Could you tell us about your origins and background?
I was born in Colombo in 1923, but my father’s family were tenant farmers from the village of Sandilipay in Jaffna Province. The north of the island is flat and arid—there are no trees, no rivers, no mountains. My grandfather had so little land, and such poor land, that the only thing he grew was children: he had thirteen in all, but seven died in childbirth or very young. He was so fertile that he was known locally as the farmer with a green penis. My father was the second-youngest of thirteen. He was very bright, did very well at the local school, and won a scholarship to a Catholic school in Colombo. Education was the only route to jobs and social advancement for Tamils. Under British colonial rule, many Tamils were sent to fill bureaucratic posts in one or another malarial station in the interior, to open up the country, as it were. My father, who was educated at primary school in Tamil and English, joined the postal service at the age of sixteen, to support his family. By the time I was born, he was a sub-postmaster in Kandy, but throughout my childhood he was often transferred from one place to another. So when I was ten or eleven, I was sent to Colombo, to attend St Joseph’s College. It was a big Catholic school in the middle of the city, but surrounded by narrow streets and slums, through which rich people travelled to attend classes.
Were there any particular teachers who influenced you?
The head of the school was a Frenchman called Le Goc, a renowned botanist and scholar who was very broad-minded, though the school regime itself was strict in other respects. He was very good to poor students—I was allowed in on half-fees because my family couldn’t afford the full rate. My English teacher really stimulated me—J. P. de Fonseka, a Burgher of Portuguese descent who had been G. K. Chesterton’s editor and friend during his time in Britain. De Fonseka gave me a taste for language: English sat on my tongue, I could taste it together with the Tamil I spoke at home. I was also a very religious lad, and went to Hindu temple every Friday and enthusiastically sang the thevarams, Tamil devotional songs. So I had a Tamil-Hindu cultural base with an English education superimposed on it—in a way, reflecting the structure of Ceylonese society at the time.
Could you briefly characterize the historical peculiarities of the country, and its various social formations?