Prof. S Sivasegaram
I did not meet AJ Canagaratna, better known by his initials AJ, until 1984 since around 1960 when I was very young and not into serious writing or active politics, despite my strong views then on Tamil language and Tamil nationalism. Although I had the opportunity to meet AJ regularly during my school holidays between 1954 and 1960, as his house was exactly opposite my uncle’s on Third Cross Street, where I spent part of my school holidays, I cannot recall any conversation except polite acknowledgment, as AJ was very much an English speaker and I more comfortable in Tamil, and more importantly we had little in common.
AJ means many things to many people for no fault of his. He has been frank and sincere in his opinions which were rarely hard hitting, except under provocation. One such occasion that I remember was his confrontation with ‘Samudran’ in the ‘Lanka Guardian’ in the early 1980’s, when the latter was trying hard to defend his indefensible statements using rather subjective arguments, and AJ neatly ended the debate with a beautifully worded, sarcastic paragraph which I cannot readily recall, but amounted to saying “If all what you want is to claim victory in this debate, so be it. I have no time to waste on you”.
Quite a few anti-leftists in the Tamil literary scene then, spoke admiringly of AJ for this intervention, because they thought that AJ could be used in their battle against the Marxist line on literature. But AJ only did what was right and necessary: he challenged the arrogant intellectual dishonesty cloaked as Marxist literary theory. While AJ was not a member of any political party and did not declare allegiance with or sympathy for any, he was ideologically on the left, and his approach to politics as well as literature was essentially Marxist. While his anti-Marxist admirers saw a virtue in AJ’s not having a party affiliation, AJ himself did not consider it a virtue one way or the other. And the differences that he had with Marxists with party affiliations were hardly more than what was possible between two Marxists.
AJ was not an individualist and least of all selfish. Despite his strong views on a variety of subjects and stating his position unambiguously, he refrained from imposing them on others. Most importantly, he was a good listener and tolerant to difference of opinion. That did not, however, stop him from coming out with pithy remarks on pretentious positions. When a local group of writers sought to make a cult figure of Mauni, AJ came out with the phrase ‘mauni vazhipaadu’ sounding rather like ‘mauna vazhipadu’ meaning silent prayer.
He was not particularly approving of making cult figures of literary figures and also was not swayed by fads the way many members of the intelligentsia in Tamilnadu and quite a few Tamil intellectuals here have been. He recognised the value of realism in our context and, while being receptive to new ideas and being open minded, was not impressed by the postmodernist pretences he came across so that he suggested Terry Eagleton’s critical article on the subject for Murukaiyan to translate.
I specifically remember his responses to my criticisms of Sunthara Raamasaami’s much overrated novel, ‘je je – cila kurippukal’ and a rather pretentious work by SV Rajadurai, ‘ekcistenshalicam’. I was strongly critical in my review of the novel, but a little more guarded in my criticism of the latter work on an unfamiliar subject. Both met with hostile responses which were personally abusive, in the case of the novel from certain individuals who were seeking to build up the novel into an anti-Marxist classic in Tamil, and in the case of the latter, the author himself. I chose to ignore the former while my response to the latter on relevant aspects was refused publication.
When I met AJ in early 1984 in Jaffna, during my visit to address the Kailasapathy memorial meeting arranged by the Tesiya Kalai Ilakkiyap Peravai, AJ commented that my utterances on both books were a little incisive, but did not disagree with the points that I made–something that he had several weeks earlier told KA Subramaniam, with whom I was in touch because of shared political views.
I was in the UK from 1984 and had no direct dealings with AJ. He translated some of the new Sri Lankan Tamil poetry to English for publication in Saturday Review, and I was asked to translate a few by Pathmanabha Iyer. I undertook the task rather reluctantly and on the understanding that they will be checked by AJ before they were published. But AJ had not touched them, although I was sure that he could have considerably improved on my job. I had the identical experience nearly fifteen years later when I undertook a few more translations, this time for Selva Canaganayagam’s anthology. Some years later, when I translated an article by Nawwal al-Sadawi for Piravaatham, edited by Nuhman, AJ suggested some changes to me through Nuhman: I preferred the use of Tamil technical terms (like for example vediyoodu for shell) where available whereas AJ preferred the locally better understood English word as rendered in Tamil (shel rather than vediyoodu). I accepted AJ’s suggestion, but when the article appeared in print nothing was altered. I understood that AJ did not insist on the change.
AJ’s non-involvement in mass political work had its downside. During the testing times of state oppression and youth insurgency in the 1980s AJ was tempted to support the armed struggle and was disapproving of the Marxist Leninists for being critical of various aspects of the struggle and not demanding a separate state. After some years of first hand experience with militants of various hues he had become rather negative and pessimistic about the struggle. In my view, if AJ had been in active politics and associated with mass organisations, he would have taken a consistent line as was possible for many genuine leftists over years of political turbulence and chaos.
AJ’s known output fell far below his potential as a literary critic, theoretician and translator. Part of the reason is that he spent much of his spare time helping with other people’s work, and partly a lack of motivation. Whatever he undertook he did to perfection, and the two volumes of Reggie Siriwardena that he edited towards the tail end of his life when his health was failing are testimony to his attitude to work.