Michael Naseby’s book, Sri Lanka: Paradise Lost; Paradise Regained (Unicorn Publishing Group, 2020), leads me to share some thoughts on paradise. What follows is not a comment on this book: that has been done by others.
Paradise is of two kinds, the one relating to our after-life and the other to life on Earth. We are mortal, that is, by definition we are destined to die, and different faiths have different conceptions of what happens to us after death. Grossly simplifying matters, Buddhism offers the possibility of release from the otherwise endless cycle of life, death and rebirth while Hinduism, a merger with the cosmic spirit. For Christians, heaven is the supreme felicity of being in the presence of God. In Marlowe’s tragedy of Doctor Faustus (1592), Mephistophilis says that hell is not a geographic place but a state of being:
“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?”
In Islam, paradise is a garden filled with earthly delights. (To digress, both Christianity and Islam have to contend with eternity leading to boredom. Though a thousand years are said to be but like one day still, given eternity, they do add up to months and years – and years.)
The dictionary defines paradise as an ideal or idyllic state or place. I suggest that earthly paradise can be of two kinds: private and personal or collective and public. Taking up the first, a young man with his loved one may feel and declare he has gained paradise. The voice in FitzGerald’s rendition of Omar Khayyam’s ‘The Rubaiyat’ claims that his love singing beside him would turn a wilderness into paradise. In the opera, ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’, Turiddu sings that if he were to go to paradise but find that his love was not there, he would turn back: she is his paradise. There are numerous such romantic examples in all languages but what concerns me here is the other paradise, paradise as applied to a country or a people.
Sri Lanka is described as a Paradise Isle but this is in natural, geographic terms: mountains, forests and tropical beaches. But these are not the result of human endeavour, and so cannot be claimed with pride as an achievement. I would suggest that paradise of the second (‘collective’) kind never found existence in the present: it has always been either in the distant, fondly imagined past or a desideratum, a mirage to be worked for and sacrificed in the present to be realized sometime in the future. The Communist dream became a veritable nightmare under Stalin: as Joseph Conrad wryly observes in his novel, ‘Under Western Eyes’, hopes betrayed and ideals caricatured is the definition of revolutionary success. Sir Thomas More, 1478-1535, is credited with coining the word ‘Utopia’: etymologically, it means “no [such] place”. But some human beings are possessed and driven by (public and political) dreams. I use “possessed” in the sense of someone being totally ‘taken over’, controlled and driven by an idea or dream: to alter words from Verse 73 of ‘The Rubaiyat’, to shatter things to bits and remould them closer to the heart’s desire. To dream of an earthly paradise is as seductive as it’s simplistic: if only we could reach A, then X, Y and Z would inevitably follow; if only the whole world would become Christian (or Moslem); if only the whole of Sri Lanka were to become Buddhist. Paradise is seductive but the “dreams” of some can result in nightmare for others.
An earthly paradise is either in some distant and idealised past or in the future, however far or tantalisingly close at hand that future. Paradise is never in the present, though Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’ (1671), a sequel to his more famous ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667) suggests otherwise – as does the title of Naseby’s book. If we say a country is a paradise, we must specify for whom; for which group, class, clan or individuals. Aristocrats in France and Russia may have thought they inhabited paradise, that is, until the French and Russian Revolutions showed them otherwise. The film ‘Gone with the Wind’ portrays a world of cavaliers and gallantry, quite devoid of its cruel and rotten foundation. Mark Twain in his ‘Life on the Mississippi’ quotes from a Kentucky school-prospectus declaring that young ladies would be trained in the ideals of delicacy and refinement, religion and propriety: and this in a culture based on brutal slavery! Contrary to what Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, and many other stories suggest, History and a people cannot be redeemed collectively by the benign action of a few individuals. Southern soldiers fought for freedom – for the freedom to subordinate and enslave others. Paradise for some can mean hell for others.
