Nation Special

     Point of view                                                                                                                                                                     

What does it mean to us?

President hoisting the National Flag (Pic by Nissanka Wijerathne)

By Harris Salpitikorala
Patriotism, nationalism and loyalty; the day such words would echo over the radio and TV is nearing.
Once a year we celebrate independence and the above words are common with such celebrations. I am trying hard to understand the reasons why I should celebrate this particular day; a real reason that would be close to me so I can be part of it willingly, and be proud of it too.

My view is that I didn’t choose to be Sri Lankan. Nor any of you, I am sure. Unless I am singled out, I don’t think any one of us was given a say in certain matters such as our birth, ethnicity and our parenthood. As an example, it was not a choice by me that I became Sinhala in ethnicity, male in sex and born in the Western Province. Though there is great deal of accomplishments throughout our civilisation, I cannot claim credit for any of them. Therefore, those cannot be genuine reasons for me to celebrate independence. Nor should I be blamed for wrong doings in our country today. I can only be responsible for my own actions and choices and be proud or repent over them.

As for all the unfairness perpetrated by the rich against the poor, haves against have-nots, the powerful against the weak, and the continuous deterioration of the value system in the society – I cannot be found fault with any of that. When I think of the extent of all that, there is enough reasons why I should not celebrate.

We are all individuals. We might be affected by those around us, the environment in which we were brought up and the historical background of our religious, ethnic and other identities. So, I may be thinking differently against my own conscience today when it comes to certain issues, because I have to live here. As plants, we too get adjusted to the environmental changes gradually, but surely it happens over the time or else we are sure to perish in this very system. But in the end, we are all judged by the choices we make and not by the answers we fill in various registration forms.

The choices we make depend according to the environment we live in and the circumstances we have been forcibly thrust into. When difficult times come, everyone is seeking ways and means to get their problems solved with all priority. This is nothing but ‘selfishness.’ That is what we see today. This is what was unseen during our parents’ and forefathers’ time. Admitting your child to a school has become a struggle, you make every endeavour for your child to be in before your neighbour’s child. This is a quite natural tendency for any common human being. This is the heritage we were endowed with in the post-independent era. If this is so, it cannot be celebrated too.

Nationality, ethnicity and sex, I have always felt, as unusual attributes to take pride in the context we live in today. These are not means for me to celebrate my independence, especially considering that I had no say on any of those things. If I did, I might have chosen to be an American as many of you too may want to, but dare not say because you are worried that you may be branded unpatriotic. Why American? Somehow that system, how unfair it may be to others, always has taken care or made an effort to take care of their citizens around the world, at least by way of having their basic rights protected by the system.

How can I say willingly that a place that does not provide basic rights such as proper schooling for kids, decent transport system to travel on, freedom to do business without interference other than business risk and when some of the basic food items are considered luxuries, is a nice place to live? If these basics needs are not met, who will say he is proud of the country and celebrate the independence once a year?

I think one should not be embarrassed about who he is; of course, it is nothing but silly to think in such a way. But it is sheer stupidity to take pride in something for which you have absolutely zero contribution to, without telling or hiding your feeling about how you feel at present. A country where the system encourages you to go out and help other countries to uplift their economies, and in turn, make use of your earning in the form of foreign exchange, is the country where we have to be patriotic. How dare we ask them to be patriotic? Those who are patriotic must stay back and contribute to develop their own country and the system must encourage every one to do so.

Then patriotism will automatically develop in your heart and soul. This system pushes you out in all directions and encourages you to the extent that only those who had gone out could afford to live with a reasonable living standard having at least basic household items, roof over their heads, schooling, proper meals and decent transport facilities and sometimes a vehicle too.

Please do not take me wrong. I have tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for those who have fought and sacrificed their lives to make this country a better place. There were such people in the past. They are all engraved as martyrs in my memory. But I cannot take credit for anything that happened before I was born. And neither can many of you out there.

