Charity & social welfare
Sivanandan, Ambalavaner (2 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 2: Both Hindu and Catholic culture were important to AS when he was growing up. He loved the Hindu hymns, Thevarams, and he loved singing. At home he would pray as a Hindu and at school he had to attend Catholic classes and learn the catechism. There was an understanding of Catholic beliefs and also pantheism from the Hindus. It was a contradiction. Buddhism too came from the slum areas. AS learnt about injustice and poverty and oppression from the British people. He needed to interpret society in order to change it. Dogma (from Marxism) doesn’t. A Belgian priest was bigoted in spite of the liberal headmaster. AS used to cringe, at his behaviour, they were not good times. Otherwise he enjoyed the learning. [6:19] He went to St Benedict’s when he was about 10, then he moved soon to St Joseph’s where his cousin was a pupil. AS played soccer and tennis at the university. All these influences made AS a great proponent of multi or inter culturalism. Sometimes the fight against racism could become a fight for culture, which traduced the fight for democracy. [11:11] Much later AS got a sort of scholarship to Vienna. Incident. This man paid for him to go to Vienna to go to a bank there. The man was in the Austrian government. AS was asked to sing Tamil songs to see how they corresponded to Gregorian chant. AS never went to the houses of the rich children at his school. AS played games, when at school, never did homework. He got a third at university. They had to get good marks in Ceylon and in UK. He did well in political science, nothing else. AS left St Joseph’s in 1942. [21:05] They had only one air raid by the Japanese, but they were aware of the war. Ceylon had dominion status and pushed through reforms to enable free education including university. Literacy was 80%. 70% turned up to vote after the civil war. Sinhalese Buddhists were the majority. Free medicine too. They were very advanced then, now they are back in the stone age. The British took their land. Then they asked for their labour. Any other European country was different. AS wanted Britain better, it should have lived up to its own values. His English master was a lovely man. Father Joseph Perera was the only broad minded priest they had and taught him Latin. [30:20] He was taught tolerance in adversity. The current recession may bring out good qualities as we are forced to stop being consumers. They had to sit the London matric, they learnt English history, nothing about local history. AS became white before he became black. The Tamils governed for Britain. And there was class consciousness. In his roots he was a peasant slum boy, in his education he was middle class. They had clubs for playing sports and bridge, dancing etc. AS’s grandmother was a matriarch and wouldn’t let him play with his sister when she came of age, though they were great friends. They had cinemas in Colombo and they crept in free. Electioneers ran through the streets, it was a jamboree. They learnt when there were strikes. At university it was the most fruitful time of his life. [41:05] The war did a lot to politicise AS. School had been moved to rural areas. When war ended they were keen about the nationalist movement in India and wanted independence. Their lecturers had been at LSE so there was a tradition of teaching politics which derived from Harold Lasky. Their teachers were Trotskyites, de Souza for instance. Another was completely English and loved Chaucer. In economics and politics they had forward looking lecturers, Dutt, from India. He gave AS a taste for politics. Story about Machiavelli. There was a nationalist ferment. Tawney and Lasky wrote lovely English, E.P. Thompson and Williams too. They had enthusiasm. AS loved TS Eliot. AS enjoyed it and began working. Friend David Edgar mentioned. Some have the experience of suffering but don’t have the meaning. [53:57] How things change, through conflict, we grow in a zig zag. All these things were important to AS. For him Eliot was metaphysical, but Marx was a dialectic materialist. Hinduism is metaphysical, it talks about contradictions in terms of god. The process of suffering will teach you what you are going through. AS read a lot of poetry, language has got to be simple. The only way you can express a concrete is through an abstract. Like music. He was given a book by Dylan Thomas. You don’t understand Dylan, you feel him. He got politics from Dylan too. Life is poetry.
Life story interview with Ambalavaner Sivanandan (1923-2018), director of the Institute of Race Relations and founding editor of Race & Class.