Ambalavaner Sivanandan left Ceylon in 1958, then aged 35, shocked by the violence of the ’58 riots in Colombo. Months later, he arrived in London and ‘walked straight into the Notting Hill Gate riots.’ The cumulative effects of these events on his personal and political life prompted him to begin writing: ‘I felt that the only way I could fight was to write.’ He rose to prominence as Chief Librarian and later Director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in London, leading a staff and member revolt that would radically alter the mission of the organisation. While there, he became editor of Race & Class, a journal committed to anti-racism and anti-imperialism, and went on to write many
books including Catching history on the wing and When Memory Dies.


Ambalavaner Sivanandan, 89, talks about the complex process of identity formation in the age of ‘identity politics’ and the many contradictions, experiences and people that shaped, and continue to shape, his sense of self.

In his interview, he also reminisces about his laid back approach to school…

‘…I was a mutt at school – I’m still a mutt. For me school was a playground.
I failed my university entrance exam. I had to wait another year. I wanted to
do law. My father said, ‘I don’t have money and in any case you will make the
worst lawyer in the world because you won’t take any nonsense from anybody.’
He used to complain that, especially when I ran off with a Sinhalese girl, he used
to say, ‘I gave him the freedom of the wild ass and now he is using it against me.’’

…Sinhalese and Tamil attitudes towards interracial marriage…

‘They [parents] had been trying to arrange marriages for me and I turned them
all down and then this came along. I said, ‘I’ll never have an arranged marriage
in my life’ and I fell in love…And her parents didn’t like it and my parents didn’t
know about it till a week or two before…Her parents didn’t want a ‘Demala’
[derogatory term for Tamil] to marry their daughter and my parents didn’t want,
mostly I think they didn’t want a Catholic, rather than Sinhalese. My father’s
argument was not as racist as theirs. His was much more in the religious vein.
The only thing about the race part was that he said, ‘Mixed marriages are not
going to be accepted in this country and you are going to have a hard time and
the children will be half-caste children. Half-caste children won’t have a future
in this country. You are getting yourself into a lot of trouble.’’

…the influence of emancipatory politics, left-wing Ceylonese theorists-cum-university lecturers and the Indian independence struggle on his thinking…

‘At one point in my last year, N. M. Perera, who was the leader of the Sama
Samaja Party, gave visiting lectures on the Soviet Constitution. So we had
some very good teachers. Don’t forget, this was 1942, ‘43, ’44, when the Sama
Samajists were just beginning to get their act together and the CP
Party of Sri Lanka) was born with Pieter Keuneman and Wickramasinghe and
so on and there was a pre-independence ferment which
 took off on the back of
the Indian struggle for nationalism. We ourselves didn’t have the same struggle
as the Indians. We rode on the coattails of the Indian
 struggle for independence.
And so we got independence about the same time in ‘48. But this was a period,
before ‘48, where everything, politics was in ferment.
 I was caught up in the
vortex of all this. I began to see what was happening to our country. I began to
see that the plantations were at one time agricultural
 land, began to see that we
were self-sufficient in food, that we were the granary of the East, all these things.
So my growing into consciousness came through all
 these lecturers and
teachers of the university.’

…the personal and political turning point of the ‘58 riots…

‘It was a baptism of fire. It was the shock of the whole thing. I was such a
cosmopolitan, I suppose…And I couldn’t take the injustice, I suppose in the
same way I couldn’t take the injustice of the bank manager, injustice of my
father when he asked me not to marry. He taught me to fight injustice and I
turned it against him. So not that he taught me to fight injustice, he was an
example of fighting for his peers and people like that. So when this happened,
I began to look at my Sinhalese friends as Sinhalese because they are not
saving any Tamils.’

