29 June 2016

No island is an island and ours is no exception

No man is an island, they say.  No island is an island either in these globalized times. Indeed, it can be argued that islands never existed and if they did their numbers were very small.  The reference is of course to human collectives and not land masses surrounded by bodies of water.  Complete isolation has always been the exception. 

Throughout history, communities have been marked by the commerce of goods and services, gifting, invasion and embrace, plunder and counter-plunder, conversion to faith by force or threat and embracing of doctrine on conviction and so on.  Political boundaries are not cast in stone either. The world map needs constant revision. I’ve seen a version of King Lear where the kingdom is divided by the simple and dramatic method of tearing the relevant map into three pieces.  The invaders carved up the continent of Africa by simply drawing lines on a piece of paper, dividing communities arbitrarily and deliberately, engendering wars that have survived their incubators. 

No island is an island and ours is no exception to this rule.  We are linked by trade and treaty, friendship and relationship, the play of power and threat, the need to mitigate pressure from one force by seeking friendship with another. 

Nothing comes without a price.  Some use the age-old device called arm-twisting: ‘submit or else!’  Some just stuff the unpalatable down unwilling throats, causing bowel disorders and other convulsions that end up spreading a lot of blood-splattered bad news around. 

No island is an island and ours is no exception, this is true.  Does this mean that we do not have and indeed cannot have any core identity, a shared cultural ethos or some corpus of beliefs and practices that are unique and/or inform us regularly and substantially enough to allow for collective identification?  Those who for reasons they have no control over and for lack of histories they are not to be blamed for often take the convenient position, ‘we never were and we never will be’. That’s a neat mechanism to justify the most negative and pernicious forms of ‘exchange’ in this island-less world. 

It goes without saying that islands that are not islands interact more with the closest islands that are not islands. We are no exception.  This is why there’s more India in Sri Lanka than say Mozambique or Iceland.  There’s more Pakistan in India than is generally acknowledged, more Pakistan in Indian than Sri Lanka and more Pakistan in India than Sri Lanka in India.  Land-mass separation is a factor, one observes.  Size too.  Sri Lanka would spread very thin over India while India could bury Sri Lanka under several miles of earth.   Land-mass volume also counts. 

Such things, however, are not as significant when it comes to commerce of other kinds.  Culture, for instance.  Size of nation or other collective is not obstacle enough for an idea to travel the globe, encounter, embrace, subjugate and liberate that which it encounters.  History is long, longer than is convenient for some and, happily or unhappily, for us to know what really happened in those un-scribed times.  Proximate islands indulge in exchange. Perhaps this is part of human nature, I don’t know.  Today, several millennia since something was invented, we really can’t tell who the inventor was or to which community he/she belonged.  All we know is what we can conclude from what we already know. 

We have myths and legends as well as a rich folk history contained in customs and beliefs, traditional practices, song and dance.  We know of Ravana.  Even the Ramayana indicates that of the two protagonists, Rama was essentially second-best on all counts.  Add the Lankavathara Sutra and we have a Ravana whose ‘ten heads’ refers to ten times the average intellect.  Consider the fact that he is credited with the invention of chess and the violin, and as the father of Ayurveda, and we have a Lanka that dwarfs and indeed engulfed her neighbouring ‘island’. 

Let’s call all this meaningless conjecture.  We could stick to the known and focus on that which can be verified.  We are told that India made us who we are by giving us the greatest gift ever, the word of Siddhartha Gauthama, our Budun Wahanse.  The ‘word’ however existed before Siddhartha Gauthama, for there have been other articulators of the ‘Word’, other Buddhas, and there’s nothing to say that this island was bypassed by word-travel in the relevant times.  Still, let’s take the above as true. 

Here are some facts.  The Emperor Asoka sent his two children, no less, with word and artifact. They were received not by barbarians but a people ready for intellectual discourse and they chose to spend the rest of their lives in this land.  Forget Ravana and Ravana’s ‘Lanka’, Arahat Mahinda did not come to a civilizational desert or a cultural badland. The ‘word’, nevertheless, was gift and gift supreme too, let there be no doubt about this.  The question though is whether we received this gift from India.

If indeed Ravana invented the violin and chess, if indeed he invented the first flying craft, the Dandumonaraya, if indeed he was the physician, botanist and biochemist supreme that legend claims he is, it is strange that neither India nor the rest of the world (of the 21st Century) acknowledge that Sri Lanka or Lanka, or, more correctly, Sinhale, gave these gifts to the neighbouring ‘island’ and other islands too.  India didn’t give us Buddhism.  The Emperor Asoka sent an emissary and dharmaduta, and we are not ungrateful. India did not, because India could not, for the simple reason that India was not!  

India is a colonial construct. A man from the land that is now called India made a magnificent gesture. I am grateful.  Those who did nothing and indeed did nothing other than plunder and coerce cannot take credit, I believe.  That’s forgettable commerce, I would think. 

There are gifts and gifts. There is legitimate credit claim and credit theft too.  Not too long ago, some 5 million Sri Lankans paid homage to sacred relics of Lord Buddha, brought here courtesy the largesse of the Pakistani Government for a 17-day exposition.  That’s gift too.  Less significant of course than that which the Emperor Asoka gave two millennia ago, but still, gift.  Gift is not gift, one notes when a price is extracted openly or subtly it does not matter how. 

The Emperor Asoka, when he requested ArahatMihinda to take the Word of our BudunWahanse to Simhaladeep and to his friend King Devanampiyatissa, did not say ‘Tell him that he should redraw the provincial boundaries and enact constitutional amendment to help legitimate the unsubstantiated claims of this or that community and/or its representatives’.  That was gift and therefore I am grateful for the commerce between these two islands.  

No island is an island, and we are no exception. We give, we take.  We win, we lose out and at the end of the long days of ‘islandic’ history, one hopes, it all balances out.  Time is long and in our long-time, we will see all kinds of commerce, that of the Ravana-Rama kind, the Asoka-Tissa kind, the Rajiv-JR kind and other kinds still to come.  We are not an island, but we are nevertheless a nation.   We lack size but not imagination. We lack nuclear weapons, but we have the Word that helped us more than anything through terrible, terrible times.

That word was made of compassion.  It was made also of wisdom.  We know therefore, when to bow before greatness and when to stand firm against tyranny.  We went down, but not forever.  We know how to fall.  We know how to stand up.  We are not an island, and yet, we are a nation, a people, a civilization, a culture and a solidarity that is not contained by map-line or edict, threat or weapon-show. 

No island is an island and ours is not an exception.  It’s a good thing, all things considered. 

This article was first published on June 27, 2011 in the Daily News, for which newspaper I wrote a daily column under the title 'The Morning Inspection'

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com