6 December, 2023


Quaint Priorities: For Which Would Laughter Be The Medicine? 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. 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. 

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Latest comments

  • 2

    A sane voice and refreshing thoughts by a citizen.
    Let us all learn to think likewise.

  • 2

    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,

    Dr. Pethiagoda: Your analysis is very superficial. Did you think, the role of international or super power – geo politics playing a role in Sri Lanka. They want to dominate Indian Sub continent and Indian Ocean via and from Sri Lanka. Did you read how they had and have done since times that USSR-USA, communist cold war began. Did you understand who took over the LTTE war. Did you understand, why International community, their Embassies in Colombo, they themselves funded NGOs and the corrupt parliamant of 225 why do they support anarchy, destabilization and the destruction of Sinhala Buddhist or Sinhala Majority domination ?. Read about those then you find the answers.
    Lay people every community want to live a reasonably happy life, have a good future for their children. That is what is essential. EVERY THING IS MONEY MAKING AND WEALTH ACCUMULATING POLITICIANS.
    You say it, why so hospitable nation is becoming this hardy to deal with. What is the reason.
    Sri Lankan govt need to change the thinking pattern. See how Ranil, Mangala and their MAFIA organization failed ?

  • 2

    The “least relevant issue” for Sri Lankan media and politicians is the impending Climate Disaster. Within the next decade it is most likely that there will be more severe droughts, repeated crop failures due to intense heat, unimaginable floods and landslides, sea level rise and erosion and many other calamities. Response to confronting these, at the moment, is minimal. Public awareness is woeful. Politicized media is utterly irresponsible. Very little is done to develop measures for food and water security. When things get really, really hot and unlivable, the Green Card holders will fly away to US, those who have stashed ill gotten loot overseas will move to better climes. And the rest can keep singing the national anthem in Sinhalese and get their entertainment from the muck in Ramanayaka tapes.

  • 0

    Dr. Pethiyagoda.
    To sing the national anthem in the language of one’s choice is a right. The meaning of the Anthem is best in the language you speak. Only parrots sing without feeling or meaning. The Tamil version is so beautiful and patriotic. Tamil speaking peoples either don’t sing the anthem in Sinhala or sing not understanding.

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