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Centenarian of Jaffna

by S. Kathirgamathamby - Jaffna Special Correspondent

In a quiet home away from the busy, noisy streets of Jaffna town lives centenarian Sinnathamby Arumugam, a retired station master who celebrated his 100th birthday on 23rd August at Chapel Street, Jaffna.

Tall and bespectacled and with the milk of human kindness oozing from his mouth he talked to relatives and well wishers who came to wish him a Very Happy Birthday. He conversed with me with a sprinkling of flawless English, he said "I can talk with you for some more time but I'm short of hearing and need someone to din into my ears what you are saying to me."

I then told him the purpose of my visit and got the help of his grandson to elicit answers to my questions.

Sinnathambi Arumugam said that he was a native of Kollankallady in Tellipallai and was born on August 23rd 1901. He came from a respectable farming family and had his English education at Union College, Tellipallai. He helped his father on his farm and irrigated the garden where various plants grew.

The wells at Kollankallady were deep and his father had to draw water from a depth of more than 25 feet with the help of a well sweep. The son's part was to walk up and down on the well sweep to enable his father to draw the water out with ease in a big bucket like container woven of Palmyrah fronds called "paddai" in Tamil. It was a strenuous exercise of more than three hours duration and called for a meticulous art of balancing on the well sweep which he performed with caution and vigilance to his father's satisfaction.

The centurion told me that he used to read a lot, especially English books and newspapers. The 'Independent' and 'Ceylonese News' later known as the 'Daily News' enriched his knowledge and vocabulary. He said that in those days people lit only one lamp at home. His mother would light a lamp in the kitchen and attended to her kitchen chores and he made use of the light to prepare his lessons and to read newspaper.

"We all went to bed at 8 p.m. and the solitary lamp was also put out at 8 p.m. and the solitary lamp, was also put out at 8 p.m.", he said. When his mother's sister passed away - it is a custom among Hindus to light an oil lamp for forty days at the spot where the corpse was laid to rest - he used the opportunity to keep awake and prepare his lessons for longer time during these forty days.

He said that he could vividly remember an article he read in the 'Daily News' in the flickering light. It was about the part played by Ceylon in World War I. Luckily for him this was the essay he wrote for the Elementary School Certificate (ESLC) examination English paper. He passed with distinctions and was selected to the Railway Clerical Service Examination. This was in 1920. He was posted as Assistant Station Master and he had served in all the nine provinces. He served in the Railway department for 42 years. He had a good number of Sinhalese friends while he was in service. Even now he has a friend at Kotte (he spells the word in English not to confuse with Colombo Fort-Fort is pronounced as Kotte in Tamil whose name is Hettiarachchi. He worked under him as an Asst. Station Master. This friend is now 88 years old and is in feeble health, he was told.

When Mr. Arumugam was with his parents he was a vegetarian. After employment he got used to eating non vegetarian food, but for the past 50 years he has been a strict vegetarian, and observes a fast on Fridays and on Poya (Full Moon) days.

He is very religious and has mastered the hymns of Saiva Saints and Thirukkural, a compiled moral ethics translated into fourteen languages. He quoted ably from Valluvar and Thayumanavar and said his wish in life is that "All should live happily."

Speaking about his married life he said that he married when he was thirty years old, had three sons and five daughters, all of whom are married with children. He lost his wife about twenty years ago and since then he has been staying with one of his daughters.

In a reminiscing mood he said that he learnt punctuality in the railway department. He got up from bed on time, attended to his duties on time, kept appointments on time ate and slept on time. His happiest days he says were those he spent with his Sinhalese friends in office and home. They treated him as one of their kinsmen. They were hospitable, friendly and helpful. It is the politicians who have distanced us, sowing the seeds of communalism, jealousy and rancor, he lamented.