By Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta –
In appreciation of the sweet words of comfort from friends – so many across the world who only knew of SB from my jabbering on about him, and my sharings online – I shall take recourse to pass on a few memories of a life truly and deeply well lived, of the passing at age 92 of my ‘guru’ of the last almost 20 years, SBD de Silva.
…I shall start at the end.
As his body was relegated to the flames at the Nedimala crematorium, there was a terrific explosion! Was it the expensive pacemaker recently inserted, perhaps uselessly, at great private cost, or was it, as a friend insisted at that moment: SB’s powerful brain – pressure finally released, albeit post-mortem!
Indeed, he was of tempestuous core and mind to the very end. When we last saw him, we argued with a dear friend, shouting heated words across SB’s hospital bed, about China’s role in the world, as he lay there listening – animated as always by debate!
The last vivid words we heard tumble from SB’s lips, even as he vehemently refused food, were: “Capital accumulation! Capital accumulation!” Perhaps to remind us to focus on Lanka’s own priorities!
Truly, this would be one of SB’s lasting legacies: Broadly, he identified two types of colonies in the world of the 20th/21st century: settler colonial countries (USA, Canada, Australia, et al), and non-settler colonies (to which Sri Lanka and much of the world, belongs). For within such non-settler colonies as ours – a class dedicated to ‘capital accumulation’ has not been allowed.
SB repeatedly maintained: a class dedicated to ‘capital accumulation’ would not waste its time on low-skill plantations, on tea-and-bed-making tourism, on the fake business of ‘primitive’ manufacture (garments, etc., where we make none of the basic materials), or on rentier capitalism (making money from money or land).
We must focus on modern machine industry, providing people with new skills offering pride, vocation, belonging and security, to build a truly independent nation. The private sector, which monopolizes Sri Lanka’s resources, clearly cannot provide this.
There were two great ‘political economists’ of the 20th century in Sri Lanka, both almost erased completely by the ideological machinations of the popular mass media and educational system: the two Silvas,: GVS and SBD.
Denied a job at the new University of Ceylon by its oft-lauded English chancellor Ivor Jenning, GVS de Silva, later drafted the controversial Paddy Lands Act, which gave tenant cultivators some rights. An Act passed when GVS was secretary to Philip Gunawardena, a founder of the Marxist movement in Sri Lanka, and Minister of Agriculture, Food, & Co-operatives, in the cabinet of SWRD Bandaranaike (assassinated during the wave of European murders of 1950s and 1960s leaders in Asia, Africa and the real Americas)
GVS wrote two classics: Some Heretical Thoughts on Economic Development and Socialism or Barbarism.
While GVS is considered ‘”more political than economic’”, it is SBD de Silva, author of the classic The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, who really focussed my mind, my poetry (and my attempts at writing a history of the world with Lanka at its centre!) towards the study of the ‘bourgeois science’ of economics.
SB absolutely fascinated me. Not just with his amazing ‘total recall’, but the sheer breadth of his enquiry. He encompassed all the world: the intricacies of Sri Lanka (with our ancient village solidarity and irrigation systems that caught the attention of Marx), the Caribbean (where plantations of the enslaved were first installed), Africa (whose Congo had one of the most advanced working classes in the world until the recent genocide), and China (where his spouse, Marie Pinto Jayawardena, met with the most popular leader of the 20th century, Chairman Mao Ze Dong). Marie also helped SB with his classic, where he notes he owes her “a debt which can never be repaid but can only be recorded.”
SB could quote verbatim: economic writings from Ricardo and Marx to Joan Robinson (visiting SL in 1959), tales of his days at the Central Bank (where he was investigated as a ‘communist’ by the father of a famous Booker-Prize-nominee who writes not of such drama), of being secretary to the Ministry of Industries (under the much-maligned 1970-77 government of the world’s first female head of government, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, which attempted basic industrialization midst great obstacles), even hilarious lines of poetry (“A poor beggar put his clothes out to dry / A rich beggar came and stole them / I don’t know why?“), as well as his interest in movements of class, of feminism (Does just cutting hair short, or admission into the ’nurturing’ cloisters of the medical guild, really signify progress for women?), and the neccesary role of a powerful nation state.
One theme, both SB and GVS kept returning to, was the nature of our economy, where the mass of the people are still cultivators. To SB, rice cultivation has an elastic demand for workers, depending on the season. In industrialized countries, ‘surplus’’ agricultural workers, are used to make modern industrial products, in their villages. For example, the touch screens on the latest cell phones are made in East Asian villages.
SB always lamented why our Economics Departments have no interest in China’s rise, which, contrary to the mass media, is based on the old earlier communes and collectives, where villages accumulate capital and invest in making modern machinery, first making simple industrial products, like wires and chips, etc., while sending their daughters and sons to study in cities, and return to set up technical schools and modern factories
On a more personal note, he taught me the ‘basic science’ behind Sri Lanka’s wonderful cuisine, teaching me how to make a quick meal of red rice and parippu (ironically now imported from Canada’s Saskatchewan lands stolen from the original people who were starved out of it) and thibbatu (better than green peas), adding rampay (pandanus, which gives rice that basmati flavor) and a crushed clove of garlic, which every time I add shall always invoke SB’s practical brilliance!
And as I meditate on SB’s legacy, and I hear more from dear friends, I shall continue to write about his work.