04 June 2023

A chorus of national anthems

A few years ago when people were debating the merits and demerits of two official versions of the national anthem, i.e. in Sinhala and Tamil, I argued against a ‘Sinhala Only’ version. The notion of an official national anthem did not exist one hundred years ago, I argued. I have also argued that ‘nation’ is not contained or containable in an anthem, a flag or an identity card.

One of the articles written along these lines was titled ‘The Tamil version of the National Anthem is beautiful.’ Not too long after writing that piece, quite by chance, I did get an opportunity to listen to some school children singing the Tamil version of the National Anthem.

It was just before school was closed for the day, probably around 1.30 pm. The children of Shannon Tamil Maha Vidyalam were singing. The Tamil version. And a little Tamil girl, still too small to attend school, next door to the house I was visiting, sang along. In Sinhala. And I remember being amused by all the hot air spouted in the name of the nation in circles far removed from Hatton.

Last night I returned to the national anthem or rather the idea of a national anthem. A few friends had gathered to reminisce about times long gone. They had gathered to sing. So they spoke of singers and lyricists, doing their best to honour the greats who had been part of their journey from childhood to manhood and now old age. At one point, one of them, my brother Arjuna said, ‘jaathika geeya kiyamu (let’s sing the National Anthem).’

It was late. The thought crossed my mind that he wanted to wrap things up and go home. Then he started strumming his guitar. And the words, slow, were breathed out softly: ‘ratna deepa janma bhoomi…’

The others joined. With gusto laced with tenderness. As in any song celebrating ‘nation,’ there’s a heavy layering of history and heritage. There will of course be those who object to the word ‘jathiya’ and of course to ‘Sinhale,’ both of which have got sullied by both abuse and vilification, but I would invite anyone who is clueless about the song to just listen to the melody. It is as national as it can get, as far as I know. No less national than anything associated with the word. For me, as for the others who sang it last night, THE national anthem, my brother is right.

We did not fall upon this island from the sky. We were born in a territory upon which history made identifiable marks. Not unblemished and yet not without heroes and heroism. Not untouched by tyranny and yet a land where the selfless sacrificed lives for the benefit of fellow creatures.

The blood shed in the name of a collective did not congeal into precious stones, not in a literal sense, but if this land, this culture, these people are resilient, selfless and honourable ever, they do owe something to those courageous people who came before, who fought, who fell and who in falling made sure others would not have to kneel forever.

The life-breath they yielded as final gift did not and does not waft across reservoirs majestic and humble, perfume flowers and grain, and fill hearts with joy. No, not in a literal sense. And yet, they did flavour history, they did moisturise heritage, they did leave a mark, whether or not it is recognized.  

That’s for me. That’s for a few of us last night who sang this song and then paid homage in remembrance to Mahagama Sekara and W D Amaradeva. Someone else, other collectives, might not be moved. Their national anthem equivalent might have very different lyrics, but for many, I’m sure, there’s a song (and it could be more than one song too) that captures what they understand as ‘nation,’ better than any other melody. A poet who is not named Mahagama Sekara would have written it. A singer who is not W D Amaradeva would have sung it.

I asked my friend Jude Jayaprekash. He mentioned one. Vidai Kodu Engal Nadai (Bidding farewell to my country). A song from Mani Ratnam's movie ‘Kannathil Muthamittal (A kiss on the cheek)’ with A R Rahman composing the music. There are probably other ‘national anthems.’

The more there are the better, I feel, because anything that reconnects someone to land, history, heritage and one another could be wholesome. It could be a perspective that is not shared by all. On the other hand, the fact of assigning privilege would be common to all. It can therefore be understood, appreciated and even celebrated. A chorus of national anthems. Not a bad idea, I think.     

['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:

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

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