boy had studied. “Enna raasa (what darling)?” she inquired. Penelope loved her grandson dearly and was very proud of the little brat. She insisted the grandson was fair skinned, though no sensitive optical instrument could detect this. He was just the same as the village farmers who spent the whole day in the scorching sun.
She had in her mind a hierarchy that was black and white — a ranking maintained to this day the world over, including in the marriage advertisements of the Ceylon Daily Noise and the Virkesari.