Let me tell you
“I shouted at my daughter – and of course that gave me an opportunity to explain: ‘These are sacred items for Hindus and you can’t put it on the floor.’ ”
This interview took place on
The second conversation with Suriyan happens when we’re at the Preston Town Hall [read his first: Black Socialist, White London]. A group of Sri Lankans and Iranians have gathered and we’ve been talking about hobbies, which leads to a young Sinhalese man telling us about how he met his Tamil wife [Trouble and Desire] and how she spoke excellent Sinhala. This prompts Suriyan to expound on language and culture in Sri Lanka and, in his inimitable fashion, link the political to the personal.
A lot of the Tamils enrolled in school because there were no Tamil schools. Because you have no choice also. In some areas, government schools did not offer Tamil medium, so they learned what is called Kavi Sinhalese.
Kavi – like poetry?
You see, there is also another side. I also used to speak Sinhalese. Because I was from Colombo. But the way they [Sinhala people] pick whether you’re Sinhalese or Tamil – they’ll ask you to read a kavi in Sinhala. A Sinhala recital. Or they’ll ask you to say a certain word – ‘Baaliya.’
Yes, [that’s] the pronunciation.
Apparently that’s what they did to single out Tamils in the riots [race riots in Sri Lanka, in 1983 and ’85]. Asked people to say ‘baaldiya.’
I must tell you, you know history, there are different versions of history – because history is not an exact science – but the anthropological data, when you read the books, they would say people from Chilaw and Negombo [Sinhala enclaves] were Tamils who had come and settled down there and spoke Sinhala.
If you’re forced, that’s when you get angry. [But] for economic and social survival you slowly learn the language – because that’s the language of the majority, and you would speak it. A lot of the people who lived in Chilaw were Tamils in the nineteen thirties and forties who slowly became Sinhalese…there must be some truth to that.
And there are no superficial differences.
Man, if you actually examine the Tamils and Sinhalese, there’s a massive similarity. The fact that we’re here and India is above – all of us, our cultural values are influenced by that. Even Buddhism is closely related to a Hindu tradition, although now it is…did you know the Tamils would wear The National [the outfit] on one side, the Sinhala? You know the Sinhala National and the Tamil National – you know the buttons? One on the left, the other on the right?
Really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah. Otherwise the same. So there was a conscious effort to make a distinction. To create an identity. If you look at it in terms of cultural practices, the way we eat, the way we bring up our children with our family and friends – they’re the same. A whole lot. All the rituals. The burial ceremonies, wedding ceremonies – there are differences but very simple differences.
You know in Jaffna some of them discovered some Buddhist relics and claimed that it was part of the Sinhala nation. But then there’s another narrative. Hindus were Buddhist in the first century in Jaffna, because Buddhism was flourishing in South India in the first century – the Brahminical influences were reasserted in the 7th and 8th century – so our identity is [always changing]…
The Africans the Dutch brought for cinnamon picking, if you go to some of the areas in the South there’s afro hair – that’s from the Africans. You see the two-hundred thousand that came in, they didn’t go back. So they get settled. Like lots of them, the Portuguese, the Dutch, you know…so in Sri Lanka this whole concept of nationalism was only 200 years old.
If you cast your mind back to 1700, people have travelled down all the time. I must tell you…my mother is from Jaffna, my father’s from Batticaloa. Jaffna people would consider Batticaloa people, in terms of cast, slightly lower. [Chuckles] Batticaloa was a port and there were lots of Portuguese. So, machang, they would’ve intermarried. My father’s mother – no-one talks about. I tried to find out where my father’s mother is but there’s no photograph – nothing. So, what I think happened: she’s Dutch or Portuguese Burgher.
“I’ll tell you, I went and complained in Canberra – there is a tattooist there who’ll put a tattoo of Ganesh!”
I must tell you, [about] my children. Their mother is English. I give them nice Tamil names, Parvati Meera and Anjali Gita, but they don’t look Tamil. They’re half.
Where are they?
They’re here. Yes. In fact they call me Appa but they’re, culturally, nothing.Because I wasn’t also a religious person. You know when my children were growing up, there was no religion.
We didn’t have a shrine room or prayers. So one day, there was a beautiful Ganesh – a batik painting which I bought from India. So my eldest girl said, Appa I would love to have this painting. So I gave it to her, right?
Few days after, I just walk into her room – you know what she’s done? On the carpet in the middle of the room – she has put it on the ground! Mamma mia! Then you realise – she had no clue!
You see she doesn’t have this notion of what is considered sacred. In India, or Sri Lanka, every child born, Catholics, Christians or Muslims even, will know not to put Ganesh on the floor. They will know it’s a sacred thing. You don’t do it. Because I didn’t teach them – she’s not part of the environment, no? Even if I hadn’t taught, in Sri Lanka they would’ve known. This is what socialisation is.
I shouted at my daughter and of course that gave me an opportunity to explain: ‘These are sacred items for Hindus and you can’t put it on the floor.’
She said, ‘Appa, I’m sorry I didn’t realise it.’
Then I took her to the temple, just to show her. I took her to India as well. So here, children, you have to teach them, otherwise they won’t have any understanding.
In Sri Lanka you pick it up through the air – so you know what it is. In fact, my nephew – he wasn’t born in Sri Lanka. When he came to the kovil he thought it was a Walt Disney cartoon! This was a few years ago. Nowadays people are much more sensitive to these things.
People are more knowledgeable. They know what Ganesh is.
They do, I’m sure they know, but sometimes not in totality. And having this half-baked knowledge. Sometimes they would call their dog ‘Sita.’
I’ll tell you, I went and complained in Canberra – there is a tattooist there who’ll put a tattoo of Ganesh!
Some people flirt with it. They have a superficial attraction to Indian things and they misuse it. Do you know that in the Victoria market they were selling knickers with the Lakshmi photograph on it? They thought it was nice! Because Lakshmi is very colourful.
That’s the challenge – when you say they have the knowledge it’s not complete. Sometimes it comes out with something funny.
You can’t blame them.
No. If they want to wear knickers like that and if they want to tattoo their body what can we do? In that way the Hindus are more tolerant. Hundreds of gods, no? Hanuman, Sita, Rama – a whole jing bang. There was a case also – a Ganesh play.
Ganesh versus the Third Reich. It was really good, actually. I saw it.
Very good! But the Hindu’s complained. Did they watch it? They complained because there was one phrase – ‘What god forsaken mother begot the you?’ You see we accept the elephant trunk. But to outsiders – difficult.
Did you watch it, Suriyan?
No. I didn’t go to the play. But I read all of the things. And we had a seminar here – a workshop on religious sensibilities and freedom of expression.
See, when we live in a multicultural society these are some of the challenges. What we consider sacred, others may not consider sacred. We would love a society where everyone respects each other’s…but sometimes we don’t.
Katarina, who’s made suretoday’s participants are fed and the kitchen’s been cleared up, comes over and asks Suriyan to lock up the DECC office as she has to take some of the Iranian boys to a house inspection. Suriyan politely concludes the conversation, says his goodbyes and saunters off to complete his duties.
Exile and the Kingdom
“I ran away from Iran. I didn’t leave my country. ”