Book Reviews

The author’s endeavour in writing this book – ‘Governance, Heritage and Sustainability’  has been clearly ,to enlarge the concept of Governance as ordinarily understood, by encompassing within its wider scope, Heritage and Sustainability, thereby further humanizing it by bringing it in line with our traditional religio-cultural values and  civilizational ethos. Governance in ancient Sri Lanka was for the most part, strongly anchored to Buddhist ethical values. Governance, Heritage and Sustainability had an abiding symbiotic affinity, almost amounting to a natural order of things. This holistic concept of governance helped in facilitating a close interaction between the rulers and the subjects, by reinforcing and sanctifying the duties and the obligations each had to the other. This is what enabled the ancient k ings to rule over their subjects righteously and to plan and build the spiritually enobling enormous dagabas rivaling the pyramids and the vast reservoirs and their intricate irrigation networks which are considered technological marvels, even today.

These monumental constructions were emblematic of the economic prosperity of the country at the time. Many countries are now becoming increasingly cognizant of this closely integrated development approach and are consciously incorporating it in their development strategies. The concept of Governance is being bandied about so much nowadays, that it has acquired the quality of a trite and cliché tic phrase. It is so loosely spoken of that it has come to mean different things to different people, depending on an individual’s perception of  how the political agenda of a particular political dispensation or regime, impacts on or affects the  common weal of the people. This is perhaps what made the poet Alexander Pope express his own personal view on the subject, in the now famous lines “For forms of Government let fools contest, whatever administered best, is best”! Good Governance is at best ,an ideal like the ideals that are posited in Plato’s ‘World of Forms’, with the real –life proximate equivalents, falling far short of the ideal. There is also the adage ‘people deserve the government they get’, the implication here being that people must be circumspect in electing  the right persons as their  representatives to governing bodies. This seems hardly possible nowadays with the subtle and sophisticated machinations powerful lobbies and vested interests increasingly resort to,  with the financial resources they possess and the control they exercise over the mainstream media,the economy and the political process itself.

It could be said that Democracy, which saw  its first seminal impulses in the City States of ancient Greece, witnessed its re-birth much later in Europe and America, during the Enlightenment with the institutionalization  of representative democratic government in formalized  Bills of Rights, Constitutions and Peoples’ Charters. It is indeed an irony to find the philosophical thinker Aristotle making the remarkably percipient observation as far back as 300 BC that “ all government, no matter what its name or form, incorporates the means by which the privileged few, arrange the distribution of law and property, for the less fortunate many”!

This somewhat cynical and arresting observation made with amazing acuity and foresight by one of the greatest philosophical minds the world has known, would make one closely examine  the current disturbing trends in certain countries claiming to be the standard bearers of the democratic credo. The US would indeed be a case in point where the fundamental principles of representative democratic government viz. Equity and Social Justice, grandly enshrined in the US Constitution,  are observed very much in the breach today  by the democratically elected peoples’ representatives. There has been over time, a stealthy and almost imperceptible encroachment of the fundamental  prerequisites of basic democratic freedoms by a miniscule Corporatist plutocracy that has resulted in their progressive enervation and erosion leaving the vast majority in a state of ennui and helplessness! This may perhaps be explained by taking a cue from Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory and adding a new dimension to it.  Despite all the fanfare of America being the paragon of Equality ,Social Justice and other much touted democratic freedoms, the ground realities are vastly different as the miniscule power elite controlling the commanding heights of the economy, wield all the power and authority necessary to call the shots! The new materialist credo of Economic Darwinism in vogue in the US makes a sad mockery of Democracy, by giving free rein to individuals to pursue their rapacious, acquisitive interests. Freedom is given a new definition by calling it “the liberty to pursue one’s individual interest without any concern for the interests of others in the community”. The Greeks called this insatiable appetite for more of everything- ‘Pleroxia’.

The American Presidential electoral process is indeed a uniquely complicated one .Wije has devoted a full chapter in his book towards enlightening readers of its involuted arcana. No wonder there is apathy and indifference among American voters to cast their vote during elections. They have perhaps realized by now, that there is little  purpose served in doing so, as it would matter precious little which candidate wins as the policies ,despite the extravagant pre –election promises made  ,will remain unfulfilled and virtually unchanged. People have been conditioned to believe that what is offered to them by successive political dispensations controlled by the same powerful small  elitist group of Corporatists, is the best they could possible achieve. The American electoral process controlled and corrupted as it is by huge campaign funding, gives the people only an illusion of change, where such a change at the Presidential level does occur. The vast majority of the people live in a delusional twilight zone of political half –reality. Even the principal arms of democratic governance, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary which are mandated under the Constitution to exercise the necessary checks and balances, thereby preventing excesses and ensuring Equity and Justice, are tragically held captive by these wealthy and powerful financial interests. One cannot expect such a fatally flawed and blatantly abused system of governance to continue indefinitely, with smug insouciance,  under the incongruous banner of Democracy . It has to lead inexorably to a sudden implosion and a collapse under it own insupportable weight!  These unsavoury developments would even make one seriously re-examine and seek some validation of the inevitability of  a now forgotten, dated, historical process by re-visiting the Marxian axiom of  the Permanent Revolution! One cannot wholly discard such theories as they are based firmly on basic human, instinctual and emotional proclivities.  There have been sporadic abortive public protests across the United States symptomatic of the larger public disenchantment with  these unabashed expressions of runaway capitalism which were however, quickly suppressed by the establishment alleging that they were ad hoc,  anti –democratic demonstrations organized by disruptive elements.  American democracy ,one could say, has come full circle by reaching its neo capitalist apogee. Joseph Stiglitz has in this regard,tellingly remarked ‘Its too late for the American dream to be restored’.. Now that the American Presidential Election is behind us the vain boast is being hollered by the victors about  America being the greatest nation on earth as well as  the most powerful one,militarily. In practical terms all this would translate into a new utilitarian doctrine of the greatest happiness and well being of a small powerful oligarchy at the expense of the large majority and the continued bullying of smaller nations by this superhero and his cohorts.

One could even say that dictators, for that matter, may perhaps be genuinely convinced in their own minds, that they know what is best for the people over whom they rule . Some of them may even win the support and adulation of the people by their benign and populist welfare programmes and the unremitting resolve they show in taking the country on a rapid developmental trajectory.  In this regard, two remarkable South East Asian leaders immediately come to mind- Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia. They were indeed exceptionable examples, from a Western point of view, because of the authoritarian nature of their regimes. The spectacular spurts in development they personally engineered ,transformed these two countries over a relatively short period of two or three decades, from veritable back waters into vibrant economies that soon became the developmental model for  other Asian countries, as much as they became the envy of even developed countries. The architects of this almost miraculous transformation were able to turn their one time backward economies round, in quantum leaps, through the imposition of draconian legislative measures transforming thereby, these notoriously sleazy societies  into highly regimented ones where strict discipline and law and order, were heavily underscored. Both leaders had to contend with a heterogeneous caboodle of rival ethnic groups which were constantly working at cross purposes and disrupting development initiatives. Such strict regimentation at times, impinged even on the individual liberties of the people of these countries which quickly drew howls of protest from the champions of the democratic tradition in the West. It should be said however, that these two outstanding pathfinders did not abandon the elective democratic principle, but worked within it, despite certain necessary transgressions of certain democratic norms. Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarianism was however vindicated  in good measure and Mahathir’s to a lesser degree perhaps ,by the spectacular successes they were able to achieve in realizing their cherished end-objectives in rapidly transforming underdeveloped ,corrupt societies into highly developed economies. Lee Kuan Yew’s outstanding success in particular, in making Singapore the splendid exemplar of a vibrant modern City State in the teeth of vituperative condemnation of the Western flag bearers of Democracy,was indeed an unsurpassed achievement. Now that the end objectives of these leaders have been achieved, both Singapore and Malaysia are making their way back steadily into being true democracies in every sense of what is implied by that mode of governance.

I have cited these two unique examples of intrepid leadership as they merit close study by the emergent Asian and African developing countries in modeling their own ‘fast track’ developmental endeavours.These two leaders had a clear understanding of the genius and the innate potential of their local people when they took the bold initiative of moving away from the ‘soft’ and tardy, incremental democratic developmental process, opting instead for a rapid and well planned ‘fast track’ development programme, reinforced by the  tough , regimented and  disciplined enforcement of  the law by the  regime. These measures were at times harsh and even draconian but were carried out with single minded resoluteness and determination, always  having the laudable end- objectives in view. Both leaders stand vindicated by the spectacular successes they achieved in their bold and somewhat unconventional transformative endeavours. However, it must be emphatically stated that both these leaders showed stirling leadership qualities of high altruism, personal integrity and incorruptibility and selflessness which are indispensable prerequisites  in leaders pursuing such worthy  development goals.

What then, one might ask, about the countries following the Marxist ideology?  They seem to have lost faith in the cyclical imperative of ‘The Permanent Revolution’, so passionately believed in both by Leon Trotsky and Lenin. Some have on the other hand, become intenselypragmatic by moving away from the iron rice bowl mentality and by encouraging free enterprise and open market operations within  their economies as well as with the outside world. China offers the best success story in this regard in its earnest endeavour to virtually pasteurize its Marxist ideology by jettisoning some of the crippling features of the Marxist ideological straight jacket. Such realism has earned China material gains in ample measure and enabled it to move up to great power status, in next to no time. Its meteoric rise is ironically reflected so ostentatiously in its generous quota of billionaires, to boot! Russia has followed suit and despite its truncated Empire, is well on its way to becoming a free wheeling, free enterprise economy with a plethora of billionaires.Maybe these developments portend a directional ideological shift to participatory democracy. Again, maybe these countries, ravished as they seem to be by the new culture of affluence will go the whole hog by ironically falling into the trap of unbridled, runaway  capitalism and relearn the hard way the validity of the Marxian principle of the Permanent Revolution they had opted to move away from! However, China, India and  Russia must address themselves urgently and purposefully to alleviating the widespread poverty that exists in the geographically dispersed outlying regions of their vast countries. Thankfully, these nuclear armed superpowers are an effective deterrent and a counterpoise to the nuclear armed super powers of the West. This somewhat indelicate ‘balance of terror’ would help immensely in giving the vulnerable smaller developing nations the  much needed protection from the needling and bullying the West revels in inflicting on them, with their peremptory, high-minded  dictates.

In the final analysis,I dare say that there does not seem to be any viable alternative to the time tested democratic, representative and participatory mode governance, provided it is not subverted by designing powerful lobbies and interests to further their self –serving ends. What people desire most in a country like Sri Lanka, would be peace and security,equity and social justice  and a reasonable standard of living which would enable them to live in quiet dignity. Further, Sri Lanka should scrupulously avoid the temptation to accelerate economic growth by joining the coterie of rich plunderers in the suicidal abuse of the environment. As Wije advocates in his book, we in Sri Lanka should tread a judicious middle path by following a sustainable development strategy.

In lighter vein I must say here, that it is most unlikely that Armageddon will come in December as forecast by the Mayans, in the form of an earth shattering cataclysm.  At the rate the earth’s finite resources are being ruthlessly plundered, it is more likely that the end will come in the form of a slow long drawn out and painful death, for planet earth. As expressed so succinctly by T.S Eliot in his poem appropriately titled ‘The Hollow Men’-

“This is the way the world ends,

Not with a bang but with a whimper’’!

LOCATIONS OF BUDDHISM. Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka, by Anne M. Blackburn, C olombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2010.
Reviewed by ASOKA DE ZOYSA, “Beyond Olcott and Dharmapala: Coming to terms with Buddhist ritual and tradition” review essay in Polity, vol 6, nos 3 and 4.

Post War Sri Lanka seems to be experiencing a Buddhist Revival: Mass Pinkamas are held at historical temples, where thousands lamps are lit and thousands of trays of jasmine are offered to the Buddha. Mass ordinations of young boys are frequent. One cannot ignore the influx of young monks from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia in the Buddhist monasteries. More and more universities and academies offer degrees and diploma courses in Buddhist Studies attracting monks and students from the Asian region.  New disciplines such as Buddhist Psychotherapy keep emerging. Preaching in verse (kavi bana) and recitation of Paritta texts (pirith) is available on CDs sold side by side with Sinhala pop songs. Buddhist TV channels and radio stations bring spirituality to the living room. Frequent exhibitions of relics too can be added to the list. The Sri Lankan pilgrim’s itinerary too has expanded to the north and the east visiting new sites re-claimed for Buddhists in former LTTE occupied areas to witness  miracles at these sites.  A critical edition of the Tripitaka using texts from Myanmar, Thailand and Laos enhancing digital technology are some novel features. Can such a surge in religious activity be seen as a Buddhist Revival? If not, when was the last Buddhist Revival ?

Anne C. Blackburn’s latest book Locations of Buddhism (2010) harks back to a period in the early colonial days when Buddhist monks active in the pirivenas and gentry from the Sabaragamuwa province and entrepreneurs in the upcoming towns and cities of the south and the south-western province launched many projects to nurture Buddhist scholarship and address the missionary activity of the British. Much has been written about Colonel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala. Very little information is available about the projects launched by  Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala (1827–1911). The book is published at a time when Buddhists of Sri Lanka living in a multi-religious background articulate grievances and challenges to be faced in a new millennium of globalized politics and competitive entrepreneurship.

What most fascinates me is the novel style of Blackburn’s book. The Preface takes the reader back to the 1820s when “a well connected, high-caste Buddhist family had a horoscope made for the newest addition to their family, a son” (Blackburn 2010 p. ix). The biography of this scholar monk is not narrated in the typical linear way, which often is boring to the reader.  It is broken from time to time, when the author takes the reader back to the society and politics of the earliest years of British rule. Already in the Preface Blackburn very swiftly sketches the growing economy of the coastal belt around the Galle harbor and the Christian presence and missionary activities in the island. New ritual space was necessary for Buddhists moving into the new cities and towns to meet these challenges.  As such, the functions of the Buddhist temple had to be redefined. Above all since 1815, when the British took over the control of the entire county, Buddhism lost the royal patronage. Buddhist monks were divided into three fraternities: “Siyam”, “Amarapura” and much later “Ramannya”. According to Blackburn’s study, one of the key interests of Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala was to unite the Sangha (Buddhist clergy) under royal patronage, through his networks in south-east-Asia; an aspect many researchers have overlooked. Visiting some temples in Akurässa, Hikkaduva, Kathaluva, Dodanduva, Ginivella, Ambalangoda and Kalutara, I am often confronted with the nagging question of the sponsorship of the temples. The vast expanse of  interesting murals in the viharas, elaborate preaching halls with beautifully carved preaching thrones, libraries with comprehensive collections of palm leaf manuscripts indicate that these coastal areas were a hive of Buddhist activity in the mid 19th century. After reading Blackburn’s study, I feel that the populist notion that Buddhist consciousness was revived when the printed information of the Buddhist-Christian debates between the years 1873 to 1877 reached the theosophist Colonel Olcott in the United States,  needs rethinking.

Blackburn traces Buddhist scholarship to the years beyond Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala: The names Mohottivatte Gunananda,  Ratmalane Dhammaloka and his pupil Ratmalane Dharmarama,  Valane Siddhartha, Vaskaduve Sri Subhuti and Battaramulle Sri Subhuti, may show a somewhat shaky but unbroken tradition going back to the great revival movement under King Kirti Sri Rajasimha and Ven. Välivita Saranamkara of the mid-eighteenth century.

The reader in the first chapter is transported to 1868 when “an edited manuscript of the Vinaya (a collection of Pali texts on monastic life and discipline) was brought in state from the Sabaragamuwa town of Pelmadulla downriver to Kalutara on the southern coast and, then through a series of southern towns and villages  to the major port city of Galle.” (Blackburn 2010 p. 1). One of the chief editors of the editorial council and Sangiti (recitation of canonical texts to establish consensus regarding variants in reading) was Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala, who was officiating as the chief monk of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) since 1867.  Sixty monks had been invited to the formidable project to edit the Pali texts of the Tripitaka, using Siamese and Burmese manuscripts to Pelmadulla. Sponsorship for this historical project was borne by the radala– leaders of the Sabaragamuwa region.  Iddamalgoda, the chief custodian (Basnayaka nilame) of the Maha Saman Devalaya in Ratnapura took over the patronage previously held by the king.

Blackburn then shows the importance of this project in the backdrop of the Buddhist-Christian tensions of the late 1840s and the intra-monastic Vinaya-debates between the established Siyam Nikaya and the newly ordained monks of the Amarapura Nikaya. Her source material for these chapters vary from Tissa Kariyawasam’s Ph. D dissertation (1973), Ven. Yagirigala Prajnananda’s two volumes written in Sinhala on Ven. Sri Sumangala (1947) and published writings of Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala.

Blackburn gives the title Locations of Buddhism to her book. One may understand the locations as geographical locations, Pelmadulla, Hikkaduva, Ratmalana, to Kotahena, Maligakanda where Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala establishes the Vidyodaya Pirivena in 1873. What is most fascinating to read are the names of dayakayas associated with each location which may hint on their own political and agendas in entrepreneurship.  Reading between the lines, one may be able to answer question why these towns on the coastal belt or locations in Colombo came to be sites of resistance. For example, it is not a coincidence that the Vidyodaya Pirivena is located vis-à-vis to the Maha Bodhi Society, surrounded by Sinhala printing establishments in Maligakanda, close to the location where the Ananda College stands today in Maradana.

The middle chapters bring in the new agents of the 1880s and 1890s in the common quest of addressing the challenges posed by colonial rule and Christianity: Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and Don David Hevavitarana (later known as Anagarika Dharmapala) are introduced here. Blackburn first compares how Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala and Olcott understood “Buddhism”, reviewing the agendas of the Ven. Sri Sumangala’s Vidyodaya  Pirivena and  Olcott’s Buddhist Theosophical Society. She then moves to printing activities of the newly established presses publishing two news papers: Sarasavi Sandaräsa of Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala and the “Theosophist” of Olcott. The spoken word at the temple is now available on print, using Sinhala typography.

