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Marking 125 Years of Chundikuli Girls’ College: Revitalising a Great Heritage

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by Rajan Hoole

What Education is about: Think through to the end

In writing for a major anniversary of our school, we affirm its greatness, the good times we had, the eccentricities of the teachers who acted for our own good, the scenery and environment that stay etched in memory; and the achievements of fellow students who made their mark in the world. In the memory of a little boy in the age of innocence, I am awed by the beams of sunlight pouring through the foliage of tall mahoganies that seemed to reach up to the sky. It symbolised the greatness of the institution we were part of. In remembering and reaffirming this in the company of old students from all parts of the wide world, we assure ourselves of our place in it and it is no mean corner of it that is ours. I indulged in such thoughts when I wrote 25 years ago, but that seems out of place against present reality.

I now write as one of the exceptions in my class, whether at Chundikuli or St. John’s, that actually lives in Jaffna. Many people in this country, in view of the past tragic decades have decided this is not the place for their children. Being at the tail end of the Psalmist’s life span, I see very few of my old mates. A number of them came to Jaffna after the war ended to reclaim their properties, smiled, exchanged pleasantries with old friends, or thanked those who had protected their belongings and said their last good-byes after getting the best prices for their land, often to the detriment of those left behind.

Many would claim that they had no alternative, but there should be no pretence that they left behind a healthy society and schools, and share no responsibility for the fate of a people who were their neighbours for generations. On the surface things could appear normal, but behind it lurks loneliness, absence of civic sense, coupled with a fear of going beyond personal interest and standing up for what one believes is right and decent.

It has a debilitating effect on education. Another writer in this series has referred to my mother Jeevamany Somasundaram, an old girl of Chundikuli who sat for her Cambridge Senior (O Levels) about 1934. A story that moved me deeply was related by my piano teacher Miss. Abbey Hunt. She said that during lunch intervals, when the girls were amusing themselves with various pursuits, my mother sat beneath a mahogany tree, working riders in Euclidian Geometry. It was an injunction setting a standard: once you take a problem in hand, think it through to the end. It is not a story about one woman, but about a school, an atmosphere, the teachers and their personal interest that challenged students to a high level of intellectual rigor.

Until about the 1970s several schools in Jaffna had teachers who identified capable students and took a keen interest in their future. A student of my age at Hartley told me that his Mathematics teacher, R.M. Gunaratnam, once caught him in a vice-like grip in Pt. Pedro town and warned him about his absence from classes. Today that link between teachers and students has greatly diminished, and teaching has largely been sub-contracted to tutories. It has led to a marked fall in intellectual standards and the near disappearance of intellectual life in Jaffna.

Tutories are not about teaching students to think, but produce good grades in A. Levels. My experience in university teaching too has been that few students attempt tutorial questions, but wait for answers to be given in class. It has resulted in a culture of not wanting to think through a problem. The university training amounts to teaching people to apply formulae and get results, and not bother with foundations. Many of them emigrate and get jobs abroad, which makes me suspect that we are good at producing engineer-clerks and doctor-clerks who perform their routines quite well.

Leaving behind a desert

I have referred to the ongoing sale of expatriate properties in Jaffna, which are followed by the capricious appearance of high rise buildings and the disappearance of tanks and drains. Common sense points to danger. The most damning indicator was the flooding of Jaffna Hospital during the last rains when medical staff and patients were knee-deep in water.

Coming to the issue of thinking a problem through to the end, the building spree in Jaffna has been promoted by persons in authority promising modernised water, drainage and sewage systems for Jaffna. When there is prospect of huge foreign loans, perks and contracts, basic constraints are swept under the carpet. Foreign experts are all for it and, and of our own experts who sold it, few will ultimately be rooted in Jaffna. Novel possibilities were talked about for many years and dropped; such as desalination in Vadamaratchi East, water from Iranamadu Tank for Jaffna only in flood years, or finding new sources, all of which showed that something was wrong at the root of the idea. I must digress a little.

Iranamadu has an average inflow of 147 MCM (Mega Cubic Metres), adequate for cultivation of 95 percent of paddy in Winter and 30 percent in Summer (World Bank, 1984). Supplying Jaffna means pinching 10 MCM of inflow to be piped out. A very basic constraint can be worked out from variations in river flow studied by older professionals like R. Sakthivadivel. The studies which are available on the web have been ignored. I worked out in my book Palmyra Fallen (2015) commemorating Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, that the 75 percent reliable flow into Iranamadu is 80 MCM. Nature has a cycle of about four years, and once in those four years (25 percent of the time), you could get 80 MCM or less, even though the average is 147 MCM.

In such lean years sending 10 MCM to Jaffna would be very hard on the local farmer. There are years of severe flooding but that excess has to be allowed to run to the sea. That is the short explanation of the problem. Funds were rolled out, pipes were sunk and holding towers were built. Going by press reports the matter has been at standstill from before 13 January 2019 (Sunday Observer), against protests in Killinochchi.

Although we had some of Jaffna’s leading professionals on the job, they did not think the problem through. They simply defined the problem as water being available at Iranamadu (the average inflow) and laying the works for piping it to Jaffna. The cyclical variations of river flow (Kanagarayan Aru) were simply ignored by those who should have known best.

