Back in the day Raj Janan’s father was a successful industrialist in Jaffna, owning at various times an aluminium factory, a knitwear factory, a private hospital and a newspaper. Janan’s childhood was disrupted by the JVP insurrection in 1971 when he was 11 years old. One consequence of which was the family was split, with mother and sister stuck in Colombo and the father and two brothers in Jaffna.
In this period, without direct maternal support, Janan asked his father for a job in the aluminium factory. Looking forward to a cushy management role befitting the boss’s son, he was issued with a broom to sweep the warehouse. After a couple of weeks he was promoted to teaboy, in charge of boiling water in a big pot over an open wood fire. Janan says he tried crying, but his father was unmoved. Having perfected his tea making skills, able to serve 50 workers at a time, Janan was elevated to operating the factory machinery. It was in this period, says Janan, that he learned to empathise with the common people. People who at the end of the working day he would join to bathe at the well. An empathy for which he remains grateful to his father, not to mention his skills with brooms and pots of boiling water.
After studying at Central College and St John’s College, two of Jaffna’s leading schools, Janan left for India in 1977 to do the “pre-university” course and then apply for university. Qualifying to enter the medical faculty, to the disapproval of his father Janan instead joined Bangalore University’s Department of Agriculture. Some years earlier, when he was 12 years old, Janan’s father had bought a 40 acre estate in Iyakkachchi a little north of Elephant Pass. Every weekend he went with his father to work on this land, creating a passion for agriculture in the young boy.
Four years later, Janan returned to Sri Lanka from Bangalore and joined a Norwegian NGO doing agricultural research. The Norwegians were studying the traditional indigenous organic agricultural methods, and how they improved the soil.
In 1984 Janan was driving with one of the Norwegians near Jaffna University when they saw the actual shooting of a person tied to a lamppost. Having stayed through the communal riots of 1983, this experience of witnessing a “live shooting” caused the Norwegians to decide it was time to leave. However, they helped Janan win a prestigious NORAD fellowship in Norway where he spent a year. He then joined NORAD, Norway’s development aid management body, with whom he worked in Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. Janan said he talked himself into these postings by citing his experience living in a war situation in Jaffna. He admits the lack of other applicants for these hazardous postings was also helpful. Perhaps Janan had second thoughts when, during the Palestinian Intifada in 1988, he was mistaken as a Palestinian by Israeli soldiers. The resulting beating left him with three broken teeth, though the soldiers were very apologetic when he explained he is Sri Lankan. They even drove him back to his hotel and left him at the bar to medicate himself. The soldiers returned the next day to take Janan on a tour to the Mount of Olives and other famous sights, such was their remorse.
Janan left NORAD and migrated to Canada. He then moved to the USA where he worked for various environmental bodies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Hazardous Waste Research Institute, the Illinois State Water Survey and the Land Monitoring Agency. His work included developing a GPS (Global Positioning System) application to map the massive USA farmlands. Back in the 1980s/90s the GPS system that now fits invisibly in your smartphone required a large backpack with a long antenna poking out of it.