By Uditha Devapriya –
The cultural bourgeoisie is a curious creature. But then the Colombans, or the Kolombians as Malinda Seneviratne calls them, usually are. They live within municipal limits of the city, failing which they live in one of those suburbs which give the impression of being closer to the neighbouring rural hinterlands that the likes of me have lived throughout our lives. The latter subset, by the way, are the bourgeois bohemians, or bobos as David Brooks called them, and as Malinda described them some time back, they surround themselves with cultural artefacts that are supposed to indicate that they are purveyors of culture, local and/or foreign. Now the area around Race Course and the Lionel Wendt subsists on a dichotomy, between eateries on the one hand and shops selling such artefacts on the other. It’s interesting to note the demographics that patronise each: the young usually eat, the old usually buy. The Kolombians, in other words, become or think they become bobos as they mellow.
Years ago I attended a classical music concert that was held at the Musaeus College Auditorium (newly built back then) and was led by a prominent German conductor whose name I unfortunately don’t remember now. Before the curtain opened and the show began, however, I had to, against my will, keep up with the conversations that were springing up around me, between the ladies and gentlemen, the Kolombians, who were moving from one topic to another in quick succession while keeping to a welter of formality and uniformity with respect to what they really wanted to talk about. They talked of drama, of the movies, of music, but they then talked of how their kith and kin and nephews and nieces and so on and so forth knew each other.
So Kolombian A was talking with Kolombian B about how her son happened to have been in the same Debating Society that Kolombian B’s son was, how their husbands had attended the same Societies, had even been Prefects in the same batch, and how bloodlines established with respect to schools and other such institutions attended proved that their families were meant for each other. Before this graduated to marriage proposals, though, the show began (to my relief). But as that prominent German conductor impressed me with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (I prefer the Second Movement to the First) and the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute, I turned around and saw, to my astonishment, these same purveyors of drama and movies and music sleeping. The music which was supposed to impress them had put them to slumber. These grown up bobos weren’t talking. They were instead snoring. Throughout.
The Kolombian bourgeois bohemians are a curious bunch because of a contradiction that lies at the heart of their milieu, between their aspirations and their realities. This is as true for their political affiliations as it is for their cultural affiliations. It would of course be crass to brush their society as clueless and indifferent when it comes to the rest of the country, but such crass simplifications exist because, as Gomin Dayasri has pointed out years ago, they believe they know everything because of the inbuilt advantages that the metropolis is supposed to bring: multiculturalism, modernity, privileged education. Such inbuilt advantages are not the preserve of those who live in Colombo only, but because of their defining marks – high fluency in English and lack of fluency in the mother tongue, Sinhala or Tamil – they have been able so far to market themselves as purveyors and promoters of high culture, art, etc.
In whatever cultural sphere in whatever country, there is almost always a disjuncture between the multitude and the elite, between the street-smart and the book-smart, in other words between mass consumption and discriminating tastes. Be it the cinema, the theatre, literature, or art, the tropes the artists resort to reflect that disjuncture. The situation is not much different in Sri Lanka: our playwrights (if it’s an English play), for instance, tend to lampoon the unprivileged as naive, gullible, idiotic, and the privileged as intelligent, able, worthy. You see this paradox crop up the other way around in our children’s movies: from Siri Raja Siri to Paha Samath, the poor are portrayed as smart, idealistic, while the rich are portrayed as weak, effete. Such dichotomies lack the conviction they require, but they are based on popular views of the rich and the poor and they tend to take in rupees and cents at the box office.
The Kolombians usually display a culture of condescension towards the rest of the country and, fittingly it would seem, the rest of the country returns that compliment. I believe that’s why Sinhala novelists, playwrights, directors, and scriptwriters resort to that timeless and overused trope of English-speakers-who-relapse-to-Sinhala-when-threatened. There’s an episode in Bodima in which Buddhi Wickrama is an English teacher to the most intelligent member of the titular bodima (played by Jayalath Manoratne), and this teacher consciously never speaks Sinhala, only high-flown English. When he’s about to be whacked, when he’s about to be thrown out violently, by the most ruffian-like resident of that bodima (I believe he was played by Daya Alwis), though, he stutters, stammers, and begs for mercy using the Sinhala he pretended not to know. They are all pretenders, hence: they know what they want us to think they don’t. That, incidentally, is one of many episodes of tele-dramas I’ve seen which play around the trope. It’s used even in our novels, our films, our plays.
But let me get back to that subset of the Kolombians I am concerned about, the bourgeois bohemians, or the cultural bourgeoisie. In the eighties and the seventies, the American corporate sector teemed with advertisements that referred to quotes by Gandhi, the Beat Generation, the Buddha, the Taoists, and Confucius. It was, as David Brooks (who wrote Bobos in Paradise) contended in a New York Times article, a set of “peculiar juxtapositions”, because how on earth could America’s McDonald’s and India’s Gandhi ever come together? In the early decades of the 20th century, it had been relatively easy to distinguish between the bourgeois culture and the bohemian counterculture. It was the bohemians who were behind the sixties counterculture (Godard, in his films, which were parodies of popular American myths, depicted these bohemians as the pop revolutionaries they were). They came from a largely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) demographic, from which the bobos emerged.
Colombo is very much a stratified society, and so is the United States, but it was the diffusion of different sensibilities, the sense of being Americano, that led to a culture of bobos to flourish rampantly in the latter. America was never really the Land of the Free (it wasn’t even the bastion of democracy that writers believed it to be: Gore Vidal, I believe at the Galle Literary Festival, observed years ago that the American Constitution doesn’t once contain the word “democracy”) but there probably hasn’t been any other culture, in modern times, where the arts got together so sleekly. The bobos of America could have been bankers or artists, so much so that differences of class disappeared, at least to an extent, and gave birth to a heavily self-parodying society. If Pauline Kael’s assertion that no other country could criticise and satirise itself appears overblown, it’s because there’s a touch of sincerity in what she wrote.
Malinda wrote a series of satirical sketches, from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, parodying our bobos in 2014 and 2015 (“Notes of an Unrepentant Kolombian”). These sketches instilled some relevance to the January 2015 Election (which thanks to statements by Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned out to be a tussle between the baiyas and the toiyas), and they delved into certain issues pertaining to those bobos: the bursary (they are financially enriched, endowed), their lack of awareness of their language (“Their offspring can barely manage enna, giya, or awa”), their monopoly over commerce (regardless of who’s in power), and the relationships between Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe (“Forget Mahinda and Maithri, the Kolombians want Alastair Cook”). From these sketches the final sketch of our bobos comes out: neither here nor there, wallowing in the cosmetics of a culture they aren’t aware of. There is hence a fatal contradiction, as I mentioned at the beginning, between their aspirations and their realities.
It’s not “our” culture they inhabit, consequently, rather the cosmetics thereof: the mask, the drum, the exotic dances, the archaic music, which we inherited. In an age where finance capital and commerce in themselves are not enough, when the age of information has made obsolete the conventional capitalist, financiers and speculators and executives are playing Gershwin on their pianos, flocking in droves to see our dances and drums being performed and played out at the Lionel Wendt, holding literary festivals which ostensibly advertise the “local culture” but which in reality congeal into a celebration of their narrow circle. That’s the difference between them and us: we are more content in imitating the American yuppie and bobo, instead of nurturing and fermenting our own culture of yuppies and bobos. In aesthetics as in politics and economics and everything else, we thus remain, to the last drop, imitators. We will talk of how sophisticated we are when we meet at a concert, but the minute the show starts, we will start yawning, shrug indifferently, snore, and finally, snuggle.