24 February 2017

The Sinhala and Tamil traces in an island history

There’s the evil ghost of misrepresentation, the evil ghost of exaggeration, the evil ghost of painting fiction as fact and myth as history, the evil ghost of silence on demographic realities, the evil ghost of a flawed colonial map, and the evil ghost of bullying Sinhalese into thinking that submitting to Tamil chauvinism is equal to ‘a solution that satisfies all communities’.  

Any discussion on claims which contain words such as ‘traditional’ or ‘historical’ can make sense only if assertions are backed by fact and not myth.  They should be buttressed by a corpus of evidence that are coherent and wholesome, and are not marked by the errors of selectivity.  In an article where he sets himself the task of refuting an allegation that ‘the claim of traditional/historical homelands (of Tamils) is a load of balderdash, unsupported by any kind of evidence,’ (see ‘Wigneswaran and the puppeteering with ghosts') P Soma Palan (PSP hereafter) appears to have inadvertently reinforced my assertion (see his article ‘Claim of traditional homeland: not a load of balderdash’).

PSP dwells at length on the Vijaya Legend.  He calls it a myth and yet in a sleight of hand typical of Eelam myth-modelers and in contradiction of his own myth-claim insists that the real name is ‘Vijay’ or ‘Vijayan’ (a ‘Tamilization’ that has become ‘par for the course’ in creative Eelamist historiography).  The reference to Vijaya is taken from the Mahawamsa of Mahanama Thero in the 5th Century.  It is an epic narrative in Pali.  We cannot as yet take it as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and we certainly cannot call it a total fabrication; the veracity of certain parts have been established by archaeological excavation and by corroboration via other texts while certain other parts remain unsubstantiated.  The Vijaya legend belongs to the latter kind.  

To make sense of it, it is useful to revisit the chronicler’s disclaimer.  Mahanama Thero observing that the narratives (in text or other form) of the ancients (those who came before) are at times overly lengthy, at times all too brief and at times repetitive, claimed that his was an exercise of eliminating error and laying it out for easier comprehension and for the delight (of the reader).  What was left out and what was added, we cannot be definite about as per available evidence.  For the historian it is a useful document that provides base-text and innumerable clues, nothing more and nothing less.  

PSL asks me a bunch of questions, all based on the assumption that I’ve bought the Vijaya Legend.  I have not.  The ‘refutation’ of the Vijaya Legend that PSP offers is that ‘no race is founded by an individual’.  This is absolutely correct, but he’s making too much of a symbol or a signifier.  It is not that Vijaya descended from nowhere and founded a race of sons and daughters who inter-married and had children of their own and multiplied.  What’s important is not the name, but the process.  

It is reasonable to assume that Vijaya was not the first (and certainly not the last) ‘prince’ who came to the island with an entourage and with a conquistador’s designs.  For the chronicler his arrival was clearly significant enough in terms of impact on political control to give it the privilege of ‘starting point’.  This does not mean that the island was uninhabited or only sparsely inhabited at the time.  Neither do we know for sure the ‘clan names’ if you will of the indigenous peoples.  We do know that a document compiled by a South Indian Buddhist monk in the 1st or 2nd Century CE titled ‘Seehalavattuppakara’ referring to a community by the name ‘Seehala’.  We know that there are references to various communities in early inscriptions but none in which a Tamil trace can be found.  There are no references to any Tamil community or even a non-Tamil Dravidian community or any community with any trace of “Tamils, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalees” that PSP claims inhabited the island ‘before Vijaya’s arrival’ (he seems to believe the ‘myth’!).   I would love to examine his sources on this.  The relevant cave inscriptions, by the way, are in Sinhala Prakrit.  If indeed this was a ‘Tamil Island’ as PSP claims and if it were Tamils who were converted to Buddhism, surely there would have been some references, some caves, a dozen or even one with South Indian ‘Brahmi’ characters?  None!  

More on language, later.  Let’s consider the ‘evidence’ that PSP offers.  Ravana! It’s a nice story and interestingly written, true, but it’s as much ‘legend’ as the VIjaya story if not more.  That was a story that was popularized elsewhere.  The place names that PSP refers to are of relatively recent origin, this side of the Gampola Period to be more precise and possibly explained by several waves of immigrants being allowed to settle in various parts of the island by the kings of the time which are interestingly the very same places where ‘ravana legends’ and ‘ravana place names’ exist!  That’s ‘history’; what PSP offers is conjecture.  No evidence.  

PSP likes to conflate terms.  Hindu, for him, indicates Tamil.  Non-Buddhist by implication has to be Hindu.  Of course the people who lived before the arrival of Arahat Mahinda had their own religious beliefs, some of which were quite possibly related to present day Hinduism.  The island was never isolated.  There have even been Buddhists too before Arahat Mahinda, as evidenced by begging bowls discovered in Anuradhapura dating back to pre-Mahindian times as well.  Texts such as the ‘Divyavadana’ believed to have been written in the 1st Century CE speak of Buddhist missions that arrived in the island from time to time, dating back to the time of the Buddha.  What’s pertinent is that there is little evidence to say that even if there was any Hindu trace in these cosmologies there is even less ‘Dravidian’ markings and nothing of ‘Tamil’.   

“The ancestral progenitors of present day Sinhalese are the converted Tamil Buddhists,” PSP claims.  So, did Tamils drop language, create a new language and transform into a different ‘ethnicity’ just because they converted to Buddhism (as claimed)?  Whatever date the name ‘Sinhala’ came to be identified with the vast majority of people in the island, what is clear is that there was a process involved and that if there indeed was any Tamil trace it was marginal.  If ‘Tamil’ was erased by racist ‘Sinhala’ chroniclers, it is indeed strange that of the 15-20 names given to the island by outsiders there is not one that has any Dravidian trace, leave alone a Tamil one.  

