Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Dharmaloka: A school, and a lesson


“What have they planned for us?” the boy next to me asked, bewildered, as the van we all were in drove up past the gates. He got the answer immediately: a procession of students lined up before a budu madura, boys on one side, girls on the other. It was charming, but perhaps a little too much to take in, since nothing I, or we, had done had warranted a retinue which had obviously been arranged for us. We got down clumsily, some so confused that they’d forgotten to put on their school ties, and stared. Then the bell rang, the principal and the teachers came, and there was a call to worship. Hastily putting our hands together, we obliged and prayed with them.

In most rural Sinhala villages, particularly in far-flung outposts, Buddhism is firmly linked with the education of children. There’s one school in Colombo that’s gained a reputation for its budu madura, but elsewhere it’s a norm: a school must have a shrine, and students pray before it every morning. For schoolboys from multicultural – and in my case, secular – establishments, it’s hard to come to terms with this reality, because we’re taught a very different gospel in our classrooms. The boys beside me knew their gathas and sutras, certainly more than me, but this kind of communal worship was, I could see, outside their experience: for them faith is personal, never to be invoked out loud. Here, however, one cannot whisper. One has to raise one’s voice.

Through Ratnapura, Rakwana connects Colombo to Embilipitiya, which is where the Sambaragamuwa meets the Dakuna. Pelmadulla lies between the two, and we were at present in a school there. To keep a long story short, I had written an article on a set of boys who had organised a Book Fair at their school in Colombo; their leader, who had attended the school we were at until Fifth Grade, had been asked to come with them, and me, to an otherwise innocuous ceremony: the opening of a new library.

It’s a little difficult to explain the sociological undercurrents of this phenomenon: the telescoping of mundane ceremonies to the status of profoundly significant events. But it’s a reality that’s only too pervasive outside Colombo. And in any case, it wasn’t just the library we were occupied with: the boy was being “celebrated” because he’d made it to the news years after he had aced that ultimate symbol of educational mobility, the pahe shishyathwaya. We were being celebrated with him, and also thanked for having contributed, in some small way at least, to his ascent.

The school we were at, Dharmaloka Vidyalaya, is not small, but then I realised that this was precisely the point: it’s the kind of intermediate institution which churns out most of the scholarship wallahs who end up at Royal and Ananda and Dharmaraja and Richmond. In this boy and his colleagues, who had also gone to Colombo through the shishyathwaya, the staff and the principal had thus vindicated themselves.

And in vindicating themselves, they were bending over backwards vindicating us. A procession of dancers – a Sabaragamuwa procession, the first I’d seen in years since I hardly come across the tradition outside these regions, in the classroom or elsewhere – led us to a stage from which the Assembly for the day was to be conducted. We were taken through all the preliminaries: the lamp, the incense sticks, the anthem, and the opening addresses. They read their missives to us, we read ours to them, and we were presented with the only trinkets they would have seen fit to give us: some nawarathna gems. Then there was breakfast, of course – kiribath, kavum, walithalapa – followed, finally, by the ceremony we were to grace: that library opening.

The ceremony, which included various customary exchanges between the two groups, took 40 minutes. In any case, I didn’t take part. I was busy examining the books, and more importantly, the paintings. It was then that I noticed they were everywhere, and not just them, but clay figures, mannequins, even devil masks. After we finished, and when we were taken around the school, I didn’t come across a single classroom which didn’t have mosthara or kurutu. The climax came at the Principal’s office: there, on the wall, with a poem extolling the virtues of hard work engraved lavishly on it, was the cover of the magazine which had my article on these boys. Sometimes gratitude can overreach itself. I smiled.


Dharmaloka is special, and stands out, for a reason: for the last few years and decades, the school has clinched nearly every category at national art competitions. At last year’s Interschool Art Competition, for instance, 15 of the 16 participants won awards and certificates, coming first in three categories, second in three, and third in one, with two consolation prizes. Unlike most State-sponsored cultural shows that end up being censured (like this year’s Drama Festival), the Interschool Art Competition recognises merit on a neutral criterion. Now we know “chitra kalawa” is taught inadequately in our schools. What can “explain” Dharmaloka and these victories, then?

Sri Lanka faces a peculiar problem. Despite its size, there is at present a huge gulf embedded and entrenched in its education system, and this comes out particularly strongly in the divide between science and maths on the one hand and the arts on the other. There are regional differences that can only be deplored: in poorer districts like Moneragala, the number of students engaged in science and engineering degrees are much, much less than those from the more privileged regions.

