Chelvanayakam: The Man with a Sharper Mind and a Slower Tongue
by Sachi Sri Kantha
[Dedication: This essay on Chelvanayakam is dedicated to the memory of his erudite son-in-law Prof.A.Jeyaratnam Wilson, whose scholarship on Ceylon politics was a source of benefit for me. I met Prof.Wilson only once, in 1981, in Colombo. Since then, until his death in 2000 – though distance separated us – we did exchange our views infrequently via letters.]
Paul Erdos (1913-1996), the eminent-eccentric Hungarian mathematician, had a derisive nickname for God. In Erdos’s lingo, God is the Supreme Fascist (SF). Why? SF hids all the beautiful proofs to amazing mathematical theorems in His unpublished Book. This may indeed be true for pure mathematics. But, God’s formula for a successful politician in any culture is a ‘no brainer’; a slimy creature with a sharp tongue and a slower mind.
One can only postulate that once in a blue moon when he was in a benevolent mood, the Supreme Fascist of Erdos also takes pity on the plight of his followers and does reverse his ingredients on his politician’s formula; i.e., sending a straight creature with a sharp mind and a slower tongue, as emancipators. Colonial India suffering from the manacles of British imperialism got Mahatma Gandhi in 1915. Eelam Tamils were the beneficiaries of the Supreme Fascist’s benevolent mood, when he pushed Samuel James Velupillai (S.J.V.) Chelvanayakam onto the political stage of island colonial Ceylon in 1947, which was about to receive its independence.
The name Chelvanayakam, in Tamil, with two components – literally meant the ‘a wealthy hero’ [Chelvam = wealth; nayakam = hero]. With his legal acumen, he could have ended his life as an economically wealthy man. Then, he would have been less of a hero to Tamils. Tamils have had their share of economically wealthy guys who were ‘propped up’ heros. But Chelva sacrificed his personal wealth to enrich the emotional wealth of Eelam Tamils by his deeds, and became a real hero.
The individual who was cloaked by the name Chelvanayakam also carried quite a number of other endearing appelations. He came to be identified respectfully in the Tamil press as Eelathu Gandhi [The Gandhi of Eelam], Thanthai Chelva [Father Chelva], and Periyavar [The Elder]. In oral communications, at an informal level, Tamils also endearingly called him –late in his life – as Kilavan [The Old Man] and Seviddu [The Deaf] Chelva. The last two appelations, describing his physical frailities, were not in any sense meant to be pejoratives of his senility. They were intended as intimate appellations used for a beloved old kin.
He was born in March 31, 1898, in Ipoh of colonial Malayan State. He reached colonial Jaffna when he was 4 years old [probably in 1902 or 1903] with his mother and siblings. Though being seriously afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and increasing deafness since mid 1950s, that he stood up for Tamil (both Indigenous and recent Indian-origin) rights in the political arena which he entered actively in 1947, at the expense of his personal health and wealth, was deeply appreciated by Tamils. Majority Hindus of Ceylon were willing to be led by a physically-sick politician whose mind was sharper, tongue was slower and who was also a nominal Christian. In the 1960s and 1970s, his walk had turned into slow-paced drills in gymnastics. His voice was hardly audible. More than often, because of the ravage of Parkinsonism, saliva drools needed wiping by the caring secretary who assisted him by holding the leader’s hand to prevent falls. But in the eyes of Eelam Tamils for two generations, Chelva had turned into a prophet since 1956.
I’m rather disappointed that the available information in the internet doesn’t do justice to the service and stature of Chelvanayakam. Among other things, these also carry potshots posted by the uncouth functionaries of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) and the muck spitted by the brown-skinned Buddhist Aryan boors like H.L.D.Mahindapala. To balance the misinformation and hearsay peddled by these quacks, I present this vignette on Chelvanayakam, which is a miscellany of (a) under-recorded facts, (b) excerpts from my book review of Chelva’s biography by Prof.A.J.Wilson and (c) my personal impressions, as occasionally recorded in my memories and diaries.
My first glance at Leader Chelva
Forty years have passed since my first glance at Leader Chelva. It was in 1963. I was a ten-year-old schoolboy, studying at the Colombo Hindu College, Ratmalana. It was a heavy rainy day and nearly two-third of my classmates failed to turn up on that day. Thus, nearly ten of us were present on that day. Unusually, we had to make two trips to the Assembly Hall on that day. This was because we had two distinguished visitors scheduled to talk to us. In the morning, we were treated to an exposition on Tamil literature by the distinguished Tamil scholar and editor Ki.Vaa.Jagannathan (then editor of Kalaimagal literary magazine) from Tamil Nadu. From Jagannathan’s lip, Tamil flowed like a river.
