The ‘ideal Sinhalese’

On reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, this writer could not help wondering why Sri Lankan novelists writing in Sinhala have consistently failed to maintain a critical distance from their own culture and the status quo. The White Tiger may not be the greatest work of fiction to come out of India in the last decade, but it did reveal the dark side of India's so-called economic boom, and questioned the ideals of the consumerist middle class that is the most vocal supporter of neo-liberal economic policies. Of course, the 'Indian novel' (at least its English-language incarnations) has long been critically evaluating postcolonial India – Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August being just three well-known examples. An early masterpiece such as Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope (1960) likewise investigated India's possible relationship with the West, with an implicit critique of trying to be Western and Indian simultaneously.

The White Tiger, however, was a sharp slap in the face of neo-liberal India, and the book has illustrated that a novel can indeed 'intervene'. Keeping one's critical distance from the dominant ideologies of the time is a precondition of becoming a great writer, particularly when these very ideologies are smuggled in through the intricate and seductive means of audio-visual media. Arundhati Roy was right on target when she stated, in The Ordinary Person's Guide to the Empire, that new media is not the mere 'vehicle' of neo-liberalism – media is neo-liberalism. Along these lines, the majority of Indians only enjoy the image of being rich, rather than actually being rich.

Sri Lanka's neo-liberal façade of 'being rich' is equally thick, though only a few writers have attempted to pierce it and take a look at the other side. Moreover, there is no major writer using Sinhala-language fiction to produce a counter-narrative to the nationalist 'grand narrative', which maintains that post-LTTE Sri Lanka will be wonderful simply because there will be no LTTE. Of course, few will deny that Sri Lanka is better off without the LTTE; but the group's military defeat clearly does not mean that Sri Lanka's intelligentsia can now go off to sleep and hope to wake up in a paradise. Furthermore, during the past decade no Sinhala writer attempted a novel that challenged prevalent mainstream ideologies. In fact, postcolonial Sri Lanka is yet to produce a great novel that is equally critical of colonial cultural dominance and extreme nationalisms of various kinds, despite potent examples from the neighbourhood. As early as the 1920s, for instance, Rabindranath Tagore's Gora sought to depict "the illegitimacy of Nationalism", in the words of the political scientist Ashis Nandy. It should be noted, however, that Sri Lanka's theatre scene is markedly more engaged on this level.

To make matters worse, most senior Sinhala writers are nationalists themselves, of one kind or another – a situation that has only become exacerbated since the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Now, more than ever before, there is space for only two facets: patriotic or unpatriotic, and any critical thinking is naturally termed the latter. (Recently, a plan to modernise the Sinhala alphabet was even dubbed 'unpatriotic' in the popular press.) It is time to recast the net. At this point, the Sinhala literary scene is faced with two major problems: first, it has not been able to produce any serious counter-narrative to the neo-liberal promise of a 'new Sri Lanka'; second, no major writer is critiquing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. These two problems are related, of course, as the dominance of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse over the past two decades remains a significant factor contributing to the failure of the Sinhala novel.

Ideology and anxiety
Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, a sober voice in the intellectual arena of contemporary Sri Lanka, recently made the following comments in the press regarding what is known as jatika cintanaya, an isolationist 'national ideology' that for the past decade has been popular among Sinhalese intellectuals. "The anti-capitalist stance of Jatika Cintanaya," Devasiri noted, "was significantly weakened when its exponents opted to become the most eloquent advocates of Sinhala nationalist interests vis-a-vis the growing political and ideological power of Tamil ethno-nationalism, which systematically excluded Tamils from the state-building project." Indeed, the Jatika Cintanaya movement, which is the most dominant strand in the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse, at first did appear to construct a native critique of Western capitalism. Thereafter, however, it began to focus increasingly on its most immediate and formidable foe, the LTTE, which itself never specifically critiqued capitalism. In fact, the movement systematically eliminated its Marxist rivals, such as Uma Maheswaran, a strategy that arguably helped the capitalist camp.

