Sinhala at Cornell under Threat of Guillotine! A Protest

Malinda Seneviratne, in The Island, 7 May 2017, where the title reads Save the Sinhala Program at Cornell University”

Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne once alleged that I never studied at Harvard University.  He said that I might have been eating hoppers in some boutique somewhere near Harvard, at best.  He was essentially claiming that I had learned nothing at Harvard.  Someone else asked me once what I had brought back from Harvard and I said ‘Harvard was too big to carry back to Sri Lanka,’ and, after a pause, added, ‘Harvard was too small too.’  Not true, strictly speaking, but I was using a broad brush and alluding to alleged superiority of certain knowledge systems, just like Deepthi.  Big or small the institution, big or small the individual, we leave something behind and we take away something too.  True of Harvard and true of Cornell University.

 Jim Gair at work  Cornell Uni

When I entered the doctoral program in Development Sociology at Cornell in 1995, I didn’t know that Sinhala was taught in that school.  The ‘Sinhala Program’ was housed in the ‘Department of Modern Languages’. Ironic, considering the history of the language; strictly speaking English should also have been located in Morrill Hall (as well), but then again, these things are largely arbitrary despite the appearance of classification logic.

I got to know about it at a function welcoming students organized by the South Asian Program of the university.  My advisor Prof Shelley Feldman introduced me to Milan Rodrigo who taught both Sinhala and Tamil at Cornell.  Perhaps at that meeting or at a subsequent function I met Professor Emeritus James W. Gair (who passed away last December), a linguist in South Asian linguistics specializing in Sinhala, as well as in Pali, Tamil and Dhivehi.  Jim was a wonderful teacher and a great human being. He was quite the Santa Clause, with his white hair and beard, twinkling eyes and a year-round smile. Jim bailed me out.

It happened in the Summer of 1997. I had obtained a Summer research grant the previous year and had decided to stay on in Sri Lanka until Fall 1997.  Before coming to Sri Lanka I had an assistantship to teach ‘Introductory Sociology’.  I had erroneously assumed that my slot would be there for me when I returned.  When I made inquiries, I was informed that they had been filled.  So I wrote to Jim Gair detailing my predicament and asking if there was some research or teaching position in the Sinhala Program.  Jim wrote back immediately saying that Milan had retired and that he had been looking for someone to teach Sinhala.  It worked for both of us.  I was able to survive the next four semesters thanks to the Sinhala Program.

Today, I heard that Cornell is planning to scrap the program, supposedly for cost-cutting reasons.  It’s a pity if this is done for several reasons.  First of all, considering the wealth of the university the Sinhala Program costs next to nothing.  There’s just one teacher, Prof Bandara Herath, and not much space is taken for his office or his classroom.  More importantly, Cornell University is the only university outside Sri Lanka offering a full curriculum in Sinhala and is the global leader in Sinhala language teaching materials.

Sinhala has been taught at Cornell for more than 50 years ever since it was established by Prof Gair, a PhD holder from Cornell and who got a DLit/Sahitya Chakravarti from Kelaniya Campus. Scholars such as Gordon H. Fairbanks, M.W. Sugathapala De Silva, W.S. Karunatillake and John Paolillo have produced rich teaching material which have been regularly upgraded by those who came later, including Bandara Herath and Liyanage Amarakeerthi.

Typically, there are three broad categories of students who enroll in the courses offered during the regular academic year as well as the Summer Program: linguists, heritage students (with Sri Lankan ancestry) and those who wish to do fieldwork in Sri Lanka.  ‘Sinhala’ is an integral part of and affirms the multi-disciplinary ethic of the university’s South Asian Program, and is moreover a program that has been excellently complemented by arguably the best South Asian collection in North America.  Cornell’s Kroch library holds a world-class collection related to Sri Lanka, including holdings in Sinhala, Tamil, Pali, and Sanskrit.

 Amarakeerthi Liyanage at a book launch

The courses provide a unique opportunity for students to acquire basic competence in the language thanks to materials developed at Cornell.   And it’s not just about picking up enough of the language to get by.  Colloquial language skills are of course emphasized during the program, but these are complemented by introduction to the writing system and colloquial reading materials.  Upon successful completion students are ready to study literary Sinhala while the more advanced students, if they so wish, can work in literary Sinhala and/or to develop more advanced colloquial skills. Doing away with the program would be an insult to and negation of considerable efforts of a fine set of academics who worked diligently and tirelessly to make all this possible.

So no, my ‘angst’ is not reducible to gratitude alone, but nevertheless I must mention another reason to be thankful.

There are two periods in my life when I read voraciously.  To put things in context, I am a slow reader and large books intimidate me to the point of avoiding them studiously.  The first was when I was detained for three weeks by the Police for suspected insurrectionary activity (successfully challenged in court) and the second was when I was a graduate student at Cornell University.  I am talking here about literature and not strictly academic ‘required reading’.  I spent many hours browsing the Kroch library collection.  I was surprised to find that even books that had been published as recent as the previous year had been purchased by the library.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a copy of a collection of short stories written by my friend Liyanage Amarakeerthi.  He had gifted me a copy of that book just before I left Sri Lanka for my graduate studies.  I still remember what he inscribed on the first page of that book which has since gone missing: “barasaara buddhimatheku vee yali mavbimata peminenna” (return to the motherland after becoming an accomplished academic).  Never happened, but that’s another story. Amarakeerthi would later teach Sinhala at Cornell, having obtained a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.   Amarakeerthi is also associated with the other story that saddens me about the possible fate of the Sinhala Program at Cornell.

It was at Cornell that I first laid my hand on Simon Navagaththegama’s celebrated novella, Sansaraaranyaye Dadayakkaraya (roughly translatable as ‘The Hunter in the Sansaric Grove’).  As part of an exercise for a class on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud taught by Prof Geoff Waite I translated a passage from that book.  It emboldened me to try my hand at translating the entire book.  I sent the first two chapters to Amarakeerthi and he urged me to complete it.   I did and it eventually won for me the H.A.I Goonetilaka Prize for translations offered by the Gratiaen Trust.  The universe has a strange logic.  A few years after I left Cornell, my friend Liyanage Amarakeerthi was hired by Cornell to teach Sinhala.

Again, I must emphasize that all this nostalgia is only of incidental worth to the story here.  There’s a fine program at Cornell that is in danger of being scrapped.  The children of many expatriate Sri Lankans have benefited from the program, either by enrolling in the various courses or by access to the excellent course material developed by those who ran the program over the past 50 years.

There’s a fine program at Cornell that is in danger of being scrapped.  As a former teacher, a former student of sorts (of Jim Gair), a beneficiary in multiple ways, and someone who is cognizant of the worth of that program, I can but urge the relevant authorities to revisit the proposal.

Yes, there’s a lot I brought back from Cornell and there’s stuff I’ve left behind, but all that is incidental, I must repeat.  There are more important and compelling reasons to resist this move.

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