In the afternoon, the boys who were present on that rainy day were asked to assemble at the Assembly Hall for the second time. Our guest speaker was leader Chelvanayakam. For us, Chelvanayakam presented a distinct contrast to Jagannathan’s Tamil oratory. He would have spoken for about 20 minutes, the details of which have been erased from my memory now. But I still remember his two introductory sentences. Chelva spoke softly in measured tones; “Naan oru arasiyal-vaathi; Neengal Maanavarkal.” [ I am a politician; You are students.] Glancing side to side, we listened with muffled giggles at our guest speaker. He was not impressive to us then. But at that age, we could be excused for our ignorance on Chelva’s stature
among Eelam Tamils. In the following days, we enjoyed doing impressions of Chelva’s un-impressive speaking style.
In subsequent years in the 1960s, I came to learn a little more about leader Chelva’s standing among Eelam Tamils. It was partially enhanced by other guest speakers we had at the Colombo Hindu College. Those who closely associated with Chelva then, such as parliamentarians C.Rajadurai and K.P.Ratnam as well as loyal foot-soldiers like M.K.Eelaventhan and Kasi Ananthan delivered speeches to us at the annual nine-day Saraswathi Pooja celebrations, which were earnestly anticipated by us each year. It was also aided by the presence of Ravindran (the son of C.Rajadurai, the Federal Party stalwart from the Eastern Province) and Muhunthan (nephew of Pundit K.P.Ratnam, another Federal Party legislator from the North) as my classmates.
My apprenticeship in the Sutantiran camp
One of the under-recognized contributions of Thanthai Chelva (even by his biographer son-in-law Prof.A.J.Wilson) was his vision and energy in sustaining the publication of Sutantiran as a communication medium, against serious odds. Chelva was indeed a patron for young Tamil writers and poets. His Sutantiran offered space for literary debutants (among whom I count as one), whose creations would not have received publication elsewhere in the muffled press of Ceylon. But, few of the professors of Tamil literature in Eelam who cloak themselves with the Marxist-Progressive labels and parade as the arbiters of literary merit conveniently ignore the contributions of the Sutantiran camp, in their occasional stock-taking reviews. A vivid example is Karthigesu Sivathamby’s review, on ‘50 Years of Sri Lankan Tamil Literature’ which appeared in the Madras Hindu group’s magazine Frontline (April 24-May 7, 1999). Neither the name of Sutantiran nor its contribution to Eelam Tamil literature was mentioned by Prof.Sivathamby even in a line. Was it an inadvertent omission or a deliberate omission?
Thanthai Chelva became a fixture in my mind after the 1970 General Elections. At home, my father regularly bought Sutantiran tabloid weekly. I learnt more on the thoughts and deeds of Chelva, from the pen of Kovai Mahesan, the editor of Sutantiran. Eventually, it was to Sutantiran that I sent my own writings from 1974 and became a published writer in Tamil. I was paid nothing. It was no big deal. I was more than happy that my byline appeared in the paper owned by leader Chelva, and not elsewhere. For me, that itself was a batch of higher merit.
I was proud of my affiliation as the writer from the Sutantiran camp in the 1970s. This was because, Sutantiran, the political journal of Chelva, was attacked and harassed from various fronts. The Sinhalese partisans and the Intelligence arm of the Sri Lankan State had a vigil on what Sutantiran published. Sutantiran was also attacked by the Tamils who openly scorned Federal and human right principles. Among these were the Communist Party loyalists, Tamil academics and literati (prominent among these were Prof.K.Kailasapathy, Prof.K.Sivathamby, Prof.S.Sivasegaram, Dominic Jeeva and Dr.N.Shanmugaratnam) who cloaked themselves with fancy labels such as Progressives, Leftist Free Thinkers and Jana Vegaya group –
which had a Tamil publication called Jana Vegam, edited by novelist Ilankeeran (pen-name of a Jaffna Muslim Zubair). These Left-oriented minds, who waddled in the then fashionable wordplay of Marxist-socialist slogans castigated Sutantiran for catering to the Tamil bourgeoisie and pandering Tamil racism. It is bizarrely funny that with the collapse of Marxist-Leninist-socialism in the late 1980s, those who pouted the manthra of Marxism as the salvation for down-trodden in Sri Lanka quickly changed their cloak to human rights activism.
