JAMES THEVATHASAN RUTNAM
Centenarary Memorial Meeting, International Center for Ethnic Studies
Friday, December 2, 2005, Colombo
(This is am edited and extended version of the speech delivered)
In recent years I find myself being invited to deliver centenerary memorial lectures, not to mention eulogies when people pass away. Needless to say provided one has to have an element of empathy for the subject. Discussing the predicament in which we are, not being able to see a solution to the conflict we are in, Pakiajothy Saravanamuttu once told me that one contribution that we of our generation from Jaffna could do at this juncture is to place on record our reminiscences.
PLACING RUTNAM IN CONTEXT
Some twenty or thirty years ago I would not have imagined being called upon to play this role. I presume it comes with age. Another reason is that so many of our competent and knowledgeable contemporaries have migrated. This is the fifth time in recent years I am performing this role. Other occasions were the Chelvanayakam Centenerary Lecture (organized by the TULF with Mr.Sivasithambaram in the chair in the Kathiresan Hall) in 1997, on Handy Perinbanayagam in the Ramakrishna Hall in 1999 (Kokuvil Hindi College Alumni), the Orator Subramaniam lecture at the Colombo Tamil Sangam in 2003 (Skandavarodaya College Alumni) and the Canon Somasundram 125th Anniversary tribute in the Cathedral (organized by the Somasundram family).
All five persons including James Rutnam whose memory we commemorate today had one quality that stands out. They belonged to a notable tradition of dissent taking on powerful people in the political and public life of this country. Chelvanayakam was an exception in that he dominated the Tamil political scene. However he never enjoyed state power, and whether one agreed with him politically or not commanded respect for leading an essentially non-violent struggle. Chelvanayakam it must be remembered had to fight hard from 1948 to 56 against the powerful G.G.Ponnambalam, backed by wealthy Tamils and their counterparts in the South associated with the UNP of those days.
Born in the last decade of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th several personalities who belonged to that generation were persons imbued with a sturdy sense of independence. They championed the cause of the underdog. They were also great educators. There are several other names that come to mind, whose contribution to the public life of Jaffna and education in particular, have been noteworthy. I take the liberty of mentioning some names today, though the list is not exhaustive. They are S.Nadesan (Senator) C.Suntheralingam, one time mentor to a whole generation of young men, who for a long time dominated the parliamentary scene representing the Vanni.
Others were N.Sabaratnam, Principal of Jaffna Hindu College who for several years wrote the editorial column for the Eelanadu, the only daily newspaper outside Colombo. Others are men like A.E.Tamber of Jaffna Central College, and A. Vaithilingam of Manipay Hindu College and a leading member of the Jaffna Branch of the Ceylon Communist Party, were prominent members in the then powerful Northern Province Teachers Association. Mr.K.Nesiah was one of those who decided to settle down in Jaffna after retirement from the University of Ceylon and gave his services to several public causes.
One recalls the contributions made by five women educators, pioneer natives in women’s education. Ariam Hudson Paramasamy of the Uduvil Girls’ College, Dr. Ms. Thilliampalam of Chundikuli Girls’ College, Mabel Thambiah of Vembadi Girls’ College and Ms. Mathiaparanam of Pandatheruppu Girls’ College, and belonging to a somewhat younger generation was Mary Elias (of Kerala origin) of Jaffna College - the first woman administrator in a leading co-educational institution.
These belonged to a culture and public life that existed in Jaffna and Tamil society in general – a culture that is facing extinction at the point of the bullet at this juncture in our history, particularly in Jaffna, as an uneasy silence reigns. The Ceylon Daily News once editorially commented: “public opinion in Jaffna is a potent thing. Those who defy it do so at their peril. Ever the home of virile politics, Jaffna is determined to see that the public spirit of its citizens is equal to any crisis.” (4 May 1931).
This was written in the context of the Jaffna Boycott of the first State Council Elections in 1931, which I hasten to add had little in common with the boycott we witnessed this year.
In commemorating their memories we keep alive the values they stood for, especially the tradition of dissent and freedom of expression and hope a new and younger generation will restore these values to public life in this country.
