Tell us about yourself.
My given name is Mano-Rani il-ankkaren. It means Great Queen of Lanka. The stall is to raise money for Sri Lankan refugees. As a South Asian I’m one of every three people on the planet; I don’t feel like a minority. But at SOAS, even the nice people say, “I want to go backpacking in India to visit an ashram.” And I think, which part of ‘I’m Sri Lankan’ did you not hear?
There are some people here who study Tamil but they don’t study Sinhala because SOAS isn’t good at outreach. They should put up adverts in ethnic areas! Anybody reading this should think about studying Sinhala because it’s a language of London.
You’re wearing a Sri Lankan cricket shirt?
This is not a shirt, it’s a uniform. This is the uniform of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, a land like no other, and it signifies 25 million people. I have 5 fingers: they signify the Sinhalese, the Tamil, the Muslims, the Burgher, and the Malay. With 5 fingers you can throw acricket ball and do some glory for your country, or with 5 fingers you can throw a bomb. And I’d rather people throw cricket balls. When the England cricket team was playing against Sri Lanka, I flew home to wear my uniform and fly the flag, as I do. But the irony is that a lot of the English team is from anywhere but here. It’s like Sri Lanka vs United Nations.
I just came back from Sharjah. We went to support the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Team. Forget gender equality in books; support the Pakistan Women’s Team.
We hear that your uncle is on the wall of the SOAS JCR?
My grandfather was Post Master General of Jaffna- people still pay respect to him; respect is a tradition in Sri Lanka. My dad’s cousin is George Aligiah who reads the news on BBC One today.
In my family I’ve got the left-y thing happening on both sides; my father and my uncles were in the LSSP, the Socialist party.
My uncle, Ambalavanar Sivanandan, who’s on the wall of the SOAS JCR, was the first person in his family to go to university because my grandfather decided to take a job from the British. My uncle’s third book, ironically, has an elephant, because they never forget, and it’s called ‘When Memory Dies’ – but the elephant’s a symbol of the Conservative party in Sri Lanka. So I always joke with my uncle that he is sponsored by the Conservative party.
You seem very passionate about Sri Lanka!
I left my country when I was young, but I classify as Sri Lankan – for the racist people in my country, if I’m just a Londoner, they win. On our flag, the first stripe is for the Islamic people – the third biggest group in our country. Orange is for Hinduism. It’s kind of meant for Tamils but Tamils can be Christian or Hindu. This symbol I wear on my chest is the lion of Kandy, the last part of Sri Lanka to ever be occupied by the British. The nationalists, they have the lion without the stripes, in the deep South.
We had a war out of self-hate. The ancestors of many of the most racist people normally have my blood.
I don’t mention my suburb to everyone because it’s known as a Tamil area. One day I went to Hikkaduwa, and I didn’t wash my feet so these 4 guys stood up looking very angry. I could tell that they were ex-army. So they said to me “koheda,” which means “Where are you from,” in Sinhala, but it’s also like “Where are you from,” – they already had an idea.
In South Asia in general, if you don’t know your parents’ and your grandparents’ village people think you’re very strange because you’ve known your parents your whole life. A lot of people say, “My parents are this,” they don’t say “I’m half this”, which is more respectful to parents. It’s better for people to chase their roots- in the modern day, you can have it all!
How did you end up at SOAS then?
Purely by mistake, just serendipity. Serendip is the Arabic word for my country- it means discovering a beautiful place by accident…I’m following the traditions of my country.
I had been the president of the Students Union at the University of Kent – the first Sri Lankan to be elected in a UK university, I think. My friend said “There’s a place in London where students go, you love students,” so I went to Student Central…and the coolest people consistently were from SOAS.
What do you love about SOAS?
Officially? We’re open, we’re inclusive, we’re multicultural, multiracial… I think the problem with SOAS is we don’t have a critical mass anymore. What I love about it is, consistently it’s a great place for people from the developing world to come. SOAS is all about culture, language, internationalism, history – you learn something new every day. That’s the trouble with selling books: you read the bloody things!
Have you read all your books?
If I read all the books I’ll be even more boring than I already am. Three things that Tamil people do is study, study and study. My uncle’s books sells one a day in Colombo. Education is highly valued. We have free education even now. So we’re actually ahead of England, long may it continue.
I don’t have second hand books on principle. I try to get in the Christmas trade just to let people have something nice!
Do you have a message for the students of SOAS?
Yes, a very ancient Sri Lankan saying which is important for Tamil people.
“Money is for now, books are forever”. People reading this are welcome to come and see me, pick up a book, and give it a spin.