by Charles Sarvan
T he dictionary defines “proud” as the feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction, the result of one’s own achievements, qualities or possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated.
aking up collective achievement in the present, I wonder how much justification there is for national pride. There are slums in and around the capital, and people live in “shanties” in the most insalubrious of conditions, often by canals and stagnant water. It is a distressing, near-overwhelming, experience to walk down Colombo’s Galle Road in the late evening, and see misshapen creatures settling down by the pavement for the night: scenes out of the novels of Dostoevsky and Dickens. For them, the Paradise Isle is hell, seemingly, accepted fatalistically. There is a high degree of crime and violence. Amnesty International reported that over 4,000 people have “disappeared” in the short period since early 2006 and the date of the report - 12 April 2007.
Victor Ivan in his An Unfinished Struggle (2003) cites Harold Laski’s statement that the manner in which justice is dispensed in any country is the measure of that country’s civilization, and concludes that, based on this criterion, “Sri Lanka is at the lowest level of civilization”. (The International Bar Association Human Rights Institute’s report, titled ‘Sri Lanka justice in retreat’, dated 29 May 2009, states, inter alia, that Sri Lankans, particularly Tamils, are unprotected within the criminal justice system.) The police force is corrupt and, rather than protecting the population, tends to bully it, Tamils with greater impunity: see, ‘Being Tamil today’ below. A few years ago, the Asian Centre for Human Rights reported that political patronage and resulting impunity have turned the Sri Lankan Police into one of the country’s most feared and organised criminal gangs.
Sri Lanka is a destination for sex tourists, including paedophiles. The suicide rate is high, as is that of alcoholism, and women (supposedly from a traditional, conservative, island) go abroad into helpless servitude: I once taught in the Middle East, and am well aware of their plight. Individuals in power have paid or rewarded followers who can be mobilised at short notice to form a righteous, patriotically outraged, mob. As for the people, they seem to have given up hope of real, qualitative, change, and get on with their daily lives, snatching distraction and recreation when they can. Unemployment, poverty and the lack of hope are some of the factors that explain the propensity to sudden, extreme and vicious violence.
There is a schizophrenic gap between rhetoric and reality. Cricket is an exception, and the achievement of the team in international fixtures partly explains the passionate interest in the game by a people who have little other real cause for pride. According to the Daily Mirror (1 May 2007), while Sri Lankans are obsessed with cricket, the country is burning and breaking apart, and one in every 18 Sri Lankan is a refugee. Of course, the Island is beautiful, in terms of its beaches, mountains and valleys, and one can delight in them, draw solace and strength, but can we take “pride” in landscape and seascape? In other words, is it our achievement? I read the following lines in the Sunday Island (25th January 2004, p. 7): Despondency, deep, deep despondency and the desire to cry for this ill-fated land of ours.
Then there is the other part of the definition of “proud”, namely, “someone with whom one is closely associated”. Since Sri Lanka was conquered and ruled for almost five hundred years, one indeed has to go back a very long way in time to locate those “closely associated” (that is, unless one includes the “White”, “Aryan” imperialists). How “closely” can one be linked with figures lost in the distant mist of History? The other aspect of ancient history is that we know it almost entirely by the “peaks” of achievement (tanks, statues, palaces), and events (battles, changes made and reform instituted). The daily life of the vast majority of ordinary women and men is not recorded, remains largely unknown and conjectural. That being the case, the past becomes our pliant possession, to be shaped as we wish.
The operative words in this exercise are “idealise” and “idealisation”. It is a need and a process - particularly seen in a people who have little cause to be proud of and celebrate in the present. To cite a mundane example, given the lack of penicillin, surgical instruments and present-day knowledge of hygiene, health-care must have poor and painful, as in other parts of the world. Of course, there were wise and kind rulers, but the fact remains that there was no middle-class, and no civic right for the people to elect their rulers. There is no avoiding the truth: it was feudalism in the extreme, with power on the one side, and servility on the other. Chandima Wickramasinghe in her comparative study of slavery in ancient Greece and ancient Sri Lanka, records the incident of a slave woman, eight of whose children “were buried as soon as they were born, by order of the master” because she had to look after his children (p. 45.) The same work recounts that Kings and nobles offered food to thousands of Buddhist monks, food that had been cooked by slaves.
The attempt here is not to discredit the past; not to deny that a measure of example and encouragement, even of pride, can be derived from it, but to plead for a more balanced, realistic, view of the past. It is easy to idealise and wax sentimental over the past, simply because it is past, and we can shape and believe in it as we will. One can be “proud” but one must also be clearly aware of the grounds for that pride. If not, it becomes an empty assertion: vague and easy to trumpet, emotional and potentially dangerous. Further, “pride” can lead to complacency, take away the responsibility and effort of “constructing” (and I don’t mean building only in the literal sense) in the present, in the here and now: it is enough to defiantly proclaim, “I am Sri Lankan, and proud of it.”
(This is an extract from the writer’s essay, Reign of Anomy the title of which is adapted from Wole Soyinka’s novel “Season of Anomy”)