By Gananath Obeyesekere –
His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
The President Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka,
Office of the President,
150 Galle Road,
Dear President Rajapaksa,
I was a twice-born Fulbright scholar, not twice born in the classical Hindu sense but as one who has had two memorable creative periods as a Fulbright scholar. The first Fulbright award was when I was a young and naïve student in 1956 but it helped transform my intellectual life as an anthropologist. And then much later in 1993-94 as a senior scholar on leave from Princeton University but by now recognized as a well-known but somewhat controversial anthropologist interested in both the theoretical aspects of my discipline alongside my concern with Sri Lankan society and culture, especially in Buddhism in its complex history and practice. I had graduated from the University of Ceylon (now the University of Peradeniya) in 1955 from the English department and had the fortune of having won several awards and scholarships that would have permitted me to go to the UK and engage in graduate studies in English literature. But I did not for several reasons. First, I was in the first flush of youth, vehemently anti-colonial and reluctant to study in the land of our colonial masters, even though this was the intellectual goal of most young people. Second, during my undergraduate days in Peradeniya I belonged to a group of young intellectuals who started a new Sinhala journal Sanskriti that brought the “new criticism” to bear on Sinhala literature. As an undergraduate Amaradasa Virasinha and I translated Ibsen’s A Doll’s House into Sinhala (a book that is still used by literature students). Additionally, I used to go on weekends into remote villages to collect folk songs and then was drawn to the village life of remote villages, so different from my much changed home village Meegama, near Bentota. As undergraduates several of us used to visit Martin Wickramasinha in his “holiday home” in Bindunuwewa near Bandarawela to enjoy the hospitality of this wonderful human being and his wife. Our age differences did not matter to him and it was he who encouraged us young people to engage in what at that time seemed pioneer intellectual activities. And then there was the great teacher E. F. C. (Lyn) Ludowyk whose teaching inspired all my literary and intellectual interests and whose classes in “practical criticism” have influenced my anthropological writing. To this day I cannot divorce anthropological writing from literature and I find it hard to read badly written social science writing.
It was Ludowyk who sensing my intellectual interests and political prejudices not only encouraged me to pursue a career in anthropology but also urged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship. I vividly remember going with Ludowyk to see the then Vice Chancellor Sir Nicholas Atygalle who succeeded Ivor Jennings at Peradeniya. Atygalle, a professor of gynecology, was not exactly a man of letters. He simply asked Ludowyk to write a recommendation for a Fulbright on my behalf to the Fulbright Commission and he, Atygalle, signed the letter! And of course I did get it eventually.
In my village in Meegama I was familiar with brilliant performers of exorcist rituals (tovil) but I had planned instead to move in a different direction to study communal postharvest rituals (and in situations of drought and infectious diseases) performed all over the nation under the aegis of the Goddess Pattini. Ludowyk found me a position as sub-warden at Arunachalam Hall that provided me with bread and boarding and then actually collected money from several personal friends for continuing my research. I travelled all over the country with an antediluvian tape recorder and huge car batteries and recorded rituals performed by a diversity of ritual specialists (kapurālas). I used part of that ritual complex for my Master’s degree in 1958 but the major work was published much later in 1984 by the University of Chicago Press as The Cult of the Goddess Pattini.
The Fulbright authorities in the US had placed me in the anthropology department of the University of Washington, Seattle, which was a place unfamiliar to me and, unsurprisingly, I had pronounced as See-tle. The department had a young group of professors who were imbued with the then innovative theories of the British anthropologists Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski. What I found thrilling during that first Fulbright year was the intellectual arguments and debates in the seminar situation and the opening up of new ways of looking at old information that I had collected in the field. Further, anthropology opened up innovative ways of examining historical and social information in societies such as ours. It was similar to the thrill I felt when I first entered the university and Ludowyk encouraged me to read for a special degree in English. I felt that the world of the intellect had opened up for me on both occasions and it still continues to do so as I write this in my old age. Ripeness is all.
I came back to the University and joined the Sociology Department where there were such persons of stature as S.J. Tambiah, Ralph Pieris and Laksiri Jayasuriya, all young PhDs. Tambiah and I engaged in fieldwork studying a remote village in Laggala and after Tambiah left the university I worked in another village (now no longer remote) in the Hinidum Pattu alongside with students some of whom became friends later on and that included Minister Sarath Amunugama. It was customary at that time for the University to give a three year paid study leave for assistant lecturers to obtain a PhD, after a two year stint of teaching. And so I returned to Seattle (no longer See-tle) with my wife Ranjini and two little children and finished my dissertation in 1964 on my Hiniduma fieldwork. The Seattle department was a small one and some faculty as well as students became lifelong friends but, sad to say, some have since departed into the silent land. Kenneth E. Read, the Chair at that time, suggested I defend my dissertation in the well known tavern The Blue Moon, that I gather still exists but, apoi, no longer a venue for a thesis defense. On my way back to Sri Lanka my family and I stayed in Cambridge, invited by the prominent anthropologist Edmund Leach, another fearless thinker and critic who was also a kind of model for me and who encouraged me to revise my dissertation which was subsequently published by Cambridge in 1967 as Land Tenure in Village Ceylon: A Sociological and Historical Study. It should be remembered that none of this would have happened but for that initial push from Fulbright.
Back in Sri Lanka at a glorious epoch in our university’s history when a galaxy of intellectuals had arrived, or were soon to arrive, with PhDs from major universities to make Peradeniya one of the best, if not the very best, in the region. I was Chair of the department in 1968 but not for long. In 1971, the JVP insurrection broke out and because the universities were considered a hot bed of revolutionary fervour many of us felt that the freedoms we enjoyed would be no more. Thus started a major brain drain and the universities were gradually denuded of talent. I myself resigned in the aftermath of the rebellion and joined the University of California, San Diego in 1972; and eight years later Princeton University. It is during my stay at Princeton that I was reborn as a Fulbright senior scholar during the academic year 1993 -1994. I was no longer the youth of thirty seven years ago. I was a recognized anthropologist whose work spanned many cultural and theoretical regimes. But in Sri Lanka during my Fulbright visit another and more deadly rebellion had been brewing for about ten years, this time with the LTTE. It was impossible to do fieldwork in Sri Lankan villages off the beaten track and hence I devoted my time exclusively to writing my book Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth, published by the University of California Press in 2002. That work was an important milestone in my intellectual career and it was Fulbright that brought about the fruition of that project. And after retiring from Princeton in the year 2000, I am still thinking and writing for without thought and the pen there can be no creative intellectual life in any nation. I sometimes think of the lines by Alexander Pope: “Why did I write? What sin to me unknown, dipped me in ink, my parent’s, or my own.” And, dear Mr. President, let me hope that you will help keep Fulbright in Sri Lanka active and doing the good work it has been doing from its very inception in enriching the intellectual life of the nation. But along with this I think there is another challenge for a wise leader and that is to bring back the universities to its early glory by supporting them at every level because a world bereft of intellectual life will end up as a dreary world.
17th of November 2012
*From the book ‘Letters to our Presidents’ by Sri Lankan and US alumni of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission. The title “Dear President Rajapaksa, Bring Back The Universities To Its Early Glory” is ours.