For the section on Anagarika Dharmapala,  Blackburn draws much from the seminal work of Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere (1988), Obeyesekere (1972 and 1992), Michael Roberts (1997 and 2000) and Alain Trevithick (2007). Blackburn’s stance on Anagarika Dharmapala is interesting: She introduces him: “D. D. Hevavitarana was sixteen when Olcott and his colleague Helena Blavatsky first arrived in Lanka”, “When Olcott and Blavatsky first reached Lanka, young Hevavitarana was at loose ends”…  “he worked as a clerk for the Department of Public instruction”…  “he offered translation services to Olcott, became involved as an editor of Sarasavi Sandaräsa”. In the next section she narrates: “In 1891 after a transformative visit to Bodh Gaya (…) Hevavitarana, (who in 1883 had adopted the heroic and optimistic name “Dharmapala” or “Dharma Guardian”) became consumed by the prospect of bringing Bodh Gaya under Buddhist control and protection (Blackburn p.116-118). She very clearly shows the emerging new generation of activism, which maybe was less engaged in promoting Sinhala education and Buddhist scholarship but following an agenda to defend. Disputes between Ven. Sumangala, Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala are spelled out well, although the Hevavitarana family regarded Ven. Sumangala as the “family priest”.

The fifth chapter is titled Sasana and Empire.  “In April 1897, the Siamese King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) reached Sri Lanka on a state visit en route to Europe. From the perspective of Hikkaduve and many other Lankan Buddhists leaders it was a celebrated opportunity, a chance to make direct personal contact with the only Buddhist monarch, who had retained a degree of independence in the face of French and British imperial designs  on southern Asia” (Blackburn 2010 p. 143). The opening of this new chapter explains its objective. Citing Pali and Sinhala correspondence and newspaper articles, it brings in new material to the research of the revival movement of the fin de siècle.

The theoretical background which academics generally insist should be placed in the beginning of the research, emerges finally, only in the concluding sixth chapter. This does not mean that Blackburn, working on the lines of historical sociology and hermeneutics, does not value the importance of what academic supervisors call “theoretical underpinning”.  She narrates a biography with a strong conviction of what she wishes to project through her study, may be in a more “inductive way”.

In the sixth and concluding chapter called Horizons Not Washed Away she locates her  study of “Colonialism and Modernity” in the context of the body of research available in authoritative writings: Kithsiri Malalgoda (1976), Richard Gombrich (1988), Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere (1988) and George Bond (1988) and the earlier lesser cited works of C.D.S. Siriwardana (1966), Smith (1966), Swearer (1970) and Wriggins (1960) representing one school of thought which saw a shift in Buddhist activity from “monastic to lay authority” and another strand under the key words “modernization” and “modernity” emphasized in the works of Ames (1963 and 1973) and  Bechert (1963 and 1973). Quoting Obeyesekere’s  research of 1972 Blackburn sees the term “Protestant Buddhism” having  two meanings: (a) “Its norms and organizational forms are historical derivatives from Protestant Christianity (b) more importantly, from the more contemporary point of view, it is a protest against Christianity and its associated Western political dominance prior to independence” (Blackburn 2010 p. 198). She further comments: “The terms Buddhist Revival, Protestant Buddhism and Buddhist Modernism have now long been  used as comprehensive terms with which to describe the character of late nineteenth – and early twentieth-century Buddhism in Sri Lanka, despite periodic attempts by historians of religion and colonialism, and critical theorists of colonialism, to further nuance claims made in the name of Protestant Buddhism … The preceding chapters make very clear that, even in central urban Buddhist institutions and associations linked to new forms of lay Buddhist participation, we do not see a substantial decline of monastic power and prestige, but rather continued collaboration between laypeople and monastics”(Blackburn 2010 p.199-200 emphasis added ).

The style of this chapter is compact and requires more than one concentrated reading. Thankfully it is not placed at the beginning. The reader may turn the   pages back to the beginning and look for details in the first five chapters.  Blackburn’s arguments inspire one to re-read the works she cites. Her Locations of Buddhism are centered around the Pirivena– Monasteries, Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. As such, she does not force herself  to view Ven. Sumangala’s engagements in “traditional” and “enlightened” categories or in “things pertaining to salvation” and “things of this world”, as Gombrich and Obeyesekere named them in 1988. Above all, Blackburn does not overlook the ritual significance of important temples nor juxtapose Buddhist scholarship and ritual practice of Buddhists to carve out a “pure Buddhism” that appeals to the West.

This book shows the networks operating before the advent of “Protestant Buddhism” moving from the much hackneyed track followed by the researchers that opens with the Buddhist-Christian confrontation of the 1870s. For the reader acquainted with writings of the 1970s, Blackburn’s book poses many questions, inviting the reader to look beyond Olcott and Dharmapala and also to review Buddhist revival movements from a more broad-based and multidisciplinary standpoint. This means taking endeavours of monks in the field of education, preaching, networking with south-Asian monks and royalty into consideration.  It also incorporates the agendas of local urban entrepreneurs who sponsored the projects, Kandyan and Sabaragamuwa  aristocracy taking up the role of patrons and usage of modern media of that time, like the printing press, into the study. Much of this information is available in Sinhala recorded in the “Charitapadanas” or eulogies written on Buddhist monks and newspapers of that time. To me, Locations of Buddhism has shown that the endeavours of Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala were not to “revive” but energize Buddhism receiving less patronage from the colonial ruler.  After a lapse of over twenty years, a deep study of Buddhism of the colonial day based on texts has finally emerged, which can show methodologies for new research on Buddhist activism of post war Sri Lanka.


WRITING THAT CONQUERS. Re-reading Knox’s Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon , by Sarojini Jayawickrama (Colombo, Social
Scientists’ Association, 2004, reprinted) – reviewed by Anoma Pieris, in Polity, vol. 6, Nos 3/4.

Our knowledge of the history of our country is necessarily biased, due to our general lack of self-reflexivity and the selectivity of our national memory.  My own understanding of history is gleaned from nationalist text books, which are reproduced in the ideological spirit of the Mahawamsa and bent on glorifying Sinhala kingship; or from its polar opposite: colonial travel narratives that cast our people as pagans that needed to be civilized.  Textuality, i.e. the written word, predominates and in both cases is given an authority, which in each case is grossly over-rated.  Just as the Mahawamsa has as its objective the legitimization of dynastic kingship, the colonial narrative presents the colonizer as saving the native population from the tyrannical rule of those very kings.  Much of the history of resistance to British occupation can be found in historical novels such as The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay by Elmo Jayawardene (2004), who narrates the treacheries and resistance to the British surrounding the fall of Kandy.  Understandably, the bulk of this work concentrates on the Kandyan period, a period charged with political strife and territorial contestation, as European powers competed for space and commercial monopolies over our specific geography.

The anthropologist Michael Roberts in Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period (2004) describes how both Sinhalese and Buddhist sensibilities were being shaped and projected both politically and culturally during the Kandyan period, differentiating the Sinhalese from both colonizers and peoples of other races.  Sarojini Jayawickrama’s book Writing that Conquers adds to this discussion of the Kandyan period as yet another contribution to its history.  Her research re-reads An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon by Robert Knox following the scrutiny of textual histories provoked by postcolonial studies.  If we were to analyze the politics of the colonial text, would we draw quite different conclusions about our history? she asks.

Our knowledge of the Kandyan kingdom during the Seventeenth Century at a quotidian level and the details of the rule of Raja Sinha the Second are acquired from what has become a seminal text: Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon.  The book isan anthropological narrative by an English sailor of the East India Company who was held captive by the king of Kandy for nearly twenty years.  During this period Knox observed the habits of the people around him, the villagers, courtiers and what he saw of the king, recording it after his escape and return to England.  His book, published in 1681, became an immediate success informing the British public about a territory that was available for colonization.  Its religious overtones only superficially disguised its true objective of establishing the relative superiority of Britain and suggesting the need to deliver the Ceylonese from their feudal existence.

It is the minute detail in Knox’s account that captures the reader’s imagination, allowing him or her to construct a colonialist’s version of native life.  Knox’s encyclopedic account gives intimate knowledge of community structures, marital relationships, cooking and eating habits, social customs, dwelling types and construction methods with special attention to the relations between the king and his subjects.  On its publication, accompanied by lithographs, it proved to be one of the most popular representations of Ceylon to be produced and disseminated in Europe during that period.  Translations were made into French, German and Dutch.  Jayawickrama compares this text to that by Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, regarded by many of us as a boy’s adventure story but equally replete with imperialist motives.  By placing her analysis within the frame of postcolonial literary critique and employing comparisons with colonial period texts from other colonized cultures, Jayawickrama demonstrates how Ceylon too was drawn into the larger orientalist project to colonize through the written word.

In this regard, Jayawickrama’s re-reading of Knox addresses a familiar destabilization experienced by all ‘native’ readers on encountering a western version of their history.  While the form of the narrative typically asks the reader to identify with the protagonist, Knox, and to imbibe his values and positioning, the necessity to sympathize with his predicament and empathize with his interpretations of the Kandyan kingdom jolts our post-national subjectivity.  It places Sri Lankan readers outside the space of the narrative and its reception.  It is from this liminal space outside the reciprocity of Western authorship for Western audiences that Jayawickrama approaches the writings of Robert Knox, deploying her knowledge of the complexities of a Buddhist Sinhalese subjectivity to challenge both his version of history and his motives.

What were Knox’s motives when writing this history?  Did his careful record of the Kandyan kingdom, the activities of the king and his subjects, prepare the stage for British colonization of Kandy and therefore the whole island?  Taking a range of subjects apart through careful analysis, Jayawickrama suggests that Knox’s impressions of the Kandyans were filtered through his own ideas of English morality, commercial interest and Individualism, all of which was veiled in the language of a benign Christianity.  She also describes how, due to his own narrow patriarchal and puritanical world-view, Knox’s impressions of the Kandyans, particularly of Kandyan women, were often quite contrary to what we know of the culture.  Similarly, his interpretations of Buddhism were confused in their translation into a Christian vocabulary.

Jayawickrama delves even further to argue that Knox’s desire to represent the natives in the e terms came from his own deep-seated insecurity as a prisoner of the Kandyan king.  The court of Raja Sinha the Second was a heterogeneous space including people from diverse religions and several other European prisoners.  As a prisoner, Knox no longer held the privileged space of the colonizer and found himself vulnerable to the Kandyan socio-geographical context.  Jayawickrama places Knox in a liminal space between colonizer and colonized, anxiously preserving his own precarious self–image by differentiating it from the natives.  This anxiety of the self, which Jayawickrma observes was European, predominantly white, male, Christian and middle-class, accompanied the colonial project, but became fragmented and insecure in a space which was unknown, uncharted and unfamiliar.  The collapse of Knox’s confidence heightened the desire for self-affirmation and self-fashioning against the image of the East, the native and the unknown culture.

Jayawickrama observes that the representation of the ‘other’ is textually fashioned and although the language of the travel narrative may purport to be neutral, and may appear to be an objective report on an individual’s experience, all writing is ultimately political, and shaped by covert agendas.  She observes that in travel writing a shared repertoire of tropes categorize, essentialize and objectify the native subject, equating difference to primitivism, savagery, infantilism and inferiority.  She says “Writing becomes a process of subordination and domination when in the act of representation one voice becomes privileged, silencing and suppressing others in the colonizing tones and gestures which inscribe difference, demarcating margins and creating centres and peripheries”.

Jayawickrama’s re-reading of Knox addresses a generation born on the cusp of independence, Sri Lanka’s own midnight’s children (or those for whom the collective memory of February Fourth 1948 resonates significantly), who were caught in the struggle between two imaginations from the East and the West.  Her education in a missionary school in Colombo was symptomatic of the education system at the time, with strong colonial overtones and a Christian morality constructing the proper objects of history.  Buddhism, feudalism, and the ‘tyrannical’ kings of the Kandyan kingdom were scrutinized and marginalized in order to buttress the flailing confidence of the colonial project in its twilight years.  It subjected Buddhist students, like herself, to a particular moral dilemma that revealed the ideological undercurrents in colonial historical sources.

The generation that followed those born at independence, the children of our midnight       generation born into a republican Sri Lanka, has little awareness of this sensibility for they were swung in the opposite direction by a defensive nationalism.  Immersed in an equally uncritical revisionist narrative that demonized the colonizer, students of the nineteen seventies and eighties, like myself, grew up with scant awareness of discourses outside the national narrative.  Knox and all colonial sources were completely suppressed in the collective amnesia of a post-colonial consciousness.  By the nineteen nineties colonial history made a comeback, promoted by tourism, stripped of its political asymmetries in a nostalgic and sentimental yearning for a past era.  It coincided with the Raj Revival: TV series like The Jewel in the Crown, Far Pavilions, and Heat and Dust that played on the exotic, chaotic image of the East through a process that Edward Said described as orientalizing the ‘other’(meaning non-western cultures and peoples).  The Raj Revival was a bi-product of the Imperialist ambitions of Thatcherite Britain punctuated by the Falklands war and the construction of British-ness against the influx of migrants from Britain’s former colonies.  In Sri Lanka, the colonial past seeped back into our architecture through images and artifacts and, supported by the hotel industry, its picturesque ambience was captured in a life-style paradigm embraced uncritically by many Sri Lankans.

Jayawickrama’s voice, framed by these shifting pedagogical positions, writes history at the interstices of a generational shift and a national beginning.  She speaks for a generation that, unclouded by the terror of the post-nationalist era, are able to deconstruct the politics of partisan positions.  She speaks against the tenor of the Raj Revival in literature and in cinema and its aggrandized, romanticized constructions of the colonial period and its orientalist constructions of us as ‘natives’.  We must learn to read behind the lines of the historic text and gain a more nuanced version of our own history with an awareness of the return of colonial power relations in new forms of imperialism and globalization (most visible in our hotel industry and labour relations).  More importantly in a time when competitive ethnic histories launch media wars in cyberspace, and we are divided by the identity games of political parties, Jayawickrama speaks for a generation who understood that identity is a fragile construction in a world where there are no absolute cultural positions.


PERPETUAL FERMENT Popular Revolts in Sri Lanka in the 18th and 19th Centuries, BY  Kumari Jayawardena, Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo 2010. Price Rs. 850.
This is a most delightful book that could be read and enjoyed at different intensities of interest and understanding. It is a scholarly work that is readable as a narrative of events and of personalities who figured in peasant revolts during the Dutch and British period up to the mid-nineteenth century. It is woven around the theme that the incursion of capitalist modes of production on peasant societies has cataclysmic effects on that society. The social discontent, people’s protests, popular revolts and rebellions are portrayed in a fascinating manner.
Perpetual Ferment is an excellent social history of the Dutch and British periods. It belongs to that genre of books that crosses disciplines. It is a work on social and political history as well as sociological and political analysis of people’s discontent, popular protests, and peasant rebellions. Its analysis reveals several dimensions of peasant political behaviour in the context of Sinhala feudal social organization and the ideological hegemony of feudal chiefs, bhikkhus and nobility. Interesting facets of the study are the importance of monarchism in the revolts and the role of pretenders to the throne, chieftains, bhikkhus and Veddhas in the frequent rebellions. The book also highlights the lesser-known uprisings of the cinnamon peelers against the East India Company during the Dutch rule, as well as the famous ‘Great Rebellion’ of 1818 against British rule, and the rebellion of 1848.
The book is in three parts. Part One of the book is a thoughtful political and sociological analysis that puts the more descriptive parts of the book in perspective. It provides a conceptual framework that makes a contribution to analytical writings on political history, peasant behaviour and the sociology of peasant protests. She posits Eric Hobsbawm against Ranajit Guha and leans more to Guha on the issue of “primitive rebels”. In this she is again breaking new ground with this kind of approach to Sri Lankan historical studies. She supports Newton Gunasinghe’s notion of a ‘multi-class bloc’ as the rationale for the absence of peasant rebellions against landlords and chiefs.  Her Introduction gives you an idea of her analysis of social change. Her perspective is a political economy one oriented to a critical social analysis.
Part One also deals with the political, economic and social changes brought about by foreign rule. The Portuguese and Dutch that created mercantilist economic relations and then the spread of this mercantilism to the hinterland with British rule in 1815 brought about hardships especially to the peasanty. With the introduction of the plantations, first with coffee and then tea, there was a fundamental transformation of the economy and society that changed the traditional role of the dominant classes as well as the condition of the poor peasantry. The introduction of the plantation system brought about severe difficulties to the peasantry and at the same time colonial rule denied the feudal elite their social and political status and power.
Part two of the book consisting of five chapters gives a detailed account of the revolts and rebellions that took place in the Maritime Provinces and the Kandyan Kingdom from upto 1848 that have been “hidden from history”. The 1848 rebellion that has been the focus of historians is dealt with in much detail in chapter 8. This was the last rebellion despite the “perpetual ferment” of the peasantry. It is analysed afresh in the light of several interpretations of peasant revolts. The 1848 rebellion Jayawardena contends “was the most important of the continuous protests against foreign rulers.” It was multifaceted in its causes and different in character and participation. Unlike the previous protests discussed by the author, it was not an aristocratic revolt, but included an attempt to enthrone a pretender as king. It had diverse causes of discontent, widespread participation, the alignment of different classes and was not confined to the Kandyan Kingdom but also extended to Colombo. It was rooted in mass discontent arising from the deprivation of rights and privileges previously enjoyed by the peasantry, oppressive taxation and difficult economic conditions. It was fueled by perhaps the first external economic shock that common people experienced when the plummeting of coffee prices led to lower incomes of the peasantry that had by now taken to the cultivation of coffee in home gardens.
The hostility was not confined to the peasantry, the chiefs, the aristocracy and the bhikkhus. It extended to town dwellers in the Maritime Provinces, traders and workers. The varied discontents led to a broader alignment of classes and agitation in Colombo. Jayawardena contends that although it had a few trappings of the earlier rebellions and revolts, it was vastly different in character and was fuelled by growing hardships and oppressive taxation. The influence of foreign historical movements, such as the 1848 revolts in Europe, challenge toBritish rule in India and the role of enlightened foreigners in Colombo like Dr. Christopher Elliot are brought out in this analysis.
In the third part of the book, three chapters she analyses the character, causes and motives of the peasant uprisings and rebellions, the role and nature of leadership of the uprisings and foreign influences. Fascinating accounts of the two rebels, Gongalegoda Banda and the better known Puran Appu, who had a controversial background, are enthralling. A brief account of Saradiel the bandit of Utuvankanda too is made in Chapter 12.The perception of British rulers of these leaders was that they were vagabonds, desperate robbers and thieves. Never did the rulers realize that there were fundamental causes of discontent fomenting disaffection.
In portraying the perpetual oppressive colonial rule and discontent the peasantry and workers that led to popular protests, revolts, and rebellions during Dutch and British rule, Kumari Jayawardena dispels the popular notion that colonial rule ushered in peace and calm. On the contrary, her book demonstrates the undercurrents of mass discontent that found expression in a series of rebellions that culminated in the best-known last rebellion of 1848.
She makes a profound contribution to understanding the nature of peasant revolts. Interestingly the revolts were not against the oppression of landlords but peasant alignments with the oppressors, the nobility, chiefs and higher echelons of monks to restore the monarchy and the pre-colonial political and social structures. The notion of class solidarity and class actions were still to arise till the wage labour in enterprises and early trade unions and strikes in 1890s arose with the development of capitalist modes of production.
It is of much interest that these revolts ceased after the 1848 rebellion. A facile explanation for this is that the ruthless crushing of the 1848 rebellion and a realization of the futility of such rebellions silenced further protests and revolts. Kumariexplanation is deeper. She attributes it to the social and economic transformations that took place with a more prosperous plantation system, trades associated with the thriving plantations, development of an urban proletariat and bourgeoisie and the decay of monarchism.
Based on archival research and secondary sources the book is attractively presented with maps, documents and illustrations of colonial rulers and leaders of rebellions. These miniatures are themselves a fascinating collection. Readers who savor the analysis and the narrative of events hidden in history would no doubt relish it. It is a book a review cannot do justice to, repeated readings would make you “ask for more”.


