Every year, I begin my comparative literature class with the following exercise: I ask my students to write down all ‘national literatures’ they have read. I usually explain in advance what a national literature is: literature written in any national language like Hindi, Thai, Indonesian and so on.
Nearly all my students at the department of Sinhala read only in Sinhala. And many of them are from rural working class or lower middle class backgrounds. Students from urban or rural middle middle classes do not study Sinhala language and literature for a special degree. Because of these social factors, for the last ten years I have met only less than ten students who could read books in English. Even that small group is not capable of understanding subtle nuances of quality literary works written in English.
Let me get back to that exercise of mine. Once, one female student from Bibile had written down the names of twenty odd national literatures, and she had read all of them in Sinhala: Russian, French, Greek, Indian, British, American, German, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Japanese, Chinese, Australian, Norwegian, Colombian, Chilean, Brazilian, Czech, Peruvian, Nigerian, and so on. All other students, even the ones who are not avid readers, had read at least five national literatures such as Russian, French, Indian, Japanese, German and so on.
I, their teacher, more than twice older than them, also do this exercise every year with them. Of course, every year I am older by one year while the age of the students of that course remains the same. And within that year, I usually manage to get some more literary works from a new national literature, the latest addition being a Tibetan novel. So, this year my list included some fifty national language literatures. About a half of that number I had read in Sinhala, I started reading regularly in English in my late twenties. Any Sinhala person with a good reading habit and literary taste, often reads several national literatures during his or her life time. The world of Sinhala translations has huge issues. But all those translators, specially translators such as Gamini Viyangoda must be appreciated for translating from many different literary cultures.
These are fascinating numerical evidence but they need further explanation. Let me focus only on my experience with Sinhala medium students. On discussing the process of interconnections behind these numbers, we discovered the beautiful webs of inter-cultural connections. Let me give you a few examples: the literature of a country with which we do not have many socio-political connections was on nearly everyone’s list: Norway. Some of my students even did not know that they had read anything from Norway, until I reminded them that A Doll’s House or Sellam Geya was originally written in Norwegian. I use the play in my second year course on theater, and by the time I do this exercise in the final year, everyone has read A Doll’s House in its six different Sinhala translations. Sellam Geya, translated by Gananth Obeyesekare and Amaradasa Weerasinghe in 1950s, is so deeply rooted in our cultural consciousness that one often forgets that it is originally from that distant snowy land.
Some students who have read Pearl S. Buck’s Good Earth in Sinhala (Sara Bhumi) do not realize that it is a work of an American author. For some of them, Mahalla saha Muhuda, is a Cuban novel not a book by an American writer who happened to be living in Cuba for some time. In fact, no major Cuban novel has ever been translated into Sinhala.
Nearly all my students remember the songs of the Gunasena Galappatthi’s play Mudu Putthu, but they are not always cognizant of the fact that the play was originally written by a man from Spain. In recent times, numerous South African plays have been translated into Sinhala but none of my students included South African literature in their lists.
A few students had read the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but they did not give much thought to the fact that Singer originally wrote them in Yiddish. During the discussion, I realized that they did not know that such a language existed.
They had read Indian literatures originally written in Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and English. With the discussion on Indian literature, they could realize that a national literature could be written in many languages.
Then, we focused our attention on Sri Lankan literary scene. On explaining that Sri Lankan literature is written in three languages, once I had to correct a student who thought Vivimarie Van der Poorten was South African. But the student who assumed Vivimarie to be South African made an educated guess showing a latent awareness of inter-cultural connections: the student may have used her knowledge in cricket. South African cricket team has a “Van der Merwe.” We use our knowledge in one field to interpret another.
