24 January 2023

That ‘English Smile’

‘English with a smile’ is the title of a series of study guides for students and teachers of English written by W.H. Samaranayake, the renowned educationist, grammarian and philanthropist. Samaranayake was magnanimous and must have made thousands who had previously found English a hard language to master speak it with ease. He probably made them smile through the lessons and thereafter.  

‘English smile’ or rather the ‘English-laugh’ is different. It’s a term I heard just a few hours ago for the first time during a conversation with Suminda Kithsiri Gunaratne who has just come out with his sixth collection of poetry, ‘Prisma (Prisms).’

In the year 1991, some students of Eheliyagoda Central College were taken on an educational tour. They had visited the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum, the Galle Fort and finally the Narigama beach. It must have been a lot of fun of course, but an unexpected gust of wind had dampened the enthusiasm of a few students. The incident was recorded in poetic form and written on the blackboard of the class when next they attended school.

කොග්ගල ප්‍රාඥයා බලලා
ගාල්ලේ කොටු බැම්ම නැගලා
ඉස්කෝලේ අද්දියාපන ගමන දිගේ
අපි ආවේ...
නාරිගම වෙරළට!

එක පාරටම නෝබිනා හුළඟක් ඇවිදිල්ලා
සුදු ගවුම් කීපයක් උඩ ගියා!...

විලි බියෙන් කිළිපෙළූ බාලිකා
දෑත් දෙදනේ ඔබා
එක තැනම ගුලි වෙලා
එය දුටුව නාකි දඬු සුද්දියක්
සුදු වැල්ල බදාගෙන
හෙළුවැල්ල මුදාගෙන
කට කොනින්...

 It was titled ‘Ingreesi Hinava’ and later published in Sumina’s maiden collection of poetry, ‘Chakkaran Kotuwa (Hopscotch Square).’

Ok. The translation:

Having visited the Wise Man of Koggala,
and walked the ramparts of Galle Fort  
in this educational tour
we stopped next
at the Narigama beach!

A delinquent gust of wind
came suddenly by
And a few white frocks swept up!

Stung by embarrassment
the girls clutched at their knees
crouched and stopped!

A gaunt old suddi
hugging the white sand
exposing her nudity  
having seen it all
from the corner of her mouth

The play of the word වැල්ල (wella, meaning sand) in the words sudu wella (white sand) and heluvella (nudity) is hard to translate. The irony of course is obvious.

Suminda would have written this when he was around 14 years old. He would agree that it could have been improved upon with a few technical tweaks he probably wasn’t aware of at the time.  

He noticed something. He recorded something that happened and worked into it the irony that many others probably missed. Good stuff for a 14 year old.  

What’s interesting is that even if the incident is random and isolated, the overall play is not. It’s part of what this society is. To be more precise it describes much of the politics of language associated with English. Something gets exposed (language-deficiency) for no fault of the victim and it prompts a knowing, cynical and even mocking smile. That disdainful smile, indicative of a superiority complex, is hardly disguised in certain circles. What it reveals of course is a certain nudity.  

It’s a we-know-you-don’t syndrome. It’s not limited to English and a certain class of people who think language competency is indicative of superior wisdom or even technical know-how. We see it among ‘the educated.’ We see it in the flaunting of certificates and social status. We see it, ironically indeed, among those who claim to be engaged in emancipatory projects. Condescension, at best, but at worst it is absolutely malicious.

Not everyone can have ‘an English smile,’ obviously. It’s an elite-thing or in its more pernicious form an elite-wannabe-thing. Something we can do without.

We all see through tinted glasses of one kind or another, the truth passes through prisms ideological and otherwise and in the scattering of light into colours we are bombarded with truth-slivers which are therefore, inevitably, half-lies.

There will always be gusts of wind that can embarrass. We respond as best we can. No one needs to laugh, but there will be ‘white’ people or rather black-white people (kalu-suddas)’ who will laugh or politely stifle a guffaw, perhaps not noticing is that there’s another tribe, culturally ‘white’ in the post-colonial context if you will, who is laughing at the embarrassed as well as those amused by the embarrassment.

The English Smile. Look out for it. It will tell you a lot of things about the cultural politics of our times and the pathways people traveled to get to the Land of Derision. 


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 


Other articles in this series:

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road