PSP is full of myth and legend.  In addition to the Ravana Legend, he says that the Kataragam temple (Tamilized as per his whims to ‘Kathiragamam’) existed around 13,000 BC.  He offers no evidence. What we do know is that he’s speaking of the Mesolithic Age, the time of hunters and gatherers who didn’t have any fixed abode.  “The existence of pre- Vijayan and pre-Buddhistic Hindu temples, millennia before the arrival of so-called Vijay and Arahat Mahinda, proves that the Tamils and other Dravidian Hindu races, was the majority population of Lanka,” he claims, but what’s this evidence?  PSP’s sources would make wonderful reading and I eagerly await them. 

PSP’s most ‘potent’ devise is language, or rather its corruption; more precisely the easy and utterly ahistorical mechanism of Tamilizing.  He says Devanampiyatissa was actually Devanambya Alwar Tissan (a Telugu Hindu, according to him).  He offers that the real name of Arahat Mahinda was Mahendra, which would make Emperor Ashoka a Tamil!  Claim is fine, but again, it has to be backed by evidence. 

The literature on this neat but pernicious exercise is extensive.  Ranamadu was made Iranamadu, Akkara Pattu became Akkaraipattu, Batakotte is now Vadukkoddai.  Nothing wrong in people twisting names for ease of tongue but to then confer some kind of historical first on oneself is cheap politics, nothing more.  

Naming whim as ‘history’ does not make it history; neither does painting fiction as fact.  PSP speaks of ‘over hundred Brahmi Rock inscriptions confirming the “Holy Yatra” made by several Saints, Sages, Munis and Yogis, including the Great Agastya, who came to the sacred Kataragama and worshipped Lord Murugan.   None of it, strangely, have been recorded.  I would love to read the sources, let me repeat. 

There are broadly two kinds of ‘brahmi characters’, those found in the Northern part of what’s now India and those found in the South.  There are some ‘Southern’ characters in inscriptions found on this island, but they are very rare an are greatly overwhelmed by the northern forms or rather forms that can be said to have some relation to characters that are found in the northern part of the subcontinent.  The existence of southern forms at best indicates what is not denied — interaction across the straits; but to extrapolate such existence to a significant and indeed a majority Tamil community without explaining the predominance of non-Southern forms is mischievous.  If you want to assume a script because of a single or a few characters, then what do you make of the other characters that outnumber your ‘Tamil (sic)’ characters by quite a margin?  I would call it clinging to straws.   The myth that Sinhala was based on ‘Tamil Alphabetics’ has been comprehensively debunked, PSP is probably not aware.  

In any event, what happened to the Tamils that he claims were the dominant population of this island?  PSP speaks of ‘Tamil Buddhists’.  Of course there may have been Tamil Buddhists, but Buddhism is a doctrine, a philosophy and for some a religion, and one that has been embraced by people speaking many, many languages.  Embracing a doctrine does not mean one has to abandon one’s language, surely? Where are the Tamil Buddhist texts, on stone or parchment?  If they were so dominant, why didn’t we see a Tamil script evolving in this island, i.e. one drawing heavily from the Southern Brahmi characters? 

So, sorry PSP, “the architectural, epigraphical (Brahmi rock inscriptions) and literary and place names etc,” do not “establish any pre- historic population consisted of Hindu Dravidians in this island”.  The ‘Sinhalese’ as such must have been quite a race to convince others to abandon their language and be reticent in bed while they (the Sinhalese) orchestrated natural population increase.   

With respect to the issue of numbers and percentages, PSP takes us through the myths dealt with above, but carefully refuses to address the issue of the here-and-now — that pernicious fudging of the multi-ethnic-multi-religious narrative where proportions are absent(ed).  Even if we cite ‘war’ and ‘economic push and pull’ to explain why almost half the Tamils live outside the ‘historical homeland’ the overall percentages tell a story and one of land-grab intent by extreme elements of an otherwise highly civilized community.  PSP has perhaps forgotten that the Tamil narrative, as Rajeewa Jayaweera points out, has so far been about discrimination and genocide outside the North and East, a claim that is refuted by PSP's explanation of 'job opportunities and security' for Tamils preferring to leave the traditional-homelands (so-called)!   

Toss in the absence of history and we are left without ‘traditional’ and ‘historical’ with respect to ‘homeland’.  We don’t even have to comment on the (irr)rationality or rather the arbitrariness of the British in drawing provincial boundaries.  Suffice to say that PSP's claim that 'there was never a centralized Lanka' is old hat, and a hat full of holes one might add, considering the reigns of several kings, better known among whom are Dutugemunu, Parakramabahu I and Mahasen, as Rajeewa point out.

I hoped that some Eelamist ‘historian’ would come out with some facts.  Instead, PSP, possibly a well-meaning Sri Lankan who wishes the best for all Sri Lankans, has arrived with a thin portfolio but one filled with more myths and legends and questions obtained from such things.  I must say I am disappointed. 

*A slightly shorter version of this article was published in the Daily Mirror on February 23, 2017.

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22 February 2017

Big Matches and Small Things

March Madness.  That’s what it was called a few decades back.  That’s because all ‘big matches’ were played in March.  Now the big-match seasons begins in February and goes on till the end of April.  Back then there were elaborate previews of each encounter; now there are almost none simply because there are way too many to be crammed into the sports pages of newspapers.  

Back then there was the Roy-Tho, the Joe-Pete, the Ananda-Nalanda and the Trinity-Anthonian.  Well, there were matches that were regionally ‘big’ but nationally small because they lacked the long histories associated with the ‘glamour’ events.  Now we have hundreds of ‘big matches’ and almost all of them have drawn from the ‘culture’ associated with say the Royal-Thomian.  

So we have the cycle parades which seem to have less and less cycles every year.  There are papare bands.  There’s the ‘traditional’ practice of boys thinking they are men and being a nuisance to the public, sometimes even jumping into girls’ schools.  Part of it is fun, but limits are often crossed.  Too often, some might say.  There is the ‘fun’ of boys decorating themselves with masks, hats, and even girls’ uniforms.  There’s fun in hat-collections, but there’s harassment too.  

But then, we are told, boys will be boys.  It’s for just two days of the year.  True.  The public has by and large indulged.  