Independence may have dawned regardless of my existence. The past is, after all, what it is. We do have a say in what being Sri Lankan means today. My being Sri Lankan might not have been a conscious decision, but it is nevertheless a reality for me as well for others who have to deal with me and their daily lives here in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, I have to stake a claim in this country’s affairs, not so much because of lofty ideals like pride, patriotism and nationalism but simply because it affects me. This is for better or for worse my home now. I have too much at stake to let everyone have their way but I have no voice because the system has developed to such an extent that we cannot have our say. The living, even with the basic needs, has become impossible because of the ever spiralling cost, doing business too is not an easy task due to the prevailing burdensome tax systems, having children is another agony because of the admission to school; driving especially in the night is an experience of harassment because of the indifferent attitude of certain Police officers – high speed traps at mid night when no vehicle is on the roads – and ultimate safety is also at a risk.

The day is not too far, when we would not be able to get out from the house as most of the roads will be closed and are open only for VIPs. This is the day we call the Independence Day. What is there to be proud of, for an ordinary guy like me to celebrate independence? I suppose most of you are also in this situation. All year long thinking of either migration or getting out from this country to earn some extra money knowing that you can never do it in your own country, yet have to be loyal and patriotic to your country because someone else up there asks you to be so? Maybe those who are ignorant will do it or do it out of fear, but not out of feeling.

What independence is to Sri Lankans will remain the perennial question with no definitive answers. From time to time, we wonder about our definition of this country, hoping that it could be encapsulated in one-page document. It might not be a nice thing to say considering the patriotic mood of some of those in power, try to create everywhere in the country, but I do not believe there is too much that is unique to Sri Lankan left with us today.

Then, what democracy? Everyone knows how it works here. The socialist system is only limited to words. Only the powerful can have their kids educated in the right school.

Are we a republic? I let you imagine it. How democratically our elections were conducted so far?
Our multi-ethnic make up? This is what is giving problem to us at present. It is not to be proud of.

Our unique nature reserves: No concrete steps are taken yet to conserve those resources, but Thailand and Malaysia in this region have better organised and also well-secured nature parks. When it comes to our Sri Lankan cuisine, I think there are more Chinese restaurants in Colombo than our traditional restaurants and it shows that we have nothing to be proud of with regard to food items.

I think what is truly unique to us Sri Lankans is the decision we make as individuals, the ideas we pursue, the value systems we uphold and actions we take. Do we make heroes out of those power hungry, ruthless people who at one time burnt part of the country, just because later they built a school for us or built a clinic for us using our own money? Do we, as intellectuals give into people in power and justify what they do in the media because we want to be in limelight?

Whatever history reveals, we are all citizens of this nation today, inheritors of the result of many decisions made in the past, good or bad. So our actions and decisions are indeed vital. Indulging in the ancestral beginning as to how we blossomed to a particular ethnic group, would not serve any meaningful purpose for our march towards future.

It is not our past that defines us, but our present. We can talk a lot about being proud of our heritage, of our history, or how the ethnic groups came together or fought for independence. But they do not fully represent Sri Lanka today. My vision is to see that our people take pride in the way they lead their lives today and wish those intellectuals, instead of praising our present leaders, their ineffective policies and also boasting all the times how others led their lives in the past, will help us to instil some right values in our youths and legislators. We do not have a choice to be born into a particular ethnicity and a country but do have a choice in deciding what contribution we could make for the motherland.


                                 That colourful era                              

Sir Christopher Ondaatje looks back at the importance of Carl Muller’s Trilogy The Jam Fruit Tree (1993), Yakada Yaka (1994) Once Upon a Tender Time (1995)

(Continued from last week)
By Christopher Ondaatje
Although Carl Muller claims that the third part of his trilogy Once Upon a Tender Time is fiction, there is little doubt that this marvellous final story of the young Carlaboy von Bloss contains much autobiography. Both boys’ fathers drove engines for the Ceylon Railway; both boys spent the happiest days of their childhood in Anuradhapura, and both boys went to Royal College in Colombo before serving in the Ceylon Navy.

The very personal recollections recounted in this book have created a sensual expose of “child abuse, growing up, first loves, experiments... all the things a child could experience, the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Muller states in his Foreword that “this is not a happy book,” but like Mark Twain’s lovable Tom Sawyer, and Mordecai Richter’s unforgettable Duddy Kravitz, Carlaboy von Bloss deserves to be ranked as one of the great classic juvenile characters of literature.

