Anna Goes To School (Our Present Past 3)

[ To get caught up on this story Click here   for OUR PRESENT PAST (1) / CLICK HERE FOR OUR PRESENT PAST (2) ]

Pink streaks of dawn stained the sky when the overnight train from Jaffna ground to a halt at the Fort railway station in Colombo.  Clutching his small bag of belongings, the boy stepped out of his carriage, overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of the waking metropolis.  Aunt Rebecca Ponnamma was waiting on the platform, her husband — Uncle Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam — at her side.  She waved to catch her nephew’s eye. Rebecca Ponnamma wrapped her arms around her dead sister’s boy and Shadrak heaved a quiet sigh of relief. This was his mother’s flesh and blood.  His own.   He was home.

Tramcars on York Street, in the bustling metropolis of Colombo, circa 1900’s. (Courtesy Google images).
Goodbye farming communities, wattle-and-daub abodes and coconut-thatch roofs in the rural the northern province of Jaffna … (Google images)

Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was an intelligent young woman, as beautiful as she was bright.  She conversed fluently in English, a bright star at Uduvil Girls’ College where she was awarded a Queen’s Scholarship in 1901 when she obtained her Calcutta University Matriculation Certificate.  

Woman beyond her time: born in 1876, Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers (far left), with classmates (courtesy Eric Perinpanayagam)
Uduvil Girls School founded by the CMS Anglican Missonaries in Jan. 1824, the first girls’ boarding school established in Asia.
A senior class at Uduvil Girls’ School, circa early 1900’s (Courtesy Tishan Mills,

School teacher, evangelist, lifelong friend and ally of Dr. Mary Rutnam, Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was a woman beyond her time.

Dr Mary Rutnam (1873-1962), a Canadian pioneer, physician, philanthropist and political activist, came to Ceylon in 1896. She was rejected as a missionary doctor because of her marriage to a Ceylonese Tamil man. In defiance of missionary and colonial society, she remained in Ceylon and worked for the government.

In 1904 Rebecca married Samuel Alfred Chellathurai Perinpanayagam who was a first cousin.  They were both grandchildren of Kadirgamar and Harriet (Theivenei)  Danvers.  (Kadirgamar Danvers was the first in the family line to convert to Christianity). The couple moved to Colombo where Samuel Alfred was employed by the British firm, Messrs Boustead Brothers.  They settled in the then fashionable suburb of Kotahena, where they purchased a home in Silversmith Street (now Bandaranaike Mawatha)

Samuel Alfred and Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam, grandly attired in colonial finery.




Shadrak found shelter in the kind maternal presence of his aunt and was happy in the home in Kotahena.  Barely into his teens, the boy was apprenticed to the British firm, Hoare and Company.  Here he was initiated into the hardware business.  The job called for hard manual labour and his duties often included heaving heavy bags around on his back.    Young though he was, and now a cog in the wheel of big city life, Shadrak never gave up the daily discipline of a quiet early morning time alone in prayer and scripture-reading.  He clung with steadfast determination to the early discipline of  his grandmother’s teaching, From time to time he paused to open the twelfth-birthday letter from his granny to refresh his memory and savour the words of the blessing scrawled in Tamil script.

Fishing boats in Kotahena, circa 1900’s. (Courtesy Google images).
Granny Victoria Harriet (Theivanei) Danvers, one of the earliest graduates of Uduvil Girls’ School, whose birthday blessing written to Shadrak on his 12th birthday, were a powerful source of inspiration. She wrote: May you one day, little one, be a millionaire and a great man …
Pettah, Colombo, circa early 1900’s.  A Colombo suburb in young Shadrak’s new territory (Google images)




Little Anna felt forlorn.  She missed Solomon, her twin and boon companion.   Young Solomon, along with his two older brothers, was sent away to the northern city of Jaffna, to be taken in by foster families and educated at St John’s College, a reputed missions school for boys.  The twins, perhaps due to the traumatic circumstances surrounding their birth, had been inseparable.  It would be many years before she would set eyes on her beloved twin brother again.

st johns college
St John’s College as it stands today, renovated and restored after the civil war (picture taken by this writer in 2017)
Souvenir published in 1998 to mark the 175th anniversary of St John’s College, a prestigious seat of learning for boys established by Anglican missionaries, shows the original school buildings.








Sara Chinnamma (the oldest of the three sisters) and Anna Chinnathangam (the youngest) attended the local missions school in Vavuniya. 

Students at a local missions school, with a native teacher at the blackboard. (Google images).

Elizabeth Thangamma, the middle sister, who had no particular desire or inclination for book learning wasn’t unhpappy when her schooling was discontinued prematurely.  She stayed home and assisted  Grandma with the household chores.  

Vavuniya in the Vanni region, where the girls lived with their widowed grandmother, was still wild, undeveloped territory.  Foreigners hesitated to set foot in the area and all missionary work was relegated to the native converts to Christianity. The local centres of leaning were staffed by native teachers and the level of education offered at these schools was basic.  Anna was a student at such a school, which was a short walk away from her grandmother’s home.  She shone like a star.  

One unforgettable day, an unexpected visitor was directed to this modest seat of education in Vavuniya.  The Reverend S.S. Somasundaram from Saint John the Baptist Anglican Church, Chundikuli, Jaffna, was on a tour of inspection.  Wearing a long, flowing beard and unusually short cassock, the famous bicycle-riding priest cut a striking figure when he stepped into Anna’s classroom.  The child eyed the stranger with fascination. 

