Charles Sarvan reflects upon Identity, Language, Animosity

Charles Ponnadurai, Charlie to his friends, was educated at S. Thomas’, Gurutalawa and various schools in Sri Lanka before entering Peradeniya University and reading English honours while residing at Ramanathan Hall where we were batch mates. I recall being verbally ragged together by a cluster of senior Thomians – God knows why I was there, since the rest of the first year rookies in that room were bloody Thomians.

We have not kept in touch but Charlie found employment in Zambia and at some point in the Middle East. At some point he courted and married a Germanlass and along the way altered his name to Charles Sarvan. Therein, surely, rest two significant stories. He has intervened fruitfully in Sri Lanka’s public realm in recent years in felicitous prose. Several essays have been collected in Public Writings on Sri Lanka (Miruthala Publications, Sivakasi, 2009, I do not necessarily agree with his interpretations on some issues, but that they are available for others to assess. I have selected three for inclusion in this web site. Michael Roberts, 12 August 2010.

I: “How did you become ‘Sinhalese’?” Some Thoughts on Identity.                                                                          

Courtesy of the Island, 31 July 2008        

 The following was prompted by Michael Roberts’ article (Island, 30 April 2008), and by Anne Abayasekara’s response two months later (Island, 30 June), but it diverges in a more general direction.

Doris Lessing observed that there is something in human beings which makes us divide, categorise, exclude. I suppose this tendency can be traced back to early beginnings when our very survival as a species on the planet was precarious and, therefore, the identification of members of the same (animal) species of vital importance.  Those who didn’t belong to the pack stirred unease were looked upon as a threat (or as a potential meal).

Given the multiplicity of the reality which surrounds us, taxonomy becomes inevitable. We not only divide fruit from vegetable, keep shirts separate from trousers but, among us, recognise difference based on various criteria, such as sex. News emerges from the maternity-room: “It’s a girl!”  Thereafter, the neuter “It” is replaced by the feminine “she” or “her”. Without categorisation, we wouldn’t be able to cope with our vast and varied (natural, cultural, biological) environment. The problem is not with classification but with the value we subsequently attach: “different” leads to “superior”. If some are “superior”, then the others are “inferior”, and those who are different (and inferior) can be treated differently. Once the equality of the other is not recognised, it follows that justice, decency, humanity do not apply to them. It’s a sin and a crime to kill fellow human beings, but virtuous and laudable to slaughter the enemy.

Yet another reason for categorisation is officialdom.  There are forms to be filled: age group, religions, sex, language and “race” or ethnic identity. So an answer to Roberts’ question, “How did you become Sinhalese?” would be “by birth”. But this would be simplistic (rather than simple) because Roberts is not interested in superficial classification but in connotation, attitude and emotion, above all, in consequence.

The existence of the other creates our sense of identity but, sometimes, group-identity is devilled by mistrust and competition which breed resentment and anger. These, in turn, heighten hostility to such a degree that, for example, during a time of riot or war, a total stranger, someone who has done no known, personal, harm is attacked simply because s/he belonged to the other group: individual character, conduct, contribution to society, no longer count. But a consciousness of difference need not necessarily lead to hostility. Indeed, one can argue that difference, and the variety it creates, are welcome. The questions to address are, “What has led to inter-group hostility?” and “How can these causes be addressed so that there’s harmony?”

A small number of people living in an isolated community may be aware of others but are unlikely to harbour a defensive-aggressive sense of group-identity — unless something happens to “excite” such feelings. History is replete with examples of different groups who lived in amicable cooperation, integrated to form a whole but not assimilated, that is, keeping their values, customs and culture. In such a community, identity will tend to be more at the individual level. However, the root of the word “identity” is idem, meaning “the same”, and since each individual is unique, one can argue that everyone has (to varying degrees) a consciousness of, if not a problem with, identity.  We are trapped in our individuality; isolated (if not lonely) at the core of our being. Martin Heidegger wrote that only the Being that exists in such a way that its Being is an issue for it, raises the question of Being. Similarly, one could say that only those individuals for whom identity is a problem, only those who are made conscious of their identity, reflect on identity: for example, those with a different skin-colour or sexual orientation (or both); of “mixed” parentage, a different value-system, those whose behaviour is seen as being eccentric (ex-centric), exiles, members of a minority group.