If we say that Sri Lanka or any other country is a “paradise”, we must specify in what terms it is a paradise and, more importantly, for whom. Admittedly, it’s a matter of degree but I doubt there’s a country in this world which is a paradise for all its citizens. Given the rate of poverty (see below), corruption, crime, alcoholism, domestic violence and other woes, it does seem facile and false for Naseby to proclaim that paradise has been regained in Sri Lanka. Paradise, but for whom? Since my subject was Literature, I turn to a literary text, to a work by a Sri Lankan writer. I quote from what I wrote about Carl Muller’s ‘All God’s Children’. That article, sub-titled ‘art and anger’, is included in my ‘Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches’:
“Sunrise in the beautiful isle and an emaciated, exhausted, woman goes to the stagnant, slime-covered, mosquito and fly infested canal. She pushes away the surface scum to reach the water (p. 58). In another work, a little girl slips away from her shack in the dark, believing her suicide will be of help to her siblings, and to her sick and defeated father. What she lacked life long is gifted at the instant of death: “Everything was white and gold in the rushing headlights” (p. 24). Muller compels his readers to confront the deformed and the ugly – both physical and moral. ‘The elephant child’ (p. 25) has a head like a pumpkin, crooked eyes like squashed mulberries, and a mouth as if someone had had to hack it open (ibid). A legless beggar crawls on his stomach, elbows digging into the earth, spittle of effort on his mouth, whining.
I watched, and felt a dark hatred
For this thing that crawled […]
A pathway to my gate (‘Revulsion’, p. 73).
Muller here depicts a complex psychological reaction – hatred, rather than compassion – and the reader is challenged to unravel, understand and acknowledge.
In ‘Lymphademia’ (pp. 69-72), Rosilin is anciently young (p. 69), permanently tired, defeated by life, beaten by her husband. Her child is grotesque, with an enormous head like a melon ready to burst. From early morning to late night she begs, wheeling the child on a rickety hand-cart. Returning to her shack by the canal, her bare foot is cut; involuntarily, she lets go of the cart; it rolls into the water and the child is drowned. Nature is indifferently beautiful: “Part of the cart stood out, and the moon blessed it and the handles smiled silver” (p. 72). Her enraged husband, furious at the loss of income and not at the death of his child, smashes Rosilin’s hip and retrieves the cart: “He is there today […] A woman lies in the cart, legs dragging. He begs. ‘My wife,’ he whines, ‘paralysed. This is my fate […] Master, lady, a few cents…’” (p. 72). It is a searing story, brutal in its depiction of brutality – private brutality resulting from government failure and social indifference. This Dostoevskyian work stands comparison with any other on a similar subject.
Sri Lanka is one of the most favoured of resorts for foreign paedophiles, but Muller’s honesty and courage make clear it is so because of local collaboration: see, ‘Nelum’, pp. 44-8. Moral ‘deformity’ has reached such a degree that the police and those in charge of “homes” (sic) for abused children connive at the trade (pp. 87-94). The few who attempt to protect are viciously attacked by criminal gangs, much money being at stake (pp. 138-146). A young girl is raped and murdered but police inquiries are halted by a Member of Parliament – himself guilty of the crime. At the end of the story, the man is a Cabinet Minister (pp. 147-155).
The anger of Carl Muller is born of love, pity and despair. An imaginary exile looks back at the Island he loves, a country that has the potential to be a paradise isle in real – political, economic and social – terms.
(End of extract)
Paradise? That’s to forget those who are disadvantaged, be it on grounds of class or sex; ethnicity or religion. Such a ‘superior’ ignoring of the less fortunate of our fellow human beings is cruel – and cruelty finally goes not with superiority but crudity. It has been pointed out that in the past many a story portrayed women as being fickle and faithless creatures but such stories were written by men. Similarly, if someone claims that paradise has been now blessedly regained in Sri Lanka it means, in the first instance, that it is so for the writer and his social circle. Certain questions arise: Who is the writer? Was he able to interview ordinary folk? How good is his command of the Sinhala language – never mind Tamil? Is he from the elite writing for the ethnic, political and social elite? What is the motivation? In what terms is the Island now idyllic? For whom is it now a paradise?