Then there’s stuff that happens at the match.  Lots of things.  There’s partying that gets out of hand, and partying that will be unforgettable.  Pitch-invasions, out-smarting prefects, stewards, police officers and of late security personnel, and making an idiot of oneself and not caring one bit.  Stuff for the memory-book.  Great stuff.  There are boys and girls preening themselves for each other.  Some of it can cross the limits of decency, but a lot of it is predictably hormonal and understandable.  Again memory-book stuff.  

That’s part of what makes old boys go to the big match.  There are memory-slices in the making that will refresh the pages of bygone days they’ve stored in their consciousness.  And then it’s back to the old days.  It’s back to being the boys and the boyhoods they like to think they never outgrew.  

It’s about familiar faces.  Re-telling stories they’ve told year after year and being received as though for the first time, each time.  What’s nice about it is that despite the boyhood-belief, the years mould enough ‘man’ into mind that whatever ‘nasty’ there was depreciates every year. For the vast majority, let us add.

And it’s the little things that count, not the big scores or the centuries or even records being broken.  That’s all nice.  You’ll let out a roar, raise arms and even try to will your legs to turn shed the years and get to 16 so you can sprint to the pitch and sprint back without being brought down by the various discipline enforcing authorities.  And almost always, the joy of the invasion would outweigh whatever was being celebrated.  

It’s those little things that count; meeting an old friend after a lapse of several years or even several decades, recognizing and being recognized despite the re-structuring that time inevitably crafts on the body, meeting sworn enemies from a different era and realizing how the size of quarrels diminish and how something that was once thought of as life-death matter seems so trivial courtesy temporal and spacial distances.   

Small things are what make for nostalgia, that lovely region which is divested of all unpleasantness that are as much a part of that time as those which made splendid memories.  Big matches, for the old, are about such things.  Little things.   And the loveliest thing about little things is that there are so many of them that every Big Match seems new.  Little things in fact keep re-inventing big matches, year after year.   

For schoolboys the match is certainly big.  Every new experience is big and imagined to be even bigger.  For old boys, it’s different.  The old see the young and they smile for they seem themselves in a different time.  The young see the old and will never be convinced that one day they’ll get there too.  There’s always a little something for everyone, though.  

21 February 2017

Congratulations Mister Prime Minister!

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was conferred an honorary doctorate by Deakin University, Australia.  He’s not the first premier thus honored and he probably will not be the last.  However, an honor it is and as such warranted media coverage.    What was newsy, though, was not the event but a statement he had made that was almost missed; it was an add-on that was at once a de-conferring, so to speak, at the tail end of the report.  

It was reported thus: “Immediately after the convocation ceremony Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe directed Prime Minister’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake to ensure that the ‘Dr’ tag is not attached to his name in official or personal matters.”

That might be called ‘classy’ if not for anything, it separates him from the many others who have received honorary doctorates.  Some people love titles.  Indeed titles adorn some.  In other cases, the person adorns the title.  I don’t think the Prime Minister falls into either category, but this mild and minor directive reveals character.  Ranil is not about ‘show’ except of course when he heeds the advice of the near and dear of his inner political circles, and even then more out of trust than out of conviction.  

He deserves a bit of applause, for both the honor he received and for being humble about it, not least of all because he is heads and shoulders above the vast majority who have name cards with the ‘Doctor Tag’ courtesy honors bestowed.  Intellectually, he is clearly up there among the best of that lot.  

Our Prime Minister is reputed to be a voracious reader on a wide range of subjects.  He also does his homework before making speeches.  The worst he can do is to extrapolate on an error, as he has done for example while making observations at the launch of a book by a loyalist, Sujith Akkarawatte, a few years ago.  Yes, he does his homework.  This was apparent in the speech he made at Deakin.  He observed that Alfred Deakin, the Australian Prime Minister in whose name the university was founded had actually visited  Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1893 to study the island’s 1000 year old irrigation system.  

He may very well have taken a wiki-peek but then again that’s much more than many would do.  In any event, Wikileaks only mentions that Deakin ‘played a major part in establishing irrigation in Australia’.  Wickremesinghe appears to have dug deeper when preparing the speech or, more likely, had already filed away the fact during the course of educating himself in general.  That does not make him a scholar of course, but it does make him a different and even special kind of politician.

His detractors may say he was undeserving.  That’s politics.  He is, after all, no Mervin Silva or the innumerable doctorate holders who have in word and deed brought much disgrace on all spheres of scholarship.  They need to drop the tag, not Wickremesinghe but on the other hand it’s because they cling to it that dropping it demonstrates as much wisdom as it does humility.  Let there be no debate over this: Ranil Wickremesinghe is one of the more well-read of our parliamentarians if not the best read.  If we consider all the prime ministers since Independence and if we were to assess doctorate-worthiness of them all, on the counts of intellect and vision (and not ideological bent or the balance sheet on delivery), only a handful are deserving.  There’s D.S. Senanayake, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in their own way J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, and there’s Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

Let us applaud.

It is indeed a pity, then, that Deakin University got it all wrong in the relevant citation. They were correct in recognizing his long service as a parliamentarian, minster and prime minister.  Longevity is certainly praiseworthy, even though it is that same longevity or rather the fact that he survived while others fell to ill-health, old age, assassinations and terrorist attacks, which paved the way for him to become prime minister on multiple occasions.  All that may have been fortuitous but let us not discount his tenaciousness and shrewd political skills.  His tenure as the Leader of the United National Party may be described as dictatorial but that’s less due to iron-fist than to subtle maneuvering, preying on the weaknesses of would-be ousters and deft footwork to dodge political bullets.  None of this requires elaboration.  In hindsight, one might argue that had he not done all that he has, the party could very well have disintegrated or at best continued to remain in the political wilderness.  Whether it deserves doctoral recognition is of course another matter. 