Sutantiran was also criticised by collaborationist-minded Tamil journalists in Colombo who worked for the Sinhala-owned press establishments as well as S.T.Sivanayagam (a former editor of Sutantiran itself) who for a personal reason was piqued with Chelva and joined the Dinapathy daily, published by the anti-Tamil press establishment in Colombo. Despite all these distractions, Sutantiran marched on, sustained by the loyal readership Federal Party activists in Eelam and elsewhere. So, I was pleased that my writings had a ready audience, who were in league with Chelva’s ideals.
Between 1974 and 1981 (when I left the island), over 25 of my essays, commentaries and India travelogue (1981) covering the 5th International Conference on Tamil Studies held in Madurai under the auspices of MGR government, were published by Kovai Mahesan in Sutantiran. And another 15 of my non-fiction writings in literary themes appeared in Sudar. One of these was a six-part review on Kasi Ananthan’s poetry, which wouldn’t have found an outlet anywhere else. Prof.Sivathamby, in his above-mentioned 1999 review didn’t even recognize Kasi Ananthan as a poet! So much for his partisanship and progressive analysis.
I’m forever thankful to editor Kovai Mahesan that he recognized the talent in me and published my submissions in Sutantiran and its sister publication Sudar, a literary monthly. Though both Sutantiran and Sudar were financially unprofitable publishing ventures, that Chelva personally sustained them until his death demonstrated his conviction to the Eelam Tamil society. As a beneficiary of these literary vehicles of Chelva, I was saddened on the eventual fate of both his publications.
The elegiac lament in Tellipalai and Dr.Kaleel’s heartfelt tribute
Here are my diary entries, relating to leader Chelvanayakam, in the year 1977. I was staying in Colombo then. I had graduated from the University of Colombo and was working as a demonstrator in zoology. In my off-duty hours, I was somewhat a volunteer in Tamil Youth Front activities in Colombo. Kovai Mahesan, who served as the editor of both Sutantiran weekly and Chudar literary monthly, was one of my mentors in journalism.
Feb.13, Sunday: I went to Thanthai Chelva’s house [in 16, Alfred House Gardens, Colombo 3], to participate at the General Committee meeting of the Thamil Ilaignar Peravai [Tamil Youth Council]. Mavai Senathirajah [now a TULF MP] and Kallaru Nadesanantham, both of whom were released from prison lately, attended today’s meeting. I received introductions from both.
Feb.14, Monday: Yesterday only, I had an opportunity to spend a few hours at Thanthai Chelva’s house. What a simple house which is devoid of any traces of affluence or vanity. I cannot even imagine that our Leader is living amongst us in such a simple fashion!
Feb.20, Sunday: Afternoon 5:00 pm, I went to Thanthai Chelva’s house. Quite a number of TULF MPs and supporters were gathered there for discussions. [Because of the crowd and want of space], we conducted the Committee meeting of Tamil Youth Council, at the nearby rented room of A.E.S.[Arasanga Eluthuvinaignar Sangam]. At the end of the meeting, few of us discussed the current problem with S.Kathiravelpillai, the MP for Kopay. His point was: “Our boys aren’t ready, isn’t it? Before they become ready, those guys would gulp all our land.”
March 24, Thursday: Yesterday morning, Thanthai Chelvanayakam had accidentally fallen at his Tellipalai house and was admitted to the Jaffna hospital in an unconscious state. In the afternoon, I went to the Sutantiran office and inquired about Chelva’s health from Kovai Mahesan. He replied that he had received news that the elder’s condition appears better than yesterday.
April 27, Wednesday: This morning, when I scanned the Dinapathi newspaper, I was shocked to read the front-page news. After being in an unconscious state for 34 days, Thanthai Chelva had expired last night around 10:00 pm.
April 28, Thursday: Today is officially my last day of work at the University of Colombo [as the Demonstrator in Zoology.] I have decided to leave for Jaffna tomorrow to attend the funeral [of Chelva].
