When Iyappan Sangaran arrived in Sri Lanka early last century, he did not have a single penny in his hands and had no idea how to survive. However, he has left a legacy in the form of Subhash Hotel that has become synonymous with the recent history of the Jaffna Peninsula.
Sangaran arrived in the country in 1918. Poverty in many parts of India had pushed this young boy of 14 to leave his home in Kerala and come to Sri Lanka in search of a livelihood.
After working in Kalutara for some time, he moved to Jaffna during the Second World War. In due course, he had earned enough to buy himself a car and started to live on the income he earned by hiring the car.
His eldest son, S Hariharan who currently lives in Wattala explained that life was hard in India at that time and therefore people had to go towards greener pastures. “Sri Lanka was considered a better place during those times,” he said with a smile.
As time passed, Sangaran had enough money to put up Subhash Cafe in 1947. He left to Kerala in 1950 to be married. Upon his return, Sangaran put up Subhash Cream House adjacent to the cafe. “We were the first to sell ice cream in Jaffna,” added Hariharan proudly.
In 1970, Sangaran successfully established Subhash Hotel, which in the later years became a landmark in the peninsula. The 30-room hotel was certified by the Tourism Ministry and functioned as the only tourist hotel in the peninsula for the next two decades.
The number of rooms was increased to 45 when another building with 15 rooms was added to the complex.Hariharan said that his father had the monopoly in the peninsula as he had no other competition.
Interestingly, neither Sangaran nor any of his family members had the name Subhash. The name Subhash was taken from the name
Subhash Chandrabose, a freedom fighter in India. “My father liked Subhash Chandrabose a lot. He had his own movement and fought for freedom,” Hariharan said. “You would see many of Subhash Chandrabose’s pictures in the hotel.”
He worked tirelessly for years until Hariharan joined the business endeavour in 1970 after completing his education.
All of Sangaran’s hard work proved to be in vain when fighting between the government forces and the LTTE intensified in the mid 199
0s. Being the only building that could house a lot of people, the hotel accommodated doctors and their families as the fighting intensified.
Sangaran and his family had to vacate the hotel with the doctors for safety. The family moved to Chavakachcheri, south of Jaffna town and had to be there for a month until they got the clearance to travel to Colombo.
Hariharan and his father were running the hotel at the time it was taken over by the military.
“He had put his heart and soul into the hotel. It was a one-man-show. He had no relatives here. He did it on his own,” said Hariharan.
Sangaran and his wife left for India while Hariharan moved to the house of his in-laws where he has lived since. “All of us in the hotel were asked to leave. My father wanted to be very strong and was preparing to leave with all of us. But on the last day, he would not leave his room. He was lying in his room. I had to persuade him to come with us to save our lives. The incident did affect him a lot,” Hariharan said. Sangaran passed away three years after the hotel was taken over by the Army.
While his siblings were residing in other parts of the world, Hariharan stayed back in Sri Lanka, in order to be near his father’s heart. Hariharan made sure he visited the peninsula during the last 15 years to see the state of the properties. “I continuously kept in touch with the Army in Subhash Hotel. They were very good to me and allowed me to enter the premises whenever I visited Jaffna.”
On March 4, the military announced that it would hand over Subhash Hotel back to its owners. The military had on February 10 released the smaller building of the hotel and therefore, it was only a matter of time before they released the main building back to its owners. “I was ecstatic when I got to know that it would be given back to us. My father is no more to see this. My mother is in India. She was very happy when we broke the news to her.”
Speaking of his future plans for the hotel, Hariharan said that he would continue with the business that his father started. “That is the least I can do for my father. Subhash Hotel is an established name. I will take it forward and keep the name going and keep my father’s legacy alive.”
However, Jaffna has changed from what it was 15 years ago. The end of the 30-year conflict has brought a lot of changes to the peninsula. Hariharan too, is aware that the environment has changed and that it would not be a cakewalk for Subhash Hotel.
Hariharan, however, pointed out that Jaffna had the potential to become a prominent tourist destination. “I am confident that this will happen within the next five years,” he said.
Peace has prompted many people to visit the North. Guesthouse keeping is the biggest business in the peninsula as of now. “I know the situation there. I do not want to reap profit. All I want is to keep the name going. It’s the prestige,” Hariharan added.
Published in the Nation on March 13, 2011