Ilankai Tamil Sangam
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA
Twenty Books on Eelam Tamils; for reference and research
by Sachi Sri Kantha
This list was originally prepared by me to aid one young reader of my writings in the Sangam site. Early this year, he solicited my choices for study on the history and politics of Eelam Tamils. For convenience, I have arranged my selections chronologically rather than alphabetically by the author and I provide annotations highlighting the merits and probable demerits in each of my selections. From the published dates of the books, one can easily assess up to what events the books cover. Among the academics, Professors A.Jeyaratnam Wilson, Kingsley M.de Silva and Stanley J.Tambiah have individually authored more than one book on Sri Lankan political history and I have selected, for this list, what I consider as representative of their works.
Ten of the twenty books selected were authored by non-Sri Lankans. This is partly by chance and partly by choice. This is because, Eelam Tamils have been poor record keepers and have to depend on foreigners to keep a reasonable record of their culture. Among these ten books, two are autobiographies; Leonard Woolf’s Growing (1961) and Adele Balasingham’s The Will to Freedom (2001). Dixit’s Assignment Colombo (1998) is a memoir. Of the ten books authored by Sri Lankans in my selection, I have included five written by two eminent Tamil academics; Professor Jeyaratnam Wilson and Professor Stanley Tambiah. This is also telling in that only these two academics – both of whom were teachers in the University of Ceylon and who later emigrated to the universities in Canada and USA – have published works which are worthy of their reputation as scholars.
Definitely, few a other old books exist, as well, which record the Tamil culture in Sri Lanka and are worthy to read. But, the problem is one cannot find them easily available for sale; or even if available, the prices are rather high. These include, Ebenezer Cutler’s Life and Letters of Samuel Fisk Green of Green Hill (1891), Mudaliyar C.Rasanayagam’s Ancient Jaffna (1926), Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergency ’58 (1959), S. Ponniah’s Satyagraha (1963) and M.D.Raghavan’s Tamil Culture in Ceylon (1971). Thus, my list is limited to titles published since 1960 which may be available for purchase. One can search the http://used.addall.com for book availability. I recommend this site.
1. WRIGGINS HOWARD W: Ceylon – Dilemmas of a New Nation (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1960), 506 pp.
A worthy analysis covering the political development of Ceylon from 1931 to the end of 1958, just before the assassination of the then prime minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike. Wriggins subsequently served as the American ambassador to Sri Lanka, during President Jimmy Carter’s period. What Wriggins inferred in his concluding chapter on the political institutions is remarkably true, even now. To quote, "Political parties are loose, personal associations rather than organized parties. They lack orderly and accepted ways of changing or confirming leaders, for sounding out memership opinion, or for resolving internal differences."
2. WOOLF, LEONARD: Growing – An Autobiography of the years 1904-1911 (Harcourt, Brace & World Inc, New York, 1961), 256 pp; especially chapter II. Jaffna [pp.21-131]
If one wants to learn what Jaffna society looked like 100 years ago, this is the book to read. The author, Leonard Woolf (1880-1969), the husband of equally famous Virginia Woolf, nee Stephen, landed in Jaffna, at a tender age of 24, as a rookie civil servant of the then British Empire. Woolf reminisces about his stay in Jaffna (1905-1907) tenderly as an ‘innocent imperialist’. On the pitfalls of describing from memory the events which occurred more than five decades earlier, Woolf disarms the reader with a charming caveat; "I have tried in the following pages to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but of course I have not succeeded. I do not think that I have anywhere deliberately manipulated or distorted the truth into untruth, but I am sure that one sometimes does this unconsciously. In autobiography – or at any rate in my autobiography – distortion of truth comes frequently from the difficulty of remembering accurately the sequence of events, the temporal perspective."
After serving in Jaffna, Woolf was posted to Kandy and then promoted as Assistant Government Agent to Hambantota. While serving in Kandy, Woolf was privileged to view the so-called ‘sacred tooth relic’ of Lord Buddha. His verdict is blasphemous to Sinhalese Buddhists. To quote, "I have seen it, as I said, at close quarters three times and I should say that, whatever else it may be, it has never been a human tooth. If my memory is correct, it is a canine tooth, about three inches long and curved." (p.144).
3. FARMER, BERTRAM H.: Ceylon – A Divided Nation (Oxford University Press, 1963), 74 pp.
Rather than a book, this is a booklet, as indicated by the author in his Introduction. Lucidly written, this is the first work by a ‘foreigner’ [a Fellow of Cambridge University] to prophesy the disintegration of a ‘contraption’ called ‘unified Ceylon’, which was created by the British colonial policies in 1833. The title says it all. The booklet’s other plus point is its foreword, written by Viscount Soulbury, where the architect of the island’s second major constitutional reform in the 20th century provides a belated mea culpa for his short-sightedness. To quote Soulbury, "Unhappily and for reasons indicated by Mr. Farmer, the death of Mr. D.S.Senanayake led to the eventual adoption of a different policy which he would never have countenanced. Needless to say the consequences have been a bitter disappointment to myself and my fellow Commissioners."