Deakin University cites ‘the role he played in steering the country to a high status in the economic, education and human rights fields’.   Prof. Jane Den Hollander reading out the citation in the presence of the Chancellor of the University, Prof John Stanhope, said “several factors including Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s contribution towards steering the country to a high international status, tactfulness in getting LTTE terrorists into the negotiating table, creating the groundwork for obtaining financial assistance from the international community and dedication towards setting up good governance were taken into account.”

If one were generous, one might say ‘contentious’ or if less generous, ‘tendentious’.  Let’s take the economic, educational and human rights fields separately.  He was in charge of the economy in 2001 and is in charge of it now (for all intents and purposes).  In 2001 he inherited an economy in its death throes.  He was hemmed in on the one side by the chief executive, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who belonged to a rival party, and a seemingly never ending battle with terrorists.  Kumaratunga didn’t really let him carry out his ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ program, seizing three key ministries by the end of 2003 and dissolving Parliament a few months later.  In April 2004, the UNP was routed in the 2004 General Election.  That was probably less about the economy than his demonstrable naiveté regarding the LTTE.  We’ll come to that presently. The bottom line about his economic policies was (and still is) selling off national assets.  That might tickle the fancy of the like of Hollander who might call it judicious and enlightened, but stripped of sanitizing terminology used by economic pundits with dubious agenda, it’s pretty simple and simplistic thinking.  Today, once again at the helm, his thinking hasn’t changed.  National pauperization can only be hailed by the beneficiaries, not be the pauperized.   

Another thing that pretty much undressed Wickremesinghe’s economic ‘wizardry’ is the downright stupidity in believing that pleasing the USA and Europe would result in those countries backing his economic program by putting money where their mouths are.  Someone who does not know that these countries’ national debts are essentially owned by China and Japan is not an economic expert.  The ‘Brexit Moment’ saw Wickremesinghe suddenly realizing the existence of China.  He said ‘We’ll look East’.  That’s, incidentally, where the previous regime had been looking, a gaze-preference that was ridiculed by Wickremesinghe.  The gaze-change clearly indicates a certain myopia.  Applauding him on his economic thinking says as much about Deakin as of Wickremesinghe.

Education.  Whether one agrees or not with the thinking, it’s Wickremesinghe’s vision on this subject that has prevailed.  What we’ve seen over the past 35 years is the sometimes open and sometimes subtle implementation of the White Paper on Education that he presented in the early eighties.  Whether this alone accounts for the current crisis in education, it is hard to conclude, but certain things have to be acknowledged: a) we still don’t have an occupation classification which takes into account economic realities, policies and projections, so that the education system is in line with these, b) much of the agitation and controversies that have troubled this sector comes from the absence of a national education policy, c) incompetence and corruption override all else in this sector.  

Human rights.  That’s a favorite term used by those who want to rap Sri Lanka on her national knuckles, especially those who either violate human rights or look askance when their friends do so.  Let’s leave Batalanda out of it.  Wickremesinghe was a minister during the eighties, i.e. when the most serious human rights violations took place with over 60,000 people being killed in the course of two years.  That was a time when the government unleashed the security forces, police and vigilante groups on the population, a time marked by proxy arrests, abduction, torture and assassination and was rightly dubbed ‘the bheeshanaya (terror).’  He can’t complicit, he was an approver and it is hard to claim that he has no blood on his hands.  The eighties, let us not forget, was the period when the security forces had next to no discipline.  That’s when the greatest atrocities were committed against Tamils in the country.  Let us not forget either the decisive role played by the trade union of his party in the attacks on Tamils by mobs in July 1983 nor the fact that his government deliberately reined in the law enforcing authorities during those terrible days. He was a junior minister back then, but if he is the principled man that Deakin paints him as, he could have resigned.  He did not.

Let’s now consider the more specific factors that Deakin claims contributed to the decision: “contribution towards steering the country to a high international status, tactfulness in getting LTTE terrorists into the negotiating table, creating the groundwork for obtaining financial assistance from the international community and dedication towards setting up good governance.”

Deakin cannot be faulted for delusion about the ‘international community’ and the relevant moral high horses that its principal movers and shakers often ride.  We live in a world where those countries enjoying ‘high international status’ include Saudi Arabia and that such character certificates are dished out by countries such as the USA, Canada, the UK and the EU.  Salutation is all about complying, about being an Uncle Tom, genuflection and all that kind of thing.  That’s pretty old. 

Tact.  Now that’s a laugh.  There are two broad justifications for the choices that Wickremesinghe made regarding the LTTE in early 2002.  The first is that the economy was in such a bad situation that the Government had no choice but to come to some kind of agreement that allowed for recovery.  The second is the view carefully orchestrated by those who were and still are soft on the LTTE and the Eelam Project that the LTTE cannot be militarily defeated.  Neither of these ‘reasons’ go with ‘tact’.  The truth is that the LTTE had its own problems at the time.  The LTTE badly needed time and space to recruit, regroup and re-arm.  Wickremesinghe’s ‘tact’ allowed the LTTE to do just that and in fact more since the government facilitated the movement of equipment and arms directly or indirectly to LTTE-controlled areas and also severely compromised its security forces by betraying the intelligence units to the enemy.  That’s not tact.  That’s at best stupidity; the more appropriate terms would be betrayal and treachery.

Deakin claims that Wickremesinghe had ‘[created] the groundwork for obtaining financial assistance from the international community.’  That’s difficult, now?  All it takes is say something like ‘whatever you say’ to each and every proposal tossed with disdain at you. It’s a yes-sir or yes-ma’am business.  It’s about getting the script from the US State Department, for instance, and reading it out to the letter.  Any idiot can do it.  But what really happened?  True, one could claim that the international community provided financial assistance, China after all is part of this ‘international community’.  China never needs any country to do any ‘groundwork’.  China is also about business.  The only difference is that China has money.  That’s what the Rajapaksa regime knew. They didn’t the only ground work necessary — they asked and were given (for terms that were clearly poor but still richer than what the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena dispensation have apparently got).

