Ranaweera reviews Leonard Woolf’s Diaries

Ariyawansa Ranaweera, in The Island, 8 February 2011 with a different title: “Woolf—A Dissenting Note”

Leonard Woolf (LW) was a multi-faceted personality—Cambridge product of the late 19th Century, civil administrator of Sri Lanka, member of the exotic Bloomsbury group, a wooer, husband of that impulsive genius, Virginia Woolf, liberal politician, writer of fiction and scholarly works on international affairs, brain behind the nascent Labour Party. These are the salient mile-stones of his long and eventful life. The major events behind them are narrated in his five volume autobiography, and also in the biography written by Victoria Glendining.

LW has come in for a lot of praise recently owing to the fact that 100 years have elapsed since his departure from Ceylon in 1911 as a civil servant. In their presentations, the contributors mainly concentrated on his career as a British civil servant from 1904-1911 in Sri Lanka. This episode of his life is presented by L.W. himself in the second volume of his autobiography titled – Growing!

LW in his book explores what his aims were when writing his autobiography — “The only point in an autobiography is to give as far as one can, in the most simple clear and truthful way, a picture, first of one’s personality, and the people whom one has known and secondly the society and the age in which one lived. To do this entails revealing as simply as possible one’s own simplicity absurdity, trivialities, nastiness.” (p 140)

Well, the question is whether he has done so? One has to read very closely, both what is said and unsaid, in that book, to identify the true nature of his enigmatic personality. Sadly, he neither reveals his true personality nor gives an adequate account of the people he had to live with during those six years; he only partially reveals the nature of the society he found himself in.

It is quite evident from his narrative that LW confines himself deliberately to the upper class people he preferred to move with. When he was deprived of their company, as was the case during his stint in Hambantota, he secluded himself from the common people and lived a life of splendid isolation. He called this way of life ‘imperialist isolation’. He never regretted such a lonely life. He considered it something he was destined to. “During my years in Hambantota, I lived a life of intense solitude. It was a social solitude. I had no social life.” (p 177) He had only the 50 bound volumes of Voltaire, which he had brought all the way from England to dispel his loneliness!

His Jaffna and Kandy stints gave him ample opportunity to move among his people. Although he had few scruples about some of his colleagues he was accepted by them as a ‘good fellow’ and was quite happy about it. If he meant in his description quoted earlier – only his countrymen by ‘the people whom one has known’ he has done ample justice to them. He wrote very colourful vignettes of Mr and Mrs Lewises, Maries, Southerns, Prices, Hugh Cliffords et al. There is a tragi-comic description of one Dutton, who appears to be inadequate in his conjugal life! He devotes four full pages to this miserable creature. He writes extensively about the exploits of his pet dog Charles, by allotting it again four full pages. Apparently its pedigree was perfect! What was life like among his people? Work in the morning, tennis in the afternoon and there was ‘our talk after the game, as we sipped whisky and soda, consisted almost entirely of platitudes, chaff and gossip.” (p 46) This was in Jaffna. Even in Kandy it was not much different. He says in Kandy the mood was ‘exclusiveness, superiority, isolation’.

There are superficial accounts on the Sinhalese and Tamils. For instance he likens the Kandyan Sinhalese to lithe jungle animals. Taken in their entirety these comments are of a very general nature. He considers these two people as broad communities and pontificates on their attitudes, beliefs and their idiosyncrasies. Pokes fun at some of them.

In the entire volume there is not a single close intimate portrayal of a Ceylonese. In the course of his career, he would have, met a good number of Ceylonese, both in his official and private capacities. But he never condescended to have a close look at them.

I can quote many examples. But I think three would do. One instance is his journey to Jaffna in a bullock cart, from Anuradhapura, since the railway track had not been laid by that time. The journey took three days. He had only one companion, besides the carter. He was the Jaffna District engineer, and was a Sinhalese. Apart from stating his nationality, there is not a single additional word about this person. Not even his name is mentioned. Surely here was a man fresh from his country, in an alien territory, going to take up his appointment, in the hierarchy of civil administration. This engineer must have been the first educated Ceylonese he met. For three days and nights he was with him, keeping him company, chatting to while away the time, eating their meals together. But, that was all that LW had to say of him! This first encounter with a ‘native’ provides an insight into LW’s attitude towards the natives.

A second incident was about one Appukutty. After a short stint at Mannar, LW contracted typhoid. In an area where hardly any medical facilities were available, it was this humble servant who saved his life. But this is the only reference, to this service in his biography. “It was my Tamil servant Appukutty who nursed me patiently and efficiently for three weeks.” Not a whit more than that!

