Diluted Sinhalaness in the Crucible of Violence

Anoma Pieris** with an introductory note in response to my invitation that is pertinent & runs thus Hello Uncle Michael, Nice to hear from you. Afraid you reach me at a time when I am overwhelmed with work, in fact that has been the case throughout the pandemic. I dont know if I have the mental space to address your text but offer instead reflection on my understanding of the theme. Best, Anoma.”


My childhood sensibilities of being Sinhala were formed in two ways which were moral and monstrous: (1) First by being educated in a language stream with specific texts like the Guttila Kavya, Saddharma Ratnavaliya, Ummaga Jatakaya, which being religious texts, educated even a nominally Christian child in a missionary college into Sinhala Buddhist forms of cultural patrimony and morality. But because it was a Christian school the lines between Sinhala and Tamil classes were lightly drawn and we came together for sports activities, and after 1983 for many more subjects, partly due to the depletion of numbers but also a deliberate strategy initiated by our principal Sirancee Gunawardana, who was committed to empathetic coexistence. (2) The second way in which being Sinhala was made evident to me was through the 1983 pogrom when for a short time I volunteered in the camp set up in our school, seeing people like myself from my social background who had been displaced, dispossessed and fearful and witnessing and being made aware of Sinhala identification as behind monstrous acts. It also made me aware that I was part of a Christian minority and that a division was being drawn within the Sinhala community because of our greater empathy for Tamil friends.

As an adult, neither caste, religion, nor ethnic identification have guided my actions, although I have become keenly aware of how Lankan social entitlements were based on identification along these lines in past generations even within the camaraderie of an educated modern consciousness. Economic liberalisation linked ethnic identification to a new field of opportunities diversifying [or severing] social mobility pathways for my generation in ways that haven’t yet been fully theorised, and because of this, earlier arguments based on the nation’s incipient developmental phases have less resonance for the children of the 1977 structural change, 1983 pogrom, late 1980s insurrection and decades of civil war, none of which is recollected with nostalgia and points to  collective repudiation of moral responsibility. After the war, building bridges between those who stayed and those who left have become part of the work of collective consciousness because each of these positions’ life expectations were distorted by forced umbilical separation and mutual loss. Displacement and inter diasporic hostility also sharpened ethnic embodiment and diasporic groups instrumentalised ethnicity in ways borrowed or learned from other diasporas’ exogenous forms of minority politicisation. 

It would be useful to understand how these structural changes have displaced and altered ethnic identification. The Japanese American diaspora have a name for each generation of migrants issei, nisei, sansei, and kibei. Issei, the first generation, could not be naturalised under US law, while the subsequent nisei and sansei generations assimilated to greater degrees, reacting to their WW2 incarceration and later fought for redress. Kibei were sent by their parents to be educated in Japan. We have similar generational differences in Lanka caused by the disruptions of our collective sensibilities due to radical structural changes and violent episodes that accumulated since the mid twentieth century. While I can understand your viewpoint on ethnicity, it is only because my parent’s sensibilities of Lanka were conveyed through an oral tradition and in history books; not through an uninterrupted continuation of it. Precarious chimera like transformation is my experience of ethnic identification, and this of course is entirely subjective to my adult life’s socio-spatial insecurity.”


** Anoma has this introductory note to her EMAIL RESPONSE to my INVITATION to present a Paper or Comment on my long essay entitled “An Exploration: Discerning How a Sinhalayā in Kandyan Times BECAME Sinhala” ……Hello Uncle Michael, Nice to hear from you. Afraid you reach me at a time when I am overwhelmed with work, in fact that has been the case throughout the pandemic. I dont know if I have the mental space to address your text but offer instead reflection on my understanding of the theme. Best, Anoma.”

** The title is my imposition. 


AN EXPLANATORY NOTE from Michael Roberts, 3 May 2021

In inviting a select body of personnel to write essays on my article … my expectation was directed towards the pre-British era. However, Anoma Pieris[1] has chosen to focus introspectively and incisively on her upbringing and her experiences in the 1980s. This focus is also pertinent and wholly in tune with the opening paragraph where Charles Abeysekera presented Newton Gunasinghe with a profound question[2] when they sat at the offices SSA offices at Kirimandala Mawatha at some point in the mid-1980s – in sad meditation at some point after the pogrom[3] of July 1983]

Spurred by her memory of experiences then, Anoma’s memo dissects her upbringing in incisive manner to clarify for us all the special circumstances which guided her thinking then …. and Now.