The rise of the LTTE indirectly caused the fall of the Sinhala literary scene. When the LTTE's separatist ideology was on the brink of 'victory' (as it was perceived by many), before Mahinda Rajapakse's coming to power, Sinhala-language intellectuals by and large moved to support the nationalist camp. For example, the National Movement against Terrorism, a nationalist movement that rallied opposition to separatism, attracted many young political activists. Champika Ranawaka, an intellectually oriented young politician who in the 1990s founded the Janata Mituro (a precursor to Sihala Urumaya), a party based on environmentalist non-violence and green socialism, ended up becoming a leading voice of rightwing ultra-nationalism.

The growth of nationalism and its 'us versus them' division of the world has not been conducive to fostering a rich literary scene. Good literature transcends pat dualities, after all, and must critique the simple black-and-white world that nationalists tend to portray. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan context has significantly weakened the culture of self-criticism in much of the country's Sinhala writing. Gunadasa Amarasekara, a leading Sinhala novelist and the acknowledged father of the Jatika Cintanaya movement, has lately devoted his writings to the goal of creating an 'ideal citizen', one who accepts the Sinhala Buddhist view of the world. Amarasekara maintains that Buddhism – and, by extension, 'true' Sinhalese culture – is a serious antidote to consumerist capitalism, because it teaches 'giving up' and sharing while capitalism teaches 'piling up' and owning things. For him, postcolonial Sri Lanka failed because it failed to disown everything Western about Sinhalese culture, and to revive the pre-colonial nativity, which he suggests was inherently Buddhist. Yet even though Amarasekara celebrates the Buddhist virtues of renunciation and sharing, he is notoriously stingy when it comes to sharing power with non-Sinhalese people in the island.

One key assumption on which Amarasekara's theory rests is that Sri Lankan independence did not end the mental or ideological colonisation of Sri Lankans. Consequently, Amarasekara's fiction and non-fiction constantly attacks the West, to the extent that at times his output resembles the types of works that came out prior to 1948. In fact, of course, it has been 60 years since Independence, and Sri Lanka's current reality is as much a product of local politics as a heritage of colonial history. Indeed, a key problem with the Sinhala nationalist discourse is that it has not been able to transform itself, with few nationalist thinkers able to articulate their ideology in a postcolonial context. For this reason, much of the nationalist rhetoric remains replete with phrases such as pro-Western, imitator or henchman of the West. In these hands, a thing can be considered good or bad depending on whether it is considered Western or non-Western. It is true that Western dominance did not end when 'direct' colonialism came to a close. But direct colonialism did end, and it is therefore important to change the tone, vocabulary, theories and rhetorical devices of the nationalist discourse, if that discourse is to remain relevant.

Even after the demise of the LTTE, the Sinhala nationalists continue to talk of 'Western conspiracies' and the like. For them, all NGOs are pro-Western, and anyone speaking of freedom of expression, devolution of power or simply 'peace' is automatically to be considered a paid agent of the West. From this we can see that if 'mental colonialism' did not end with Independence in Sri Lanka, that mindset is today being propagated by nationalists (this despite most of these intellectuals themselves being Western-educated). By continuing to place such emphasis on the West, the key players of the Sinhala nationalist discourse are in fact the main propagators of Western dominance in Sri Lanka, simply by over-emphasising the boundary between the purported West and East.

At times, Amarasekara's books represent such nationalist characters with a hint of an irony – in his most honest moments, Amarasekara the fiction writer laughs at Amarasekara the ideologue. For example, in many of his stories a Sinhalese middle-class man, whom he takes to be the agent of his political vision, is depicted as easily corruptible and short-sighted. Interestingly, Amarasekara the fiction writer seems to understand that the 'ideal Sinhalese man' imagined by Amarasekara the ideologue is itself a fiction! But his ideological children – who include the key players in the Rajapakse regime – do not seem to understand this artistic irony. For them, the world has only two sides: friends of the nation and enemies of it.

