20 January 2012

Reflections on two-nation theses

It is good when people criticize.  It is better when those who criticize also happen to be responsible individuals in that they have not fallen back in paying dues, are humble enough to acknowledge error, are remorseful enough to attempt correction and are not ungracious in the matter of counting blessings.  The above would be a good reality-check we can self-administer or assess one another with, especially those given to ranting and raving at the drop of a hat as though the world somehow owes them something. 

I am blessed and among my blessings is the fact that there are numerous people who send me word and sentence, thought and question.  Among this special category of human beings is Prof. S.N. Arseculeratne, Uncle Chubby to me.  This morning he dropped Ananda Coomaraswamy in my inbox:  "When nations grow old, the arts get cold, and commerce settles on every tree".  Strangely, as I picked up word and though, my mind-net also came up with a man called Colvin R. De Silva and a mischievous line he once uttered, which later was ‘de-contexted’ and used to bolster the most ridiculous of claims: ‘One language, two nations; two languages, one nation.’

Colvin’s proposition related to the status of Sinhala and Tamil.  The relevant nations that political punditry and chauvinistic rhetoric drew from this careless statement and of course embedded ill-will was ‘Sri Lanka’ and ‘Eelam’, or alternatively, ‘Sinhale’ and ‘Thamil Eelam’ (‘Eelam’ being corruption of ‘Hela’ and as such the name being implicit acknowledgment of the primacy of ‘Sinhale’, a point which is deliberately ignored).  Word theatrics aside, Colvin’s observation/prediction did and does have some metaphorical as well as perception currency, given antipathies and insecurities.  Reading what Uncle Chubby sent me, however, I wondered whether we all missed the bus courtesy Driver Colvin’s deft turn into a political cul-de-sac. 

First, we have all forgotten that the ‘one language’ that produced or almost produced (as some would like to think) two nations was not Sinhala but English.  These two nations are not geographically marked as in the case of Eelamist rhetoric, where too demography and geography make mockery of the boundaries that fantasy produce.  They are nations in other ways.  Ways of inclusion and exclusion, for example.  Being part of ‘core’ and being ‘marginal’, rich and poor, dominating and dominated, exploiting and exploited.

Part of it is explained by endowment imbalances and also, as I believe, that which we bring to this world as karmic-potential or karmic-handicap.  Some of it, though, is structure-produced and some the outcome of deliberate and political push-aside.    In this, English is a divider and a ‘marginalizer’, it includes and excludes or, more accurately, it is employed to divide, marginalize, exclude and even humiliate.  That’s something to think about.

Coomaraswamy’s observation, "When nations grow old, the arts get cold, and commerce settles on every tree," also speaks (at least to my mind) of these other two-nation types.  There is a Sri Lanka that is young and one that is old.  It would be simplistic and erroneous to identify these two in terms of year-age.  We have one that is post-colonial in which there is a lot of embedded colonial baggage and one that is pre-colonial which although not entirely untouched by the colonial encounter is nevertheless and remarkably un-baggaged, so to speak. 

The former is old and certainly supports the Coomaraswamy thesis.  Built on the quicksand of modernity-promise, unable to handle the reality that ‘independence’ was merely a reconfiguring of the terms of extraction and the changing of outward appearance, deliberately, mischievously and maliciously unmoored from history by those who have little or no history to speak of or identity with, this particular ‘nation’ has operated as adjudicator and direction-setter, a role which involved the ‘necessary’ disavowal of the existence of the other nation.  It is falling apart and those who believe that the only citizenship that is real or which matters is what they enjoy in this ‘nation’, cannot seem to understand why this is happening.  It is an old nation. Its arts are cold.  Its every tree is commerce-laden.  It has lost heart.  It flounders without rhythm or rhyme, having pawned and happily abandoned heartbeat and pulse. 

There is also that other nation, bastardized, vilified and whose existence is not just questioned but is mentioned in past-tense terms, i.e. as dead and buried.  It does not occupy places some tend to think are the high seats of power and decision-making. It doesn’t carry flag or indeed has place in flag. It does not sing the national anthem with pride, force and conviction. Yet it flutters and makes music.  Its art is warm because its heart pulsates healthily.  It is not commerce-free but picks and choose for what and where that particular aspect of social intercourse is relevant. 

These nations too have languages. Two, not one. The first, i.e. the ‘old’ speaks money-tongue. The second, that is so new that it can re-birth not just the Buddha (as Ven. Saranankara did), but those who lived and died centuries before the arrival of Prince Vijaya and/or Arahat Mahinda. For example, Ravana and Balitharu.  Its civilization was not just born long before the much celebrated irrigation system was built, but is of a kind that can be re-birthed anytime.  It is so young that it will in innocence and compassion allow itself to be pushed against the wall and so young that at one point it will turn and almost casually recover its birthright. 

We inhabit all these nations, sometimes out of choice and sometimes without say.  These nations are resident in all of us.  As such we can decide upon a composite as individuals. Sometimes, though, I feel that regardless of personal preference, the ‘young’ comes through because in the larger order of things money bows to heart.  Sooner or later. 

Trees should have leaves if they are to be called ‘trees’, I believe.  I feel blessed, let me acknowledge. 

[first published in the Daily News, February 10, 2011]