Let me elaborate on her familial background to underline these circumstances. Her family have been my staunch friends for decades. Her mother, Sita Mendis, was one of my ArtS batchmates at Peradeniya University and happened to be the daughter of Dr GC Mendis, one of Lanka’s pioneer historians. Dr Mendis had retired by the time I entered Peradeniya in 1957; but was residing in Kandy, so I did get to meet him then and later in Colombo. Sita went on to marry LSD Pieris – Bena to his friends. Bena Pieris is the most unique of bankers—not because of his initials; but because he has learnt Pali and Sanskrit at a pirivena and went on to collect a whole heap of pal-leaf manuscripts (recently edited selections in a coffee-table volume printed by the National Trust — see Reference below).

LSD Pieris is also a Hānnādigē Pieris in the line associated with one Jeronis Pieris. In the late 1960s I chanced upon a collection of letters written by Jeronis Pieris in the 1850s … yes, 1850s. in the hands of Herman Peries (de Fonseka Road). This find was (and is) as unique as invaluable. I proceeded to edit them with explorations of the avenues that the data yielded.[4] Bena Pieris was a central figure in the tortuous process of this production in the early-mid 1970s.  So, I was in and out of the Bena/Sita household. Sita’s historical background and interests were as central to our chats and reflections as those brought to our talk by Bena.

Ever since then, I have been in and out of the Bena-Sita household whenever I am in Colombo. I also know that in July 1983 several Tamils in the neighbourhood of their house in Longden Terrace in Thimbirigasyaya received refuge and protection during the pogrom—as indeed so many Sinhala Buddhist, Sinhala Christian, Burgher, Muslim and Malay households in the towns provided for Tamil neighbours (both known and not-known).[5]

Anoma (born 1965) was educated at Ladies College and has stressed (quite elegantly) the special circumstances therein[6] which moulded her thinking. In pursuing her architectural career,[7] moreover she married Atha Tsakonas, an architect of Greek-Australian lineage (rooted in Adelaide no less). They worked together for a while in Singapore before moving to Melbourne. I have stayed with them in Melbourne on a couple of occasions way back in the past.

Anoma’s diverse and wide-ranging academic investigations are only too evident in her curriculum vitae.[8] It was because of her article on “Avian Geographies” in the journal South Asia in 2010 that I brought her into my initial list of invitees.[9] Here, she dissects the “architectural possibilities” and historical data that could be derived from the material in fifteen Sandēsa Kāvyas (message poems) that “presented the journeys of birds across a highly contested geo-political landscape, allegorically linked to a religio-mythical universe” (her words).

Today, we profit from her decision to jettison that historical context to explore her experiences in the 1980s and thereabouts.

*** ***


Pieris, Anoma 2010 “Avian geographies an inquiry into nationalist consciousness in medieval Lanka,’ South Asia 33: 336-62.

Pieris, LSD 20 “Yantra Drawings on Palm Leaf – Sri Lanka,” https://thenationaltrust.lk/books/yantra-drawings-on-palm-leaf-sri-lanka/

Roberts, Michael 1976 Facets of Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Colombo, Hansa Publishers….. recently reprinted in 2021 as a coffee-table book: https://thuppahis.com/2020/10/21/jeronis-pieris-and-his-times/).

Roberts, Michael 2003 “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” Nēthra, 6, 199-213…. originally pubd. as a chapter in  in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood, 1994.

A Tamil man at Borella Junction who was eventually killed (info from cameraman Chandragupta Amarasinghe)


[1] Anoma Pieris’ CV is presented right at the end.

[2] Charles: “Newton, what makes you think that you are a Sinhalese?” 

[3] In the same spirit as that of Charles and Newton, I insist on marking the events of July 1983 in Sri Lanka as a “pogrom” – not just riots (see Roberts 2002).

[4] This involved not only the processes that supported the emergence of the Ceylonese capitalist landowning class and the English-educated literati; but an examination of the nationalist treatise that saw the British waste lands legislation as affecting the agriculture of the Kandyan peoples in severe ways.

[5] Needless to say, the experiences then [or those in 1958 and 1977] are deeply etched in the consciousness of Tamils who survived – though, no doubt in different measures.  To record one stark ethnographic record related to me by the late Lasath Wijesinghe when we were together in Sydney sometime back. Lasath had helped a Tamil pal in July and when the storm clouds receded, drove him to Ratmalana airport so that he could fly to Jaffna. As this Tamil thanked him and bid goodbye, he told Lasath: “you know that if you come to Jaffna, I would have to kill you.” Lasath was stunned.

[6] However, I know of one lady from Ladies College from my generation who is now a diehard Tamil chauvinist – presumably shaped by the political processes of the 1950s-to-1980s.

[7] She received her B.Sc Degree in Architecture at the University of Katubedde 1985-89.

[8] See https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/about/our-people/academic/anoma-pieris AND https://msd.unimelb.edu.au/informal-urbanism/people/members/anoma-pieris

[9] See Pieris, “Avian geographies an inquiry into nationalist consciousness in medieval Lanka,’ South Asia 33: 336-62.

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