 Richard A. Koenigsberg: “Nationalism as Political Religion. A Review Essay on Emilio Gentile’s Book on  Politics as Religion,”     

Emilio Gentile defines political religion as a “more or less developed system of beliefs, myths, rituals and symbols” that creates an “aura of sacredness around an entity belonging to the world and turns it into a cult or object of worship or devotion.”

“Gods” are one class of objects or entities that human beings worship. However, other objects or entities likewise may become sacred within societies. One such object worshipped in the modern world — inspiring a cult of devotion– is the Nation-State. The state can appear as a “numinous reality:” an “enthralling and awe-inspiring power that invokes a feeling of absolute dependency.”

Gentile cites Gugielmo Ferrero on the sacralization of politics where the nation-state comes to be surrounded with a religious fervor that “exalts it and confirms a transcendent virtue upon it.” This exaltation, Ferrero says, can be perceived through an “emotional crystallization of admiration, gratitude, enthusiasm and love” that transforms the state’s imperfections and limits into something that is “absolute and inspires devotion.”

Contemporary social theoryófocusing on the concept of power seeks to show how forces emanating “from above” impose themselves upon “the subject.” Gentile’s concept of political religion contains a more sophisticated psychological paradigm. At the heart of his approach is an awareness or recognition that human beings possess a need or desire to attach to objects or entities conceived as greater than the self. Writing at the end of the 19th Century, Gustav Le Bon stated that religion originates in the need to “submit oneself to a divine political or social faith.” This sentiment has very simple characteristics, such as worship of a being supposed superior, fear of the power with which this being is credited, blind submission to its commandments, desire to spread its dogmas, and a tendency to “consider as enemies those who do not submit to the commandments of the superior being.”

Fascism revolves around the following psychological dynamic: (1) Worship of the nation-state, conceived or imagined as an entity superior to the individual. (2) The presence of a leader who represents the nation and conveys its ideology. (3) Submission to the nation and its leaderóand desire to accept its ideology. (4) The tendency to view those who do not worship the leader and accept the ideology he propagates as mortal enemies of the nation.

Gentile writes of the “fusion of the individual and the masses in the organic union of the nation” combined with “discrimination and persecution against those outside the community.” According to the totalitarian fantasy, there can be no separation between the individual and the state: they must exist in a condition of “perfect union.” Those Others who disrupt the experience of perfect union are branded enemies of the state who must be eliminated or removedóin order to achieve or restore a perfect union.

According to Le Bon, the religious impulse —  the need to worship or submit to an entity conceived as superior — is manifest whether this sentiment applies to a wooden or stone idol, a hero or a political concept. What’s more, Le Bon says, a person is religious not solely when he worships a divinity, but whenever he “puts all the resources of his mind, the complete submission of his will and fanaticism at the service of a cause or an individual who becomes the goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.” The religious impulse, according to this view, involves attachment to an entity placed high above the individualóone that inspires fanatic devotion.

At a dinner celebrating the conclusion of the symposium on religious fundamentalism in which I participated, I was discussing my understanding of Nazism as a form of fundamentalism when Dr. Donald Moss introduced the concept of “fungible.” As I understand it, this word means that one object may substitute or replace another — and nothing will be lost. This term may be applied to the religious impulse: different objects or entities may serve to express the same psychic function.

For example, societies differ with regard to the object or entity that is worshipped by people within that society. However, perhaps the psychological gratification obtainedóis identical. People may worship a God called Allah or a country calledAmericaor an ideology called Communism. What is significant is the desire to bind one’s ego to an idea or entity imagined to be omnipotent. By virtue of attachment to this object conceived as greater than the self, one partakes of its omnipotence.

Gentile suggests that political religion may be understood through the concept of the sacred developed by German theologian Rudolf Otto in 1917. The sacred, according to Otto, is an inexpressible spiritual experience that cannot be understood rationally. This experience occurs in the presence of the numinous, which refers to the manifestation of an “immense, mysterious and majestic power that, through its enthralling and awe inspiring nature evokes a feeling of absolute dependence in whoever experiences it.”

Hitler evoked an experience of the numinous through the idea and experience of “Germany,” particularly in the mass rallies when hundreds of thousands of people gathered together to worship an entity that heólike a mediumóbrought into being. Hitler explained to his people: “You are nothing, your nation is everything.”

Germany was this immense, majestic power that evoked a feeling of absolute dependence. The individual was small and insignificant in comparison to this omnipotent entity. Perhaps there was a painful dimension to the conception of oneself as “nothing.” However, compensation was provided for the individual by virtue of his or her capacity to become linked or identified with an enthralling, awe-inspiring entity.

Totalitarianism, Gentile observes, revolves around the “fusion of the individual and of the masses in the organic and mystical union of the nation.” Mystical union with one’s nation evokes the presence of the numinous: being bound to a gigantic, powerful and awe-inspiring object. Thus, the religious experienceóthe sense of the sacredócomes to be contained within one’s relationship to one’s nation. In the nation, sacred and secular merge: the numinous experience becomes coextensive with everyday life. The sacred permeates reality.

Otto suggests that worshipping the sacred objectólinking oneself to its mysterious and majestic poweróreleases an irrational energy engages man’s sentiments and drives him to “industrious fervor.” The sacred objectóthe awe it evokesóacts as an inspiration and goad to action, bringing about an inner excitement that erupts as “heroic behavior.”

Hitler explained: “Our love towards our people will never falter, and our faith in this Germanyof ours is imperishable.” He called Deutschland ueber Alles a profession of faith, which today “fills millions with a greater strength, with that faith which is mightier than any earthly might.” Nationalism for Hitler meant willingness to act with a “boundless, all embracing love for the Volk and, if necessary, to die for it.”

“Germany” was the entity or object that lay at the heart of the political religion called Nazism. Everything the Nazis did was based on their feeling for and sense of being connected to this numinous object. However, this sacred entityóGermanyórequired a representative on earth. Germans believed that Hitler had been sent to them. He became their rescuer or savior, inspiring industrious fervor and heroic, sacrificial behavior.

Gentile cites the political sociologist, Robert Michels, who observed that the masses experience a “profound need to prostrate themselves,” not simply before great ideals, but also before “individuals who in their eyes incorporate such ideals.” The German relationship to Hitler embodied this “adoration of a temporal divinity.” What the German people didóthe horrendous actions they performedówas based on their relationship to Hitler. As Rudolf Hess put it, “We know nothing but carrying out Hitler’s ordersóand thus we prove our faith in him.”

Scholars tend to view the atrocities carried out by the German people according to the concept of “obedience to authority.” Hannah Arendt wrote famously about the “banality of evil.” In my view, these interpretations are naÔve. One might as well say that hysteria evoked by the Fab Four represented “obedience to the Beatles.” Or that the young ladies who swooned when he sang were being “obedient to Frank Sinatra.” Documentaries on the Nazi period appear endlesslyótestifying to the enthusiasm and fervor that Hitler evoked. He was worshipped as a beloved father, perhaps the most popular political leader of the Twentieth Century.

Hitleróa numinous object for the many Germans during the Nazi periodóevoked religious devotion and inspired radical, fanatic forms of action. Understanding what occurred requires acknowledging Hitler’s extraordinary poweróhow he controlled the minds and bodies of the German people. The Final Solution came into being insofar as Germans divined and executed the “will of the Fuehrer. Religious devotionóto Hitler and Germanyóled the nation and its people onto path from which there was no return: faith in Hitler and love for Germany transformed into obedience unto death.                      


Kalutara  by Bradman Weerakoon

Review by Capt Elmo Jayawardena

If you are looking to buy one book during this festive season, pick Bradman Weerakoon’s Kalutara. It is a winner, a wonderful collection of history, folk-lore, sociology and literature all combined together and presented accurately, logically and nostalgically to satisfy anyone’s absolute reading pleasure. The narration extends from the vulnerable outlook of a young boy, the son of the Kalutara District ASP to the mature expertise of the supreme civil servant who served eight Heads of State in Sri Lanka. The book is vast in character and descriptive of location, a rich parade of people of major and minor relevance jump out of the pages to give a distinct Kalutara colour to the story. Events span from anything to everything that happened in the area; local patents such as how ‘jaadi’ is made and stored is told along with travel stories where people walked vast distances resting in ambalan. The bullock cart era is highlighted in transportation, the river riding ‘kollawa’ catamaran gets mentioned and the almost forgotten Swarnapali bus of yesteryear is ‘born-again’ describing how it carried passengers from Panadura to Monaragala bisecting the Kalutara District. There is a variety of subjects available like a sumptuous buffet to suit the pallet of any literature lover, a history buff or simply someone who wants to know how things happened in various hamlets of Sri Lanka at a more innocent time.

The local “Don” is now eighty years old. When lesser batsmen have retired and are resting, this Bradman bats on and that too in cavalier fashion creating a fascinating book that has every possible stroke of the pen and a lot more of his own creation. Snippets are many and assorted, adding matter and meat to each page.

Pahiyangala story is mentioned, of the 4th century Fa Hsien’s cave. Append to that is the annual pilgrimage by people following the footsteps of the ancient Chinese monk who walked from Bulathsinhala to Adam’s Peak. Then the advent of the Muslims in the 8th century is described, Beruwala and how the name originated when ancient seamen from Aden picked the monsoon winds to sail latitudes across the Arabian Sea to the fabled land of Serendib. The Dutch Portuguese battle in 1656, another forgotten significant skirmish is recalled accurately. How General Hulft marched from Maggona and fought the Portuguese in the vicinity of the Panadura Moya Kata is chronicled in detail, including the number of soldiers who died on the southern Moratuwa beach. Iban Batuta takes his place among the visitors to the district and for more modern times Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara comes on stage on his visit to Yahalawatte to see how rubber was made.

Didn’t I tell you the characters in the book are fascinating?

The author gives a vivid explanation of Portuguese names that became a commonality on the western seaboard, the Fernandos, Silvas, the Pereras and the many others that took root among the Sinhalese. He cleverly places his research on how Casado settlers were directly related to this phenomenon contrary to the belief that it was only the conversion to Christianity that brought about the name change. The author makes his point here not as an authority but as a man who speaks with logic.

That concept is clear throughout the book, a point of view of a learned man on subjects that raise arguments and not a declaration of a ‘know all’ who is preaching from an infallible pulpit. In one breath he talks about ‘rulan viskotu’ at Monis bakery which has become a pit stop in Maggona for Galle Road travellers and changes direction to quote from the ‘gira sandesaya’ and narrates the sad ‘seepada’ voiced by plumbago miners in their underworld hell and the kavi often heard on river banks recited hauntingly by weary sand diggers pole-driving their laden paru in the shallows of the Kalu Ganga.

Yes, everything is in two hundred pages, covering an area bordered in the north by Moratuwa and south by the Bentara Ganga, and the circa goes as far as the mention of the Balangoda man and related events to the happenings in twentieth century where Rosemary Rogers pours her childhood love for hometown Panadura. Along with the renowned Rosemary come anecdotes of flamboyance variegated by the vernacular of Kassippu Kamala and Ganja Padmini and the bucket shops that took rupee bets in village corners for horses that ran in Epsom.

This certainly is a book worth reading and storing for the generations to come as it is timeless in appreciation.

How great it would be if other districts too were brought into record in the same manner as the Kalutara Odyssey?

That would be fascinating historical literature, a must for a place like Sri Lanka where a thousand tales of people and places pass from generation to generation without being properly recorded, only to be buried in the sands of time and lost forever.

Yes, there must be more books like Kalutara, but the problem would be to find another Bradman to bat for us.

That would certainly be a big problem.


 Tangled Threads by Premini Amerasinghe

Review by Yasmine Gooneratne, courtesy of Sunday Times, 6 Dec. 2010 Tangled Threads is a novel about growing up in Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the 195Os. Since it was the period in which the author went to school and university, it is a period she knows well, from first-hand experience. And that is a lesson one learns by teaching literature: that realist fiction — as opposed, of course, to fantasy fiction or science-fiction – must be closely related to real life if it is to succeed.

It is sad but true that many writers don’t practise this kind of restraint. We have all read novels and stories written by Sri Lankan expatriates who visit Colombo for a couple of weeks, attend the Royal-Thomian or the Rugby Shield matches, show up at a few cocktail parties, dinner-parties and beach-parties, visit Yala or Wilpattu, and may be Kandalama, and go back to London or Toronto or Melbourne or New York to write a novel about ‘what’s happening out there’. I don’t know about you, but that kind of writing invariably produces false notes that I can detect without any trouble at all

Part of the attraction this novel has for me is its setting. Premini Amerasinghe, like her fellow-novelist Carl Muller, and their distinguished predecessor in the genre Dr. Lucian de Zilwa, is a child of the region, but much more in her writing than in theirs, Kandy becomes a vivid reality.

Peradeniya and Kandy, where I spent some of the most impressionable and memorable years of my own life, have a character of their own, quite distinct from the busy, urban settings of most recent fiction.

When you take your characters beyond the Kadugannawa Pass, as I did in my last novel, you take them into a different world.

Here is a brief vision of Premini’s world:

“Around the university buildings and the great Halls of Residence flowed a landscape of undulating lawns and trees. What trees they were! The Na tree with its tender pink spears contrasting with the dark gloss of its mature foliage, its white-petalled yellow-centred flower a symbol of purity. The Ficus trees spreading umbrella-like, their roots reaching towards the limits of the canopy. Resembling miniature mountain-ridges, those roots’ intervening ravines provided arm-chair comfort for me and Pradeep, (the boy who lived next door). Huge rain-trees spread their branches out against the sky in striking patterns. From April to July streamers of yellow blossoms poured down from a parasite creeper. The temptation was always strong to stand beneath the tree on which it grew, and yell “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” (p. 4)

Reading her late grandfather’s diaries, kept during his time as a Biology professor in the University’s early years, Pushpa discovers a human society that is far from idyllic, contrasting with the beauty of its setting as sharply as the blossoms of the Na tree contrast with its leaves.

Petty intrigues, tale-telling, anonymous letters are the order of the day. Every evening we gravitate towards the water-hole (otherwise known as the Staff Club) where the most profound thoughts find expression, after the alcohol level in the blood has risen to dizzy heights … (p. 62)

Anyone familiar with the Peradeniya campus will know why these revelations come to our heroine at second-hand, as it were, through the diaries of her eminent grandfather. The reason is simple: the Staff Club at Peradeniya, like many gentlemen’s clubs in Britain, does not welcome the presence of ladies. There, ladies can be talked of, or about, but they are not talked to. Reading her grandfather’s diaries, Pushpa learns that In the heady atmosphere of the campus, sexual infidelities had flourished like the trees in Peradeniya Gardens, sometimes amusing — as when a ‘harem’ of attractive students provided a charming bachelor academic with tea and comfort — sometimes tragic as when ‘Mrs X put her head in a gas oven because her professor husband was involved with a student’, and sometimes yielding high comedy, as when the diaries yield a memorable image of a cylinder of woven rush matting running down Hantane hill in the early light of dawn. The angry wife of a ‘staid professor’, who had found her husband romancing their maid, had chased the maid out of the house, wrapped only in her mat, ‘memento of illicit pleasure’.

Tangled Threads is a novel about growing up in Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the 195Os. Since it was the period in which the author went to school and university, it is a period she knows well, from first-hand experience. And that is a lesson one learns by teaching literature: that realist fiction — as opposed, of course, to fantasy fiction or science-fiction – must be closely related to real life if it is to succeed.

It is sad but true that many writers don’t practise this kind of restraint. We have all read novels and stories written by Sri Lankan expatriates who visit Colombo for a couple of weeks, attend the Royal-Thomian or the Rugby Shield matches, show up at a few cocktail parties, dinner-parties and beach-parties, visit Yala or Wilpattu, and may be Kandalama, and go back to London or Toronto or Melbourne or New York to write a novel about ‘what’s happening out there’. I don’t know about you, but that kind of writing invariably produces false notes that I can detect without any trouble at all.

Part of the attraction this novel has for me is its setting. Premini Amerasinghe, like her fellow-novelist Carl Muller, and their distinguished predecessor in the genre Dr. Lucian de Zilwa, is a child of the region, but much more in her writing than in theirs, Kandy becomes a vivid reality.

Peradeniya and Kandy, where I spent some of the most impressionable and memorable years of my own life, have a character of their own, quite distinct from the busy, urban settings of most recent fiction.

When you take your characters beyond the Kadugannawa Pass, as I did in my last novel, you take them into a different world.

