A recent report about Sri Lanka’s national debt reminded me of Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, a man held in affection and high esteem, and of his novel With the Begging Bowl (Delhi, 1986), a mixture of satire and tragedy. The following abridged article is from my Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches whose subtitle is “the politics of poverty”. The central character, Keertiratna, had been a Buddhist monk but gave up his robes, became a teacher at a university of Buddhist learning, and married the beautiful but wayward Ranmali. During an election campaign, he distinguishes himself as an orator, and sometime after coming to power, the new Prime Minister appoints him Ambassador to France. (Professor Sarachchandra was Ambassador to France from 1974-1977.) Keertiratna’s experience there, the active malice of his first secretary (Mr. Sumatipala), and the infidelity of his wife all combine to make Keertiratna withdraw into himself and to neglect his duties. Finally, he suffers a nervous breakdown and, upon the fall from power of the governing party, returns home. Page reference in what follows is to Professor Sarachchandra’s novel.
Sri Lanka was ruled by foreign powers from the sixteenth century until independence. During this protracted period of rule by European Christian powers, Sri Lankan culture and Buddhism were neglected, if not despised and rejected. The Sri Lankan elite – English educated, Western-oriented, small in number but wielding prestige and power – were collaborators, contemptuous of their own history and culture. The political genius of the late SWRD Bandaranaike was that he gauged the power of the resentment created by this loss of cultural and religious dignity. He also recognized the dissatisfaction of the rural masses, and the anger of the Buddhist clergy long denied the patronage and position they had enjoyed under the Sinhalese kings: cultural reassertion meant that Buddhism would be accorded the status it once had enjoyed and, following, the status, position and power of Buddhist monks. Howard Wriggins in his Ceylon, Dilemmas of a New Nation makes a similar observation with regard to teachers functioning in Sinhala. They championed the language in the guise of “patriotism” because a rise in the status of the Sinhala language and Sinhalese culture would mean a rise in their status. The Buddhist clergy was and is in the forefront of this (mistermed) national revival, and it’s significant that Keertiratna was himself once a Buddhist monk, one of the (self-appointed?) custodians of an ancient religion and culture. The title of the novel too relates to Buddhism, for the monk is supposed to have renounced the secular world, given up the craving for power and wealth, and be dependent on “the begging bowl”.
Appointment to diplomatic missions abroad (the few professional or career diplomats apart, among whom Jayantha Dhanapala, Casie Chetty and Nanda Godage were known to me personally) is payment for political support and sycophancy; the result of having family or friends connected with those in high places. The reward of a posting overseas is the opportunity for travel, for educating one’s children abroad, for saving money and bringing back possessions, especially a good car (page 36). In short, the appointment is seen not as work to be accomplished on behalf of the Island and its people but as recognition of, and payment for, “work” already done. In this context, it is ironic, even grotesque, when hypocritical Sumatipala thinks with indignation of those who have “no love for their country”.
Arrived in Paris, Keertiratna finds his staff given to pettiness and intrigue (page 21), to mean and joyless economies (page 43). Their position in the foreign service may make them beings apart and superior to mortals bereft of “diplomatic privileges,” but the reality is that they are insecure, being dependent on politicians back home, and having to keep up appearances in expensive Europe on their Third World salaries and allowances. Their aims are to prolong their stay abroad, and to scrape together the maximum possible within that time. Much of their character and conduct arises from economic realities back home.
Underlying With the Begging Bowl is the archetypal motif of the journey: departure, experiences away from home, and return. As stated, the Keertiratna who leaves home had been a monk, and later a teacher at an institution of Buddhist learning, a pirivena converted overnight to a university to win political support (page 7): see the allegations made against the Islamic madrasa in Pakistan that they produce but ignorance, and breed hate and fanaticism. In other words, Keertiratna is steeped in both the religion and the ancient culture of which it was a part. The Sinhala language is an instance of diglossia, and Keertiratna is a master of the higher form of the language: “Those who were familiar with the classical Sinhala idioms and poetic devices used by writers of the past marvelled at the control the speaker had of them, while those who knew Sinhala only in its more pedestrian uses, didn’t believe the language could be capable of such euphony and evocative power” (page 6). Sumatipala may see Keertiratna as “a raw villager, not very fluent in English, and with none of the polish and sophistication expected of an ambassador” (page 11), but the government believed that such a person would better represent the country than a member of the Westernised elite of Colombo. And this is how Keertiratna sees himself: a representative of the rural masses, and of that ”true” Sri Lanka with its glorious, albeit very ancient, civilization. Seated in the Air Ceylon plane on his way to Paris and hearing announcements made in his language, Keertiratna is deeply moved: “What he was hearing were the sounds of the language of his proud forefathers, long despised and relegated to the kitchen and now hobnobbing with English and French in the rarefied atmosphere of technological culture” (page 17). The succeeding announcement in French reminds the ambassador of the reality that the national airline is in fact “run and manned” by a French concern.
