Many Languages, One Literature
Listening to Namita Gokhale, the Member-Secretary of Indian Literature Abroad, the thought came to me that we are far behind India, when it comes to promoting Sri Lankan Literature Abroad. The irony is that our publishers are unable to find distributors even in India, our neighbour and big brother.
Namita Gokhale, the Indian writer, Publisher and Festival Director was speaking on 'Many Languages, One Literature', at the Center for Contemporary Indian Studies. She mentioned Ondaatji and Shehan. Ondaatji because he won the Booker and he lives in Canada. Shehan, probably only after his Chinaman was published by Random House, even though Shehan Karunatilake won the Graetian in 2008, and was first published in Sri Lanka in 2010. Karunatilaka himself had told the Guardian, "If you are a Sri Lankan writing in English you can't expect to be published outside Sri Lanka".
The ILA Project, has been initiated by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, "to support and facilitate translation and promotion of literary heritage and contemporary literature from the Indian Languages into major foreign languages."
Sri Lanka is more in need of such a project than India, to encourage our local talent. Our literature in Sinhala and Tamil could easily be on par with international literature today. India has to deal with 22 scheduled languages, 122 regional languages, four classical languages and over one thousand mother tongues. Yet they have several advantages over Sri Lanka. First is the size of the population. Indians, from all wakes of life, still like to read books. Indian books, even in their native languages, have a vast readership abroad. The Indian diaspora read, discuss and popularize Indian literature wherever they live.
In India, there are over 250 million Hindi speakers, about 85 million speaking Bengali, 75 million speaking Telugu, 75 million Marathi, 55 million Urdu, 65 million Tamil, while in our own country we have only about 15 million speaking Sinhala and about 5 million speaking Tamil. It is a very sad situation, even with a 15 million Sinhala population, our publishers consider printing only 1000 copies of a novel, and they are happy if they can sell it within about two years. The average print of an English novel is 500, and today most publishers do not accept books by new authors. Our poets, writing in both Sinhala and Tamil, face even a far worse situation. They have to publish their books on their own, and there is hardly any support even from the established poets, for the young writers.
With such dismal figures, perhaps our priority should be to promote Sri Lankan Literature in Sri Lanka, before we could venture abroad. We have September as the Literary month, and October as the Reading Month, and we have an International Book Fair, drawing about one million visitors, but very few visitors are interested in fiction. They come to buy text books and stationery. The F&B stalls perhaps earn more profits than the booksellers. The publishers and booksellers have not heard of marketing, of promoting their products, of attracting customers.
At India House, Namita Gokhale told us about her life as a writer, about her first novel published in 1984. 'Paro: Dreams of Passion', a sensational novel which had been considered as pornography by some sections of the society, because of its 'candid sexual humour'. Yet the book is still popular even with the present generation, which speaks for itself. She posed the question about Sinhala novels, if our writers are free to write without prudish restrictions. Someone in the audience mentioned Karumakkaryo, by Gunadasa Amarasekara. And also his Yali Upannemi. No one in the audience suggested any other novels. Are our writers still confined within victorian girdles or is it because our Sinhala Buddhist readers are serious observers of the Third Precept about what is called 'sexual misconduct'?
Namita has written several novels, the most recent is 'Priya: In Incredible Indyaa'. Sri Lankan readers know Namita Gokhale from her non-fiction work, which she co-edited with Malshri Lal, 'In Search of Sita, Revisiting Mythology. (I wrote about Namita and Sita in this column last year on May 4th, 2011. )
Namita also told us about her other life, as an event organizer, of how she and William Dalrymple initiated and developed the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, from small beginnings into a mega event with over 125,000 attending the festival this year. with Nobel prize winners and unknown Dalit writers mingling together. The Jaipur Festival, held in the Rajasthani capital Rajpur, has been called the Kumbh Mela in India, and accepted by the international literary community as the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific region.
'Many Languages, One Literature' is in reality a very far off dream, which someday would be achievable once we develop instant translators. Languages have been created by man, and due to various reasons, even in one country, people developed different tongues. We built one more barrier between us, and it is up to us to break down the barriers, and unite once again to speak in one tongue, or to get the aid of machines to translate from one tongue to another.
Till such time we have to do our own translations, not as a business venture, to sell books and earn profits, earn royalty or become famous. We have to do it to share our creativity, our culture and our thoughts with our neighbours, with the rest of the world. Each country, each culture should take the initiative to take their literature abroad, across geographical borders and across man made barriers.