As a result you get the worst of both worlds: science subjects are concentrated in the usual privileged education zones, while because of a dearth of good science facilities the poorer zones churn out Arts graduates who swell the ranks of the unemployed. It is an uncontested fact that we have far too many graduates in the arts streams: more than 6,500 in 2016, as opposed to 1,700 for engineering. Moreover, nothing substantive has come out of these 6,500: most of them end up being lecturers themselves, at campus if not schools, and very few end up being the artists they aspire to be.

When it comes to ART or chitra kalawa another problem persists. With each passing generation, fewer and fewer children tend to paint. It’s not just that they don’t want to draw; the truth is that they CAN’T draw. Dharmaloka is in that sense an indictment on this dilemma: whereas the big schools have 10 or 15 students studying the subject for their A Levels, here there are more than 40. Yet EVEN among the 40 there is an issue: most of them prefer graphic design (mosthara) to expressive art (prakashana); digital commercial art has, sadly, gained over the hand-drawn variety.

Gamini Muhandiram, Art teacher at Dharmaloka, cogently highlighted a related problem: “There is an urban-rural gap when it comes to students who settle for this subject. Many of those who select it from these parts of the country do so because they can genuinely draw. Unfortunately, they don’t have financial strength. We have to provide for them and we have to make up for their shortfalls.” In that sense he feels that State-sponsored art festivals are to be welcomed: “The National Art Competition achieves what it aims at. Among other things, the prize money the students win goes a long way in meeting certain urgent needs.” Not that this solves the problem: the truth remains that the more talented you are, the more indigent you tend to be.

Dharmaloka has gone a long way in addressing these issues. If the students have anyone to thank for that, it’s their teacher. And he hasn’t gone unnoticed: last year, for instance, “Gamini sir” won the Teacher of the Year Award at the International Forum for Teachers organised by Gateway Graduate School. There were four other finalists, from Dehiaththakandiya, Galgamuwa, Puttalam, and Nuwara Eliya.

I suspect these teachers have the answers to the problems, and I suspect Gamini sir, given his record, can do what most others haven’t been able to. Being modest to a fault, he said nothing, but that’s not because there’s nothing to say; he himself put it best: “I’ve taught about 106 students who’ve become teachers. I am glad, but I hope that other students take up this mantle and become painters themselves.”

There was more he wanted to say. Owing to time constraints, we had to stop.

On the way back, I talked with the boy who’d wondered as to what the students had got ready for us. I looked casually at the drawings on the wall, and the poems and the (didactic) messages underlying them. I tried to think of where we came across such designs back home: certainly not the school I had been. Then it hit me: in Colombo, the poorer the pasala, the more likely its walls will have these siththam; the more enriched, conversely, the less likely. “You are too privileged,” I was tempted to say to the boys. I held back my tongue, but as we left Ratnapura behind and I watched them doze off and snore, I wondered whether it was wise to keep shut.

Photos by Manusha Lakshan

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 7 2019

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Muslims of Sri Lanka: A quick snapshot


දොර ඇරලා බලපන්
පායයි තව මොහොතින් නව රැස්
ඉර සේවය කරමින්
සිරිපා කඳු මුදුනින්
සිවනදි පාදං
පාරාදීසය
භාවා ආදම් මලෙයි

— Mahagama Sekara, “Mak Nisada Yath”

The earliest recorded engagement of a Muslim with Samantakuta, according to Senerath Paranavitana, occurs in 851 CE in a travel account by an Arab merchant called Soleyman. However, Soleyman does not refer to it as aadam malayi, the name we see in the later Muslim reconstruction of the Peak. Instead he alludes to it as “Al-Rohoun”, a term the 9th century Indian poet Rajasekhara uses in the Balaramanaya. “Rohoun” was a corruption of Ruhuna, to which the area surrounding the mountain belonged; it was a term apparently used by Arabs and even Indians.

Marco Polo, the merchant from the Mediterranean, does not write at length about the Peak’s religious significance, and instead reports what he heard from the inhabitants of the country. A contemporary account, written much earlier, is that of the Franciscan priest Giovanni de' Marignolli, who dwells at length on its geographic contours and cultural associations. Another contemporary, the scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta, is said to have gone on a pilgrimage under the patronage of the then King of Jaffna, after which he observed that an Imam by the name of Abu Abdallah, who died in 953 CE, was the first Muslim pilgrim to climb it. We can thus locate Muslim pilgrimages to the summit in around the 10th century CE.

