I don’t remember hearing Sinhala spoken in the Jaffna of my childhood, but I’m over 75 and no longer trust my memory: perhaps, Sinhala was spoken here and there. Be that as it may, it’s not relevant to what follows. We shifted to Colombo when I was 14, and I was almost immediately sent to St Thomas’, Gurutalawa (see, “Recollections of Gurutalawa”, Sunday Island, 5 July 2009). The context in which the word para was used at boarding-school, in Colombo and elsewhere; the accompanying tone of voice and facial expression, all indicated contempt, dismissal and rejection. Para was linked to Parayā (low caste) and that sufficed to convey meaning to me. The first time this particular linguistic stone was thrown at me was at Gurutalawa.
It was reading Michael Roberts several years ago that brought me to another, and far more significant, meaning of para, namely, “foreign”. I think even those who recently have expressed disappointment with him will admit that few can match the reading and knowledge Michael has on Sri Lankan history and anthropology. (I feel free to use the familiar “Michael”. I met him even before we both entered the University of Peradeniya in 1957.)
In his Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism, Michael writes that the term Para has multiple meanings including pita (foreign). Pita and para become synonymous, he comments. The conventional sense of the word throughout the middle period and into the twentieth century has been that of “other,” “alien” or “enemy.” Though disparaging, especially in modern times, para was not necessarily so in the classical literature and could refer to “others” in a neutral sense. Nevertheless, the context of usage in the Cûlavamsa of the early middle period, where it refers to Māgha and his destructive activities, and in the hatan kavi of the seventeenth century and onwards, where it refers to the Portuguese (who are often called parangi), points to a pejorative import in such politicised expressions.
In his Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers (my sincere thanks to Mr Nanda Godage for taking the trouble to post a copy to me) Michael Roberts writes: “The word para has a lineage that goes back to medieval times and carries numerous meanings in literary texts… In more recent centuries, however, the common meanings have been (i) enemy or saturā and (ii) other or others, in the sense of “foreigner”… para can be prefixed, as an adjective in expression of contempt, to hambayā (Moor), demalā (Tamil) and lansiyā” (page 10).
If the foreign is seen as a threat to Sinhalese purity of “race” and culture; to innate and intrinsic Sinhalese righteousness and stability, then it helps to explain not only contempt and hatred towards those seen as foreign (in effect, everyone who is non-Sinhalese) but the extreme violence used to preserve what is believed to be pristine and pure and, therefore, sacred. Michael: the Sinhalese have a conviction that they are a chosen people, and this leads to an emphasis on purity (page 14). The distinction is between the “Sinhala” and the “a-Sinhala”, the non-Sinhala (page 19). Evil, and the disorder and fragmentation it brings, is not within but comes from outside, from what is foreign, para (page 20).
By the way, something Michael notes ( page 20) shows yet again that “race” can be a far stronger emotion and force than religion: “Sinhala Catholics… participated actively in the populist or the sponsored violence against Tamils in 1977, 1981 and 1983” – I may add, irrespective of whether these Tamil victims were Christian or not.
Finally, as Paul Caspersz ironically commented (see, Sarvan, Sunday Leader, 14 February 2010), if one insists on the label “Indian Tamils”, then one should also speak of “Indian Sinhalese”: polluted or pure, the roots are the same.