Book Review

The Pen and The Gun: Selected Writings, 1977-2001
by S.Sivanayagam

Tamil Information Centre, London, 2001, 292 pp.

Reviewed by Sachi Sri Kantha

Among those born in the 20th Century Ceylon, Prof. Kingsley Muthumuni de Silva remains as the foremost tome-writer in English on the contemporary history of the island. Eelam Tamils have produced among themselves, Prof. Alfred Jayaratnam Wilson, Prof. Stanley J.Tambiah and Prof. Sinappah Arasaratnam, who had produced equivalent tomes on the same theme. Generally, writers fall into oblivion, if what they write are not read by others. At anytime in history, tome-readers have remained a minority, partly because of the lengthy prose, verbosity and academic jargon used by the tome-writers, however reputed they are.

Thus, another band of professionals in history writing can be identified, and I call them as tract-writers. Colvin Reginald de Silva (1907-1983), to my knowledge, was the best among Sri Lanka’s tract-writers in English. Eelam’s equivalent to Colvin Silva is Subramaniam Sivanayagam (b.1930). It is imprudent of me to compare Colvin Silva with Sivanayagam, since Comrade Colvin wore many hats in his colorful career; some being, as an anti-imperial agitator, a trade union leader, a teacher, a legal luminary, a politician, a bilingual orator and an itinerant journalist. But, as a writer of pungent prose in English, Sivanayagam perfectly matches Colvin Silva. Some aspects of Sivanayagam’s professional career, such as itinerant journalism and escape from Sri Lanka to India following persecution from ruling authorities, show marked parallels with Comrade Colvin’s career as well. Though best known as a tract-writer, Colvin published his only tome, Ceylon under the British Occupation, 1795-1833 (2 volumes), when he was in his mid-30s. However, Sivanayagam has produced his first tome, after reaching his biblical span of ‘three score and ten’ years.

This book, The Pen and the Gun, mainly consists of 80 editorials Sivanayagam had penned between 1977 and 2000 for four journals; Saturday Review (47), Tamil Information Magazine (5), Tamil Nation (9) and Hot Spring (19). It also includes, a few tracts and elegies. Here is an excerpt of Sivanayagam’s best in tract-writing, from his ‘Open Letter to the American Ambassador in Sri Lanka’, dated March 11, 2001.

“Dear Ambassador Ashley Wills,

…Mr.Ambassador, you say you have lived in Sri Lanka for six months. I have lived in that country for 53 years, born and bred there along with my Tamil forefathers for several centuries; long before America was discovered. So I should know that country better. Today, I am 70 years old, having spent 17 years in the evening of my life searching for some country in ‘this globalizing world’ to take me in. You say you have lived in Romania, South Africa, the West Indies, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India; in good comfort I believe. I have been to as many countries as you have – even more – but as a refugee, wanderer, cut off from my family, looking for safety. That was because that country which in my naivety I thought was my own made me a ‘wanted man’. Not because I was a terrorist Sir, not even by the American yardstick. All I did was to edit a badly printed weekly paper from Jaffna – the Saturday Review. In your own country you are familiar with the power of the Press, where newspapermen could even bring down Presidents like that unlamented Richard Nixon. What happened to those newspapermen? Nothing. They only write books about their achievement. They make money. They prosper and flourish, thanks to what they did.

In my case I did not attempt to unmake Presidents. I wrote condemning, yes, condemning the anti-democratic, anti-Tamil military actions of President Junius Richard Jayewardene…The price I paid for that was – the paper was banned, the editorial office was sealed, and the police began hunting for me. I had to flee to India by a midnight country boat to save my life…”

Every sentence in this Open Letter to the American Ambassador packs punches akin to Muhamad Ali’s ‘stings’ in the ring, and readers are left without any doubt that Hon. Ashley Wills, if it is a boxing match, would have been floored by knock out, like many of Ali’s opponents in the ring. Even the land of [Mahatma] Gandhi, to which Sivanayagam escaped in 1983, handed him a nightmarish experience to Sivanayagam following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The book carries a perceptive two-page foreword, written by Dr.Brian Senewiratne. In it, he refreshes the readers that, ‘The old adage The Pen is mightier than the sword (gun)’ is, and has always been, true. Popular interpretation of this proverb implies that pen retains the power to topple the power-holders who protect themselves with sword (gun). Woodward and Bernstein were able to do it against Nixon in 1974. But, one should consider this as an exception. The careers of pen-wielders who have lost their lives or who have been harassed endlessly by political power-brokers suggest that an alternative interpretation for that popular proverb is needed. This alternative interpretation was provided by Bertrand Russell, more than 50 years ago.

