Colombo Telegraph

The Story Of An Identity Being Born

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

Last Sunday evening, my friends and I were out drinking. I had with me two of my countrymen from Sri Lanka. One was Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Soloman Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela, of Sinhala ethnicity, and the other was Sivapuranam Thevaram, a Tamil guy. My Sinhala friend’s name is too long, so we will call him Pol, and the other uses only one name for all purposes: “Mr Thevaram” and “machan (buddy) Thevaram”. We had a special guest that day, whose name is Grr Gllk Kllk, an anthropologist from the planet Mars. Such complicated names these Martians have, no? The Martian claimed to be doing an internship at the local university, but this is just a cover for his mission to carry out an independent interplanetary investigation into happenings in our tiny little country. “aney aiyO (oh dear)!” I hear you exclaim.

To make our guest feel welcome, we went to a pub that the Martian’s ancestor had established. They also have the habit of travelling to faraway places and setting up kiosks of trade, just like we Sri Lankans do. For example, it is said that entrepreneurs from the Northern village of Karainagar are very good at travelling all over the Island and setting up surudduk kadai (cigar/corner shops), just as our countrymen from the Southern town of Matara are known for bath kade (rice eateries). And when you visit a strange place, it is customary for your host to take you to a joint where you might feel homely, which is precisely what we were doing with Grr Gllk Kllk in the pub.

I must give you some background. Pol and Thevaram often engage in lively discussions about the state of our country. They agree that the politics of Sri Lanka has been a disaster since the Suddhas (white fellows) left us in 1948. Not that it was pleasant before that, but at least we weren’t to blame. Ceylon as an administrative entity was a suddha creation. It could have been something completely different had some conversation over a stiff scotch and cigar in a golf club between two English gentlemen taken a different trajectory. For example, had they thought it more efficient to have Ceylon as part of India, our history would have been substantially different. Not necessarily very nice, yet very different. And over that drink, they had many possibilities to choose from. Bless their education in English Public Schools and Oxbridge Universities, they happened to settle for what we have – an arrangement we have been destroying.

But my friends’ conversations often diverge quickly and they end up in the perennial question: “Who came to the Island first – the Tamils or the Sinhalese?”  This reductionism amuses me. I do not think we can find a solution to the present day National Question by establishing which tribe occupied the Island first. “So what have you discovered in your research?” I asked Grr Gllk Kllk, hoping he might have an answer.

“I have tried extensive genetic analysis and concluded you bastards are all the same!” [No offense intended. The word “bastards” is being used in a strictly technical sense of describing unintentional perturbations to our species’ gene pool.]

The Martian reported this finding with disappointment because, based on reading about our long tribal warfare, he must have expected substantial differences to exist. But after expensive experiments with samples of Sri Lankan genomes, it is the null hypothesis that holds. These people seem to be genetically identical.

“So I have moved onto studying your behavioural traits,” he continued, sounding more positive. “I can see differences there. I might be able to fill a chapter in my thesis.”

“You mean cultural differences – linguistics, food habits etc.?” asked Pol.

“Yes, I saw a beautiful Tamil film,” the Martian said turning to Thevaram, “in which your Tamil queen was dancing, and in that it says covering the knees is Tamil culture,” he reported.

“Queen – what queen?” Thevaram challenged.

“Powerful, corrupt and gives false hope. That is Royalty in your planet, isn’t it?”

Has he stumbled upon some universal constant here? We pause a bit, sip our Peroni and ponder that question. Pol, Thevaram and I exchanged looks of “are you thinking what I am thinking?” An excellent researcher maybe, but the Martian had no way of knowing what we Sri Lankans were thinking.

He was talking about a Tamil film in which Jeyalalitha, Tamil Nadu politician and former actress, does a beautiful dance. The story is about a westernized young lady who has returned to the native village to marry her thaai maaman (maternal uncle). To inject some culture into his bride to be, the uncle tells her “nam munnOr ellaam moodarkaL alla namaku uNdu paNpaadu (our ancestors are not fools, we have a civilization),” and more specifically, “muzangkaal theriyum aadaiyai maatri thamiz makal nadai pOdu (change these clothes that do not cover your knees and walk like a Tamil woman).” The observant anthropologist concluded that covering women’s knees is part of Tamil culture.

“You can’t be serious!” Thevaram shouted, dismissing the observation completely with that tennis star intonation. “That is just a film.” His reaction does little to persuade the Martian that what he has observed is not a significant part of the value system some of these earthlings have evolved.

“So what do you think are differences between Tamils and Sinhalese?” the Matrian asked me, with a touch of frustration in his tone. “If I can’t find genetic differences, and you reject my research data as `just a film,’ why the hell were you guys fighting for thirty years, and still behave as the fight is going on? How do you define Tamils and Sinhalese as separate entities in any meaningful way?”