One aspect of identity is that of the individual (or of individuals forming a group) seeing herself or himself. Yet another is that of others who see this individual (and those with whom s/he is identified). A problem arises when these perceptions (that of the self of self, and that of others) do not coincide; indeed, drastically diverge. Dostoevsky wrote to his brother (22 December 1849) that life is in ourselves and not in the external. In Buddhist terms, one thinks of the meaning of “Asoka” (not one who is without, but one who has transcended sorrow) and the lotus in the water (of problems and sorrow) but does not absorb it.

But can life be unaffected totally by externals? (How many of us can attain such a level of wisdom and detachment?) What happens when an individual’s sense of his or her identity does not coincide with the perception others have of him or her? Each of us has many aspects and affiliations (identities), interests and pursuits but if someone, for example, says, “He’s Tamil”, he chooses to prioritise an element which may not be primary to the person himself. In such a case, the comment says more about the person speaking (his ethnic consciousness, values and attitudes) than of the individual spoken about.  In Identity and Violence (a work which I have cited in my Sri Lanka: Reign of Anomy), Amartya Sen argues that a singular identity is not only an illusion but, far worse, one that nurtures violence:  A “fostered sense of identity with one group of people can be made into a powerful weapon to brutalize another […] many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity”. This single, all-else-cancelling attitude is the stance (and the danger and destructiveness) of “nationalists”. Etienne Balibar observes (Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities), there’s no racism without a theory, be it conscious or not. (He also observes that “racists” pass themselves off righteously as “nationalists”.) As Heidegger wrote (Being and Time) by “others” one must not mean “everyone else but me [us]”, but those among whom I am too: inclusion, not exclusion.

Identity is multiple, fluid, changing – not single and fixed. What is crucial is not identity itself but the value we attach to it, the attitude we have, both to our identity (at the individual and group level) and to that of others. Our second son (my wife is German) says he has no identity problem. He seems to view the world with irony, to celebrate his duality, and even to welcome the challenges it often brings. Reviewing Kumari Jayawardena’s Euro-Asian (see, Sunday Island, 8 June 2008), sent me to Rabindranath Tagore’s eponymous Gora (1910). Gora who lived a strict (severe and uncharitable) Brahmin life, finds he was adopted as an infant; that, far from being Brahmin, he’s not even Indian: his biological parents were Irish. This knowledge, rather than being traumatic, is liberating. Gora feels set free from inherited identity, attitudes and role. (One recalls Yeats words: “Myself must I remake”.) There’s no longer any opposition in Gora between Hindu, Moslem and Christian. I have been carrying about with me gulfs of separation, he realizes and admits . Going to his (adopted) mother, he says: you “make no distinctions, and have no hatred… It is you who are India!” Gora resolves to dedicate his life to the welfare of the people – without any recognition of race, religion or caste.

Into the soul

                                                The selves extend […] their branches,

                                                Into the moment of each living hour

                                                Feeling for audience (Christopher Okigbo)


 II: Sri Lanka: some thoughts on language                                        Courtesy of the Sunday Island, 3 May 2009

 The Sinhalese had little need to learn the Tamil language, but Tamils, if it had not been forced upon them, over time, would have learnt Sinhala, and the language problem would have been solved, gradually and painlessly (Professor G C Mendis).

The ‘language question’ is again preoccupying some Sri Lankans: see, for example, Mr Arjuna Hulugalle, The Island, 17 April 2009. I say “again” because it was the major issue in the “Ceylon” of the 1950s, when I was a student of the University of Peradeniya. Had the language-issue been handled with reason and patience, rather than with emotion and impetuosity, the Island would have been spared animosity and resentment; conflict, destruction and tragedy, and been altogether a very different country today. So there is a sense of déjà vue, a feeling of humanity being doomed to repeat mistakes: I am reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s sobering historical study, The March of Folly. But folly must not be permitted, fatalistically, to march on and on. I draw attention to three aspects of the subject, and hope it will not be entirely without use.                

