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Ayathurai Santhan!

A writer with a difference !
by P. Poologasingham 

Ayathurai SanthanIn the Artscope of July 23 last year there appeared a review of a book 'Survival and Simple Things', collection of prose poems by Ayathurai Santhan, and the reviewer Lynn Ockersz said 'Santhan has certainly broad based and expanded the range of 'English poetry' here and invested it with a rare timelessness'. Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam of the University of Toronto, in his introduction to the same book mentions that, 'The richness of his work is a direct consequence of his capacity to convey a deeply felt sense of life without ostentation or tendentious posturing'. Again, Mr. Ockersz, in an earlier review of another book, 'In Their Own Worlds' a collection of short stories by the same author, identifies the work as 'A glimpse of the Northern creative genius' and its author as a 'new revitalizing current in the English creative writing field in Sri Lanka' (Daily News, 24.4.01). 

The collection 'In Their Own Worlds'not only won an Arts Council Award for 2000, but also received acclaim from other leading literary personalities like Regi Siriwardena, Carl Muller and several others. 'He is a writer who uses the genre of the short story in an individual way', writes Mr. Siriwardena (Nethra, 5/1). Carl Muller says 'Each story is an experience' and also poses the question, 'Are we losing the great story tellers of Jaffna in this idiotic war?'(The WeekEnd Express, 17 June, 2001). 

In fact, Santhan continues as a reputed writer of short fiction in Tamil for the past three decades. 'Santhan is an important name in the post 1970 Sri Lankan Tamil writing with due recognition of his capabilities in neighbouring Tamil Nadu', says Prof. K. Sivathamby (Third Eye, Dec. 1996). Santhan has to his credit more than ten collections of stories in Tamil, four of which were published in India and another one 'Ore Oru Oorilae' won him an Arts Council Award as far back as in 1975, when he was in his late twenties. He has published a novel and a travelogue also. Some of his stories have been translated into English by Indian translators, A. V. Bharath of Mysore and M. S. Ramaswamy of Madras and appeared in prestigious journals like 'The Illustrated Weekly of India' and 'The World Plus'etc. 

Fresh and unique 

But, of late, Santhan himself has tried his hand at writing in English and his first collection, 'The Sparks', came out in 1990. No wonder he emerged as a successful writer and is now being considered as a fresh and unique talent in Sri Lankan English writing. 

Why did he start writing in English? 'To tell the world outside, that we, in our secluded remotest corner, also live a life worth living even in the midst of a prolonged war', replies Santhan. Being a man from Jaffna who has experienced all the traumas of the civil war for the last two decades, his is an authentic voice depicting the life in the war-torn North. But, 'he brings out tensions in Jaffna without being propagandist or judgemental', observes Prof. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke (Sri Lankan Literature in English 1948-1998). 

It was Prof. Goonetilleke who identified Santhan first and included Santhan's works in two of the anthologies edited by him, 'Penguin Book of Modern Sri Lankan Short Stories' and 'Sri Lankan Literature in English 1948-1998', published in '96 and '98 respectively. Santhan himself is full of gratitude towards Prof. Goonetilleke. The Professor was a beacon of hope during my darkest days', says Santhan, 'I received his letters informing me of the inclusion of my works in his collections during a time when I was leading a life of a refugee following the exodus'. 

Talking about an anthology of 50 years of writing in English in Sri Lanka reminds me of a similar volume published in Tamil also during the same period by the Arts Council, and it was natural for Santhan's work to have a place in that, too. This had given him the rare honour of being included in the 50 year selections in two languages. 

Another short story of his appeared in the Channels compendium 1989-2001, edited by Anne Ranasinghe, and two others in the GELT manual published by the ELTC of the University of Jaffna. Santhan's stories have been translated into Sinhala, Hindi and Russian also. 

A collection of stories translated into Sinhala by Wimal Saminathan of the University of Jaffna, titled, 'Minissu saha minissu', was published by Godage and Brothers in 1999. 

Santhan himself is proficient in Sinhala and also in Russian, got passes at the GCE O/L, for both the languages. It is interesting to note that he studied the Russian language, out of sheer interest in the Russian Literature, at the Soviet Cultural House, Colombo, during the late 70s and then pioneered teaching the same in Jaffna in 1983. He followed a short-term course for Russian Language Teachers' at the Lumumba University, Moscow in 1984. 


It is rather unusual for a person in the field of engineering to get interested in literature and languages. Santhan entered the Ceylon College of Technology, Katubedde (which later flowered as The University of Moratuwa), in 1968 and followed courses in Draughtsmanship and Structural Engineering. 

He worked in the Public Health Engineering Division of the Department of Health and in the Water Supply and Sewerage Division of the Department of Buildings, in Colombo. His immediate superior for more than 10 years was the renowned Sinhala writer-translator, Kalubowila Cyril C. Perera. 'I was lucky enough to work under Mr. Perera, because he not only trained me in Sanitary Engineering but also helped me to widen my acquaintance with the Third World literature and the trends in the modern Sinhala writing', recollects Santhan. 

Affected by the 1977 riots, he returned to his hometown in 1980, and started teaching, first at the JC Institute of Technology and then as a visiting lecturer at the Technical College, Jaffna. There, too, his contributions are unique; in his field, there is an acute shortage of technical personnel, especially after most of the qualified people left the peninsula following the disturbed state of affairs. But, being 'a writer of the people', as mentioned by Kandiah Shri Ganeshan, (Echo-2002), he never wanted to leave his land although he could have easily secured a good job abroad. His service reached its peak in 1998, when the DPDHS office in Jaffna was looking for a suitable person to train the newly recruited PHI trainees in engineering related subjects. Santhan lent a helping hand and the forty odd trainees completed their course successfully and passed out and now are in the service of the people of the peninsula. 

His contributions in producing technical officers from the Technical College is also equally important. Santhan has this to say about his students serving the people: 'An ordinary technician contributing his share in his land during difficult times is worth thousands of highly qualified sons of the soil working in foreign lands', he feels proud of his students, 'I consider this as a better contribution of mine, rather than writing'. 

Santhan is also a fore-runner in practising and in teaching computer aided drafting in Jaffna, and recently, he went back to his alma-mater in Moratuwa, after thirty years, to update his knowledge in the field. 

The terrible war years of the latter half of the last decade were a period for destruction and not for construction. Santhan had nothing to do then and he enroled himself as an external student of the University of Jaffna and turned out his knowledge into a degree with English Literature as a subject. 

This, unexpectedly, paved the way for him to become a visiting lecturer of English Literature at the ATI, Jaffna. As he practises writing as well as sanitary engineering, he finds no difficulty in teaching in two different fields, but, instead is equally at home in both. But, in my opinion, devoting more time with his teaching makes him face a shortage of time for his writing and this could be looked upon as negative, because, there is a lot more for us to expect from this writer with a difference. 

Courtesy: Daily News (Sri Lanka)

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