What follows was prompted by Mr Kandappah Appu’s article titled ‘My friend Palitha’ in the Island, 19 June 2020. I am sorry it has reached me so late. Though we have never met, over several years Mr Kandappah has proved to be a very supportive friend. His article was personal and so mine must also be, though that goes very much against my nature.
I was born Charles S. Ponnuthurai and entered the University of Peradeniya in 1957. At that time, first-year students had to share rooms; thereafter, we had the luxury of single rooms. I suppose it had to do with alphabetical order that my room-mate was Tilak Ponnamperuma, from Elpitiya. (Having graduated, he joined the army and rose to the rank of general.) Through him, I made friends with his friends, all from rural areas in the South. As I once wrote, they were not “Sinhalese friends” but friends who, apart from other far more interesting and important qualities, happened to be Sinhalese Buddhists – even as I happened to be a Tamil. I visited their homes, and was warmly received, even as my mother welcomed them to our home in Colombo. Indeed, I was so often in the South that a friend from Balapiitiya, Dharmasiri de Zoysa, asserted I wasn’t “Charlie” (as I was known to friends) but “Harlie”, the caste to which he belonged: he claimed me as one of his own. Yet another Sinhalese friend once quoted Charles Lamb to me: “Friend of my bosom, thou more than a brother / Why wert not thou born in my father’s dwelling?” In my innocence (innocence sometimes is ignorance) I didn’t realize that what he was actually saying was: “Why were you not born a Sinhalese?” As the poet W B Yeats wrote in ‘The coming of wisdom with time’, during the lying days of his youth, he “swayed” his leaves and flowers in the sun. Now he withers “into the truth”. My Sinhala then, though limited, was idiomatic and, perhaps most important, free of accent. I was often taken to be Sinhalese. I felt (and mistakenly thought) I was a “Ceylonese” with other Ceylonese, though of different ethnic, religious and class groups: unity in diversity.
In 1958, I went to a village not far from Gampaha to help a (Sinhalese) friend re-sit his university examination. To abbreviate matters, the riots of that year saw me sheltering in a police station which was beset by a mob with Buddhist monks at the fore inciting, in the name of the Buddha, most un-Buddhist behaviour. Eventually, I was taken to Royal College which had been turned into a temporary refugee camp. Yet this same friend when, years later, I mentioned the “credo” that all peoples are equal, and should be treated equally and fairly, branded me a racist! This, I must say, is not an unusual ploy, attack being the usual defence. Victims of ‘racism’, when they protest are said to be over-sensitive, to have “a chip on the shoulder”; even to be racists themselves.
I now quote from an article, ‘Racism and Exceptionalism’ first published in the Sunday Leader of 17 January 2010 and included in my Public Writings, Volume 2: True, he’s Tamil but not one of those Tamils in general whom we distrust and dislike; want to expel or subordinate. “He’s a Tamil but not a Tamil Tamil: you know what we mean?” He or she is turned into an exception, serving only to prove the rule, to confirm the generality. Those individuals whose life and conduct confound the racist (or religious) myth and image are made exceptions so that stereotypes, unquestioned and unchallenged, continue to have their justification and existence. In this way, racist attitudes are preserved and perpetuated […] in a mode known as ‘Block thinking’, a varied reality is fused into one indissoluble unit.) So it is that, even those who are suspicious of (if not hostile towards) Tamils in general may have a Tamil friend or friends; socialise, and be of mutual company and help. The contradiction, the inconsistency, is “rationalised” away on the basis of their friend (or friends) being an exception. It’s an almost no-win situation: if you “behave”, you are seen as an individual, made an exception; if you don’t, then not just you, but the entire group is blamed. In the very early 1960s, as a young man in London, I was befriended by an elderly English couple. Once when I asked them whether they ever visited the West End, they reacted with alarm: “Oh no, there are far too many foreigners there!” Having got to know me as a person, they had forgotten that I too was a foreigner, and a non-white at that.