Here is a brief vision of Premini’s world:

“Around the university buildings and the great Halls of Residence flowed a landscape of undulating lawns and trees. What trees they were! The Na tree with its tender pink spears contrasting with the dark gloss of its mature foliage, its white-petalled yellow-centred flower a symbol of purity. The Ficus trees spreading umbrella-like, their roots reaching towards the limits of the canopy. Resembling miniature mountain-ridges, those roots’ intervening ravines provided arm-chair comfort for me and Pradeep, (the boy who lived next door). Huge rain-trees spread their branches out against the sky in striking patterns. From April to July streamers of yellow blossoms poured down from a parasite creeper. The temptation was always strong to stand beneath the tree on which it grew, and yell “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” (p. 4)

Reading her late grandfather’s diaries, kept during his time as a Biology professor in the University’s early years, Pushpa discovers a human society that is far from idyllic, contrasting with the beauty of its setting as sharply as the blossoms of the Na tree contrast with its leaves.

Petty intrigues, tale-telling, anonymous letters are the order of the day. Every evening we gravitate towards the water-hole (otherwise known as the Staff Club) where the most profound thoughts find expression, after the alcohol level in the blood has risen to dizzy heights … (p. 62)

Anyone familiar with the Peradeniya campus will know why these revelations come to our heroine at second-hand, as it were, through the diaries of her eminent grandfather. The reason is simple: the Staff Club at Peradeniya, like many gentlemen’s clubs in Britain, does not welcome the presence of ladies. There, ladies can be talked of, or about, but they are not talked to. Reading her grandfather’s diaries, Pushpa learns that In the heady atmosphere of the campus, sexual infidelities had flourished like the trees in Peradeniya Gardens, sometimes amusing — as when a ‘harem’ of attractive students provided a charming bachelor academic with tea and comfort — sometimes tragic as when ‘Mrs X put her head in a gas oven because her professor husband was involved with a student’, and sometimes yielding high comedy, as when the diaries yield a memorable image of a cylinder of woven rush matting running down Hantane hill in the early light of dawn. The angry wife of a ‘staid professor’, who had found her husband romancing their maid, had chased the maid out of the house, wrapped only in her mat, ‘memento of illicit pleasure’.

The ‘tangled threads’ of this novel are the threads of memory and experience. Here is our Sri Lankan narrator-heroine, an attractive, 30- something English teacher living in Kandy, picking up the threads of an old friendship. A former school-friend, Sushila, visits from the States. They laze beneath the trees and talk about old times. They talk about schooldays, and they talk about … well, they talk about what matters most to them both, at their stage of life, they talk about sex.

“Sushila was startled to learn that ‘sex’ was still no more than a three- letter word for me. She seemed to regard her varying sexual adventures as the most exciting part of her life in America. Under her tutelage, my sexual education progressed by leaps and bounds. [double meaning intended there, wouldn’t you agree?] She described the pleasures … of orgasm in ‘sexplicit’ detail. Hispanics. African Americans, Eastern European migrants, the descendants of the founding fathers, native Indians, all, according to Sushila, had their distinctive style … Sri Lankans didn’t figure in her love life. For one thing, she was convinced they were poor performers, and for another, the whole of Sri Lanka would get to know about it, so that deciding to marry a Sri Lankan and settle down here would be out of the question. Her riveting account left me with burning ears, rather than a burning desire to put my newly acquired knowledge into practice. (p.82)

In Pushpa, as you will immediately recognize, Premini gives us a perfect specimen of that kind of girl beloved of Sri Lankan parents and aunts, ‘the sweet and simple kind’.

Looking after Pushpa, and incidentally supervising her love-life, is one of the most amusing and endearing characters I have encountered in Sri Lankan fiction, her elderly ayah Jane. If you have known a household dominated by a ‘Jane’, bossy, talkative, fiercely protective of her youthful charge, you will recognize her at once. When imports are restricted by Government decree, Jane’s creative instincts rise to the occasion, and Pushpa’s lunch-box as a child, making her eager to go to school, contains the following gourmet items:

Memories of her home-made sandwich fillings still make my mouth water: sardines in tomato sauce, turned out at home with small fish in the pressure-cooker, potted meat (boiled meat, flavoured with spices and crushed on her grinding-stone), cream cheese made by adding lime-juice to boiling milk, straining the resulting curds through a muslin cloth, and mixing them with chopped parsley, onions and green chillies…

This is based, of course, on Premini’s experiences of the austerities of the 1970s, and reading about Jane brought back a memory from my own ten years at Peradeniya, when I found myself combining the tasks of academic and inexperienced housewife, under conditions that called for skills and resourcefulness I didn’t know I had.

While Pushpa strives to untangle her personal and professional relationships, the diaries take us beyond Kandy, and even Sri Lanka, to Europe in the 1920s, and the Spanish civil war, in which her grandfather had involved himself as many British students of his age had done. Premini Amerasinghe’s meticulous research renders this part of her novel wholly believable, and readers would find especially interesting the parallels drawn in this novel between Sri Lanka’s civil war and those of other nations.

Other elements that provide the novel with its substance relate in part to clues hidden in the diaries, which give Pushpa unexpected insight into her grandfather’s private life, and in part to the contemporary realities of the lives of two other major characters: Pradeep, the physician who was her childhood friend, and Daya, the teacher with whom she falls briefly in love. The physical aspects of renal disease, which play an important part in the novel, are not glossed over.

Here Premini’s medical knowledge and experience stand her in good stead, as well, I suspect, as the great advantage of having in her corner, as it were, the unfailing encouragement of another physician, her husband Mark.

I shall conclude these brief remarks by mentioning a rule I would recommend to any student of writing, which is to focus on something you feel strongly and deeply about. Writing a novel like Premini’s calls for strength and stamina from a writer, so much so that only a strong commitment can keep you going until you reach the end. The characters in her novel grow up, fall in love, and indulge in political and amorous shenanigans of one kind and another, but through all this there shines evidence of the author’s commitment to a theme – the passionate wish of her generation (which is also mine) that we had made better use of the opportunities presented to us by our past.

So, Premini, we must thank you for giving us such a thoughtful and intelligent book. Of course, one expects no less from an author whose work has not only been short-listed for local prizes but long-listed for a major international award.

Tangled Threads’, a Sarasaviya publication is available at Sarasaviya Bookshops. Price: Rs. 375

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Glorious Jaffna by Tharindu Amunugama & Sunela Samaranayake

Review by Gaston de Rosayro

Among our tropical island’s localities which have been suffused for centuries by calm and contentment, Jaffna had been the beau ideal. Time was when its old-world charm and equally enchanting cultural traditions could seldom have been encountered anywhere on earth. The peninsula, with its quaint cadjan-thatched fences, picture-book villages and placid inlets and lagoons, was decidedly a composed macrocosm within our own delightful little universe. It was also a thriving commercial port where barges once plied the shallow Palk Strait between Jaffna and South India, ferrying tourists and tradesmen in addition to a variety of consumer goods.

From Jaffna they took tobacco, soap, betel-leaf, betel-nut, onions, potatoes, chillies and spices to supply a massive demand in the neighbouring Indian marketplace. Jaffna was also the nation’s largest single grower of tobacco supplying more than 40 per cent of the country’s total output of the cured addictive leaf. But years of civil conflict had illuminated quite another side of its existence. The locale unexpectedly attained a larger than life role and was thrust into becoming a stage for much of the nation’s turbulent struggles for the last three decades or so. For Yarlpaanam – in the recent past the fateful ring of its name had resounded with a discordant clash of cymbals. Nearly three decades of war had reduced the once-bustling northern trading post to virtual debris.

Glorious Jaffna is a captivating coffee-table pictorial that depicts a once tranquil district which became a springboard for a senseless secessionist conflict. It is also a tribute to a resilient people and picturesque milieu that had been transformed into a war-ravaged landscape of rebellion, rubble and ruin now ready to rise from the ashes. The quality tome has been commissioned and published by Asia Capital PLC, a financial services company quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange. It is designed with the aim of funding both nutritional and educational children’s charities in the northern peninsula. Its humanitarian quest is decidedly a stirring trend-setting demonstration to remind and appeal to its corporate peers that the success of running their organisations comes not only by raking in the shekels into their business coffers but in shelling out from their hearts.

Astonishingly, the production is entirely an in-house work of talent. Its contents in both text and photography are not the creation of professional essayists in either genre of the art but are the conception of two of the publishing conglomerate’s financial analysts Tharindu Amunugama and Sunela Samaranayake who are both skilful communicators. The text and captions by Sunela in keeping with the tenor of the publication are candidly uncomplicated with no room for misunderstanding. Her style is lucid and unpretentious as she adds flavour to the publication by providing a sprinkling of traditional Jaffna recipes that have for centuries tickled the taste-buds of residents and visitors alike.

Clearly, this magnum opus has propelled debutant lensman Tharindu Amunugama to leap-frog into the constellation of elite professionals. The notion of hope and human enterprise flows through the pages, forging several images and events with enlightening discernment. Readers will not fail to perceive his ‘seeing eye’ that has in each photograph captured his every medium with the most brilliant expression. He has handled his subjects with an incisiveness and intellect indicative of the highly-tuned instincts of an extraordinarily talented photo-journalist. Tharindu’s work conveys the eclectic breadth and humanity of his photographic mind, combining an intricate mix of sensitivity and an almost imperceptible propensity for idyllic innovation.

The collection offers a veritable assortment of topics ranging from personality portraits to landscapes, devotees, places of religious worship, spices and its colourful culture and traditions. The combination of elements here is powerfully expressive as his camera appears to pan into idyllic reverie, deftly embellishing those special elements of atmosphere and mood.

The publication is certain to be well-received by all communities, particularly Tamils who have always had an emotional, almost sentimental attachment to their motherland. The book’s creators hold out the hope that first-generation Tamils at least are likely to return now that a tangible peace has returned to Jaffna and capitalize on its traditional trade and cultural links with south India, which has immense possibilities for expansion.

The compilation swivels with images from the heart-warmingly happy to the starkly melancholy with a moving candour. Here the photographer as artist conjures up a cluster of personality portraits of ordinary yet dignified personages including the venerable profiles of the ruggedly grizzled patriarchs and stately grande dames of Jaffna society. One cannot but fail to be transfixed by the eloquent intensity of hope in their expressions instilled by their robust faith in simple religious values. The children are featured in harmonised composition that portrays them in fascinating allegories of laughter, high-spiritedness and blissful innocence that conveys a kind of seraphic sweetness. They are images that tug at the heartstrings and herein lie their appeal.

In many others he captures the dynamics of the resourceful Jaffna work ethic, the hopes and expectations of a peninsula that stands to profit now that a lasting peace has returned to the northern district. The pictures tell it all from Jaffna’s main township avenues, to its provincial village bazaars and byways that for decades have lost the benefit of the open economy. That is sadly because when the economy opened Jaffna closed. The illustrations weave a captivating mélange of enthralment, simplicity and timelessness into the pleasing tapestry of this pictorial mosaic. There are echoes in both text and picture everywhere of a hopeful ebullience of the rebirth of this cultural and commercial urban giant. The images unravel the story that the task of reconstruction will not be easy, but that the people do not seem dismayed. They have already set about the rebuilding process with rarely witnessed enthusiasm. The place is leaping back to life with an astonishing vitality.

Despite the years of death, devastation and decay it is poised for a blast-off along a capitalist trajectory, with the aim of hauling the great eastern and southern heartland along with it.                           


Judge C. G. Weeramantry’s Memoirs: The Sri Lankan Years

A book review by Wickrema Weerasooria

Courtesy of the Island, 20 November 2010

 Next Wednesday, 24th November at a memorable function, Judge C.G. Weeramantry’s friends and well–wishers will launch the first volume of his two volume Memoirs. I gladly agreed to a request for a pre–launch review for this newspaper. The moment I received and commenced reading a proof copy of the book of a little over 500 pages, I could not put it down. It was so well written and the contents so absorbing, I could not stop reading page by page until I suddenly realized I was given the book for a review and not to read and keep. However, this book reminded me, once again, of the well known saying, “There is nothing really called a good book or a bad book. A book is either well written or badly written”. This book is so well written.

Judge Weeramantry is too well known both nationally and internationally for me to even attempt to outline his achievements. So in this review, I will not talk about the man – the legend – except for a few interesting anecdotes he relates about himself in the book. Rather, I will concentrate on the book as a whole.

The Memoirs are in two volumes and this review is on Volume One called “The Sri Lankan Years”. Volume Two which is to appear shortly, is on the author’s life in Australia and on the Bench of the International Court at the Hague, popularly known as the World Court.

Volume One, with an excellent Foreword by Mr. Sam Wijesinha, Retired Secretary General of Parliament and Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka, can be neatly compartmentalized into two sections. Chapters one to twelve (consisting of 228 pages) is about Judge Weeramantry’s beginnings from his birth in 1926 to his marriage in 1952, his parents, his two brothers and the other members of “the extended family” who moulded his life. In this same part under headings such as, “Setting the Scene” and the “Social Picture during Childhood”, the author gives an excellent and authoritative account of the social, political and economic life in Ceylon of that period. This is a period which many of us and certainly our younger generation are now hardly aware. These pages of the narrative took this reviewer as well down “memory lane” of an interesting pre–independence period of Sri Lanka.

Judge Weeramantry’s accounts of his parents (Gregory and Lilian), his uncle and aunt (Henry and Enid), and his two elder brothers (Lucian and Douglas) are very emotional. They engross the mind and grip the heart. The ‘closeness and the togetherness’ of this family is enviable and is perhaps what made Judge Weeramantry the Sri Lankan icon he is. Heredity and family background is important in building anyone’s character.

In two chapters entitled “Hone and Family” and “My Father’s Life and Work”, Judge Weeramantry talks of his indebtedness to both his parents, Gregory and Lilian; how both of them got well qualified from Cambridge examinations which at that period of time was “the sign of excellence”. His mother, Lilian was not only a lover of English literature but an accomplished artist. The father (Gregory Weeramantry) was a born educationist who later taught at well-known denominational schools, such as St. Anthony’s (Catholic), Ananda (Buddhist) and Zahira (Muslim). He was also the Founder and First Secretary of the All Ceylon Union of Teachers and also founded Alexandra College in 1940 where well known Sri Lankans taught from time to time. Of Alexandra College, Judge Weeramantry states: “Alexandra College played a significant role and discharged a very useful function on the Sri Lankan educational scene. Many eminent Sri Lankans – judges, doctors, civil servants, lawyers, international officials and cabinet ministers – were greatly helped in their careers by this institution. Although it was a fee-levying private educational institution, there were quite a few students whose fees were completely waived by my father because he felt their parents could not afford the cost. Some of these students rose to high positions in public life and always acknowledge that this would not have been possible but for the assistance they received”.

On his father’s 100th anniversary in March 1994, a former Minister of Education, Mr. Nissanka Wijeratne, paid a glowing tribute to Gregory Weeramantry under the title “A life of service devoted to education”. This tribute is published as an Appendix to the Memoirs.

Judge Weeramantry also tells us that he and his two elder brothers also taught at Alexandra College and this teaching experience helped them to advance their careers in later years. His eldest brother, Lucian, took to law and became well known in international law and from 1962 served in several global Institutions affiliated to the United Nations. The main institution that Lucian Weeramantry served was the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) which was then the leading international institution on Human Rights. At that time, advocating Human Rights was a difficult task. As Judge Weeramantry himself states in his book – “I myself sometimes wondered why my brother Lucian was spending so much effort at the ICJ on putting together so many judgments which did not have the force of law but only expressed aspirations – so great was the entrenched feeling in the legal profession that human rights were not law. I recollect that once, when I was a young lawyer watching proceedings in our Appeal Court in the early 1950’s, a lawyer cited to a Judge some provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was immediately asked “Are you seriously suggesting that this is the law of this country?” No judge in the world would do that today, just as any judge in any court in the world might well have asked that question at that time in legal history. However, Lucian’s book on The International Commission of Jurists. The Pioneering Years, published by Kluwer International of Holland in 2000 became the standard pioneering work on the subject”.

It was also Lucian Weeramantry who defended Reverend Somarama, the Buddhist monk who shot Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in September 1959. Lucian later (1969) wrote an excellent book on the trial entitled “The Assassination of a Prime Minister”.

Two other members of the Weeramantry family that had a major influence and impact were the well known lawyer and later Supreme Court judge, Justice Thomas de Sampayo. He was one of the country’s most respected judges of the period 1910 – 1925. The other was Mr. D. J. Wimalasurendra, the Engineer, who later became famous for the Laxapana and Norton Bridge electricity power projects. The Weeramantry Memoirs contains valuable accounts about both of them which any future historian can use.

Moving from Judge Weeramantry’s parents, two brothers and family, the author’s accounts of Sri Lanka’s Heritage, about the different races and the religions, the country’s social, political and economic landscape of the period between 1900 – 1948 while we were still under British rule – is all fascinating reading. No doubt the events and facts about which Judge Weeramantry writes about, has been written about earlier by several of our historians. However, what is significant is that these topics have not been written about in the way expressed in the Weeramantry Memoirs. Remember, Judge Weeramantry is now writing about all these historical facts in 2010. His wide experience and mature age, has enabled him to talk of the same events and people in an amazingly different way. That is what is important about this book – the man writing it.

With the superb literary prowess he has acquired over the years by writing over thirty books and hundreds of articles and through his academic lectures, the description that Judge Weeramantry gives of Sri Lankan Festivals and Events like Vesak, Christmas, Ramazan, Vel, The Kandy Perahera, Sinhala and Tamil New Year are also so readable unlike many of the scholarly works written about these events, where the technicality has dulled the readability.

Weeramantry also focuses and writes of the Fabric of Sri Lankan Society of the early period 1900 – 1948 in a way and manner this reviewer has seldom read before. His accounts of racial harmony between the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims and the Burghers are literary master pieces that even our current Reconciliation Commission chaired by former Attorney-General, Mr. C.R. de Silva may care to look at. How the Ceylonese of that period comprising of Natukottai Chettiars, Colombo Chetties, Parsees, Bharatas, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Memons, Malayalees and Chinamen, despite all their religious and racial differences, all lived together in reasonable amity. Judge Weeramantry’s message is clear; the majority must look after the minorities whatever the outcome. That is how nations survive and develop. We must avoid conflict.

Everyone who has worked with or knows Judge Weeramantry or knows of him, is fully aware that he bears no prejudices, racial, religious or cultural. He is blind to any such prejudice. In this connection it is significant and of anecdotal interest that Judge Weeramantry is also colour blind. He says this in his book stating that this is one of the reasons he gave up the suggestion to be a doctor. In his Memoirs he says (at p. 205).

