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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Remembering Nandhi (1928-2005)

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Remembering Nandhi (1928-2005)
the foremost physician-literateur of Eelam)
with one of his classic short stories.

18 June 2006


Front Note Sachi Sri Kantha

In my perception, the first death anniversary of Prof.Chellathurai Sivagnanasundaram passed quietly on June 4th. For Eelam Tamils, he was better known for over four decades, with his nom de plume ‘Nandhi’. He was “our” Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), the rare combination of a physician-litterateur. While Chekhov succumbed to illness at the age of 44, Nandhi lived with us for 77 years.

Nandhi was a ‘Nirai kudam’ (full vessel). And apt to the Tamil proverb, ‘Nirai kudam thallumbaathu’ (A full vessel keeps silent), the games of high falutin sound bites, sophistry and empty promises were not Nandhi’s cup of tea. This front note is not an optimal venue to pay tribute to Nandhi’s illustrious career as the foremost physician-litterateur of Eelam Tamils. But the contrast between a full vessel and that of an empty vessel was glaringly visible, when one studies the recently staged farce of another Tamil professor Ratnajeevan Hoole. There were high falutin sound bites about this Hoole’s motto of serving the Jaffna University. Then in a month, the guy reversed his objectives on flimsy grounds and sneakly ran off from the island.

Nandhi has been a prolific Tamil author with 16 titles to his credit. His published literature include Tamil novels, Tamil short story collections, a drama entitled ‘Monkeys’, children books, popular books in religiosity, popular medical books and also a locally published text book entitled ‘Learning Research for Medical Students’. His signature novel ‘Malaikkolundu’ (Mountain Blossom) serialized in 1962 in Tamil daily Thinakaran, and published in 1964 was a trend-setter in portraying the life of estate Tamils of recent Indian origin. Apart from being an author, Nandhi was also a radio-stage-cinema actor.

In contrast to the much publicised ‘empty vessel’ Ratnajeevan Hoole who coveted the Vice Chancellorship of the Jaffna University to serve, Nandhi did not need the Vice Chancellorship crown to serve the Tamil community and the University of Jaffna for nearly quarter century since the inception of this university’s Faculty of Medicine in 1978. That was the year I joined the Department of Biochemistry of the University of Peradeniya as a temporary assistant lecturer. Nandhi was a tenured senior faculty member at the Department of Public Health of the University of Peradeniya. Since our times together at Peradeniya overlapped for less than an year, I never had the opportunity to interact with him then. But he had heard through mutual friends that a rookie musician-author had debuted in that year, when I published my first Tamil book, ‘Thamil Isai Theepam’.

In March 2004, when I visited Jaffna, a prayer-meeting arranged in my cousin Sri’s house brought Nandhi and me together for a few hours. Then, he recollected his Peradeniya memories of 1978 on hearing about my joining the Department of Biochemistry then. He was glad to see me after a long lapse of nearly 27 years. He told me that though he was technically retired from the university in 1993, he keeps working on contractual terms, and he was 76 then. On that night, when we parted, we exchanged our wishes of keeping in touch with each other. He told me – “Just write ‘Nandhi, University of Jaffna’, it will reach me.” When he was about to take leave, he asked my cousin’s son to accompany him to his house for a reason. When my nephew returned home, he mentioned that Nandhi had given his autographed short story collection ‘Tharisanam’ as a gift to me.

After I returned to my home base in Japan, I did send Nandhi a couple of my publication collections. But I didn’t hear from him again. I also had wanted to translate one of his short stories which appeared in the anthology he had gifted to me into English, and wanted to send this translation to him as my return gift and tribute. This was because, I was touched by the story plot he had woven in 2002. It is vintage Nandhi. But due to other tasks, I had kept postponing my wish. So, I was extremely saddened to read about the news of his death in the Tamil Net on June 4, 2005. What I could do when his first death anniversary came, was to complete my wish of translating this Nandhi’s story titled ‘Arthangal’ (Meanings) into English.

This story depicts the dilemma of visa extension problem faced by Sri Lankans in neighboring nations, the dubious worth of Sri Lankan national identity card for Tamils in the island, police arrogance against innocent young Tamils and even the art of ‘invitation hustling’ practised by socialites of the South Asian nations. I offer my translation to the readers now, as a sample of Nandhi’s elegance as a litterateur. Nandhi indeed was a ‘Nirai kudam’ and a true Man of Letters. When will we see another physician-litterateur like Nandhi in the future?


Meanings by Nandhi

[Translated into English by Sachi Sri Kantha. This short story first appeared in the 37th anniversary issue of Mallikai magazine in 2002, and included in the anthology of Nandhi’s short stories, entitled ‘Tharisanam’, published by Kumaran Book House, Colombo-Chennai, 2002, pp.98-111. The story is told in two parts, 1 and 2.]