One can perhaps set up three categories, the first consisting of those who are racist in thought and nature. (Often, such individuals and groups, avoiding the opprobrium attached to “racism”, claim they are “nationalists.”) Then there are those from religion and politics who see advantage in stoking, and keeping alive, a negative image of other ethnic groups, religious difference being a component of ethnicity. The third group is made up of those who are not aware of the nature and degree of their prejudice. Here the work of Mahzarin Banaji and other researchers is apposite. Our brain, like a computer, quickly processes data so that we can react, and get on with the business of living. We cannot, in daily life, pause each time and reflect but must “jump to conclusions”. The question, “What role does our implicit association play in our beliefs and behaviour?” led researchers to the Implicit Association Test – a concealed test where the respondents did not realize what was really being tested. It was found that our attitude to aspects such as “race”, colour and gender operate on two levels. The first is what we (like to) think or believe is our attitude; the second is our unconscious but real attitude, that is, the immediate, automatic, association we make before we have had time to think. We don’t choose to make unfavourable associations with one group, but it is very difficult to avoid doing so if that group (or contrasting object or category) is frequently, if not constantly, paired negatively with another. Indeed, it was found that even those discriminated against could come to share in this negative association. For example, it was found that people of colour who took the Race Implicit Association Test (Race IAT) in the USA had stronger associations with whites than with those of their own skin-colour. An Implicit Association test conducted on a sample of Sinhalese on attitudes to Tamils (as on those with a white or fair skin-colour) will be revelatory, illumining and sobering. (End of quote).
When young, I was advised not to discuss religion or politics with friends who belonged to a different group for then one ran the risk of damaging or destroying friendship. But of what value, I wonder, is a friendship if what is most important, most ‘immediate’, in life cannot be discussed? Isn’t language the most important tool we have for communicating our thoughts and feelings; our wishes and fears? Yet few Tamils talk with Sinhalese friends about ethnicity, the elephant in the sitting-room of their daily lives. Perhaps they feel embarrassed, even ashamed. It would be insensitive and tactless, even impolite. It would do no good, contribute nothing that’s positive. Beside what can that friend do faced with a thick, sharp and seemingly impenetrable wall of thorns? So silence reigns; awareness and understanding are not created and things go on as before, only worse. If Tamils don’t speak, can Sinhalese friends be reproached for not hearing? Nelson Mandela in his autobiography says that feelings of ‘race’ are far more potent than those of class. Many a socialist has become with time a racist. To use a Biblical analogy, for every hate-filled and violent Saul who becomes a peaceful Paul, many a socialist Paul becomes a racist Saul – and is proud of the conversion! John Griffin, a white journalist, temporarily changed himself into a black man in order to experience how it was to be African in the USA. The resulting book, ‘Black Like Me’ was published in 1961. Tamils can’t expect Sinhalese to assume Tamil or Muslim identity but something like a “You as me” (empathy) can be attempted through communication in friendship.
Professor Sarah Churchwell in an article titled, ‘Moonlight and magnolias: The fictions that sustained the American South’ (New Statesman, 21 – 27 August 2015, pp. 34 – 37) deals with Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ pointing to the novel’s fallacy “that systematic racism could be solved by the compassionate actions” of a few noble individuals. “This is the consolatory promise of individualism, that the nation can be redeemed collectively by isolated instances of benign action”. It is so also with all acts of personal succour and kindness rendered to victims during times of group-persecution. Sri Lankans know that during anti-Tamil riots, including the ghastly pogrom of 1983, there were instances of Sinhalese who risked themselves and their families to give shelter to Tamil neighbours and friends. While such actions are highly meritorious, Churchwell points out that a few white men standing up for Native Americans did not alter the latter’s History; the injustice, tragedy and suffering that befell them. Much as we would wish it were otherwise, History and a people cannot be “redeemed collectively” by the “benign action” of a few individuals (Churchwell). Such individual action redeems only the individual and not the group.
And yet friendship (of all kinds) enriches life in several ways. But if friendship is to have real depth and meaning, vital aspects of existence must not be ignored and passed over in silence. Wilfred Owen in his poem ‘Strange meeting’ writes: “Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.” If I have a hurt that’s not visible and I don’t mention it, how can my friend know I am in pain? But it will be counter-productive if one were to be accusatory, or even reproachful: the intention must only be to communicate; to share experience and the consequences of that experience. Accusation almost invariably spawns counter-accusation. Such exchanges generate much heat (emotion) but little light (understanding). And it is not only a matter of one talking but also of listening to the other; of seeking to understand – with patience, and a truly open and honest mind. It’s not only a matter of being understood but of oneself understanding. What is urged is frank communication between friends so that friendship gains depth and becomes truly friendship. While etymologically the word ‘companion’ means a person with whom we have shared bread (com + pane), ‘friend’ means much more including not only closeness and affection but also understanding.