4. NYROP, RICHARD; BENDERLEY, BERYL LIEFF; CORT, ANN S; PARKKER, NEWTON B; PERLMUTTER, JAMES L; SHINN, RINN-SUP and SHIVANANDAN, MARY: Area Handbook for Ceylon (Foreign Area Studies [FAS], U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1971), 523 pp.
This multi-authored comprehensive handbook was prepared by American University, Washington DC, in four sections and 25 chapters "to be useful to military and other personnel who need a convenient compilation of basic facts…". Though the information presented in three sections (political, economic and national security) consisting of 13 chapters is dated now and only of interest for historical purposes, the information provided in the first 12 chapters, pages 1 to 224 – ethnological and anthropological facets – are still of value for students of Sri Lankan history.
5. JEYARATNAM WILSON, A: Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947-1973 (MacMillan Press, 1974), 347 pp.
In seven chapters, Wilson provides a solid overview of post-independent political trends in Ceylon, through the first seven general elections until 1970. The period covered overlaps with Prof. Wilson’s professional career as a teacher in political science at the University of Sri Lanka, from 1952 to 1972. Having married Susili Chelvanayakam, the daughter of Federal Party leader S.J.V.Chelvanayakam, the author was a privileged observer of Sinhala-Tamil politics during this period, from a vantage perch.
6. HOLMES, W. ROBERT: Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980 (The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, Jaffna College, Jaffna, 1980), 542 pp.
A sound and clean ethnological portrayal of Jaffna society – the city and the peninsula – in the 20th century, before the emergence of Velupillai Pirabhakaran and LTTE, by an American historian. Sadly, the Jaffna described by Robert Holmes in 1980 is no more now. Still, the book is worth reading, for the author’s insight as a non-Tamil who lived in Jaffna for more than a decade, from 1948 to 1960, and taught at Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai.
7. DE SILVA, KINGSLEY M.: A History of Sri Lanka (C.Hurst & Co, London, 1981), 603 pp.
A comprehensive general survey of Ceylon’s history in one volume. The main text consists of 38 chapters and an epilogue, ending with a mention of Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s expulsion from the parliament on 16 October 1980 by the maneuvers of her nemesis, J.R.Jayewardene. While there is hardly any doubt that the text is superbly written by one of the eminent historians of Sri Lanka, the interpretations and pro-Sinhala bias of th author (cryptically woven into the text) have to be noted by the readers with a critical eye. The asymetrical balance in the text is also a demerit. The ancient history of the island (about which there is much haze and controversy), from 500 BC to AD 1250 is covered only in the first 78 pages. The subsequent 34 pages cover the period from 1250 to 1600. Thus, the bulk of the text – 450 pages – is devoted to the history of recent 380 years, from 1600 to 1980.
8. RUSSELL, JANE: Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution 1931-1947 (1982), 358 pp.
This is a 1976 doctoral degree thesis of a British political scientist (born 1950) on the late British period of the island's history. It provides a good focus on the origin of the Sinhala-Tamil crisis in the 1930s, with S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike and G.G.Ponnambalam at opposite ends. Between 1973-1976, Russell interviewed and corresponded with leading political players and the then ‘budding talents’ of the 1930s decade, such as S.Handy Perinbanayagam, C.Suntheralingam, Sir John Kotelawala, P.de S.Kularatne, G.G.Ponnambalam, A.Ratnayake, Colvin R.de Silva, M.Vythilingam, J.R.Jayewardene and Dr.S.A.Wickremasinghe.
9. TAMBIAH, STANLEY JEYARAJA: Sri Lanka – Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1986), 198 pp.
In the author’s words, "This is an ‘engaged political tract’ rather than a ‘distanced academic treatise’…This essay was completed more or less in its present form by July 1984…" Thus, this tract of Harvard University anthropologist Tambiah provides a solid ethnographic and political background to the origin of the LTTE. Tambiah has analyzed the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots perceptively. This is one work where I found the nefarious deeds of race-baiter Caluwadewage Cyril Mathew (of the UNP) have been briefly exposed. However, the name of the SLFP’s Badiuddin Mahmud (whose deeds preceded those of Cyril Mathew in antagonizing the young Tamils from the Sinhalese and also in creating friction between Tamils and Muslims) has been left out.
Professor Tambiah’s summary of the strong Tamil influence in contemporary Sinhalese culture, since the 13th century, is of merit. For this summary, Tambiah relied on the research findings of historians G.C.Mendis, Lorna Dewaraja and anthropologists Gananath Obeyesekere and H.L.Seneviratne. Nearly two centuries of acculturation among the settlers from Tamil Nadu and Kerala who resided in the coastal belt of Puttalam, Negombo and Colombo districts, and thus have switched their ethnic identities to Sinhalese, is also touched upon.
