10 January 2019

Colombo, Kolombianism, Kolombians and Wannabe Kolombians

The wine, cheese and grapes alone won't make you a Kolombian

Karl Marx, in ’The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (‘Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon’), published originally in 1852 in Die Revolution, a monthly magazine in German published in New York, discusses France around the time of the coup in 1851 that brought Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte to power. It is a commentary of both political and social processes of the era. Interestingly, while Marx elegantly dissects the French peasantry, he desists from elaborating on the bourgeoisie, perhaps on account of the objectives of the essay, even though it is clear that it as as or more differentiated. 

Marx, admittedly, has paid much more attention to detail and difference than most of his ardent followers who are wont to see things in black and white and therefore engage in much caricaturing, perhaps because they have a narrow understanding of ‘the dialectical’. On the other hand, that is not a trait that is peculiar to Marxists. False dichotomy is a global disease, probably birthed by the dictates of political expediency.  

Recently, Subo De Zoysa made an interesting comment on my commentating predilections pertaining to Kolombians and others. He said, ‘when you write in English, you speak AT the Kolombians. When you write in Sinhala, you speak TO the people.’ 

My response was, ‘I write TO and AT all kinds of people, Kolombians included (even though they are not named in the TO-pieces, I admit).’ I should have added ‘In Sinhala and in English’. In any event, Subo got me thinking and I felt that a re-examination of the term would be interesting.

First, the term. My friend Kanishka Goonewardena prefers to call them ‘Colomboans’ for reasons of etymological propriety, but I find it harder on the tongue. So Kolombians it is. For now. 

It’s shorthand, obviously. At first glance one might be tempted to think it refers to those who live in Colombo or else consider Colombo their home. No. Colombo can be cut (like the peasantry and bourgeoisie) along many lines. For example, there are over 500 slum communities within the municipal limits of Colombo and they are not the people I am talking about when I use the term ‘Kolombians’. In fact, neither would I say that those at the other end of the impoverished-affluent spectrum make up that community. 

So who are the Kolumbians? Two observations, one a fairly decent political opinion and the other a rant, would help at this point. The first by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a demagogue by all account even though he is unfairly named as the villain of the piece of inter-ethnic tensions (Tamil Nationalism preceded his flirtation with ‘Sinhala Only’). This is a slice of what he said SWRD at the inauguration of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party:

[There is a] feeling in the minds of some people that our freedom is not something that the people have obtained but one that a few individuals have succeeded in getting, and one therefore that is looked upon to a great extent as the private property of these individuals, the benefits of which should be chiefly enjoyed by them.

Now here’s something an ex TV presenter who calls says she’s a ‘Buddhist’ as opposed to a ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ recently wrote on Facebook. She is anti-Rajapaksa. Nothing wrong with that and one can even make excuses for the rabidity of her antipathies. The post was cheered by many. Few among those living in Colombo and who shared her political preferences saw reason to object. That says a lot. Anyway, the following are relevant excerpts from the post, addressed to, in her words, ‘ALL those bloody lowlife guttersnipe Baiyas who can’t mind their own damn business’:

‘YES! I am a Walawe Hamu because I come from one of the oldest and wealthiest landowning Govigami families in Galle- Dias Nagahawatte. My mother is a Radala Kandyan- Thalgodapitiya. You, ill bred lowlife Biyas can ask your master, Mahinda Rajapaksa for more details of my family…

‘YES! I am not fluent in Sinhala because from the day I was born English is the language I heard as it was the language my parents used to communicate. Hence I regard English as my mother tongue…..I DO NOT need to apologize for my excellent command of the English language. 

‘YES! I am a Buddhist who follows the Buddhist philosophy and NOT the fake racist religion - Sinhala Buddhism - you Baiyas follow.’