I cited these examples to draw your attention to something important: Even my mostly monolingual students are quite cosmopolitan in their literary taste, and that taste has been shaped by many cultures. Openness to arts and literature from different cultures was a characteristic of European cosmopolitanism since the Enlightenment. Of course Goethe was a known proponent of that sentiment. Usually, cosmopolitan means a person who speaks several languages and who has seen many cultures. My students are cosmopolitan in an important way even though they only speak Sinhala and they have not traveled the world, at least yet. They have been exposed to numerous cultures through translated literature. They do feel at home in the presence of cultural difference. Recently, when Mario Vargas Llossa’s Bad Girl and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey were translated into Sinhala no one objected to their graphic descriptions of sexuality. For the last few years I have assigned The Reader, the film and the novel in Sinhala translation (Gimhana Geethaya) in my Comp Lit course, and when one of the female students was watching the movie in her hostel room, her roommates protested that she was watching bad movies. She said, “this is life. Come watch it with me.” Watch they did, and the uneasiness went away. While preparing for this talk, my students told me that they all know now the art of downloading.
Inter-cultural literary sensibility of these students, to be sure, is quite fragile, and it often does not work as a bulwark against many of their inherited prejudices. After all, many of them are pro-raggers and even participate in chasing away anti-raggers, including English medium students from, certain places. On days such as April 21st when Islamic terrorists carried out those attacks, my students would easily be swayed into extreme nationalist ideologies. Nevertheless, I want to claim that their intercultural literary sensibility can guide us in developing a conceptual framework within which ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ can be articulated as an alternative to rampant parochialisms.
In their introduction to the famous volume on cosmopolitanism, the editors stated that “cosmopolitanism is something to yet to come, something awaiting realization (Cosmopolitanism. Ed. Breckenridge and others.2002).” They are right in arguing that cosmopolitanism as a viable alternative to the extreme forms of ethnic nationalism is something yet to realize. As a first step of doing so we need to democratize the idea of cosmopolitanism by removing certain elitism associated with the concept. Typically, a cosmopolitan person is multilingual and has seen many different cultures away from home. A cosmopolitan treats the entire world as his or her home. This idea of cosmopolitan is inherently elitist since only a few privileged people have opportunities for learning different languages and traveling the world widely. The system of nation states and extremely stratified international traveling do not allow everyone to travel equally even when one has the means to do so. It is no accident that at international conferences on tribal or indigenous people, for example, one often meets people from upper classes in those respective societies representing the marginalized. Beautifully cosmopolitan Sinhala concepts such as “bahushrata”(Having listened to many things) or “avidda paya dahas wati”(traveled feet worth thousands) have no meaning when ‘listening’ and ‘traveling’ are both restricted to one’s nation state and even to smaller worlds. But my monolingual students who have read more than a dozen of national literatures in their native language have a lesson to teach us.
What is that lesson? We need to linger a bit longer here. I do agree with Ulrich Beck that we get out of ‘methodological nationalism’ in social sciences. Beck argues that we tend to do our thinking in social sciences taking nation state as a natural entity often equating ‘society’ with ‘nation state’. Drawing on his insight, I think that much of our thinking in the Humanities too takes the nation state to be naturally and eternally there, like the Hanthana Mountain above the university of Peradeniya or the Elephant rock above my home town. Professor Beck suggests, in his Cosmopolitan Vision (2006), that we move into ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ where the idea of society is much larger than the nation state. There is something Beck forgot to mention: while nation state usually remains the same in size, cosmopolitan space can grow as a community flourishes in knowledge, creativity and democracy. When my students grow further into the literary world, their lists of national literatures will also grow. Some of them learn their English while in campus and happily inform me that they read in English, too. A few of them have already translated stories from English to Sinhala. One female student, whose list of national literature was not that long to begin with, translated a collection of Indian short stories from English to Sinhala. Her translations were quite good. She entered my radar at the very end of her undergraduate life. Once I told her, “your translations are great. How did you learn English?” “From here and there, Sir,” She said. After a brief pause, she spoke again. I saw her eyes turning moist with tears. “But Sir, my father cannot even read.” “Wow! One of those wonders of free education!”I said. She looked at me with a great sense of pride. So, I added, “You are looking at one such wonder, well, a minor one. My father was schooled only up to grade three.”
