11 August 2011

Maybe it is important to listen to some ‘Outspoken English’ now and then

Thirty four years ago I planned with a friend to explore the entire island of Sri Lanka and unearth all archaeological treasures yet to be discovered.  Ruwinda Gunawardena, the last I heard, was playing with something called serial and parallel robots at Rice University, but back then he was determined to explore heritage.  We even mapped out the journey, to be made on mo-peds and over a period of a month, if I remember right. 

This island is larger and holds more secrets, archaeological and otherwise, than we believed back then.  I lost touch with my friend after leaving school and anyway, I think the explore-bug left us not too long after we planned our trip.  I don’t know about Ruwinda, but for reasons of curiosity, politics and philosophy I’ve continued to be fascinated with who we were, perhaps in order to figure out who we are and who we can become. 

I remembered Ruwinda and the trip that got tripped by time, growing up, and other realities that cut down ambition, when my friend Udayasiri Wickramaratne, poet, playwright, novelist and may I say, part-time copywriter, explained what made him produce the highly acclaimed and genre-expanding play, ‘Suddek Oba Amathai’ (A white man addresses you!). 

‘We have shouted against the ‘White man’ for a long, long time, but have achieved little or nothing by this.  Although we complain and vilify, we in fact follow or mimic them in many spheres if not in every sphere.   They lead, we follow.  I am not saying that we should become masters of the world, but I believe we should be able to choose our ways independently without being mere followers.   This we have not achieved by our complaints and screams.  This is why I thought of trying a different way of obtaining mental independence.   In ‘Suddek’, I praise the white man to the maximum in order to unravel every bit of servility in ourselves, revealing the dimensions of our dependence.  I believe this the first step towards true independence or our emancipation. First we have to accept what we are before starting to fight.  This is what I do in ‘Suddek Oba Amathai’.’

‘Suddha’ or ‘white man’ is a catch-all synonym for all things associated with the colonial project and as such glosses over the full range of differentiation of project and implementing creatures, while footnoting or ignoring altogether those elements that not only rebel against project and creature but are victims of the same in different ways.  Udayasiri has a point, though.  His caricaturing is deliberate.  His most recent poster/ad for the performance on August 14th at the Tower Hall, has the catchy line ‘OUTSPOKEN ENGLISH’.  It is multi-layered in meaning.  There’s the play on the current fascination with ‘Spoken English’, widely exploited by quack English tutors.  There is the hint of the blustering, self-righteous colonial ready to extract and to justify extraction in the name of the ‘White man’s burden’. 

What does in ‘Suddek’ is to use all the anger, all the easy characterizations, all the blame-shifting to get us to question ourselves through the voice that we love to hate and hate to love but nevertheless listen to, that of the colonial, the voice of the oppressor, enslaver etc.  Perhaps that kind of jolt is necessary for all those among us who believe that naming and shaming is enough and are too lazy or ignorant to understand that the oppressor or enemy is not only in some ‘out there’ far away or close, but inside us.  We nurture it.  This is the point that’s made in the story of the ascetic Siddhartha final battle with Mara, who appears not as some terrifying demonic form but as mirror image, a point echoed (and naturally celebrated) by Louis Althusser, the French Marxist, more than 25 centuries later.

If what takes us to embark on a journey to discover the rich heritage as well as tragic history of our past, as collective and as individual, is a ‘sudda’ barking outspoken English, so be it.  What’s important is to understand that take issue as we must against oppressors and oppressions, it is also an integral part of the emancipatory project to recognize and duly expiate those elements within us (in thought, word, action etc)  that are part of that oppression and which therefore help perpetuate it. 

There was a journey pledged to be undertaken thirty four years ago.  A journey of self-discovery.  It was made of mopeds and dreams, naiveté and boyish thirst for adventure.  Thirty four years later, I would not say ‘impossible’.  It is a continuing expedition that any nation seeking to better itself must undertake in one form or another.  Ours has not sidelined it as ‘unimportant’.  And yet, thirty four years later, listening to Udayasiri and having seen ‘Suddek’, the play and heard ‘Outspoken English’ the reality, I am convinced that there’s a here-and-now expedition we can all undertake and must too.