She has, inter alia, referred to her friendship with Arjuna Mahendran, who she believes is ‘a gentleman par excellence.’ Nothing wrong in friendship. Nothing wrong in considering English her mother tongue. She certainly doesn’t have to apologize for command of any language. However, as a proclaimed Buddhist ‘who follows the Buddhist philosophy’ she might do well to reflect on the Four Sublime States (sathara brahma viharana), namely unconditional love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, and test the validity of her claim in terms of rhetoric and practice.

How is this relevant to the definition of a Kolombian? Well, first, it resonates well with SWRD’s claim (even though he could have laid out similar credentials which, his family has not shied away from asserting on occasion, in word and deed). It’s the condescension, folks. It’s the allusion to and illusion of some kind of birthright. 

A comment to this woman’s post reveals the general mindset (names have been expunged for obvious reason): ‘That’s what I say - whether u live in the village or town -THE BREED SHOWS. Bost of the baiayas who hv been attacking you - their ancestors may perhaps hv been from the class yr parents would hv employed as servants. Thanks to free education & the “shishtathvaya” - as well as the districtwise selection for universities - some may be in comfortable jobs, donned in western attire - but their breed is from the gutter.’ [Note: this is a faithful transcription of a screen shot of the comment, inclusive of language error, e.g. ‘shishtathvaya’ instead of ‘shishyathvaya’ (scholarship exam)].

Neither the high caste, self-proclaimed ‘Buddhist’ nor any of her cheerleaders thought fit to object. This stuff is familiar and old: west is good, what’s not is bad; those of the lower classes/castes are gutter-bred’ and should also shut up.  

My contention is that it is these kind of people who make up (or were misled by) the Funded-Voices, Born-Again Democrats and Candlelight Ladies who emerged from the woodworks lately, eyes wide open to misdeeds of their cultural ‘others’ but ‘eyes wide shut’ over the misdeeds of tribe-members (yes, Kolombians are a tribe and Kolombianism is tribalist, as much or worse than the brand of tribalism displayed by, say, the Bodu Bala Sena). They would shed copies tears of Lasantha Wickramatunage, Thajudeen and Ekneligoda (because it serves a political purpose) but are ignorant of Ranjithan Gunaratnam and some 60,000 others ‘disappeared’ during the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya (because such commemoration does not have a political purpose). 
How does one talk TO such people? If talking AT such people could result in civilized debate and discussion, then of course there is a case for doing so; my hunch is it would be a waste of time. 

That said, there are people in Colombo (and even outside the shanty-communities in Colombo 7 and Colombo 3) who share with many who belong to ‘the other’ so derived in the Facebook post and comments thereto referred to above healthy notions of equality, civility and respect for difference. Their silent is worrisome of course, but that’s another matter. They are not Kolombians, in the sense in which I use the term. 

It is also important to note that just as there are Kolombians, there are also Kolombian Wannabes. They want to feel, like Rosy Senanayake, that Colombo ‘is the heart of the nation’. They would even say ‘Colombo IS Sri Lanka’ if they feel that would help them obtain Kolombian membership. However, it’s not that easy.

A few years ago, I wrote a satirical piece titled ‘Shortcuts to being a Kolombian’. A summary follows: 1) It’s not about where you are located but how you locate yourself, 2) Fluency in English is a must, 3) Adopting practices is important, not just dress and obtaining membership of certain clubs and circles but echoing Kolombian cheers and sneers (e.g. jeering those who don’t know English and who don’t get the accent right, and cheering those who ridicule such yakkos or baiyyas and act as though everything written, said and sung in Sinhala or Tamil, by ‘definition’, is inferior and worthy only of contempt), 4) Ridiculing and dismissing as inferior or stupid things not said said/written in English or borrowed/derived from Europe and North America. 

So, some have membership, others do not. Some want it but will not get it. Some resent it. Some consider it hilarious. The important thing is to understand that not all Kolombians are from Colombo and neither is everyone in Colombo a Kolombian. 

Other articles on Kolombians and Kolombians:
Other articles in the series:

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.maindawords.blogspot.com