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James T. Rutnam - a versatile servant



James T. Rutnam

ICES Colombo is commemorating and celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Dr. James T. Rutnam, scholar, politician, humanist today at the ICES Auditorium.

Dr. S. U. Deraniyagala, Dr. Kumari Jayawardena, Prof. S. Pathmanathan and Mr. Silan Kadirgamar are to deliver lectures at this event.

The late James Thevathasan Rutnam hailed from Manipay in the northern peninsula but spent a good part of his life in Colombo 7 as its popular and illustrious personality.

His father was a man of means and owned property in Pandateruppu in Jaffna district. James led a comfortable life in his early years. His mother was a Miss Dwight.

James Rutnam lived in spacious two storyed house at Baron's Court in Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7, with a widespread garden around to.

He entered Ceylon Law College as a youth and in the first year examination won a coveted prize awarded for his highly commendable performance. Thereafter James Rutnam left Law College and did not pursue studies.

For a short while, James Rutnam adjourned to Nuwara Eliya and headed St. Xaviers College. An interesting incident of this time was Rutnam's encounter with a "white planter boss" of a tea estate.

Rutnam was radical in his thinking and inclined to be a leftist in his ideas, ideals and attitude. He espoused the fair cause of the labourers in an estate who were on strike. James Rutnam "bearded" the arrogant authoritarian white planter in his office and strongly advocated the demands of the labourers.

At a time when the white colonizers believed that the sun never set on their empire, the heady planter peremptorily gave five minutes to clear out of his office.

James Rutnam recognized that the odds were against him and gave the planter the five minutes to be reasonable, and then quit the planter's office promising to fight another day. Rutnam was tenacious.

James Rutnam's left leanings made him to welcome Maude, later Mrs. Pieter Keuneman, of the Communist Party at the Colombo harbour and offer generous hospitality on her arrival.

With such a predilection, Rutnam later on extended hospitality at his abode to Robert Gunawardena, a left political figure, when he returned from China after a stint of national service as a diplomat.

James Rutnam was an avid reader and an energetic collector of books, manuscripts, learned journals, and writings. It was also well known to the intelligentsia of Rutnam's propensity and eminence as a writer on politics, government, history, both ancient and modern archaeology and ancient lore.

It is in this capacity that Rutnam visited all the remarkable libraries, museums, and archives in the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States to record only a few countries where Rutnam spent time and money reading and collecting valuable books and originals of literary records.

No wonder scholars and researchers constantly visited James Rutnam from the universities in Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna. He never forsook his reading and collection of literary material and would go to great lengths in search of learned publications and rare manuscripts.

It was enlightening to read Rutnam's continuous contributions to 'The Tribune', a popular journal then among readers of contemporary national events.

Many will recall Rutnam's revelations in two noteworthy and popular recounts of the genealogies of two leading national and political personalities. In similar manner, Rutnam delved into esoteric data to refute wrong hypotheses propounded by some writers, more chauvinistic than scholarly.

Rutnam had a number of contacts with university dons. researchers, leading legal figures and businessmen. His stupendous library astounded one, and many learned personnel often consulted Rutnam and gained much from him.

He would spare time to inform and educate. It was no surprise that James Rutnam bequeathed his invaluable library to Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, and even put up a building in Jaffna to house his rich bequest of books.

It was named the Evelyn Rutnam Institute and remains under the American Missionaries as a testimony to James Rutnam's love of research and learning, and encouragement to young students.

Rutnam took a lively interest in The International Association of Tamil Research (IATR), the architect and builder of which was the late Reverend Father Xavier S. Thaninayagam.

James Rutnam gained a prominent role when the Association held its International Conference of Tamil Research in Jaffna and Madurai. He was a close associate of Father Thaninayagam, archaeologists, Directors of Museum and university teachers like Professor T. Nadaraja, W. J. F. Labrooy and many others.

James Rutnam was an active and regular member of the then exclusive club, Capri, and his companions and friends with whom he met were several. Reading, writing and research and travel kept Rutnam happily engaged in life.

The pursuit of stores of learning and learning itself in spite of a demanding social life and domestic engagements demonstrated that James Rutnam led a full rich life.

Although he would often refer to himself as "a successful failure"; really James Rutnam lived life to the best, and successfully, over the seven score and ten years of the Biblical span.

On the 1st of every month, James Rutnam generously assisted many who called on him, regularly and repeatedly. He was generous to his former aides in full measure. June 13th was another special day for James Rutnam as it was his birthday and he would recall that it is St. Anthony's day. He celebrated the event happily.

James Rutnam, when young, fell in love with Evelyn and thereby forfeited the favour of his father who did not like the union. But James loved Evelyn dearly and tears welled up in his eyes whenever he spoke of her with undying fondness. James had three daughters and five sons.

Today, I believe, only one son, Chandran, is in Sri Lanka. when young, James Rutnam did a lucrative business in rice imports from Rangoon, then capital in Burma, now Myanmar. Being magnanimous, liberal and sociable, and charitable, he spent as he earned.

Parkison's Disease affected James Rutnam, and in his last days he was unfortunately and sadly paralyse too, I felt. I called on him then at a house in Anderson Road off Dickman's Road, Havelock Town. James Rutnam was a true, faithful, and lovable learned companion. Many are those who benefitted from Rutnam's erudition especially. Rutnam did try to enter politics but failed. What national politics lost, yet learning and culture gained, better fields indeed.

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