There is everything in this final saga for the red-blooded reader. Life starts for Carlaboy with his father Sonnaboy’s family in Wellawatte, sharing a mattress with his bed-wetting sister Diana, and going to St. Lawrence’s school. These were the British ruled years before independence in 1948. They held centre stage and the fair-skinned Burghers aped them and received the trust and responsibility for running many parts of the civil service including the railways.

The children were basically British: English shorts, shirts, socks, shoes, language, and even manners. There were trips to Elephant House to buy sausages, sweets and soft fizzy drinks; to the Municipal Market for vegetables and mutton; and Danny’s bookshop opposite the Police Station for Captain Marvel comics. It was here too, outside the bookstore that Carlaboy had his first curious sexual encounter watching the Sinhalese Jamis raise his sarong to display his large brown private parts. A fascinated Carlaboy is led away by his distraught mother, but he remained strangely excited.

Carlaboy was a dreamer and while running the errands for his father found shortcuts though private gardens, scaled walls, raided fruit trees, kicked over dustbins and rolled bicycle rims. Curiosity also prompted his early loss of innocence with his Uncle Aloy who bought him tickets to the Gamini Theatre cinema serials, in exchange for sexual favours. He was transferred to St. Peter’s Deliwela where he was abused again by a Tamil master to the derision of other pupils.

In 1943, Lord Louis Mountbatten headed the wartime South East Asia command in Kandy, fighting the Japanese in Burma and Malaya while the Allies and Russia pushed back the Germans in Europe. This was also “the age of the cricket picture craze, collecting fish, playing marbles, cheering hoarsely at school matches, bullying and being bullied, being always hungry, and running the shower behind a closed bathroom door to show that a bath was in progress.”

It was also the age of the 43 Group: Lionel Wendt, George Keyt, Geoffrey Beling, Aubrey Colette, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Peries, Justin Daraniyagala, and the Buddhist monk, Manjusri Thera. They formed a revolutionary milestone in the history of Sri Lankan art.

After two years, Carlaboy passed the entrance exam to Royal College, and was rewarded with a brand new Raleigh bicycle with sweeping handlebars and three-speed gears. “Carlaboy never loved anything more than that bike.” His whole world expanded. But first, in 1945 the von Bloss family moved to Anuradhapura, where the 10-year-old Carlaboy set fire to the local St. Joseph’s School.

His mother was constantly pregnant. He was also, even at 10, looking at girls in an exciting new light. “So many girls. So many of his own cousins, too. And it was all bad, bad, bad!” It was another year before he would be sent to Royal College.

Anuradhapura in the early 1940s was a place where boys became men and railwaymen became boys. “Carlaboy’s world was railway town, the big irrigation reservoirs characteristic of this arid region, the Malwatte Oya, dry jungles, full of snakes and hook thorn creepers, a bustling railway yard, ponies to ride, fish to catch, go catapulting, and later, air rifle hunting and rides on his father’s engine to the northern peninsula...” There was also the Ruwanweliseya and the 850-year-old Boabob Tree. These were happy carefree days intermittently interrupted to attend Royal College in Colombo. Disce aut Discede was the school motto (Learn or Depart), and blue, gold and blue were the school colours. While he boarded with his mother’s sister up the lane Carlaboy became Royal College’s idiosyncrasy.

“He was loathed, caned, cheered, disregarded, analysed, wanted, unwanted, even gated on occasion. But in later years, he would march up to collect... the Dornhorst Memorial Prize for English Literature or the Sir James Peiris Memorial Prize for English Essay and be reminded... that he was the most-caned boy in the College which, in itself, was a distinction of sorts!” Carlaboy remained the boy he was expected to be, a fighting, shouting, riotous creature.

Back in Anuradhapura for the holidays the next year Carlaboy fell in love for the first time with 11-year-old Audrey de Sallas, the daughter of a Railways Foreman Plate Layer who lived in Kandy but had sent his three daughters to holiday in Anuradhapura with a distant relation. There followed idyllic hours caressing each other on the banks of the Malwatte River, but all too soon the de Sallas girls had to return to Kandy. Carlaboy too had to return to Aunt Leah - and Royal College in Colombo; but he wrote volumes of love letters to Audrey. At the end of the following year, 1946, the year after the war ended, Sonnaboy von Bloss was transferred back to Colombo. This was how the railway had slammed the door shut on the boy’s wonderland.