The problem comes down to present-day Jaffna lacking an educated critical mass with the motivation, ability and connections to look after their basic interests like a clean environment and drinking water. Those with money and power have their interests elsewhere. The problems faced by many residents in Jaffna are not dissimilar to those of civilians in Rathupaswala, Gampaha, three of whom were killed on August 1, 2013 over their protest for clean drinking water.

One Jaffna family saw a hotel and a high rise building coming up on the lands of well-to-do former neighbours, which they had looked after during the war. Prices offered from black money were what their left-behind neighbours could not match. The well water in the area remains undrinkable or murky in addition to noise pollution. In the absence of a sewage system they do not know how human waste is being disposed of. Excessive drawing of water from one urban well could cause others in the neighbourhood to run dry.

Black money came, according to the well informed grapevine, in post war years from funds connected to the departing rulers held by selected businessmen. In time this black money made connections to political and similar funds in the South and in an unhealthy way fills the present gap our once independent institutions are unable to fill, particularly in health and education.

The Church that sustained Jaffna’s premier institutions in education and health fell victim to emigration and division. There is no local vision or qualified presence in Jaffna to sustain the education up to tertiary level and the medical network it pioneered. Money-centred education and medicine have thrown up a class of nouveau riche, whose impact could be classed along with that of black money.

Absence of a civic voice for Jaffna

Between Chundikuli and St. John’s, it was C.E. Anandarajah who, as principal, stood forthright as a leading voice of civil concerns in Jaffna until he was killed by the LTTE in 1985. I see the two schools as having remained timid on social concerns since. Chundikuli produced in Dr. Rajani Thiranagama a rare voice of defiance, courage and compassion, whom I was close to in the path-breaking finale of her activism ending with her assassination by the LTTE in 1989. Her civic sense as a doctor led her to treat an LTTE injured when no one else could be found. She then became involved with the LTTE. Having then become disgusted with its inhumanity, she stood up and challenged it in Jaffna itself out of compassion for those it was destroying. What she was up against is illustrated by elite politics in a society that still extols an ideology; one that in its last stand in 2009 held hostage 300,000 civilians under fire, in order to strike a deal for the safety of its leaders.

I began with the importance of educational training that urges one to spare no effort in thinking a problem through. It applies equally to the state of our politics. There was no strong resistance in Jaffna society when G.G. Ponnambalam, who was our leader in 1948, cooperated with Prime Minister Senanayake in nullifying the rights of Up Country Tamils. Ponnambalam was only following the line of several notables from the North; many of them not his supporters (A.J. Wilson, Political Biography of Chelvanayakam). The damage we did to the Up Country Tamils hurt us grievously in the long term. Since then we have been crying over spilt milk – the large numbers of dead and the exile of our brightest and best to Austro-eur-america.

Our fragmentation and growing isolation is reflected in queries about how the dowry of a bride from Jaffna would translate into real estate in Colombo or Sydney. We cannot stop at observing that we have been poorly served by most of those who left us. The present girls of Chundikuli have as much talent as there was in the time of our mothers and aunts. What they need is to rediscover the tradition that questions everything they are told and reason them out to the end. I don’t think I am wrong when I say that what made Jaffna great in the 1930s and 1940s was the strong surge of sympathy for the Indian independence struggle. That was when the influence of Gandhi and liberated women like Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya and Sarojini Naidu, all of whom came to Jaffna, made a tremendous impact on its people.

My mother spoke of her teachers with great affection. When she was on the staff of the school and was engaged in 1947, the Principal Dr. Miss. Evangeline Thilliayampalam (PhD Columbia, 1929, aged 34) counselled her that an engagement should not be prolonged. Her Jubilee message in 1946 points to a woman who was silently politicised: “The forces which retard human progress are poverty, ignorance and class rivalry.” My mother also spoke fondly of the Mutthiah sisters, Kanaham and Yogam. I quote from Lorna Vandendriesen who said in a tribute to three Chundikuli teachers, ‘who really set high standards and ran the school regardless of who was the Principal. Gracious Miss. Grace Hensman, gentle Miss. Kanaham Mutthiah and beautiful Miss. Yogam. They were wonderful teachers. I know. I was their pupil.’

I.P. Thurairatnam, who was later principal of Union College, said that he won the ‘Mixed Doubles Championship with Yogam Muttiah of Chundikuli. Spurred by these victories we tried our mettle at the All Ceylon Tennis Meet in Nuwara Eliya in 1932 and 1933, and met with moderate success.’ Chundikuli girls long had a reputation as trend setters.

I may add that admitted to Chundikuli as a boy of seven I spent two golden years as a novice to the world of the fairer sex (1956/7). I too was pleasantly affected by my charming class teachers Miss. Nesamalar Seevaratnam (now Mrs. Yogaratnam) and Miss. Agnes Champion (later Mrs. Ponniah).

Today’s Jaffna could be a very discouraging place. In order to sharpen our analytical ability and think problems through without resting satisfied with half-baked solutions we need public discussion, friends and colleagues who would tell us bluntly when we are being asinine. When we become defensive and take offence at criticism, even a well-endowed institution like a university would fail to prepare students to think through problems and aspire to a just society, while the teachers themselves remain frogs-in-the-well.

We cannot change things overnight, but what well-wishers could do for schools like Chundikuli is to expose students to speakers who will encourage them to question everything. This we used to have in the 1950s and 1960s when visitors from India were frequent. It also means reversing swabasha isolationism.



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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness

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A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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