James Thevathasan Rutnam belonged to this generation. He was born on the 13th of June 1905 at the Mcleod Hospital in Inuvil, Jaffna. His father hailed from Pandateruppu and his mother from Manipay and his family was connected to the well known families that came into prominence in the nineteenth century Jaffna such as that of Tappan, Dwight and Gardiner families. He had his school education at the Manipay Hindu College, St.Joseph’s College, and St.Thomas’ College. He entered the University College in 1924 and after a brief period there and subsequently at the Law College he plunged into politics. Won the Walter Pereira Prize for Legal Research
He was for sometime the Principal of St.Xavier’s College in Nuwara Eliya. He dabbled in trade unionism and was associated with A.E.Goonesinghe. He was once described by a newspaper editor as “an obstreperous schoolmaster”
Cut his rhetoric teeth at the YMCA Forum and became at twenty-one one of its youngest Speakers (chairperson). It was he who lauded the young SWRD Bandaranaike at the YMCA on the latter’s return to Ceylon from Oxford. He called himself a “journalist of sorts”.
“My writings” he wrote “have been of a varied nature; some were serous studies, some light-hearted and many polemical. I remember how in the early twenties of this century at age of sixteen, I had broken into verse. I reproduce one of them below to illustrate my mood at the time:
For I am Black
I cannot rule my land
For I am Black,
If I had a white hand
I’d have the knack.
Our fathers were great men
As all do tell
They must have been white men
To rule so well!
Made many unsuccessful and sometimes bitterly fought forays into central Government elections – five times seeking election to the Nuwara Eliya seat and once to the two members Colombo South seat in 1960. Influenced by Ponnambalam Arunachalam
and his study of Alexander Johnston he founded the Progressive Nationalist Party which had a brief existence. He was in the days of his youth involved in the Anti-Poppy Day movement, the precursor of the Suriya Mal movement
While involved in radical politics he was at the same time well known among the Colombo socialites and was president of the Angler’s Club, and a member of Capri Club. It used to be said that he was in his day an accomplished ballroom dancer.
Return to Jaffna
In narrating what I have stated hitherto I am attempting to place James Rutnam in a particular context as we remember his life and work. Born in Jaffna, he was in essence an all-Island personality, but never lost his roots. Having lived the greater part of his life in Colombo and other parts of the country, he finally decided to establish the Evelyn Rutnam Institute in Thirunelveli, adjoining the University of Jaffna (10 May 1981 – in retrospect one cannot but remind ourselves - a few weeks before the burning down of the Jaffna Public Library). He lived and participated in the public life of Jaffna, especially the academic life of the University, in his ripe old age – a warm personality who brought a degree of dignity and excellence to a society in the early stages of a major upsurge leading to today’s crisis.
His presence in Jaffna in that crucial period was an inspiration and source of encouragement to us of a younger generation.
He had founded the Evelyn Rutnam Institute for Cultural Relations at 35, Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7, on 31st October 1969. Mr.Rutnams made the vital decision to move the Institute to Jaffna and his decision to live there was a direct consequence of the founding of the University of Jaffna in 1975 under controversial circumstances. The powers that be at that time, had failed to resolve the national question. On the contrary they had aggravated the plight of the Tamils through the infamous 1972 Constitution. Public opinion in Jaffna was largely anti-state. The government in an opportunist move without consultations with the general public and the elected representatives of the people made the unilateral decision to establish the University of Jaffna, hoping thereby to make gains in Jaffna. The Federal Party did not co-operate with this move. Sections of the federal party better known for demagogy than common sense realistic politics and divorced from programs promoting the socio-economic welfare of its people, opposed the founding of the university and branded some of the academics from the Faculty of Arts who had volunteered to serve in Jaffna as traitors to the Tamil cause.
But the campus flowered within a short space of four years into one of the exciting and challenging places in which to teach and learn. Here was a rather unusual and successful case of the end justifying the means.
Several outstanding academics from the Arts Faculties in the main campuses of the country took up positions in Jaffna. This was further strengthened by several distinguished academics from the Sciences and Medicine. In the case of the latter some resigned their lucrative positions in Singapore and London and returned to Jaffna. These person’s unlike some in the Faculty of Arts were apolitical, and hence the charge that they were henchmen of the government in power did not hold.
