16 May, 2022


Exile: Sharing Some Aspects

By Charles Sarvan – 

Charles Sarvan

Charles Sarvan

Exile is here, at home, and not abroad.

I will shape my life in a new country.

(Freely adapted from the words of Kent in King Lear, Act 1, Sc. 1)

In recent times, more so than in years past, many Sri Lankans have left the Paradise Isle with relief or regret, or a mixture of both, and there are now communities of Burghers and Tamils; of Sinhalese Buddhists, in various countries and continents. In turn, it means that many within the Island are likely to have close relations and friends settled permanently away from them. Given the above, I share a few, by no means comprehensive, perspectives on exile. They arise from reading an article on the subject kindly shared with me by a contact in Colombo.

RefugeeThe German word elend which translates as “misery” has the same root as “alien”, thus associating exile, foreignness and deep unhappiness, and suggesting that to be an alien is to be in misery, as in the poem by Ovid (born BCE 43) titled Sorrows of an Exile. The experience of exile has led to the writing of several works in various languages, and  I have drawn on the publications of, among others, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said in writing two essays, ‘The imperial and post-imperial experience of “home” in two Sri Lankan works’ and in ‘Lecce: an encounter’, both included in my Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches.

Icebergs vary but, as a generalisation, it is said that only about 1/8th of an iceberg is above the water-line, shining clear and beautiful. In the same way, there is a tendency to associate exile with the visible few above the surface, particularly with writers and artists; to a lesser degree, with intellectuals and academics, and with those who are “doing well”. (Unfortunately, given worldly values the statement that someone is “doing well” usually and only means that s/he enjoys a good financial income.) Exile tends to be linked with those who, in one way or another, have ‘made it’ away from home. Going further, one feels they may not have achieved what they did if they had not left home: if exile is loss and pain, it can also offer opportunity, and be enabling. There is the suspicion though that some individuals choose to wear the aura of exile; strike the self-dramatizing pose of being an exile when in reality their lives in the present place and time are quite satisfactory. It reminds me of the wealthy young who as a fashion-statement wear expensive, torn and frayed jeans which are meant to indicate their disregard for the material wealth which they possess and enjoy. They are unaware or insensitively unmindful of the reality: the poor cannot ‘afford’ to disregard money.

There are individuals, particularly those in the public arena and journalists, who flee into exile because of grave and real physical danger or because they will not accept the stifling of free and democratic expression. Theirs, in some cases, can turn out to be banishment for life, with the prospect of never again seeing the places once known at first-hand and much loved. Some others are so desperate, and despairing of positive change in Sri Lanka that they undertake costly and hazardous voyages on over-crowded and insecure boats into an uncertain future. And, when they eventually reach land, it can’t be said they have “arrived”: that end is only the beginning of another difficult journey. But with those who voluntarily go into exile, the fact is that if exile means loss, then it is also gain: if the gain did not outweigh the loss, they would return – unlike those who face extreme ethnic-discrimination and/or fear political persecution.

With the passage of the years, the foreign can come to be seen as home, and what was once home transmutes into a dwindling nostalgic memory. To the exile’s children and grandchildren – fluent in the language, familiar with the culture (way of life) – home is where they are in the present. I knew a South African member of the African National Congress, an activist who lived for decades in London devoting himself to the cause. Mandela was released, independence gained, he returned to South Africa and was duly rewarded with a job but after a while, dissatisfied and No Longer at Ease (the title of one of Achebe’s novels,  borrowed by him from T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The journey of the Magi’), he returned to London and, a few years later, was dead. To use the title of Kamala Markandaya’s poignant novel of an old Indian in England, he had become a nowhere man.