The literary sensibilities of my students at my comparative literature course and the literary interests of my students of translation theory and practice cannot be explained within the cultural framework of the nation state. The students of comparative literature were mostly unaware of the fact that they had been exposed to so many literatures outside of the island. Some of them did not know that they have read international literature and their literary taste was mostly shaped by foreign literature, specially Russian and French. Translations of Russian and French literary works have been rather ubiquitous in personal collections and libraries in the country from 1950s onward. But they did not think much about the trans-cultural literary world that they were participating in. If we were to call those young Sri Lankans, “cosmopolitans” we run into a theoretical problem: they do not speak more than one language and they have not traveled the world; probably many of them never will. In the current mode of globalization, the movements of human beings are monitored and restricted while capital is free to flow anywhere, and digital money can travel everywhere without moving anywhere.
But I still think that we need to create space for people like them in the discourse on cosmopolitanism. Perhaps, they are rooted cosmopolitans- a term I borrow from Kawame Anthony Appiah – a major contributor to the recent discourse on cosmopolitanism. Professor Appiah grew up in Ghana with his famous Ghanaian father and British mother, and he was educated in the UK and the US, before deciding to reside in the US. He and his three sisters live in four different countries. With such a life with many international connections, Appiah “never found it hard to live with many loyalties”(Ethics of Identity. 2005. p. 214). We do have some people in Sri Lanka with similar life stories. But being cosmopolitan should not be a mode of being in the world limited to a small group of privileged people.
The nearly all of my students often do not have lives similar to Appiah’s. But still, can we call them ‘cosmopolitan’ since they have read a good dozen of different national literatures? Should we aspire to get them to think as ‘world citizens’ even if they only know one language and their physical world is demarcated by the boundary of nation state? I think we should. Being cosmopolitan is a sensibility, a vision, and a way of imagining oneself as a person with many connections. A world with no national boundaries, a world government, or a world population with the knowledge in international languages is a very distant reality.
Here I want to return to Professor Appiah’s concept of ‘rooted cosmopolitan’ and stretch it a bit to include my own students mentioned above and their cultural worlds. In order to explain, what ‘rooted cosmopolitan’ means, Appiah describes “ruthless cosmopolitans.” See the sound! It sounds like ‘rootless cosmopolitans- a term he uses his second book Cosmopolitanism (2006) .The ruthless cosmopolitans seek ‘universalisms’ in everything forgetting the fact that what is often named ‘universal’ is something made to look as such by dominant discourses. Rooted cosmopolitans, in contrast, are subtle enough to attend to delicate differences between cultures and human beings. In fact, cosmopolitan person is not threatened in the presence of cultural difference but at home there. Ruthless cosmopolitans will demand one universe with one culture, often their own culture. I couldn’t agree more with Appiah when he says, “a form of cosmopolitanism worth pursuing need reflexively celebrate human difference; but it cannot be indifferent to the challenge of engaging with it”(2005: 222).
In addition to being Universalist, the ruthless cosmopolitans tend to be utopian seeking to realize cosmopolitan existence some time in future. With Appiah, I would argue for a cosmopolitanism that is already here. We have already seen how the literary and aesthetic sensibilities of my students have been shaped by many cultures. Unbeknownst to them, they are cosmopolitan. Aren’t they?
Not only those readers, but also the literary cultures of Sri Lanka, at different historical periods, also had such inter-cultural connections. Written between the 7 and 9 centuries AD, Sigiri Graffitti shows the influence of Pali and Sansrkrit literary theories. Epic poems such as Muwadevdawata, Sasadawata, Kavisilumina written in the 12th and the 13th centuries had obvious connections with North and South Indian literary cultures. As Professor Shelden Pollock has demonstrated a vernacular millennium begins around the 10th century with many vernacular poets writing poems in borrowed Sanskrit genres. Sinhala is one such language. Sinhala poets, though writing in a vernacular, were participating in what Pollock calls ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’. Even during the pre-modern times, being cosmopolitan was not something foreign to Sri Lanka. History shows that Christians visited the Island as early as the 3rd century AD. Modern Sinhala fiction, poetry and drama – in their main genres and subgenres, were all influenced by many cultures. Contemporary Sinhala novel has learned so much from Buddhist classics and other novels originally written in English, French, Russian and Spanish. Sinhala poetry today shows the influence of English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Bengali, Persian and Urdu influence. Recently some young poets have written poems modeled on Ghazal, hence Persian and Urdu. Among those young Sinhala poets only a few speak even English. But their literary consciousness is obviously cosmopolitan.