An eminent surgeon in Colombo once told me that if the war had not intervened the Faculty of Medicine would have become the best in the Island. I myself grabbed the invitation received and moved from the Colombo campus to Jaffna when a decision was made to close the Tamil stream in Colombo. I must add that the four years I spent in the Jaffna campus (1979-83) were among the happiest and meaningful periods of my life, thanks to the colleagues, students, administrators and the presence of men like James Rutnam in and around the campus. There was developing a partnership with the community, the Colleges in the Peninsula, with the Jaffna Public Library, The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society and the Rutnam Institute. The stream of visitors we had from the South and abroad increased, and this included, diplomats, journalists, human rights activists, trade unionists, scholars and artistes. It was a time of hope. The founding of the Rutnam Institute itself was an expression of this hope. But soon the dreams and visions for a center of education, committed to and in partnership with the community, in the pursuit of excellence and justice were crushed as events overtook us.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi while preparing his volume on “Gandhi and Sri Lanka 1905-47, one day called me and read out a list of names and requested that I write a short note on them. These were men and women who had corresponded with Gandhi, and the volume contains these letters. His point was that many of them would be forgotten.
“This is the note I wrote on James Rutnam: “
James Rutnam (b. 13-6-1905. d. 4-11-1989). Of Jaffna origin he lived the greater part of his life in Colombo. In 1980 he established the Evelyn Rutnam Institute named after his wife, adjoining the University of Jaffna campus in Tirunelvelly. The Institution comes under the management of Jaffna College. He was an avid collector of rare books and documents having visited the world’s famous libraries in the pursuit of his interests. He deposited his lifetime collection of valuable books, documents and papers in this Institute. Several distinguished scholars through the years have had access to his collections. In recognition of his services he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Jaffna in the early 1980s.
“Originally a businessman, he later was ‘gentleman at leisure’. A colourful personality he was well known in the public life of the country. He was interested in politics and contested parliamentary elections unsuccessfully in Nuwara Eliya and Colombo. He is known to have researched the ancestry of both S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike and later J.R.Jayewardene. This has now been acknowledged in the official biography of JRJ authored by K.M.de Silva and Howard Wriggins (see Vol.I, p.22), though Rutnam’s name is not acknowledged in the sources.” (Gandhi and Sri Lanka 1905-1947, Ed. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Vishva Lekha Publishers & Navajivan Trust, 2002. p. 289)
THE RUTNAM INSTITUTE
Founded in Jaffna in 1980 the number of volumes in the Institute totaled about 5000 originally given to the Jaffna University but owing to a quarrel with the second Librarian, Rutnam withdrew the whole collection).
Rutnam’s collection included the Digby Papers and the Alexander Johnston Papers. Among the Digby Papers were letters written by Muttu Coomaraswamy (father of Ananda Coomaraswamy), Arunachalam and some telegrams sent by Ramanathan. Muttu Coomaraswamy's letter tells of the birth of Ananda and why he was named Ananda. Arunachalam's letters give an insight into his thinking about the future of Ceylon.
Indrapala donated his own specialised library of Epigraphic studies and History (it goes as the Indrapala Collection but integrated into the whole library). It included some rare off prints of articles from the Epigraphia Indica and some of Paranavitana's papers (including Part I of the Epigraphia Zeylanica that Paranavitana had received as a prize from his school.
On by visits to Jaffna recently I was not able to call at the Rutnam Institute, but made a brief visit to the University of Jaffna library and the one time famous Jaffna College library. I am afraid that if remedial action is not taken as early as possible we will lose vital material in these three centers. In 1995-96 when the exodus took place one of my greatest fears was that what happened to the Jaffna Public Library would happen to these three valuable libraries. Fortunately they survived. If another war breaks out it will be a war without mercy and very likely we will lose whatever remains of our vital archival and library resources. From what I know valuable books donated to the Jaffna College library are not there. In addition to willful pilfering of books, lack of use and the absence of qualified staff and acts of negligence can lead to loss. Little is known of the state of the Rutnam Institute vested legally under Jaffna College. Unable to take care and maintain their own library I do not know whether Jaffna College authorities have the personnel and the interest to see that the collections in the Rutnam Institute are preserved. The single worthy contribution we can make to commemorate the memory of James Rutnam is to see that his valuable collections are preserved.
I have for some time now been advocating the need for a private library and archives in cooperation with the Roja Muttiah Library in Chennai. It should initially be set up in Colombo, vital documents and books microfilmed and copies to be held abroad. With the technology available it is possible to preserve electronically at least the irreplaceable collections that are still around. This is a task we owe to posterity.