            As one who has taught English not only in Europe but also in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, I am well aware that there can be resistance in some quarters to learning English. For example, in Sri Lanka it could take the form of “Why should we learn the language of our former imperial masters?” There might be the fear that the English language will be the Trojan horse used to smuggle in Western culture and values, to the damage and detriment of the traditional, the native. I think this suspicion and emotional resistance, where they still exist, can be overcome. English is no longer the language of only the English. Numerically, far more non-English people use the language than the English. One now speaks of a ‘first language’ (rather than of ‘mother tongue’), that is, the language in which one is best able to express oneself. So defined, there are many in Africa, Asia and elsewhere to whom English is their first language. It is unfortunate that the same word applies to a language and to a people: Indians do not speak a language known as ‘Indian’; Pakistanis a language called Pakistani or the Swiss a language labelled Swiss. The English language must be recognised for what it is today, the world’s language, the medium of international communication. Ludwik Zamenhof (1858-1917) invented Esperanto, an artificial language, with the hope that it would become an international medium of communication, cutting across geographic, national and linguistic boundaries. He hoped it would help create mutual understanding, and that understanding would lead to a greater measure of harmony. Esperanto did not achieve wide, let alone common, currency but in the English language we have a natural, living, “Esperanto”:  it must be seen, taught and used as such.

            To move to the second aspect which I suggest for consideration, one way of preventing the march of folly, the repetition of the past, is to learn from the past. Perhaps the major contributing factor to Sri Lanka’s much-troubled history since independence was the sense (strengthened over many decades and centuries of Western imperial rule) of neglect, disregard and insult felt by the majority, be it in economic, cultural (including religious) or social terms. Position and power belonged, in the first instance, to the British; secondly, to the Westernised “Ceylonese” who spoke, and were comfortable in, English. (To our shame, it must be remembered that inadequate or imperfect English caused superior amusement, but not a lack of competence in Sinhala or Tamil.) It is argued that English functioned as the link-language at independence and prior to the Sinhala-Only Act and, therefore, should be re-instated and given the importance it then had. But at independence the vast majority of Sinhalese and Tamils were not competent in English:  the language “linked” only the English-educated middle-class, and the Colombo elite of that time. According to data provided by Mr K G Kulasena (formerly of the Education Research Institute), just two years before independence (1948), only 6.3%of the population was literate in English. I hope the situation is now very different, but the danger remains: giving greater prominence to English will, once again, privilege the middle class in urban centres, above all in the capital city. This is a possibility and potential danger that must be thought about and avoided by the investment of funds and resources, and the providing of incentives. If it is not done, resentment and resulting violence will repeat themselves.