The British polymath, in a luncheon address delivered on 21 June 1951 to printers and bookbinders, had noted,

“We have all been told that the pen is mightier than the sword, which I suppose means that, with luck, author’s royalties amount to more than army pay. Perhaps this is why the reading of books has always been discouraged by the authorities.”

Only the brain of Bertrand Russell’s caliber can think of a more realistic interpretation to the much misinterpreted proverb. In his long and productive life, Bertrand Russell also wandered from place to place, without settling in a permanent location. He sustained himself, largely by depending on the royalties earned from his books. But, realistically speaking, Sivanayagam cannot follow the path of Russell, in terms of royalties. His expectations are modest, which he has written as follows, in his ‘Introduction’.

“Journalism is no journalism if it lacks passion. But it goes with a price. Having paid that price, I believe this book is its own reward.”

Earlier, I had categorized the historians into tome-writers and tract-writers. The difference can be illustrated as follows. Prof. Silva, in his 1981 ‘History of Sri Lanka’, devotes six chapters and 100 pages for describing the history of Sri Lanka between 1942 and 1977. Only Sivanayagam could cover the same 35-year period of political history, with pungent humor, in as little as 300 words by focusing on the antics of leading politicians of that era. 

In an editorial he penned to the Saturday Review of March 27, 1982, under the caption On with the Circus, he had written as follows:

“Wonders never cease in Ceylon politics. If we ignore the writings of historians, political chroniclers and political scientists [Note by reviewer: This is a delightful dig at the likes of Silvas, Mervyn de Silvas, Dayan Jayatillekes, Neelan Tiruchelvams and Packiyasothy Saravanamuthus] and take a logical look at the performances of Ceylonese politicians over the thirty four years since independence, some of the individual performances would put to shame the best of circus acts. Ceylon politics has produced several spineless wonders, quick-change artistes, contortionists, lion tamers, tiger tamers, tight rope walkers, clowns and illusionists.

Imagine the Father of ‘Fifty-Fifty’ or Balanced Representation, and the uncrowned king of the Tamils and minorities, G.G.Ponnambalam QC, suddenly making a nose-dive in the air, and while the audience held their breath, emerging safely as Minister of Industries and Fisheries in D.S.Senanayake Cabinet!

Imagine Ceylon’s Father of Revolution Philip Gunawardene, revolving so fast in the direction of the Left ending up close to right of centre in no time.

As for quick-change artistes, imagine S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike in Oxford bags, Oxford accent, with English oratory and Christian upbringing, emerging in white national and blue shawl as the successful champion of Sinhala Only and Buddhism!

Imagine Sir John Kotelawala, the knight in shining armour, crowned King of Delft in the North and promising the late Handy Perinbanayagam and Kokuvil audience that he will amend the Constitution to give parity of status to Sinhala and Tamil, becoming a vociferous champion of Sinhala Only in the South. It was one of those contortionist circus acts that failed. The Sinhalese voters refused to oblige him by holding the bouncing mat for him and he had a fall and hurt himself.

Imagine the Marx brothers like N.M.Perera, Colvin Silva and Pieter Keuneman doing an excellent job of tight-rope walking when they voted against the Sinhala Only Bill, only to end up years later grabbing the masala-wadai dead rope in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government…”

Like Al Hirschfeld, the line artist maestro, who could etch perfectly any celebrity’s face and body with a few streaks, Sivanayagam has condensed the answer for the question ‘Why parting of ways occurred between Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983?’, in the above 300-odd words. Sivanayagam is a master of sardonic humor, and only Mervyn de Silva, his equally talented contemporary, can be a match to him in polished word-play. Here are some choice picks (in alphabetical order), I relished, from Sivanayagam’s pen.