Iccha for Anicca
Desire for Impermanence
"Bhikkhus, a certain foolish man learns the prose sections, prose and verse sections, the answers and explanation expositions, stanzas, solemn utterances, thus said sections, birth stories, wonderful things, a series of questions and answers. He thoroughly learns the Teaching but does not examine the meanings with wisdom. So he cannot take pleasure in the Teaching. He learns the Teaching for the purpose of finding fault. He takes a wrong grasp of the Teaching and that conduces for his unpleasantness for a long time. The reason is the wrong grasp of the Teaching. " - Majjhima Nikaya I, Alagagaddapamasutta. (all English translations are from the publication at www.metta.lk)
This passage came to my mind as I had to listen to a 'damma desana' by a layman. He informed us that the Tripitaka had been mistranslated and misinterpreted. One example he gave was on the meaning of 'Anicca'. His etymological interpretation was 'an' + 'iccha', or dispassion. Thus we were informed that Anicca does not mean impermanence, that it is a mistranslation.
The lay preacher was either not aware, or refused to accept, that the terms 'Iccha' (P. 117) 'Aniccha (P. 33) and 'Anicca' (P. 335) have been spelled differently even by Rhys Davids, because there is a difference in the letter 'ca' and 'cha'. (Pali-English Dictionary, Rhys Davids & William Stede). The Pali language does not have a script of its own, and hence we in Sri Lanka use the Sinhala script, in the samw way we can use the English or Thai or Hindi script.
If we are to take the same examples from the Tripitaka, which were used by the lay preacher - (quotes from Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka edition),
"...Jatidhammanati avuso, sattanati evati iccha uppajjati.." (P. 516). "..beings have such desires about birth.." Majjima Nikaya, Saccavibhanga Sutta)
"Idha Bhikkhave, bhikkhuno pavittassa viharato nirayattavuttino iccha uppajjati labhaya". (P258) "Here, bhikkhus, to the bhikkhu abiding secluded without making effort, desire arise for gain". (Anguttara Nikaya, Labhacca Sutta)
"Cakkam Bhikkhave aniccan, yadaniccan tan dukkhan, yan dukkhan tadanatta". "the eye is impermanent. That which is impermanent is unpleasant. In unpleasantness there is no self" Samyutta Nikaya, Salayanana Sutta, Anicca vagga (P. 2)
"Sabban bhikkhave aniccati, kinca bhikkhave sabbati aniccan: cakkubhikkhave aniccan" (p 62). "Everything is impermanent. What is impermanent? The eye is impermanent." S.N. Sabbaniccavagga.
"katamo ca bhikkhave, paticcasamuppanna dhamma? Jaramaranan bhikkhave, aniccan sankhatan paticcasamupannan" (P42) "Monks, what are the things that arise dependently? Monks, decay and death are impermanent, produced by a combination of causes, arise on account of causes" S.N. Aharavagga, paccaya sutta.
The lay preacher's interpretation was that because death is permanent, the word anicca cannot mean impermanence, probably because he ignored the rest of the line, about the causes and what arises on account of causes. This was just one of the many words which were given different meanings and interpretations. There are other preachers who are attempting to rewrite the entire Tripitaka, unless they have the confidence to also rewrite the Atuwa and Tika, they could give any interpretation they wish, or what some hidden hand wants them to give.
As I listened to the 'sermon' I wondered why we are still dependent on listening to what someone had heard. We still go by Evan Mesutan, thugh we are proud that our nation is over 95% literate. We have almost all the teachings of the Buddha written down and available in Sinhala and English.
When we were children, on the poya day as we observed 'Sil', we would listen to one sermon. The rest of the day we would read the Buddhist publications available, and during the night, in the calm silent surroundings of the temple, we would meditate and discuss issues which we had read about on that day. But today the 'Sil' programs are mostly limited to the day only, with everyone going home at 6.00 p.m. back to their routine. During the day, they have to listen to a sermon by a monk, then another on TV or radio, then another sermon in the afternoon, leaving no time for meditation, reading or discussions.
In the early days, when most lay devotees were 'illiterate' or semi-literate' by today's standards, the learned monks had to preach to them. But even today when we listen to a sermon, how many of us could concentrate totally on what was said, and understand what was said. If our minds drift away for a moment we miss some of the sermon, and would not be able to hear it again. Yet, when we read, we can pause, think about what we had read, go back a few pages to clarify an issue, discuss with other who have read the same book.
Then why is it that literate, educated, intelligent people still want to listen to sermons. Sometimes, sermons for which we have to pay large sums of money? Before we light many thousands of lamps, before we offer millions of flowers, before we recite the five precepts, before we aim for Nibbana and as the first step to reach the stage of Sotapanna, we should think of our responsibilities, as true followers of the Buddha's teachings, to our family, to our society, to our country and to our world. Before we think of attaining Nibbana, should we not try to practice loving kindness towards all living things on earth? Should we not try to control our greed and envy?
Today reciting the Five Precepts has become another act out of habit, like the way we recite the national anthem. Today we hear of being able to attain Sotapanna by just listening to a few sermons, even by a lay person, who himself may not have attained such a state. We also hear of institutions where we could receive a certificate confirming we have attained Sotapanna. There are those who preach that no one could attain Sotapanna state by meditation and by contemplation on what the Buddha had taught. It could be achieved only by listening to sermons.