During his comparatively short stay at Kandy, as OA of the Kachcheri, he apparently made acquaintance of an erudite monk called Rev. Gunaratana, from whom he acquired some rudimentary knowledge of Buddhist philosophy. He only reveals this bare fact, but nothing about this monk’s personality. Instead he sneers at some other monk and scoffs at popular Buddhism.

What made LW keep away from the local people? It was nothing but ‘imperialist isolation’ which was a prerequisite for governing the local populace. But it is pertinent to mention here that this characteristic was not common to all English men. There were a good number of them who associated very closely with some eminent local people and were proud to admit that they benefited from such relationships.

Like most other imperialist administrators LW thought that he was an ‘enlightened bureaucrat’. He preserved the prerogatives of the empire and gave the subject people what he thought was good for them without seeking their opinion, and their needs.

LW says: “I am always upon the side of law and order and my time in Ceylon, where I was on the government side of the fence, strengthened me in this attitude simply because law and order, if not enforced strictly, life for everyone must become poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Who benefited most from law and order? It was the imperialists.

No wonder wherever he served he was not popular because of this stiff-necked attitude. He was merely an efficient cog in the impersonal imperial machine. He himself admits this fact: “All this made me extremely unpopular among the Tamil and later among the Sinhalese, of being a strict and ruthless civil servant. (p 109 Growing)

Although LW professed that he was an anti-imperialist strangely we do not find even mild criticism of the system. He faithfully administers various taxes, collects the revenue for instance, from salterns at Hambantota, and sends it to the colonial office without a murmur. The Pearl fishery episode described in page 86, in Growing is a good example of how faithfully he served his masters. It took place at a place called Marichchakadu in Mannar. LW was one of the superintendents guarding the interests of the imperialist regime. He gleefully describes the back-breaking work done by the Arab and Tamil pearl fishery divers without any word of sympathy. He was very proud of his role, even beating the divers to submission on occasions. The pearl harvest was brought up by the virtual slaves who toiled all day at the risk of their lives. LW says one of the Arab divers drowned. He describes the funeral rites for the dead man in very exotic terms, reminding us the thesis of W. Said, who in his famous, treatise ‘Orientalism’ points out, how Westerners seek the exotic side of the Orient. The divers got only one third of the share and two thirds went to the government. LW Just mentions this kind of reprehensible exploitation in a matter-of-fact manner.

It is in the sphere of culture and civilization that LW fails miserably. Here is a scholar who read for classical Tripos at Cambridge! A broad minded liberal, he should have evinced a keen interest in human cultures. He was destined to serve in a country steeped in history, a country with an ancient civilization, a rich classical literary tradition, and a similarly outstanding folk tradition. But LW was not interested in any of them! It is clear from his account that he learnt both Sinhala and Tamil for official purposes and he could have made use of his language skills to acquaint himself with the local culture but he spurned that opportunity. Was it, indifference or disrespect? It has to be one or the other. This is in stark contradiction to his illustrious compatriots, like Hugh Neville, Parker, H.C.P. Bell, Emerson Tenant et al, who rendered an invaluable service to Sri Lankan culture by making it known to the world outside. LW must have passed Anuradhapura several times on his way to Jaffna, where he served. But, all that he got to say about the place was that it was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka.

LW served for more than three years at the heart of Magampura. He was busy combating rinderpest disease collecting salt from the salterns, going on hunting expeditions with the Boer Engelbrecht but he never so much as give a sidelong glance at the ancient civilization buried in the soil underneath his bureaucratic feet.

One unpardonable remark he made was about the Buddha’s Tooth relic. Here is an object of veneration where, the entire Buddhist community all over the world paid their homage LW would not have been unaware of this fact. What one feels from his inimical remarks is that he just scoffs at such piety and veneration by the Buddhist devotees.

This is the picture of the man that emerges from the pages of Growing. Not a humane liberal or an anti-imperialist but an out-and-out white sahib, a true product of British imperialism. The reader would be puzzled as to how one can reconcile this face of LW with the image we have of him as the author of Village in the Jungle, who felt for the downtrodden peasants leading a miserable life trapped in the jungle.

LW has an explanation for this dilemma. In fact, he has mentioned it in his Growing: “I explained in Sowing [the first volume of his autobiography] in my childhood and youth I had developed, in part instinctively and in part consciously, facade or carapace behind which I could conceal my most unpopular characteristics.” Right along during his tenure in Ceylon he seems to have been living behind this facade or carapace. To show his true feelings towards imperialism would have resulted in ostracism and discrimination among his people. Did he cast aside that mask when he wrote Village in the Jungle?


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