By Charles Sarvan –
At the outset, allow me to clarify that well over forty years ago I legally changed not my name but their order, and since then have been Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan.
I have distaste for confrontation (see title above) but must explain that the brief note on ‘Para Dhemmala’ arose because two friends, one in Australia and the other in Canada, wrote independently of each other to say that “Para” did not mean “foreign”. Discussing the matter with them, I said: It was reading Michael Roberts several years ago that brought me to another, and far more significant, meaning of ‘para’, namely ‘foreign’”. I added, again quoting Roberts, that it is not the only meaning of “para” but one of several, depending on usage-context. My comment that even those who have expressed disappointment with Roberts should admit his extensive reading on Sri Lankan history and anthropology was not intended as a “swipe” at him but as a reminder to them that, in all fairness, his specialised knowledge should be acknowledged.
Roberts is inclined to place me as someone (a) “far from moderate”, (b) a “Tamil nationalist” who (c) hinders “reconciliation”. What follows are some of my thoughts on these three, rather than a reply to Roberts.
I wonder if in certain contexts the concept of moderation is applicable. For example, if a country oppresses and suppresses females, even to the extent of attacking with acid little girls who have the temerity to try to go to school, can there be a “moderate” position? One may be supportive or oppositional; fearful, silent and inactive or indifferent, but can one be “moderate” vis-à-vis an unjust reality? Would moderation then be ethical, laudable? How would such “moderation” manifest or express itself? Since some readers are quick to misunderstand; to take offense and become abusive, let me emphasise that the question is theoretical. I am not drawing a parallel with Sri Lanka but merely “thinking aloud” about the concept of moderation. Is “moderation” always advisable and admirable? What, I ask myself, does it exactly mean to be a moderate in a situation of injustice and discrimination? Remember the witticism: “I can tolerate everything, except intolerance”?
“Reconciliation” (differentiated from resignation and unhappy acceptance) is defined as the restoring of peaceful and friendly relations. Reconciliation, therefore, must be seen as positive, while resignation and helpless acceptance are negative. If indeed genuine and concrete steps are being taken by the Sri Lankan government (not just by groups and individuals, however noble, brave and selfless) to bring about reconciliation, then any Tamil who stands in the way must be in the mould of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third who enjoyed conflict, and had nothing but contempt for peace. Reconciliation is a first step to ushering real peace. Real peace, as distinct from enforced peace, implies justice. Peace and justice in turn mean harmony and happiness for all. Therefore, reconciliation is a corner-stone; a desideratum, an ideal passionately to be wished, and ardently to be worked, for – not hindered. If, indeed, there are Tamils who don’t want reconciliation, and all that precedes and follows genuine reconciliation, then I am glad I don’t know them.
In answering Roberts’ charge that I am a “Tamil nationalist” I am compelled to be personal, “personal” not about others – that I always try to avoid – but about myself. Looking back, I see that I was a “para Dhemala” (in one of the meanings established by Roberts) in Ceylon. I was an Asian in Africa (Nigeria, Zambia); a non-Moslem in the Moslem Middle-East, and am now a non-white in generally white Europe. In other words, to be a stranger is not a strange, but a familiar, experience. Ethnic and political exiles, as distinct from economic exiles, are those who, not having been permitted to feel “at home” in what was once home, left it. Now, not having a “Heimat”, when they travel, they neither leave home nor return to it. (The experience of those in immigrant countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA may be different. Fortunately, it’s different with the succeeding generations.) I state the above without a trace of self-pity, being fully and constantly conscious that millions fare far, far, worse than me. Some of those without a “Heimat” are blessed in having found their home “Zuhause” in a relationship.
This personal experience and resulting consciousness leads me to tell my children and grandchildren that there is only one country: planet Earth; only one race: the human race; and one religion or morality: avoid harm or hurt to others; do the good, however little, that you can. I have stood against injustice whether on grounds of ethnic-group, religion or the colour of one’s skin. (For the last, see the article, ‘The term Racism and Discourse’ in my “Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches”.) I have stood against class exploitation – I was and am a socialist, more by nature and sympathy than by rigid ideology. I have stood against the mal-treatment of women and children; have written on their situation and experience, and am a corresponding-member of a UK-based feminist group. If justice is indivisible, then so are fundamental human rights: they apply to all human beings irrespective of group, religion, colour, sex or class. (Extending this further to the non-human, a few years ago, my wife and I “converted” to vegetarianism.) I see myself first as a world citizen – by coincidence, “Sarvan” means “universal” – and if I have written about the situation in Sri Lanka, I trust that will be viewed as understandable. Indeed, it would be strange and unnatural were it to be otherwise. Albeit very small, Sri Lanka is a part of the whole. Concern and care for a part imply concern and care for the totality, and vice versa.
“A luta continua.” The struggle is both one of against and for. It is against domination and subordination by one group (whatever the criterion of ‘group’) of another, particularly through the use of overwhelming force. On the other hand, the struggle is for equality, acceptance and inclusion. The struggle is for the two freedoms: the ‘freedom from’ and the ‘freedom to’. I am inclined to think that we, human beings, will never win this struggle but I am also confident the struggle will never be given up because, as Keats wrote in ‘The fall of Hyperion’, if there are fanatics, there are also those to whom the troubles of this world are trouble and will not allow them be silent and inactive: “those to whom the miseries of the world / Are misery, and will not let them rest”.
By way of a postscript, when I wrote that all our roots are the same and can be traced back to India, I meant not the modern period but the roots reaching into the distant past. As readers know, sometimes because a thought is clear in our mind, we also mistakenly conclude that we have expressed that thought clearly. It was indeed “mindless” of me, as Roberts contemptuously comments, but I am grateful that I have been led to share these thoughts. I hope they will be seen as a very small but positive, rather than as a negative and destructive, contribution to thought and discussion.