The time has come for the learned Bhikkhus, the Buddhist and Pali scholars and those who believe in the teachings of the Buddha to come together, and take up these threats we are facing today from among our own people. Before we could face threats from external forces who try to undermine the Buddha's teachings, and the Buddhist way of life, before we try to prevent them from unethical conversions, we should protect the Dhamma from internal threats. We have to expose the false Buddhas, the false preachers, the misinterpretation of the teachings, the intentional confusion created in the minds of the Buddhists by mixing the Buddhist literature with Buddha's teachings, and about the birth place of the Buddha.
Perhaps we should also look at who is sponsoring and funding these organizations and institutions.
This essay is written only with the intention of drawing the attention of the true followers of the Buddha's teachings, among us, so we could develop a dialogue urgently and earnestly.
Reading for the Earth
Reading for the Earth is a campaign launched by the Earth Day Network to help increase environmental literacy among young readers.
"I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues...Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." - Earth Day Net quotes from Dr. Seuss. America honours Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel (March 2, 1904 - Sep. 24, 1991) by having adopted his birthday as the annual date for National Read Across America Day.
It is a campaign we should start in our country too. We have to speak for our trees, because they too do not have tongues to speak, or eyes to shed tears or weapons to defend themselves. In Thailand trees are saved by ordaining them. Buat ton Mai (tree ordination ritual), trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes. In India Bishnois are committed to preserve animals and plants, since the 15th century following Guru Jambeshwar. Korea has designated and protected 11,573 trees which they have inherited from their 5000 year old past. In Japan, it is the surrounding forests, and not the buildings that mark the true shrines of Shintoism. It is not enough to be literate, we have to be 'Environmentally Literate'.
Environmental Literacy is the capacity of an individual to act successfully in daily life on a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems, and how they might do so sustainably. It is the ability to ask "What then?", says environmental educator David Orr. He says it is also the ability "to see things in their wholeness".
The environmentally literate person should understand not only the language, but its grammar, literature and rhetoric", as voiced in 'Environmental Literacy in America' (2005), by Kevin Coyle, on the first page he writes, "most Americans believe they know more about the environment than they actually do....surveys show a persistent pattern of environmental ignorance even among the most educated and influential members of society". If such was the situation in America, where they talk so much about the environment, it could be worse in the 'developing' countries, for 'development' means destruction, and destruction of the environment.
Man would have been more 'environmentally literate' when he was 'illiterate' by the standards set by the 'civilized man'. He was a part of nature, he belonged to nature and his environment, instead of trying to own and enslave the environment. Pre-historic man may not have known the scientific reasons for their actions, but they would have known about the results of such actions and to ask "What then?"
Today we are environmentally illiterate, even though we think we know everything. We think we are the most intelligent animal on earth and also the most powerful. It it like the same syndrome we try to see in children of a few very rich families, who believe they do not need a formal education or be literate in order to make money or to enjoy the money earned by their parents.
We have to learn a lot about our environment and the effects we are having on it, because we ourselves are causing all the damage and destruction. We have learned to destroy, in the mistaken belief that we are building, that we are creating. What we have gained is 'Destructive Literacy'. We use the scientific knowledge, the discoveries and inventions, for the purpose of destruction.
It is because we learnt to burn fossil fuel, that we have to learn about a carbon footprint. It is because we learnt to meddle with molecular biology and genes, that we have to learn about the destruction by genetically modified plants and animals, and human beings someday. It is because we learnt to develop synthetic chemicals and drugs we have to learn of their side effects and long term effects.
We are also responsible for the 'nature-deficit disorder' in our children, because we have caged them as prisoners inside concrete jungles, luring them with electronic equipment, social media, cyberspace and artificial environments. Flowers they see are from the florist, sprayed with artificial scents. The fruit they eat are from cool cabinets in the shopping malls, artificially ripened after poisoning with agrochemicals. The milk comes in smart packing or as a tea whitener in powder form. Vegetables have been doused with pesticides and unwanted artificial fertilizer from the day the seeds are planted. And the children believe they are enjoying the luxuries of the modern civilization.
It is because they have never had an opportunity to enjoy the luxuries of our 'primitive' villages, where they could smell the natural scent of the fresh flowers, taste a fresh uncontaminated fruit plucked from a tree, drink a cup of fresh warm milk in the morning, or eat the vegetables plucked from their own garden or from the wilderness bordering the village.
Reading for the Earth should also include the environmental impact of the production of paper, that every sheet of paper that has been produced has to be utilized to its maximum, to justify the murder of the tree which had to be cut down, the water that had to be wasted, and the pollution that had been caused in manufacturing paper.
Reading for the Earth should also encourage our children to use electronic reading matter as much as possible, wherever and whenever the facilities are available, and try to avoid making any hard copies of e-papers, e-books or even e-mail, unless it is absolutely necessary.