April 29, Friday: Left for Jaffna in the morning Yal Devi train. Once the train passed Vavuniya, it appeared that every inch of Tamil Eelam is in mourning. Reached the Kankesanthurai station, proceeded to the junction and took a bus and reached Tellipalai at 2:30 pm. [My kin’s house was in the neighbourhood of Chelva’s house in Tellipalai.] Every inch of the land from Kankesanthurai through Maviddapuram and Tellipalai had been decorated with white flags, black flags. Pamphlets filled with elegiac verses filled the space. Sombre mood vibrated in the air via the tune of [wind instrument] Nagaswaram.
From 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm, I was at the Tellipalai junction, observing the action around me. Condolence offerings in various modes – wall posters and microphone voice wailings from the passing automobiles – dominated the scene. The remains of Chelva was brought to Tellipalai around 9:30 pm. From the junction to his house, there was uncontrollable grief from the assembled fans and followers of Chelva. At last, Periyavar (the Elder) entered his house finally around 11:00 pm. For the following one hour, I was waiting outside the house – pummeled by the push and pull of grieving Tamils. After midnight, I was able to enter the house and paid my last respects to Chelva and retired for sleep.
April 30, Saturday: Today takes place the final journey of Thanthai Chelva. Woke up at 6:30 am and made my way to Chelva’s house to have a close look at his ‘face’ for the final time. Compared to last night, today the mourners were more orderly, and they moved in silence. Once more I also paid my final respects to Chelva. The funeral procession was scheduled to begin at 9:00 am. Thus, I positioned myself in front of the Union College at 8:30 am. The funeral prayers at the house took additional time. Thus, the funeral procession from the house began exactly at 10.30 am. The specially designed casket containing Chelva’s remains was placed in the hearse. The head of the leader was slightly elevated in the casket so that mourners could have a glance at the face. Tellipalai natives offered their fond farewell to their local man who led the Tamils, by shedding tears and wailing. One particular elegiac rhyming lament in Tamil, which hung in one of the junctions at Tellipalai, said it all lucidly:
‘The Great Man is passing in the procession with his life;
The dead bodies – We – are all standing in the Street.’
The Tamil original was as follows:
Uthamanaar oorvalaththil Uyiroodu Pohinrar;
Seththavarai Nam ellam Veethiyile Nirkinrom!
May 1, Sunday: I left Tellipalai at 7:30 am and reached Kankesanthurai. From Kankesanthurai took a bus to Point Pedro. While passing towns like Myliddy, my eyes twitched and tears dripped when I saw the condolence notices and elegies for Chelva pasted in the walls, buildings along the roadside. While I waited for the bus at the K.K.S. Road, even the pasted condolence notices and elegies of G.G.Ponnambalam (Chelva’s early political pal and later adversary, who died two months earlier in February 1977) remained in place without fading. This is an irony for Tamils. Both, who strode like giants had left us in quick succession.
May 14, Saturday: [in Colombo] Went to Wellawatte Ramakrishna Hall to attend the memorial meeting of Thanthai Chelva. Leading politicians from many parties were in the stage. These included T.B.Illangaratne (SLFP), J.R.Jayewardene (UNP), Bernard Soysa (LSSP), Pieter Keuneman (CP). Dr.M.C.M.Kaleel spoke first in English. He was followed by V.Ponnambalam and M.S.Sellasamy in Tamil. The meeting came to an end after the orations of M.Sivasithamparam and A.Amirthalingam. The meeting was presided by former Justice V.Manickavasagar. Among the speakers, the two messages presented by Dr.Kaleel was well received by the audience with applause. These were as follows:
(1) “When the Muslim community was in trouble in Puttalam, although there were so many Muslim [political] representatives in the National State Assembly, it was only Chelvanayakam who took up the issue and condemned the government’s action.”
(2) “Leaders of the two powerful parties are here in the stage. It is no point, just paying lip services to the late leader [Chelva] and forgetting it, when they go home. It will be a humble tribute to Chelva, if these people can act on their words, for the betterment of the relationship of the Sinhala and Tamil communities.”