Can we unearth these intercultural connections in our teaching in the Humanities and use those very connections as an antidote to parochialism so ubiquitous? I think we can. Speaking of unearthing, there isn’t much earth to remove anyway. Once we change the angle of vision a bit, the elements of rooted cosmopolitanism in our lives begin to surface hopefully providing us with a better way of envisioning our collective existence and shared histories.
Visionary education philosopher John Dewy attempted to use such angles of vision in early twentieth century US in the days of racial segregation. Take the famous example of the piece of cloth. Teacher would ask young school children to bring a piece of cloth to the class. Then, the teacher would get them to consider how that piece of fabric came into being. Cotton from the South or from India, labour from Africa or Mexico, dye or paint from Afghanistan, Iran or Turkey, technology from Manchester and so on. And the teacher can go on to explain how Africans got into Americas. So, there you have a wonderful opportunity of relating the story of slavery. As that piece of cloth is a product of many cultures and many histories, all our cultures, including our inner cultures and consciousness, are created in a context with multiple connections. No wonder that cosmopolitanism, coined by the Cynics of the fourth century BC, is a much older thought than nationalism. As Appiah so eloquently puts it, “Cosmopolitanism isn’t hard work; repudiating it is.”
In 2006, when he wrote a whole book on cosmopolitanism, Professor Appiah used another term in addition to rooted cosmopolitanism: ‘partial cosmopolitanism.’ By this he means ‘realist cosmopolitans’ not ideal or idealist ones. Someone like Sir Richard Burton would be ideal, even extremist cosmopolitan,. Born in 1921, as a child, he traveled in Europe with his parents where he learned modern Greek, French, Portuguese, Italian, and another dialect of Italian. When he entered Oxford he had learned Bearnais- a language in between French and Spanish, and classical Greek and Latin. At Oxford he began learning Arabic and Hindi. After he started working for the East India Company in Sindh, at the age of twenty one, he added Sanskrit, Gujarati, Marathi, Afghan, and Persian to his list of languages. Later he translated Kama Sutra from Sanskrit and Perfumed Garden and Thousand and one Night from Arabic. During those difficult days for traveling Burton traveled nearly everywhere in Africa, much of Asia, Latin America, and, of course, Europe. In some of those travels, he posed as a Muslim, a Pathan and a Persian. For him, the whole world was his home. When we hear the word ‘cosmopolitan’, people like Burton come to our mind. But to be cosmopolitan, one does not have to be that extreme. And Burton lacked one important aspect of a true cosmopolitan: He was quite indifferent to the suffering many culturally different people, and he had no hesitation in buying slaves to carry his bags when traveling in Africa. Knowing many languages had not made him attuned to the tragic realities of cultural others. In that sense, he was very much a child of the British imperialism. A real cosmopolitan that I envision can make his list of languages much shorter but his heart larger and warmer. Among my monolingual students, I see that possibility. Even though they have grown up hearing almost insane rhetoric of ethnic nationalism, they have not totally lost their capacity for sympathy and empathy or ‘compassionate imagination’ to use a term by Martha Nussbaum.