Let us Read for the Earth, because we are reading for our future generations.
The Battle between Gyna and Homo sapiens
Leonard Shlain, a vascular surgeon by profession, used the term Gyna sapiens for the female of Homo sapiens, in his 2003 book 'Sex, Time & Power'. He says that Gyna sapiens rose to the challenge of evolution 150,000 years ago, from Homo erectus, leaving her male counterpart, Homo sapiens, trailing behind.
Shlain explains the new label. "So much greater were the changes in the female of the new species than those of the male that it would have been more accurate for scientists to have named our genus and species Gyna sapiens, rather than Homo sapiens". It was the female who faced the crisis at childbirth, after she began to walk on two legs and her infant developed an unusually large brain. If not for her evolutionary adaptations human species would have become extinct, long ago.
"The male and the female brains show anatomical, functional and biochemical differences in all stages of life....Both sexes are equal in intelligence, but tend to operate differently. Men and women appear to use different parts of the brain... (Zeenat F. Zaidi, Faculty of Medicine, King Saudi University) This observation justify the use of Gyna sapiens, as a separate identity for womenkind.
If Gyna too behaved like Homo, humankind would have disappeared from the face of the earth thousands of years ago. They would not have been able to survive. The woman outlives the man, under most conditions, in the most sophisticated social conditions in a city of a 'developed' country, or in the most underdeveloped village in an Asian or African country. Survival of the fittest is proven once again. In the U.S. women live at least five years longer than men, but the women's life expectancy is declining, probably because they too are beginning to live more like men. In Sri Lanka women live for 76.2 on average while men average only 68.8. In Japan women's life expectancy at birth is 86.1 while for men it is only 79.0 (2005-2010). In Mozambique women 39.0, men 38.3. Women are still ahead even in the country with the lowest life expectancy. (UN statistics)
Homo is not fit enough to survive. He could be bigger in size and have more muscle strength. But he lacks endurance. He cannot face either joy or sadness, pain or pleasure by himself. He cannot face physical exertion. He needs external props like alcohol and other substance to face all these situations. Men and women work together in the fields, but it is only the men who need the alcohol in the evening. When they face separation from a loved one, the man needs to console himself with alcohol, while the woman could face it by releasing her emotions by crying.
Very often, a mother has been able to bring up her children much more successfully after her husband is gone. She is able to manage her family better when she becomes the 'man of the house', to use a male chauvinist phrase.
It is the men in the family who consume more meat even though it is the women who need the meat for the proteins and iron, which she has to replenish regularly due to loss of blood. On this issue Leonard Shlain could be challenged, about women needing more meat, because in India, women have survived without consuming any form of animal flesh for several thousand years, and they are as fit as any woman in the west, and far superior to their men. In most parts of the world, It is the men who consume most of the food and the women have to be satisfied with the leftovers, and yet she is healthier. Even in countries where women have the opportunity to share their food equally, they consume much less than the male, because their bodies are more efficient, they need less nutrients and less calories.
Even in ancient times, according to Evelyn Reed, women gathered food for themselves and their children: men hunted food for themselves. She claims that the most reliable sources of food were not animal but vegetable. (Women's Evolution, 1975)
Men claim that they have larger and heavier brains than women. What they do not wish to admit is that women are excelling them in academic and industrial and technical fields using their smaller brains, which in turn means the smaller brain is more efficient. The claim by Homo against the Gyno is like a claim that a bulky desktop PC is higher in capacity than a notebook.
Men were so happy with the chauvinist statements by Charles Darwin, "the child, the female, and the senile white all had the intellect and nature of the grown-up Negro". Here Darwin was completely wrong, because women and Negros often have far superior brain power than some adult whites, and old age does not bring senility affects on the brain.
In 1997 Dean Falk at the State University of New York, pointed out that the size of the female human brain is larger in proportion to body size, than is the male brain and has just as many neurons.
One more argument brought up by Darwin was "that a weak man unless he was a good hunter is seldom permitted to keep a wife that a stronger man thinks worth his notice". This does not prove that man is higher on the ladder of evolution, but it only shows the barbaric nature of the less evolved man. Darwin had also ignored that the woman and the children did not depend on the man for their food.
J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page, published 'the Invisible Sex, uncovering the true role of Women in Prehistory (Smithsonian, 2007), where they say, "Most paleoanthropologists make the assumption that men, particularly, are the known representatives of hominid evolution." In this book we find mention of the famous footprints discovered by Mary Leaky in Tanzania. One set of prints were larger than the other and the immediate conclusion was that it was a man and a woman. Based on these footprints from 3.6 million years ago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York created a diorama showing "the couple walking through the desolate landscape volcanic ash, the volcano still smoking on the horizon...the female head is turned: she looks slightly alarmed,,,the male is looking forward, resolute, his arm resting (positively or affectionately or both) across her shoulders". A most romantic scene. The height of imagination, unfortunately a male dominated imagination. Adrienne Zihlman of the university of California at Santa Cruze has questioned the large-male small-female hypothesis, and suggested that the footprints could have been of a parent and offspring. A mother could have been leaving the volcano threatened zone with her daughter. Probably the man already escaped, leaving them behind.