Youthful cosmopolitanism
The dominance of nationalism in the Sinhala literary scene now seems to be ending and a new discourse seems to emerging, largely powered by youths both in Sri Lanka and the diaspora. For the last few decades, the Sinhalese diaspora was mainly nationalist, as much as the Tamil diaspora was mainly separatist. Now, however, some Sinhalese creative writing coming out of the diaspora attempts to imagine a new, cosmopolitan Sri Lanka.

The Internet, with its ability to make global flows of capital much swifter than in the past, has emerged as a strong tool of neo-liberal economies. Yet it has also been able to weave new kinds of relationships, particularly among youths. For many, these new dynamics have been able to underscore that current global conditions have little room for parochial nationalisms. In this, the Internet has provided an alternative forum for young people to express their views amidst a situation where most of the state-owned and private newspapers can be termed nationalist. One oft-noted example is the fact that there is currently no major Sinhala-language paper that is simultaneously critiquing Western imperialism, Tamil separatism and Sinhala extremism, rather than focusing solely on the first two. This is a fact that has driven many young intellectuals to the open spaces of the Internet.

Currently, there are several websites published in Sinhala that focus on Sinhala literature, with being the most well known. Literary and non-literary pieces published on these sites are often critical of nationalist ideologies as well as the status quo. Here is a translated part of a poem recently posted on Boondi by a young poet named Mahesh Munasinghe:

What is democracy for
If we wish kings
And military rulers?

Why speak up against oppression
If we ask for laws of emergency
And penal codes?

Why fighting for freedom of expression
If we ask writers to 'know the limit'?

Why ask for commissions on corruption
If we don't forget to bring
The corrupted to power?

If this Internet generation is able to transform its inherent cosmopolitanism into a way of being Sri Lankan and Sinhalese in an inter-related world, this could well offer a new model for Sri Lanka to find its way out of the narrow nationalisms that have plagued the country. Yet in order to lift these youths from their initial stage of globalised consciousness (ie, Che Guevara from Cuba, Calypso from Trinidad, chai from India, noodles from China, Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, Mandela from South Africa) to a more learned and conscious form of cosmopolitanism, we need to provide them with meaningful content.

In this endeavour, one must return to some forgotten Sinhalese thinkers such as E W Adikaram, a great historian and a Buddhist reformer. In 1952, just after Sri Lanka's independence, he outlined what in retrospect could constitute the ideal for postcolonial Sri Lanka:

To divide human beings into nationalities is an illusion. Except for the imagined differences there are no inherent differences between a Sinhala person and non-Sinhala one … And one cannot define "Sinhala nation" in any natural terms only with an artificial mechanism of categorization, and therefore, there is nothing can be called "Sinhala national culture".

In many of his writings, Adikaram was critical of Western dominance, as well. Intelligent Sinhala-language writers who can easily reach out to today's young need simultaneously to critique both economic globalisation and cultural nationalism, by re-listening to the wise words of the likes of Adikaram. Some such writers are slowly entering this discursive space. The following poem is by one such, Upali Ubayasekare, written in 2008; the translation is mine.

They are not like us
Tourists are strange creatures
Wearing absurd cloths,
Speaking gibberish.
They say they eat unimaginable stuff
(like horses and snakes)
Really crazy
Not like us…
Tourist women even amazing
Looking crazier
With their coloured lips and erased brows
Wearing as if not wearing
Behaving strange
(friendly or unfriendly one cannot say)
Really crazy
Not like us…
Our neighbours are strange creatures
All the furniture with
unfitting colours,
Smelling dried fish
one cannot stand
The sound of party
that is deafening
(the lines of pop songs make walls collapse)
Really crazy…
Not like us…
When we look around the world
Quite frankly
we are the only
human beings:
Myself and my people
Really crazy…
Not like them.

~ Liyanage Amarakeerthi is a lecturer at the Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya, and the author of Atawaka Putthu (Half-moon Sons) which was judged the 'Best Novel' at the National Literary Festival, Sri Lanka.

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