1

Our air-conditioned car had just passed a long bridge. Underneath, one of the rivers of Bangladesh, which separated the villages, was flowing sedately.

Youngsters, both boys and girls, played in the river, competing with jumping fishes. When they approached the river bank, their nakedness was clearly visible. On another section, mothers and elderly women were also present. They were also spaced in the river and in the river bank. One could read poverty in segments of their bodies. Adjacently, buffaloes blended with the nature. It gave the feel of watching a Satyajit Ray movie from the balcony of an air-conditioned theater.

My thoughts spread their wings. When I return to my land, I’ve to go to Kathirgamam temple, and spread my legs and waddle in the Manikka Ganga river, with the fishes.

“Brother, these are the owners of this land. They don’t have a visa problem”, pouted Mr.Haroon Rashid who was driving. His words in English were delivered sarcastically. I didn’t elicit even a smile.

For me, to stay in Bangladesh for an additional week, they have refused to give a visa. Haroon Rashid had tried his best to get that visa for me. Since that rejection letter was received from a higher echelon of power, this was the third time Haroon Rashid expressed his anger sarcastically.

“These are the citizens of this country”.

I could read his thoughts. “…These simple folks fill this land. Intellectuals, literati and those with some social status are not eligible to stay.” This is the new meaning for ownership of this land.

Haroon Rashid is a Bangladeshi. He had become my dear friend. He calls me a ‘brother’. Not even two weeks of acquaintance. In an hour, I’ll be at Dacca International airport, on my way to my native land.

Two weeks would elapse after I arrived in Dacca, from Jaffna, via Colombo, Delhi and Colcutta. Within such a short duration, I’ve turned to be a Bangladeshi, for folks like Rashid.

To participate in a seminar on ‘Human Reproduction’ for young doctors, I’ve come here. From five nations, fifteen doctors have been invited and we were hosted in a five star hotel.

Mr.Rashid didn’t participate in this seminar. He was not even a doctor. But, I was introduced to him on my first day in Dacca. Following the first day’s session of the seminar, while I was relaxing at the reception hall of the hotel, a notice for a meeting attracted my eyes. The message said, ‘Tonight at 7 pm, the monthly meeting of International Birds Club will be held in the 1st floor of the hotel.”

‘The Birds International’ has many branches in different nations around the world. I’m a member of Nallur branch of Sri Lanka. I’m a Bird. The head office is in Geneva. The motto of the club is ‘We fly to serve’. Internationally speaking, the Birds are a tribe.

A guy wearing the badge of a stork representing the Bird International in his coat, approached me. A smiling woman accompanied him. I just rose from the chair, attracted by the stork badge.

With a smile, he asked me something in Bengali language. I responded with a one word ‘Sri Lanka’, to convey him that I’m not fluent in Bengali.

“Oh! I’m sorry” he replied. Before he was about to move away, I interrupted his track by responding “I’m a Bird there.”

“O’ Hello”, he hugged me.

“Welcome”, cooed the lady who accompanied him.

He introduced himself as Haroon Rashid, and his companion as Lady Bird-Madam Rashid. I introduced myself, “Dr.Shanmugam”. I’m here to participate in a medical seminar.”

“Come along with us”, he called me.

We moved to the hotel’s upper floor.

Mr.Rashid is the President of the Central Dacca branch of the Birds Club.

“I’m a Bird from Nallur branch of Sri Lanka. Only for the past year.”

“O’ – you are a new member in our family”, quipped the Lady Bird Rashid. In speech, she is not a stork, but seems like a parrot.

“When your late prime minister Premadasa visited, he stayed in this same Sheraton Hotel. He read his speech in Bengali”, she had chocolate in her mouth. She offered me a piece as well.

“Thanks. In our language, we can write and read the Bengali with proper accent”, I said.

“Oh I see”, responded Haroon Rashid.

What I referred to as ‘our language’ was Sinhala. But, I’m a Tamilian. He could grasp that my native tongue is Dravidian Tamil. Rashid was in textile business, with his father. However, he had graduated in political science from Dacca University.

“Dr.Shanmugam, you should help me”, blurted Rashid unexpectedly.

I was shocked. “How could I help these two?” My mind panicked in the thoughts of drugs, gems, smuggling.

Rashid smiled assuringly to calm my fears. “Just a small request”, added the red lipstick-anointed lips of Madam Rashid.This seemed to be his tactical approach.

“Dr.Shan. Hope you won’t mind us calling you like this. In a week, we’ll have our annual meeting. You’ll be the Chief Guest, and you are also our plenary lecturer. We’ll introduce you today that you have arrived here especially for this. Isn’t it OK?”, she handed an impromptu invitation.

Rashid was expecting how I’d respond.

Though bordering on a truth-bending drama, who is going to be hurt by this? After all, it also honors me.

