A Star for Esther: On Sumathy’s “Ingirnithu”, Some Other Interventions and the Relevance of Education

In a recent submission to “Raavaya”, Kumudu Kusum Kumara had attempted a reading of Sumathy’s Ingirinthu as a text of subaltern identity. As implied in that essay — and as it can be conjured from the text itself — the story of Esther Valli is the “silence” of a community that has been the subject of multiple oppression ever since the set up of the Colonial plantation economy. In fact, the very heart of the Hill Country Estate Tamil question was tied up with the case of “legitimacy” as a part of the citizen body: where, in the collective consciousness of Lanka, these marginalized communities were, at best, seen as the vassals of an export economy; while, at the worst, they were condemned to a sub-human status.

As much as Ingirinthu has a deep political commitment in the portrayal of the “homeless” and “quasi-legit” story of the Hill Country Tamil of the Plantation Sector in its own politico-historical complex, the text also urges us to recognize the sociological and cultural implications of the same in the light of Education and social mobility. After all, the Researcher who arrives at Esther Valli’s homestead is an alien agent who strives to retrieve the “voice” of the Plantation: a prerogative that has been made “real” by the said Researcher’s receipt of a liberal and critical education. The very arrival of an alien — in order to “speak for” the Estate — itself, I felt, is a significant motif that can be used as a departure point of my reading.

z-p17-Faceless-02In 2010, Herman Gunaratne writes a book on the “Plantation Raj” (italics mine) titled The Suicide Club. In it, Gunaratne — a pro-imperialist, estate superintendent of yore — writes to us of a jolly and merry Estate Labour that are both loyal and willing in the near-slave status to which they are thrown by their imperialist superiors. Pre-dawn roll call, work against a harsh, testing climate and the long shifts for minimal wages are said to be borne with a smile in the stride. As Gunaratne so naively yet confidently puts it: “I can think of no human being who would work so cheerfully under these the most unfavourable conditions” (45).

Commenting on Gunaratne’s The Suicide Club I have elsewhere pointed out (though in less arrogant terms) that what we see in the imperialist Gunaratne’s claim is a midgety white colonial puffing his pipe in post-colonial times. What Gunaratne does, in other words, is to intervene on behalf of the Estate Subaltern: a process in which the toil and trauma of the sufferer is erased and is replaced by the grand narrative of the “master”.

The Plantation culture that is familiarized to us in the existing literature where the “voice” of the working class is available cannot be even remotely as simple as Gunaratne chooses to record it. The complexity and the conflict within and among the different aspects of Plantation life is compellingly captured in work such as Dreamboats: a collection of short stories edited by M.S. Annaraj and Paul Caspersz (2004). Sumathy’s Ingirinthu complements this latter category of texts.

Sumathy

Sumathy

The Researcher’s work in the Estate — and the close tie which she establishes with the marginalized Esther (which is partly influenced by the former’s ability to connect with Esther in a “humane” and “cultured” way) — is a formula for representation. Yet, in spite of the benevolence and the integrity of the Researcher, the bare fact is that even her intervention is simply that: an intervention. How are the oppressed and the circumstantially and historically marginalized, then, to write their own story? How are the cultural forms of the ancestors and the “minor” histories that sustain the ancients’ struggles against suppression be preserved and extended to the future: a whole new generation, but being undermined by the same corrugated system that manacled its elders? This is where the torch of education and the generation of historical consciousness become crucial variables.

In a treatise written on the post-1988 developments of what he calls the “Revolutionary Politics” of the Sri Lankan South (දකුණේ කැරැල්ල සහ ර්‍ශ්‍රලංකාවේ කැරලිකාර දේශපාලනයේ අනාගතය) Jayadeva Uyangoda extensively discusses the historical impact the Free Education trajectories had on the rural youth in the first two decades following National Independence. The empowerment of rural agrarian society which, up to then, was largely kept ashy of the decision making structures of the Establishment, and which was, de facto, seen in pure “vegetarian” terms was energized into the frontline of political activism.

Education not only allowed the son of the farmer or the carpenter — the colonial detrius of the pre-colonial world — to unclutch one’s self from the binds of stale and oppressive tradition, but it also allowed one to generate a “historical consciousness” of one’s people and community; as well as the imperialist forces that appropriated it (Uyangoda’s focus in the essay is something that departs from this point, but he appreciates the shaping of a “new intelligentsia” which, in turn, forms a main artery of the Uprising of 1971).

The seat of the writer of the grand narratives of Tea Culture

The seat of the writer of the grand narratives of Tea Culture

Somachandre Wijesuriya’s First Rising (2001) is a reflective reading of the nation’s path from 1956 to 1971. The novel’s protagonist is a rural teacher’s son who can easily be placed in the framework Uyangoda speaks of above. The novel suggests the gaining of mobility and the spread of political consciousness, as determined by the spread of education among the rural masses. In a memorable sub-plot, we have Ramasamy — an estate worker — who is wrongfully accused of murdering the estate owner, and who is imprisoned in Bogambora awaiting his death sentence. Ramasamy — in spirit — is a follower of (what is hinted to be) the LSSP, the Trotskyite Socialist Party, and works as an organizer among the estate labour.

During Ramasamy’s imprisonment, the local LSSP representative Liyanarachchi — a school master — teaches Ramasamy to read and write. It is later revealed that the killing of the estate owner was carried out by the local thug cum watcher of the estate (who later becomes a SLFP cheerleader), and by then Ramasamy is dead: executed by the State. But, he had by then learned to read and was able to follow the literature which had, thereunto, only been available to him at second hand. This sequence of play can be used as a enriching parable in understanding the case of education — specially, among the Estate Sector of the country.

If the rural masses were awakened by a deeper and wider political consciousness in the post-nationalization era of education, whether the same injection was received by the Plantation Sector studentship (in that same intensity) is a question worth the while. To this day, the sector under study remains straitjacketed at multiple layers, struggling to break free in a meaningful way: but, meaning eludes the struggles, as they have been culturally as well as historically alienated. As they have not been sufficiently prompted with sufficient tools and measures that will unscrew the blind bolts of slavery. Ingirinthu volunteers to raise this deficiency and conscious neglect in our allowance for a “colony” and the “erasure of voice”.

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