By training and temperament, Keertiratna, ex-monk, is given to reflection, and he comes to the conclusion that his function is to “re-present” his country. But what is this country to which he belongs, and now has the honour and obligation of representing? Never mind its glorious past, what is its present state and culture; its contribution to the world? The search for an answer to these questions, for understanding and identity, constitutes the essence of the novel. The tragedy lies in the answers Keertiratna finds. “An embassy should have some kind of national identity to distinguish it from other embassies (page 18) But there are problems at the trivial (and often comic) but immediate level: should he wear Western or traditional clothes? Should he shake hands with his staff or bring the palms of his hands together in traditional, Asian, greeting? Larger and more depressing problems lie ahead. The success of a Sri Lankan ambassador is judged by the amount of aid he secures, and Keertiratna, who had surrendered the bowl of the mendicant monk, now carries around the national begging bowl. His attention, ironically, is drawn to some elderly French ladies from ancient, once wealthy and proud families who now attend parties in search of free food and drink (page 61).
Sri Lanka is known largely through its violence, and the “Insurgency” of 1971, ironically, had helped in putting the Buddhist island “on the map” (page 85). During the 1980s too, the country was internationally notorious for its brutal internecine strife, and for the massacres and murders which accompany such claustrophobic conflict, not to mention the refugees and asylum seekers knocking on various Western doors, or seeking to slip in undetected. The note of irony is struck on the very first page: “So peaceful was the country and such good Buddhists were its inhabitants.” During his nervous breakdown, Keertiratna fears that members of the Tamil minority will murder him. Sri Lankans tend to see each other in “racial” categories rather than as fellow Sri Lankans. The recognition and classification of ethnic groups is automatic and unconscious: “There was a young Sinhalese” (page 55); the coat was made by “a Borah tailor” (page 58. Emphases added), and so on. K. M. De Silva, professor of Sri Lankan history at the University of Sri Lanka, writes in his A History of Sri Lanka, 1981: “In Sinhala the words for nation, race and people are synonymous and a multiracial or multi-communal nation or state is incomprehensible to the popular mind… a meaningless abstraction.” In other words, in contemporary Sri Lanka, to be a “nationalist” is to be ethnic-conscious; to be a divisive “racist” is to be a patriot; to hate violently is to be religious.
Representing an economically poor and politically insignificant island; ineffectual even in the minor improvements he tries to make to the running of the embassy, Keertiratna attempts to fall back on the much-vaunted richness of Sri Lanka’s culture and to its distinctive contribution. Dress can be the visual and immediate signal of national identity: “Should he wear his western suit or get into his [so-called] prince coat? Neither of them would give any national identity… the prince coat would make him indistinguishable from an Indian diplomat” (page 58). Sri Lankan envoys “often looked ridiculous, making futile attempts to discover a national identity by wearing either a North-Indian Sherwani or a South-Indian Verti” (page 69). Ranmali has her share of discomfiture: “What a lovely saree you are wearing. Are you from India? Oh, Ceylon? Do your women too wear the saree as in India?” (page 63). The popular dance form in Sri Lanka, known as the bailla, is but a vulgarization of the dance introduced by the Portuguese (page 133). The ambassador and his wife invite fellow diplomats and wait for their guests in an apparently authentic Sri Lankan setting. “Of course, there was nothing exclusively Sri Lankan about anything. The brass trays and lamp-stands could be Indian. The chairs that pretended to be old Sinhalese were really of Dutch origin. For the cocktail party Ranmali had prepared snacks and savouries that could very well pass off as genuinely Sri Lankan, but they were actually the relics of the Dutch occupation” (pages 142-3). I feel Keertiratna here is oversensitive and mistaken: cultures are not static but dynamic, and they assimilate – to a greater or lesser degree – foreign elements, and make them their own. A notion of cultural “purity” is as misplaced – and dangerous – as that of “racial” purity. The history of civilization is a record of mutual borrowing and of cross-fertilization.
