Monday, September 05, 2005

Review: A simple mind, using simplistic definitions to analyse a complex subject By: S. JeyasankarSource: Northeastern Monthly - September 1, 2005

Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003 by Professor D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke; pub Vijitha Yapa Publications; pp. 318; January 2005

“It is to the credit of Sri Lankan writers in English that they have confronted the so-called ‘ethnic’ crisis, the most difficult problem facing the country since independence, from its inception to date. The literature on the subject indicates that ex-President D. B. Wijetunga’s apparently simple statement goes to the heart of matter: ‘there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, there is only a terrorist problem.’ The literature captures or suggests the ramifications of this problem, both national and international, and its false as well as true face.” (P.128)
The above piece is the essence of Professor D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke’s book titled Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003. The selections, omissions and interpretations in his work are constructed according to the thesis mentioned above.

The publisher notes on the back cover of the book “… Goonetillke’s inquiry is informative and penetrating. It is meant for general readers who wish to be acquainted with the English literary scene in Sri Lanka as well as those who take a specialised interest in the field.

“The history of Sri Lankan English literature is viewed in the context of the history of the Sri Lankan people and such major events as independence, the social revolution of 1956, the insurgencies of 1971 and 1988-1989, and the ethnic conflict as recorded in literature, are comprehensively examined. Literature is considered here in its widest sense as it appears in newspapers and journals, as well as in books. While the central focus is on literature after independence, the literature from 1917 onwards is analysed to provide a complete understanding of the subject.”

The contents of the book clearly expose the biases of the writer, who he is and what is in his mind about Sri Lanka, ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ and Sri Lankan English literature. Even though Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and multicultural country, for the author it is not so. His opinion is different.

“Dionysius Sumanasekera’s ‘broken English’ is very much in evidence in Fifty-Fifty. In this play De Lanerolle treats pleasantly and humorously the ‘ethnic’ conflict (between the majority community, the Sinhalese, and the minority Tamils) which today has assumed acrimonious, even fearful and intractable proportions. To understand his satire on the (Ceylon) Tamil demand for as much representation as the Sinhalese in parliament, one needs to know the ethnic composition of the island’s population. It has remained more or less the same during the last fifty years, and the 1981 census, the last national census, had it as 73.98% Sinhalese, 12.6% Tamils, 7.12% Moors, 5.56% Indian Tamils, 0.29% Malays, 0.26% Burghers (descendants of the Portuguese and the Dutch), 0.20% others. Of the 12.6% Tamils, fewer than half live in the North of Sri Lanka; the majority live among the Sinhalese and usually at peace. It is in this context that De Lanerolle is able to advocate intermarriage as his solution to ethnic problems!” (Goonetillke p.159)The above paragraph captures the author’s socio-political perception of Sri Lanka and how he positions himself as an intellectual writing in English, especially writing on literature in English, or about English literature.
People who are committed to work for a peaceful and prosperous country have to think of the construction and reconstruction of the concept of Sri Lanka, ‘Sri Lankan-ness,’ Sri Lankan art and literature and English literature, against the background of the country’s multiethnic and multicultural character.

The idea that Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and multicultural country has to be infused into Sri Lankans. The functions of education and the media should be to achieve this end. But the tragedy of this country has been the intellectual blindness of its opinion-makers and thinkers. Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003 is a text, which is a simple and solid example of the importance of teaching this in the world of post-modern literature.
People concerned about the unity and integrity of the country talk of using English as a link language. They sometimes go beyond that and insist on bringing back English as the medium of instruction to bridge the gap between conflicting communities, believing that the conflict was created by the introduction of the mother tongue (swabasha) for administrative, legal and educational purposes in the country.

But a person who begins to read Goonetillke’s book with a commonsensical view of the Sri Lankan context would, unquestionably, be forced to freeze for a second and take a second look on the validity of the above school of thought.

It is very interesting to compare Goonetillke’s writing with that of another intellectual cum artist – Ranjini Obeyesekere – in her version of Sri Lanka. Her book on theatre, Sri Lankan Theatre in a Time of Terror: Political Satire in a Permitted Space also refers only marginally to Thamils.

“I wish to add that this book deals with the Sinhala theatre in Sri Lanka even though I refer to it in the title as Sri Lankan Theatre. I do so intentionally for name recognition. Sri Lanka is a very small country and though better known in the world today (sometime for unfortunate reasons) few outside the country know that Sinhala is the language of the majority population who live in Sri Lanka. Therefore although Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic society and there is a significant minority Tamil population in the island I make no reference in the book to Tamil theatre in Sri Lanka. I do so partly because it is extraneous to my central theme of Sinhala theatre and its ‘permitted space’ which I see as a feature strongly influenced by Sinhala Buddhist culture; but also because by the 1980s the civil war in the North and East and the tensions and disruptions it caused had made Tamil theatre almost non-existent other than in small pockets in the North and East.” (Obeyesekere, p.15)

This does not come as a shock for a reader who is from the minority community, or from an oppressed community, or for the people of the periphery who are excluded from the writings and conceptualisations of intellectuals of the majority group. But this must be contested if we are to establish a country where there is equality, and celebrate difference and diversity in our society.

