Charity & social welfare
Sivanandan, Ambalavaner (1 of 10). National Life Stories: General
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2010-08-13, 2010-08-20, 2010-08-26, 2010-10-20, 2010-11-02
Sivanandan, Ambalavaner, 1923-2018 (speaker, male)
Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)
Part 1: [Session One 13 August 2010] A Sivandandan (AS) was born in 1923 in a small village in northern Ceylon. His grandfather was a smallholder. Father was bright at school and his headmaster wanted him to go away to Colombo for a better education. His father’s job was a postal clerk, and he opened up parts of the country following the railways. It was malarial country. AS went to school in various places as his father’s work dictated. When he was 12 he went to St Josephs, living with his uncle in Colombo, on a bursary. It was an upper middle class school with a liberal education. AS also spoke Tamil and Sinhalese. His uncle was a railway clerk and lived in a very poor area, and AS played cricket with the slum children. It was an imperial system imposed on a feudal society. He did not understand this at the time but it was very important in his life. [10:00] His father supported half the village, and in fact the family suffered from his generosity to others. Mention of a film ‘The River’ by Jean Renoir based on a book by Rumer Godden. Story from the film. “In India we subtract from our needs, we don’t add.” Example also from Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot. He had contradictions all the time in his life. The only truth is change. [15:59] Though the village was poor, nobody starved. There was a caste division. AS is a Hindu. Non white people in Britain did not want to do the dirty work after the war. Britain depended on its colonies for the new labour force. When AS came here he found that they were low caste/class. Lower castes, the untouchables were not even allowed to walk with them. AS’s father didn’t like caste but had to obey the rules. Untouchables were fed though. The land was unforgiving. [24:14] The civil war in Sri Lanka history has been rewritten. Actually the Tamils have been in SL for much the same length of time as the Sinhalese. The Portuguese were in SL for about 150 years, and the Dutch the same, and then the British. They became a plantation society and the whole base of the society changed. It is fertile in the south. The Portuguese were interested in the spices. The Dutch intermarried. They both spread religion. The north was poor and so susceptible to education and missionary schools. The British changed everything. They took all the paddy land and turned it into plantations and brought in indentured labour from south India. They worked on the rubber, and tea and coconut and the gem mines. The Sinhalese were a class above them. The educated Tamils were the bureaucrats. [34:11] AS’s father lived with extended family in Colombo while he went to St Benedict’s school. He was a bit of a nationalist and organised for Ghandi’s visit and also a postal workers petition. AS was the eldest and had to be an exemplar. Europeans are much more reserved. AS’s father was a pioneer for the post office. [41:38] AS’s father had a brilliant mind and read widely, his mother did not have education. She was a simple woman. She had a philosophy, “just be” nothing was a problem. AS did not appreciate her when he was young. AS had a sister next who went to teacher training college and now lives in Australia. Another brother went to an asylum. Another brother went to university and became a ship building engineer in SL. He is now in Britain following the pogroms of 1983. Another sister is here too. She is a teacher. They were forced out of SL.
Life story interview with Ambalavaner Sivanandan (1923-2018), director of the Institute of Race Relations and founding editor of Race & Class.