12 December, 2019

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On Shaping The ‘Other’

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Reading is an ever-receding horizon in that one book leads to others and they, to still others, ad infinitum. So it is that Toni Morrison’s ‘The Origin of Others (see, ‘Colombo Telegraph’, 31 March 2018) led me to a Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) anthology titled ‘A Good Man is Hard To Find’, and in that collection to ‘The Artificial Nigger’, a short story apposite to Morrison’s comment that no one is born a racist, and that we need the Other in order to define and have a sense of our own group-identity.

The story is about Mr Head, aged sixty (then considered to be old) who takes his ten-year old grandson, Nelson, from their county to visit the city of Atlanta. Mr Head considers himself to be religious and moral, with an understanding of life that “makes him a suitable guide for the young”. Nelson has never seen an Afro-American – “There hasn’t been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago” –   and so doesn’t recognise the first one they see in the train. “What was that?” challenges Mr Head. (It’s significant he doesn’t ask, “Who was that?”) The boy feels his intelligence insulted by so easy a question and replies, “A man”. When his grandfather asks what kind of man, the boy replies “A fat man”. Trying to get to what matters to him, Mr Head persists in asking what kind of man and gets the unsatisfactory reply: “An old man”. The boy’s wrong answer showing Mr Head his own superior knowledge, the grandfather triumphantly announces: “That was a nigger”. But the boy is indignant: How can I know the correct answer when you tell me wrong things? You said they were black but that man was tan.  The boy doesn’t know there is far more to such words than their literal meaning.  (Similarly, Fielding in ‘A Passage of India’ causes outrage among his fellow whites by his witticism that there are really no “white” people.) Even as Christ was denied by Peter when confronted by a menacing crowd, so the grandfather, during a potentially violent incident, denies his grandson – “This is not my boy. I never seen him before”. But at the end, the “shaping” of Nelson is complete. The physical suggesting the mental, grandfather and grandson have their “necks forward at almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way…” Returning then to the title of this short story, the “Nigger” is indeed an “artificial” construct but necessary for the construction of a superior, ‘white’, identity.

I turn from the fictional to the factual; from a short story to lived experience, though the distinction is not sharp: it has been said that literary fiction creates lies in order to tell truths about human beings and life. Indeed, Nadine Gordimer, Nobel-Prize winner for Literature, said that nothing factual she writes is more true than her fiction. The following (taken from an article of mine titled ‘Racism and “exceptionalism’”, published by the Sunday Leader : 17 January 2010) is apropos what Mr A. Sivanandan said in an interview, published in the  New Left Review (London, Nov-Dec 2009 issue, pages 79-98) under the caption ‘An Island Tragedy: Buddhist ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka’. Sivanandan (1923-2018) was director of the UK’s Institute of Race Relations for forty years. He was also editor of Race & Class, and is the author of a much-acclaimed novel, When Memory Dies. Tamil Sivanandan, married to a Sinhalese, spoke Sinhala fluently and, as he says in the interview, had no special sense at all of being a Tamil, that is, until the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 violently forced a Tamil identity on him. I cite from the Sunday Leader

“In Sri Lanka, children and young people politely address those much older as “Uncle” or “Aunt”, even if the person is not related. Sivanandan recalls that in 1958, seeing someone he didn’t know in the house of his (Sinhalese) mother-in-law, he asked his eldest daughter, aged about five, who that uncle was. She replied in Sinhala: “That’s not an uncle, that’s a Tamil” (p. 87). Horrified that his own daughter had been poisoned with racism, and at so early an age, he decided to leave the Island. Some years ago, while teaching in the Middle East, I was friends with a Sinhalese family. [The Sinhala I then spoke, though limited, was idiomatic. For this and other reasons, it was not infrequently assumed I was Sinhalese.] Their daughter – let’s call her Nalini – was about twelve. One day, as I walked into their home, little Nalini met me at the door with a worried, earnest, expression on her face: Uncle, is it true you are Tamil? Her eyes asked I should deny and reassure; say that someone was teasing her. It was as if she’d suddenly been told that I was, in fact, a paedophile” (End of quote).

