On the Suicidal in “The Suicide Club”.

by Vihanga

Sarong – (a loose comfortable cloth tied deftly round the waist) – (p.23)

In his The Suicide Club, Herman Gunaratne marvels at the late CWC stalwart Saumyamoorthi Thondaman’s power over the collective plantation sector labour. He admits to him and Thondaman being very close associates and Thondaman is seen to demand the loyalty and the respect of the general Tamil estate labourer. In the case of an election, Thondaman merely has to send word as to whom the Estate Labour has to vote in favour of — that will, we’re told, is done.

The “respect”, “loyalty” and “willingness” highlighted here in the estate labour, so as to “loyally” follow to the dot Thondaman’s whim and fancy, is largely owing to the lack of education and exposure in the plantations. The “plantation community” was, at its inception, an artificially planted social thread. The governing principles of these estates have, from the that beginning itself, been servility and serfdom. Brought in in hoards, planted in testing environments and subjected to heavy labour — three generations down, “unquestioning loyalty to the master” is acknowledged by the “master class” (Thondamans and Herman Gunaratnes) as the normative. Not that estate workers didn’t question authority. But, where they questioned authority they would be “corrected” and returned to the “default labourer status” of the loyalty drive.

Kandy-Badulla train running through tea plantations

As Herman Gunaratne calls it, the estate circuit initiated and pruned by the British is indeed a “Plantation Raj”. Within this Raj you have many power players. The Companies, their Managers, the Superintendents, the “local estate owners” (Thondamans) are all chess pieces that move up and down this rewarding hierarchy. At the very bottom of this layering stands the “labourer” who has been denied education or awareness of his/her political, cultural, historical and social displacement. Yet, it is on their under-paid, devalued labour that the said “Raj” and its fripperies and complexities are grounded.

Herman tells us that places like Dolosbage yields to the densest rainfall for the greater part of the year. But, even still, the Tamil estate worker is seen (by the “master class”) to be at the height of enthusiasm and to be enthralled at her/his task. “I can think of no human being who would work so cheerfully under these the most unfavourable conditions as the Tamil plantation worker” (45; italics mine), Herman tells us. This “cheerfulness” is the mirror of the want of options the said estate worker’s social and historical condition offers her. It is the same form of haplessness and the historical displacement that politicians and other bigwigs of the power game manipulate for their benefit.

The Late Thondaman with the Late Premier Gandhi.

Herman Gunaratne says this of Thondaman:

“He was a rich landowner who could have lived a life of luxury. Instead he saw the appalling conditions under which the plantation workers lived and chose to espouse their cause. He was the single most powerful man in this island. He had total control over 500,000 workers. They did exactly as he told them. No party in Ceylon could have attained political power without his support. He used this power to extract all the advantages for his people. He was the Messiah of the workers” (232; italics mine).

It is interesting to note the subtle underpinnings of power and the appropriation of it that go unheeded in Herman Gunaratne’s narrative. Thondaman’s (or any idolized politician’s) career cannot be trivialized in that simplistic manner. Thondaman’s lap of luxury in itself is what enables him to be a stakeholder of power. He “controls” 500,ooo workers; but, is, at the same time, their “messiah” and the “selfless benefactor”. Clearly, a string of contradictions? As if we are to believe that people are in politics “espousing causes” for the love of fellow sufferers! Rather, Thondaman is a historically favoured individual who could manipulate the contexts around him to suit his political ambitions. He was born to the estate culture, but he becomes a proprietor. He makes powerful friends. He gradually rises up the rungs of the social and political ladder. This is not to denounce what Thondaman and / or other leaders of the “Estate Circuit” have done for that community; but, to analyze how Herman Gunaratne’s text valourizes as martyrs people who are more or less simply trying to get through their routine.

European Planter

“For those who fight for it, life has a flavour that the sheltered will never know” (228). This sums up the apparent “cheer” in the Tamil estate worker, plucking in the rain, following to the letter the commandments issued by bigwigs and Thondamans, tacitly absorbing the forms of discrimination in the “colonial spirit” of “unwavering loyalty” etc. They do not fight; for they cannot fight. The class consciousness of the worker has been arrested and retarded under the “normative” prescription of the “master class” — a class for which Herman Gunaratne speaks, and from whose portals he can sense the “cheer” of the drenched worker; and the “giggle” of the female plucker.