“My ambition of becoming a doctor was rendered unreal by the fact that I was seriously colour blind. I thought to myself that there might indeed be occasions when I might not be able to distinguish blood from some other dark fluid and I realized that this just would not do for a doctor. Imagine a doctor who could not spot blood when he saw it! This might have dire consequences for some poor patient. So that grandiose idea was laid to rest”.

Judge Weeramantry’s account of what was then (and even now called in Colombo circles) the “April Holidays”, how the rich and affluent fled to the hills in Nuwara Eliya, is worth repetition in a newspaper column. So also, his account of horse racing and the Turf Club where the ladies of Colombo Society showed off their fashions. Colombo’s five star hotels have replaced the Colombo Race Course – which now houses research and educational institutions like the National Archives, part of the Colombo University and extensions of Royal College.

One chilling account by Judge Weeramantry of the Martial Law Period of 1915, which was one of the darkest hours of British rule, will interest anyone. It is about how Pedris, a Sri Lankan Police Officer from a well-known family was executed by the British by a firing squad for allegedly not controlling the rioters in Colombo. Pedris, who at that time was not on official duty or in uniform, was innocently at the scene of some rioting. Some Englishmen had identified him and reported the matter. He was arrested for complicity and despite all pleas for clemency by his immensely wealthy family and by influential native Ceylonese of that time, he was executed. A statue is now erected to Pedris at the park near Dickman’s Road.

Next, and most significantly, we come to an event that perhaps changed Judge Weeramantry’s life and made him the legend he has become. To use a legal term it was a “landmark decision”. That was marrying Rosemary de Sampayo. When he had been in practice for about eight years, at the age of 32, he had met her at a function in 1958. It was love at first sight. As he himself says in his book, “I realized that this was the young lady I had been looking for. I wasted no time in showing my interest which was reciprocated and things moved rapidly and by 1959 we were married. (The author does not tell us how he showed his interest or how the gracious lady reciprocated). However, we all know that the couple had, in rapid succession, five children – two sons and three daughters and they are now also blessed with eleven grandchildren.

Everyone who knows Judge Weeramantry also know how his charming wife, Rosemary has stood by him and for him when her husband was a busy lawyer, a Supreme Court Judge, a Law Professor, and the Vice President of the World Court. Also, during all these times, he was a legal scholar and a prolific writer of over thirty five world class texts. As Judge Weeramantry himself states:- “Rosemary and I shared all things, all experiences and a series of wonderful memories. Rosemary was an immense source of support to me in my work, never interfering in it but always unobtrusively giving me all the support needed. Even when I launched out on the great enterprise of writing my books on the law of contracts, the amount of time this claimed increased my concentration on legal activities. Yet Rosemary never grudged this extra time but wove herself into the activities connected with it. When typists were typing the manuscript or juniors were reading through it or I was busy writing it, she was part of the scene, supporting us all with refreshments as well as with her company and making less tedious the endless hours spent on this work”. Weeramantry adds:- “With my five children came their school friends, their school work, their outings, their birthday parties – all these were great sources of joy and I also had the special privilege, that all my juniors joined with us in happy ways of keeping our children interested and entertained. Laughter, childish fantasies, games, picnics, excursions, story-telling, study sessions – all of these mingled with the professional demands upon my time and if I was able to build a bridge between these two worlds, Rosemary was the principal builder of that bridge. For illness and emergencies we also had the powerful support of Rosemary’s mother (Mrs. Cecilia de Sampayo) with all her experience, in the background”. When the time came eventually for us to give up this happy lifestyle and move to Australia, Rosemary was in tears – both at the thought of leaving and at the certainty of life in this foreign country of which as yet we knew so little. Yet she accepted the decision and we decided to make the best of it. As things turned out this also turned out to be a happy phase in our life”.

The second part of Volume one of these Memoirs consisting of chapters 12 to 24 of a little over two hundred pages, is about Judge Weeramantry’s meteoric rise in his legal and professional career, first as a law lecturer, then as practicing lawyer, a Supreme Court Judge, Law Professor at Monash University and finally as a member and later Vice President of the World Court at the Hague, Netherlands. Here Judge Weeramantry takes us on an odyssey of Sri Lanka’s Legal and Judicial System of the period 1900-1980. He discusses the Legal Heritage of our country, the then global recognition of our Legal Profession and our Judiciary, our Multicultural Legal system with so many laws, Roman Dutch, English and the Personal Laws – Kandyan law, Thesawalamai and Muslim law – all applying in harmony and without conflict and also the high degree of independence and integrity of our Judges.

In Chapter 16, Weeramantry highlights the following concerns for our legal and judicial sector. Firstly, have they become too elitist and separated from the masses? Should not our legal research be more socially oriented? Also the urgent need to minimize laws delays and provide more Legal Aid. Other areas he identifies is the need for more attention to international and comparative law.

Among the notable cases on which Weeramantry became famous was the Thenuwara Testamentary case where he prevented Mrs. Thenuwara inheriting under her husband’s (a doctor) last will on the basis that a wrongdoer could not benefit from the will. With extensive research and brilliant advocacy, Weeramantry proved to our District Court that the wife was involved in the murder of her own husband and could not, therefore, benefit from the will. This was despite, an Army Captain (the wife’s alleged paramour) being earlier convicted for the doctor’s murder. The Thenuwara case should be studied by any lawyer contesting a last will.

In my view, it was Judge Weeramantry’s scholarly treatise on Contract Law in 1966 in two volumes that won him what I may call the “Oscar” in the legal field. For that great legal treatise the University of London awarded him a higher doctorate in laws (LL.D). He was the first Sri Lankan to be so honoured. Sri Lanka’s greatest ever lawyer, Mr. H.V. Perera said this of this publication. “Dear Weeramantry, your book is of a higher standard of excellence than any book of any subject written by any Ceylonese author at any time, May you go from strength to strength”. In this revieweropinion, no one can better H.V. Perera’s testimonial!

Weeramantry did go from strength to strength. As he himself states in his Memoirs, “This book opened the floodgates for me and it led me into various other fields of writing – from philosophy, to sociology, to comparative law, to international law, human rights, religion and nuclear issues”. Weeramantry cites the English Judge, Lord Diplock who said, “Judges make law in bits and pieces; Authors write entire texts and make law out of whole cloth”.

Weeramantry resigned in April 1972 from the Supreme Court Bench accepting the prestigious Haydyn Starke Professor of Law chair at Monash University. He had twenty more years to serve and only two other Supreme Court judges were above him in seniority. Thus, he could have been Chief Justice soon and for very long. However, on hindsight, we all think his decision then was right. History has also proved it to be so. Between 1972 and now Weeramantry has become a global figure bringing honour to Sri Lanka as no Judge serving in Sri Lanka could ever have done. And, what we like about this great and gracious man is that despite his five children and eleven grandchildren living abroad, he chose Sri Lanka to work. Through The Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research (WICPER) which he runs from Colombo, Judge Weeramantry has made the Sri Lanka’s young men and women his extended family. May he live long and guide us. The best way to learn more about his book can be said in just three words. BUY HIS BOOK.

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Anticipating Suicide

Abdul H. Azeez, courtesy of the Sunday Leader, 28 November 2010

Herman Gunaratne is an effervescent gentleman. Owner of Handunugoda tea estate and the pioneering introducer of white tea to Sri Lanka, he is many things. But at his core is a strong love and understanding of everything to do with tea and, consequently it seems, everything to do with living in interesting times.
His latest book, The Suicide Club, is a romp through his life, an insight into his thoughts and opinions and a generally laudable effort at bringing to life the workings of the British plantation Raj, if its early critiques are anything to go by.

The book is named after an exclusive club to which all Sri Lankan gambling men and women above a certain select level of wealth and society belonged to at the turn of the last century. Herman’s grandfather was its president and his motto was ‘you have to risk all to gain anything’. With this rather obvious aphorism for a gambler, Herman’s grandfather proceeded to adopt a rather loose attitude to his money and gambled the majority of his fortune away.Consequently, Herman found himself as a young man working in a tea plantation with only his wits, charm and modest wardrobe available to get him there. This is where the book starts. What follows is a set of stories that we are assured will ‘give us a never before shown side in the lives of planters and their lifestyles’.

To this writer, planters always appeared rather stoic and distant; giving the impression of being immersed in an addictive world of their own; of being interconnected despite being isolated from each other whilst confined in vast estates in remote corners of the land and all the while maintaining an air of mystery and intrigue. At the bottom of my mind was always the question, Why?  Why do the job? It can’t be all the free cups of tea, surely. So I asked the man himself.

“A plantation manager’s life is like paid for being on a holiday. You are regularly in the most energising temperatures breathing in oxygen when all your fellow human beings are choking on pollution,” says Herman in that relaxed drawl of his. Over the years he has become somewhat of an activist for the tea industry.

“The industry has gone through so many convulsions. From private and British hands it came to Sri Lankan state control, and then it was privatised,” he says. He points out unfortunate trends in the closing down of plantations and the decline of crops and laments the need for independent monitors and proper administration of the industry. In a hopeful note he adds that ‘the new minister I think offers some hope for the sectors’ future as he appears to be a man with a firmer grasp on affairs and he is talking to all players of the game’.

The story of Sri Lanka’s plantation sector has been recorded many times in many different ways. But the majority of these accounts have been written by the British hand. The Suicide Club is touted as the first look at the inner workings of the plantation sector and the changes it has gone through over the last many decades through the eyes of a Sri Lankan.

“The book is a tale of riches to rags to riches again” said Juliet Coombe of Sri Serendipity, his publisher. At her insistence, Herman has visited several of the locations associated with his past that he had given no thought to for decades, many of them were apparently in ruins. There is probably a deep and relevant metaphor in there somewhere, but I cannot quite put my finger on it.

And like most Sri Lankans it seems that Herman appears to have been unable to resist bringing in a few elements of that universal conversation lubricant, politics, into the The Suicide Club’s equation. We are promised tales of political machinations of that notorious group of individuals, planters, in the post colonial era. ‘After the nationalisation’ says Herman ‘the post colonial political environment politicised the plantations as well. Recruitment was not entirely on merit and there were political interventions on all levels,’ says Herman.

This is his fourth book. His previous work The Plantation Raj is now a collectors item. His keen interest in politics and affairs of the state also prompted him to write For A Sovereign State on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka in the late ’80s. He is an understated man with understated words and is dismissive of his success.

When asked about his writing and how he prefers to write he says ‘I write at anytime and anyplace, I really don’t take it that seriously’, probably an enviable result of having a career as a permanent holidaymaker.

The Suicide Club however was a work he’d written a while ago. ‘I had stopped writing the book an year or so ago, but then Juliet and Daisy (from Sri Serendipity) renewed my interest in it’. Indeed Juliet Coombe, Publishing Director of Sri Serendipity has been catalytic in getting the book out.

“I was working on GenerationT and wanted a character from the area in Galle. Galle is an unusual place for tea because it is so close to the sea and I heard about Herman’s white tea being the most expensive tea in the world. When I met Herman I realised that he was a great raconteur. When I learned that he had this other manuscript I was immediately interested, I read it in one go.”

“It is an honest book, it inspires the reader not only to think but also to act, and Herman is very candid and open about himself in it” continues Juliet. “He has lived by a code of integrity, freedom of choice and justice”. She is full of praise for Herman’s dry wit and calls him the Oscar Wilde of Sri Lankan writing. “He’s lived life like Jeffery Archer, lived it to the full. People like characters that can live very big and still be on an appreciable moral scale. Herman is a natural film star. The Suicide Club has been selling fast.”

Sri Serendipity focuses on real life stories with an emphasis on people. Their recent publications have included Around The Fort In 80 Lives and Sri Lanka’s Other Half, both groundbreaking travel books that have sold well internationally. They take a peculiar twist to the standard text only book. Pictures and other visual content are used to maximum affect. A brief skim through the pages of The Suicide Club left me hungry for more. It appears to be a book that promises a refreshing and relaxed read like a nice hot cup of tea.



Weeramantry’s Odyssey

Jayantha Dhanapala, Courtesy of the Island, 27 November 2010

The launch of the first volume of Judge Christopher Weeramantry’s memoirs – “Towards One World” – has great significance for the national life of our country at this moment of time. This aspect deserves more focused attention despite the excellent reviews of the book that have already appeared. As the author writes, “These memoirs are in a sense a call to all those who can contribute, not to sleep upon their watch.”

Christy Weeramantry is essentially a man of the law and a deeply religious person who draws his wisdom from all the four religions that enrich our culture and history. None of the mischievous lawyer jokes and denigratory definitions of the legal profession fit him. However what Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, said of a lawyer friend comes close – “God works wonders now and then; behold a lawyer, an honest man”. But Christy Weeramantry is much more than an honest man being a multi-faceted personality with an astonishing array of versatile talents. To describe them would be to gild the lily.

A recent news item said that Mark Twain’s memoirs have just been published 100 years after his death according to his wishes since he did not wish his family to suffer the consequences of his vitriolic humour. We must be grateful that Judge Weeramantry has published his memoirs in his lifetime and, as one of the most inoffensive gentlemen I have known, not one page of his book contains any harsh criticisms of anyone.

Weeramantry the National Icon and Role Model
Surveying the social debris in our country after three decades of conflict, it is striking that there are very few who would qualify as national icons and role models for our youth. Many of the heroes acclaimed popularly have been revealed to have feet of clay. Judge Weeramantry is indisputably one of our national icons deeply anchored in the bedrock of the nation.

In our own youth we were encouraged to read the biographies of great men whether it was Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Emil Ludwig’s work on Napoleon and others. I hope our Ministry of Education will be enlightened enough to prescribe the Weeramantry memoirs as recommended reading for our schoolchildren. They will learn not only of the values and influences that shaped an individual who rose to great eminence here and abroad, but they will also get a sense of the milieu of the ‘30s and ‘40s – the colonial era when Weeramantry was growing up in Sri Lanka. It was an era of closely knit family ties and of a sense of community which Weeramantry treasures. In the transition from a British colony to a fully fledged independent democracy we have gained immeasurably from the expansion of participatory democracy, from free education and other social welfare measures so that the indicators of our human development are today very impressive. But we have also lost that “sense of community” that Weeramantry talks of. It is a loss we are well poised to regain in the post conflict period of reconciliation and rehabilitation with inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.

Judge Weeramantry is quintessentially a Sri Lankan. The first volume describing his Sri Lankan years brings this out vividly. The late Lakshman Kadirgamar, reflecting on his own career, once said famously that the cake was baked in Sri Lanka: it was only the icing that came from Oxford. In Christy Weeramantry’s case, the cake was not only baked in Sri Lanka but the icing too came from here. And it was that cake and that icing that earned so many plaudits at home and abroad. At a time when there are many fathers of the successful defeat of the LTTE, not many remember that Christy Weeramantry, as a Sri Lanka expatriate in Australia, led a courageous campaign against the pro LTTE propaganda at the time linking with other Sri Lankan expatriate groups in other countries to stem the tide globally. He has been a patriot in the true sense of the word and not in terms of political platform definitions like the “If you are not for us; you are against us” syndrome.

Weeramantry and the Law

There has never been a time in our post-Independence history, save for the periods when Southern terrorism and Northern terrorism scourged our land, when we needed the Rule of Law more than now. Weeramantry has been steadfast in his faith in the law. He devotes many pages to the landscape of the law in our country describing the system of the law and the courts and his actual experiences as a practitioner. But he is too sensitive a person and too much a man with a social conscience to ignore the sociology of the law.

Thus in Chapter XVI he identifies the neglected aspects of the law in Sri Lanka that caused him concerns. They included the elitism of the profession and its bias towards the rich; the need for research into the causes of crime and debt; the importance of understanding the historical context in the evolution of our law; the need for legal aid to ensure access to the law for the poor and needy; the excessive formalism in the practice of the law so unsuited to our conditions; the need for more attention to International and Comparative Law; the harshness of cross-examination and the division of labour within the profession despite the amalgamation of proctors and advocates as attorneys-at-law.

Weeramantry the Academic

The transition from a being a legal practitioner to becoming an academic was an easy one for Judge Weeramantry. As a scholar he had already published “The Law on Contracts”. In his own words the motive to move to the world of academia was the “wide disparity between the purely judicial arena of action to the wider social interest.” Indeed this quest to extend the reach of the law was to motivate him later to join the International Court of Justice. He was not content to see the law confined to the Dickensian offices of lawyers or the courts. His approach was not only cross-cultural but also inter-disciplinary. There were the “great illuminated places of the law” which excited him intellectually. But there were also “the many dimly lit corridors and halls of darkness where the light of the law had not penetrated”. The range of his publications illustrates his attempts to ensure that the law embraced a wide field of human activity. It is also the quest “Towards One World” in defiance of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” concept.

Weeramantry the Global Citizen

Finally we have Weeramantry the Global Citizen. The decision to leave Sri Lanka for Australia in 1972 was an agonizing one. He was giving up a senior position as a Judge of the Supreme Court and was leaving his beloved mother behind. But he soon acquired prominence not only as a Professor of Law in Monash but in the whole of Australia. He began to be well-known internationally and I recall meeting him at international conferences in Geneva and The Hague.

He developed an early interest in international affairs listening to the radio as a boy and hearing the conversations of his father and his friends. Modestly he ascribes his interest in human rights and international humanitarian law to the work of his brother Lucian in the International Commission of Jurists. His best work in building international norms was as a judge in the International Court where he was Vice-President. His contribution to the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the Court on the illegality of the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons remains a landmark. I have, as a fellow Sri Lankan, had the good fortune to bask in his reflected glory quoting from his famous opinion. I was in Hiroshima just last week where his name remains highly respected.

So we have Weeramantry the patriot juxtaposed with the internationalist; the legal practitioner with the academic – an evolution that is described so fascinatingly in the book. In many ways, Christy Weeramantry followed in the footsteps of his father, the famous educationist who founded Alexandra College, as he mentored many men and women throughout his life – a task which he continues today with so much dedication.

William Butler Yeats, the famous Irish poet, once wrote that “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Christy Weeramantry has lit many fires in his lifetime. May he continue to do so illuminating our land and banishing the darkness of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination to usher in an era of peace, rule of law and equality for all our citizens.

