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Bridging North and South divide

Learn both Sinhala and Tamil

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(March 28, 2014, Bradford UK, Sri Lanka Guardian) There is something amiss when in this tiny island of Sri Lanka the North does not understand the South and the latter is deprived of communication with the North which the government feels is of no importance. This is the tragedy that has befallen our country.

Is it too much to ask that members of the media learn both Tamil and Sinhala, the indigenous languages through which the majority Sri Lankans communicate. When in 1996 a contingent of journalists both foreign and local went to Jaffna, Lakshman Gunasekera, a senior journalist at the Sunday Observer sought my help in interpreting the speech of VC of Jaffna University.

I could have told him he was talking of how wonderful President Chandrika Bandaranike Kumaratunga was (which he did not) in initiating the peace talks with the LTTE and that the people of Jaffna were delighted the LTTE was finished and he would have happily sent his despatch since there was no-one to dispute him.

Now had he spent just half an hour daily to learn Tamil he could have presented the actual speech of the VC without resorting to my help and had he known I was a mischief maker he would not have swallowed my interpretation hook, line and sinker. Norman Palihawadana of the Island went and reported quite the opposite of what the VC said not bothering to ask my assistance or anybody else’s.

Whatever said and done I find that Sinhalese know how to cook vegetables which are healthy. I did not know until I moved to Colombo mallung can be tasty as well as nutritious. The nearest I tasted mallung in Jaffna was the murunga leaf varual (roast) in coconut. My mother boiled the vegetables and tempered and fried them in ghee until they lost their identity. No wonder my father died of a coronary at a relatively young age of 62.

I went to a Tamil shop in Harrow (a borough in London with largest population of Tamils in the UK) and asked an assistant if they had goraka. His curt reply was they were out of stock when in reality the shop assistant did not know what goraka was. Then I trailed down the shop and found goraka in small packets and the Larich bottle of paste. And I did not know until I came to Colombo that you could cook salayo (sardines) without coconut milk. In any event since Jaffna was replete with the choicest fish in those days (until Norad took over our prawn and crabs for export and Chinese started restaurants) so much so that salayo was reserved for the cats.

Tamils should have shed their hang-ups regarding learning Sinhala. Otherwise Karunakaran from Karaveddy who made his maiden trip to Colombo and got on the bus in Pettah would not have ended up in jail immediately after the July pogrom of 1983. When the conductor asked him what he had in his bag he said bom-bom – he had Bombay onions and not the lethal bomb - and he had a bad stammer. Another time Karunakaran boarded a bus the conductor said, ‘karunakarala bahinda’ and hearing his name mentioned he got down hastily.

As for myself I took Sinhala lessons from my neighbour Mrs Keppetipola and spoke to my other neighbour Mrs Lankage in Sinhala to be proficient in the language of the majority which would help me in journalism. But she took umbrage at this since she was taking tuition from me to learn English accusing me of being partisan and not allowing her to converse in English.

Why cannot our politicians an media swallow their pride and learn each others’ language? After all, we are too small a nation to be splitting hairs and allow countries with vested interests to dominate.

(The writer has been a journalist for 25 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at pearltheva@hotmail.com)

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