Finally, there’s this claim about ‘dedication towards setting up good governance.’  He gets a lot of brownie points here.  The 19th Amendment fell short of what was promised to the people, but it did erase the negatives of the 18th Amendment.  The Right to Information Act finally saw the light of day.  Things took more time than promised, but that’s easily forgivable.  Things haven’t changed much, but legislation alone will not dramatically change political culture.  There is still corruption, there’s still nepotism, there’s still wastage and abuse of state resources.  In any event, the brownie points, as such there are, should be shared between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena.  Neither talks of electoral reform; this too should be thrown into the overall assessment.  The balance sheet is nevertheless positive. On ‘good governance’ that is.

All things considered, Deakin seems to have failed to do the necessary homework and this makes us think that the honor has more to do with ‘liking’ than about what’s deserved.  Deakin University got it wrong or rather made some iffy things sound solid, ‘iffy’ being a kind word here.  Alfred Deakin, on the other hand, got it right.  He had his country at heart.  He came to Sri Lanka, got what he wanted and enriched his own country.  Wickremesinghe, considering his entire track record and that of the Governments he has served and led, is the polar opposite.  What is surprising is that it was Deakin University and not Johns Hopkins University that has conferred an honorary doctorate on him.  

Still, as we pointed out above, he is deserving.  In a relative sense.  In a comparative sense.  He is deserving, most of all, for the quick, intelligent, damage-controlling and diplomatic instructions to his media point man, namely the decision to disavow it without disavowing the title ‘doctor’.  Now that we can most certainly call 'tact'.  Congratulations Prime Minister!

The end-point of giving

Thirty three years ago I scrawled a quote from Herman Hesse at the top of the blackboard in the Prefects’ Room of Royal College: “To act is all; reputation, nothing”.  Panduka Karunanayake, a fellow prefect back then and now a doctor and a senior lecturer at the Medical Faculty, University of Colombo found fault with it.  He said, ‘you could say “the act is all” but then you have to say “the reputation, none” or else say “the act is everything and the reputation nothing”.  

Panduka was looking for grammatical consistency.  I wasn’t a student of literature and hadn’t heard of the term ‘poetic license’.  He was correct but I was not in error either.  Rather, Hesse was not in error.  

Such quotes were scribbled on the blackboard.  Some remained for a week or more and others were replaced in a day or less.  Not too long afterwards the following quote appeared: “Do what you think is right, whether or not the world appreciates”.  

These lines came to me this morning as I was reflecting on what has become an annual event organized by a small group of people.  Their organization, ‘Heal the Life’ was born when the mother of one of them died of cancer.  The family had thereafter organized various programs for cancer patients in her memory.  Friends had joined later and they had formed a group called ‘Heal the Life’.  

Small interventions.  They have a home-based palliative care program where doctors take medicine to patients.  They also conduct medical camps.  Most importantly they conduct awareness programs which increase the chance of early detection and therefore timely medical intervention to save lives.  

They are soft, these people.  They believe, for instance, that music can play an important role in the overall curative process.  Every year they organize a concern called “Sonduru Rathriya” to raise funds for the various programs they conduct.  This is the fourth time they are doing this.  

Reflecting on the work that these exemplary human being do, I was reminded of a film and more precisely a quote from the film.  That’s what took me to those two quotes.  

David Gale is the main character of the intriguing exploration of capital punishment in the film by Alan Parker titled ‘The Life of David Gale’.  Gale is a professor who is on death row.  He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas.  What’s relevant to us here is not the discussion on the pros and cons of the death penalty or how the plot unravels but a classic quote from one of the professor’s lectures.

After a short comment on fantasies where, following Pascal, he contends that fantasies are necessarily unrealistic, Gale makes an interesting observation on happiness.  He borrows from Lacan.   

“So the lesson of Lacan is, living by your wants will never make you happy. What it means to be fully human is to strive to live by ideas and ideals and not to measure your life by what you've attained in terms of your desires but those small moments of integrity, compassion, rationality, even self-sacrifice. Because in the end, the only way that we can measure the significance of our own lives is by valuing the lives of others.”

Disappointment is written into acquisition, whether it be wealth, a life partner, future(s) for children, honors, status or anything else, as Pascal points out, for the moment you get what you seek you cannot want it any more.  Pascal claims that desire must have its objects perpetually absent.  We can also add, that this disappointment often engenders other desires usually in the form of seeking the same object but in greater volumes or better quality. We want more money, a better position, a car that is of higher value, more adventures sexual, romantic and otherwise; essentially things that end with ‘er’ such as better, greater, higher or things that are preceded by ‘more’.  It simply doesn’t end, and if ever we look back at the journey carefully and honestly we’ll encounter a road cluttered with disappointments.  ‘Enough’ is in our vocabulary and even in the deeper precincts of our consciousness but in our day-to-day, in our ‘this very moments’, it just does not figure.  

And so we have the Lacan proposition.

To this I would like to add something.  The gift or the act of giving can of course make us happy.  What then?  Following Pascal, once the act is done, there’s disappointment or rather a quick waning of joy.  If this leads to more giving and if a large number of people taking the ‘giving’ route rather than the ‘getting’ or ‘acquiring’, then of course it’s wholesome.  I would like to propose that the giving should be prompted not by the prospect of experiencing happiness or witnessing the joy that the receiver experiences, but instead by the simple matter of doing what needs to be done, regardless of the consequences, regardless most importantly of whether or not the world appreciates.

That’s something that the late Christie Gunasekara, then the Vice Principal of Royal College, ‘Kataya’ to one and all, taught me.  Facing a possible embarrassing situation after being arrested and locked up in the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station (and released a couple of hours later thanks to Kataya’s intervention), I asked him what could happen.  I was a prefect.  I knew enough about hierarchies to understand that there would be some who would salivate at the prospect of ridiculing a prefect.  The ‘crime’ was that I had jumped into school around midnight with a bunch of other prefects and rung the school bell.  I got caught and those who apprehended me probably didn’t even know that others were involved.  

‘It’s a schoolboy prank.  It will be news for a couple of days and then it will be forgotten,’ he told me in all his wisdom acquired through decades of dealing with schoolboys and being immersed in ‘school culture’.  