Let me wind up this talk by drawing your attention to another aspect of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism.’ This is where I will be making some provocative and debatable points. Usually, nationalism is taken to be the anti-thesis of cosmopolitanism. But both Appiah and Nussbaum urge us to reconsider that dichotomy. “National partiality is,” says Appiah, “what the concept of cosmopolitanism is usually assumed to oppose, and yet the connection between the two is more complicated than this (2005:239).” Nationalism has many variations and what can be called ‘liberal nationalism’ has so much in common with cosmopolitanism and the two has existed side by side for centuries. In fact in its historical development, nationalism was contrasted with individualism (Ibid. 238). Nationalism urges one to develop allegiance to a larger community of strangers and some members of one’s nation are not one would ever meet in real life. Cosmopolitanism too, by its very nature, calls for treating everyone as the members of a world community in which everyone deeply cares for everyone else. Nation is much smaller than cosmopolis. But nations are certainly larger than an individual and her own family. Parochial ethnic nationalisms and religious nationalisms, needless to say, have done so much harm to the possibilities of ethical conversations between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. But why not renew the dialogue?
Appiah quotes Nussbaum to claim, “it is right to give the local an additional measure of concern. The primary reason a cosmopolitan should have for this is not that the local is better per se, but rather that is the only sensible way to do good”(Ibid: 240). As Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian nationalist, says, “in laboring for our own country on the right principle, we labour for Humanity”(Ibid: 241). Following Mazzini, Professor Appiah too argue, echoing Nussbaum, that “ a citizen of the world can make the world better by making some local place better, even though that need not to be the place of her literal or original citizenship”(241).
I do not have time to elaborate on this point with examples. As a scholar in Sinhala literature, I have to work with a community of students, readers, and literary critics, who do not easily pass the test of cosmopolitanism in its literal sense. They may not have required linguistic and cultural literacy. And they have been listening to extremely poor varieties of nationalism far too long. Mazzini, the nationalist, addressing the workers of Italy in the last decade of the 19th century said, “Your duties – first as regards importance — are towards Humanity. You are men before you are citizens or fathers…” Then he urges those workers to ‘embrace whole human family in your affection.’ While Mazzini was saying those beautiful words in Italy, our nationalist leaders had starkly different words.
Even with such a history of parochialism and isolationism, I often find reason to be hopeful. Both in teaching and conducting research in the Humanities, I have been guided by the concept of rooted cosmopolitanism. My recent essays gathered in books such as Pahana saha Kedapatha and Sitivili Sijijaya are aimed at expanding inter-cultural consciousness. Response to them by readers who read only in the vernacular is more than encouraging. In those essays, I have written at length about the greatest rooted cosmopolitan in South Asia: Rabindranath Tagore.
I will end my talk with three quotes and a poem that can be treated as metaphorical summaries of everything I have said so far. First quote is from Tagore:
“That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe so poor. Had it been true that all that is to be done has been done in the past, once for all, then our continued existence could only be a burden to the earth……(Ramachandra Guha. Makers of Modern India. 2012: 188)”
The second is from John Stuart Mill, “There is no nation which does not need to borrow from others(Appiah 2005:271)”
The last one is the one with which Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah ends his book, The Ethics of Identity. And it is a proverb Ghana: kuru kūro mu nni naynsa, which means: ‘In a single city, there is no wisdom.’
The poem is mine. But it is translated into English by a greater poet: Vivimarie Van Der Poorten Medawatthegedara. The poem is about the cultural consciousness that I suggest we should nurture in our work in the humanities and social sciences.
A Poem’s Plea
In that invisible place between time and space, allow me to rest.
In that infinitesimal difference between the flower and its fragrance, let me linger.
In the delicate point between poetry and prose, may I pause
Between air and water in that vapour-like vicinity, allow me to live.
In that ephemeral hour between night time and daytime, may I tarry.
In that grey area between home-land and other-land, let me stay.
In that minute space between Us and Them; there, allow me to be.
At that moment of day-break which lies between a poet and his poem, let me linger.
This is not mine, but my poem’s plea.
Thank you very much
*Liyanage Amarakeethi is a professor in Sinhala at university of Peradeniya – The Keynote Address delivered at the on December 13th, 2019, at the Student Research Symposium, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Open University – Sri Lanka