15 August, 2020

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Poisoned Paradise?

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Dr. Charles Sarvan

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.

There my people pulsed in anger, plunder, pillage,                      
Hate aflame; screaming vile of nation’s spirit,                                                     
Foul their deeds in nation’s name.                                                       
[…]   Sing no more                                                                                                        
Your hymns of praise, bind your hopes                                                       
With knots of anger, loveless are                                                     
Your country’s days (p. 84).”

(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?

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Latest comments

  • 4
    6

    What is the point of this article? it does not review the book. refers to some other random writer and reviews paradise.

    Oh the beauty of dementia

    • 5
      0

      Dr Sarvan,

      Beautywise, srilanka is a paradise. No doubt about that. But looking at the manner how people’s hatreds converge today, as no times in the past – is really disgusting. Leaders of Rajapakshe nature adds fuel people to go into pieces even if his mantra has cemented that his leadership was highly instrumental in defeating the terror that ruined the country for 3 long decades.
      There are times, I thought srilankens ( i am talking about the majority of the people) are the most racists on this planets.
      Any PhD or MSc student would easily come to that if they would go on analysing the social media posts being added by many yet today. We fought a 30 longer year civil war, but peoples have not yet grasphed, as to why such a brutal war destroyed the country/nation. Instead many in my race – sinhala community believe that they should only blame the minorities further.
      Even so called buddhist monks too, join hands with any kind of racists/extremists today in racial activities.
      Leaders such as Rajapakshe deliberately create further devisions among the communities for their political survival.

    • 3
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      a14455

      “What is the point of this article? it does not review the book. refers to some other random writer and reviews paradise.”

      Read if you can, Dr. Charles Sarvan writes in his opening paragraph:

      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.

  • 6
    1

    For whom is it NOW a Paradise? is the question posed by Prof: Charles Sarvan.

    The Members of Parliament of-course!
    ——-Pension after a period of 5 years.
    ——–Heavily subsidised food at the Parliamentary dining halls.
    ———All sort of allowances, including attending Parliament.
    ———Duty free vehicles.
    ———-Quotas for employment in State Banks. Since there are more females than males in the country the MPP give preference to females Paradise gained eh?
    ———-ETC ,ETC, ETC.. it is a long list. Consideration of space and time is the reason for the ETC.
    Actually, Srilanka is a Land like no other!

    • 0
      0

      Let me, late in the discussion, provide this link to Prof. Sarvan’s recent article on the tribulations of Tamil plantation workers worldwide, which “old codger” aptly described as more a book than an article.
      .
      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/indian-plantation-workers-experiences/
      .
      To me, Prof. Sarvan seems to be a heroic figure who fights his own physical debilities to do all the good that he possibly can. I’m putting this on now because I have now succeeded in unwittingly politicising the issues – which actually is a good thing, since so much has to get frankly discussed.

  • 0
    0

    This article is not as demanding a read as most of what Professor Sarvan writes, but it is a timely reminder to us that despite the way we too often mess things up, this island still has the potential to be something akin to paradise.
    .
    It is always a pleasure to read what has been written by a truly civilised mind.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Prof. Sarvan and Plato,
    .
    I have found an excellent candidate to vote for:
    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56BtabFF0XY
    .
    Maithri Guneratne, son of Herman Guneratne. I attended his meeting in the Bandarawela Town Hall yesterday. He spoke in Sinhalese and Tamil. His command of Tamil truly amazes me. Here is one Sinhalese politician who is determined to play fair by the Estate Tamil community.
    .
    I’m sure that I’ll be telling you more about him. Please watch that 2-minute clip on Youtube to get some idea of who he is. I have started off not going overboard in my enthusiasm for a man whom I knew nothing of a week ago.

    • 1
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      SM,

      Some years back, in Matara or Galle, there was a violent conflict between Mangala Samaraweera’s people who were pro Ranil W, and another political family that was anti-Ranil. My vague memory is that other family was the Guneratnes. Not 100% sure, but just checking to see if that should provide some context as well.

      • 1
        0

        Dear Agnos,
        .
        Yes, I have come across accounts of that incident which seems to have involved some shooting as well. I have been viewing lots of Youtube videos of father and son. They have commented on it themselves. I have had a few brief telephone chats with Maithri, know little personally of the father, but his videos during the last five or six years project for me a decent and intelligent man.
        .
        Apart from seeing the reliable old codger comment below, yes, my Jaffna friend also has said that the father didn’t stand for things that were positive, whereas we know for certain that Mangala was never racist.
        .
        One thing that I can report unambiguously was Maithri Gunaratna’s fluency in Tamil. Although I don’t understand the language myself, there was no way that I could have been deceived in that. About four sentences in fluent Sinhalese, followed by (obviously!) the same content in Tamil. I wouldn’t expect “an open racist” or his family to have such a command of the language.
        .
        Please see:
        .
        https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/mainstreaming-of-hate-thanks-to-racist-ghosts-a-recipe-for-disaster-for-sri-lanka/
        .
        for other comments by me.