10. MANOGARAN, CHELVADURAI: Ethnic Conflict and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka (University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1987), 232 pp.
The author states in his preface, why he wrote this book; "There has been no comprehensive study by geographers of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka which has been partially caused by the inability of a community to preserve and develop a well-defined geographical region considered to be its traditional homeland. My aim has been to analyze among other factors the geographical determinants of the conflict, especially those dealing with the allocation of water on a spatial basis for agricultural development and land settlement." Of the five chapters which make up the book, the third chapter entitled, ‘Tamil Districts: Conflict over Traditional Homelands, Colonization and Agricultural Development’ is a valuable one.
11. WILSON, A.JEYARATNAM: The Break-Up of Sri Lanka – The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict (C.Hurst & Company, London, 1988), 240 pp.
In the preface, author has noted, "My considered view is that Ceylon has already split into two entities. At present this is a state of mind; for it to become a territorial reality is a question of time. Patchwork compromises, even if underwritten by New Delhi, are passing phenomena. The fact of the matter is that under various guises the Sinhalese elites have refused to share power with the principal ethnic minority, theTamils…" Then, in the last sentence of the penultimate chapter, Professor Wilson stated his objective for authoring this book; "My purpose has been to offer an explanation of how the situation in the country developed to its present tragic impasse." In 230 pages, he has succeeded in his mission.
In reviewing this book to the Mainichi Daily News, Tokyo (April 30, 1989), I summed up as follows: "The merit and demerit of this book lies in its descriptive style of providing meticulous details of names and events. Non-Sri Lankans, other than those specializing in Sri Lankan studies, may find reading such details a tough assignment. However, journalists who cover contemporary Sri Lankan events will benefit much from reading this book." However, during the past 15 years – after reading numerous insipid and error-ridden commentaries of foreign journalists covering the Sri Lankan beat – I’m convinced that an academic book like this should taste like castor oil to mediocre journalists. This book is also an anathema to partisan Sinhalese analysts and to the sin-eaters among Tamil politicians.
12. JON LEE ANDERSON and SCOTT ANDERSON: War Zones, (Dodd, Mead & Co, New York, 1988), pp.173-233.
These ournalist brothers cover the Sri Lankan civil war (in the form of oral histories) and between the covers provide a comparison with four other civil wars which raged simultaneously in the mid 1980s in Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Uganda and Israel. The unusual format of oral interviews to tell the story provide a fresh perspective to the extant literature on Eelam Tamils. The Andersons stated why they adopted this format, as follows: "There is always war. It is not a strange thing; in much of the world, war is commonplace and people learn to live with it…Our experiences gave us a desire to show how people cope when living in the midst of conflict, and we felt that the best way to do this was to let people tell their own stories in the form of an oral history." Only one chapter of the book covers Sri Lanka. But within the 60 pages allocated to this chapter, voices of quite a number of prominent Tamils – circa mid 1980s – have been recorded for posterity. These include, TULF leader Amirthalingam, academic Radhika Coomarasamy, journalist S.Sivanayagam, LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, EROS-LTTE commander Balraj, government official Marianpillai Anthonimuthu, Batticaloa Citizen Committee leader Sam Tambimuttu, Catholic priest Father Chandra, LTTE commander Kumarappa and EPRLF spokesman Loganathan Ketheeswaran. It is rather ironic that quite a number among these met with untimely deaths subsequently.
13. RAJAN HOOLE, DAYA SOMASUNDARAM, K.SRITHARAN and RAJANI THIRANAGAMA: The Broken Palmyra – The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka, 1990, 464 pp.
This book provides a good chronological synopsis of events which happened in the Jaffna peninsula from 1983 to 1989. The demerits of the book are the sociological and psychological interpretations relating to the birth and growth of LTTE, which are biased and filled with half-baked criticism. In search for their ‘truth in all its nakedness’, the four authors pointed accusing fingers on Tamil society as a whole. Thus, the book took an easy route to popularity among the anti-LTTE pundits in Colombo and Chennai.
14. TAMBIAH, STANLEY J.: Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 203 pp.
A controversial book by one of the leading anthropologists of our generation. It stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest in Sri Lanka. The book tells the story of how Sinhala Buddhist priests (known as bhikkus in local lingo) belonging to the three sects – namely Siam Nikaya, Amarapura Nikaya and Ramana Nikaya – influenced Sinhalese politics in the island from the 1880s to 1980s. The nti-Tamil riots of 1958 and 1983 are chronicled, but the 1977 anti-Tamil riots have been overlooked. The raw material for the book was based on the published literature of Sinhalese academics such as K.N..Dharmadasa, K.M.de Silva, Gananath Obeyesekere and Kumari Jayewardene.
