Matthew Westwood, in The Weekend Australian Review, 5-6 January 2019, where the title is “Counting and Cracking: a family’s journey” … with some snaps and a partial bibliography added by The Editor, Thuppahi
In the complicated and at times bitterly divided history of Sri Lanka in the 20th century, one man’s story may be emblematic of the nation’s changing fortunes. C. Suntharalingam was born in 1895 into a Tamil family, the son of a poor farmer. The boy was a whiz at maths. Sent to a boarding school in Jaffna, he went on to study at the universities of London and Oxford.
Like other educated Tamils he sought “trousered employment” in the colonial public service. He was called to the bar to practise law and later entered politics, serving a term as minister for trade and commerce in what was then the colonial Ceylonese government. He built a beautiful house in the heart of Colombo on a street with views down to the ocean, and held court on the porch where he discussed politics and affairs of the day.
He believed that broad consensus among Sri Lanka’s various ethnic groups was essential for the young nation’s greater good. But he became disillusioned at the racially driven politics that pitted the country’s majority Sinhalese population against the minority Tamils. That division would plunge Sri Lanka — the beautiful island whose graceful shape resembles a teardrop — into a decades-long civil war. “His heart was broken by what happened in Sri Lanka,” says his great-grandson, S. Shakthidharan, in Sydney. “I think his hope that people could work together was destroyed by what happened in the country.
“Towards the end of his life he felt that the practical thing to do was to protect what you can … He became someone who started to talk about a Tamil homeland, and protecting Tamils and fighting for Tamil rights.”
Shakthidharan, known as Shakthi, is a playwright and chief executive of a western Sydney arts company called Co-Curious. For the past decade he has been researching the story of his great-grandfather and of the Sri Lankans who stayed in their homeland or fled the war, translating those personal histories into a truth-in-fiction account of love, loss, fracture and a hoped-for reconciliation.
His play, called Counting and Cracking, is being presented by Belvoir in one of the major productions of this month’s Sydney Festival. Sydney’s Town Hall will be transformed into a Sri Lankan town hall, complete with colourful fabrics and plates of delicious Sri Lankan food (a communal meal is included in the ticket price). With a large cast of 16 actors, expect Counting and Cracking to have the panoramic narrative of a Cloudstreet or last year’s The Harp in the South — only this time it’s a story of migrants not from Ireland but from Sri Lanka.
I visit Shakthi at home for dinner one Friday evening to learn more about the play and the stories that have inspired it. The house on a suburban street in Homebush has a wide covered porch and a stick of incense is burning near the entrance. The front door is carved with mythical figures from the Hindu pantheon, the elephant-headed god Ganesha watching over all. Shakthi greets me at the door and asks that I take off my shoes before we go inside.
His mother, Anandavalli, has been busy preparing the meal. Valli is a well-known figure in the Sri Lankan community and among dance aficionados for the dance company she founded, Lingalayam. As a teenager she was a beautiful dancer in the Indian classical style and was talent-spotted by choreographer John Cranko during a European tour. Tonight, she has made fragrant dishes of prawn and chicken curry — not too spicy; I wonder if the chilli has been dialled down for guests — and a plate of string hoppers, spongy mats of rice noodles. Valli passes bowls of curry around the table, and runs her finger along the rim to catch the creamy sauce.
The house we’re sitting in, with its ceremonial front room where Valli holds her dance classes, is modelled in part on the house built by her grandfather, and Shakthi’s great-grandfather, C. Suntharalingam. The intricate woodcarvings at the entry, the gates and other fixtures have all been transplanted from Colombo to Homebush to create a facsimile of the family estate. Unusually, Suntharalingam had bequeathed the house not to his male heirs but to his granddaughter, Valli, the only girl and the “princess” of the family. She believed, as he did, that she would never leave Sri Lanka, but all that changed when the civil war broke out in 1983, sparked when the militant Tamil Tigers attacked a Sri Lankan army unit in Jaffna, killing 13 soldiers.
Valli recalls the terrifying reprisals that broke out in Colombo days later. Mobs attacked Tamil homes and businesses; people were burned to death on the road.“It was the day that everyone calls Black Friday,” Valli says. “The day when people started killing people on the road.”
“That is the Tamil term,” Shakthi explains. “Less contentiously, it’s known as the 1983 riots. People who were not at home had to be found, otherwise they might have been killed. My uncle saw a house being set alight with people inside.”
Valli feared for herself and for her infant son, Shakthi, and made the painful decision to leave. They fled first to Chennai in India, then to Singapore and finally to Australia, where Shakthi’s father had obtained a job with IBM.
“I never wanted to leave Sri Lanka,” Valli says. “The calamity and the absolute confusion that I went through. People asked me what happened to my smile. I wore a mask face: not of fear, but of not understanding what had happened … If I didn’t have my dance, I think something really crazy could have happened.”
The civil war would claim the lives of an estimated 100,000 people and many more were displaced from their homes. Shakthi, now 36, grew up knowing the war’s history but his mother refused to discuss it at home. When he started asking questions of members of his extended family, Valli simply shut the conversation down.