Goonetilleke simply discards any space for Thamils in Sri Lanka with the support of the latest census and by highlighting De Lanerolle’s advocacy of intermarriage as the solution to the ethnic problem and Wijetunga’s apparently simple statement, “there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, there is only a terrorist problem.”

Obeyesekere goes a few steps further and is very patronising as in the above-quoted passage, where she concludes stating, “… by the 1980s the civil war in the North and East and the tensions and disruptions it caused had made Tamil theatre almost non-existent other than in small pockets in the North and East.” (p.15)

But to her, similar situations reflected differently in the South. “I happened to spend the summers of 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990 in Sri Lanka and was amazed to find that in spite of sudden curfews, days of panic and nights of terror, the Sinhala theatre was more active than I had ever known it to be.” (Obeyesekere, p.11)

Conceptually, bridging the gap between conflicting parties is not a matter of language, but of the mind. As a theatre activist, I have seen how people who are aware of the socio-political situation of the country, and activists from both sides who only have the help of their vernacular languages, cross barriers and raise their voices across borders in Sri Lanka.
But Goonetilleke fails this test. Where or why does an international language, or an international literature, fail to liberate Goonetilleke and his ilk?

Goonetilleke is not an ordinary person. The publisher’s note on the back cover of the book, which I quoted, reveals to the reader his high calibre academic achievements.“Professor Goonetilleke is the internationally recognized authority on Sri Lankan English literature. He was Foundation Visiting fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, Henry Charles Chapman Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and Guest Professor of English at the University of Tubingen, Germany. He was the International Chairperson of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) and Vice-President of the Federation Internationale des Languages et Literature Moderners (FILLM).”

I am not pointing to Goonetillke as a single individual, but simply as a representative of an ideology. From his earlier publication Anthology of Sri Lankan English Literature (1993) to his latest publication Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003 (2005) Goonetillke portrays Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Thamils, to reinforce his supremacist ideology.

Why am I so concerned about writings in English? Because of the colonial construction that has transformed the English language to make it appear neutral. The authoritative power of colonisation and its extension – neo-colonisation – has made English an international language and portrayed it as neutral to sustain its authoritative position from being questioned.
It is an interesting and very important to initiate a dialogue on the process of decolonising the mind. I usually have interesting conversations with my students on ‘rumour’ and ‘news.’ When I ask them whether rumour is true or false, they come out in one voice and say, “False!” When I ask them whether news is true or false, in one voice they say “True!” To the question whether the news we listen or view via the electronic media is true or false, the responses change immediately and mostly results in an answer that contradicts the earlier one. And if I question whether information we get by word of mouth is true or false, the answer is false.

It is the same story with writings in English and those in the non-English mother languages. Writings in English are considered as neutral and objective but the writings in the mother languages are considered as biased. That means subjective and emotional. ‘Neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ are the two elements that alienate ‘subjectivity’ which is essential for creativity. Subduing creativity is the basic requirement for colonialism and maintaining authority. In this regard we must thank Goonetilleke and his tribe for unknowingly helping us to question and deconstruct what they are celebrating as ‘neutral.’

“The International Federation of Journalists – the world’s largest journalist organisation – has made a serious indictment on the Sri Lankan press and mainly the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers, accusing them of carrying one-sided, inflammatory reports on the ethnic conflict and often quoting only one source… As a direct result of this reporting, the facts and situation were misrepresented and the conflict was inflamed rather than resolved.” (Daily Mirror 13 July 2005)

I’m not a defender of the one sidedness of the vast section of the vernacular media owned and controlled by the state, political parties and politicians, and business people who are connected with political parties. But I have certain reservations about defining writings in English as neutral and objective. The controlling nature of the English language and the democracy of the English speaking states have to be contested for the construction of another world not only for the human species, but also all the species on earth to live in harmony.

Terrorism, which Wijetunga refers to and Goonetilleke so heartily endorses, is not an inborn quality or feature in human beings. If it is inborn, then ‘war for democracy’ or ‘war for peace’ is meaningless. Genetic modification will be the only solution for the terrorist problems of the world.

Why does the unarmed democratic political leadership always fall prey to terrorism? Why are their leaders always surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards? Why are politics and diplomacy always connected with militarism and espionage? How can we define the politics connected with militarism and military intelligence as democracy? If it is democracy, whose democracy is it? Democracy is for whom?

It is simply democracy of the ruling class.

This is not the invention of the 21st century but we cannot go on with the age-old definitions and meanings of democracy. The definition of democracy must be liberated by deconstructing its function as the shield of the ruling class, namely the state. This will help us to liberate our perception of democracy and terrorism as being white and black.

Only the processes of dialogue on how this may be achieved will bring genuine peace to the entire world. Utilising the concept of democracy as a tool to disguise the power of the ruling class only brings chaos and more chaos. It never brings peace.