(Based on remarks made at the Book Launch on 24 November at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo.)

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Jacob Copeman:  Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 233 pp)

 by Ron Barrett of Macalester College

Taken from the American Ethnologist May 2010, vol.  37/2, pp. 380-81. 

Recent years have seen an emerging literature on the sociopolitical dynamics of human tissue exchange. Most of these studies are of a critical nature, focusing on the exploitative aspects of organ trade and other high-profile controversies. Yet few studies have closely examined the apparently mundane forms of biological exchange andthe remarkable contexts in which these everyday activitiescan occur. Jacob Copeman addresses this important gap with Veins of Devotion, a well-researched ethnography about the contributions of several North Indian devotional movements to voluntary blood donation campaigns. Critical in the classical sense, this volume traces the flowsof blood, spirit, and power through expanding domains of kinship, asceticism, nationalism, purification, and gift exchange in the urban heart of neoliberal India.

Veins of Devotion begins with a poignant example of bioavailability: a spiritual leader promising to recruit his devotees for blood donation. The promise comes in the form of a traditional Indian blessing (prasad), a combination of spiritually laden substances that, in this case, includes a piece of paper with the words “Every month, one camp.” The “camp” refers to a large-scale health camp in which hundreds or thousands of devotees donate their blood, ostensibly as offerings to the guru and to Indian society at large. Not surprisingly, these stated purposes aresegues into more complex dynamics with multiple agendas and rich opportunities for ethnographic analysis.

Copeman formulates the concept of “virtuous utility” as an organizing theme for this volume. Challenging the conventional dichotomy of utilitarian versus symbolic reasoning, virtuous utility describes interoperable relationships between these two modes while leaving plenty of space for conflict and criticism. Virtuous utility is aptly illustrated with populist religious movements who tout blood donation as a sign of enlightened modernity and moral superiority over their traditional counterparts, while claiming that their devotions would otherwise be wasted on idol worship.With similar claims to moral superiority, blood donation campaigns serve all manner of status contests, social protests, and nationalist agendas—especially when linked to historical events and memorials to charismatic leaders. One of the most famous of these campaigns is enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records for the most blood collected in a single day. A gold standard in popular Indian imagination, the Guinness Book states that the 12,000 unitscollected that day were “equivalent to 67 bathtubs of blood!” (in Copeman, p. 105). The author notes that these kinds of popular statistics serve to validate the mobilizing abilities of religious and political leaders.

Copeman also examines the interoperability between biomedical technologies and ever-expanding meanings of blood and kin. Blood has long been an index of kinship in India; yet with voluntary blood donation, both the sanguine and consanguineal are centrifuged to communities beyond the horizons of extended family. Until recently, people commonly donated blood to close kin through family replacement schemes. But with the rise of volunteer schemes, increasing numbers are allowing their blood to flow outside the traditional boundaries of kin to a much larger social body. Kinship also extends with the reproductive notion that donated blood will save, not just patient lives, but also the lives of patients’ families and their future offspring. This reproductive potential is further enhanced by laboratory centrifugation, in which whole blood is separated into multiple components, creating the possibility that a single donation will benefit as many as four patients, four families, future generations, and so forth. With these imagined reproductions, utility is framed as maximum beneficence to  a maximally extended Indian family.

Utility meets virtue when the reproductive capacity

of donated blood entails a similar capacity for spiritual

merit. But merit is problematic on many levels. Copeman

observes that anonymous blood donation may entail more

merit than family donation because the anonymity of

recipients fits better with classical notions of ritual gift-giving,

or dan. However, dan is often given to priests and

pandits in situations when the recipients are known but

their worthiness is undetermined (Gold 2000; Parry 1986).

With rakt dan—a modern form of blood sacrifice—the

recipients are unknown but nevertheless imagined to be

worthy of the gift, at least in the sense of being maximally


There is also the dilemma of poison in the gift: a

common belief that offerings serve as media for the transmission

of sin from donor to recipient (Raheja 1988).Within

this belief, spiritual attainment is often a matter of transportive

purification, the shedding away of bad deeds at the

expense of recipients rather than the acquisition of merit for

helping them (Barrett 2008). In a similar vein, one can easily

give blood across caste lines, but receiving blood from lesser

castes can be highly problematic. It is therefore notable

that, although many of Copeman’s informants claim their

donations as proof of caste transcendence, the real test is

whether they would receive blood by the same methods.

In addition to issues of ritual pollution and caste, the

author points to a more concrete dilemma posed by the

promise of spiritual merit for blood donation. Blood banks

have shifted from paid to voluntary donation largely because

of concerns that remuneration would add incentives

for overdonation or for unqualified donations from people

with HIV or other blood-borne infections. Yet spiritual

merit can be as powerful an incentive as money, therefore

presenting the same kinds of medical risks as paid donation.

Some devotional movements have guarded against

this with personal health pledges to maintain the purity

of their blood. These pledges, however, may also have the

unintended consequence of linking medical qualification to

spiritual worthiness. In all these cases, it is far better to give

than to receive.

In summary, Veins of Devotion is a fascinating ethnography

of everyday tissue exchange in urban India. For medical

anthropologists, Copeman expands the dimensions of ideology, structure, and agency in bodily donation. For scholars of religion and South Asia, he provides a new venue for analyzing the shifting domains of sacred and secular in contemporary urban India. Accessibly written, this volume is eminently teachable for a graduate or upper division undergraduate course. It is an excellent work of scholarship.

References Cited

 Barrett, Ron 2008 Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India, Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Gold, Ann G. 2000 Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Parry, Jonathan P. 1986 “The Gift, the Indian Gift, and ‘The Indian Gift’,” Man 21:453-473.

Raheja, Gloria G. 1988 The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village, Chicago: University of Chicago

The Domain of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Munnesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka byRohan Bastin (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002. Pp.xxiv + 23, references, index. $US69.95 (Hc.), ISBN 1-57181-252-0).

reviewed by Bradley S. Clough for The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2005, vol. 16, pp. 402-03.

This study of a temple complex in Sri Lanka, known as Munnesvaram, is a successfully ambitious effort, richly informative and insightful in its coverage of the site’s religious life and most sophisticated in its use and advancing of theoretical perspectives. One is both brought intimately into the workings of the temple through lively, thick descriptions of ritual activity and led to greater understandings of the functions of great temples in the broader South Asian context. While keeping a keen eye open to significant social distinctions, and tensions, this work, with its focus on temples largely maintained by Hindu priests but predominantly attended by Buddhists, is also a major contribution to recent scholarship that sees beyond the supposedly bounded identities of Tamil-speaking Hindus and Sinhala-speaking Buddhists and points to the hybrid, pluralist nature of much worship in Sri Lanka.

Bastin’s main objective is to uncover the tremendous power and appeal of Munnesvaram and show how it allows shifting forms of worship, both Tamil Saivite and Sinhala Buddhist, to take place. He seeks to discover why this traditionally Hindu site has become so popular among Buddhists today. What this book shows is that it is the site’s haskam, ‘potency’ or as Bastin renders it, ‘marvelous potentiality,’ that defines Munnesvaram and so attracts Buddhists as well as Hindus. The book can be seen as an extended exploration of haskam, and its eleven chapters aim at examining in unsurpassed detail the multiple constituents of this temple aesthetic.

The study begins with Chapter Two which, after presenting the temples’ layout and respective deities, argues that contrary to previous scholarship, worship there should not be seen as centred around Munnesvaram/Siva and Kali. Now it is Siva’s consort Ambal, identified by Buddhists with their highest goddess, Pattini, who is the deity of greatest attention. But the chapter focuses mostly on the interplay of fluid social factors that are both fundamental to contemporary Sri Lankan society and manifestly evident at the complex. For example, the marginalisation of Siva and Kali and promotion of Ambal/Pattini are Buddhist hegemonic moves reflective of their dominance in larger society. In his finely nuanced analysis of the social composition of worship, Bastin shows that while the major source of demarcation in this composition is economic, ethnic distinctions between Tamil Hindu and Sinhala Buddhist in where and whom they worship, and between local and outsider within ethno-religious groups, also loom large. These differences are expressive of the country’s current social order.

In the next four chapters, Bastin attempts to uncover the mythopoeia—the modes of consciousness operative in creating religious worlds—related to Munnesvaram. In first turning to myth, he questions E. Valentine Daniel’s theory about Tamil and Sinhala dispositions to the past, which asserts that the former are oriented primarily to ‘heritage’ and the latter to ‘history’. Bastin critiques this as too narrowly tied to Piercean categories of historicising narrativity that underestimate spatiality. Here Bastin is not denying the importance of temporality, for he is interested in how myths primordialise Munnesvaram’s power, but he also wants to reveal how Tamil and Sinhala myths of origins of temples and their resident deities differently locate the site in their respective sacred geographies of the country. Myths, however, are not the only component of Munnesvaram’s mythopoeia; worship, temple aesthetics and social life also create religious worlds, and so this study turns next, in Chapter Four, to a description of the prevalent religious practices performed there and the ethno-religious stamps they bear, in order to glean more of what the site means to its largely Buddhist clientele. Bastin maintains that the effectiveness of Munnesvaram is due to the range of practices undertaken there; it thrives in a shifting interface of different interests, practices, and styles of devotion. Of special interest are the sorcery rites, which distinguish Munnesvaram from other popular sites like Kataragama, and which have been the source of attacks by revivalists wishing to purge Buddhism of perceived corruptions. Noteworthy here is Bastin’s critique of the commonly held views that the intolerance of Buddhist purists is solely a product of colonial influence and that ‘popular’ Sinhala Buddhism is completely inclusive and tolerant. Also of interest is Bastin’s argument that Buddhist ideas concerning samsara amount to an assertion of the existence of great potency in this world. However, his characterisation here of nirvana as ‘nothingness’ and ‘annihilation’ betrays a poor understanding of Buddhist philosophy. This chapter’s full treatment of sorcery also engages and significantly adds to work done by Kapferer, Obeyesekere, and Daniel. One of Bastin’s main points, that Munnesvaram for Buddhists is not a journey to the centre for merit but to the margins for power and renewal, is also emphasised here.

Temple structure is also part of mythopoeia, and in Chapter Five Bastin investigates the nature and meaning of Munnesvaram’s architecture, to gain an understanding both of the temple qua temple and of how this Tamil Saivite temple situates itself in a Sinhala Buddhist world. As he does throughout the book, Bastin demonstrates a great command of relevant literature and provides meticulously detailed descriptions that bring the site alive, without bogging the discussion down with extraneous information. Here he shows how many great Hindu temples of South India and Sri Lanka reflect a Hindu cosmology heavily influenced by Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, but also include elements from other South Asian traditions. Indeed, for Bastin the key quality of Munnesvaram is its embracing of difference, a quality that later chapters show to be realised in its annual festival. Again, the focus is on haskam, and in this case much of the temples’ potency comes from the belief that they contain the lila or divine play of powerful deities. Chapter Six continues the work of Chapter Five by looking further into the priests’ ritual world, in order to discern how they perceive, cultivate, and maintain the religious potency of their temples in the context of a strong Buddhist presence. While Chapter Five describes the temple as space, Chapter Six describes how such space is enacted through ritual. The ritual routine, particularly its processes of circumambulatory movement through the temple and movement of lamps in puja, are presented in a finely detailed discussion spiced with intriguing observations and assertions about how it all, like the temple’s architecture, relates to key Saivite cosmogonic concepts. Here Bastin also takes issue with C. J. Fullers’ analysis of puja, arguing that he overemphasises the idea that the deities do not need offerings. Bastin counters that the logic of ritual offerings does not turn on the deities’ being beyond physical needs; the deities are believed to enjoy devotional worship. He adds that Fuller also omits how Buddhists perceive puja (as well as how their practices impact the temple’s aesthetic form); for them puja is done not to affirm faith but to fulfill vows made to deities and gain their favour. The Buddhists’ different interests and lack of piety often disturbs the Hindu priests, and Bastin maintains that such tension has increased in the context of ethnic conflict.

For its priests, the specific power of alleviation with which Munnesvaram is so closely associated comes from sakti. In his treatment of the presence of sakti in temple design and the special rites for goddesses during the Sarada Navaratri festival, Bastin endeavors to show how they contribute to the cultural distinctions of Munnesvaram as a Tamil Saivite site, and claims that these phenomena comprise an area into which Buddhist worship of Hindu goddesses does not enter. He argues that these elements contribute further to Munnesvaram’s marginal status in Buddhists’ eyes and that this status only contributes more to their attributing haskam to the place. What he wants to stress about Munnesvaram is its immediacy, and he sees its goddesses, possessors of the sakti that is the creative energy of the world, as crucial to that immediacy and its potency in the world. These points are mostly convincing, although some contradiction slips in when he asserts that the priests’ attribution of sakti to the goddesses only increases their popularity among Buddhists and convinces them more that the Munnesvaram goddess is indeed their goddess Pattini. This assertion seems to work against the argument that the elements discussed in this chapter are outside of the Buddhists’ realm of devotion.

Chapters Eight to Ten constitute the book’s final sections, which describe the preceding activities, main rituals and special events of Munnesvaram’s widely attended annual festival. Bastin looks closely at these to explore the festival as a field of religious and social possibility and potentiality. With respect to how it articulates contemporary social relations, things are often tantalisingly hinted at, but disappointingly not always fully spelled out. Regarding religion, fascinating layers of meaning are brought out, although it is unclear if these meanings are relevant to the participants themselves, since informants’ explanations are sometimes passed over rather quickly. For Bastin, the themes of spatiality and temporality are strongly reiterated in the festival. He identifies the dynamism of space as the festival’s key element. The festival creates a space of origins. Like the temple’s monumental architecture analysed in Chapter Five, its highly charged rites (once again thoroughly and fascinatingly described), enact a cosmogonic symbolism. For example, its processions, where the deities emerge from the temples to encompass the surrounding territory, are shown to elaborate the Hindu cosmological theme of emission. The counterpoint of the demonic and the divine is also identified as a dominant theme, brought out as early as pre-festival events, where the demonic aspect of boundary gods are brought into relation with their fully divine counterparts, and the high gods are empowered as models of righteous violence. Furthermore, the manifold festival rites constitute its ‘domain of constant excess’. Activities such as firewalking and sacrifice create an atmosphere of restless movement and danger which, when performed amidst such a mass of humans who take them in many different ways, allows for unfettered creative possibilities that can move in any number of directions. In the end, Bastin sees the festival as doing much more than enacting the potentiality of puja. The festival extends the power of puja to embrace conditions of further possibility, established through the temple opening itself to its world—its world of politics, economics, social relations, and current events.

Profound insights such as these abound in this complex and rewarding piece of scholarship. While some of the discourse may be rather heavy for undergraduates, the book is supplied with helpful maps, diagrams, illuminating photos, and an excellent glossary that are very useful for non-specialist and specialist alike. This is a must read for scholars of South Asian religions, as it furthers discussion and debate on such key areas as temple architecture and ritual. Anthropologists and historians of religion whose field is other than this region will find it most informative and engaging as well.

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About Sinhala consciousness in Modern Time

Chris Speldewinde of Deakin University reviews

Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815 byMichael Roberts (Colombo  Vijitha Yapa Publications. 2004. Pp.xx +274, bibliog., index. US$60.00 (He), ISBN 955-8095-31-1) for The Asutralian Journal of Anthropology, vol 19, 2008

Having spent a considerable period during my undergraduate studies of anthropology concentrating on cultural aspects of Sri Lankan society, I was enthusiastic to have been given the opportunity to read and review this work by Michael Roberts. In this latest addition to his many volumes of work on his native Sri Lanka, Roberts, has provided a rich tapestry of the period pre-dating the formalisation of British colonial rule on the island of Sri Lanka. He examines the forms of reaction of a society affected by migrating Indians from the north and European colonial expansion, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese in the mid-sixteenth century and later, the Dutch and the British. This book provides a considerable amount of both historiographical and ethnographic material, from a wide range of sources to keep the reader engrossed in the development of distinct ethnic identities on this island nation. The use of verbal history passed on through poems and songs from the period is used extensively to substantiate Roberts’ theories of the development of a definitive Sinhalese ethnic identity.

I found two common themes in Roberts’ work. One is the structural and political development of Sinhala consciousness; the other is the cultural expression of the inhabitants. It is through the lens of these two themes that I will reflect upon Roberts’ work.

Following his introductory chapter, which explores Sinhalese identity, its development and its differentiation, Roberts examines Sinhalese culture through his consideration ofcommunication in the aptly-titled second chapter ‘Modes of Communication, Orality and Poetry in the Middle Period’. He cites a range of oral communication methods that became ritualised within storytelling, chants and poetry and recited in varied situations such as in battles and in cross-country marches by royalty, to more regular aspects of daily life such as harvesting songs, lullabies and eulogies. This early chapter is a precursor to later chapters that focus on War Poems (chapter 7) and Popular Culture (chapter 8) and gives the reader a broad overview of communicatory methods. Roberts admits that this exposition of the forms of cultural transmission is ‘brief and inadequate’ (p. 34). However, I still found it to be an adequate basis for the suppositions he provides in the later chapters. Roberts, in these later chapters, uses examples of war poems to demonstrate the relationship between Sinhalese and colonial rulers. The variety of material gathered here provides strong evidence of the use of oral communication by a native people to label and differentiate ‘Others’. He also discusses the way in which such poetry was used to solidify the attachment of the populace to the hierarchical structures in place and provides some background to the beginnings of the enmity between Tamil invaders, who at the time were associated with Europeans (pp. 130-3), and the Sinhala people.

In the more historiographical sections of the book. Chapters 3 to 6, Roberts covers issues such as the development of ritual within this society. The political landscape, the development and independence of the Kandyan state and its rulers, as well as the way in which those same rulers were deified are also examined in detail. The administrative and hierarchical stmcture that sustained the Kandyan kings is similarly considered. The conceptualisation of the Sinhala nation state is discussed and well substantiated by comparing it to similar developments across nineteenth-century Europe and Asia.

Roberts’ citation of the cosmological modelling of the Sinhala state upon the Tibetan mandala comprising a core and an enclosing element (pp. 63-4) was enlightening, to say the least.

