The Story of a Man who Built Five Cinemas


Veerappa Alagoo

Dr Devanesan Nesiah

Dr. A.C. Visvalingam’s excellent article under the above title in The Sunday Island of February 25 is very valuable from many perspectives. Veerappa Alagoo and his family are members of the most disadvantaged and discriminated against of the major communities of this island. The story related to a minor employee of upcountry Tamil Origin working under R. Copland, then Superintendent of Nichola Oya Estate, Rattota. Veerappa Alagoo so impressed the Superintendent with his mechanical cum building contracting skills that he was provided with a small block of land near the estate factory to set up his own workshop. Alagoo responded promptly and set up a workshop together with living quarters for himself and his family on that land.

He also installed a sluice gate much higher up across a perennial streamlet to divert water and to generate power to operate a second hand turbine to power a fan driven blacksmith’s furnace, a lathe, a power hacksaw, a stand drill, a grinder and a mini electricity generator. All these increased his efficiency and greatly impressed his superintendent.

His second child was named Karuppiah. Although Karuppiah’s schooling was limited to grade 3 (Tamil medium only) in the local estate school (which was all that was available to him), he had inherited his father’s capacity for honest, intelligent hard work. He applied these qualities to excel in his father’s workshop and also went further to secure a license to drive the estate lorry. It was primarily Karuppiah who developed a passion to build a cinema hall after seeing a Tamil film named Chinthamani at a cinema hall 12 miles away in Matale.

Mr. Copland in due course was transferred to Mayfield estate, Hatton and he took with him Veerappa Alagoo who, in turn, took with him his son Karuppiah. A section of the family remained at Nichola Oya but tragically perished in a landslide. But the story related by Dr. Visvalingam is about the achievements of Veerappa Alagoo’s surviving progeny at Mayfield estate. In this context, the achievements of his progeny are most admirable and inspiring. Further, he has not only used his considerable skills and creative initiative but also systematically tapped a wide range of sources to achieve his ambitions. In particular; he has succeeded in passing down his drive, ambition and perseverance to at least the next two generations of his family.

The widely held theory of "The culture of poverty" does not seem to have significantly crippled him or the progress of his project. That theory had been used to explain the continued socioeconomic depression of certain underprivileged ethnic (including caste) groups in many parts of the world. These groups include Blacks and Native Americans in the USA, depressed castes and tribes in India, the Burakhin in Japan and expatriate plantation and mine workers across the globe. This theory has been elaborated by the distinguished Nigerian scholar Ogbu in his publication titled "Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities". In this publication Voluntary Minorities relate to individuals who have independently and individually migrated to better their prospects, and Involuntary minorities relate to communities who have collectively migrated as slaves or indentured labor to distant lands as well as to communities who had been conquered or designated as inferior and suppressed in their own lands. As elaborated by Ogbu, in addition to discrimination that may operate against both sets of communities, there are decisive psychological factors that differentiate between Involuntary and Voluntary minorities.

It is important to distinguish between ethnic discrimination impacting on both groups from the psychological factors that differentiate between the reaction of Involuntary and Voluntary minorities. Involuntary minorities tend to get depressed and helpless in the face of discrimination. Their frame of reference is this dominant population who enjoys opportunities denied to them. In contrast the Voluntary minorities had individually opted to migrate expecting discrimination but with the confidence that they would be able to overcome the discrimination and succeed. Their frame of reference is the condition of those whom they have left behind in their motherland. They are encouraged by the new opportunities available to them but not to those whom they have left behind. Moreover, it is the more adventurous and ambitious individuals or families who opt to migrate and, in consequence, their socioeconomic conditions may not only exceed those of people whom they have left behind but also, very often, the bulk of the population in the lands to which they have migrated.

For example, Asian migrants make up about two percent of the population of the USA but about 20% of the intake in to several of the elite universities. Similarly many of the migrants in to Norway were Sri Lankan Tamils of very low socioeconomic status but their children are, on average, way above the native Norwegian average in the elite universities and professions. In the USA, there is a wide discrepancy between the success achieved by Black immigrants of recent origin as against the descendants of slaves and Native Americans. In the case of the Burakhin, they continue to be depressed in Japan but those who have migrated to the USA have been as successful as other Japanese migrants. Both choosing to migrate and the very act of migration have made critical differences. Clearly, the difference cannot be due primarily to genetic factors.

Similarly in the case of Tamils who have come in to Sri Lanka as individual migrants over many centuries (viz the Ceylon Tamils) have been clearly more successful than the genetically similar indentured labor who came in to Sri Lankan plantations in the latter part of the 19th Century and the early 20th Century (viz upcountry Tamils). It would be interesting to trace the ancestry of Veerappa Alagoo; did they come as individual migrants or as indentured labor? It would also be interesting to trace the fortunes of his descendants in subsequent (third and fourth) generations. Perhaps Dr. A.C. Visvalingam can help us with information on these issues.

If indeed Veerappa Alagoo or his ancestors were Voluntary minorities and not indentured labor, it would be an inspiration to others of his community to achieve upward mobility, overcoming whatever discrimination they may encounter. In fact if the discrimination suffered by a people numbering over a million and constituting around a tenth of our population could amount to collective repression and explain their sustained socioeconomic depression. If their full potential could be realized it would benefit not only them but all of us. As a first step we should dismantle every rung of the edifice of discrimination that yet burdens them and hinders them from full integration in to the Sri Lankan Nation.

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