Jambajumba of Aborigineland
CONNECTING WITH THE ABORIGINES Dr. Dayalan Devanesen
I recently bumped into two scholars from abroad with a common interest, Raja Serfoji II (1777-1832) of Tanjore, and both I met through the Roja Muthiah Research Library. Savithri Preetha Nair was from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Indira Viswanathan Peterson is a Professor at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. And both were looking for more material on the polymath Raja's connection with the Pietists from the Danish Halle Mission in Tranquebar. Personally, I thought both should be talking more to each other than to me.
Nair considers Serfoji as the best example in South India of what Francis Bacon described as the "enlightened pursuit of useful knowledge", the Indian equivalent of the Pietists of Germany and Joseph Banks, that leader of the English Enlightenment. Getting him interested in this search for knowledge while a boy in Madras were the German missionaries Christian Frederick Schwartz and Wilhelm Gericke, who taught him mathematics, geography and economics, the surgeon John Anderson who introduced him to anatomy, sericulture and horticulture, the `Orientalists' Colin Mackenzie and Francis Whyte Ellis who offered him the riches of the Dravidian languages and Sanskrit, and Governor Lord Robert Hobart who advised him on the Western social graces. When as an adult he returned to Tanjore in 1798, all these influences led him to establish in the palace complex, libraries, a museum, printing presses, pharmacies and medical facilities, educational institutions, gardens and a menagerie.
That menagerie fascinated that great Tanjore Christian poet Vedhanayagam Sastri whose Nanattacca Natagam (The Drama of the Divine Carpenter) includes a section on Noah's Ark. According to Peterson, in one of her several papers on Serfoji, both the Raja and Sastri wrote long, didactic poems, which expounded on cosmography, astronomy, natural history and geography. Two of them, curiously with similar sounding names, were Serfoji's `Fortune-teller Play of the King of the Gods' (Devendra Kuravanji) in Marathi and Sastri's `The Fortune-teller Play of Bethlehem' (Bethlehem Kuravanji) in Tamil.
Another paper of Peterson's discusses Serfoji's two-year pilgrimage to Benares (1820-1822) which she says "entailed not only visits to sacred places and acts of piety, but the collection of Sanskrit manuscripts, visits to the British administrators and European printing presses and shipyards, and the collection of natural history specimens for scientific research." More than a pilgrimage, it was an exploration of India, a study tour of what the country had to offer and a look into governance and administration.
Peterson's other interest is a Sanskrit text (c.1800) called Sarvadesavilasa, which she urges me to get a translation of. This anonymous work, she tells me, is a veritable picture of late 18th Century Madras, discussing its leading Indian citizens, talking of the various public cultural performances in the city, and describing a topography that's virtually what's shown in the map of 1798.
I recently met Jambajumba from the Northern Territory of Australia, one-sixth of the Australian landmass where nearly 60,000 Aborigines, about 30 per cent of the Territory's population and 13 per cent of Australia's Aborigine population, live in scattered communities in an inhospitable terrain. Jambajumba is Dayalan Devanesen from Madras. When Devanesen went to Australia as a young doctor in 1973, he joined the famed `Flying Doctors' service of Australia's north which by radio, telephone and air tended the remote farms and settlements of that arid region. At that time, Australia was a mystery to him, particularly its rugged whites and nomadic blacks in its great North. He didn't even know what a midnight radio-caller meant when he said, "My wife is real crook; you'd better get up here fast, Doc." He had to wake up his supervisor to find out what that was all about and got an earful of other Aussieisms for his pains. But he learnt. And he particularly learnt about and from the Aborigines. From making flying visits in and out to distant communities, he got around to staying with them for the night, then for a few days at a time. He sat with them and wandered around with them and listened to them talk of the `Dreamtime', that 40,000-year-old history of theirs and their daily spiritual connectivity with it through rituals, dancing and chanting. Soon, he was one of them, learning about their traditional medicines and their explanations for illnesses. And as he became almost one of them in knowledge, they gave him an aborigine name, Jambajumba.
In turn, Devanesen noted what took the heaviest toll of them: diarrhoea, dehydration and pneumonia. And he began a programme to teach them to help themselves at least till help came. When he wanted to spread the word of the programme he was trying to develop, the nurses, the doctors, the officials all were convinced it wouldn't work. Till one day he impassionedly made a plea to the Director of the service and was almost being turned down when the Director's tall, strikingly attractive, green-eyed secretary butted in with a "Give him a chance, Doctor". And when Devanesen got his chance, he discovered that Ms. Fazal was Ms. Fazaluddin, whose grandfather had been a Pathan cameleer who had crossed the wastes of Australia hundreds of times and had benefited much from aborigine wisdom.
Devanesen's medical programme for the aborigines was a simple one which led to him being made Director, Primary Health Coordinated Care, Northern Territory Health Services, Australia. Under it, a few members in every Aborigine community had to become proficient in three things: Immediately calling a doctor on the radio, giving oral rehydration, and giving a penicillin injection. With expertise has come a dramatic decrease in death rates. And honours for Dr. Dayalan Devanesen.
He has been honoured with the Order of Australia. Rarely is kin honoured the same way in another country. But Dayalan's brother Sudarshan has been awarded the Order of Canada, also for community health care. The two brothers with similar recognition for similar work in two different countries are the sons of Chandran Devanesan, the first Indian Principal of Madras Christian College and a legend in his time, and Savitri Devanesen, whose kin were founders of the Trotskyite movement in Sri Lanka.
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