“Any man is entitled to believe anything about anybody in life. People have right beliefs, wrong beliefs, eccentric beliefs, mad beliefs and beliefs defaming another. But if we publicise the belief, we have to see that no other citizen’s reputation is injured in the public eye as a result.”

Bombing in Eelam

“You say that the north is part of Sri Lanka. So why do you keep bombing your own country from the air? Is it because you are already assuming that it is another country? You say you are bombing only terrorists. Are there no terrorists in Trincomalee? Why not bomb Trinco too? Of course you won’t. Because of Sinhala presence there. You don’t want Sinhalese to die.”

British glory

“The British were always proud of three things: Shakespeare, the Empire and beef roast. Shakespeare is still limping along, the Empire was long gone, and now roast beef is in peril.”


“To be suddenly thrust into the world’s headlines and be branded as ‘mad cows’ in general, and for no fault of theirs, seems to us a most reprehensible thing. We all know that cows don’t eat human beings; human beings are the ones that eat cows.”

Eelam Tamil hopes on India: circa mid-1987

“While one feels sorry for the Sinhalese people because they saw in India a permanent enemy and conqueror, the tragedy of the Tamils was worse; they saw in India a permanent friend!”


“Given the Brechtian aphorism – ‘Unhappy is the land which needs heroes’, there is no need to challenge the fact that today the need for heroes is felt by both Sinhalese and Tamils; unhappy peoples both. But what makes the vital difference is that while many Sinhalese continue to rely on a hero [Duttha Gamani] dead for 2,000 years, many Tamils feel they have a living hero in Prabhakaran.”

Jaffna soil

“The Jaffna soil can yield the most unexpected things like grapes and beetroots, but it can never yield a Marxist crop.”


“When he [Pirabhakaran] is accused of ‘intransigence’, repeated parrot-like by journalists who are in a hurry to catch the copy deadline, or by politicians who find it a useful word to close all thought on the man, it is not realised that it is this ‘intransigence’ that makes all the difference between politics and a liberation struggle.”


“The Sinhalese people and politicians are known to act on impulse; they are not calculating enough. That is both their strength and weakness. If they do some serious calculation, they might end up with one profound truth – ruling the Tamils is going to be a ruinous financial proposition!”

Sri Lankan army

“Sri Lanka’s national army used to have a proud record. For nearly thirty-five years of the country’s independence, the army suffered no casualties. The only loss of life came through cirrhosis of the liver! But that was also because the Ceylon army saw no action on the battlefield. Whatever action it saw was in the kitchen and in the bedroom.”

Lest anyone think that Sivanayagam is a Tamil partisan writer, who relishes in skewering Sinhalese politicians and authorities with bloated egos, he has been equally scathing on Tamil politicians, who had worshipped the parliamentary cushion and the ‘little power’ it brings, between 1940s and 1990s, in preference to safeguarding Tamil interests in the island. In the post-independent era, Tamils have been represented in the Sri Lankan parliament by three types of politicians; popularly elected types (Suntheralingam, Ponnambalam Sr., Chelvanayakam, Amirthalingam and Rajadurai), spuriously elected types (Devananda) and selected types (Neelan Tiruchelvam and Kadirgamar). Thondaman falls peculiarly into both popularly elected type and selected type. Sivanayagam has the courage to call a spade a spade. Here are some of his pen-sketches on some of these political types.


“The first person to launch the word EELAM into the political vocabulary of Sri Lanka was the now-forgotten C.Suntharalingam, ex-Oxford, ex ICS, ex-CCS, ex-Professor of Mathematics, ex-MP for Vavuniya and ex-Minister, who in his heyday was probably the most pugnacious politician this country had seen. He enjoyed the license to say and do the most daring things in public, but his opponents only liked him all the more for it.”