The word education comes from the Latin and means to lead outwards. T S Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring /
Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” However, fictional Nelson was not led outward but racially inward. The term “in
formation” has “form” embedded in it: the information we receive, particularly in our early years, goes to form our thinking. This “forming” can be both through overt pedagogy and through indirect, unconscious, pathways: for example, via the stories (myths included) we are told as children; through anecdotes, songs, films, jokes and casual comment. “Innocence” can also mean “ignorance”: Nelson was innocent (in a positive sense) but, ironically, “the in-form-ing” he received from his grandfather and white society in general makes him ignorant and unjust.

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    ITis not the word that makes the other superior. White, just like Tamils saying we were intelligent and we were superior to Sinhala people, white also assumed it and eventhe word black could have been used in the same sense. Anyway, they are suffering even to date because of those mentlities. Just the way Doreiappa loike Tamils died, Abrahm Linkoln like people died. If god created every one who created differetn beings. I know you are writing about the book. but Garbage in Garbage out. Every thing based on that creator god and based on what ever thoughts come into the mind. Buddhism says every one was born of amother and acts make the person vasal or noble.

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    Just like the Catholics, just like the other protestants, born Again christians also treis to explain the human existence and the human activities in a different tone, not the words. Anyway, it is the god who created this mayhem, but finally lose in trying to explain every thing. Asia has a shorter method of explaining which explains even the Exitence of qutanum dynamics in terms of macro scale or beings. The amazing thing the theroy must be correct if it can explain every thing in this world. buddhist thought explains every thing in this world. that is we are born of amother and only our thoughts, activities and word make the difference. and not anything else.

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      The inconvenient truth is the victorious Sinhala extremists are beyond redemption. That is adjectively speaking mourning the liberals plight. Who will deny the Sinhalese and Tamils have reached a situation in their history where there is little space between the two races to make up – a three decade War notwithstanding. Co-exist, they will, because there is little other way in a little island that is already struggling to find ways soon to house 25 million. As long as there remains chronic unemployment – Graduate and other – spiralling Cost of Living, galloping inflation, an unaddressed economy, weaknesses in the health and education sector the pressures on the millions of the ruled will be enormous. Politics, in our part of the world, after all is nothing but sharing meagre and dwindling resources. Our overfed and under thinking political leaders are totally clueless as to creating wealth – old or new. The politician in the South realising the inevitability of the 75-25 factor making the Sinhala the majority has little choice but carryon on with the Status Quo.

      Sri Lanka is fated to continue to suffer the Baptism of Fire irresponsibly released in the 1956 tragedy. The current massive development in the Capital City and its environs will make a difference – a little difference. But the reality of communalism will continue – high now and low at other times.
      The communal tension will continue. The un-Buddhist monks in the streets need not fear they may be redundant soon. They and their
      Mercedes limousines will have a role to play. The Rajapakses, the Sirisenas, the Senaratnes, the Ranawakes, the SBD’s and all their hench-aiyas will continue to feast on the rotting carcass.The Lankan voter will continue to be the willing sucker in this local version of Russian Roulette.

      There is little for Sri Lanka to celebrate. That includes Sinhala, Tamil,
      Moslems and all others that call this fractured country their home.

      Backlash

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      Professor Sarvan

      It becomes clearer by every passing week we are pushing ourselves to re-enact the reality of the pre-1515 period – a separate Sinhala South and Tamil North-East. That was what it was for more than a millennia from then. Even that little effort we made to live together in unity and peace that began in 1948 only lasted 8 years. Since then it has been more and more of blood-letting all over the Island and the chasm widening.

      Are we merely fooling and fawning. How many roads must we travel before we gather our senses. If the Sinhala South is unwilling or unable to restore the Tamil historic rights of ruling their part of the Island, as they did for centuries, the global community must step in.

      R. Varathan

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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    R. Varathan writes: “the global community must step in”.
    And I wonder: Why? On moral and ethical grounds?
    Has it done so elsewhere – Palestine, for example?
    Will the Sri Lankan state permit a “stepping in”?