In 1980 at the first convocation of the University of Jaffna on the recommendation of the faculty, the Senate of the University decided to confer the Honorary D.Litt degree on Mr.Rutnam. If my memory is correct two others on whom degrees were conferred were Prof. Stanley Tambiah and the other was the Jaffna born and educated S.Durai Raja Singam who lived the greater part of his life in Malaysia. The latter was the reputed Ananda Coomaraswamy scholar.
The University of Jaffna sought to establish a new and healthy tradition in the names nominated for this honour. Rutnam and Singam were men who did not have University degrees but men who took to research for the love of it and made a substantial contribution to scholarship and learning. Mr.Singam it will be of interest, donated all his collection on Ananda Coomaraswamy to the Jaffna Public Library, which went up in flames in 1981. The conferment of these degrees was not without resistance from some old fashioned academics from the Faculty of Science who had a narrow and myopic view of research and contributions to knowledge.
SOME PERSONAL REMINISCENCES
By way of reminiscences I recall some of the interactions I had with James Rutnam whom I met him for the first time in 1970, somewhat later than several of my contemporaries. Having lived the greater part of my life in Jaffna and having completed 10 years of lecturing at Jaffna College, I was summoned by telegram to assume duties in Colombo to help the under-staffed academic cadres teaching in the Tamil stream. Though Prof. Lakshman Perera was the Head of the Department of History, my immediate head and boss was Bastiampillai, an old friend and senior contemporary from the Peradeniya days. One day he took me to meet a person whom he insisted that I should get to know. That’s how I entered the portals of that famous Baron’s Court. Mr.Rutnam received me as though he had known me for years, (I had heard about him and there had apparently been more than one connection that I got to know later.) He received me with that typical chuckle of his. The rapport was immediate.
Being a new comer to life in the Colombo of those days what a pleasure it was to meet such a personality who made one straightaway feel at home and at ease. One characteristic of his was an attempt to break into Tamil, which he spoke with a Colombo English accent.
One cannot do better than relate E.C.T.Candappa’s apt description of his first meeting with James Rutnam. (Ceylon Observer Magazine of Friday 26th April 1968).
“ Rutnam is a tubby, rubicund man who is a picture of unmitigated mirth when he smiles. … When I went to his spacious house named Baron’s Court in Guildford Crescent, he rolled through the profusion of books in the sitting room – a round figure contained in a soberly colourful checked shirt and white cloth, relaxed and beaming.
“Soon he got to questioning who’s who I was – an occupational tendency of one who diverts himself with tracing family trees” (may I add a well known Jaffna trait). “He indulges in the habit of hitching one leg under him when he sits, a comfortable, if disconcerting, custom of those who come from the North.”
In my case he pulled out a magnificently bound volume of the first few issues of the Ceylon Patriot in 1862. To those who may not have heard of this paper it was the only secular weekly published in Jaffna, for that matter anywhere outside Colombo. And it was in English. And here was the connection mentioned above. My father had purchased the Ceylon Patriot and the Lankabhimani Press in 1928 and was its last editor. The paper survived until 1933 and had become the anti-Imperialist voice of the Jaffna Youth Congress.
Attempts made to read the 19th century issues of the paper in the Archives have failed. The papers are in such an advanced stage of decay that no one is allowed to touch them
INTEREST IN GENEOLOGY
He was a delegate with some 350 of us to the Madurai Tamil Mahanadu. This was the January 1981 conference of International Association of Tamil Research, held at the Madurai Kamraj University, with well over a thousand delegates from several countries. He also presented a paper. The two of us took time off to visit a spot that was of mutual interest. We went to the Pasumalai Campus of the American College where the first American Mission Centre had been founded in the 1830s by the American missionary and founder Principal of the Batticotta Seminary the Rev.Dr. Daniel Poor and young graduates of the Seminary. Batticotta Seminary founded in 1823 was the precursor of Jaffna College, Batticotta being the then European name for Vaddukoddai
Among them were Rutnam’s fourth generation ancestor John Sinnakuddiar Tappan, and Francis Ashbury a fifth generation ancestor of mine. The genealogist that he was, that was Rutnam’s way of making me aware of my own ancestry – a subject in which I had little interest at that time. We tried hard to find the exact location where the first center had been established, made a reasonable guess and took a photograph together on that spot. It was a treasured photograph that I possessed but which with all my albums, papers, notes and books collected over a lifetime have been destroyed in our petty little barbaric war. The collective loss to the Jaffna community is enormous.
