The poet

Poet and teacher, Somasundramoillai Pathmanathan, remembers the days when the baker in Jaffna was Sinhalese and the tailor was Muslim. He reflects on the hardships people of Jaffna faced over decades or war. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam.

Join the discussion: 11 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    My friend Guru put me in touch with Mr Pathmanathan, who had taught him at the prestigious Jaffna Hindu College.

    Since first meeting the retired teacher, I’ve often contacted him for help on pinpointing a date or to give details of an event about Jaffna. Mr Pathmanathan’s knowledge of his hometown’s past spanning several decades was impressive, and for someone researching Jaffna’s past, a very useful resource. Recently I needed to know when the Uthayan newspaper published details of the aptly named “Jam bottle lamp”, an improvised lamp made from just a jam jar, a small wick and a few drops of kerosene. The innovation came in response to the government restrictions of the 1990s, which Mr Pathmanthan felt were the worst years of the war for the Jaffna residents. So much happened during that period of scarcity and warring parties vying for control of Jaffna, that other people’s memories of that time are sketchy. But Mr Pathmanathan was able to narrow down my search to the month when the instructions on how to put together the innovative and sometimes only source of light for the people of Jaffna were published.

    Mr Pathmanathan returned to Jaffna after his job with the civil service became increasingly difficult following the impact of the language policies. Mr Pathmanathan has lived in Jaffna ever since. But despite his experiences being treated differently, there wasn’t a hint of bitterness in his voice as he traced his experiences of conflict and war during our interview.

    I’ve covered the story of the expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna before, from different angles, but Mr Pathmanathan is the only Tamil I’ve met who actually admitted to the guilt that he still feels. Most Jaffna Tamils I’ve spoken to have resigned themselves to accepting their powerlessness. What else could they have done? They have moved on. But with Mr Pathmanathan there was a lingering sadness at not being able to help his Muslim friends.

    Mr Pathmanathan still gives lectures at the technical college on literature for diploma students and also tuition classes for young adults who want to become teachers themselves. It was a rare find to meet someone from Jaffna who was so enthusiastic about teaching poetry and literature. Jaffna Tamils take great pride in their education, but the books they are exposed to are usually limited to science, maths or law, not books of poetry.

    For Mr Pathmanthan, writing poetry himself has helped him reflect on his many experiences of conflict, displacement and loss. After our interview, Mr Pathmanathan gave me a copy his poem “The Release”, about his return to his home after the displacement of Tamils on 1995, known locally as The Exodus. This was his way of dealing with the past.

    • Bandara USA says:

      Very interesting and painful to hear his words. As he said, war is full of sad, bad, and ugly things. Interesting thing is that no body died because of starvation. I hope those people will have a brighter future.

  • Nancy Fernando says:

    They say “All is fair in love and war”. We see the good, the bad and the ugly in all wars. I deeply sympathise with the people of Jaffna. I do hope and pray they will learn to put behind them what has happened and move forward.

  • S. Pathmanathan says:

    Nancy, your expression of sympathy touches me. Thank you.

    I was gradually forgetting 1958, 1977 and 1983, but the annihilation of May 19, 2009 still rankles. I had expected magnanimity from the victors but, sadly, I hear war cries when there is no need. I see overt moves to alter the ethnic distribution in the north. Moving forward is very painful and difficult Nancy, but we have got to.

  • Tweets that mention The teacher | i am -- says:

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Serendib and i am project. “A Sinhalese baker was an essential part of Jaffna life …”

  • S. Suganthy says:

    Mr. Pathmanathan, or “Sopa”, is well known to me as I am a Lecturer at ATI, Jaffna. He is a well known poet and a good lecturer. His poetry is always admired by everybody in Jaffna. His own experiences are always reflected in his poetry. He’s also been guiding us in publishing our annual magazine ‘Echo’. I’ll never forget his service to society. He is a scholar and a valuable asset to Jaffna.

  • ranmalee perera says:

    THANK YOU. As someone who lived through ’83 and as a person from hybrid ethnicity, I send much gratitude and strength to you and all the Tamils (myself included) in our healing process.

  • Thuraiappah Vaseeharan says:

    Dear Mr. Pathamanathan,

    I vividly remember you reciting ‘stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’ in a GELT class, at Hindu Ladies College in 1992/93. It was a moment of rare beauty in the midst of an ugly war. You kindled in me a love of poetry, that has been everlasting. Thank you very much sir.

    I admire and share your idealism for Sri Lanka’s future:

    ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
    Man never Is, but always To be blessed.
    The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
    Rests and expatiates in a life to come.’

    Best regards,


  • Annamalai Balamanoharan says:

    Dear Sopa,

    Unfortunately I have lost your email address; could you please let me have it?

    Thank you!

    Bala in Denmark

  • Varathan Poobalu says:

    Dear Sir
    I was your former student. I used to live in Urumparai, near the Amman Temple. Your previous home (in Annagkai) was about 5oo metres from my parents’ home. I am not sure if you can remember me. I now live in Sydney. I was a chemistry teacher at a state school here in Sydney for about 9 years. Now I’m working as a research scientist and also director/CEO of ChemPlus Maths Coaching College. Thanks for the English lessons. You taught me how to pronounce words exactly like native English speakers. After I came to Australia it was so easy for me to understand them well and learn the way they speak.
    Once again, thank you very much, Sir.
    Varathan Poobalu (BSc B.Biotech B.Teaching MSc)
    Director/CEO ChemPlus Maths Coaching College, Toongabbie, Sydney.


Leave a comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our submission guidelines before you comment. Comments that do not adhere to the guidelines will be edited or deleted.

Submission guidelines

When engaging with the i am project, we encourage you to communicate with respect and be tolerant of differences.

Comments that do not adhere to these guidelines will be deleted.

We reserve the right to remove your access to i am completely if we believe that you are abusing the site guidelines in any way.