By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
We Sri Lankans have a remarkable ability to be obsessed by the least relevant of issues, while ignoring the much more urgent ones. The amount of time, effort and resources spent, seems inversely related to its importance. One of the recent issues was the debate on whether the National Anthem should be permitted to be sung in Tamil as well as the Sinhala version at the nationally important celebration of our Independence. This was done for the first time on February 4. 1919. Personally I found the Tamil version to be melodious and meaningful. I am unsure whether the words were also faithful to the original. In fact, it would make me quite proud as a Sri Lankan if it were sung in English, Chinese, German and French, as well and why not?
I found it very sad that the decision not to allow it was unnecessary and wrong. For a nation that keeps proclaiming its great tolerance towards its minorities, and enormous efforts to encourage cohesion, inclusivity and restorative justice, but still refuses to allow what is really not worthy of us as a nation and is also innocuous gesture. It is hardly possible to find what was wise and proper in the actions of the “Yahapalanaya” caper, but this is one. What are the provision in our Constitution about equal opportunities for minorities and parity of status for the Tamil language? Does this action not raise doubts about our sincerity and smack of deceit?
Those supportive of this blunder argue that India, despite its vast size, languages and home to many ethnicities, still sings its National Anthem in a single language. Perhaps they overlook the fact that the original was in Bengali and was the creation of the great Rabindranath Tagore ! Who would dare to label him as unpatriotic?.
Those who have watched the two superlative BBC comedies – “Mind Your Language” and “Yes Minister” and read the “Andy Capp” daily cartoon, must find them to be brilliant. The first which caricatures the cosmopolitan nature of Britain, has much to teach us. The British (Teacher) and the “pupils” from various countries are stereotyped endearingly. No one is spared – French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Pakistani, Japanese and Chinese are good naturedly lampooned. In addition, the stiff and pompous Principal, (Miss Courtney) the Tea Lady and Janitor are classically cast. No one can escape being captivated. It probably does much more for inter-racial understanding than the thousands of meaningless pretexts of “inter-racial amity” that are spouted daily by our Leadership (better regarded as “Loadership”).These are patently dishonest pretexts that should fool nobody. We well recall our local equivalents like “He comes from Jaffna” which gleefully dismisses any racial differences, and shows that we all have “weaknesses” and should really laugh together rather than try to kill each other. The marvelous mimicry of our own Wilson Gunaratne also does much to demolish the pomposity of some of our major players.
The BBC’s “Yes Minister” is a satire involving a not too bright Minister, his domineering Permanent Secretary much more talented, who spins his Boss around his fingers and the Private Secretary who is properly a retiring “backroom boy” who occasionally comes out with the most telling interventions.
Andy Capp is the stereotyped lazy catcher – unemployed, scrounger of Beers at the local pub, keeper of pet pigeons, addicted to betting on (losing) horses, playing Darts and Pool at his favourite pub, curling up on his sofa watching TV football, exploiting a hard working spouse, dodging people to whom he owes money, regularly falling foul of the Law, fighting employment — altogether a lovable scoundrel. The apparent paradox of humour being the best cement for binding together, a fractured people.
We all have weaknesses, prejudices and disputes. While formalizing our differences, by even having Ministries purportedly established for eliminating racial and religious differences that we ourselves have created. For example, Religion, Culture and Sports which are entirely matters of personal choice and nobody (not even Governments) should dare tinker with this right to independent thought.
We seem to believe that we should first divide (the Sinhala expression – “bedha Hada Gannawa” says it all) – dividing comes before producing! We seem to believe that we must first formalize differences and then try to bring the parts together: this defies understanding. The simile of the attempt to make boiled eggs from the omelet mixture is very relevant. We must quickly rubbish the attempts to highlight our emotive differences. Once this is not done, it is very difficult to re-unite the wreckage.
Take for instance the huge uproar that arose when it was suggested to allow singing our National Anthem in Tamil as well. Somewhat irrelevant was the point that tradition must not be violated, and that countries such as India who have a very large number of spoken languages, yet uses only one “official” language. People need to be reminded that the Indian “Jana mana gana….”anthem derives from a poem originally written by the great Rabindranath Tagore, in Bengali !
This debate about the business of the national anthem being sung in Tamil, shows our obsession with the ridiculous. In our school days, we learnt about the swan with the magical ability to separate milk from a mix (Kiren diyara wen kala hasa men pathara……). Have our modern day swans “unlearnt” the lesson of this wondrous bird? Have we thrown the baby out and retained the bathwater? Every opportunity to progress is messed up by the irrelevant.
We waste enormous amounts of time and money to decide on Party colours, symbols, names etc. etc , as if there are our only concerns! Some of us must declare that we don’t care a Tinker’s damn for their outcomes but are disgusted by the time and Taxpayers money being spent on such trivialities. It is apparent that our politicians – like water, find their own level. The Peter Principle holds that “In a hierarchy, each individual rises to his own level of incompetence”. How true.