Sinhalese living abroad (like other ‘newcomers)  expect, even take for granted, attributes such as impartiality before the law, inclusion, equal opportunity and rights; basic human dignity; recognition, at least to a degree, of difference and multiculturalism. Yet there are Sinhalese (by no means all) who vehemently reject extending the above attributes to non-Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. They are quite indifferent to the contradiction that they ask for themselves, often receive and enjoy abroad what they adamantly, ferociously, deny to those of other groups in Sri Lanka. Nor, now that the fervently dreamt of Sinhalese-Buddhist hegemony has been enthroned (albeit at the cost of great human suffering), do they return to live in and contribute towards an Island made again, in their view, into a moral and compassionate Buddhist paradise, as in mythical ages past.

To return to the 7/8ths below the surface, Tolstoy in his tragic novel, Anna Karenina, comments: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps, this observation can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the exile experience? The contentment, if not happiness, of the successfully settled exiles has similar features: work and income, family and friends, interests and recreation, holidays and social gatherings. In contrast, those who find exile a tragedy with which they can’t come to terms are unhappy in different ways, and because of different causes. (Happiness makes us gregarious while sorrow tends to be isolating, turning us inwards.) Those who fail to find a stable and comfortable footing in their new country eke a living on its margins. They are shadowy figures who flit in and out of sight, experiencing disregard if not hostility; often inadequately coping in linguistic terms, with survival a daily and uncertain struggle.

Language is the primary medium through which we express ourselves, and the inability to communicate, varying in degree, causes varying degrees of loss. At an extreme, I happen to know of an old woman in a hospital in the West. All her life, she lived in a small village in the North but, as history has repeatedly shown, simply because lives are harmless they are not left unmolested.  Her children escaped to the West; relations moved out or died, and she who needed help was alone. Her children got her over, and now she is in a hospital not speaking a word of the language. The Tamil language which had been her natural linguistic home, and which had served perfectly well all her life is useless. Her concerned and caring children do their best but they have their work and their children to take care of, and this totally estranged old woman, for long periods, is alone in her bewilderment. (For a powerful statement on linguistic loss, see Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act 1, Sc. 3, lines 153 – 166.)  With such individuals, it is an unfortunate case of having lost a home and never gaining another; of enduring a painful ache that has no cure. Experiences below the water-line are not often memorialised but for an example in literature of being linguistically lost, see the short story, ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ by Stefan Zweig.  The hope is that the children of exiles will do better and, years later, be of consolation and support to their parents: parental loss but filial gain. The fortunate few, privileged with money and dual citizenship, enjoy what is termed “the best of two worlds”, annually migrating like the birds to Sri Lanka to escape the winter. The word ‘exile’ which can carry much hurt and pain, does not apply to them.

The “ex” in the term “exile” suggests “out of”, and exile usually implies exit and a journey but there are also those who feel, or have been made to feel, exiles at home. It could be an individual who sees that the beliefs, values and attitudes of the majority are so contradictory to those she holds and cherishes that it is as if she were in a foreign country, living amidst aliens. Or it could be a persecuted ethnic group, confronting overwhelming brutal force, and being unable to shake off the oppression. The Gaza Strip, cut off by land, sea and in the air, is a large internment camp with the Gazans made alien in their own homeland. Such people do not leave home: their home is forcibly and cruelly taken away from them. Paradoxically, they are in exile at home .

Finally, I would suggest that the exile is someone who, though she wants to be where she has arrived, doesn’t wish to be there. In other words, her dearest wish is that the abandoned home / country changes, be it in political, economic or general cultural terms, so that she can return. Many a Tamil exile, ‘senior’ in age, has wistfully told me: “Bring back the Ceylon I knew and I’ll be the first to return.” This fact may help to account for the tragic and unresolved tension in first-generation (emphasised) exiles between loss and gain.

As acknowledged above, this is an incomplete sketch. Readers will no doubt have their own, different, understanding of the exile experience. The exile motif, the sense that we are all strangers briefly travelling through a strange land, is perennial and universal.

*Charles Sarvan (Germany. Retired teacher of English Literature)

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  • 2

    Charles Sarvan,

    This is one piece I enjoyed re-reading. Very insightful and your language skills Charles Sarvan, is beyond compare.