    Pentheus (Penthos: sorrow)

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      Pentheus, Good Sir, I understand your feelings.

      The answer is both on moral and ethical grounds plus historical reality. As to “Elsewhere?” there are several examples. The armed invasion by OAS in Uganda during Idi Amin’s last days is just one. East Timor is a more recent example – in a slightly different nature. Have you forgotten the solicited stepping in here in 1987. BTW, the Chinese are already here – initially in small numbers and in much larger numbers later as events develop.

      If the majority is adamant and unyielding despite wholesale blood letting going up to half a century and more the global community has a right to invoke the Doctrine of Necessity. Don’t you agree?

      R. Varathan

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    Dear Varthan,
    .
    Let us not despair, however dark the future seems to be! I understand what both you and Prof. Sarvan are saying, confusing as it sometimes gets!
    .
    I hadn’t immediately read this article, thinking that it was a repeat of his earlier article, because I was misled by the article having the same display as that other article about Toni Morrison posted on the 29th of March. Prof Sarvan says 31st. Little slips by all of us humans – but they don’t really matter!
    .
    Similarly, it wasn’t clear which experience was that of Sivanndan, and which of Prof. Charles Sarvan. This will make it clear:

    http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2010/01/17/sri-lanka-racism-and-%e2%80%9cexceptionalism%e2%80%9d/
    .
    As for Ambalavaner Sivanandan, he’s obviously quite famous. Me ignorant.
    .
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambalavaner_Sivanandan

    Embedded in this announcement of his passing just two months ago, is a vimeo film where we hear him speak:
    .
    https://www.mhpbooks.com/ambalavaner-sivanandan-novelist-and-champion-of-the-victims-of-european-racism-has-died/
    .
    Just one novel, but it is obviously a widely read and reviewed book:
    .
    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/a-sivanandan/when-memory-dies/
    .
    Not all raptures there, balanced. Yet as another review says, “it is unrelenting in its devotion to truth.”
    .
    So, to make up for not having read this article for three days, I’ve been making up by looking at quite a bit about Sivanandan:
    .
    https://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article43085

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    Part Two
    .
    Clearly a man we should be proud of, as I am of Prof. Charles Sarvan.
    .
    He and I had been in the same school as teen-agers; you will see that passing reference in the Sunday Leader article. It is not easy, living our human lives: probably it never was easy! There are many Colombo Telegraph readers who think me a Tamil. If such readers there be, here is something that gives my identity unequivocally! I’ve had to write about those wonderful schools that we had, but it may be that they were never perfect. However, the system was different.
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-thomian-pharisees-are-unrepentant-why-this-matters-to-all-sri-lankans/
    .
    That’s the last of three articles – it will not be difficult to navigate to the other two. I’ve tried to show that you have corruption where you least expect it; in forms that can’t be anticipated.
    .
    The schools still provide a service; all communities are represented in them, but now there is this ever greater distinction among people depending on how much money they have. Not “class” – just money. Prof. Sarvan has spoken of how the Gurutalawa school was one of the most expensive in his time; but they were egalitarian in a way these schools no longer are. The Bandarawela school in particular is tied up with ostentatiousness and supposed status. Academic distinction: they wouldn’t understand what it means! Mind you, results look very good: “O/L 2017 results sheet released , indicate the following : Number of boys presented  – 181
    Boys who obtained 9As  – 36
    Boys who obtained 8As & 1 B  – 14”
    .
    I fear that the Education Ministry has decided to make everybody happy by sending good results. Or it may be that students, possibly world-wide, are learning things only to satisfy syllabuses.