Thirdly, there are some who, motivated by laudable feelings and aims such as generosity, justice and inclusion, argue that the Island strive toward tri-lingualism: Sinhala, Tamil and English. “The Tamil speaking areas could revert to having Buddhist priests in their schools to take the Sinhala classes as was [once] the case. This will result in Buddhist priests learning Tamil and being able to preach in Tamil, and Tamils will be introduced to Buddhist precepts” (Arjuna Hulugalle). No doubt, tri-lingualism would greatly contribute to the ushering in of linguistic, social and political harmony. Sri Lanka would become a true “Paradise Isle”, not merely in scenic terms; not only for the local wealthy and foreign tourists. Of course, I would welcome Sinhalese having some competence in the Tamil language but, as an erstwhile pedagogue (and at the risk of outraging, even incensing, some Tamils), I must acknowledge I have reservations. Learning a language means the investment of resources: teachers and their salary, textbooks and teaching-aids. Time is also a consideration since time devoted to one subject implies the limitation or total exclusion of another subject or subjects. Is it, educationally and otherwise, “economic” for roughly 80% of the population to expend resources, time and energy in learning the language of 20%? It may be countered that the motive here is not so much the learning of a language but the far more important political and social goals of inclusion, fair play, and the building of national harmony – “harmony”, as distinct from a “peace” imposed by military and numerical superiority. But experience shows that a language learnt and not used is soon lost. A pupil in the South expends hours learning Tamil but, thereafter, never has occasion to use it. Is that not a waste of time?  Shouldn’t that time have been spent more usefully? Or is the thinking that language-competence is not lost but merely in abeyance, and can be quickly resuscitated, should the need arise? I taught for several years at the University of Zambia. Zambia is a large, linguistically diverse, country with English as the official language.  (Among other things, one had to be competent in English in order to stand for parliamentary election. I don’t know if this law still applies.) So that no one ethnic / linguistic would be advantaged, all were equally “challenged”. If a state employee were transferred to an area whose language she didn’t know, she (or he) could nevertheless function because neutral English was the medium of administration. Still, I am not convinced that all Sinhalese pupils should learn Tamil. Perhaps, it can be decided on (a) where one worked and (b) the nature of the work to be done. A woman or man is granted a scholarship to study, be trained or carry out research in a foreign country whose language is totally foreign to her or him. S/he attends an intensive course, usually lasting about six months, and at the end of it, is ready to commence. Similarly, a Sinhalese found to need Tamil can be given time and opportunity to intensively learn the language. This language-competence could be made a condition for securing or retaining employment, and for receiving promotion. Similarly, Tamils can be offered incentives (say, a small increment in salary) to learn Sinhala. Of course, given the present “ethnic climate”, whether it is even remotely realistic to expect Sinhalese to learn Tamil is another matter. Much preparatory work, sustained, intensive and persuasive in nature (“propaganda”, but in a positive sense) will have to be undertaken.

I am confident there is no dearth of creative ideas and solutions in Sri Lanka. What is needed is the political will and determination. If decisions and actions are not guided by emotion but by reason; if answers are applied with seriousness and patience, then the language issue, rather than being a dangerous and divisive “problem” (as it has been) can transform itself into solution and salvation. To adapt the words of Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke (1811-1892), every effort must be made to educate our masters, that is, the populace whose wishes and demands are catered for (if not pandered to) because of the fear of electoral consequence. “Esperanto” is derived from “one who hopes”.


Mrs Anne Abayasekara (a Sinhalese), having read the above, pointed out the following:

Tamils living in the South have to contend daily with Sinhalese officials and clerks in government departments who can’t communicate with them in Tamil.

At police stations, statements are written in Sinhala – without the “benefit even of an English translation (which language some Tamils understand), and the Tamil citizen is required to sign the document without any understanding of what he might be putting his signature to.” 

Nearly all government directives (e.g. from the ministries of Education and Health) are in Sinhala only.

Sign-boards at the National Hospital, Immigration and Pensions departments are in Sinhala only.

She concluded,  “If, as is boasted in newspaper articles, there are more Tamil people living in the South than in Jaffna, why isn’t their language which is, on paper, equally an official language with Sinhala, given due consideration?”

                                                    ****************************                                         ************************** 

III: Indian Embassy, Berlin:  three short films.

Though these are Indian (and not Sri Lankan) films, their themes are of relevance to Sri Lanka: (a) inter-group violence, (b) division: emotional and experiential, if not territorial and (c), the inculcation and perpetuation of ethnic animosity.

The cultural division of the Indian Embassy, Berlin, frequently has events such as classical music, dance, lectures and exhibitions. They are open to the public and entrance is free. On 24 April 2009, three short films (all have won international recognition) were screened. The first was Antargatha by Dollar Mondal. A young soldier (in civilian clothes) makes his way to a village; searches for, and finds the mother of his dead friend and fellow soldier. It is a very brief visit, the main purpose of which is to deliver to the mother a sari her son had bought for her. (Later, in a not uncommon but still poignant scene, the mother is seen gently stroking the sari so closely associated with her son.) The village consists of a few, dilapidated, houses. The villagers lead uneventful, subdued, lives; few words are spoken and, in between, there are long silences. There’s no expectation or hope of change. It is Independence Day and, in a thought-provoking contrast, school children are shown singing proud patriotic songs: emotion and assertion with little to substantiate or justify in the physical and temporal present. In the bus, on his return journey, the visitor wears his military uniform, preparatory to reporting for duty, and the possibility suggests itself that he too may meet with an early and violent end.