Ceylon was granted its independence in 1948 - the year Carlaboy, to everyone’s surprise, passed his Junior School Certificate. “The Burghers... were quite distressed. They had always held that edge under European rule. But the twinge passed quickly enough. Still under a British Governor General, still a part of the British Commonwealth, they remained an essential part of the island’s fabric and found that their services were as wanted as ever before.” Carlaboy, of course, didn’t pay much attention to these changes in power.

The family moved to a new home in Kalubowila where he found new friends and a new territory to explore. This was also the year that Carlaboy decided to skip school and visit his great love Audrey de Sallas in Kandy - on a borrowed bicycle and with a few rupees which he had filched from his mother’s sewing table. It was a wild mad-cap experience where he climbed over 1,000 feet by gripping the tailboard of a lorry for 72 miles through Kegalla, climbing Z-bends from Hingula through the night, avoiding headlights of cars, into Kadugannawa at 7:45 in the morning, and eventually Kandy at 9 a.m. and straight to 528, Peradeniya Road where the de Sallas family gave the tired wanderer a riotous welcome.

Audrey, half hiding behind a curtain, smiled and smiled and smiled. Later they kissed and hugged feverishly and discovered each other. Swearing undying love he demanded urgently to come to her that night.

The prodigal son was collected and returned to Colombo where he was beaten soundly by his father and given a flurry of slaps by his mother for stealing her sewing money.

The neighbours came to look him over and say, “Some dance you led everybody.” Carlaboy and Audrey were parted forever. Kandy and Colombo, no longer connected by bicycle, became isolated. And anyway Saranankara Road was full of girls. At 14, the years of agonising were over for Carlaboy: Monique Ludwick, who would leave her knickers at home; Cindy Perera, who would go to the outhouse servants’ lavatory and wait for him; the black-haired servant girl, Soma, at home, who took him further than he had ever been before; and Rosie, his first cousin, who had mastered the titillating art of the exhibitionist at an incredibly early age. Life for Carlaboy had become a revolving barrel of affairs that blossomed and died in quick succession.

In 1952, to the astonishment of Royal College masters, Carlaboy passed his Senior School Certificate. He continued into the Upper Fifth and contemplated taking the University Entrance exam.

But here his career at Royal College came to an abrupt halt when, he struck out at a bullying, bigoted master who saw to it that Carlaboy was expelled from Royal College. The following year Carlaboy joined the Royal Ceylon Navy.

Charles Sarvan, Professor in the Department of English at the University of Bahrain and the author of With the Begging Bowl: The Politics of Poverty (1989) has stated that Muller’s trilogy is a “description and defence, a celebration and a valediction.” He further states that Muller is conscious of re-presenting his people in fiction; and that Muller’s novels must be read “as cultural texts in the light of new Historicism’s awareness that history is not merely some stable and passive background against which the ‘sublime’ literary texts are fore grounded and... with a consciousness that there is no whole, that we live in a world without hiding places, irradiated by history.”

The Burghers of Sri Lanka now compose less that .07% of the population and are diminishing.
What made the Burghers a special category was their determination to be distinct, and they perpetuated this ideal by associating and marrying within the Burgher community.

Most Burgers are fair skinned, speak English and continue to wear Western clothes.
“Even today,” Professor Sarvan notes, “dark-skinned Burghers, those in whom the very essence of Burgherness did not visually manifest itself, take pride in their European ancestry.”

In writing this trilogy Muller has created his magnum opus, and it will endure the judgements of time. He has woven a magic tapestry of a disappearing way of life.

For years Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913) was correctly considered to be the best novel about Sri Lanka ever written.

Now, almost one hundred years later, I’m not at all sure that Woolf himself would consider that to be true. He certainly would have loved, agreed and been hilariously entertained by Muller’s masterpiece.
(Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada)