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?

When the Europeans first intruded in the early 16th century there were three separate kingdoms, covering the south-eastern highlands, the coastal areas and the barren North. The Kandyan kingdom in the South-east was mainly Sinhala and Buddhist, as were the maritime regions, though here there was more of a mixture of ‘races’—Arabs, a trading community of ‘coastal Moors’ from Kerala, and subsequently the Burghers, descended from mixed marriages between Dutch or Portuguese colonists and Ceylonese. The North was predominantly Tamil, and Hindu, though the rigidities of the caste system meant that, from the 17th century onwards, Christian missionaries made more inroads here than elsewhere. In terms of social structure, the Kandyan realm was dominated by a feudal, landowning aristocracy, almost entirely Sinhala, while the western coast possessed a mixed merchant class. In the North, the land was owned by the high caste vellala, who were also the most numerous; land-holdings tended to be small and fragment over time—so there were no big Tamil landlords.

The colonial period stretched over some 450 years, and was shared out more or less equally between the Portuguese, Dutch and British. But where the first two had largely engaged in mercantile activities, carving out enclaves in order to ship out the island’s riches—above all its cinnamon—the British gained full control over the whole of Ceylon, in 1815. Not long thereafter, they began to import indentured Indian Tamil labour to work the coffee plantations they established in the interior—inserting another social order into the existing set of structures, a colony within a colony. By the end of the 19th century, the main crop was tea, and the plantation mode had begun to dominate the economy, requiring a whole infrastructure of railways and roads for its produce to reach world markets. Colonial capitalism needed the island to be unified as an economic unit, but it did not want the different communities to come together in any other sense. The British strategy was to divide politically in order to integrate economically. One of the main instruments for this was to provide Tamils with educational opportunities and use them to staff the administrative apparatus. While economic wealth remained in the hands of the old Sinhala feudal elite, the public services, train stations, post offices and so on were all run by Tamils. This created resentments among the Sinhalese, who formed the majority of the population, and also prevented a unified anti-colonial movement from taking shape.