      • 0
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        PART B
        .
        Another positive was this: he agreed with me on this on the telephone yesterday: the “we Thomians take ourselves much too seriously”. oc has told me clearly that he studied elsewhere, Prof Sarvan values greatly his years at the Gurutalawa Branch School.
        .
        http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=174369
        .
        That article by Sarvan is worth reading!
        .
        I’ve been told that Herman had been at Mt Lavinia throughout; only child, Maithri (age around 54) had definitely been there, and he, in turn, has an only child, Charith, (age around 24) who had also been there. I know that these schools produce snobs, but usually not racists!
        .
        I will email this link to Maithri Guneratne’s personal address and then speak to him. Apart from his personal mobile number, I have by now got mobile numbers for his Office, and for his Security guy.
        .
        Most regular readers know these articles by me about the administration of S. Thomas’. I’m putting the last here for Maithri to see:
        .
        https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/challenging-three-cheating-thomian-pharisees-and-not-doing-it-from-behind/
        .
        Incidentally, a new Anglican Bishop of Colombo is to be elected on the 15th of August 2020.

      • 0
        0

        PART C
        .
        Let me try to operate on what I know personally, and hope that (given this fluency in Tamil) Maithri will try to fit at least one Jaffna meeting to receive the imprimatur from there. It should not be a meeting with Sajith Premadasa present – for two reasons! The spotlight will be taken off Guneratne, and by now lots of people are complaining that Sajith talks rot. For that also, Ranil is to blame. With genuine democracy, a handful of families (that obviously includes the Guneratnes of Handunugoda Tea Estate, Ahangama, near Matara) wouldn’t be dominating political parties.
        .
        Many years ago, when my voting registration was briefly in the Colombo District, I checked on which Sinhalese I could vote for who was a “Peacenick”. Shiral Lakthilake (hometown also “Matara”) was recommended to me by a former boss of mine. Subsequently, about two years ago, I had a relaxed meeting with Shiral. This is one of Maithri’s close associates.
        .
        Beware, though! I also voted for Wijedasa Rajapakshe – recommended by Ravi Samaraweera!
        .
        Certainly, let’s check!

        • 6
          0

          SM,

          Many Sinhalese estate owners/superintendents/planters know Tamil well, at least the dialect spoken by the Tamil estate workers. This was a matter of business, and given the plight and subservient position of those workers, it is hard to say just because someone speaks Tamil he/she cannot be a racist.

          But I don’t want you to worry about opinion from folks on CT on this issue; you can just make direct observations and follow your gut.

    • 2
      0

      Dear SM,
      I don’t know much about Maithri Gunaratna, except that he gets a disproportionate amount of coverage on Sirasa. He is clearly one of the Maharajah coterie. While Maithri makes comforting noises to the up-country Tamils, his father Herman was an open racist in the JR and Premadasa eras.

    • 1
      0

      Sinhala_Man

      When I saw Shenali Waduge’s full support to Maithri Guneratne I thought something wrong. Maybe I was missing something.

      After a few minutes search I found something here:
      APRIL 15, 2019AUTHOR: COLOMBO TELEGRAPH32 COMMENTS

      Sirisena’s Governor Maithri Gunaratne Blatantly Violates Environmental Laws
      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/sirisenas-governor-maithri-gunaratne-blatantly-violates-environmental-laws/

      I listened to other clips that he addressed which do not indicate this man has the capacity of a conciliator, wise and compassionate leader. He is still reminiscing about war victory.

      I maybe wrong please keep observing and let us know.

    • 0
      0

      Agnos,
      .
      After more checking, let me give you some comment on your initial observation.
      .
      http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=24637
      .
      That’s an account of the clash.
      .
      I’ve been reading lots of blogs that came up when I googled for Herman Guneratne’s books. So the publicity part of it has been well-managed – the audience is, of course, the minority of us who use the Internet. What we must keep in mind is that we are a negligible minority when one thinks of the 14 million who will vote. So, having studied this, I’m trying to get word of this across to some of the villagers. They matter.
      .
      We need intelligent and honest men to represent us, but there is an aspect of this that you may not realise. The majority here are what are known as “Up-country Sinhalese”. When references are made to the depredations imposed on these people there is truth in saying that one of the worst manifestations of Colonialism was the havoc wreaked here in 1818 by Brownrigg, that shocked even other Brits. Almost genocide.
      .
      Most of the families with some education here have come up from the South, and thereafter intermarried with the folks here.

  • 0
    0

    There is a saying: “The garland in the hands of a monkey “. What does the monkey do? It will eat the flowers and destroy the beautiful Grand. The garland is the island of paradise. Then who is the monkey The voters will decide? The monkey jumps from tree to tree in search of comfort so are the Sri Lankan politicians. The monkey can be easily trained to do somersault by giving something thing to eat Soa re the politicians they will do somersaults to their benefits There plenty of Monkeys in si Lanka. Some are ib infant stage and will follow the parents The ideal place for them is to lock them up in Dehiwla zoo

  • 2
    0

    Sinhala Man: Native: Old Codger.

