22 October 2012

English as ‘fork and spoon’ or as hiramanay

There are ‘academics’ who are heavily over-dosed by the ‘magic’ of deconstruction, subaltern studies, postmodernism and feminism. They tend to be so Anglicised that they not only see ‘West’ as magic, buttressed rather than challenged by the tokenism of ‘doing the post-colonial thing’, but also see anything ‘local’ as archaic, incomplete, random, anomaly and generally dismissible as inferior.

I’ve met quite a few of them and each time I encounter them I think to myself that Mervin Silva, Doctor, is a far more honest creature. Anyway, I met one of these ‘scholars’ about 10 years ago. She was positively salivating when she informed me that Anagarika Dharmapala had wanted the Sinhalese to learn how to eat with fork and spoon.

The location of the saliva glands was quite obvious. Anagarika Dharmapala was seen as grandfather of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. In the minds of these scholars, one cannot be anti imperialist and at the same time a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist, so Dharmapala’s nationalism was somehow ‘second-rate’ or even retrograde.

Having an axe to grind with Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism and in particular the key articulators of that school of thought such as Prof Nalin de Silva and Dr Gunadasa Amarasekara as well as those who went overboard with their nationalism to romanticize the past beyond defensible limits, I was told that this particular strain of Dharmapala-thinking would ‘checkmate the Jathika Chinthanaya people’.

Years later a young lecturer, then teaching at the Peradeniya University approached me with a proposition. He said he was working with a group of students and wanted me to teach them English. It was not just English as in ‘Spoken English’, writing skills and so on. He stressed that he wanted to make sure that they got their pronunciation correct. He was not from an English-speaking family and could hardly be called fluent. He knew enough, by dint of hard work, to translate into Sinhala two important essays, one by Francis Fukiyama and the other by Samuel Huntington which these authors later developed into the comprehensive treatises that sparked much debate in the social sciences, ‘The End of History’ and ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ respectively.

My friend had read enough to know about language usage, language form, accent, acceptance, language ‘standards’ and the associated hegemonies. And yet, he wanted me to make sure that his students ‘got it right’ consistently. I asked him why and found out that it was not just English he was thinking about. It was a particular culture of doing things in a particular kind of way. He told me that he had got someone to teach them yoga exercises and someone else to conduct meditation classes. He said that he had asked someone in the hospitality industry to teach his students how to eat with a fork and a spoon. He knew there was no ‘correct’ way, but he wanted them to ‘do it right’ in the sense that regular users would not be able to tell that they were not ‘native speakers’, so to speak, of the fork-spoon language. He had also got a friend to teach ballroom dancing to this group.

The logic was not hard to understand. He had picked up from Anagarika Dharmapala what that other ‘scholar’ armed (yes, ‘armed’) with a doctorate had (was bound to have) missed: acquiring the weapons of the enemy or in the very least picking up mannerisms that make it harder for the enemy to distinguish him/herself from the ‘rabble’. Nothing irks the English-speaking snooty than a yakko being as or more fluent in English without spitting on his/her yakkoness, for example and in the eyes of the snooty ‘being native and championing “local” especially Sinhala-Buddhist heritage’.
It is a double-edged knife, this method that my friend from Peradeniya was
experimenting with; such are the immense and eminently tangible benefits of using English. It is not just sword, it is also steppingstone. It is nevertheless a weapon that one can use effectively in recovering territories conceded/lost in the entire colonial encounter.

Those yakkos who learn English (like my friend) or those who are fluent in English but recognize its weapon-worthiness (both as instrument of subjugation and as revolutionary prop) like Gamini Haththotuwegama are key players in the overall struggle to unshackle ourselves from that thing called ‘colonial mentality’.

English is not the only ‘fork and spoon’. It is not the only ‘ballroom dance’. There are other things that can be similarly described. This is not the place to discuss all the forks and spoons out there that we might find useful to pick up and play with. For now it is important to acknowledge that it is not just a language issue. It is about approach. It is about how we see English, what kind of baggage we bring to our encounter with English and our ability to leave hang-ups behind and employ reason in dealing with it.

Perhaps the following utilitarian understanding of English (send to me by a friend a few months ago) would be a good way to end this note:

‘English to me is like the hiramanay (coconut scraper). We have it stored in our kitchen. Take it out when needed to scrape coconuts, sharpen the dethi (spikes on the head) if need be, scrape coconuts, make milk or pol sambole, wash it well before storing and store it in its rightful place back in the kitchen.

‘I don’t carry it on my back wherever I go for there is no need to. It’s no ornament that I can wear. It is just my coconut scraper.’   




Ramzeen said...

You're not being fair Malinda. English, in your case is DEFINITELY not in a corner somewhere but dwells in your subconscious. It invokes itself automatically when required and also changes your mind from Sinhala mode to English.You thereby think in English when speaking it. Not so those who shove it into a corner and speak in English whilst thinking in Sinhala. BTW, I like your smiling avatar!

Malinda Seneviratne said...

i am not sure what language i think in. some like this avatar and some don't. :)

Dev said...

Interesting thought! Language, fork-and-spoon, chopsticks, ballroom dancing,sports are all - I consider - tools that help to establish rapport with fellow human beings. It matters to a 'foreigner' that one has made the effort to pick-up some bit of his/her culture.

sajic said...

The people of 'colonial mentality' whom you speak of, Malinda, are a dying clan. New generations will grow up speaking mother tongue and english with equal ease. Not the Oxford variety,perhaps- but certainly effectively as a tool for communication.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

not so sure....kids coming out of international schools, for example, are worse in this respect than those who went to royal, stc etc...

sajic said...

kids coming out of international schools are only a fraction of the students in this country. The majority of students are conversant in the mother-tongue. the need is for really good english teachers in other private and govt schools. These kids will be the future of this land.