Sanga and Sangfroid

Eymard de Silva Wijeyeratne, in the Island, 14 July 2011

“And, indeed, our intellectual as well as our ethical education is corrupt. It is perverted by the admiration of brilliance, of the way things are said, which takes the place of a critical appreciation of the things that are said (and the things that are done). It is perverted by the romantic idea of the splendour of the stage of History on which we are the actors. We are educated to act with an eye to the gallery”. (Karl Popper – ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’. Vol. II, ‘The High Tide of Prophecy’, Chapter 25 – ‘Has History Any Meaning?’)

I was wary of writing this piece, because it would appear trivial when set against the superbIslandeditorials and the contributions made by others on the same subject. Even today’s (11th July 2011) editorial on Peter Roebuck’s shot-gun blast atSri Lankadeserves congratulations.

The introductory paragraph may create an impression in the minds of readers that my intention is to devalue and dismiss Kumar Sangakkara’s ‘Cowdrey Lecture at Lords’. On the contrary, I use it to highlight its value in the context of the contemporary social scene in Sri Lanka, as it relates to governance, cricket administration, the destruction caused by terrorism and the struggle to get back to a life of peace and tranquillity. The following extracts from his speech, which indicate the suffering endured by the Sri Lankan people, are important because of the international audience that listened to it. I will quote a short passage from his speech to illustrate its value.

“The Sri Lankan government was fighting the terrorist LTTE in a war that would drag our country’s development back by decades. This war affected the whole of our land in different ways. Families from the lower economic classes, sacrificed their young men and women by thousands in the serviceSri Lanka’s military. EvenColombo, a capital city that seemed far removed from the war’s frontline, was under siege by the terrorists using powerful vehicle and suicide bombs. Bombs in public places targeting both civilians and political targets became an accepted risk of daily life in Sri Lanka. Parents travelling to work by bus would split up and travel separately so that if one of them died the other will return to tend to the family. Each and every Sri Lankan was touched by the brutality of that conflict……The war is now over.Sri Lankalooks forward to a new future of peace and prosperity”.

My sincere hope is that Sangakkara’s speech will help people who live beyond our borders to realise that xenophobia is not a national trait. They have been provoked beyond endurance by men like David Miliband, Alistair Burt and others, whose petty motives have been fuelled by a coterie that has immiserated their own people. What Sangakkara has highlighted is that self-criticism, whether individual, collective, or national cannot be extended to the point of selling one’s birthright for a mess of pottage. If I may put it in another way, Sri Lankans have a right and duty to criticise their own shortcomings without inviting foreign cheer leaders and interventionists.

Sangakkara has also given a brief history ofSri Lanka, its natural beauty, the genial nature of its people and the life-preserving nature of its cultural traditions. The gist of his message is that playing cricket is not equivalent to playing ball with powers that be. He did not attempt to bask in the brilliance of the way things are said, by using strings of epigrams and other vain literary devices. The language he used was simple and the sentences short. His manner, though suggestive of a man to the manor born, was nicely nuanced to reflect the lifestyle of an educated Sri Lankan family that had not lost its national identity by trying to ape the contrived mechanics of a stiff upper lip. This aspect of his speech acquired special significance in a context, where the use of English inSri Lankahas been trivially reduced to a hybrid life-skill called “English Our Way”. The message inherent in his address was thatSri Lankahas no need to slavishly absorb the superficial manor-isms pedalled by NGOs.

A few writers have referred to his critical comments on SLC’s shocking administration of the game, as a matter of washing dirty linen in public. The use of that idiomatic expression is not apt, because the dirty linen was on display in the public realm long before it washed. My only regret is that Sangakkara chose to give up the captaincy in haste and thereby ruptured the adhesive quality that binds a team. It is a pity that he, as well as, SLC did not realise that the combination of playing the wild version of cricket (T20) and that too on Asian tracks, was not a sound preparation for playing Test and ODI cricket inEngland.

The Ministry of Sports has been entrusted with the task of examining his speech to see whether there are grounds for taking disciplinary action against him. The fact that he is a contract player is only relevant to the conditions that apply to his role in the team as player and captain. Even if there was no written contract, his inclusion in the team would have depended only on his successful performance as player and captain and his disciplined and ethical conduct on and off the field. The official response to his speech is somewhat like that of a timber merchant, who cancelled a contract he had signed with a building contractor, on the grounds that the latter had humiliated him by saying “You lumbering idiot you cannot see the wood for the trees”. The ‘doctrine of necessity’ as it applies to situations of ‘enough is enough’, has to be taken into consideration in making a judgement on this matter. Any punitive action against Sangakkara will only serve to have an adverse impact on cricket inSri Lanka. Michael Holding has remarked that the standard of West Indian cricket too has declined due to ineffective administration. The same ailment appears to afflict cricket inPakistan.

Sangakkara’s reference to Arjuna Ranatunge as being a messiah, who was sent to re-order the social features of the game of cricket inSri Lanka, is a matter for meditation. Arjuna was responsible for providing opportunities for boys from the backwoods to play for the national team. His defence and support of Muralitharan too, were of epic proportions. There is one other lesson that we can draw from his conduct and that is “Money is the root of all evil”.

It is a poetic coincidence that that Dr. Liam Fox, MP and Secretary of State for Defence of theUnited Kingdomdelivered the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture titled “War of the Invisible Enemy” on 9th July 2011; just 5 days after Sangakkara delivered his speech at Lords. In this speech he says, “He (Lakshman Kadirgamar) would have undoubtedly welcomed the defeat of the LTTE, one of the most brutal terrorist organisations the world has seen”. Yet, (my interpolation) “He would have expected as I do, allegations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both sides at the end of the conflict to be taken seriously, to be fully investigated and any individuals responsible to be brought fully to account”. This is a clever piece of juxtaposing feigned outrage (most brutal terrorist organisation) and dainty understatement (by both sides). Why do we need to investigate both sides when one side can no longer be held responsible, because its members are no longer in the land of the living? Understatement is a delightful British delicacy that can be vividly represented by what an elderly woman with a Victorian cast of mind, would say: “Is the collateral killing of a few civilians inIraqtoo high a price to pay for creating a better world for our children”? The net effect of this oration is that of callingSri Lankathe ‘The Invisible Enemy’: too tiny to be seen and not of much ado. At the other end, he uses imperial hyperbole when he says, “Sri Lankahas a role to play in maintaining the international stability and security that, as an open trading nation,Britain’s national interest requires”. The vulgar displays of naked bodies shown on Channel 4, which is a mark of disrespect for the dead, are certainly meant to serveBritain’s national interest. Egad and by Jove, Sir, our only interest to live in peace, within the confines of the land of our birth.

The people ofSri Lankahave suffered much due to terrorist activity and the Tsunami. They are now being diverted away from the urgent task of reconciliation because they are forced to spend time and energy in defending themselves from attack by foreign agencies. Cricket is like a tonic that helps to boost the spirit of our people. It does more than a cup of tea, which according to tradition, cheers but does not inebriate. While extending my warm wishes to Sangakkara I can only say, ‘keep the game alive’.

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Filed under citizen journalism, cultural transmission, historical interpretation, life stories, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

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