Rashid then noted in his diary, details of my name, designation and degrees.

“Let your talk be related to Sri Lanka”, he said.

“Just invite”, his wife was winking at her husband.

“Yes, doctor. Tomorrow we invite you to our house for a dinner. We’ll bring our car for you”, Rashid said.

That night, my sleep was far from smooth. About to be a chief guest. Plenary speech. There would be beautiful Lady Birds like Madam Rashid, in the audience. Memories brimmed in my dream;two lessons learnt in the 5th grade Tamil text book.

‘Ilankai is our motherland; the citizens of Ilankai’. Then, grandma taught me Tamil at home. I could listen to her voice, heard long time ago.

‘Our country is a small island. It is the pearl of the Indian Ocean. Its historical symbols, its natural beauty, Holy mountain, Sacred tooth, Kathirgamam, Sigiriya frescoes, multiethnic groups, multi-religious festivals, cooperation, O’ the blessed land. Looks like a tour book guide. Can talk about many themes.’

The dinner at Rashid’s house, was in fact a birthday celebration. Their only daughter’s third birthday party. Quite a number of Birds and Lady Birds were present. Many belonged to the textile business. That child was a doll, a mini-model of her mother. With a springing gait, she came to me and offered a sweet.

“Apni gaan”, she said. I took the sweet and munched it.

“Oh! You know Bengali”, retorted and giggled the mother. What else one has to do with a sweet?

“Uncle, Apna Naam?” – Oh’ – about the name.

“Uncle Shanmugam” I said.

“Uncle Dr.Shan”, corrected the mother.

The birthday doll climbed on my knees and softly massaged my chin.

“Uncle, Apnaar desh goththe?”

I responded only with a smile. Isn’t that the answer for an unknown or un-answerable question? “Just reply, Amar desh Sri Lanka”, prompted Madam Rashid. Then only, those surrounding us focused on me, and I came to be introduced.

Before the dinner, there was fun and frolics. Musical chairs, song-for-song etc. The gathering picked up tempo.

“Uncle, how about a song?”, prodded a little girl. Until then she was calmly seated in a corner. Now what had prompted her to request a song from me? I’m basically a bathroom singer, or better a mumbler. And why I need to exhibit this dubious skill in front of others.

“Uncle, come on!”, another one also pushed me for a song.

“Chinna Chinna Aasai [Little little wishes]

Sirahadikum Aasai” [Wing-laden wishes]

Those who prodded me, as well as a few teenagers joined me along. They hummed the song in Bengali. Lady Birds discussed about A.R.Rahman, amongst themselves.

Cricket occupied the TV screen. Many asked questions about Jayasooriya. I’m also a fan of him. I scored too. When foreigners praise ‘our guy’, isn’t it somewhat thrilling?

The next morning. Along with the awake alarm, the telephone also rang. It was from Madam Rashid.

“Brother, didn’t I introduce one of my uncles last night?….”

Mr.Rashid came on line. “After he returned home from the party, he had passed away unexpectedly. Heart attack.”

Because of this, the annual meeting of The Birds Club was postponed. Only by a week. But I had a dilemma. My visa would expire before that.

“Don’t mind about it”, assured Rashid with confidence.

“I’ll arrange for a visa extension”, said him.

For three or four days, on behalf of the Birds Internationals, Rashid moved here and there with my passport – the Immigration, to the Police Commissioner and to the other bureaucratic mazes. My visa extension was refused. Their (un)practical suggestion was ‘Let Dr.Shanmugam return to Sri Lanka first, and return with a new visa.’

Rashid was rather put off by the hurdles. ‘What a country? What citizenship? What crazy laws?’

One day, at the end of the medical seminar, our car moved along the old Dacca town. The traffic was heavy. One pedestrian bumped into our car. His both eyes were missing, and only the eye sockets glared at me.

“There’s usually a story for this type of cases”, said Rashid. “His eyes have been gouged”. I looked at Rashid.

“See, the story is this. By some plotting, this guy had married someone else’s lover or one betrothed to another person. How dare he could enjoy her beauty for the rest of his life? One day, he had been caught and subjected to ‘instant surgery’. There is a special instrument for this. You see the accompanying woman. She is that person – the protagonist in the story.”

H’m. I saw. She did have some tempting attraction.

“Dr.Shanmugam. These are this country’s citizens.”

“These types of cruel insults do occur in all countries. In the nearby land, acid throwing is an art to destroy beauty”. My thoughts rather refused to come out of my mouth.

Yesterday, like a medical professor teaching his young charges in a hospital ward from bed to bed, Rashid showed me many locations in Dacca – disease, poverty, physical deformity…and last, prostitute corner! As if prostitutes are national monuments of Bangladesh, he commented harshly.

Even then, I kept my silence.

While he bade farewell to me at the airport, he asked for ‘another request’. I wasn’t shocked like the first day experience. He didn’t even have a parcel in his hand.

