Located strategically in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was a hub in the maritime silk and spice routes for millennia. It drew traders from the East and West for both business and pleasure. Notable among the attractions were spices – their many aromas and flavours forming part of the tropical-paradise experience. The traditional Lankan curry contained up to 13 spices and herbs. Most plants were not native – cardamom came from South India, cloves from Indonesia and chilli all the way from the Americas. Cinnamon was Sri Lanka’s unique contribution to this delightful mix. The origins did not really matter: the islanders knew just how to mix the native and the foreign to achieve legendary results.
It is worth recalling these aspects of Sri Lanka’s heritage as the country embarks on national integration and reconciliation after three decades of war. For the war not only devastated the economy and blighted the prospects of a generation; it also nurtured high levels of insecurity, insularity and mutual suspicion. Dissent came to be considered decidedly unpatriotic and everything foreign was suspect – especially if it emanated from the Western world. Today, it seems the spice island of lore is in danger of turning into a ‘bland’ nation, with xenophobia the only condiment in use.
Paradoxically, Sri Lanka is today more closely linked to the rest of the world than ever before. Geography is still a strong part of our destiny, with more than a fair share of global shipping passing through our ports. With no land from the island’s southern tip all the way to Antarctica, the shipping lanes have little choice. Some vessels bring what Sri Lankans cannot produce on their own; others carry away Lankan tea, rubber and other exports.
But Sri Lanka is no longer just a seller of produce. It now actively markets hospitality, dexterity and genius. In the wake of peace, the travel industry hopes to attract half a million tourists a year. One out of every 20 Lankans is working overseas, remitting billions of dollars that keep the island economy afloat. Partly fuelled by the diaspora, thousands of voice calls and terabytes of data are flowing in and out of the island, every day and night. This enhanced connectivity is only a decade old, but already it is taken for granted – except when an undersea fibre-optic cable snaps, as happened in early 2008.
All this suggests that Lankans have found their feet in the incessantly chattering, moving and trading global family. But looks can be deceptive: many are still very uneasy in actually engaging the world. Such apprehensions provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists, which the island has aplenty. They constantly warn of elaborate international plots to ‘undermine and destabilise’ poor little Sri Lanka; the usual suspects are a cocktail of acronyms, among them the nefarious CIA, MI5, RAW as well as the more benign agencies of the UN such as OHCHR and UNHCR. The Vatican and the World Bank occasionally get honourable mention. In true X-Files style, we are asked to Trust No One.
Monocultures of the mind
We might, then, have dismissed the current conspiracy-related pulp fiction lightly, if not for its mass appeal. An alarming number of Lankans readily take these imaginary scenarios to be real. Not just wars but elections are waged on these types of assertions. High levels of literacy and schooling make little difference, and the media peddle and amplify these fantasies with no critical examination.
This is very different to how Lankans engaged the world in the past. It seems multiple onslaughts during the 30-year war have eroded our self-confidence and sense of discernment. For much of its recorded history, the island had open frontiers that welcomed traders, scholars, pilgrims, artistes, missionaries and others from the East and the West. This was the Buddhist ehi-passika (come and see) formula, which made kings and courtiers open-minded and accommodating. Such engagement surely had its pros and cons; but on the whole, the island was richer for the free flow of genes, ideas and technologies.
As with spices, ancient Lankans knew how to mix the homegrown mixture with external elements or influences. Indeed, the island’s flora, humanscape and even fauna would be radically different today if such influences and cross-fertilisation had not happened. With the exception of the aboriginal Veddah, all other races are immigrants from elsewhere, and all religious faiths are likewise, of course, imported. As such, Sri Lanka today is a result of this endless assimilation and remixing.
Sri Lankans take pride in the high number of plant and animal species that share the crowded island. Nearly a quarter of these are found nowhere else in the world, making the country a biological treasure trove. Yet ironically, some environmental activists who want to preserve this biological diversity fail to appreciate the country’s cultural diversity. For example, activists have long opposed monocultures – growing a single plant species over a wide area. Nature abhors such uniformity. Farmers and foresters are belatedly acknowledging that mixing species makes everything more stable, resilient and profitable. But if monocultures are bad on the ground, how can they be good inside our minds?
Those who advocate cultural hegemony in Sri Lanka need to re-read their own history. For 2000 years, this spice island practised the advice eventually articulated by Mohandas K Gandhi: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
As the country’s peoples now leave the war’s legacy behind, they need to revive the intellectual curiosity and spirit of tolerance that once distinguished their land. Public discussion must resume, as must debate on policies, choices, alternatives and tradeoffs on the road to peace and prosperity.
Part of this pluralism is dissent, which was forcefully silenced during the last stages of the war. Any temporary justification for suppressing dissent ended on the battlefields of Mullaitivu in May. Will the state now once again make itself open to scrutiny, critique and question by voters and tax payers? Can the Sri Lankan media, civil society and intelligentsia now take up Martin Luther King, Jr’s definition of dissent – “the right to protest for right” – and resume their suspended cacophony? What a bland nation Sri Lanka could become without the ‘spice’ of discordant voices adding to its melting pot!
During the last phase of the war, the islanders were often reminded of George ‘Dubya’ Bush’s simplistic doctrine of ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ Now is the time to recall the words of an earlier, more remarkable, American president, John F Kennedy: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed – and no republic can survive.”
Throughout history, Sri Lanka nurtured plurality without losing its identity or integrity. It has withstood numerous invasions, colonialism and even tsunamis. Indeed, the island is more resilient than many think – and more vibrant and diverse than it appears at first glance. That is the legacy of good geography and open frontiers. In the days ahead, let us hope that the genes, ideas and spices will be able to flow freely again – we have nothing to lose but our temporary blandness.
~ Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer based in Colombo. More of his writings are available here.