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      Apologies, and a hurried correction:
      .
      Those results, forwarded to me, are for the Mt Lavinia school.
      .
      I was there briefly, and Prof. Thiru Kandiah had been there throughout. About a year ago, I met Thiru in Colombo; he’s now in Perth Australia. He had built himself a wonderful house in Nawala, near Colombo, intending to spend his entire life there. . . . . Well, he’s happy in Perth, but he yearns for Sri Lanka. Yes, I appreciate the agony for those who have Tamil names.
      .
      Anyway, Prof. Thiru had much to say about Prof. Sarvan. Some of it was about how much he had enjoyed Gurutalawa, but had not been to the Mt Lavinia school. That no, doubt, is how Prof. Sarvan has a mastery of good Sinhalese idiom. Was Sinhalese the link language in the dormitories even then, I wonder? It tends to become that if the kids are not coerced. Some like to pretend that only English then prevailed in such schools.
      .
      I have suggested that Sarath Fonseka may be our saviour. that may sound strange to Tamil readers:
      .
      “Think now
      History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
      And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
      Guides us by vanities.”
      .
      https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47254/gerontion
      .
      Eliot again; writing earlier than “Little Gidding” from which Prof. Sarvan has quoted. One sometimes wonders whether poor Eliot was born old, like that little boy in Hardy’s terrible novel:
      .
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jude_the_Obscure
      .
      “Done because we are too menny.”
      .
      How that haunted at first reading.

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        This is Prof. Sarvan’s article recollecting the school at Gurutalawa, about ten years before I got there.

        http://www.stcg62group.org/PDF/Articles/44_Recollections_of_STCG_by_Charles.pdf

        He’s got almost all details right, except that Dr Rollo Hayman was not a “wealthy” man. He gave all that he had. He taught Mathematics in a Bournemouth school for many years after he left us in 1963. Fossie died in the school in December 1964.
        .
        That word that he’s forgotten, for eating goodies sent from home silently and selfishly, was “gopal”. Plato (real identity not known to me yet, despite all the comments we make on the same articles in CT) has told me that it is of hoary vintage – had migrated with Doc. and Fossie from Mt Lavinia. As for the Ramazan feasting at night, a parcel of food was given to the Muslim students from the Dining Hall every night. By our time, there was mains electricity, and the (Muslim) village was less than a kilometer away – one might say it surrounds the school.
        .
        The place is as beautiful as ever. A decade ago I stopped trying to be a photographer; I’m providing this link for Prof. Sarvan – wonderful and up-to-date professional photographs here.
        .
        http://www.stcguru.com/links/
        .
        There is another side to all this. I see that I have provided a link to one of my articles. Read between the lines for about twenty hours, and you’ll get more than enough of the sordid side. I’m sorry that I’ve had to reveal all that.

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    Part Three
    .
    As for Universities, and the service that they provide, this tribute to Prof. Ashley Halpe is noteworthy because of the amazing story one can deduce of the possibility of social mobility and change. Please see the OTHER articles by that writer; Helasingha has always been able to identify the the issues correctly at the time he wrote.
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/ashley-and-me/
    .
    I couldn’t at first identify Helasinghe, but he gave us readers an e-mail address. His main concern at that time would have been to learn English. Prof. Halpe would have considered it “misplaced sympathy” to have just passed him.
    .
    I knew English, but I had to work very hard to justify doing the “Special Degree”. And we were doing it against the backdrop indicated here:
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/university-of-peradeniya-may-1983-when-majesty-stoops-to-folly/
    .
    I’ve been writing, separately, to “Helasingha”, who has requested that his identity be not revealed, and to Prof. Sarvan, who remembers some of his contemporaries in school – although he’s been out of touch for years.
    .
    On the other hand, Varthan, you are quite right, though: ” it’s the politics, silly!”:
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/ranil-promises-a-new-journey-with-new-faces-in-a-restructured-unp/comment-page-1/#comments
    .
    Ranil Wickremasinhe has been strengthened by Tuesday’s NCM vote. But can we expect much from him?
    .
    No, I see the one man who can do something to be a guy whom I had stubbornly refused to vote for in 2010; I have made three comments there, explaining why I think that Sarath Fonseka who finished off Veluppillai Prabhakaran may now be the man to turn to. I’ve called myself a pacifist; Fonseka was not that! But there is nothing to suggest (and I’ve read a lot about him yesterday) that he’s ever been a brutal soldier.
    .
    We should no longer trust the professional politicians!