“I’d like to meet you again. Can you invite me as the chief guest of your town’s Birds Club function?”

When the plane gained altitude, my mind rose even above. I tried to dispose the few days I spent with Rashid and his friends like an undigested dream. They didn’t do any harm to me. Their friendship also entertained me like paper flowers.

But, his observations of his own country folks! I couldn’t defend that. My soul debates for them. Whenever he analyzed them, I was intentionally silent. Now my soul makes calling sounds for me. Only I could listen to the lines of those sounds.

These ordinary folks appear in front of me. Those who played in the river – Those street vendors at Madhupur village, selling jack fruit and pine apple – Those who engraved my name in the sea shells in Koch’s bazaar – The autodrivers of Dacca – Those women, yes those women.

That country is theirs. Because of some karmic bond, they have been born there. Though their language I cannot comprehend, it has attractive features. Their music has devotional delight. They are the owners of these gifts. Just trying to critically analyze these features is akin to reject the primal link between the mother and child.

“In a few minutes, we are preparing to land at Colombo Bandaranaike International airport”, the announcement of woman steward in three languages prompted me to fasten my seat belt. I’m descending to the ground.

There is of course a good reason for Mr.Rashid’s anger at bureaucracy. By extending my visa for a week, what loss that country would have incurred? What a population burden in that country?

I remembered an American’s view delivered at the ‘Human Reproduction’ seminar. “Quite a percentage of those born in poor countries were the outcome of ignoring the family planning protocols.”

Visa rejection for me was a challenge to my mind too. That’s why again I wished to join those youngsters playing in the river.

In Colombo, I stayed at the Wellawatte – Ramakrishna Mission. The nearby ocean invited me. The sounds of waves were the messengers. I crossed the railway track and rushed to wet my feet in the ocean’s waves.

A few youngsters, with pants folded upto knee levels,were happily engaged in their intercourse with the ocean – chasing the waves and being chased by the waves, at the shore.

“Aren’t you Dr.Shanmugam”, one of them inquired about me.

“Thambi, you seems to know.”

“Of course, I accompany my mom to the Jaffna hospital frequently.”

It seems they have arrived in Colombo from Jaffna only yesterday. They were students; having completed the Advanced Level exam, they were on a week’s excursion to Kathirgamam, Kandy, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa…

I smiled. I remembered the undelivered speech at the Birds Club meeting. Like them, I also folded my pants to knee level, and washed my feet in the waves.

One whale-like wave splashed across and dispersed in the rocks. My body was completely showered. My wish seems fulfilled.

2

I heard a whistle.

A police jeep appeared and stopped near the railway track. A constable got off and signalled those youngsters nearby. He checked their Sri Lankan National ID cards. He asked something. They answered something. He signalled to all those to get into the jeep. When one of the youngsters was about to respond, he was pushed towards the jeep by an aggressive grabbing of that youngster’s shirt collar.

“What is happening here? Why?…” I moved towards the police guy.

Before I talked, I was asked the ‘Identity Card’. I showed it.

“Birth place Jaffna”.

“Have you got registered at the Police?” he inquired.

“No”

He signalled me towards the jeep.

I had with me the ID card of Sri Lanka Medical Association. I was about to show that too.

“I’m a doctor”, I stated.

“Come to the police station and tell that”, he said.

One who was seated in the front seat of the jeep then approached us. He was a police inspector. When the higher ranked guy showed up, the lower ranked inquisitor retreated a little. The Inspector checked my national ID card.

“Doctor?”

“Yes”

“Place: Jaffna”

“Yes”

“You haven’t reported and registered at the police station yet.”

“Should I register?”, I asked.

That question should have sounded as irrelevant or as a challenge to his ears. “Mister”, he scowled. Until hten his words were dignified. But suddenly, I could sense toughness. Nevertheless, he continued compellingly.

“Mister, anyone who comes here from the North-East of Sri Lanka has to register themselves with the police. Before they return, they have to have their names cleared.”

“Inspector, I’m a doctor. On Sri Lankan government’s expense, I’ve traveled and returned from Bangladesh.”

“Eka kamak nahe” [It’s not the issue here.] Tomorrow morning you go to the Wellawatte police station to register yourself. No need for excess details.” Then he recorded to himself my National ID card number.

“If so, then won’t you release those youngsters too? I’ll go to the police station tomorrow with them…” He didn’t wait for me to complete. Like mounting a horse, he jumped into the jeep, and it had accelerated.

Those youngsters peeped at me from the jeep, until I saw them no more. Thouse mournful peeps! Those meanings!

I felt as if my blood had turned into water and an emptiness engulfed my body. Even my mind had turned empty. I sat on a nearby rock and looked at the National ID card with melancholy. Does it have any meaning at all?


 

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