The second, Narmeen by Dipti Gogna, is a “Partition” film, that is, when India fragmented into West and East Pakistan in 1947, with appalling cruelty and immense loss of life. While the wealthy can live distanced, separate lives, others have various degrees of proximate living forced upon them. A young Moslem couple (he is a medical doctor) share “space” with a Sikh father and his little daughter – the girl’s mother is absent. The young Moslem woman (still almost a girl herself) befriends the child. They play games and, perhaps heightened by loneliness, grow very fond of each other. But the father, incited and “excited” by the climate of ethnic hate, sternly forbids his daughter to have any contact with Moslems. The Moslem couple, not being able to believe and accept the changed emotional mood; not wanting to leave the little they have built up, misjudge the situation and fail to escape in time to Pakistan. The husband, despite danger, goes out to attend to a patient and, ominously, does not return. A mob bursts into the house, and the wife hides herself. No doubt, she would have been soon discovered, but the Sikh father tells them that the Moslem couple had fled the previous day. The mob moves on in search of other victims to dismember. Perhaps moved by the Moslem woman’s kindness to his daughter, common humanity had reasserted itself in the father, and overcome narrow ethnic division. The film is open-ended: the chances of that marooned (not to mention, beautiful) young woman making her way to Pakistan are slim.

 Supriyo Sen’s film Wagah is about the ritual that takes place at the frontier post along the border between India and Pakistan. (The film won an award at this year’s Berlinale.  To mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the theme of the Talent Short Film Competition for 2009 was ‘My Wall’.) The ritual lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags are marked by such martial exaggeration as to be comic, rather than impressive. While parading (acting?), the soldiers on both sides vie with one another to swing their arms and legs higher; shout their commands louder and longer, and glare more fiercely than the other. It becomes “Pop” nationalism (as Mr Sen said), almost a form of self-parody and self-caricature. Meanwhile, crowds of Indian and Pakistani civilians on either side of the barrier, in holiday mood, wave their respective flags, dance, shout and act out their own version of the military ceremony. It’s all a bit of Bollywood, heightened theatricality, a picnic, a circus, a mock gladiatorial performance. As at a cricket match, there’s intense emotion but, at the end, it’s only a game: to use that English expression, “a good time was had by all.”

The film ends with three little boys acting out the ritual confrontation. Throughout time and the world over, children have played “war games”. (Perhaps, children in Sri Lanka entertain themselves with “games” between the Sinhalese army and the Tamil Tigers?) But the subtext of the film asks, “Is it entirely and only exaggeration, a bit of theatre and fun? Is it only a game?” Games and ‘make believe’ are based on reality. What is more, such ‘performances’ heighten the otherness of the “other”. Antagonism and hostility are kept alive. In this way, history is not only remembered but, most unfortunately, perpetuated. Beneath the ridiculous pomposity excellently filmed in Wagah, lies a sombre and sobering thought:  adult attitudes and action are imitated by the three children; children grow into adults, and so the violent and tragic cycle is made to continue. At the reception which followed the screening, and in response to a query of mine, the Indian Embassy representative who was in charge of the evening observed that, second to Indonesia, India has the largest number of Moslems. Then what is the cause of this conflict? As with conflict elsewhere in the world one asks, “Who are those who keep it alive, and why? Why is the poisoned chalice passed from generation to generation?”  If one may be permitted to quote from a musical, lines from “South Pacific”, based on James Michener’s book, Tales of the South Pacific, are apposite   

                                    You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

                                    You’ve got to be taught from year to year

                                    It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

                                    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught …
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.


Filed under cultural transmission, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil migration

3 responses to “Charles Sarvan reflects upon Identity, Language, Animosity

  1. Dollar Mondal

    Thank you..
    You touched me with your reviews.

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