Catching History on the Wing
A. Sivanandan as Activist, Teacher,
LOUIS KUSHNICK and PAUL GRANT
My grandfather was one of the smallest of smallholders in the arid north of Ceylon, where nothing grew except children. His chief ambition was to send his sons to an “English school” so they could learn English and thereby find proper jobs and some sort of economic and social mobility. That was the ambition of most people in the north and in all Tamil areas. My father finally made it from the Tamil-medium school to an Englishmedium school and at sixteen entered the postal service as a clerk. His ambition, in turn, was to send his children to the foremost English schools and give them a better chance of entering the professions. Because my father disrupted my education by being transferred from place to place (the British raj didn't like dissidents and transferred him from one malarial station to another), I was sent to school in the capital, Colombo.
I was aware that my first duty, as the eldest son of a fairly poor family, was to go through school and college, hopefully to university, and then get a good job and so be able to help my parents to look after the family. That sense of responsibility—that sense of what Nyerere meant when he said, “we must return our education to the people who gave it to us”—underscored most of my conflicts. For my life was full of contradictions. I came from a poor peasant background; I attended a Catholic “public school” and lived with an impoverished uncle in a Singhalese slum. I was a Tamil and a Hindu having to attend Catholic religion classes, sometimes attending mass and benediction, and at the same time going to temple on a Friday with my uncles, aunts, and cousins. Inside me, then, Western culture and religion were mixed up with Hinduism, the urban with the rural; the aspiring boy who wanted to become middle class was learning the culture of