Muslim engagement with Sri Lanka predates these pilgrimages, and Arab engagement predates even the coming of Islam. We know from the Mahavamsa that Pandukabaya, after winning his war against his uncles, settled the Yonas at the Western gate, and that “younna” was a term used to refer to the Moors by the Portuguese and the Dutch. But while records do sketch out the existence of pre-Islamic settlements, given that these texts were occupied more with ecclesiastical conquests than the day to day lives of the people, we can’t determine whether the yonas that Mahanama Thera refers to were the same younnas who became the Moors of Sri Lanka..

So not until the 6th century AD do we come across references to their settling in the country. From the accounts of merchants we can ascertain that there were three trade routes operating in the region: the Indian to the North, the Chinese to the East, and the Arab to the West. Sri Lanka’s receptivity to the influences of all three had a great deal to do with its emergence as a distinct geographic entity, separated from India. In any case, as historians like Fernand Braudel have noted, by the 7th century trade in the Far East was mainly carried on by the three economies mentioned above.

In what form did the Arabs come here, and where did they settle? We know the answer to the first question: they came as traders, and though they gained recognition from local rulers they desisted from participating in the administration of the country. To the second, however, we don’t know, since scholars are divided.

Some believe that they originally settled in the North in localities like Alupaanthi, Usaan, and Sonakan Palu, which substantiates the claim that they rapidly became a Tamil speaking community. Other scholars contend they moved further south-west; records indicate that a landing was made at Barberyn, modern day Beruwala, in 1024 AD. In fact two of the oldest Mosques in the country, Abrar and Ketchimalai, were built in Beruwela; the Abrar, the oldest, was constructed in 920 AD, indicating that a thriving Islamic community existed even back then.

Sri Lanka was not a thriving trade based civilisation, and though Fa-Hien wrote that the country was inhabited at first by yakshas and nagas who traded with merchants and sources indicate that in the pre-Vijaya era there was a firm agricultural society we cannot take these as evidence that the country was inclined towards commerce before the Indo-Aryan colonisation. In any case this was not a maritime society. Megasthenes does observe that elephants from Taprobana were superior to those from the mainland and we do come across accounts of large Sri Lankan ships conducting trade with China, which would show that we were a thriving export economy, but we don't really know whether the country developed sophisticated mercantile practices before the Arabs began settling here.

In contrast to the later Western colonial powers and the Muslims themselves in other parts of the subcontinent, the Arabs formed one of the most peaceful ethnic groups here. Records indicate that the kings reciprocated their goodwill by encouraging them to build settlements. They soon became intermediaries, exporting cinnamon and other minerals and importing fabric and luxury goods. For their practices, they gained such a reputation that the Janavamsa bestowed on them a Sinhala epithet they carry to this day: marakkalaya (“much shrewdness”).

The adroitness with which they conducted themselves must be contrasted with the almost Evangelical zeal with which they were able to colonise the other parts of the region. This does not mean that they were hostile towards the local cultures the way that later colonial powers were. Vinod Moonesinghe, for instance, tells me of having come across night time Quran reading sessions in the Maldives; these sessions could only have been a creolisation of Buddhist pirith chanting ceremonies, which would have been obliterated after the country was converted to Islam in 1193 AD. In fact the fusion of these two cultures, the indigenous and the Muslim, was seen in North India as well, though perhaps because Islamisation was never carried out as zealously here they did not come together in Sri Lanka.

We can conjecture, though we can never verify, that Buddhists were quite tolerant of the practices of the Muslims even if they ran counter to the teachings of their faith. Paul Pieris in his account of Portuguese rule, referring to two authorities, tells us that after the marauding invaders made friendly overtures to Sinhala people and the latter reciprocated them, the Sinhala people were angered by attempts to kill their cattle. We know that the Muslim population in the island predated the Portuguese by at least nine centuries. Therefore, we can speculate that their customs were tolerated as those of a community which had been absorbed to the country, while the slaughter of cattle by a foreign people was looked at as an act of disrespect, if not aggression.

The ties between the Sinhala people and Muslims of the time were tested, and then strengthened, by attacks made on both groups by the Portuguese. Fresh from their Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese tried to exclude Muslim traders from the new country the capital of which they planned to establish a Fort at. In 1518 de Albergaria, the Governor, visited the King and asked him to move the Muslims out, but having conferred with his people, the latter was advised not to accede to it, since the Portuguese were seeking to impose their rule through deception; Pieris tells us that a case for the Islamic community was made there by Buddhist monks.

