The activist

The poet and writer, Dominic Jeeva, talks about growing up with caste, and why, despite its many flaws, he’s still proud to be a Jaffna man. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam.

Join the discussion: 23 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    I took a three wheeler with my friend Shaseevan to Kotahena, on the fringes of Colombo. I was going to meet one of Sri Lanka’s original activists, Dominic Jeeva. On our way, we passed Hindu temples and shops selling Jaffna wares. It was almost like being in Jaffna. We reached Sri Kathiresan Street in the heart of Kotahena, where Mr Jeeva’s office was, right across the street from a barber shop called the Saloon de Shakthi. Having heard about Mr Jeeva’s anti-caste activism, I couldn’t help but think that this may have been his way of making a statement. Mr Jeeva is also from the barber caste, one of the lowest rungs in Jaffna’s caste hierarchy. He still keeps a barber shop in Jaffna.

    He had shunned a formal education system that paid little interest in educating someone who would normally follow his father’s trade. By reading magazines and pamphlets from India he began to write and stood up for the human rights of downtrodden communities in Jaffna.

    Piled up around Mr Jeeva’ tiny office were books of poetry and short stories he had written or published through his publishing house, “Mallikai pandhal”, or the “Jasmine shed”.  A photograph of Mr Jeeva with the President had pride of place above his desk, but there were many trophies and certificates on the walls and shelves of the dark room. Every last inch of floor and wall space was used.

    I was sad that my Tamil was not strong enough to be able to read any of these books of poetry, but hoped that my interview would give me some insight into this unique man from Jaffna.  

    Mr Jeeva talked to me about what it was like growing up with caste, about forbidden love and glass ceilings, and his passion for writing.  He was a natural storyteller.  He talked with wild gestures, as he acted out events from his life.

    Unlike others I had interviewed on stories to do with caste, I could be direct with Mr Jeeva in asking him about his experiences of being treated differently simply because he was born into a certain family and therefore community. I wanted to know what he thought of the popular view that the system was gradually fading. His replies opened my eyes to another world, far from my privileged Jaffna roots.

    My final question to him was simple: with all these bitter experiences of an archaic system that Jaffna still seemed to cling to, what did he think of his hometown? Mr Jeeva’s wrinkled face softened and he smiled. His response was equally simple, something even I could understand.  “Naan Yaalpanathaan,” he said proudly.  “I am a Jaffna man”. We left this remarkable man as we found him, reading quietly by the window.

  • கிரிசாந் says:

    டொமினிக் ஜீவாவின் பெட்டி அருமையிலும் அருமை … திறமையான முயற்சி அண்ணா! வாழ்த்துக்கள் … எங்களையும் உங்களுடன் இணைத்துக் கொள்ள முடியுமா …

    [Dominic Jeeva’s interview is fantastic. Congratulations!]

  • Rajesh says:

    சிறப்பான நேர்க்காணல் அண்ணன்.

    [Very good interview, anna.]

  • Shan says:

    I am a fan of Dominic Jeeva’s Malikai and was fortunate enough to met him in London. This is a great work Kannan and I hope to see more creations from you! There are many more legends currently living quietly in the East, West and South of Sri Lanka. Please bring them on through your window. Good Luck!

  • avtar says:

    “If the old Jaffna caste system has really disappeared, how can it appear in Canada? ”

    Such wisdom, such a great man.

    Unless and untill we all learn to shed old ghosts and cast them out for good, we will never achieve our potential as one community, oneness in our country – afterall we were all created in the same way.

    • Gayathri Fernando says:

      Bit of wisdom in this comment as well :)

      A thought in response and in agreement: bigotry and discrimination, suppression and denial of privilege, has no ethnic identity, territorial boundary or name. It is an individual one espoused by a group touting diverse names. Such traits should be scorned as a community and identity comes of age, because it’s in insecurity that such bigoted acts are effected.

  • Sabes Sugunasabesan says:

    Ah Lilly! What a story! Sweet and sad! I remember Jeeva’s fiery speeches during the election campaigns. When I visted him in the 80s I collected a bundle of Mallikai from him and brought them to England, and only recently gave them all to a friend.