Roberts also devotes space in the book, prior to his later chapters on War Songs and Culture, providing evidence detailing the impact of European colonisation and the overlordship role played by the Kandyan king (see chapter 5). The text is rich in examples of the developing relationship between the Sinhalese and Europeans and Chapter 6 is devoted entirely to the early days of British rule. In part, this chapter considers the effect of the English vocabulary upon the Sinhala language. For scholars wishing to research the impact of British colonialism on indigenous people, this section of the work, coupled with later chapters, provides an excellent insight into colonialism’s impact.

Roberts has added a valuable piece of work to the literature available to scholars on the use of ritual in reinforcing political ideology and subordination. I highly recommend this book as a vehicle for studies in not only this facet of the social sciences but also for evidence of the transmission of oral history through poetry and the development of the concept of nation in a society. It is also a noteworthy work as an example of the impact of ethnicity in society and the outcomes of the effect of changing ethnic demographics.

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Political Awakenings in Batticaloa District, Sri Lanka

Rohan Bastin of Deakin University, reviewing Margaret Trawick: Enemy Lines: Warfare, Childhood, and Play in Batticaloa. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. 307, bibliog., index. ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24516-7; and Mark P. Whitaker: Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka. London and Ann Arbor, MI, Pluto Press, 2007. Pp. 251, bibliog., index. £19.99(Pb.), ISBN-10: 0745323537.

reprinted from The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2008.


In very different ways, each of these books examines the Sri Lankan civil war, specifically the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese state and minority Tamils. They are written by American anthropologists (one a long-time resident in New Zealand) and, to different degrees, they are set in the predominantly Tamil Eastern Province. Finally, both books relate (again, in very different ways) to the political activist and journalist Sivaram Dharmeratnam, the creator of the outstanding internet news information service, Tamilnet, who was murdered in Colombo by persons unknown in April 2005. Enemy Lines is simply dedicated to his memory while Learning Politics from Sivaram is a biography as well as a memoir of a personal friendship Mark Whitaker enjoyed with Sivaram Dharmeratnam from the early 1980s until his assassination. Enemy Lines might thus be thought of as a more conventional ethnography while Learning Politics from Sivaram joins the small but growing genre of ethnographic biography. This is an important difference, but in addition to their circumstances, both works also share a measure of their author’s reflexive presence – that ethnographic “being there” that has become the sine qua non of metropolitan/cosmopolitan authenticity. More than this, however, the incidence of memoir highlights some basic issues associated with the conduct of research in conflict situations.

Trawick’s study is based on fieldwork near the town of Batticaloa in the late 1990s, when territorial gains by the militant organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or simply The Tigers), resulted in territories under Tiger control outside the town. Making her way back and forth across the military lines, Trawick was able to live in this territory and get to know many militants, both men and women or, more appropriately, young men and women and even adolescent children. Her interest is to observe the nature of these young people’s resilience – both cultural and personal – in the circumstances of war. Her previous research is based in south India where she studied social organisation and the nature of family sentiment. She has clearly excellent Tamil language skills and through them she evokes a sense of people negotiating the social and cultural impact of prolonged insurgency, counter-insurgency and counter-counter insurgency. The result is a series of fleeting portraits of individuals associated with the Tiger movement – young women and men for whom war and the membership of a highly disciplined militant organisation has created new opportunities, risks and forms of loss. The most powerful of these is the loss of family through dislocation and death. Trawick conveys this through the crafted organisation of her fieldwork journals complete with entry dates that provide diary-like fragments of description and, overall, elicit a sense of surrealism where, quite intentionally, snippets of observation sit at the periphery of one’s vision.

And it was in my peripheral vision that I saw Meena and Anbarasi, young women just briefly returned from combat, going back into combat, wounded and in one case facially disfigured, apparently not concerned about their wounds, and not embarrassed about [sic] asking and taking plastic children’s toys, tiny signs of my care for them, back with them to the battlefront. That gesture spoke eloquently, in a language I cannot translate, of what lived in the hearts of these girl warriors. (p.275)

The reference to untranslatable language simply reinserts the ethnographer feeling her way through a barely comprehensible cultural landscape where normative codes and actions have been displaced into the realm of the incongruous. This is life during wartime when the play of children and of those whose path to adolescence is marked by military training, combat and death confront a metropolitan and safe reader to give a momentary jolt.

The historical background chapter (chapter 2) is more than disappointing. Trawick declares that she is not trying to analyse the Sri Lankan conflict, as there are “millions of words” on this topic (p.14). That’s OK, but I’m surprised at how few of these words Trawick has read and the historical inaccuracies that result when she sets about contextualising her context for the study of childhood, warfare and play. It is almost as if it does not matter, and for me this smacks of the basic apolitical conservatism underlying much anthropology refusing to grasp the nature of the world in which its cultural lab-rats turn their treadmills.

People who genuinely wish to understand the Sri Lankan conflict and its childhood and play are advised to look to other sources and skip this chapter, while those who have some knowledge already are also advised to skip it and thereby be in a better frame of mind when they read the descriptions from the war zone. I may, therefore, have been jaundiced, but I also found these descriptions of childhood and play unsatisfying, because there was hardly anything there.

Learning Politics from Sivaram is much more interesting, but in its own way it highlights this kind of naivety so many North American anthropologists routinely display. Whitaker takes pains to present himself as a kind of “Connecticut Yankee” blundering self-deprecatingly through the Sri Lankan landscape and especially its conflict. This enables him to convey his political awakening which is partly facilitated by the chance meeting during his doctoral research in Batticaloa with the remarkable young man Sivaram Dharmeratnam. Like Sivaram, Whitaker is a wordsmith and highly literate, albeit more in the limited traditions of American pragmatic liberalism. Sivaram, in contrast, is better read (he’s better than most of us) but, as Whitaker shows, Sivaram’s reading, both in Western thought and in Tamil history and literature, are overdetermined by the conflict and his need to engage in it. Critically, and especially in relation to Whitaker’s self-conscious ingenuousness, Sivaram becomes a tragic hero who remained in Sri Lanka committed to the Tamil struggle through a commitment to careful political analysis and the courageous reporting of events leading to death threats and eventually assassination. Taking over an inconsequential Tamil information website called Tamilnet in 1996, Sivaram created an internet news service so good it was banned in Sri Lanka in 2007. Before that, writing under the pseudonym Taraki, Sivaram produced some of the most incisive analysis of the conflict for the English-language press in Sri Lanka. Here he brought his phenomenal scholarship (almost completely self-taught) to bear on his direct experience of the conflict as a member and one-time combatant of PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) in the 1980s. In a nutshell, this is the story Whitaker has written. He first met Sivaram in Batticaloa Town in the early 1980s, and from there a friendship was born that later became the idea for an official biography that Sivaram (clearly a man with all the vanity and aplomb of an autodidact) welcomed.

Sivaram’s analysis of the conflict developed in hand with an analysis of the state and of nationalism. As a member of the more Marxian PLOTE, Sivaram initially envisioned an ultimate unity along class lines between Sinhalese and Tamil that was not imagined by rival and later enemy groups such as the Tigers. The Indian intervention in 1987 that firmly fractured the rival interests of different militant groups saw an end to Sivaram’s militancy and the development of the political commentator. Moreover, Sivaram’s respect for the insurgency and especially counter-counter-insurgency tactics of the Tigers grew as he came to understand better the intractability of the Sri Lankan government in respect to conceding that the fundamental nature of the Sri Lankan state had to change if there were ever to be a lasting peace. With this, Sivaram’s sense of his own role became clearer and with that his need to risk losing his own life, especially after the defection from the Tigers of their Eastern Province commander, Karuna, in 2003.

The result is an interesting book that stands as a testimony to an original thinker, the intellectual traditions of his Tamil culture, and his struggles with the political order of his country, its cleavages and their global networks, and the intellectual traditions of the dominant Western society that both seduced him and frustrated him. At the same time Whitaker’s book is in step with Trawick’s account in highlighting the political naivety that seems routinely to accompany American anthropologists who set out to study the customs of exotic peoples in far away and, as in this instance, strife-torn places.


A. J. Wilson: Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism: its origins and development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ( London: C. Hurst & Co., 2000) 203 pp.

reviewed by John Rogers, Tufts University

The late A.J. Wilson was a distinguished Canadian-based political scientist whose previous publications concentrated on post-independence Sri Lanka.  In this volume, completed about a year before his death, he seeks to ‘explain and analyse the rise of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka’ (1).  About half the book is concerned with Sri Lanka under the British rule, and the other half with more recent developments.  One chapter, ‘Eelam Tamil Nationalism: an inside view’, is contributed by A.J.V. Chandrakanthan.

This book represents the first attempt to provide a comprehensive historically-based account of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism.  It is based on little new research, but does bring together material from scattered publications, some of which are obscure.  Wilson begins with nineteenth century cultural movements among Jaffna Tamils, which are portrayed as sharpening Tamil ethnic consciousness.  He then turns to the elitist politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially the careers of the brothers Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Ponnambalam Arunachalam.  He argues that these men served Tamils well until late in their careers, when the coming of mass politics led to new challenges that they were unable to meet.  The narrative then moves on to G.G. Ponnambalam and his All-Ceylon Tamil Congress.  Wilson argues that Ponnambalam did great service in mobilizing Tamils in the 1930s and 1940s, but that he too was left behind by events late in his career.  One of Wilson’s heroes is his own father-in-law, C.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who split with Ponnambalam and formed the Federal Party in 1949, shortly after independence.  Chelvanayakam was the first politician to argue explicitly and consistently that the Sri Lankan Tamils were a nation with their own traditional homeland in the northeast of the island.  For a long time, he did not envision an independent Tamil state.  However, as Wilson’s account shows, after 1956 the political and social position of Sri Lankan Tamils became increasingly difficult within the Sinhalese-dominated polity, and in 1976 Chelvanayakam, as leader of the new Tamil United Liberation Front, came out for independence.  According to Wilson, Sri Lankan Tamils were reluctant separatists, who were forced into demanding independence by the insensitivity of successive Sinhalese-dominated governments in Colombo.  He also points to pressure from young radical Tamil militants as a factor in pushing Tamil politicians to demand independence.  Chelvanayakam died in 1977, and at this point, with the escalation of violence between Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan state, Wilson’s narrative becomes less measured and more fractured.  Some topics, such as the negotiations between the government and Tamil politicians in late 1970s and early to mid 1980s, receive considerable attention, but there is little attempt to explain divisions among Tamils or any of the distinctive characteristics of recent Sri Lankan Tamil politics.  The chapter by Chandrakanthan, which is more passionate in tone than the rest of the book, provides much of the coverage of the 1990s, and gives a sometimes vivid account of events in that decade.

Wilson writes within a worldview of Tamil nationalism.  He believes that the Tamils in modern Sri Lanka always require a ‘charismatic leader’ (22), and that the best Tamil politicians in both the colonial and post-independence eras are those who see their role as representing their own ‘community’.  His narrative is constructed to show that Sri Lankan Tamils have had no alternative to pursuing the goal of independence.  His account of the beleaguered position of Sri Lankan Tamils in the decades after 1956 is by and large convincing, but his need to frame the narrative so that history supports the present Tamil nationalist struggle will mislead non-specialist readers.  In the historical sections, the narrative is teleological, with events progressing relentlessly towards the realization that Tamils really constitute a nation and that the Sinhalese will never allow them their rights within an all-island polity.  Wilson does mention caste and regional divisions, but always as factors to be overcome by the Tamil leadership.  In the more contemporary sections, Wilson’s commitment to the cause leads him to avoid or dismiss many of the contradictions of contemporary Tamil nationalism.  The troubled relationship between Tamils and Muslims, the position of the Up-Country Tamils, the remarkable use of children and women in the armed struggle, and the appalling human rights record of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are all pushed aside.  As a result, although this book has value for readers already well-acquainted with Sri Lankan politics, it is likely to mislead and confuse non-specialists without the background to understand its assumptions and its oblique references to some of the more troublesome aspects of recent Tamil nationalism.



Critical Premises: The Nation and its Borders in Contemporary Sri Lankan Literature in English

Neloufer de Mel of University of Colombo

Review of Minoli Salgado, Writing Sri Lanka: Literature, Resistance and the Politics of  Place, (London & New York, Routledge, pp. 217).

Borders, whether they signify spatial, temporal, critical, creative, gestural or performative locations, figure as a central analytical category in Minoli Salgado’s appraisal ofcontemporary Sri Lankan literature in English in her book Writing Sri Lanka: Literature, Resistance and the Politics of Place. Important and timely, given its own argument thatSri Lankan literature in English has yet to find ‘settlement’ within the canon of postcolonial literatures and is largely known in the West only through the work of itsmigrant writers, Writing Sri Lanka offers the reader valuable (re)appraisals of the novels of James Goonewardene, Punyakante Wijenaike, Carl Muller, Jean Arasanayagam, A. Sivanandan, Shyam Selvadurai, Michael Ondaatje and Romesh Gunasekera. Importantly, it also insists on a detailed and energetic engagement with the local, Sri Lankan critical reception of this work in a maneuver that marks the creative text and critical field asequally important intersecting registers in the discursivity of Sri Lankan writing in English today.

The borders are from where one writes, whether creatively and/or critically. In Writing Sri Lankathey feature as sites of contest particularly when marked as fluid and contingent by writers, and rooted and fixed by critics. On the axes of this tussle residequestions of cultural (il)legitimacy, patriotism and nationalism. It is apt to recall PaulGilbert’s statement here that literatures, not accidentally, bear the name of nations, stamping an ‘inescapably political context’ within which they are written, constructed\and received. (Gilbert (1996) ‘The idea of a national literature,’ John Horton & Andrea Baumeister (eds.) Literature and the Political Imagination, Routledge, 198-217) It follows that works of Sri Lankan literature in English which do not fit the critic’s understanding of what constitutes ‘the nation’ and of how it should be represented are ‘expatriated’ and ostracized from the national literary canon. Those which do conform (and it must be noted that critical prescriptions have themselves changed over time responding to the demands of cultural de-colonization, nationalism and post-nationalism) are upheld as units of value and therefore inclusion in the canon. Divided into three parts, Writing Sri Lanka takes the reader through a contextual introduction to these issues in Part 1, the work of Lankan writers domiciled in Sri Lanka in Part 2, and those residing abroad in Part 3.

Critical Premises

Salgado marks two ‘critical territorialities’ occupying the spectrum of Sri Lankan English literary criticism which have, in one way or another, engaged with the project of inclusion and exclusion. The first she terms ‘patrician’ which has its derivative roots in a Leavisite tradition and a corollary in ethno-nationalist thought in its impulse to act as a paternalistic guardian of national culture. Epitomized in the title Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003, which deploys sweeping categories in an unself-reflexive manner that is invested in a unitary, homogenized concept of the nation, this type of criticism oscillates between stating, on the one hand, that ‘the artistic weakness of [Sri Lankan] poetry is […] because our recent poets do not draw upon the Western traditions available to them’, while berating Sri Lankan writers working in English for their remoteness from Sri Lankan ‘realities’ and for their Westernized sensibilities on the other (p.32). The effect of this, according to Salgado, is an ‘antinomian scripting of anglicisation to mark boundaries of belonging in ways that reveal the profound uncertainty underpinning the project of cultural identification.’(p.33)

Such paradoxes and contradictions constitutive of ‘patrician’ criticism are necessary to signal. But that they remain on a latent, aporetic register unknown to, or ignored by the ‘patrician’ critic despite the deconstructive critical turn within postcolonial literary theory today is, in my opinion, equally important to mark. Such an emphasis requires us to go beyond an easier dismissal of the ‘patrician’ critic as old fashioned and past his sell-bydate, to pay attention, as Salgado does in her book, to the discursive registers that may connect apparently divergent schools of criticism, whether ‘patrician’ or not. Salgado argues that such connections take place when the common critical endeavour is that of cultural and national guardianship.

Two main critical approaches to such custodianships are noted in the book. The ‘patrician’ route is one. The other is a ‘nativist’ path that broadly undertakes a revision ofthe literary canon within a ‘subaltern politics of reclamation’ but does so, in turn, throughdifferent emphases that construct lines of exclusion and inclusion. The exclusionist isoften underpinned by an ‘isolationist cultural logic’ that leads to a rejection of Westernmodels and ‘filters’ the work of migrant Sri Lankan writers to assess whether they shouldbe included in the canon or not (p.27). The inclusionist works to privilege the local as well as marginal voices.

Salgado does allow, at times, for how standards of ‘authenticity’ and representation have shifted over the years towards a greater absorption of lessons learnt from the historical exigencies of (post)nationalism, diaspora and globalization. From a position that insisted on an autochthonous identity in the early days of cultural decolonization there is greaterdiscussion now of the pluralities that shape the postcolonial nation. These pluralities arenot uncontested, but importantly, as Writing Sri Lanka emphasizes, they are also linked to diasporas that make territory no longer determined or bounded (p.167). Hybridity becomes a valued identity. However, an important argument in Writing Sri Lanka residesin the assertion that even when Sri Lankan critics have stressed the category of hybridity when highlighting how a writer like Michael Ondaatje, for instance, gestures towards the political marginalization of the Burghers in postcolonial Sri Lanka, they do so by offering detailed socio-political contextualizations the writers themselves resist. In doing so the critics serve to fix the nation yet again (p. 135). Nor is the place of unqualified hybriditywithout tension. Salgado notes that ‘triumphalist hybridism’, when combined with‘nostalgic nativism’ (Gayathri Spivak’s terms) neutralizes the processes of hybridity in amanner that masks socio-cultural hierarchies (p.168). Against such maneuvers, Salgado proposes the affirmation of an ‘agonistic hybridity’ that she finds in the work of Jean Arasanyagam, in which the labours of the creative writer to invent oneself which, at times, can also lead to laboured writing, signal a literary resistance to the prescriptions of identity generated by the hegemonic narratives of the nation, whether exclusionist or inclusionist, ‘patrician’ or postmodern. A primary goal of Writing Sri Lanka is, therefore, to realign some of the key critical premises that frame our discussions of nation, ethnicityand cultural work today.