The same book mentions another such incident about the pointed fragment of wood found in Clacton-on-the-Sea in England. "It has been interpreted by most scholars as a deliberately fashioned spear point, but it could equally well be the fragment of a 300,000 year old digging stick". A digging stick would have been used by a woman, and probably made by her, not to kill animals, but to dig up a tuber.
They quote from Sally Mcbrearty and Marc Monitz, of the likelihood that females among the early hominids were most likely to be the tool makers - or at least the most intense tool makers. This suggests that even then men were just lazy idlers, while the women foraged, processed food, reared children and kept the family together. Not only tools, even language may have originated with the women. They needed to communicate with their children. Protospeech could have developed from a 'vocal patter' or 'motherese'.
If Gyna sapiens had not surrendered herself to Homo, this world would have been a really wonderful place for all life forms, not just human beings. Gyna is more sensitive, more concerned about nature, about Mother Earth and all her children. There would have been less wars, need for less weapons of destruction. Because Gyna sapiens would feel the pain of a mother who has to see the murder of her child by another human being. She would have a greater respect for commonly shared resources and wealth and would be frugal in her use, knowing she has to leave it for her children and their children.
It is time for women to claim their due place in society, as a separate being, Gyna sapiens. The superior animal, higher in the evolutionary ladder, more intelligent and fitter than Homo sapiens to survive.
"The cultural ideal in literature, theatre, painting, music, dress, food, conversation, etiquette and so on was now drawn from the colonizer's world. The new literacy thus tried to transform India into a cultural province of the colonial metropolis and neo-literate Indians into cultural compradors." K. N. Panikkar wrote in his essay 'Creating a New Cultural Taste: Reading a Nineteenth Century Malayalam Novel'.
We could say the same thing in our country, by just changing the word 'India' to 'Sri Lanka'. We are still a 'cultural province' and more so than India. India reminds us of Nehru's own claim, "I am the last Englishman to rule India".
Compradors, from a Portuguese word meaning buyer, came in many forms in our country too, though the word originated in China for a Chinese representative of a colonial master, who betrayed his own people for a little money. During the colonial era the term 'comprador bourgeois' was used, which could be applied to the cultural 'compradors' too, who claim to have survived one form of decolonization to become part of a neo-colonization under the new great powers..
Prof. Hamid Dabashi (Columbia University, New York) identifies 'comprador intellectuals' as those who have moved to North America and Western Europe and are acting as native informers in the manufacturing of a sort of useful knowledge that facilitates the imperial domination of the countries from which they have immigrated. Edward Said developed the concept of intellectual exile, migrant intellectuals who no longer feel at home either in their homeland or their host-society,
We have been teaching little kids 'Ba Ba Black Sheep', when they have never seen a sheep in their life or know what wool is or what it is used for. Children were punished or fined if they spoke in the 'vernacular'. They had no option but to read English books. They were made to say "good morning", instead of "ayubohowan". Wishing long life was much better than wishing just for the morning to be good.
The cultural comprador also caused an adverse reaction, which resulted in scorning the use of English and the teaching of English, which has affected us very severely in the shrinking global community. We still have the anti-comprador feelings among the people who are against teaching or the use of English. What we have to realize is that we can use English as our servant, we do not have to be subservient to the language.
In our country, the cultural compradors may not have shown a major influence among the English speaking elite, because they did not need an intermediate to be influenced by the western culture. The effect was mostly on the Sinhala and Tamil communities who had to read the so-called modern, post-modern, post-colonial literature in Sinhala or Tamil.
That is why Shehan Karunatilleke's Chinaman would not have any effect on the English readers, but anyone who translates it into Sinhala or Tamil would be playing the role of the comprador, by subtly influencing our readers to the way of life of the decadent Western life style of some of the cricketers and cricket fans.
Our early Sinhala writers were heavily influenced by the Western novel, which most of them have admitted later on. Piyadasa Sirisena, one of our earliest novelists, though he admitted reading English novels, was leading a battle against the cultural compradors of his time.
We had our cultural compradors for a long period into our past. First they were the compradors from North India, who tried to change our own native culture of the Yaksha and Naga races. It was the time when the comprador intellectuals wrote our own chronicles and translated the Sinhala writings into Pali, taking our historical and religious literature away from the common man. Later it had been continued by the compradors working for the South Indians, till the time of the arrival of the Europeans.
Sometimes the comprador intellectuals were born again when they went to England, and later America for their higher education, for post-graduate and post-doctoral research, specially on our own culture, our history, our languages and even our religion. It was not everyone who went abroad for such studies who fell victims to the colonial and post-colonial masters from the west, there were many who were able to overcome such influence and steer clear of them.
