VD Jeyaratnasingham (1930-1998)
Life as Example and the Example of a Life
When I was invited by VD Jeyaratnasingham’s widow, aunty Kamala, to say a few words on this occasion I confess I was slightly taken aback. What could I, who had known uncle Jeya in a particular kind of way and at a particular time in both his and my life, have to contribute? So I cast around for reminiscences of him, quizzing two of his friends: Sam Jeyadeva in Toronto and my father, and a number of my friends: Naren in Chicago, Nanda in Sydney, Kokila in Madras and Prabha in London. It was remarkable how alike, how vivid and how warm, our recollections are of him.
What I have to say today is a collective portrait and a collective tribute to uncle Jeya, which I am honoured to deliver on behalf of those of my friends who knew him as I did through the 1970s and 1980s in a small and undistinguished place called Brunei. So the optic of my remarks is that of childhood, the paints that of memory, though I fear my brush may be inadequate to the images and emotions conjured up by its subject.
I did not know uncle Jeya as a friend. He was my father’s friend; one among that group of Sri Lankans and Indians who met at the parties that filled the nights of an expatriate crowd away from their homes. To us kids these parties were as much a fixture of our week as was school, piano-lessons and Malay-language tuition: a riot of fun, food and frolics.
In between our games and gorging ourselves we’d linger for a while where the men sat, which was usually near the bar and at a safe remove from their wives! There would be uncle Hariram drumming on an old milk tin and uncle Jeya using two spoons or whatever else that came to hand to accompany whoever was belting out a Sinhala baila or a Tamil film song. He was part of that scene, pitching in when the mood flagged, urging on someone else to take up where the previous person left off.
Ever cheerful, ever humorous, ever intrepid: such as one occasion we were at a party at the Golf Club, perhaps it was for New Year, and the limbo pole (or was it a broom stick?) was brought out and the challenge made: who could contort their body backwards the greatest to dance under that pole, which was progressively lowered? Different people took their turn and finally uncle Jeya volunteered himself. “Lower”, he said. It was lowered. “No, lower it again”, he said. We gasped at his ambition but did as we were told.
There was now barely six inches between the pole and the floor, and some of us feared aunty Kamala would shortly be rushing uncle to RIPAS Hospital for treatment of a slipped disc. And then - and this was typical of uncle Jeya - he ran towards the pole, and leaped over! There was applause and merriment all around, especially from the youngsters.
His agility and inventiveness was natural to a man with an evident love and talent for sport. I never played alongside or against him unlike some of my taller and more athletic friends. However I remember attending cricket matches at the Berakas Army Camp Grounds where uncle Jeya played for Nondescripts (later known as Cavaliers).
I can see him now in his whites striding from the pavilion onto the field waving a bat in the air as the opposing team shifted uneasily and the spectators put down their beer and sandwiches anticipating some excitement.
It was no surprise then to learn from Sam Jeyadeva that in his youth uncle Jeya had represented Jaffna schools at all-island sports events. If his cricket was his passion, he was no less formidable in badminton and soccer; playing all these sports as vigorously and better than those half his age.
I never had the good fortune to be taught by him. He was the Geography Master at Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin (SOAS) college, the premier boy’s school in Bandar Seri Begawan. However I knew he was held in high regard both by his colleagues and most importantly his students. As a schoolboy then myself, and as an educator myself later, I know how difficult it is to achieve and maintain that respect: but uncle Jeya did.
Somewhere along the line I learned that he had been something of an institution as student and later teacher at Jaffna Central College, regarded with awe and held in high esteem there. His commitment and dedication included adult education too because he conducted evening classes for mature students for many years and was for a time the Supervisor of those sessions at SOAS college, inviting many of his friends to contribute to the teaching too.
I certainly did know uncle Jeya as a family man. I remember parties and visits to his home in Jalan Ong Sum Ping. Later we were to become neighbours in Jalan Malabau.
His affection for and pride in his son, Sujen anna and daughter Sweety acca were apparent to all. Sujen anna by the late 1970s was a medical student in England and a visitor to Brunei. There would invariably be a party at uncle Jeya’s to welcome or bid farewell to him, and as long as anna was in town, our parents would be full of praise for him, admonishing us to “study hard and be like Sujen anna”.
Meanwhile Sweety acca, older and more worldly-wise than us kids, was the height of teenage sophistication. She was our link to the adult world and some of its mysteries - but not beyond making us roll around with delight as she sang “oo-oo-Utupi, STPRI’s Greatest Malayali” at the expense of the hapless Mr. Utupi – her teacher at STPRI girl’s school – and to the tune of Boney M’s “Ra-Ra-Rasputin”.
If uncle Jeya’s Christian faith was something personal to him and a dimension of his life those of us not part of that tradition knew less about, he chose to give expression to his religious beliefs not through loud declarations, ostentatious worship or public performance.
Rather he lived his life by the values he held important. To be a good neighbour even to those who aren’t your neighbours; to be tolerant and forgiving of their actions and omissions; to show kindness and concern to others regardless of their age or status.
His life and personality was an example of the man he was, and offers an example to the rest of us of the kind of person we ought to be.
Earlier I described Brunei as an undistinguished place. Perhaps I am being overly harsh. For a bunch of kids born or certainly raised in a country that wasn’t ours by origin or birthright, in a culture both familiar and distant to that of our parents, and leading a lifestyle that was privileged to say the least, our childhood there was filled with happiness, love and security.
In a strange land and among strangers it was individuals such as uncle Jeya who created for my friends and me a place to call home. It was from people such as him we learned what community means, and who gave us the opportunity to anchor ourselves within one.
Brunei may have been an unremarkable country but it had some very remarkable people.
London - October 30 1999