Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan: First Death Anniversary: A Song In Dark Times

By Tisaranee Gunasekara –

“There’s no life that couldn’t be immortal if only for a moment.” ~ Wyslawa Szymbroska (On death, without exaggeration)

Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan wrote down his memories. Not for publication, but as a gift for his family, living continents away – and worlds apart – from his native Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Occasionally, he would share a few snippets with friends, to illustrate a point, to buttress an argument.

One of those snippets was of a political meeting he attended during his undergraduate years in Peradeniya as a member of the LSSP student union. “Academic staff not being allowed to hold party-political classes on Campus, a few of us met in a hut in the nearby village, Hindagala, for lectures on advanced Marxism (by Doric, who was known as the ideologue of the LSSP. He was also one of the lecturers in the English Department.) Since there was only one chair we, students, sat on the earthen floor. The welcome of the owners of the hut (a young couple with two small children; Sinhalese Buddhists) was beautiful in its simplicity and grace. I used to look at them and silently say, “I am doing this for you, so that you will have a better life.”

That would have been in 1968, the year Charles Sarvan entered Peradeniya, or 1969 when Deric de Souza retired from the English Department. By that time, the Upcountry Tamils had been disenfranchised and Sinhala Only was a fact of life. Yet, the hope that Lanka could be redeemed from majoritarianism survived, especially amongst left-leaning Tamils. Charles Sarvan was one of those. Perhaps because he was born in a Ceylon before it began to self-destruct, and in a time when, “most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple, and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being Ceylonese… In 1952, Kankasanturai parliamentary was contested by Chelvanayakam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a UNP candidate” (Arguing with Racists – Colombo Telegraph – Italics in the original). 

Yet, even in those early Ceylonese days, a gap existed, more warning than reality, more silence than words. When young, he was told not to discuss religion or politics with friends who belonged to a different community, Charles Sarvan wrote once. Then came 1958 riots and the silence was broken with the sounds of bloodletting. 

As a Sinhala-speaking Tamil, he had never stood out in the predominantly Sinhala milieu he had lived his life until then. During the riot, possibly for the first time in his life, he became a Tamil and nothing but a Tamil. A mob led by a Buddhist monk surrounded the police station he had sought shelter in. His life was saved, but the lesson was clear. He might think of himself as a Ceylonese, but this Ceylon wasn’t his. The LSSP’s abandonment of anti-racism would have been the second blow, making him homeless twice over. 

So he left, to work and live in many lands. As he pointed out, all his life he was an outsider: a Tamil in Ceylon, an Asian in Africa, a non-Muslim in the Middle East, a non-white in Germany, post-retirement. He was also briefly, when he first migrated from Ceylon in the early 1960’s, a ‘brown man’ in England. It was where he met Liebetraut, a young German woman visiting England, another outsider. Maybe that was why she asked him – and not a white-skinned native – for directions to the place she wanted to go. He offered to accompany her and show her the way. 

“Some of those without a Heimat are blessed in having found their home Zuhause in a relationship,” he would write decades later (Para Dhemalā: Response to ‘Confronting Charlie Ponnadurai’ – Colombo Telegraph). That home would endure until Liebetraut Sarvan’s death in 2022.

Pitted against the wind

When the now leader of the Australian Green Party, Samantha Ratnam gave her maiden speech in the Victoria State Parliament, Charles Sarvan shared a video, together with a comment on the ‘wisdom of contemporary youth’. “SL has been deprived of getting such youth from bringing about real changes to the country’s political system,” he wrote. 

That observation was true of him as well.

Had Lanka not turned against herself, he would have remained, living his life as an academic, a civil servant, a revolutionary activist, and, whatever his chosen profession, a deeply humane man. Yet the contribution he could have made was lost when Lanka showed him, via Sinhala Only and the 1958 Riot, that he was not wanted and could remain here only on sufferance. 

It is of him and others like him, driven out of their land of birth by marginalising legislations and baying mobs, I think of when I read about ‘patriotic’ professionals threatening to leave the country unless they are showered with tax breaks and other economic benefits. Starting with the ‘1956 Revolution’ Tamils were edged out from universities and professions to make room for the island’s ‘real owners’, Sinhala-Buddhists. Now the Grandchildren of 1956 are trying to hold hostage a bankrupt country (unravelled by a regime they played a leading role in electing and enabling), using the cudgel of brain-drain. 

The reality is that both brain and brawn drain is as old as our existence as an independent nation-state. The history of independent Lanka is a history of exclusion and leaving. The Burghers left first, reading the writing on the wall in the equation of National with Sinhala. The Tamils were next. In between, hundreds of thousands of Upcountry Tamils were disenfranchised and evicted.

“Ceylon turned away from the horizontal division of class to the vertical division of ‘race’, language, religion,” Charles Sarvan wrote, referring to the dashing of his own youthful revolutionary hopes for his birth-land. Long before Newton Gunasinghe coined the phrase ‘ethnic overdetermination’, that phenomenon was germinating and sprouting bloodied shoots. Once the dominant left parties abandoned the two defining issues of the time – language parity and the principle of jus soli (birthright citizenship) – primordial began overtaking economic. In that sense, 1983 marked not the beginning but the moment when all facades collapsed and the true nature of Lankan polity and society burst into full view.

In 1983, Charles Sarvan was safely teaching in Zambia, but his mother, who, like her son, was fluent in Sinhala, was still living in their family home. “During the pogrom of 1983, she had to flee the house in Dehiwela where she had lived for over 30 years,” he would write decades later. “Amma came to us in Zambia carrying her ‘worldly possessions’ in one suitcase.”