The Suicide Club blatantly reinforces colonialist ethics; and it goes to the extent of justifying some of the orientalist assumptions that derive from the discourse of European Imperialism. Herman Gunaratne takes the hide of a “native informant”, not only clearing the way for the Euro-centric judgment to pass; but, by stamping it with his seal. He testifies to being educated at St. Thomas’ and to be from an affluent and financially thriving stock. Across the narrative, he refers to numerous relatives who are in lucrative spots, doing extremely well in life. It could well be that Herman Gunaratne’s own socialization and upbringing is apart from the kind of postcolonialist reading I am involved in; but, that is a different point.

When he lays out the typical plantation, Herman quite effortlessly draws an analogy between the management body and the English monarchy (42). In a text that nostalgically and blatantly “goes shopping” for the “Plantation Raj of the English Raj”, the writer pours himself over anything that is English. He himself locates his persona as an “aspirant black sahib”, the kind of stooge Lord MacCaulay defines in his Minute on Indian Education (1835). At one point, when Herman gets his appointment to the Yataderia Estate, his educational qualifications are not referred to; nor are the recommendations of his ability considered. Rather, the appointment is made on the basis of his practical know-how of the trade. So far, so good. But, to Herman, this becomes a “manifestation of the British way of doing things. No attempts at influencing. Not even looking at a single certificate from [his former employer]” (62; italics mine). When reported for incompetence and when being summoned to the Colombo Head Office, the Boss there — an Englishman, Andrews — first puts Herman “completely at ease” before proceeding to the graver issues and accusations. This, we are told, is “the hallmark of a good Englishman” (81). These generalized, transportable “Englishmen” cannot surely be the ones who made a “Little England” out of Nuwara-Eliya. But, then, again, Herman establishes that “one Englishman never lets another down but he also has a strong sense of justice” (82); even though they were here either on business or vacation.

One reference in the book reminded me of the Galle Literary Festival, where (in the past) some festival acts had been lined up in “White Only” hotels. The reference in question is to the “Hill Club”, Nuwaraeliya, which was “positively out of bounds for the Ceylonese” (128). Herman sees “nothing wrong in that. If the Europeans wanted to be among their own and discuss the vagaries of the weather and other inconsequential things, that was their problem” (128). The above-politics, above-history perspective here betrays the writer’s own sheltered vision.

Is "The Suicide Club" your cup of tea?

He further extends this “flavour of the sheltered”: “The Hill Club took you back in time to Victorian England. Her Majesty the Queen of England was the Patron of the club. Toasts were drunk to her health… The Presidents and Prime Ministers of Independent Sri Lanka did not seem to exist” (129). Here, there is a superimposing of the English Queen — in spirit — over and above the Sri Lankan political leadership. “You had to wear a coat and tie for dinner. I saw no problem with that because Nuwara-Eliya was cold and a coat and a tie were not out of place” (129; italics mine). The italicized phrase betrays the writer’s naive reading of British colonialism and the insistence of its cultural programme.

Of course, the Britisher rocks: as “the Ceylonese, mainly the Sinhalese, seem unable to run a club without bringing down the standards built over many decades” (129). And what, pray, are these “standards”? The stiff hierarchical mandates of a straitjacketing imposition over the said “Ceylonese”. What is resonated here is that nostalgic and reactionary “Sha! Suddha.ge Kaale” pronouncement of the “Local Colonial” psyche.

There are other issues which the book lays bare, given the fact that this narrative comes out in 2010 and by a publisher bearing strict English credentials. Written targeting a non-Sri Lankan audience (this I assume since the publisher annotates references as commonplace to the Lankan reader as “sarong”, “thosai” and “Dehiwala”) — an audience which I surmise is largely Euro-centric — the book brings us to the discourse of “re-orientalism” / “re-colonialism”: a germ I have, too, located in the publisher’s earlier hit, Chucking the Dragon (2010). But, that is an area I don’t want to go into at present.

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