“G.G.Ponnambalam demanded a ‘Fifty-Fifty’ system – limiting the Sinhalese to half the seats in the legislature and reserving the other half to the Tamils, the Muslims and other minorities, the Malays and Burghers. It was a startling, but prophetic demand, couched in an impressive 8-hour oration 40 years ago. But the mistake Mr.Ponnambalam made was to accept thereafter a Sinhala assurance and a Cabinet post. This has been the historic pattern of Tamil leaderships, they start right but crumble halfway.”


“It took two general elections (1952 and 1956), seven more years, and a direct threat to Tamil language rights before the Tamils themselves rallied behind Chelvanayakam’s leadership… a compassionate Christian leading a Hindu following, with a touching faith in human nature, and a tireless trier in the politics of persuasion. But his was a futile course.”

Thondaman Sr.

“The tragedy of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress is that having been founded as a powerful trade union in 1939, as an authentic voice of the oppressed Tamil workers of Indian origin, it has now become a political force in league with the Establishment. To Mr.Thondaman and the CWC leadership, as well as those Tamils in the South, who are hell-bent on meddling with the election process in the South, we can only repeat philosopher Santayana’s warning, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.’


“Amirthalingam who succeeded to the TULF leadership [in 1977] proved to be the wrong man at the wrong moment of Tamil history. Not that he did not have the right credentials. With his customary chest forward stance and the appellation Thalapathy (military commander), he had previously earned the trust of Tamil youths, including the young Prabhakaran. But he had been too long a tongue-wagging politician to have the stomach to become a revolutionary, which was what the historical process demanded at that time.”


“Mr.Chelliah Rajadurai is a politician with a tarnished political image. There is no need to be polite about it and hush a fact that is already well known. The convening of the World Hindu Conference [in 1982] in Sri Lanka by his Ministry now gives him the opportunity to exercise his very pleasing prose style in public, to be applauded, garlanded, photographed and come slap-bang into the limelight – the kind of opportunity that all our dear politicians would love dearly.”

Neelan Tiruchelvam

“…Dr.Tiruchelvam is ‘a votary of Indian troop presence in Sri Lanka and thinks the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord was the best thing to have happened to the divided island’. That brings out the kind of dilemma which every intellectual faces when he compromises his intellect with sordic and power needs. The Dr.Jekyll in him resents Indian imperialism, but the Mr.Hyde in him welcomes it; if only it could be given the spit and polish which only institutions like the Doon School and Harvard could possibly provide.”


“A Foreign Minister with a Tamil name appealing to the big, wide world: BAN! BAN! BAN! … The trouble about that man is, he has to sing for his supper, and he sings well, and sings loud, but he sings the same song all the time. It is either BAN-BAN-BAN or Child Soldiers.”

Among the leading Tamil parliamentarians of yester years, only S.J.V.Chelvanayakam, the Federal Party leader, and a couple of founder members of FP such as V.Navaratnam had escaped the scathing pen of Sivanayagam. The reason is obvious to all Eelam Tamils. On the predicament of V.Navaratnam, Sivanayagam had noted him as “a man who was unfortunately ahead of his time and was effectively silenced by the late A.Amirthalingam with party support.”

Apart from being a forceful editorialist and a satirist, Sivanayagam also shines as an elegist. His elegies to educator Handy Perinbanayagam, Senator S.Nadesan QC, attorney K.Kanthasamy, journalist Rita Sebastian, Professor Alfred Jayaratnam Wilson and Professor Christie Jeyaratnam Eliezer whose services enriched the Eelam Tamil community and non-Tamils in Sri Lanka are meritorious.

Every published book has some imperfections. And The Pen and the Gun is not an exception in this regard. In the review copy I received, probably due to an enthusiastic ‘printers devil’, three elegies (to LTTE leader Kittu, journalist Gamini Navaratne and UNP politician A.C.S.Hameed) listed in the contents page have not appeared in the text. But, the absence of an index, which cannot be attributed to ‘printers devil’, is a blot on the overall usefulness of the book as a reference source. Despite these limitations, this book deserves a prominent place in any Sri Lankan and Eelam bookshelf.

13 April 2002

Related Stories:

Sivanayagam's THE PEN & THE GUN  - A Sinhala Review