  • Arosha Bandara says:

    Great interview – eye opening insight into the realities of life in Jaffna, both then and now.

  • Kiruthikan says:

    Great job…thanks a bunch Sasheevan and Kamalakkannan.

  • Jazeela says:

    யாழ்பானத்தானுக்கு வாழ்த்துகள்
    [Praises for the Jaffna man]

  • memonkavi says:

    இந்த செயற்றிட்டம் அருமையான முயற்சி! டொமினிக் ஜீவா பற்றிய இந்த ஆவணம் கலைத்துவத்துடன் தொகுக்கப்பட்டுள்ளது. சம்பந்தப்பட்ட அனைவருக்கும் டொமினிக் ஜீவா சார்ப்பாகவும் என் சார்ப்பாகவும் நன்றிகளும் பாராட்டுக்களும்
    [This project is an excellent effort. This piece about Dominic Jeeva is done with an artistic approach. On behalf of Dominic Jeeva and myself, thanks and best wishes to all those who were involved in this project.]

  • kuneswaran says:

    கமலக்கண்ணனும் சசீவனும் நன்றிக்குரியவர்கள். டொமினிக் ஜீவா அவர்களின் உண்மையான வாழ்வு. இளையவர்களுக்கு புதிய அனுபவங்களாக இருக்கும்.
    [I’m grateful to Kamalakkannan and Shaseevan. The true life history of Dominic Jeeva is a revelation for the young people.]

  • இளையதம்பி தயானந்தா says:


    இந்த வலைப் பக்கம் கொள்ளும், காட்சிகளும், குரல்களுமான எல்லா முயற்சிகளும் சொல்லப் படாத மிக நீண்ட செய்திகளைச் சொல்கின்றன.

    விட்டு விட்டு வந்த என் கடன் ஏக்கத்தோடு என்னைப் பார்க்கிறது.

    [Wonderful. The voice, images and all other aspects convey many untold stories.

    The duties I couldn’t fulfill are haunting me now.]

    • Kannan Arunasalam says:

      Dear Mr Elayathambi

      I finally got round to getting your comment translated. I hope the translation does it justice. My command of Tamil is sadly very poor. I am really touched by your sentiments.

      Thank you, Kannan Arunasalam

  • Shan Nalliah Gandhiyist says:

    I met Mr Dominic Jeeva twice. I bought his books and enjoyed reading Mallikai. His efforts are an example to us all. There is no excuse for anyone not to record their experiences, whatever social level they were born in. They can tell their story and the truth to the world! All should tell their stories. Kannan please learn Tamil by reading more. We need you in the Tamil world!

  • Sasi says:

    I love him!
    ஜீவாவை நான் படித்திருக்கிறேன். இப்போதுதான் கேட்கிறேன். என் ஆழ்மனதில் ஒரு ஆசனத்தில் இமர்ந்துவிட்டர். அந்திப்பகலில் சந்திப்பதில் ஒருவகை ஏக்கமும், இப்போதாவது அவரின் குரலை கேட்டோமே என்ற திருப்பிதியும் அடைகிறேன். நேரில் பார்த்துவிட வேண்டும் என்று துடிக்கிறேன். நானும் ஒரு எழுத்தாளன் என்ற வகையில் ஜீவா உங்கள் எண்ணம் இன்னும் என் மூலமாகவும் என்போல் பலராலும் சமூகத்தில் விதைக்கப்படும். “சாதிகள் இல்லையடி பாப்பா குலம் தாழ்த்தி உயர்த்தி சொல்லல் பாவம்” என்காதருகில் ஜீவாவை கொண்டுவந்த அனைவர்க்கும் என் நன்றிகள்.
    பசுந்திரா – சசி

  • Asitha Deshapriya says:

    I want to buy a book of Mr. Dominic Jeeva from Sri Lanka. How can I buy it?

  • Lankeswaran says:

    No words for this work anna, really good job.

  • Chinthu Viswanath says:

    Sir, I am a research scholar from Pondicherry University, Pondicherry, India, working on subaltern autobiographical literatures. I am particluarly interested in working on your autobiography “Undrawn Portrait for Unwritten Poetry”. How can I get a copy of book in India? Could you please help me?


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