Language, Nation and Violence

With this goal in mind Writing Sri Lanka chooses to dislodge prescriptions of authenticity and allegiance towards ‘varied and contrastive ways of belonging’ (p.11); dislocate Sri Lankan writing in English and its reception from polarized views of resident or expatriate (p.21); focus on how, quoting Shohat and Stam (Unthinking Eurocentrism, 1994), ‘cultural syncretism takes place both at the margins and between the margins and a changing mainstream’(p.38); and how ‘being’ is constituted through a process of ‘becoming’ (p.166). Language, nation and violence are marked as key registers in the representation of the postcolonial Sri Lankan nation.

The use of the colonial tongue is a central preoccupation in the work of postcolonial literatures and the use of English for cultural work in Sri Lanka is no exception. Salgadoargues that uncertainty shapes its regulatory discourse (p.22) and illustrates her position by highlighting many contradictory statements in the critical appraisals of the use of English in Sri Lankan creative writing. These range from charges of elitism to statements about the writer’s alienation, to a celebration of the hybridized play of language as indeed grounded in Sri Lankan ‘realities’. Writing Sri Lanka would have benefited, perhaps, from a little more time spent on taking into account the dates of these varying critiques which span a twenty year period to mark how attitudes to language and sociolinguistics have a historicity in Sri Lanka that has, in turn, shaped the reception of its literature in English. If as Salgado notes, the varied critical approaches to the use of English in this creative writing ‘register the ways in which linguistic markers of difference are scriptedto serve specific readings of national culture, and when taken collectively, reveal that

English in Sri Lanka does not in fact have a stable cultural base, centre or constituency at all’ (p.23), this takes as its point of departure a postmodernist understanding of languageidentity.Such a postmodernist approach did not animate Sri Lankan criticism in the1970s when ‘biculturalism’, for instance, was only looked at as a split between ‘alien’ and ‘indigenous’ (p.36) rather than as a usefully unstable locale.

The bulk of the book deals with how Sri Lankan novelists depict questions of nation, violence and sexuality. Salgado provides an extremely important and timely reappraisal of the work of James Goonewardene. Responding to the political trajectories unleashed not only by the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act of 1956 but also the 1971 JVP insurrection which had a profound influence on him, Goonewardene’s works like The Awakening of Dr. Keerti and Other Stories (1976) and One Mad Bid for Freedom (1990) are shown to chart the author’s deep misgivings of the nationalist course the country had taken (p.43). Salgado also notes his weaknesses: the manner in which Goonewardene collapses cultural difference onto a physical one, replicating a colonial biological essentialism that revilesthe native (p.53); his moralistic depiction of Third World ‘overpopulation’ in The Tribal Hangover (1995), and his generalizations on ‘the formulation of the “mass mind” petrifying it into a transhistorical marker of national identity.’ (p.54) These moves effect a dystopian world difficult to digest. But Salgado scrupulously perseveres to re-assess the Manichean allegories of mass violence in this work as prescient of the violence that would mar the country and its psyche from 1983 onwards. She also refuses to dismiss Goonewardene’s failures for the cautionary tale they hold: of ‘the complex ways in which antinationalism can be internally coded to work in the service of precisely that which it seeks to subvert.’(p.57)

With the work of Punyakante Wijenaike, Minoli Salgado offers not so much a mapping of the author’s work in tandem with critical readings of it (the methodology that largelyframed the chapter on James Goonewardene), but through readings of her own. Using the concepts of the uncanny and unhomely which effect a spectral presence that unsettles, erupts and disrupts, Salgado analyzes Wijenaike’s novels, set mainly in walauwa/manor houses, as those within the genre of melodrama. Absences that menace and confused blood lines haunt these dwellings (pp.62-7). As Antionette Burton notes elsewhere, the frequency with which women writers have turned to the metaphor of the home ‘to stage their dramas of remembrance’ indicates how influential and gendered the cult of domesticity is, and the gendered nature of the patriarchal household itself. (Burton, (2003)

Dwelling in the Archive, London, OUP, p. 6) How Punyakante Wijenaike, in a radical turn, disrupts the foundational assumptions of such households by highlighting taboo sexualities and relationships, and conversely, in a prescriptive turn maps urban life in thewake of terrorism to privilege Sinhala ethno-nationalism is highlighted in Writing Sri Lanka.

Jean Arasanayagam’s work, which dwells on ‘the violence of enforced difference’(p.74) is shown to stand in contrast. Through a discussion of her use of landscape idiom,whether it is the sensuous and poisoned Garden of Eden or the spatiality of the refugee camp, Salgado highlights Arasanayagam’s work as both a ‘critique of the reification of territory’ and a negotiation of her physical and cultural belonging to it (p.83). She also notes that while Arasanayagam’s work resists ‘ethnically marked readings it has […] been consistently so positioned by some critics’ (p.83). This does sum up the majority readings of Arasanayagam, which also take their cue from her repeated return(s) to thesame subject of self-identity-nation. But at times these same readings have posited other dimensions of Arasanayagam’s work, most notably her deployment of gender, sexuality and motherhood in the construction of her ‘post-national textual self.’ If, as stated at the beginning of Writing Sri Lanka, it is important to shift prescriptions of authenticity and allegiance towards ‘varied and constrastive ways of belonging’, feminist readings of Arasanayagam’s work are in line with such a move. It is true that these readings may privilege gender as an intersecting identity in Arasanayagam’s larger bargaining with the nation/territory. However, their different emphasis opens up Arasanayagam’s work to be read in ways that are not always only about ethnic/national difference.

Salgado draws her discussions of Sri Lankan authors domiciled in the country to a close with an analysis of Carl Muller’s work. She comments on its inherent paradoxes: the ‘carnivalesque linguistic subversion’ to be found in Jam Fruit Tree (1993); the ethnonational conservatism in Children of the Lion (1997). Genealogy, as a profoundly postcolonial preoccupation (p.92) figures as a main theme and trope in Muller’s novels, the textual performativities of which play themselves out specifically on women’s bodies and sexuality. Salgado notes that whereas the women in Jam Fruit Tree display a sexual agency that subverts the stereotype of colonized women as passive sexual subjects (p.96), the re-inscription of the Mahavamsa tales as timeless and transhistorical in Children of the Lion makes for a troubling representation of the female subject. While the formerendorses hybrid bloodlines, the latter’s emphasis on female virginity supports an ‘anxietyfor ancestry’ that impels Muller to provide graphic accounts of the sexual pain and rapesof these women by lions, war lords and kings who comprise the founding fathers of the Sinhala nation as proof of ancestry (p.99). Salgado argues therefore for a re-appraisal of Muller’s sexism as an ideological effect that exceeds gender, rooted rather in ethnonationalism.

Gender and nationalist thought are now well understood as intersecting and overdetermining positions, so that Salgado’s call appears to be largely about a matter of emphasis. (However, it would not be irrelevant to ask what is at stake, what is lost and gained, in deploying one emphasis over another.) Opting herself for a stress on the ethnonational, Salgado provides a detailed discussion of the author’s major texts (including the one considered ‘unmistakably’ about Burghers) as those which legitimize the nation as Sinhala Buddhist, effected through textual maneuvers, amongst others, by which Tamils are shown to fail at assimilation with the Sinhala majority.

Migrant Locations and the Nation

Part Three of Writing Sri Lanka concentrates on a group of writers considered Sri Lanka’s foremost migrant novelists: A. Sivanandan, Shyam Selvadurai, MichaelOndaatje and Romesh Gunasekera. Arguing that they inhabit a borderline, Salgado discusses their locationality as ‘simultaneously a liminal and interstitial site of resistance intransigence and political translation.’(p.109) She draws attention to the many intersectionalities that link the work of Sivanandan and Selvadurai. Both are realist writers. Both experienced ethnic violence. Both develop texts that reveal socialcontradictions through distinctions of class, ethnicity and gender. (p.110) But the differences between the two are as significant. Sivanandan, a Marxist, emphasizes class, Selvadurai, a gay activist, sexuality. Another difference lies, according to Salgado, in how Sivanandan’s novel When Memory Dies (1997) occupies overlapping temporalities of the performative (with its repetitions and interruptions) and the pedagogic (accumulative, historically sedimentary) which makes for an instability around thecultural significations he employs. It is argued that Selvadurai, on the other hand, relieon the pedagogical which essentializes ethnic difference to foreground adolescent perspective and sexuality (p.112).


These varied emphases, textual strategies and discursive contradictions in Sri Lankan creative writing in English and its critical reception take us to the heart of the issuesaround representation. The debate over the ‘accuracy’ of the ‘historical record’ in When Memory Dies is a case in point. Memory, emphasized in the novel’s title itself, is anunstable register, an interpretive position that resists, interrogates and even distorts the dominant historical record. Dwelling on how critics like Regi Siriwardena denounced the ‘distortion’ of historical events in the novel, particularly in the suggestion that the July ’83 ambush of thirteen Sri Lanka army soldiers by the LTTE was accompanied by a rumour that Buddhist priests were killed in Jaffna which led to the ‘riots’, Salgado writes of such a ‘slippage’ as a discursive contradiction in the novel which creates aninterpretive gap between readers who know the ‘real story’ and those outside/foreign who do not. Salgado shows fiction here to produce knowledge that is unstable in its enunciation even as it gains in a ‘subaltern reclamation of a suppressed past’ and politics of co-existence (p.118). But equally noteworthy is that the vicissitudes of memory, shaped by fantasy, desire, subsequent events, and fusion of old and new ones (Kaplan Ann E., (2005) Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, p.42) are often deployed by writers to show how memory really works. Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai who, in Midnight’s Children, proves to be an unreliable witness in this regard comes to mind. What characters like these repeatedly and importantly do is warn the reader of representation as always different and deferredfrom the real.

Minoli Salgado closes her book with chapters on Michael Ondaatje and Romesh

Gunasekera. Arguing against the charge of Orientalism in Ondaatje’s Running in the

Family (1982), she draws attention to its fabulous, hybrid (the text itself is

novel/autobiography) and satirical forms that in reality invites the reader to note the

‘impossibility and inappropriateness of mimesis.’(p.132) The effect of this is to unsettle

the authority of all systems, the corollary of which is to show that contexts are themselves

provisional and contingent. Engaging with the debate between Qadri Ismail and Radhika

Coomaraswamy on whether the ending of Anil’s Ghost (2000) reinforces an ethnicized

Buddhist nationalism or Buddhist humanism, Salgado argues that both miss the point.

She offers an alternative reading of the eye painting ceremony as hybrid, syncretic and

subaltern. Arguing that the ritual is within Mahayana, not Theravada Buddhism, that the

new statue is made to face the war torn north and not the rising sun from the east as

traditionally required, Salgado reads in Ondaatje’s location of Mahayana ritual in the

south of the country a radical act of dislocating nationalism’s narratives (p.141). Her

readings of Romesh Gunasekera’s novels in turn emphasize their effect of provisionality

rather than fixities of the past or projections of a linear, teleological future. Salgado

concedes (in agreement with local critics) that Heaven’s Edge (2002) for instance

contains a touristy mediation of place by evoking a sensuous visuality of the terrain; of

oral pleasure, consumption and timelessness, itself a product of leisure; and a

‘strangeness of surroundings [that] serve to endorse the unity of self.’(p.164) But she also

argues that all of this opens up the possibility of resistant readings to territorialization.

Heaven’s Edge is deliberately set on an unnamed island and the alienation enforced is by

a landscape reconfigured by war into a place where ‘belonging is no longer yet possible.’


Writing Sri Lanka is an important intervention in the study of Sri Lankan literature in

English in particular and postcoloniality in general. More suited for an academic reader,

the book offers detailed, alternative, and significant readings of the major Sri Lankan

writers in English of our time. The structure of the book creates a distinction between

writers domiciled in Sri Lanka and those living abroad which somewhat undermines

Salgado’s stated objective of going beyond an internal/external binary in the critical reception of this work. Such a re-alignment of locationality may have been better served from an arrangement which deliberately juxtaposed the writers rather than separating them into distinct categories of resident/migrant. Occasionally the internal/external binary erupts through Salgado’s own readings, indexical of its discursive power. Assessing the manner in which Manique, a Sri Lankan emigrant in Australia narrates the story of the island in James Goonewardene’s The Tribal Hangover in a short space of time – an undertaking marked in the novel itself as ‘a nearly impossible task’ (Goonewardene (1995) Tribal Hangover, Delhi, Penguin, 1995, p.81) Salgado states that Manique’s narrative is an

‘external perspective [which] informs the depiction of pack mentality’ in the novel (p.55).

But all of this goes to show that Writing Sri Lanka is an important book precisely because

it struggles and engages with complex issues that shape the discursivities around Sri

Lankan literature in English and its critical reception. It insists, correctly, that location

does matter and that it is not a neutral place. It provokes us to think about the function of creative writing and criticism at a time of crisis, and be aware of how ostensibly different reading practices can end up reinforcing the same thing. It encourages us to re-assess our writers, and in particular notes their resistance to territoriality as ethical turns. At the same time it provokes us towards an understanding that territoriality is not the only determining factor in how difference is mediated. It follows that the idea of a national literature itself becomes charged. For these, as well as its rich and detailed discussions of the works of Sri Lankan authors writing in English, Writing Sri Lanka is an essential book for students and scholars of Sri Lankan literature in English and postcolonial studies.

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Published in Polity 4 no. 3, 2007, Colombo, Social Scientists’ Association, pp. 21-5.

5 responses to “Book Reviews

  1. Nadesan

    This message is NOT about your book review, but about the top line in your webpage.

    You have a clickable entity called “Sinhala mindset”. What about the more blatant “Tamil mindset” that we Tamils have generated, and had to face, day in and day out? This Tamil mindset is particularly strong among the English educated Colombo Christian Tamils (and those of the Diaspora who are wealthy Tamils who managed to emigrate) who do NOT know much Tamil, or Tamil culture, Hindu culture, but pay lip service to them. They behave likeliberal western gentlement when dealing with the Whites, and haughty Periya Dorei when dealing with ordinary Tamils up in the north. They use the “inga va” type of rude Tamil to all except their class. They inquire carefully what the caste is, they worry about a big dowrey for their daughters, and look for upper caste professional boys living in Canada
    as bride grooms. They are utterly sure of their superiority, and try to trace back their genealogy if possible to a Chola aristocrat.
    They did not have any problem with funding the war, child soldiers etc, as long as their kids were safe. Dr. E. M. V. Nagalingam, a big leader of the ITAK, a catholic doctor who had no Tamil culture; but he claimed that he was directly descendant from a Chola King! Their family lived on Bagatelle Road or Alfred house gardens, but claimed vast bits of land in the North. His daughter was appointed to the foreign ministry by the Sinhala government, but her mindset was such that she used her diplomatic post to subvert her own minister and even spread scandals about Dudley Senanayake. I am a Tamil living in Mt. Lavinia among Tamils and Sinhalese, and it is the clannishness of the Tamils – the Tamil mindset – which prevents integration and ethnic reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. I see this clearly at my work place, where the sinhalese are care-free, friendly, and talk about cricket. I am sad to say that the Tamil mindset is duplicitous, domineering and clannish – i.e., racist.

    But you yourself living in Aussiland have to pay lip service to the Tamil diaspora because they are very powerful in the academic world. There it is fashionable to attack the Sinhala mindest, and say nothing about the other side of the coin . If you include anything called the tamil mindset you will be labeled a chauvinist. But read JohnPulle, Dr. Noel Nadeson, Sebastian Rasalingam, Lenin Benadict, and even DBSJeyraj, etc, etc., and you see that there is another voice among the Tamils that you are so ready to ignore. I do not know if you are a Tamil or a sinhalese. But the name Roberts is most likely to point towards an upper caste Christian tamil, or at least a karaivar Tamil. Names like Roberts, Philips, Edwards, Paul, Willy (e.g., the lawyer from Texas) are probably typical of your class of Tamils. They are not true “Thuppahi” cross-breeds, because they are Jekyll and Hayde types who behave one way with the westerners, and in another way with the local Tamils like us.

    Soory, the future belongs to another class of Tamils who live in Sri lanka, and who are trying to from another mindset. This dissenting voice was asphyxiated by the LLTE, and by the upper-class anglicized Tamils, and their fellow travellers.

    But we even today don’t get a platform to express our views.

  2. S Bala

    Dear Prof Michael Roberts,

    When I read your review about a book which deceived many readers ” Tamil Tigress” by a woman penned under the name of Niromi De Soyza. in later 2011 , I did not believe initially.

    Addition to your writing , I read a detail blue print in the following link I was really shock to see the motive of the author Niromi De Soyza . Book start with the false information about the date of birth !

    i can see how the author Niromi is changes the tune to sell her books in Sri Lanka .

    Her second edition of the book come to Sri Lanka with the change of cover page and the selective changes in the last chapter to deceive the Sri Lankan readers. But rest of the world get the book with the previous cover ( A child with the gun) . Now she is selling in Sri Lanka with the new cover and with the modified last chapter through

    How can an average person can capitalise the death of the friend and plight of the people in Sri Lanka to make money and . She is still hiding away not Sri lankan community and avoiding the Sri lankan community .

    After failing to get a seat at the Galle Literary festival this year, She started again to justify the war. A very recent appearance with one of the former BBC Journalists at the Adelaide Festival . She has changed the tune according to the audience at the Adelaide festival.

    De soyza is very clever in marketing, without spending a penny she is taking piggy bag ride , Authors Francis Harrison and Gordon Weiss will realise one day.

    Did you notice how De Soyza justify the economy refugees who are landing from Puttalum, Kalpitty and other coasting area in Sri Lanka. The places never experience war. They pay over1.5 million Sri Lankan rupees to come to Australia. How can a refugee afford to raise such an amount?

    Thanks Michael for exposing the truth first to the public about the first interview in the Radio.

    It is scary to see what extend Niromi de Soyza can go to deceive for Money . It would be better Niromi De Soyza sells her own body at brothel for making money than selling the dead friend and the citizens of Sri Lanka who are directly caught in the war for making money. what do you think Michael ?


    • Jega

      Can you explain how she deceived all? You listened to this Prof. guy and believe all he has said. I know her personally and everything she said about herself being in the LTTE is true. What happened inside the LTTE I do not know. Her friend indeed was shot by the IPKF but Niromi escaped. So, what is your point?

  3. Pingback: Niromi De Soyza’s Message to the Australian, at Adelaide Writers’ Week | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. San (Sanath) De Silva

    Kumari Jayawardena was married to my first cousin, Dr. Lal Jayawardena, who passed away some years ago.

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