A little Tamil girl from northern Ceylon, Bible in hand, early 1900’s. An Anna lookalike, perhaps?
Rev. Sangarapillai Somasundaram (later Canon Somasundaram) was born (1877) to an orthodox Hindu family.  He was disowned by his family when he became a convert to Christianity.  He was once called the greatest Christian of the century in Jaffna.  His chosen mode of transport was his bicycle, on which he was known to travel long distances. (Google images)

The clergyman conducted a spur-of-the-moment quiz, utilizing a large map of Ceylon, which hung on the wall.  He pointed and encouraged the young scholars to identify various locations on the the island.  Burning with enthusiasm, Anna was the one student who eagerly raised her hand and stood up every time to deliver a  correct response.

A vintage map of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) showing the northern Vanni region where Anna lived with her sisters and grandmother (Google images)

Intrigued by bearded the stranger, she lingered during lunch recess and observed curiously as the august visitor partook of his meal.  She noticed that the accompaniments surrounding the plate of rice were bland and wondered why there were no spice-hot curries in the mix.  Something didn’t seem right.

A traditional Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) lunch. Rice with fiery curried vegetables and meat or fish (Google images)









Her curious eyes observed the visitor’s hand go his stomach.  She gathered from the way he winced and the grimace contorting his face, that he was suffering great pain.    

Boldly she stepped forward and enquired in Tamil, “Rasam kondu varalama?”  (“Could I bring you some rasam?”) (Rasam is a spicy soup, a northern speciality, tasty eaten with rice and curries and an excellent remedy for digestive ills.)

Taken aback the Reverend replied, “Where would you get the rasam from, little girl?”

“My granny will make it,” Anna answered with unhesitating conviction and darted away.

She returned a short while later carefully holding a jar of the promised liquid, still hot from Granny’s cooking pot. With grateful gulps, the gentleman availed himself of the thoughtful offering, pleased and taken aback by the child’s unexpected action.  Touched by the concern she showed, he told her he felt much better.

“You’re a clever little girl,” Reverend Somasundaram declared, smiling at the bright-eyed child.  “Would you like to study in Jaffna?”

“I have to ask my grandmother,” Anna responded.

“Then I want to meet your granny,” the priest replied.

Anna ran back home again. The bewildered grandmother was ushered into Rev. Somasundaram’s presence and almost collapsed from shock when she heard him say, “May I have your permission to take this child back with me to Chundikuli? The Church will be responsible for her education.”

Grandma Harriet Danvers gladly gave her consent and little Anna Chinnathangam was whisked away to her new life by the timely intervention of fate.  She was enrolled as a boarder at Chundikuli Girls’ College, an Anglican missions school in Jaffna, where she adapted well to the dazzling overnight change in her circumstances.

Chundikuli Girls’ College as it stands today, restored after a brutal civil war. (2017)
Chundikuli Girls’ Collge at its original location, in the fashionable Jaffna suburb of Chundikuli, in 1904

Anna excelled in her studies, successfully completed the Senior Cambridge examination and embarked on her chosen career as a trained teacher.

Anna Chinnathangam bloomed into an elegant town girl.  She came to be known as a stylish dresser.
Staff at a CMS Anglican Missions school, circa 1900’s 

In the meanwhile, big brother Shadrak who was domiciled in Colombo, impressed his employers with his intelligence, disciplined work ethic and quiet wisdom. He rose to the position of store manager at Hoare and Company.

Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam (seated, centre) with her family.  Her younger son, George Walter Kulasingham Perinpanayagam on her lap.  Standing (right) her older son, Stephen Edgar Rasasingham Perinpanayagam.  Her husband, Samuel Alfred Chellathurai Perinpanayagam (standing behind her).  Seated (left) her mother, the praying grandmother, Victoria Harriet (Theivanei) Danvers




Still pretty in old age – Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers)  Perinpanayagam, circa 1950’s.  Rebecca had a second son who died before his first birthday.  There was also an adopted daughter who passed away in her teens.  (Courtesy Elizabeth Gnanaselvam)













Shadrak referred to his Aunt Rebecca’s sons – his cousins, Stephen Edgar Rasasingham and George Walter Kulasingham Perinpanayagam – as his brothers.  

Cousin Stephen Edgar Rasasingham Perinpanayagam (later known as Rasa Unca), a learned intellectual, older son of Samuel Alfred and Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam (Courtesy Eric Perinpanayagam)
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Cousin George Walter Kulasigham Perinpanayagam (later known as Geo Unca), the younger son of Rebecca and Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam (courtesy Bala Abraham)









The affection was mutual and the closeness remained till the end of their lives.

Faith was the glue that held the community together.  Sunday was a day of rest and socializing when immediate and extended family met to worship at morning service at Saint Thomas’ Anglican Church, Ginthupitya, and spent the rest of the day visiting each other’s homes.  This tradition was maintained for several years as a steady trickle of migration brought relatives from the north to the island’s capital and they all settled in Kotahena, within visiting distance of each other.

The closeness remained till the end of their lives. Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam holding her nephew Shadrak’s first grandchild, Srikanthi, on her lap (circa 1950’s) (Courtesy Cynthia Pillai)
The little church of Saint Thomas, Gintupitiya, one of the oldest Anglican churches in the country, built on the mound where the apostle Thomas is believed to have preached when he visited the island of Ceylon en route to his missionary journey to India (Google images) 
Young Tamil woman from northern Ceylon, circa 1900’s. (Google images)


Uppermost always on Shadrak’s mind were his siblings, two hundred miles away in the arid northern provinces of the island.

{Click here to read Our Present Past 4:  The Newtons Of Old Park View}

To be continued …

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