Despatch from Colombo | International

Sri Lankan Malayalis keep their Kerala connection alive


Narayana Guru has become a unifying force among the Malayalam-speaking people

On Sunday, a few hundred Sri Lankans will gather in Colombo to commemorate the 165th year of Kerala’s social reformer Narayana Guru, at a junction named after him.

For the Sri Lankans, whose ancestors hailed from Kerala and had moved to the country (then called Ceylon) in search of work and better opportunities, the event is a way of keeping their Kerala connection alive. “Ceylon was the Dubai of those days,” says Surendra Madhavan, a Sri Lankan Malayali with his familial roots running to Thrissur. “Our father came here for business and then settled down here.”

The similarities between Kerala and Sri Lanka, in the landscape, attire and the coconut-rich cuisine, are hard to miss. But the people-to-people links, from a time when borders were perhaps more porous, offer more fascinating insights. If some people migrated from Kerala to explore business opportunities and engage in trade, others who came had their labour alone to offer. The locality Kochikade in Colombo, and another by the same name in nearby Negombo, are believed to have originated from a time when immigrants from Kerala settled in these areas.

At home in Ceylon

Anthropologists and sociologists who studied the community zoomed into the sociocultural and political realities at the time the migrants arrived, including the hostility that labourers from the community faced. Some academics have traced links going back to centuries, but the community that now identifies as ‘Sri Lankan Malayalis’ speaks of more recent links. Its members refer to a generation that arrived mostly in the 20th century and worked here as Indian citizens while their children — born and raised in Sri Lanka — became citizens of the island, different from the small expat Malayali population living in Colombo, according to Mr. Madhavan, vice-president of the Colombo-based Sree Narayana Guru Society. Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran too was born in the central district of Kandy to parents who had moved to the island from Kerala.

Over the years, Sri Lankan Malayalis made a mark with their enterprise and contribution to Sri Lankan society — be it in education or in the services sector. Many Sri Lankans fondly remember K.C. Kuttan, the legendary doorman at the sea-facing Galle Face Hotel who passed away in 2014, at 94. He is said to have arrived in Colombo from Kerala in the 1930s in search of work and a new life. Some like him married locals and integrated with the Sinhalese society. For instance, the father of M.K. Rahulan, president of Narayana Guru Society, was from Irinjalakuda in Kerala’s Thrissur district. “My mother is Sinhalese. I am a Sri Lankan Malayali,” says the 74-year-old, with evident pride about his identity.

Nothing could better illustrate the fluidity of borders, cultures or languages than Mr. Rahulan’s personal and professional journey. In addition to speaking Malayalam, he is comfortably trilingual — which in Sri Lanka means being able to speak Sinhala, Tamil and English — a skill not very commonly seen. His proficiency with languages led him to a job in Sri Lankan Parliament, where he served as chief interpreter for over 30 years. Further, he has worked with several national leaders, interpreting in their key meetings, including with visiting foreign dignitaries.

“I have served at least nine leaders, from Sirimavo Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayawardena to [Ranasinghe] Premadasa to almost everyone else in power since,” he says. “My father’s generation was seen as Malayalis from Kerala living here. But my generation [of Malayalis] was born and raised here,” he says. In his view, it is difficult to numerically quantify the community. “With time, many Malayalis took on Sinhalese or Tamil identities. Someone called Kannan would be Kannangara [Sinhala name], or if someone’s name was Raman, he would change it to Wijerama. In fact, when I speak fluent Sinhala many ask me if my name is Rahula, and not Rahulan,” he laughs.

Even after taking on Sri Lankan names and embracing the Sri Lankan culture, many are keen that their roots be remembered and heritage preserved. The iconic Narayana Guru has become a unifying force, partly because of his own history in Sri Lanka. The Malayali reformer travelled to Celyon in 1918, and later, in 1926, spending some time and spreading his message of ‘One caste, one religion, one God for mankind’. Commemorating his 155th birth anniversary in 2009, Sri Lanka released a special postage stamp. Last year, to mark a century since his first visit, members of the Narayana Guru Society erected his statue. At the busy Colombo junction, he stands tall.

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 10:08:54 PM |

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