Sir John going to Paris is the opening line of a popular schoolboy baila. Before that, he came to Jaffna in 1955 for a different purpose. Before you could, he did, and he came not because he loved us. No, no, no! It was because he loved our votes. But it did not strike me so, because as schoolboys, we did not have the franchise. The teenage franchise was introduced in the sixties.
Anyway, whenever a VIP came to our college, an assembly would be called. Sir John came clad in a dark green shirt. Scandalously, he did not wear a banyan, which we schoolboys did. He got onto the stage, with his hands clasped above his head, in a worshipping gesture like a Bharatha Natyam danseuse, which itself was unusual because only dancing girls did that. In doing so, he exposed his navel, a huge one at that and not one-bit shy. It was scandalous for schoolboys of that age because all mothers insisted on our wearing a banyan. My best friend and I chuckled at the exposure by the Prime Minister of a country. He did a semi-circular round before he made his famous speech. His opening lines were ‘I’ll give you parity of status.’
It was our first exposure to a politician’s promise, one on which he later went back, like all other politicians.
I was in the O Level Class and, for our Civics, we had been well drilled on the Principles of Democracy, where all are seen to be equal (While some are more equal than others.) So I, for one, did not understand why the PM promised us parity because we were equal in any case.
From our college, Sir John went straight to our sister school, Uduvil Girls’ College. Sir John would never have expected the welcome he got. Uduvil was, in our local parlance, a hi-fi school, the entrance of which would make you feel you are entering a Botanical Garden, full of flower plants and tall, shady trees.
The Principal of the school was at that time, a fantastic and efficient lady, the late Mrs Hudson Paramasamy. She arranged for about four innocent pretty little girls dressed in colourful costume like peacocks, to perform a welcome dance, after which he was garlanded. Sir John was simply swept off his feet by this touching welcome. It was touching because the girls were both innocent and well-trained. He couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. He got on the school stage and in his speech declared that in his next birth, he would like to be a girl from Uduvil Girls’ College.
This was caricatured by the famous cartoonist of that time, Collette. He drew a cartoon of Sir John in a school girl’s uniform exposing hairy thighs, with the index finger covering the lips, a typical gesture of shyness of a northern girl. In the cartoon, the Principal introduces her saying ‘She is shy because she can remember her previous birth.’
He went back later at the infamous Kurunegala sessions of the UNP where the UNP changed its policy to ‘Sinhala Only’. Had the UNP stuck by its promise, the history of Sri Lanka would have been different. But alas, it was not to be. The UNP was badly defeated in the 1956 elections.
In fairness to Sir John, my father had this to say: In the sixties, a vicious politician took revenge on him by taking over his Boggolle Mines. On the last day, Sir John came in person and handed out a cheque of Rs.10,000 to every employee. The employees accepted it with gratitude, while all of them were sobbing. Sir John’s greatness lay there!