Prof.Jeyaratnam Wilson’s Biography and my Review
Prof.A.Jeyaratnam Wilson, an erudite scholar on post-independent Sri Lankan politics, wrote a short biography of the Federal Party leader in 1994. It was entitled, S.J.V.Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977 (Hurst & Co, London, 149pp). He was gracious enough to send me a complimentary copy with the annotation: ‘To dear Sachi – With warm affection as Ever; 8 September 1994.’ In the absence of any other biography in English on Chelva, it was a worthy addition to the political bookshelf. But, for reasons unknown to me, it had more than its share of factual errors on dates, which couldn’t be attributed to proof-reading errors. Even Chelva’s date of death stated in the book as ‘27 March’  was an error. Nevertheless, one should admit that he had a difficult task at his hand, being a kin to Chelva by marriage to his daughter.
I made the following impartial observations on Wilson’s biography of Chelva. To quote,
“…Permit me to make some comments on what is missing in Wilson’s biography. This is not to disappoint the prospective buyers or to ridicule the effort of Prof.Wilson, but to reveal how much Chelva offers for future biographers. I have nothing other than admiration and respect for Prof.Wilson’s scholarship.
I look back to the year 1970.
Time: The day after the May General Election in the then Ceylon.
Place: Bambalapitiya bus stand (towards the Borella route).
Action: In front of the newspaper shop, about 40-50 Sinhalese (all males) were listening to the election results on the radio in Sinhala, set by the news vendor. I was a bystander (probably the only Tamil in that gathering), waiting for the Borella-bound bus.
In repeated succession, the results from the Southern electorates were being announced and those who were gathered there expressed their jubilation by clapping for the SLFP winners of that election. Then, like a bolt, the election result of the Kankesanthurai constituency was announced, and Chelvanayakam was reported as the winner. All those who were gathered there expressed their admiration for Chelva too by clapping and nodding their heads. There, I witnessed how much respect Chelva commanded among the ordinary Sinhalese folks. The book by Prof.Wilson fails to record in detail, how the ordinary Sinhalese and Muslims perceived Chelva as the politician.
I was also puzzled that Prof.Wilson had stated, ‘The Muslims did not support the FP but they respected Chelvanayakam and placed their faith in his goals for protecting the rights of the Tamil linguistic groups.’ (p.112). In the 1956 election, Gate Mudaliyar M.S.Kariapper (Kalmunai) and his son-in-law M.M.Mustapha (Pottuvil) won on the FP ticket. In the July 1960 election, M.C.Ahamed won the Kalmunai seat as an FP candidate. M.E.H.Muhamed Ali was elected for Mutur in 1962 (by-election) and 1965 as an FP nominee. These MPs later joined either the UNP or SLFP. But the fact that they were elected first as the nominees of the FP shows that between 1956 and 1965, Tamil speaking Muslims of the Eastern Province did support the FP.
I also noticed that no mention is made in the book about the FP MPs (such as C.Rajadurai and V.Alegacone) who represented constituencies outside the Jaffna peninsula. Their representation of Batticaloa and Mannar as FP MPs was the main difference, that politically separated Chelva from G.G.Ponnambalam. Whereas the Tamils in Batticaloa and Mannar placed much faith in Chelva, G.G.Ponnambalam’s circle of influence was mainly restricted within the Jaffna peninsula.
It is my impression that Chelva’s biography would have been further enriched if in-depth use of existing public documents (such as Chelva’s speeches in the parliament and political cartoons in the Lake House press which featured Chelva) had been made. I vividly remember one cartoon which appeared in 1968 after the UNP-FP split. I have forgotten who the cartoonist is (either Wijesoma or Opatha). He drew Dudley Senanayake (as the male) standing with a broom-stick in the garden putting a perplexed face, with Chelva (dressed in sari) with a suitcase in his hand heading toward the gate. That cartoon did tell quite a lot of messages regarding the Sinhala-Tamil links in the then Ceylon.
I wish to stress again that the above comments are made only to show that Chelva has much to offer for future biographers. Prof. Wilson has just opened the route. Others can follow him for a richer harvest. Lastly, I thank Prof.Wilson for sending me a complimentary copy of his book.” [Tamil Times, London, Jan.1995, p.29]
Chelvanayakam’s Electoral Results at Kankesanthurai (1947-1975)
In Prof.Wilson’s biography, the details of the results of general elections (1947-70) and the 1975 by-election in which Chelva stood before the Tamil voters have also been regrettably missing. For archival record, I provide below the election results in which Chelva stood as a candidate in the Kankesanthurai constituency under three political labels: Tamil Congress (TC), Federal Party (FP) and Tamil United Front (TUF). His opposing candidates came from other parties, namely, TC (since 1952), United National Party (UNP), Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP), Viplavakari Lanka Samasamaja Party (VLSSP), Communist Party (CP) and Communist Party-China (CPC).