15. JEYARATNAM WILSON, A.: S.J.V.Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977 (Hurst & Company, London, 1994), 149 pp.
The only available English biography of Eelam Tamils’ acknowledged leader for 20 years (1956-1977). Penned by his son-in-law and political scientist, the author stated in his Preface, "I have sought in these pages to explain and analyse Chelvanayakam’s career and character from within. For I knew him intimately and was privy to his innermost political thoughts between 1953 and 1977…There are times when the needs of a potentially extraordinary person and of history coincide and this occurred in the case of S.J.V.Chelvanayakam. He was the right person at the right time." In a brief review of the book [Tamil Times, Jan.1995, p.29], I noted, "Chelva has much to offer for future biographers. Prof.Wilson has just opened the route. Others can follow him for a richer harvest."
16. NARAYAN SWAMY, M.R.: Tigers of Lanka – From Boys to Guerrillas (Vijitha Yapa Bookshop, Colombo, 2nd edition with Epilogue, 1996), 358 pp
An Indian journalist’s version of the origin and growth of LTTE, from late 1970s to 1991. An epilogue, inserted in the 2nd edition, provides the author’s impressions on the ‘Fall of Jaffna in December 1995’. Though sympathetic to the Indian interests, the book provides a readable account on the strengths of LTTE and its leader. The last three sentences in the epilogue are prophetic; "If the LTTE’s posturings were not enough, Kumaratunga has vowed not to talk to the Tigers until they lay down their weapons, obviously aware that it is one demand which Prabhakaran would never, never agree to. Even if the two sides agree one day to talk through a mediator, one cannot be very optimistic. And whether you like the LTTE or not, whether the other Tamil groups whole-heartedly back a devolution package or not, no peace process can succeed in the face of a veto by the Tigers."
17. DIXIT, J.N.: Assignment Colombo (Vijitha Yapa Bookshop, Colombo, 1998), 393 pp.
Jyotindra Nath Dixit served as India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, from April 1985 to April 1989, a critically tumultous period of recent times. This book is Dixit’s version of history, in the events he played a prominent role, which include the ill-fated Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord (1987) and induction of the Indian army in Eelam. Undoubtedly the book presents a slanted view promoting the ‘India knows best on what’s good for Eelam Tamils’; but, the bias is mildly counter-balanced by Dixit’s frank appraisals on the duplicity of Sinhalese politicians and perceptions on Pirabhakaran’s tenacity and valor to defend the rights of Tamils.
18. SAMARASINGHE, S.W.R.de A. and SAMARASINGHE, VIDYAMALI: Historical Dictionary of Sri Lanka (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 1998), 214 pp.
A handy reference book, providing a chronology of important events which occurred in Ceylon from 10,000 BC to the end of 1995. The main text consists of brief sketches of notable personalities, parties and events in 269 entries from A to Z. The majority of the entries relate to only the 20th century. Among the 23 personalities who receive individual recognition, Tamils are represented by only three individuals; alphabetically, Amirthalingam, Chelvanayakam and Pirabhakaran. The authors being Sinhalese, a subtle anti-Tamil bias is revealed in the interpretation of the events described.
19. BALASINGHAM, ADELE: The Will to Freedom – An Inside View of Tamil Resistance (Fairmax Publishing Ltd., Mitcham, 2001), 380 pp.
One of a kind of book; an autobiography of an Australian nurse (born in 1950), who linked with the LTTE leader Pirabhakaran, via her husband Anton Balasingham. It contains valuable information on the origin, growth, struggles and successes of LTTE, covering the 1980s up to 1998. Adele Balasingham provides smart answers to the LTTE critics. Thus, this book has a special value in countering the cryptic anti-LTTE bias present in the books such as The Broken Palmyra (by Rajan Hoole et al.), Tigers of Sri Lanka (by M.R.Narayan Swamy), and Assignment Colombo (by J.N.Dixit).
20. SIVANAYAGAM, S.: The Pen and the Gun – Selected Writings 1977-2001 (Tamil Information Centre, London, 2001), 292 pp.
This book mainly consists of 80 editorials the author penned between 1977 and 2000, for four journals; Saturday Review, Tamil Information Magazine, Tamil Nation and Hot Spring. It also includes a few tracts and elegies. Of the tracts, Sivanayagam’s ‘Open Letter to the American Ambassador in Sri Lanka’, dated March 11, 2001, is a memorable one. Though it was addressed to Mr. Ashley Wills, the then American ambassador in Colombo, its text seems timeless in its appeal. Among the elegies, those describing the activities and services of educator Handy Perinbanayagam, Senator S.Nadesan, attorney K.Kanthasamy, journalist Rita Sebastian, Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson and Professor Christie Jeyaratnam Eliezer are meritorious.
Posted November 4, 2004