His question reminded me of a discussion I have come across recently: Demalaata Demala viima nisama thibena prashnaya (problems faced by Tamils simply because they are Tamils), from which I make up a definition with a neat recursive structure.

“A Tamil,” I tell the Martian, “is defined as someone who encounters a particular set of problems just because he is a Tamil.”

Recursion not being common where he comes from, the Martian took some time to parse what I said. “Are you sure?” he expresses doubt. “Well I certainly am,” said Thevaram, supporting me, “I have travelled to Sri Lanka twelve times since the end of the war and talked to three wheeler drivers, hotel workers and random bus travellers about the state of my country. On some of those trips, I have done the thought experiment of documenting how exactly I might have felt, if I were unable to read, understand and speak Sinhala. I set three days for the experiment of switching off my Sinhala. Yet, out of shock and misery, I abandoned my research within a few hours. And when I gave up, I felt much, much more at home.”

“Was it as homely a Saharan ostrich with her head buried in the sand?” I asked, grabbing my chance to tease Thevaram. “It is not just the language, but what he means is a set of arbitrary — if not deliberate — acts of the State,” Pol clarifies, because Martians are not used to reading `between the lines’.

“You see, structured aspects of governance that alienate me, make me want me to catch the next inter-planetary flight and settle down in your Red Planet,” Thevaram said to the Martian. “That is not a good attitude, machan,” advised Pol, “if you say that, some fellows in our government will say “Don’t go that far, just swim across to Tamil Nadu.”

“Wait a minute, I have observed more,” said the Martian, changing the topic slightly, “I see Tamil women wear a dot on their foreheads, and Sinhala women don’t,” he said. “Why is that?”

To impress my guest, I made up an instant social science theory. “Oh, that is because of Tamil men,” I claimed, the confidence in my voice masking any ignorance of the subject. “The poddu is a distraction from the natural beauty of Tamil women – a way of minimising evil eyes from which caring men want to protect them.” “That could be true,” added Pol, “And they even do that on little children. I must recommend this to my wife also.”

A cough from Thevaram suggested he was embarrassed by us theorising about an aspect of his culture. His face turns a bit red. “If distraction is your theory, then it is better than covering up the whole face with a burka, no?” Note how, in embarrassment, he tries to pick an example that might be – at least in the context of a pub conversation – portrayed as something worse. We are familiar with such logic aren’t we?

Try telling a fundraiser for the Tigers that it was not a good idea to shoot Anantharajan, or to massacre baby monks or to plant a bomb in the Dehiwala train. “Oh have you not noticed what the army has done, or what the Taliban has done? On that scale, what we have done is nothing, no?” is a typical response, isn’t it?

Equally, try telling some of the strong defenders of the Sri Lankan government that it was perhaps not a good idea to go for an all-out kill when there were thousands of civilians being held hostage, and see their response? “Oh have you not noticed what the Americans have done in Hiroshima, or the British using torture in Kenya? On that scale, what we have done is nothing, no?” is a typical response, isn’t it?

When the charge points to our guilt, or likely to cause us embarrassment, even if the charge itself is at times an exaggerated one, our mechanisms of defence react in that peculiar way, of defending our position by pointing to something worse.

To save Thevaram his embarrassment, Pol diverts the conversation to the fundamental question, often characterized as a chicken and egg problem. He turns to the Martian and asks “Have you discovered who came to the island first?”

“Well, machan,” said Grr Gllk Kllk to Pol (the Martian is a fast learner and addresses us as machan): “What I find is, it was the Sinhalese who came to the island first,” adding, “but when they did, they were Tamils.”

Continuing without pausing for breath, the Martian turned to Thevaram:

Machan, it was actually the Tamils who came to the island first, but when they did, they were Sinhalese.”

There was a moment of silence during which my two friends were extremely happy. Selective hearing was at play, and they only heard the first parts of the respective sentences the Martian told them. It was music in their ears to hear what they wanted to hear. This finding of an independent interplanetary investigation confirms what each of them had believed all along.

“What did I say?” they both said to me in perfect synchrony.

But their happiness was to last only a few seconds. Pol and Thevaram, both beneficiaries of free education in Sri Lanka, were no fools.

They realized they have been had.

What did you say?” they both screamed at the Martian in perfect synchrony.

They picked up their beer glasses and started attacking him. “Beam me up, beam me up,” screamed Grr Gllk Kllk into his iPorter, and disappeared with a flash from that wonderful pub his ancestors had established in Bridgetown, England.

In that synchronous climax achieved by my friends — one Sinhalese and one Tamil — in that momentary pleasure and disappointment they shared, and in the strength of comradeship they showed — standing shoulder to shoulder as equals, I saw a common identity being born.

It is that common Sri Lankan identity that has been elusive in our post-independence politics of three quarters of a century.

Grr Gllk Kllk, my Martian friend, please come back to save my country!

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