Indrapala writing on James Rutnam’s work as a genealogist says, “Rutnam has few peers in the country. The uncanny instinct that he displays in pursuit of clues for the reconstruction of family trees be it Sinhalese, Tamil, and European – has always amazed both layman and researcher alike. The skill with which he smells his way through the shadowy alleys and dusty corridors of the old-world mansions of some of our leading families, sensing the path of their blood with the nose of the sleuth-hound is known to many.”
Indrapala stops short of naming the personalities whom Rutnam exposed. Bastiampillai, in today’s article in the Daily News, too does not name them. James Rutnam must have had immense courage to come out with what he wrote in those tense Sinhala only years of 1956-57. The two men he took to task held high positions in the SLFP and the UNP and had unashamedly fuelled the fires of the Sinhala only movement. We are reaping what they sowed to this day.
Rutnam fortunately had an editor and a periodical in S.P.Amerasingam’s Tribune, to publish these hard-hitting articles. In the heat of the language controversy he wrote, the first one titled “House of Nilaperumal” (Tribune, 19 July 1957), and a few weeks later the second one titled, “Tambi Mudaliyar’s Legacy,” (Tribune 30 August 1957). Having first written about the Bandaranaike lineage he felt obliged and was no doubt pressurized by friends to write the second piece on Jayewardene.
It was the year of the B-C Pact, which got aborted through a chain of events initially set in motion by JRJ. The latter had declared, “The time has come for the whole Sinhalese race which has existed for 2500 years jealously safeguarding their language and religion to fight without giving quarter to save their birthright.”
“Normally one is not concerned about the ancestors of a public man. We all enjoy the same hoary lineage. We are all sprung from the same homo sapiens. We are the heirs of all ages. The heritage of mankind is alike our own precious heritage.
“But – ay there’s the rub – when Junius Richard raises the communal cry to suit his purpose, in an atmosphere charged with tension. Does it not befit a reasonable man to begin at the beginning and enquire how much and for how long, Junius Richard himself, who for want of a better argument (descended so low as to rouse the elemental passions of men), is and has been a Sinhalese? Is he the new Sinhale Aryan Buddhist Walauwa Hamuduruwo that his militant chauvinism makes him out to be?
“Junius Richard is as far different to Duthugemunu, the great and chivalrous Sinhalese national hero, as chalk is to cheese. But behold Junius coming riding on an elephant, and masquerading as a Duthugemunu to drive the Tamils into the sea. And for what? What have the Tamils done, the Tamils who have a culture, a language and territory which have received the sanctions of centuries of history?
“Has Sinhalese chivalry died with Duthugemunu the First? Or is it that counterfeit Duthugemunus, now in circulation, are debasing the true gold of Sinhalese currency?
“We are not responsible for the sins or seeming short comings of our fathers, nor should these be visited upon their children. But it is a sad turn of events, and the unkindest cut of all, for Jayewardene of all men, to attack the Prime Minister because the latter is of Tamil descent. The UNP journal which is said to be directly controlled by and managed by Jayewardene had dared to attack our prime minister, using the information that I had occasion to publish in the columns of the Tribune on 19th July, 1957, in my article entitled “The House of Nilaperumal”, that our Prime Minister was a direct descendant of a Tamil Kapurala who had migrated from South India. It ill becomes Jayewardene to summon the “ghost of Nilaperumal” to serve his discredited cause. No doubt there was laughter in the ranks of Tuscany. But wait a bit. The laughter was a little premature. How could Junius throw a stone at Nilaperumal, living as he did in the disreputable glass house of Tambi Mudaliyar? To sack-cloth and ashes, ye scribes and Pharisees of the UNP.”
“…my advice to the UNP – keep Nilaperumal out if you still want to hide the skeletons in your cupboard.”
Hard hitting words indeed in the Rutnam style. What was folklore and often dismissed as rumour, now had the stamp of a genealogist revealing it all.