That was a relief, but that is not what remained with me.  He added, ‘you do what you believe is right, whether or not the world appreciates’.  

Today, 33 years later, I realize that ‘the world’ includes myself and that following Kataya’s Principle, the ‘doing’ should not involve a consideration of possible appreciation by anyone, including oneself.  One does, not because the doing makes one feel good about oneself but because it is a ‘has to be done thing’.  Do it, move on.  It is about valuing the lives of others; not ourselves, in fact whether or not anyone values our lives for the particular act.  

That’s probably what is truly meant by the Buddhist notion, Daana Paramithava or ‘the perfection of giving’.   It’s about being able to give and about someone worthy of receiving.  Give and with the act of giving end it.  No advertisements necessary  — not of the intent nor the act.  To act, as Hesse observed, is all.  The reputation? Nothing or ‘none’ as Dr Panduka Karunanayake would have it. 

16 February 2017

A ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’ Government

When the Government’s staunchest apologists sound disappointment it is a sure sign that things are more than ‘pretty bad’.  According to one yahapalanist, Jehan Perera (see "Going back to an alliance that can win elections" published in 'The Island', February 14, 2017) the public perception is that the Government has not (cannot?) tackle corruption, has not (cannot?) deliver visible development and has not corrected war-related injustices. The last of these is of course of the easy-to-say kind, not because correction is hard but ‘injustice’ is poorly defined and in most cases slanted to the point of perversion.  

It’s a generous observation.  Someone raised a question about a high-ranking official on Facebook, clearly upset about the man’s performance.  The question was, ‘Is he a Mahinda loyalist?’  The issue was about a statement he had made.  But if incompetence, putting feet in the mouth, uttering anti-yahapalana statements, indulging in nepotism, being corrupt and unleashing thuggery makes people Mahinda-loyalists, then this is Mahinda’s government or rather an enhanced version considering the pledges made, the tears shed, the bleeding-heart rhetoric.  We have just passed the two-year mark; even the previous regime took longer to slip.  

There are two excuses offered.  The first is what we’ve heard more often: Mahinda left the economy is dire straights, put the country in a debt trap and as such we really can’t do any development.  Well, the grandmasters of economic management, celebrated and now even ‘doctored’, didn’t have the wits to read who has the bucks and who does not.  They believed the West would bail them out and indulged in quite a bit of China-bashing.  Someone is having the last laugh here and it is not anyone in this Government.  That’s regarding the economy.  

They talked of wastage.  They spoke of a burgeoning pubic service.  They talked of leakages.  What’s been done on these matters, though?  Well, more of the same; a ‘Mahindian’ approach if you will.  Mahinda-Enhanced, someone might add.  If debt was the issue, why add to the burden, someone might ask. If corruption and wastage was the problem, why not stop the leaks?  If nepotism was an issue, why is it still an issue in a Mahinda-less dispensation?  If thuggery was a problem, why do we still have it?

The second explanation is the less-mentioned (for fear of acknowledging cracks?) one about the glitches inherent in a coalition.  The truth is that we’ve had coalitions for the past 23 years.  If you can’t deal with the reality, then you are not suitable to govern, it’s as simple as that.  Sure, this is a coalition of the two major parties, but then why do people like Lakshman Kiriella say things like ‘ it was the government’s objective to bring forth the new constitution, followed by a referendum with the support of the SLFP’?  Is the SLFP not a part of the Government?  Is this not a coalition, then?  Are these people confused or simply stupid?  

If it’s about ‘cannot’ and not ‘will not’, we can sympathize.  If it is both ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’ (anyway), as a characterization less generous than that offered on occasion by yahapalana apologists would conclude, then it is serious.  

This brings us to the question ‘why?’  Why do we get a ‘will not’?  It implies that both system and personnel are flawed.  This calls for system-correction and that means constitutional and institutional reform, both of which requiring political will.  In other words we are talking about expecting flawed people to fix a flawed system or getting the ill-equipped to do what they would not dream of doing for the simple reason that it is against their self-interest.  

It is in this context that the Government needs to be applauded for having got the 19th Amendment through, flawed though it is.  The Government has to be applauded for getting the Right to Information Act through as well.  These are necessary but obviously insufficient conditions for a system re-haul.  

Interestingly, the apologists are already talking about alliances that can win elections, in particular a referendum on a new constitution.  The argument is that a referendum could force coalition-continuity.  That’s a pretty impoverished place to be politically, even if one were to stress the ‘reform project’ as the impetus for the wish.  

The problem is that the government has, by the admission of its own apologists, lost political credibility.  Forget a referendum, they are struggling to get the document into Parliament!  The more they talk of unity, the more apparent it is that there’s ‘kachal in the mandale' (internal strife).  The alliance is made of political parties.  Political parties are made of politicians.  Politicians are about power.  They assess political equations, they make ‘informed’ decisions, and they look to the future — the short-term, that is.  

More than anything else, all this is evidenced by the scandalous aversion to holding local government elections.  Even the apologists are not buying the excuses trotted out by various factions in this Government.  What is clearly apparent is fear to face the people in an engagement where true strength will be revealed.  

In fact, the Government’s biggest promise-break is about election reform — something that even the disappointed apologists are not talking about.  It is almost 2 years since the 100 day dead line that the Yahapalana Government set itself for reform expired.  That’s a long time.  In two years, i.e. since President Maithripala Sirisena thundered from an SLFP political stage at Town Hall that he will deliver on the promise of electoral reform.  A long silence, that.  

Under these circumstances, constitutional reform along Eelamist lines will run into serious political problems.  There will be protests.  Politicians will try to disassociate themselves from Eelamist moves.  Babies will be thrown with the bathwater.  That would be a pity indeed.

The solution is to build on what’s been done, i,e. the 19th and the Right to Information Act.  These enabling mechanisms need to be used and used frequently so that both people and politicians are aware of what these safeguards mean and how they empower the former and restrain the latter.  

