22 July 2018

There are patriots and patriots, realists and mavericks, progressives and charlatans


It is often held, erroneously, that all those who champion culture, heritage and especially language, which is the vehicle that carries these things across the troubled and uneven territories of time, are "traditionalists" or worse, chauvinists and racists. Such labels are of course applicable to demagogues and petty politicians who, lacking minds of their own and hampered by a manifest absence of creativity and vision, latch on to the politically remunerative caravan called "identity". If they happen to be gifted with the power of articulation, they are quite capable of persuading the masses to follow them. Typically, the journeys they chart go nowhere and what movement occurs leaves a trail of bloodshed and mayhem.

"Patriots", like Marxists, Catholics, and other fundamentalists, come in different hues. Unfortunately, the colours that distinguish them do so in such a subtle manner that it is not easy to develop a fool-proof equation that anyone can grasp and use as protection against the mavericks, the quick-fix artistes and downright opportunists. Wisdom, in these things, comes late. Indeed, quite often, it comes too late in the day.

Still, life is about learning lessons and resolving not to make the same mistake twice. One must learn to assess those who aspire to be heroes and champions of the people as well as those who clearly enjoy heroic status in terms of the utopias proposed, the strategies laid out and most importantly the means adopted.

I am always suspicious of those who want to celebrate heritage and culture without saying why such salutation is important. Religious and cultural revivalism as ends in themselves set off warning bells in my mind, perhaps because I am at that age when cynicism is supposed to make a serious effort to obliterate all else, especially dreams.

Celebrating Sinhalaness, for example, if justified by a simple "because it is who we are, and because this is the Sinhala Nation" is just not enough to get the adrenalin running in my veins. By the same token, "Tamilness", proposed on account of historical "fact" (even if a case could be made), rings hollow and not just because the term is now, sadly, associated with tyranny and anti-intellectual claims and practices.

There is a difference between a revivalist and a reformer. Revivalism can be a tool (and one could argue that it is an imperative) used by a reformer, but reform is not necessarily included in the agenda of the revivalist. This is why I consider both Anagarika Dharmapala and Cumaratunga Munidasa to be revolutionaries, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike a creature of a lesser breed, certainly of an order lower than both D.S. Senanayake and Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

I’ve just finished perusing an elegant copy of Munidasa’s "Kumara Gee Ethulu Lama Pedi" published by Visidunu Publishers (Pvt) Ltd., and so I shall leave out Dharmapala, Senanayake and the Bandaranaikes for a later occasion.

Cumaratunga Munidasa is widely recognized for his life-long work on the Sinhala language and his meticulous efforts to derive the "Hela" by weeding out what he believed to be Sanskrit impurities. His immaculate edition of ancient texts in this regard and his commitment to do a comprehensive untangling of the Sinhala verb alone makes him a grammarian of the highest order. His experiments with verse and his many stories place him among the greats of modern Sinhala literature. He was obviously fascinated by his language, so he loved it, cherished it, nurtured it, cured it, if you will, and sought to preserve it.

Reading "Kumara Gee", I cannot help but conclude that Cumaratunga Munidasa, much as he loved the language of the Sinhalese, he loved it less than he loved his nation and his people.
He was obviously perturbed by the state into which the Sinhala nation had deteriorated. He was convinced that redemption lay in the hands of the people. Most important, he believed that the people cannot be empowered if their language, the vessel wherein the cultural ethos is best preserved, is not resurrected.

Thus it was that he propounded the idea that the preservation of the "basa" was the necessary precondition for the strengthening of the "resa", the people, and that it was only then that one can dream about freeing the nation. This is a lesson for all time, I believe and perhaps never more pertinent in a pragmatic sense than for the struggles of today.

Cumaratunga, even as he resurrected and celebrated his language, was therefore eminently political in a pragmatic and visionary way that has since been unmatched, except perhaps by Martin Wickramasinghe who, although probably guided by the same truths, approached the task differently.
And his politics, tender and nourishing as is always the case when a person of vision takes on the task of social transformation, is probably most evident when he employed his considerable command of the language to mould the children of this land. 

He wanted nothing less than to help develop a child rich in wisdom and compassion. His verses serve to inculcate even in the smallest child positive attitudes, a cognizance of and love for the world that surrounds him or her. The songs teach us how to take on the challenge of deciphering complex truths and empower us to face the vicissitudes of life with fortitude. He was, in short, preparing an entire generation to take over the matter of rediscovering itself, its heritage and thus empowered to rebuild the nation.


More than half a century after his death, we have clearly lost our way and this needs no elaboration. Suffice to say that we will all benefit from a return to Cumaratunga’s work. There is much study to be done. Let us not squander our time. Let us shed the sloganeering and empty talk of a splendid past and rediscover the true body of the patriotic. In our language. That would indeed be an auspicious first step.

First published in the Sunday Island (September 14, 2003)

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