    ”Those who fail to find a stable and comfortable footing in their new country eke a living on its margins. They are shadowy figures who flit in and out of sight, experiencing disregard if not hostility; often inadequately coping in linguistic terms, with survival a daily and uncertain struggle.” This group are a sad legacy of the SWRD’s Sinhala only policy – methinks. They are the saddest of the exiles beside the ageing mother languishing in a nursing home, surrounded by well meaning health care workers, yet silenced by an incomprehensible language.

    I am just curious to know which exile facade fits you best Charles Sarvan.

  • 3

    Thanks Dr. Sarvan for this thought-provoking essay. Exile is usually understood to be involuntary, even if one chooses “self-exile”. There are many reasons for such decisions although war and strife are often the main catalysts.

    One aspect of exile I have thought about is the loss of real and potential talent to the nation of origin of the exile. Brain drain is a significant problem for most poor countries today, especially those like Sri Lanka where the relative academic preparation has been disproportionately good for many decades post-independence. I am glad that my forefathers and mothers opened up formal education for all – not just the rich, urban or Eurasian and English-speaking families.

    However, the politics of the nation post 50’s has lead to many talented people (from all ethnic and religious groups) leaving; taking with them the benefits accrued by them from the free education provided by the poor island of Lanka. That is a shame for the nation. Yet, perversely, this vacuum of professionals, especially English-speaking ones, has also opened up the upper echelons of employment for people who could not aspire to such positions before, due to the strict classism and elitism. So it may be seen as a equalizing of sorts for people who did not have access to the limited opportunities because of classist discrimination.

    Emigration is a bitter-sweet experience, regardless of the reasons. The immigrant generation often realizes the true depth of their losses only many years after their flight. Some of them cannot shake off their past and are consumed by a passion to recreate a state they once knew or wished for. Unfortunately both Buddhism, and I think even Hinduism, informs us that everything is impermanent. Thus what they left behind has also changed. So there’s no real “going back” to what has been. Thus being consumed by zeal to recreate a past often leads to extremist thinking and can lead one to not live in the present (think ISIS), or the Jewish fundamentalists in Palestinian lands. In addition to the potential damage to others such zealots are also not using the new opportunity afforded them by the experience of immigration: to re-create yourself, do learn and thrive in a new culture and to broaden one’s horizons as a human being.

    Immigration opens up the chance to become a truly global human being and not be caged by labels and restrictions posed by the old culture. I see many immigrant Sri Lankan women who have accomplished far more than would have had, had they never left in Sri Lanka. The same can be said for gay and lesbian Sri Lankans. On the other hand, I also see some children and grandchildren of highly educated Sri Lankan immigrants who do not accomplish anything close to the academic successes of their immigrant relatives.

    As I ponder this topic in multiple perspectives, I am reminded of several books I have read by Sri Lankan émigré. There was a novel written by a Sri Lankan émigré titled Distant Warriors that tried to document the futility of trying to fight battles on behalf of someone else. There was another novel, Tamil Tigress documenting the disenchantment with ethnic war of an idealistic youth from Jaffna. Shyam Selvadurai exposes his mixed feelings about exile in his many novels and interviews. The “Wave” is another book by a Sri Lankan émigré that documents loss very poignantly.

    I have often wondered how much Sri Lankans have in common with each other, regardless of ethnicity or religion. The same is true of the Sri Lankan diaspora. Yet, despite these commonalities it seems that the communities continue to become more polarized in diaspora – at least the immigrant generation. I hope that level-headed individual from within these communities can reach out to each other and attempt to build empathy across ethnic and religious lines. I hope your article inspires such actions.

  • 1

    Exile in the meaning of Sarvan, whether voluntary or forced has its own charm. There is indeed a new experience whenever you learn of the loss of a friend , a relative or one whom you admired or held in esteem often reinforced by the feeling that you will soon join them. As to where and when is another question. Sorry to sound sentimental. Bensen

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