Going to present his credentials to the president of France, Keertiratna sees himself as one in the company of those “illustrious envoys who were sent by the Sinhalese kings of old to the court of Chinese potentates, carrying with them messages of goodwill and presents of elephants, spices and gems. But alas! What would he take now to this western monarch but goodwill and the blessings of the Buddha” (page 66)? Later, the words of another monk are quoted: “Ceylon is the only country that has preserved the true doctrine of the Lord Buddha in its pristine purity. It is the one gift we can make to the world” (page 88). However, as the novel emphasises, the test of a religion is not in its “purity of doctrine” but in the “purity” of conduct of those who profess it. With the Begging Bowl holds up a candid mirror to society: Buddhism to a great degree has been reduced to empty ritual and mechanical incantation; there is no understanding of the profound, generous and compassionate philosophy underlying it, no practising of its basic tenets. Ranmali is unfaithful – with the lies and prevarications which inevitably accompany infidelity – and Sumatipala’s wife sells her jewellery and reports it stolen so that she can get an export permit and bring out more from Sri Lanka. These two are among those who, unaware of contradiction and hypocrisy, utter a fervent “Amen” to prayers such as the following: I vow to refrain from taking what belongs to others; from wrongful indulgence in sex; from malice and ill will (pages 165 & 166). Not only is Buddhism “protested’ rather than practised, but it too originated in India, and Lord Buddha was an Indian, inasmuch as Christ was a Jew. As Sri Lanka’s Professor Ludowyk writes in his The Footprint of the Buddha, the revered footprint “left by India’s greatest son on the island of Ceylon, is the sign of the impression made upon the small southern island by the culture of its great continental neighbour.” Another writer, James Jupp, in his Sri Lanka: Third World Democracy states that Buddhism is “totally permeated” with Hindu practices and beliefs.
The breakdown Keertiratna suffers may have been precipitated by immediate, private factors, but the real causes are impersonal and broad, and the tragedy is more that of a country than of just one individual. With the Begging Bowl is a brave and honest examination of contemporary Sri Lanka, and an earnest quest for a national identity. Few Sri Lankans have responded positively to the novel: the work is painful, even infuriating, in its honesty. (It is in the nature of satire to exaggerate, and the form, to some extent, does leave itself open to the charge of falsification.) The reference in the novel to India’s Satyajit Ray, whose films have won numerous awards abroad but are little known or liked within his own country, seems to suggest that Sarachchandra anticipated a rejection of his novel by his own. It cannot be alleged that Sarachchandra is a member of the Westernized elite, willing to expose, even ridicule, his country in order to win admiration abroad. For example, of his play Maname, K. M. De Silva states it “breathed new life into the folk tradition in Sinhalese drama, and is by far the greatest achievement in the history of Sinhalese theatre”. By nature a shy, retiring, and sensitive man Sarachchandra was shattered by the ghastly anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983.
The final part of the epic pattern (the return) is presented through Ranmali’s perspective: “She thought the people looked careworn, emaciated and poorly clothed…She was ashamed at the thought that they were her own people” (page 238). The little houses by the roadside have not known paint for years; the buses, overburdened with passengers, sag and lean precariously; the streets have potholes and puddles, and refuse is piled up in heaps (page 239). Ranmali is conscious of these things partly because she has been abroad but more because she is in the company of her Australian lover. The point is that otherwise she, like most on the island, inured to poverty and suffering (page 238), would take what is an outrage – the failure of every successive government since independence – for granted.
Keertiratna, overwhelmed by the realization of national poverty, cultural inauthenticity, a religion that is praised but practised neither in public nor in private life, confronted with malice and greed and dishonesty, retreats into “simplicity”: “What’s wrong with my walking? I represent a poor country… and I am a poor man myself… [Ostentation] puts me in a false position and removes me from the common people to whom I belong” (page 212). The irony is that such sentiments are taken to be (and to some extent are!) the result of his temporary loss of mental balance. Tragically, Keertiratna, philosopher and idealistic, had briefly wandered on to the political stage, a space (in some countries) of ruthlessness, cynicism and falsehood.
It’s an all-embracing poverty in the present – economic, political, religious, cultural, ethical – which leads to a loud and violent insistence on past glories. Sri Lanka, the novel argues, has little “glory”, little positive achievement to point to in the present. The work’s intention is to move people away from fixations with the past, from rhetoric and emotion, to an honest examination of the island’s present.
A pre-publication copy of this article was sent to the Author for his comment. To my question as to why he, a scholar of Sinhala, should have opted to write his novel in English, Professor Sarachchandra replied (12 March 1989): “It is true I have been writing all this time in Sinhala, where my creative work is concerned. With the Begging Bowl is my first direct attempt to write fiction in English. I chose English, with some diffidence, because I felt the story could be more easily conveyed in English: it deals with diplomats and the environs of Paris, for which English has a ready-made vocabulary. Had I written in Sinhala, I would have had to coin words – words which may not have the right connotations for the Sinhala reader. There is much to write on this matter, but my eyes do not permit a long letter.” (Professor Sarachchandra died in 1996.)
Sarachchandra criticised because he cared; cared deeply. Whether the novel led some to self-examination, one doesn’t know. What matters is that he – failing, fallible or not – did his duty as he saw it according to Buddhist doctrine in which he was steeped. It’s hoped that during the thirty-odd years have passed since the novel was composed, significant changes for the better (in various different fields) have happened in Sri Lanka.