Black holes consume stars. Extremism – and the concomitant intolerance – consumes nations. “My granddaughter, eight years of age, declined to wear a T-shirt because it had ‘Own the day’ printed on it,” he once wrote. “‘Too much responsibility,’ she explained to her parents.” That nexus between ownership and responsibility was beyond the narrow minds of those who claimed, by history, tradition, and religion, to be the sole owners of Ceylon/Sri Lanka. The country once lauded as the Switzerland in South Asia was headed down, long before the direction of her trajectory became evident.  

By the late 1970’s another exodus began, this time poor Lankans going to the Middle East to labour. The migrant workers belonged to all ethnicities and religions, but Sinhala-Buddhists, often from the rural heartland, predominated. Charles Sarvan, while teaching at the University of Bahrain, was a witness to the plight of these human-exports. Liebetraut Sarvan best captured the tragedy of it in a poem titled, Island of Silent Suffering. “where men work on land not owned/ living lives loaned to them…/ Eyes look tame, without resistance/ pliable, ready to take any form…/ Here love means money, in letters sent home” (Be it ever so red…). 

Charles Sarvan left the island in the sixties, but the island never left him. His public writings dealt with a wide range of subjects, yet Sri Lanka and her self-inflicted woes remained at the centre of his concern. Until his death, he remained, in a sense, a citizen of a Lanka that never was and is unlikely to ever be.

“Sri Lanka must wait for an ‘educated’ and ‘decent’ electorate to create a true democracy,” he wrote in his last published article on Colombo Telegraph. Helping create such an electorate was his main preoccupation as a public intellectual. In the last months of his life, he was intent on getting republished in Sinhala and English the little-known book by KS Palihakkara, Buddhism sans Myths and Miracles. He understood not just the need to save Lanka but also Buddhism from Sinhala-Buddhism. He ended his last Colombo Telegraph article with a quotation and hope, “Alerting and applying the words of Tagore in his Gitanjali 35: Where the mind is without fear, where reason has not lost its way, into that ‘heaven of freedom’ (for all) may the Island awake.”

I do not remember discussing Brecht with Charles Sarvan, a curious omission. In Motto, Brecht wrote, “In the dark times will there also be singing?/ Yes, there will also be singing./ About dark times.” 

That was what Charles Sarvan did, singing in dark times, about dark times – and about searching for ways out of dark times.

Free to Dream

Charles Sarvan was indifferent to afterlife. “No one who actually died has come back to tell us of her or his last moments of life,” he once wrote, adding that the subject should best remain in the province of creative writers. But of life he remained deeply interested, engaged, and committed. Every injustice mattered; every victim counted.

“I was and am a socialist…more by nature and instinct than by rigid doctrine,” he wrote in one of his last e mails. His worldview was best encapsulated by his own interpretation of the legendary cry from another time A Luta Continua: “The struggle is both one of against and for. It is against domination and subordination by one group (whatever the criterion of the group), particularly through the use of overwhelming force. On the other hand the struggle is for equality, acceptance, and inclusion.”

He was once called a moderate, and wondered whether the label fitted. Was moderation possible in certain contexts, he asked; such as when one half of the populace was deprived of every basic right simply because they were born female. He was referring to and reflecting on Afghanistan after the return of Taleban. Moderation should not exclude anger because anger was necessary, he wrote, quoting from Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born: “The trouble with the people is that they are not angry enough.” Moving on to Stephane Hessel’s Time for Outrage, he added, “I think you and I would add to not angry enough: not angry with the right people, and not angry in right (constructive) ways.” But however outraged he was, in his public writing – and even in his private communications – he remained civil and polite, always measured, always thoughtful. He believed in words and factual arguments. Changing minds not bludgeoning heads was what he aimed for. And politeness counted for something. Where would civilisation be without basic civility, without common-or-garden decency? In the end, wouldn’t kindness, compassion, and decency be a better, stronger foundation for morality than religion or tradition? 

Charles Sarvan was a polymath. To read his articles meant learning something new, a name of a book, a forgotten fact, a little-known concept. He read widely and reflected on what he read. To quote two representative examples, he once wrote about the need for socialists to study and learn from liberation psychology: “Founded in the 1980s by the Salvadorian activist and psychologist Ignacio Martín Baró, it argues that we cannot isolate “mental health problems” from our broader societal structures. Suffering emerges within people’s experiences and histories of oppression. Liberation psychology sees people not as patients, but potential social actors in the project of freedom, valuing their own lineages, creativity and experience… It directly challenges the social, cultural and political causes of distress through collective social action.” On another occasion, commenting on Professor Laura Mersini-Houghton’s Before the Big Bang, he asked, tongue in cheek, if we are one of many universes in a much vaster Multiverse, “will these Multiverse have their own gods, belief-systems and values? Must we now think of a supreme god of all the Multiverse?” 

His mind might range from deep space to ancient history, but his feet were always firmly on the ground. His last years were spent in caring for his ailing wife. But he always found the time to read, write, and think. In one of his last e mails, he wrote of waiting to buy the paperback of Salman Rushdie’s Languages of the Truth. I don’t think he had the time. Within weeks, I heard of his death.

In his memoriam of Father Paul Casperz, Charles Sarvan used a line from a Thomas Wyatt poem, “…for good is the life ending faithfully.” That epitaph could be his as well. His was a life of the mind and of the heart, a life of unbroken faith, towards his principles and beliefs, family and friends. Could there be a harder struggle or a greater victory?

Note: The unattributed quotes are from personal e mails. The subheadings are from Liebetrau Sarvan’s poem collection, Be it ever so red…

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