Madhavan, a character in Oyyarath Chandu Menon's 'Indulekha', wants the Indians to become like Englishmen, "to instill into the English greater faith in us, greater affection and greater regard for us,..". Indulekha is a Malayalam novel first published in 1889, which is claimed to be the only novel to have been reprinted nearly every year for over a hundred years. Chandu Menon was "attempting to create a novel much like those of the English authors he had read.." We too had our own Chandu Menons among Sinhala writers in our country serving their English masters.
Such modern day compradors who taught creative writing, have reviewed and criticised the Sri Lankan literature according to Mikhail Bakhtin or E. M. Forster, even up to the 21st century. Most of them always tried to study, review or appreciate the Sinhala novel and Sinhala poetry by the standards set by the western writers, and always tried to see what western influence could be seen in the Sri Lankan writing, believing that the Sinhala and Tamil writers were not capable of producing their own creative works.
The latest cultural compradors come to us via the digital media who do it more effectively, and even subconsciously, and they will continue to act on behalf of their alien masters.
To commemorate the 150th Birth Anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Cultural Center, Colombo, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and The Center for Contemporary Indian Studies, University of Colombo had organized a one-day seminar on Tagore and Sri Lanka.
It was a very timely discussion, well organized, well represented and well attended and all the credit goes to the organizers.
The Seminar began with the singing of the National Anthems. Many of the Sri Lankans sang along with the recorded music, while the Indian delegates were silent, and then the Indians sang with the Indian Anthem. Looking at the photograph of Tagore on the screen, I wondered how wonderful it would have been, and how happy Tagore would have been, had he been here this morning, if we had been able to sing one song, a song for humanity, a Universal Anthem, a Vishvagita. We came together to honour Gurudev, but we sang separately.
It was mentioned that in the early 20's of the last century, this song, Janaganamana had been used as a national anthem at Mahinda College, Galle, by replacing Bharato by Sinhalo. In the same manner if we could change Bharato to 'Loko' (if that is the correct Bengali term) and use the names of continents and major geographical landmarks instead of Indian states and landmarks, then we could have a Universal Anthem, which could be sung by all mankind. Tagore would have agreed with such changes.
Tagore himself had translated the song into English, and named it 'The Morning Song of India', and we could rename it 'The Morning Song of Humanity'. The English version is available in the public domain, it could now be translated into all world languages, but still retain a universal anthem in the original Bengali in honour of Tagore, because he was a true human being, a true Purushottama. Tagore does not belong to India. He belongs to the whole world, to all life in the universe, the multiverse. He does not belong to England, even though a mockery of the Nobel was made with the opening words of the Award Ceremony Speech "In awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to the 'Anglo-Indian' poet, Rabindranath Tagore.." and in the same speech referring to Debendranath Tagore and the Brahmo Samaj, "an enlightened and influential man who had been much impressed by the doctrines of Christianity" (Harold Hjame, Chairman Nobel Committee). But the colonial masters failed to make Tagore to be a cultural comprador.
About 'Janaganamana' Tagore had said, "In a sense it is more a religious hymn for all mankind than a national anthem for any country". If Vandemataram had been retained as the national anthem of India, perhaps someday Janaganamana could have been easily adapted as the global anthem. As Tagore had written in a letter in 1921, "I love India, but my India is an idea and not a geographical expression. Therefore, I am not a patriot - I shall seek my compatriots all over the world".
National Anthems around the world were a result of the emergence of nations. Its origins could be traced to Europe, the industrial and economic revolutions, because there was a need for such a socio-political organization. But today the situation has changed once again, when it is time for a concept of Universalism instead of Nationalism, which Tagore envisaged a century ago. Tagore had written that nationalism is "the organized self interest of a people, where it is least human and least spiritual". (Nationalism, 1916). Most nations which have identified themselves under different names today, had been under different states, different kingdoms or reigns, and such kingdoms, expanded, contracted, split up all depending on the strength of their leaders. Perhaps earth will become One Nation when someday we are invaded by life from outer space.
Today we honour Tagore for creating the national anthems of India and Bangladesh and also influencing the national anthem of Sri Lanka. Yet had he been with us today would he have been happy with the honour, or would he have renounced it the way he renounced his knighthood?
As my thoughts were moving along these lines, I heard mention of "ekla chalo re", "if they answer not to thy call walk alone". I wondered if we have, all this time taken this song at its face value, and are we, each one of us, walking alone, when we could all walk together, or make a serious attempt to do so, before venturing out alone. This thought grew stronger, as someone from the audience asked about the effect Tagore had on Jaffna, her people and her culture, because of his visits to Jaffna and also how he was accepted in the north. We look forward to attending another seminar, which could be arranged by these same organizers, with participants from Jaffna and also from the Tamil speaking community which includes the Tamils and the Muslims in Sri Lanka, so that the main theme, Tagore and Sri Lanka would be covered completely.