Jayawardene’s biographer’s decades later wrote, “Don Adrian was the first paternal ancestor of the subject of this biography about whom there is a record. He was descended from a family of the Chetty community, a community of traders, which had emigrated from the Coromandel Coast in India in the early years of Dutch rule in the mid-17th century and settled in the vicinity of Colombo. Two or three generations before the birth of Don Adrian a male of his family had married a Sinhalese by the name of Jayewardene from the village of Weligama near Hanvalla some 20 miles from Colombo and from that time took on the name of Jayewardene. Immigration from India to the southwest coast regions of Sri Lanka had gone on for several centuries before the Dutch arrived and the process continued under their rule. To locate an ancestor with these antecedents is, of course, unusual; it is a distinction the Jayawardenes share with the Bandaranaikes whose first known ancestor also hailed from South India, but in the early 16th century.
“Don Adrian, then, had one ancestor of recent Indian origin, but by the time he himself appears on the stage of Sri Lanka’s history at the tail-end of the 18th century the process of “Sinhalisation” of his family had been completed. One point about his ancestry has to be cleared before we proceed any further. There is no truth al all in the story sedulously spread from the early years of the 20th century by political rivals of the Jayewardenes and by estranged relatives that Don Adrian was of Moorish origin.”
The biographers proceed to explain that “the myth stems from Don Adrian’s early service as an intelligence agent employed by the V.O.C., the Dutch East India Company… “ And that Adrian rose to be in charge of a group of agents called ‘Tombis”. Under the British he had become the Tombi Mudaliyar, head of the division of ‘Tombis’. The biographers affirm that “the corruption of ‘Tombi’ into ‘Thambi’ the colloquial Sinhalese for Moor or Muslims seems understandable and perhaps almost inevitable but this process has no basis in the historical origins of the term “Tombi” in Dutch and early British times.”
(J.R.Jayewardene of Sri Lanka: A Political Biography. Volume One: The First Fifty Years. K.M.de Silva & Howard Wriggins. Anthony Blond/Quartet, London. 1988. (P.22-23)
The Rutnam Felicitation Volume was published in 1975 to commemorate his 70th Birthday. I believe I missed the occasion being abroad at that time. K.Indrapala, Professor of History in the newly founded University of Jaffna, was editor assisted by an editorial board composed of Roland Silva, of the Archaeological Department, A.Sivanesaselvan, V.Sivasamy and S.K.Sitrampalam, all members of the Faculty of Arts in the University of Jaffna. A distinguished list of scholars contributed articles to the valuable volume, which stands as a testimony of the high regard James Rutnam enjoyed among University academics and a wide array of scholars. These included in addition to the editor and members of the Editorial Board, Basil Perera, B.Bastiampillai, W.S.Karunatilake, S.Suseendirarajah, A.Subramaniam (Madras), Sobhana Gohale (Poona), Michael Roberts, K.Kailasapathy, Kingsley M.de Silva, Ashley Halpe, and A.Sanmugadas.
The volume itself was printed at the Thirumagal Press, in Chunnakam, associated with the Jaffna Youth Congress, the radical anti-imperialist nationalist movement in Jaffna, It was founded by the noted Jaffna personality nicknamed Eelakesari Ponniah in the 1930s, and performed decades of yeoman service to writers and scholars in Jaffna.
Indrapala opens his biographical sketch describing James Rutnam as trade unionist, politician, scholar and humanist.
Sri Lanka UNESCO National Commission released a publication on James Thevathasan Rutnam (Festschrift 1985, Edited by A.R.B.Amerasinghe & S.J.Sumanasekere Banda. The above gives a comprehensive account incorporating several pieces written about Mr.Rutnam.
The authors of the above article conclude with the following words: “ We wish him a long enough life to see the dream of an united Sri Lanka come true, may we all re-dedicate our lives to the cause of truth and love and vow to keep dreaming and hoping and trying as Jim has done undaunted, these many, difficult and dark years, that we may indeed receive enlightenment.”
In Jaffna, Mr. Rutnam himself had invested in two plots of land, on one of which the Institute was built. He called me one day and said that he intended to sell the other plot and expressed the wish that it be purchased by the church. The price of land in the vicinity of the campus was rising fast. Bishop Ambalavanar was immediately contacted and accompanied by Prof. Balan Selliah, the three of us inspected the plot and the decision was made to purchase it immediately. Thanks to the generosity and goodwill of Mr.Rutnam the University chaplaincy took shape. The intention of some of us at that time was to have a complex of visitors’ rooms, seminar room and a hostel for students. That part of the plan has not been realized.