Seven Tamil notables had opposed Chelva in the elections. They were as follows:
S.Natesan (in 1947, 1952 and 1956)
P.Nagalingam (in 1947)
V.Ponnambalam (in 1956, 1970 and 1975)
V.Karalasingham (in 1960 March and 1965)
K.Vaikunthavasan (in 1965)
C.Suntheralingam (in 1970)
T.Thirunavukkarasu (in 1970)
Among these seven, other than S.Natesan who defeated Thanthai Chelva in 1952 at the Kankesanthurai constituency, C.Suntheralingam and T.Thirunavukkarasu had been elected to the parliament as MPs from Vavuniya and Vaddukoddai constituencies.
1947 General Election
Total Electorate 38,871
Total votes polled 22,425
Per cent polled 57.69
Majority of winner 6,966
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (TC) 12,126
P.Nagalingam (LSSP) 5,160
S.Natesan (UNP) 4,605
1952 General Election
Total Electorate 38,439
Total votes polled 27,263
Per cent polled 70.93
Majority of winner 3,766
S.Natesan (UNP) 15,337
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (FP ) 11,571
1956 General Election
Total Electorate 40,964
Total votes polled 27,673
Per cent polled 67.55
Majority of winner 6,667
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (FP ) 14,855
S.Natesan (Ind) 8,188
V.Ponnambalam (CP) 4,313
1960 March General Election
Total Electorate 28,473
Total votes polled 20,279
Per cent polled 71.22
Majority of winner 8,503
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (FP ) 13,545
V.Karalasingham (LSSP) 5,042
R.N.Sivapirakasam (TC) 1,448
1960 July General Election
Total Electorate 28,473
Total votes polled 17,808
Per cent polled 62.54
Majority of winner 13,659
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (FP ) 15,668
R.N.Sivapirakasam (TC) 2,009
1965 General Election
Total Electorate 35,309
Total votes polled 25,571
Per cent polled 72.42
Majority of winner 8,124
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (FP ) 14,735
S.Sri Bhaskaran (TC) 6,611
V.Karalasingham (VLSSP) 2,257
K.Vaikunthavasan (CP) 958
V.Seenivasagam (CPC) 741
1970 General Election
Total Electorate 37,804
Total votes polled 30,663
Per cent polled 81.11
Majority of winner 5,356
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (FP ) 13,520
V.Ponnambalam (CP) 8,164
C.Suntheralingam (Ind.) 5,788
T.Thirunavukkarasu (TC) 3,051
1975 February 3/ By-Election
Total Electorate 41,227
Total votes polled 35,737
Per cent polled 87.09
Majority of winner 16,470
S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (TUF) 25,927
V.Ponnambalam (CP) 9,457
M.Ambalavanar (Independent) 185
Altogether, in the eight elections, he was a candidate between 1947 and 1975, Chelva was a victor in seven. He lost only in the 1952 general election.
Thanthai Chelva’s Sickness – a Conjecture
I have long been interested in the sickness of Thanthai Chelva since I first saw him in 1963. He remains the most famous Parkinson’s disease victim in Ceylon. But to the best of my knowledge, I have yet to come across an investigative report delving on how Chelva became a Parkinson’s disease victim. Even Prof. Wilson had skirted this issue in his biography, for understandable reasons. Though I’m not medically qualified, I venture to propose a hypothesis based on my background research.
Among the Eelam Tamils of Chelva’s generation, Parkinson’s disease was rare. One of the currently prominent view on the aetiology of idiopathic Parkinson’s disease is the degeneration of the brain dopaminergic system due to insult by environmental neurotoxins in genetically vulnerable or susceptible individuals. Now, let me re-state some vital facts on Chelva’s early life and family history. He was born on 1898 March 31, as the eldest child of James Visvanathan Velupillai and his wife Harriet Annamah in Ipoh, Malaya, where his parents had emigrated previously.
I don’t have information on when Chelva’s parents emigrated to Ipoh, Malaya. But, Ipoh is located in the Kinta Valley, which was touted as the world’s richest single tin field. In 1884, the famous Kinta Valley tin rush brought an influx of immigrants from China and colonial India. The heyday of tin mining in Ipoh and its environs began in 1893. One could reasonably presume that Chelva’s father was also one of these immigrants who landed there to make his fortune. He was originally a school teacher from Tholpuram, Jaffna. He left his teaching job in Jaffna and transformed into a ‘contractor’ [or businessman] in Ipoh.