“In my early 20s I knew more about World War II and Europe than I knew about my own family,” he says. But Shakthi followed where his curiosity led him. A key to understanding his family history was gaining access to his great-grandfather’s papers in Colombo. As an MP and a public figure, Suntharalingam had written speeches and published opinion articles in the newspapers. There was also his official correspondence and letters to his family: epistles of grandfatherly affection and moral instruction. From this written record, an ancestor whose presence loomed large in family lore began to take on a more nuanced shape.
In some ways, Suntharalingam’s story echoes that of other educated Tamils who achieved professional success and social prestige. Historically the Tamils occupied the northern part of Sri Lanka and were a Hindu minority on an island that is predominantly Buddhist. The Tamils, though, were favoured by the British and advanced through the ranks of the civil service and the professions. Tamil prosperity rankled with some of the Sinhalese population and their resentment, Shakthi explains, was exploited for political gain. Laws were passed that denied Tamils citizenship and made Sinhala Sri Lanka’s official language and Buddhism the de facto state religion.
Suntharalingam died in 1985 as the Tamil insurgency was gathering force. Shakthi believes, from reading his letters, that his great-grandfather lost faith in the prospect of social unity and began to think in terms of the more pragmatic politics of survival. “Towards the very end of his life, he felt that the practical thing to do was to protect what you can, rather than protect everyone,” Shakthi says. “But once people start protecting only their own base, the gains you can make are short-lived, and you can’t build a society out of that.”
Suntharalingam’s journey has helped give shape to Shakthi’s play. He has inspired the dignified character Apah, or “Father” — played by Indian actor Prakash Belawadi — as well as the play’s title, Counting and Cracking.
“My great-grandfather once said that democracy is the counting of heads within certain limits, and the cracking of heads beyond those limits,” Shakthi says after the dinner plates have been cleared.
“It’s about how do we not stretch democracy to the point at which violence is the only option. But the play is not about that, in a philosophical sense. It’s about people’s lives and the decisions they make.”
A few days later I’m with Shakthi and Belvoir’s artistic director Eamon Flack at a rehearsal of the play. In one of the scenes, set in 2004, a Tamil prisoner is being released from jail: the guard tells him that in future he must speak Sinhala, not Tamil. The moment is juxtaposed with the sound of a cricket broadcast: the Sri Lankan spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan has just taken his 500th wicket in a Test against Australia. The prison guard, played by Monroe Reimers, recalls Murali saying that Sri Lanka should be united like the country’s cricket team, without divisions. “But I can’t forget and I won’t forgive,” the guard says.
“The play works in some ways like a puzzle or a mystery,” Flack says during the lunch break. “A note is struck in one scene that doesn’t complete itself until another scene. Each act brings together a set of disparate circumstances … stories which don’t seem to fit together but which are absolutely co-dependent. The idea that separate lives in separate times actually determine the safety and happiness of each other — that’s what the play is about.”
Some of the episodes sound remarkably similar to experiences that Shakthi and Valli described around the dinner table. The play involves a strong-willed woman called Radha who flees Sri Lanka for Australia and who avoids telling her son Siddhartha what has happened in her homeland. At its heart are two love stories: one that traverses continents and decades, and another between a Sri Lankan-Australian boy and a Yolngu girl.
The twists and turns of the plot are outlined on dozens of pieces of paper stuck to the wall of the rehearsal studio. Six languages will be spoken on stage — Sanskrit, Tamil, Sinhala, Yolngu, Arabic and English — and there is not a single Anglo face among the 16 actors in the cast. They have come from far and wide, after an audition process that involved three trips to Sri Lanka. Among them is Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a Sri Lankan actor now based in Paris who starred in the film Dheepan, winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or at Cannes. He plays the prisoner in the scene described earlier and his story, Shakthi promises, will surprise the audience.
It is probably the most ambitious new play Belvoir has presented since Cloudstreet in 1998. That was a defining moment in Australian theatre, and Counting and Cracking — in the breadth of its community engagement, in its confidently large-scale depiction of a migrant story — may well become another. The stage setting alone is an elaborate affair, in which designer Dale Ferguson has created a hall within a hall, inspired by a municipal venue in Jaffna.
The whole enterprise has been supported through a long development phase, including a young artist grant from the Australia Council for Shakthi, and a period during which he was an associate artist at Carriageworks. Belvoir and Co-Curious are the production partners and there is a raft of other supporters, including the federal government and the festivals in Sydney and Adelaide, where Counting and Cracking will land in March. Among the many private donors is Shemara Wikramanayake, the new chief executive of Macquarie Bank, who comes from a Sri Lankan background.
For Shakthi, the play has been a labour of love that has brought him closer to understanding his family’s story. Valli, who at first wished he had never embarked on the project, has become actively involved in it. She has been coaching the actors in the vocal inflections of British-educated Tamils, has advised on the saris worn by women of older generations, and has chosen the vibrant fabrics that will bring a touch of Sri Lanka to the middle of Sydney.
More than anything, Shakthi hopes that his play, his careful research and consultation will bring together the Sri Lankan community, Tamils and Sinhalese alike. He can’t imagine what his great-grandfather would think.
“I feel our community is ready for reconciliation,” he says. “I have not taken any sides in the play about what’s happening in Sri Lanka or what did happen. Instead we get to be part of this family’s journey. We get to face some hard truths, and at the same time celebrate who we are. That is our best pathway to reconciling.”
Counting and Cracking is at Sydney Town Hall, January 11 to February 2, and Adelaide Showgrounds, March 2 to 9.