That will obviously that time.  And time is what this Government does not have, and not because of Mahinda-remnants or alliance-hiccups, but bold, italic and underlined ‘CANNOTS’ and ‘WILL NOTS’.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.  

15 February 2017

Wigneswaran and the puppeteering with ghosts

Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara’s recent comments on Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran contained valid observations, old news delivered as though it was new, half-truths and some uncalled for insults.  Wigneswaran’s response was, in contrast, quite sober though not unproblematic.  

In Jayasekera’s opinion, Wigneswaran is ‘nothing but a bhoothya’.   An evil ghost instigating disharmony between the Sinhalese and Tamils, to be precise.  He took issue with what he considers racist remarks by Wigneswaran which, he claims, is making it difficult for the Government to sell the idea of devolution to the Sinhalese.  He also said that Wigneswaran is cosy with the LTTE (meaning probably what’s left of it and of course its sympathizers) and ‘NGOs’.  

It’s a strange statement for several reasons.  The TNA was the principle apologist for the LTTE in the democratic political space.  Wigneswaran is a member of that political coalition.  Jayasekara is not making any startling revelations, therefore.  The comment on NGOs is vague.  It’s a silly generalization.  There’s nothing wrong with NGOs per se; you’ve got to name names and explain what’s so pernicious about them that warrants a reference that sounds dismissive.  However, it’s the question of ethnic harmony that’s problematic.  

Jayasekera, on the one hand says, ‘he (Wigneswaran) is trying to convey a message to the international community, saying that power devolution is not an option for Sri Lanka because of the Sinhala people’.  In other words, Wigneswaran contends that the Sinhalese are opposed to power devolution.  Jayasekera then acknowledges that the idea of devolution has not been embraced by the Sinhalese.  In other words, it has to be sold to the Sinhalese.  He is in fact endorsing Wigneswaran’s position and ironically also  the position of devolution-fixated NGOs, but contends that Wigneswaran’s racism is scuttling well-meaning efforts.  So, in effect, the two are on the same page with regard to devolution, but are at odds when it comes to the best way to get to destinations they both prefer.  

Wigneswaran, for his part, has said that the ‘Tamil people’s issues’ cannot be solved by chasing him away.  He claimed that even if he was ‘banished’ his successor would say the same thing.  He adds the reason, ‘as we always speak the truth’.  

He is correct.  Absolutely.  On this issue, let me qualify.  What is ‘this issue’?  Let’s discuss it.

The issue is that the Sinhalese are opposed not to devolution per se but to the kind of devolution that Tamil chauvinists have been touting for almost a century now, beginning with Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s communalism, G.G. Ponnambalam’s 50-50, the Batakotte Resolution, the Thimpu Principles and the various other separatist proposals, either in the form of Eelam or those following the Chelvanayagam Principle (a little now, more later).  

The ‘Tamil issue’ won’t go away as long as Tamil politicians consider it their political bread and butter to whip up communalism even to the point of conflating politically aspirations so grand that they are politically inexpedient.   Wigneswaran’s predecessors talked that talk, he talks it, and his successors will continue to talk it as long as it serves narrow political objectives.   To such proposals, the Sinhalese will object, this is true.  Wigneswaran is correct.  When he says ‘the Sinhalese are not interested in devolution,’ he is correct.  The Sinhalese have no reason whatsoever to agree to the kind of devolution that Wigneswaran proposes, his predecessors have proposed and his political/ideological successors would in all probability propose.  

And why should they?

There’s absolutely nothing in all the Tamil ‘grievances’ pertaining to discrimination that cannot be resolved in ways other than devolution of power.  The claim of traditional/historical homelands is a load of balderdash, unsupported by any kind of evidence.  There are no archaeological props, there’s no subaltern history and even the literary kind of ‘evidence’ is at best weak and easily debunked.  But we need not go into all that.  Just the fact that the ‘Tamil Homeland Map’ is essentially a pick off a set of lines arbitrarily drawn by the British is enough to pinch that part of the ‘truth-claim’ which the likes of Wigneswaran trot out now and again.  Add the fact that they blur the truth with ‘multi-ethnic’ talk but indulge in navel and toe gazing when asked about numbers and percentages and it’s actually pretty sad.  Throw in the fact that almost half the Tamil population live outside the ‘homelands’ and the bottom falls out of the argument.  ‘Issues’ are reduced to slow implementation of the Language Act, nothing more and nothing less.  Want to tell the Sinhalese that you need devolution to sort out that little tumor and you are bound to run into ‘Are you kidding?’  

The uncomfortable truth that confronts Jayasekara and others touting devolution along Eelamist lines is not that they are getting tripped by the racist statements issued by the likes of Wigmeswaran but the sheer mismatch between grievance and solution.  

Sure there are ghosts.  Evil ones.  There’s the evil ghost of misrepresentation, the evil ghost of exaggeration, the evil ghost of painting fiction as fact and myth as history, the evil ghost of silence on demographic realities, the evil ghost of a flawed colonial map, and the evil ghost of bullying Sinhalese into thinking that submitting to Tamil chauvinism is equal to ‘a solution that satisfies all communities’.  

Too many ghosts.  Way too many.  No wonder people are not buying it.   Wigneswaran is not a ghost.  He’s a politician who, like his predecessors, is puppeteering with such specters.  Jayasekara seems to have been mesmerized.  The principle ‘issue’ of both is that it’s a very hard sell as far as the Sinhalese are concerned.  It serves Wigneswaran’s political purposes, but wrecks Jayasekara’s.  That’s why the latter rants and the former is smug.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.  \

14 February 2017

For the love of profit and deceit

Fifteen years ago I wrote about 'love' and 'Valentine's Day'.  The names of places have changed.  Thing have changed too.  A bit. 

The streets of Colombo have suddenly turned red. No, the JVP is not having another of their rallies. It’s love, baby. Giant red hearts shimmering in the sunlight during the day and in the street lamps at night, and little hearts dripping from the shop windows, all tell us that something strange is happening. We are told it is love.