A noteworthy event was the party that James Rutnam threw on his birthday. The presence of a person of his standing in Jaffna became particularly handy when we had distinguished visitors from abroad. In 1980 I was entrusted by Tikiri Abeyasinghe, Professor of History in the Colombo, to organize a three-day visit to Jaffna by Prof. Boxer the distinguished historian on Portuguese expansion in Asia. Abeyasinghe was one who relished good food and was very particular that this part of the tour was well looked after. But then when a scholar of such standing was visiting one had to find a host who was competent to carry on a meaningful conversation. Fortunately for me two very distinguished men, mutual friends, agreed to host the visitor. One was the eminent historian and renowned scholar and professor of Tamil Studies the Rev.Fr.Thaninayagam and the other was James Rutnam.
Fr.Thaninayagam entertained just the three of us to dinner in style and in his own inimitable and dignified way. Rutnam as expected threw a huge party to which practically the whole academic staff of the Faculty of Arts was invited, providing an apt culmination to a hectic tour of the forts and churches with Portuguese connections in Jaffna.
Some of these valuable historical remains including the Fort Dutch Church have been destroyed in the war we have been through. That was incidentally my last visit to Fort Hammeneil – the island Fort where we read slogans in Tamil, Sinhalese and English heralding the impending revolution that never came. They were written by JVP detainees following the insurrection of 1971. It came as a surprise to me that Tamil youth in the early stages of the Tamil Eelam struggle had been held jointly together with the JVPers in this Fort.
As mentioned above Rutnam had no inhibitions living the Jaffna way. It was an accepted practice in Jaffna of those days, even today, for people to ‘drop in’, homes being open to visitors all times of the day. Very, very few people in Jaffna had telephones until recent times. Mr. Rutnam would drop in any time of the day for a chat. His was a welcome visit. Justice Manickavasagar, JRJ’s classmate at Royal College and later for years his neighbour at Ward Place, Colombo, when he visited Jaffna as Chancellor of the Jaffna University did the same in the early hours of the morning. With a hilarious chuckle he would say university lecturers must be up early in the morning. What a fond and heart-warming relationship these aging distinguished gentleman had with youngsters like us in those Jaffna days.
Talking about dropping in unannounced one is reminded of visits to the home of librarian and distinguished scholar and bibliographer Ian Goonetileke who lived in retirement in a village two hours drive from Colombo. He had no telephone, but relished having visitors, especially old friends. In his simple but well organized house he had information available on his finger tips. He had hung up all over the house including the bathroom a variety of quotes. One of them read, “Your visit has climaxed an already dull day.” Another one read, “All our visitors bring happiness, some by coming – others by going!”
Rutnam was the first President of the Humanist Society.
“We hold man to be sacred. We declare that life is precious whether he be king or commoner, and that there is no justification whatever to deprive him of his existence. The accident of birth does not make one man superior to another. We believe in human brotherhood. Our society will endeavour to introduce these fundamental principles into human conduct.
“We do not make a fetish of race or religion or of theism, polytheism, pantheism, atheism, capitalism or communism.
“Our members are free to hold their own individual views. But as a society we are not anti-Religion, anti-Communisis, anti-Capitalist, anti-Russian, anti-American, anti-Chinese, anti-German, anti-Indian, anti-Sinhalese, anti-Arab, anti- Jew, anti-Black, anti-White, - in short we are not anti any group, sect or institution.
“We believe in the evolution and progressive amalgamation of the cultural heritage of Man, which, we maintain, does not exclusively belong to any single group or sect. Indeed we claim we are heirs of all ages.
“We believe in the inherent goodness of Man. While journeying in our unending quest of knowledge, which is in fact a search for the Truth, we bear no malice but love towards all. Thus out motto, Veritas et Caritas. Truth and Love.
He once wrote:
“This is my fondest wish: May my beloved country which has achieved Freedom also attain Enlightenment.
He called himself a “journalist of sorts”, and once referred to himself as “A successful failure.”
Mr. Rutnam takes refuge, he says in the French saying of Madame de Stael. “Tout comprendre e’est tout pardoner.” “To know all is to forgive all.”