24 January 2023

No 27, Dickman’s Road, Colombo 5


Aunty Lakshmi with her student (and my sister) Ru Freeman

That’s an address. How on earth could it be the title of an article? It could. Well, it is. And this is partly attributable to what the address means to me. Here's the story and keep in mind that the tenses will, as they should, be scrambled.

One night, at my sister’s wedding, I was struggling to introduce a lady to my girlfriend. I wanted to say that she taught me elocution, but then stopped myself because those lessons were not just about pronunciation and enunciation. I wanted to say ‘effective speaking’ but that was not exactly true either. ‘Speech and drama?’ Yes, but that wouldn’t do it either.  

The teacher smiled, probably recognising that the four year old boy who she had met more than twenty years before hadn’t really outgrown his struggles with articulation.

‘I taught him his A-B-C, darling!’

In the thirty years that have passed since then I’ve had many occasions to remember Mrs Lakshmi Jeganathan, Aunty Lakshmi to me and to thousands of students and their parents. It was easier when I had to play out a script on a stage. The lines were already there, except on the odd occasion when circumstances wrecked things and one had to improvise. For the most part, things could be rehearsed. But it was not just a matter of reading something out. Again, enunciation. Voice projection. Characterisation. The need to read and reread the play. All this she had taught. All this I had learned, sometimes enthusiastically but mostly out of fear and for the most part not really recognizing who did the teaching.

Most students were terrified of Aunty Lakshmi. I know two who were not. My brother Arjuna, for whom everything came easy (acting, music, chess, public speaking, programming, you name it), and my older daughter Mithsandi who ‘got’ Aunty Lakshmi. She could see the conscientious teacher and her desire to see her students grow, all beneath the stentorian roar and strict demeanour. There may have been others.

Most, I’m sure, are grateful to Aunty Lakshmi for giving them the confidence that comes with learning, especially in articulating their thoughts.

Back in the day I didn’t realise that Aunty Lakshmi was in effect arming me for the years ahead. I have not discussed such things with her, but it doesn’t take much to realise that English is a weapon in this country, a sword that not just cleaves in pernicious ways, but hurts, puts down and even destroys those without appropriate defence mechanisms.  

And yet, never once, did she talk about wars or weapons. Never once did she even imply that this language instrument could be used to cut, chop and move ahead. I can’t speak for others, but I can state with utmost certainty that those of her students known to me, especially my siblings, cousins, daughters and her son Pradeep, one of my dearest and oldest friends and a much respected Loku Aiya to me, have understood the politics of language and never abused the skills she gifted them. If at all, they would use English to protect those who needed protection, deploy it to speak of injustice as perceived and to empower emancipatory political projects.

English has a snooty history and in certain ways the snootiness seems more pronounced now than before. Indeed it’s as though English has a way of extending one’s nose to the point that one cannot help but look down on the rest of the world. Some are, so to speak, born with such extensions, some cultivate them, some even imagine them. Aunty Lakshmi, simply put, wasn’t into nose jobs.

Her students learnt a language. They were exposed to literature. She taught them that all the world's a stage and that there are effective ways of playing parts assigned to embraced. She enabled them to acquire skills to understand how language works, how to dissect texts of all kinds, how to read between the lines, how to develop a grasp of metaphor and meaning, and how literature can help us be kind to one another.

The address. I’ve not forgotten. And I will not either. No 27, Dickman’s Road, Colombo 5. It’s not ‘Dickman’s Road’ any more of course, but we remember the addresses that had meaning to us, never mind name-changes and other dislocations.

Nothing has changed in that house. It is as it was so many decades ago. Aunty Lakshmi has not lost one bit of her wit. She’s as updated as anyone else about the world and literary debates of the day. She had, as she always does with everyone probably, long shed the sternness the moment we ceased to be her students. A striking presence as always, exuding regality as always, she reminded us, i.e. her son, my brother, sister and myself, of things we had forgotten, like the fact that my brother was the first of her students to take a class in her place. And there was pride when she told us how she had spoken about my sister’s novels and her son’s collection of short stories to a student who had said she wanted to become a writer.

As for me, she taught me how to be crisp in communication. And most importantly that it is possible that 'No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5' is as legitimate a title as any.

We all know of a No 27, Dickman’s Road, Colombo 5. There are memories waiting to be unearthed inside. It is also possible that the memory-maker who unbeknownst to us did much to make us who we are still lives there. We don’t visit No 27, Dickman’s Road, Colombo 5 often enough, do we? Not that the resident would hold it against us of course. Still, it’s good to visit. Good to say ‘thank you.’

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 


Other articles in this series:

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road