Some of Nanda Malini’s most endearing songs are about love. One of my favourites starts like this "Kala Weven gath diya dothak se, vatee vatee oba matama vatee....bodhiyakin vata bo kolayak se, age age oba matama age.." (You are as precious as a handful of water from the Kala Weva; I cherish you as I would cherish a leaf fallen from a Bo tree). Our cultural heritage never recommended the quantification or commoditisation of things such as love. Although love is undefinable, our poets were sensitive and creative enough to paint for us its subtle nuances using metaphors that tapped into the heart of our ethos.

Against this background, consider this: "Want to be my Valentine? Win me over with a cute SMS for a dinner date". Sushma Reddy, VJ-Channel V, was offering herself to the guy who sends her the best message using her (hopefully) brand new Celltel. I don’t know whether it is Celltel or Ms. Reddy who is cheap. Maybe both.

All I know is that either these people don’t know anything about romance or the value of that which we call "love" has considerably depreciated. I have also been told that the oldest trade is prostitution. All that has happened, apparently, is that the trade has found new territories to exploit. Since this is all about love and romance, my thoughts strayed to the ancient dictum "A rose by any other name would sell as sweet". I am not sure what prostitution’s fragrance is, but I know that a name change does not alter rupees and cents nor the character of the exchange that takes place.

The newspapers (and probably the radio and TV stations too) are chock full of advertisements, with merchants of all hues trying to teach us how to express love, as though they are not really interested in cashing in on all the hype about Valentine’s Day. As though we are supposed to practice love only on the 14th of February. As though our loved ones are less special on the other 364 days of the year.
But then again, we live in times where the calendar is artfully used to limit celebration of certain things to a single day. Thus we have May Day to think about labour and associated exploitation. We have designated March 8th as the one day to address women’s issues. One day for the earth, one day for national heroes. So why not one day for love, one could argue.

Celltel does not have a monopoly when it comes to love, it seems. Dialog GSM wants us to celebrate Valentine’s Day differently this year. They suggest that we purchase one of their hurubuhuti machines so that we can call our sweethearts "for longer lasting sweetness". The underlying assumption is that if we did not take up their offer, our conversations with our lovers, spouses etc., would fall short on the matter of sweetness.

They also want us to convey our messages "faster than fragrance". They seem to believe somehow that love is directly related to speed. I thought that there are times for urgency and times when taking things slow is infinitely better. Maybe Celltel knows better. The market is about exchange and transactions that take place at a given moment. I am sure these people understand how markets work. Maybe that is all they know. Therefore we should not be expecting miracles from them.

Crescat Boulevard wants us to shop for romance. They have "opened their hearts for Valentine’s Day". Does this mean that on all other days their hearts are "out for lunch" or something? They have warned us: "beware, Crescat’s crazy, bowstring happy cupid’s aiming for you!" Now that concern went straight through my heart. Cupid is a generous spirit who derives happiness from bringing people together. Or so I thought. Now it seems that the intention of this inimitable character is to rake in profits. The "love", alienated and vulgar, is but a by-product. How else could it be when we are supposed to measure the worth of love in terms of the value of the gifts we receive? Crescat Cupid’s arrows have a purpose. In Sinhala we call it "pocket ekata vidinna".

One Stop Spot has opened a "Valentine’s Shopping Zone" so that "you + me" can have a new shopping experience. At least they are honest. The "me" must refer to themselves. In this sense "they" have put down the naked truth. It is not for the love of lovers, but love for profit that fuels them.
Similarly honest is the ad Cargills had come up with. Just two words, "consumer freedom" against the backdrop of a shopping cart full of goodies careering along a deserted road. Not a single consumer in sight. It hits the nail on the head. We just don’t have the purchasing power to consumer the many delights these people offer us, including love as they would have us believe.

Love, however, is a different category altogether. Prostitution is about lust, not love. And love, maybe we should remind ourselves, is clearly not for purchase.

I am not blaming these people. After all there are things called demand and supply. Demand, however, can be created. It can be supplied, in fact. If that was not the case, we would not have an advertising industry. The people who handle the annual SLIM awards, have put the entire exercise in a nutshell, for our convenience. "While you were searching for politically correct ways to describe your drastic cut-downs and precautions in the face of ‘recession’, some fantastic advertising happened. Wonder how? Find out at the SLIM Awards 2002. You’ll forget that the word ‘recession’ even existed". How politically correct!

Advertising, then, is about deceit and intoxication. The "fantastic advertising" is aimed at generating amnesia of epidemic proportions. And still our badaginna (hunger) has not subsided. Some fires refuse to go out, clearly.

In reality, few can afford the "journeys of endless love" or "romantic cruises by candle light". On the other hand, there are those who have money to burn. So, when at the end of the day, these various companies laugh to themselves muttering "what suckers consumers are", the rest of us can be happy that we were not swindled.

Still, this advertising extravaganza (fantastic stuff which, according to the SLIM Awards people, seduces us into believe that shit smells sweet), doesn’t leave a bad taste only on the tongues of the more reflective of the deceived. The lie, admittedly well packaged, affects us all. The lie teaches us how to love. Maybe its next mission is to teach us how to make love. On the other hand, if we are alert enough, we can allow this crass commoditization of love to tell us how not to love.

True love, I believe, understands that the heart’s capacity to give and receive has no limits. The what of giving is small, compared with the how and why of giving. True love has a keen sense about the how and why. A glance, a touch, a word and even the poetic communications of silence can and will outdistance the alleged fragrance of purchasable things.

I am sure that millions of people will express their love on February 14th. I am sure that a vast majority of these people do not need Valentine’s Day to remember and appreciate loved ones. I salute their resolute hearts. And to all those who have swallowed the Great Valentine Lie, all I can say, naturally, is "Happy Valentine’s Day! May all your purchases result in great sex and greater profits for the peddlers of ‘love’".

This article was first published in the Sunday Island of February 10, 2002, 15 years ago, under the title "Valentine’s Day: for the love of profit and deceit"