This family background and the environmental conditions of Chelva’s birth in 1898, strongly suggest that he or his mother (while Chelva was in her womb) could have been an early victim of tin-related toxic exposure. My conjecture is further strengthened by the unfortunate fates of Chelva’s two younger siblings, who died young. Father Velupillai moved from Ipoh to Taiping after Chelva’s birth. In 1901, a younger brother to Chelva was born. He was christened as Ernest Velupillai Ponnuthurai. He lived for over 80 years in Jaffna. In 1902, another younger brother named Edward Rajasundaram became the latest addition. He died at the age of 15 in Jaffna. One younger sister of Chelva, Atputham Isabel had died as a toddler at the age of 2.
Chelva and his two siblings returned to Jaffna with their mother Harriet Annamah, when he was 4 – which could have been in either 1902 or 1903. His father Velupillai stayed put in Malaya. Why Mr.Velupillai sent his young wife and three boys back to Jaffna? The stated reasons are two-fold. Both were of equal priority. First, was the delicate health of his wife Annamah in the surroundings they lived in Taiping. The fact that she had lost a toddler would have weighed heavily on the minds of Velupillai couple. The second was any good father’s perennial wish to provide better education to his kids, and Mr.Velupillai had felt that colonial Jaffna offered great schools and stimulating milieu of Tamil culture, in comparison to the environs where they were living then.
Of course, the fact that Mr.Velupillai never returned to Jaffna to be with his young family in the first decade of the 20th century, has been picked up – from Prof.Wilson’s biography – by journalist hack H.L.D.Mahindapala as a thorn to spread the innuendo that there was marital discord in Velupillai household. This need not be so, for the two above-cited reasons. One should also not fail to take into consideration factors like (a) the difficulties in sea voyage one had to encounter for frequent vacation trips in the days before air travel, (b) neck-stiffening contracts with colonial administrators and business contacts, and (c) a Jaffna man’s wish to earn much money while in the spring of his life, to settle in Jaffna later in comfort – at the expense of his young brood.
Even if there was a hint of marital discord between Velupillai couple, as hack Mahindapala had proposed, so what? Young Chelvanayakam blossomed into a gifted adult and turned out to be the much-wanted Father-figure of Eelam Tamils. His senior contemporary in India, Mahatma Gandhi lost his father when he was very young and immature, and that loss didn’t hurt him to evolve into the father-figure of 20th century India. According to records, Chelva after completing his studies (and before entering the law school) visited his father once in Malaya in 1918. His father died in 1919. One is not sure how old he was when Mr.Velupillai died. But, he could well have been under 50. The toil in a not-so emotionally nourishing environment and the absence of his family would probably have accelerated his death. But Chelva’s mother had a long life and died on March 16, 1961, at the age of 84 in Jaffna, while his eldest son was leading the Gandhian Satyagraha campaign against Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime.
To sum up, it is my conjecture that circumstantial evidence suggests that Chelva’s Parkinson’s disease could be attributed to environmental insult received while he was a fetus or as an infant in the then tin-rich Ipoh, Malaya. One hundred years after his birth, medical literature is revealing that tin as a metal is an environmental toxicant which can cause deleterious effects to the nervous system. For reference, I cite below three recent medical reports on this theme.
1. McCann MJ, O’Callaghan JP, Martin PM, Bertram T, Streit WJ. Differential activation of microglia and astrocytes following trimethyl tin-induced neurodegeneration. Neuroscience, 1996 May; vol.72, pp.273-281.
2. Koczyk D. How does trimethyltin affect the brain: facts and hypotheses. Acta Neurobiol. Exp. (Warsz), 1996; vol.56, pp.587-596.
3. Salanki Y, D’eri Y, Platokhin A, Sh-Rozsa K. The neurotoxicity of environmental pollutants; the effects of tin (Sn2+) on acetylcholine-induced currents in greater pond snail neurons. Neuroscience Behavior Physiology, 2000; vol.30, pp.63-73.
I will be interested in hearing any contradicting arguments which disprove my conjecture. This is because I believe that the cause of Chelva’s Parkinson’s disease is well worth an in-depth investigation.
July 3, 2003.