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    Dear friend Sinhala_Man
    Thank you for opening up your thoughts – sincere and kindly they are. But this good country and the future of our young have all been sacrificed. To the dishonest, scheming crooked politician – to the worldly ambitious priest fooling the people on Jathiya and Jathiya – and above all ruined by the mass of the ordinary people to whom this one-man-one-vote republican system is ruination. What more, there is this ambitious ill-educated rogue using both religion and his majority people to take them to Utopia while planning to steal all the resources of the land for him and his family.
The joke is, after getting caught on his thievery only a few years ago millions of Sinhala Buddhists still voted for him a few week ago. What chance has such a plural country and people to live in amity and social well being.
    There may be a few like you able to balance matters and see the picture in perspective. But in the republican system you and I are virtually irrelevant. To an extent I agree with you the man of the moment is someone with a backbone like SF to clean up the stables. But what of his own record? He might catch many of the rogues and punish them – to the delight of most people. But he is no Charles de Gaulle, Margarent Thatcher, Angela Merkel or the like. His good intentions to cleanse the country of its many political evils is mixed in his own inherent nature of a vengeful and cruel person who cares little for the laws . He is made of the same timber as those he wants to usurp – only difference is his ruthlessness is unpredictable. He is a man, given half a chance, who will gas the remaining Tamils in the country to become a Sinhala hero. He almost did this. Funny thing is, we saw him after that – bare-bodied praying at Nallur Kandasamy Kovil.

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    Sinhala-Man.
    My goodness! Thanks for all those links.As for Prof: Sarvan, I ALWAYS READ HIS ARTICLES ON THE CT but I hardly comment on them; Could I match that beautiful Prose?
    I always thought that Prof: Sarwan is a sensitive soul; He no longer lives here but his sensitive soul seeks answers to the breakdown of the sinhala-Tamil relationships in the country.
    This book you have quoted When Memory dies by A.Sivanandan,another sensitive soul was presented to me by a Young lady in August 2017 during one of my short jaunts in old Blighty.
    John Berger,in the Guardian refers to it as Haunting, with an immense tenderness.The extraordinary,poetic tact of this book makes it unforgettable.
    By the way, recent political developments in the country has made several readers to turn to Sarath Fonseka to turn it around.No doubt in absolute frustration!
    Well, it could turn out to be the case of falling from the frying pan into the fire!
    Did the term GOPAL have its origins at Mount or at Gurutalawa?

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    Dear Plato,
    .
    One reason why CT is worth coming to daily is because there are persons like you commenting intelligently. As for “gopal”, I thought it was you who vouched for Mt Lavinia origins.
    .
    On the more serious subject of Sarath Fonseka, I must confess that my knowledge of him is insufficient to GUARANTEE that he will be balanced, and Varathan, too, has misgivings. That Wikipedia article SEEMED to explain away some of the common charges. But there is so much more on the Internet alone that I cannot possibly wade through.
    .
    I know that he told Tamils something like they must understand that Sri Lanaka has a Sinhala-Buddhist identity, and that they must respect that. Rather like D.B. Wijetunga’s tree and creepers analogy. Not very tactful; it may be that most of us have that impression as well, but we are sophisticated enough to know that we’ve got to be more consciously accommodating.
    .
    But Sarath Fonseka is NOW 67. My feeling is that having him for one spell as President may do our country a lot of good.
    .
    I’m NOT going to study all that has been written about him. Read what I now see, yes. I am concerned that Varthan’s considered view of him is that he is “a vengeful and cruel person who cares little for the laws.” Yet many Tamils voted for him in 2010.
    .
    Why was he “bare-bodied praying at Nallur Kandasamy Kovil”? When I visited Jaffna about two years ago with some retired, mainly Buddhist, school teachers I witnessed the absolute devotion that they displayed. Sinhalese they were, and proud of it, but not racist. They were respectful towards the people of Jaffna.
    .
    Was Fonseka making a public gesture? If so, it was a sensible one. Was he sincere? Possibly. Many who profess to be Buddhists are sufficiently superstitious to turn to Hindu gods. Learned Buddhists may not do so, and usually have little respect for the monks and organised religion.

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