Professor Kaarthigesu Sivathamby (1932-2011): A class perspective

by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

(July 20, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby, B.A. Cey., M.A. (Tamil) Cey., Ph.D. (Drama in Ancient Tamil Society) Birmingham, a giant of our times has passed away. In general people abroad are full of praise for him. The Hindu declared him "an outstanding Tamil scholar, specialising in the social and literary history of Tamils, culture and communication among Tamils, Tamil drama and literary criticism" and pointed to his authoring about 70 books and 200 research papers in Tamil and English and being accepted as a visiting academic at the University of Madras, the Institute of International Studies, Chennai, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Tamil University, Thanjavur, and the University of Cambridge. Others in India described his writings as gifts to Tamil literature and the Left movement, and termed him a great socialist and rationalist.

But in death as in life among Sri Lankan Tamils, Professor Sivathamby is being dogged by criticism. How so despite his singular achievements not only in Tamil but also as a social scientist? Caste is a vital ingredient in understanding this great man. When caste explains a lot about Sivathamby, many do not want to speak of it saying that it is of a bygone era. But Sivathamby’s life shows that caste still is a living institution amongst us. Those who oppress others by using caste do not wish to speak of it. Those who are oppressed by caste do not wish to speak of it for fear of giving themselves away as we all try to be Vellalas. Between the two, there is a loud silence.

Like all of us, Karthigesu Sivathamby was a man made by his experiences. But he was much bigger than his circumstances allowed him to be. His caste background ensured that he would be denied many offices for which he was qualified and entitled. At the time the Hindu Board Schools not only denied education to the non-Vellalas but actively worked against education for non-Vellalas as when they shut down (within 10 years of its founding) the night school begun by the Rev. Canon S.S. Somasundaram and Miss Muriel Hutchins of the CMS in Ariyalai East. It is thanks to Zahira College that Sivathamby received a sound school education leading him to university.

Professor Sivathamby rose as a scholar and person despite these obstacles of which he was most mindful. He told me of witnessing a caste attack as a boy. It was the 1930s in Vadamaratchi. He was bathing in a pond like most poor people. A lower caste woman came by wearing a blouse and holding an umbrella. Some men came along, beat her up, broke her umbrella and in the ultimate umbrage tore off her blouse. That stayed permanently etched in his memory.

His reaction to caste necessarily has to be different from that of a Vellala. In his words, paraphrased as I recall, "If you say something profound questioning society in Jaffna, they will not argue the point you raise but refocus the discussion on ‘Who is saying it?’ and ‘Why is he saying it?’." He urged caution on me for that reason. Just a week before his death, he sent me a private communication asking me to be quiet for a while and to leave Jaffna as he felt it is unsafe. As a leader, because of the caution that was his natural lot, he did not speak up as much as he would have wanted to. But speak up he did!

In his articles he has cautiously questioned many of our myths and fictions claiming Navalar and Ramanathan to be great Tamil leaders rather than the sectarians they were. That cost him much. Thus for example, you will find in his essays in the Social Scientists’ Association, a short statement that Ponnambalam Ramanathan wanted lower caste children to be denied schooling and, if at all admitted, to be seated on the ground outside the classroom. (This I note was a slight improvement on Ramanathan’s mentor Navalar, who as a student walked out of Central College with half the students to protest the presence of a Nalava boy in 1847). The denial of seating was all that Sivathamby could write of without causing too much damage to himself; but what he did write was a lot for the times, for he was thereby opening up a debate on who he was and why he was saying what he said.

In a less cautious moment when Sivathamby was put on the Navalar Commemoration Committee in the 1970s, he ran into a storm with a leading member of the committee with an O.B.E. telling him that "it is high-time to stop researches of this type on Navalar." I never found out who this OBE was but Sivathamby, refusing to tell me who told me that it was easy to find him out.

To me, the little that Sivathamby said was volumes. Few had dared to touch on these taboo topics. How much more can a person suffering the iniquities of caste say in a society soaked in caste and its restrictions?

But we continue to have all these criticisms of Sivathamby. In his last years in Colombo he received the recognition that evaded him in Jaffna, especially as the patron of the Colombo Tamil Sangam. For receiving so many invitations to speak at a function or merely to honour an event through his presence, he is criticized as someone seeking publicity. For accepting a dowry, which most of us Tamils did and do, he is criticized. Even the most high and singular honor he received at the World Classical Tamil Conference held in Coimbatore in June 2010 as speaker and session chairman has been turned into a criticism. Those who did not receive the honour wanted him to boycott the conference citing political reasons. Naturally he dithered because of how it would be used against him but finally decided to attend and use his position to promote Tamil as a Classical language. The drama as someone put it was indeed drama but the drama borne of the professional jealousy of mediocre Vellalahs.

M.K. Eelaventhan at the 2010 Toronto Tamil Studies Conference publicly called Sivathamby an opportunist, a charge that can be easily made against anyone who is working to do things for his community. The real opportunists who reviled him in life are drawing on this rationalist’s reputation by now holding poojas in temples as if he had been one of them. These attacks during his lifetime go on even in death.

To me and the many others especially the younger researchers whom Karthigesu Sivathamby encouraged and befriended, he will always be a great man well ahead of his times. As for his faults, who is faultless? He had no faults that most of us do not have. We will cherish his friendship, memory and lasting works forever.

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