Another question raised by the audience was of the 'theistic' and 'atheistic' views of Tagore. That is an irrelevant issue, because such a question comes to our minds only when we think in the English language. The concept of God, of 'theism' as known in the west, has no relevance to Tagore, to India or to the entire east. If we are to use all such western labels, then Tagore was a theist and an atheist, a Hindu, a Jain, a Buddhist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim and a heretic.
Let us learn from the entire song, 'Jodi tor daak shune', instead of only 'ekla chalo re', and sing together and walk together to a better, more humane world.
There was a small group discourse at the Press Council office recently on 'Siyavas Dekak Sisara', Padma Edirisinghe's autobiographical sketch, with Dr. Leel Gunasekara as the guest speaker. The book is a narrative of her life story from her childhood, passing through the pre-war period, and after, leading up to the turn of the century. Padma Edirisinghe's easy style makes it impossible for the reader to put it down and the book reads like a novel. Yet it is a very rare, very candid biography, not often seen today. Often books like these either become autobiographical novels with more fiction than fact. Sometimes the authors omit many memorable incidents for fear of hurting or annoying others, unless, like Mark Twain, the autobiography is to be published one hundred years after the death of the author.
In 'Siyavas Dekak Sisara', Edirisnghe tells us about an essay she had to write in English, at her new school. She had titled it 'Nangi's Funeral' intentionally in protest against the school policy in using Sinhala. She justified her use of the term Nangi, because there is no specific term in English for a younger sister, just as there are no terms for elder sister, or elder brother.
The morning after the discussion of Edirisinghe's book, coincidentally, I received a mail from the Sri Lanka Association of Anthropology, forwarding an on-line link to a publication 'Categories of Kinship Vary Between Languages'. The study had been done by Charles Kemp (Carnegie Mellon University) and Terry Regier (University of California at Berkeley), who attempt to show that kinship categories across languages reflect general principles of communication. Kemp says "a system with a different word for each family member is much more complicated but very useful...we can't make them simpler, without making them less useful"
Our own Sinhala is somewhere in-between, though we do have specific terms based on relative age, for elder and younger brothers and sisters - aiya, malli, akka, nangi. We do not have specific terms for paternal and maternal grandparents, except the non-standard use of muttha, seeya, aththamma and aachchi. The Chinese have terms for paternal grandparents, zufu and zumu, maternal grandparents wai gong and wai po. In Bangali the terms are Thakur baba, Thakur Ma and Dadu, Didi Ma. Hindi and Urdu too have specific age related terms for siblings and for maternal/paternal grand parents.
The most descriptive system is found in Sudan, with a different kin term to each distinct relative. Hawaiian is the least descriptive system. Richard A. Lobban Jr. of Rhode Island College had made of a study of the kinship in Sudan, where he found "..Some former kinship relations collapse amidst class transformations, others are reinforced.....traditional forms of kinship may come to have a new class content". Sudan is the home of the Nubian, Arab and Nilotic peoples.
Even in our country, urbanization has resulted in a mockery of the kinship terms, with the indiscriminate use of the terms for brother and sister and aunt and uncle, creeping into our Sinhala literature too. To such an extent where the male calls his wife as 'amma', probably from a corruption of the village term 'lamayinge amma' (children's mother). Such usage has been called 'improper kin terms' as against 'proper kin terms'. It also shows the widening generation gap, specially between parents and their children. This opens up a business opportunity for the entrepreneur to make a good profit by creating Mother's Day and Father's Day markets.
In Sinhala there used to be so many terms for the second person pronoun, which too had degenerated to an impersonal term 'Obatuma' to address everyone as a more refined term of 'oya, aise, tamuse and machan' and address in anger as 'tho and umba'. In Sinhala we do not have pronouns either for the parents or for the spouse. Parents are addressed 'amma, thaththa, appachchi', causing confusion for newly married young people when addressing the in-laws. We do not call them 'oya or umba'. For the spouse a village term used to be 'me ahunada', but in the urban jungle address is by the first name or a pet name. In the villages, outside the immediate family no one knew the given names of the children. They were all given a second name to be used by the family and relatives, or were addressed as 'loku putha, podi putha, loku duwa' new additions to the family would be 'sudu putha, rathu putha' and so on. As they grow older, they become Sudu mahattaya or Rathu mahattaya.
The term 'cousin' has different meanings to the Sinhala term 'bena'. In English the term refers to kinship between second and third generations, but always it is a blood relation, unlike in Sinhala where bena could be a relation by law. When it comes to cousins, the cross-cousin marriage retains the kinship terms used between the parents and the couple which were used prior to marriage, father/mother in-law and uncle is still 'mama/nanda', nephew/niece remain 'bena/leli'. Even in our country, urbanization has resulted in a mockery of the kinship terms, with the indiscriminate use of the terms for brother and sister and aunt and uncle, by bus conductors and sales persons, and now creeping into our Sinhala literature via the tele-dramas on the 'idiot box'.