    I take great pleasure in addressing, in one go,notable personalities of the CT.
    First the son Maithri Gunaratna:
    Agnos is right. Fluency in the Tamil Language came with intermingling with the Estate Tamils on the fathers Tea Estate.

    Old Codger is right: Sirasa and Maharajah made use of Maithri to attack Ranil Wickremasinghe.
    One great feature of RW was that he had a stiff upper lip towards Gunaratna and the other detractor DJ.

    The father Herman,though a man of means was with the Ministry of Land and Development in the 80s.for a specific purpose. Gamini Dissanaike [Jaffna Library fame] and Herman settled about 45,000 Sinhala Peasants in the Batticaloa District under the Maduru oya delta, in the post 1983 Anti Tamil pogrom in the country.

    Herman was a good friend of late S.L.Gunasekera a well known Sinhala Nationalist.
    SL was a son of former SC Judge E.H.T.Gunasekera.
    As a person SL who was in the college boarding was a decent guy though a terrible loner!

    So Sinhala man, my dear fellow watch your step ; But if I am not mistaken it was Maithri Gunaratna who was also one of the petitioners in the recent SC action about the holding of Parliamentary election!

    • 0
      0

      Dear Plato,
      .
      Many thanks. Yes, the question is whether having a man like Maithri Guneratne in Parliament will be preferable to the others on offer.
      .
      With many intelligent Tamil readers also probably following all this, I thought that I would look for some account of S. L. Gunasekera and found this:
      .
      https://www.pressreader.com/sri-lanka/sunday-times-sri-lanka/20150621/282252369167158
      .
      Read between the lines towards the end of that article. What Plato says about these people “State Settling” Sinhalese (some of them unsavoury characters one feels) in the Eastern Province gets confirmed. I can’t work out who has written this article, but it is a physician who had got to know S.L. only in the 1990s.
      .
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWazKHiM9aw
      .
      That’s eight minutes of him looking back after retiring from politics. BTW, Plato had known him from school, but I never met him, and still don’t know Plato except from these cordial exchanges.
      .
      I feel that many Tamil readers may not be aware of some of these people. I hope it is clear to you that people like Plato and myself are not happy with many things that happened during the War.

  • 1
    0

    Dear leelagemalli and Native Vedda,
    .
    I think that Agnos has given me the best possible advice, which is to make my own observations and follow gut instincts.
    .
    I succeed in speaking to Maithri Guneratne for a few minutes, while he was travelling between meetings. Yes, at the meeting that I attended he said that about 60% of the audience were Tamils.
    .
    I’ve got a neighbour who had been three years senior to Maithri in school, and had himself been a senior planter before he had impulsively retired. He had known the Herman Guneratne of many years ago. When I showed him this,
    .
    https://hermanteas.com/herman-gunaratne-talks-about-tea-industry/
    .
    he watched for about five minutes of the thirty and pronounced that the man has certainly changed. The concern that he now shows for labourer welfare was never expressed by him thirty years ago. So, perhaps, he has changed his views, and in any case, it is the son whom I have to vote for.
    .
    As for his books, I found this interesting:
    .
    https://bookswapsrilanka.wordpress.com/2018/12/19/gods-secret-agent-book-talk-with-herman-gunaratne/
    .
    And without a doubt they have appeal:

    .
    https://www.amazon.com/Malinga-H.-Gunaratna/e/B001JX9QCU?ref_=dbs_p_pbk_r00_abau_000000
    .
    There’s lots more about his books. This was picked out almost at random:

    http://www.dailynews.lk/2017/07/18/features/122216/words-fit-king

    • 4
      0

      SM,

      I didn’t realize Malinga Gunaratna was the same guy who was being referred to as Herman Gunaratne. It was by the Malinga name that most people knew him as a hardliner/racist who spearheaded the settlements of Sinhalese, often drawn from criminals and prisoners, in the border villages in the East, thereby stirring up more anger, leading to more militancy among Tamils.

      Sons shouldn’t be held to the sins of their fathers, but there is also a saying that an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If there has been a genuine change of heart, that is good, otherwise, I would be wary.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Prof. Sarvan,
    .
    I hope that you will forgive me for using your article to work out my voting. I wrote to one of the finest Old Boys that Gurutalawa can boast of: Bandu Wanigasekera. Here’s what he has said:
    .
    Yes Charles was with me at Guru and I attach some memorabilia of that time. One was about his Confirmation in the Chapel in 1950 and the next is a note of the Literary Society in 1952 when I was Secretary and he participated in a debate. Of course, I remember him well as CSP as he was known then, before he adapted to a shorter format for convenience.

    You may, if you wish, send these to him to reminisce those school days.

    I did not know Maithri well but Herman is known to me as was in school with my younger brother and have met him since and of course because of the proximity of their Estate to ours in Akuressa.
    He wrote a book The Suicide Club, which I have, and which is about his days in his planting career.
    .
    I will send the email on to you.

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