…his experiences of leaving Sri Lanka and arriving in Britain…

‘Nothing. I felt nothing, a huge void. It is very difficult to make decisions in a void.
But when you do, only the decision matters. So I had to sell the house, sell
car, sell various things. Get the money. Get whatever the pension was due to me.
At that time it was a lot of money, about five thousand quid, about that.
 Came by
boat, tried to look for a place, couldn’t get a place. Put down a deposit and lost
the money because they cheated me. There was a lot of racism at the
Not that there isn’t now but it was very open then. After the riots, it was very
difficult to get a place…My son turns around and says, ‘Appa
 where’s the sun?’
And my daughter says, ‘There are no flowers here and no garden to play in’…’

…and his rise to prominence in the UK anti-racist and anti-imperialist
struggle for liberation…

‘I was seated with three friends, Sinhalese friends, in a pub in Bayswater Road,
a warm day. We were sitting outside the bar and somebody came, there were
some people, and we heard something about trouble going on just a few miles
away in Notting Hill. Some blacks were being attacked, or I don’t know exactly
what, but the rumour came that there was trouble there. I said, ‘Good Lord,
I must go and see this, see what I can do.’ I said, ‘Come on! I’ve just come from
 Sri Lanka ones.’ And one of my friends who was an income tax commissioner
or something, he turned around to me and said, ‘Those are negroes, nothing to
do with us.’ Those few months were a learning process I had never had. You see,
I have always believed that going to university gives you only the wherewithal,
the equipment with which to interpret experience. Experience itself must come
along and hit you in the head, and it did for me, one after the other, my father’s
house being attacked, my getting them out, my fear, my despair, my sadness and
my determination and I flee and I come here and I got these Sinhalese friends of
mine talking about ‘negroes’.

I think it was about this time that I decided to chuck up everything and start
writing. Because I felt that the only way I could fight was to write. Writing was
a way of fighting but first of all I had to earn some money to keep my family
going…So I became a librarian there [Institute of Race Relations] in 1964 and
 began to overhaul the Library completely, utterly…And so that made it become
political, so race and colonialism, independence, neo-colonialism, what
 and so on. And so my books and articles and things like that, they
began to reflect that. And this was a private library, private in the sense of
members of
 the Institute. But I allowed kids from the outside, mostly black kids,
Black and Asian as they say now, kids who wanted to know about things which
 happening in America — there’s the Black Power movement. And they
wanted to know about Black Panther Party newspapers, Elijah Muhammad’s
 Muhammad Speaks, The Liberator, all sorts of papers and this
and that. And they couldn’t get it anywhere. And I was also getting community
papers from South
 Africa. So I was bringing in a Third World dimension in to
race politics and that Third World dimension concerned with colonialism,
independence, capitalism,
 etcetera. So it became a sort of kindergarten for
the Left, if I may presume…

And I had gone to America in the meantime and met some of the Panthers –
at that time Bobby Seale was in prison, Berkeley – and I learnt a lot there.
And they learned a lot from me because however revolutionary they were,
till the Panthers, Newton and Seale and people, began to talk about Maoism
 became politicised by going to China, Huey in particular, Huey Newton…
I went to the Panther’s office, I met various other people and I gave talks at
 other universities…and I talked at Berkeley too. The new institute
they were putting up on race, I gave the inaugural talk – I was just a petty
librarian. I gave
 the inaugural talk and when I talked I said black.
They didn’t understand it. They said, ‘No Asian in this country calls himself
black.’ I said, ‘That’s the contribution
 that Britain has got to make to your
struggles because we have still a Third World conscience and black for us
has become now struggles in Britain, where Afro Caribbeans and Asians
came together on the factory floor or in the community and they fought as
a people for a class and a class for a people. Because most of us were,
we had loads, whatever our qualifications, discrimination prevented us
from getting the jobs that we were qualified for.’ And so I said, ‘The Black
Power movement doesn’t have a Third World perspective. That is the thing
that we bring to you. And black is a political colour, not the colour of your skin.
When you mix up slavery and colonialism and racism and Christianity and
all that, the conquerors and all that stuff, the colour of oppression today is
black, like the colour of rebellion is red.’’