Let us think again about the study by Charles Kemp. Even if it is more complicated, more specific kinship terms could make mankind get to be closer to each other and make this world a more pleasant and happier place to leave for our children.
The Cultural Divide
Jayantha Aravinda made a presentation on 'Music of the Theatre, Then and Now', during the monthly discourse organized by Samskrti. He was accompanied by the well known vocalist Indeevari Ariyasinghe, whose golden voice we have heard often over the SLBC, and Chandi Ranatunge, who is the tenth 'Maname queen'. There were also Sarath Hettiarachi and Premerathne Samaranayake who used a 'tabla' to produce the sound of the 'maddala'.
Visharada Jayantha Aravinda was a lecturer at the Peradeniya University and Director of Aesthetic Studies of the Ministry of Education. On this day he was with us as a long time associate of the greatest literary and drama genius Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, having composed the music for many of his plays. He and his team played and sang items from Maname, Sinhabahu, Prematho Jayathi Soko and other plays, as he described the development of the Sinhala drama.
Jayantha, a genius in his own way, told us how Sarachchandra developed his Maname and Sinhabahu using what he had gathered from our Nadagam. Here he mentioned an interesting point, that the terms 'Nadagam' and 'Kolam' were used as derogatory terms first by our urban elite and filtered down even to the villages, ignoring that Nadagam was a traditional form of artistic entertainment for about two centuries while Kolam has a socio-religious role in our culture.
Then he reminded us that 'Natya' means 'dramatic representation of drama with speech, music and dancing'. 'Nritya' is an 'interpretative dance', while 'Nritta' is 'pure dance steps performed rhythmically. Prof. Sarachchandra had moved from Nadagam to Ragadhari music in his Pematho Jayathi Soko, where most of the music had been composed by Jayantha Aravinda. He had used 42 Raga, in what he called an 'Operatic Drama'. About 'Raga' Aravinda pointed out that even though it may have originated in India, and thus all the different raga had Indian or Samskrit names, Raga was all universal music, which belonged to all of us.
During the discussion one interesting fact which came to light was that there was a Christian song, composed by Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez a long time back, which was similar to "premayen mana ranjithawe..' and a part of the Christian song was also played, which had the same music. There was a Tamil song too, to the same tune. Which was the original, we do not know. But it is known that Fr. Gonsalvez' wrote Tamil songs and his poems were used in Christian Nadagam as well as the Passion Plays.
Samskrti is a quarterly review to provide a platform to discuss culture and the humanities as they matter to Sinhala culture and associated other cultures, which has been published since 1953, with a gap from 1969 - 1983. Most of the gathering were members of the Samskrti organization, now retired but with very pleasant old memories.
On the same day evening, at one of the elite restaurants was held the Gratiaen Awards. Here were the young and the old, some of the old trying to look younger than the young. What was missing was the paparazzi at the entrance to mob the glitterati for the fashion pages and the television, except for a few photographers. Still there were among the officials and the guests, a few wearing simple dress and not ashamed of their grey hair.
After a lapse of a few years in a futile attempt to translate and publish Sinhala and Tamil novels on their own, the Gratiaen Trust was offering an award for the best translation into English. Even though the Gratiaen always belonged to the class which was represented at the award ceremony, by some irony the H. A. I. Goonetillke Prize was awarded to Malinda Seneviratne who translated Simon Nawagattegama's 'Sansaranyaye Dadayakkaraya'.
Many of those present, including the Trustees and the Judges, would have known Malinda, as he is a regular columnist to English newspapers and editor, and also because his English poetry had been short-listed for the Gratiaen for the third time, this year. It may not be fair to say that not many of these people would have heard of Simon, one of the greatest Sinhala novelists from our country, or about other literary greats whose books have not yet appeared in translation. Recognition of the translation of his novel is a really great service to Sri Lankan writing in Sinhala, because it is only through such translations, that a few among those who attended the Gratiaen Awards could get to read such a great novel. This novel would now be available to the readers around the world so they would know that true 'magical realism' can be found in Nawagattegama novels inspired by our own ancient literature and folk tales.
Michael Ondaatdji would have enjoyed the 'Dadayakkara' translation, and would be happy that he initiated the award for translations. The translations into English of Sinhala and Tamil works would be the bridge to bring our nation and all the subcultures together, to share and enjoy all the artistic creations among us. For this let us hope that Michael Ondaatji and the Trustees of the Gratiaen would consider from next year, not only translations from Sinhala to English, but also from Tamil to English. In the same manner, let us hope that the editorial board of Samskrti would consider returning to their earlier policy of publishing articles in English, and as a new and more progressive step, in Tamil too.
Let us hope too that the conjunction of Simon Nawagattegama, Malinda Senevirathne and the Gratiaen is one more step to narrow the cultural divide in this small island.