By now their reputation had transcended their position as traders; in fact, they had brought with them their renowned treatises on medicine, which no doubt endeared them to the kings: not only were they allowed to practice their religion freely, but they were also often employed as royal physicians. Owing to their widespread reputation, the rulers thus accommodated them whenever they were ostracised: Senarat of Kandy, for instance, settled 4,000 Muslims in the East in 1626 AD after they had been chased by the Portuguese from the Western coast.

On their part, the Muslims responded. Here we can recount two instances.

The first. It is said that Rajasinghe II of Kandy hid himself in a large tree in the village of Pangaragammana after fleeing from a failed encounter with the Portuguese, and when the Portuguese searching for him demanded of a Moor woman (who knew of his whereabouts) as to where he was hiding, and she refused to divulge the secret, they killed her immediately and cut her to pieces.

The second. There is an account of Narendrasinghe stopping at Sellankendal on his way to Navadkadu; the Moors of Sellankendal ensured his stay was as comfortable as possible. Later, when news of a would be usurper coming to assassinate the King compelled them to raise arms against the intruding forces, those who had come to pay respects to Narendrasinghe laid down their lives to protect him. For this gesture the grateful King is said to have presented the village with his personal flag, along with a horde of other invaluable symbols and items belonging to him.

All of this shows that we have to account for our history in order to bring together the ethnic, religious, and social groups of our country. Here I quote Vinod Moonesinghe: “[W]e must adjust our exclusivist historiographies. Like our ancestors, we should both emphasise the similarities and enjoy the diversity. The first step could be, as the late Regi Siriwardena suggested, highlighting ‘the diverse ethnic strands that have gone into the making of our nationhood and the various elements that these ethnic groups have contributed to our culture, and indeed to our daily existence’.”

I agree with him there. I think we all should.

The writings of Premakumara de Silva, Megasthenes, Paul Pieris, Latheef Farook, and of course Vinod Moonesinghe were used for this article.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Mahinda Rajapaksa's fringe factor

D. B. S. Jeyaraj, writing on the meeting between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena held around three weeks ago, suggests that in the coming weeks, G. L. Peiris, the de jure leader of the Joint Opposition, will hand over power to Rajapaksa, the de facto leader. This will, he further opines, give the man enough clout to negotiate and, presumably, to settle those personality clashes that have widened the rifts within the Podu Jana Peramuna. All things considered, these three months hence will probably be determined by the moves the Joint Opposition makes and the retaliatory measures the United National Party takes. In that sense, the tête-à-tête between the president and his erstwhile rival is both an expedient move and an exercise in futility.

That the Joint Opposition is nothing without the Rajapaksas, everyone knows. G. L. Peiris is the most eloquent parliamentarian we have, but eloquence, no matter how much of an advantage it may be inside parliament, pales in comparison to popularity from outside that hallowed institution. It is of course convenient to say that the SLPP doesn't have much of a presence within the confines of the Diyawanna Oya and that what little parliamentary prestige it has managed to conjure up for itself has been due to the Rajapaksa Factor. And yet, that is the truth.

Given these reduced circumstances, what is out there for the SLPP?

In 2015, the dichotomies were clear: the SLFP and the UNP on one side, the Rajapaksa Proxies on another, the JVP and the TNA on yet another. When the TNA took over the Opposition and the leader of the JVP became Chief Opposition Whip, those were reduced to two: those for the Rajapaksas and those against them.

What 2015 did was create a gulf between parliamentary prestige and populist protest. The lack of disregard for parliamentary procedure, the emphasis on rhetoric over substance, and the demonstrations against the legislature (as an institution, not just a party-driven political body) echoed and spearheaded by the JO made it clear that the real fight was between the MPs, who had been elected, and the stalwarts of the old order, who were being supported on the sidelines. There was a fatal rift, for the latter, between numerical strength and popular appeal. That rift continues even today.

The Rajapaksas were smart. They still are. With each of the three main brothers, the organisers of their party sought to appeal to three different interests. Mahinda's appeal was with the rural peasantry. Gotabaya's appeal was with what I alluded to in certain articles last year as the "professional nationalists", the milieu which had supported the Hela Urumaya and was now disenchanted with the likes of Champika Ranawa. Basil's appeal, on the other hand, was with a business class touted as "nationalist" by some, but which in reality idealised a blend of ruthless authoritarianism and efficiency that the Rajapaksas as a whole (allegedly) stood for. In other words, Mahinda would get the village, Gotabaya would get the suburbs around Colombo, and Basil would plan out everything with business moguls and financiers.

Obviously, this formula did not and could not work in a context where people looked up to the policies of the current government and their implementation by them. From 2015 to the latter half of 2016, those who had idealised the government on the basis of how it privileged policy over rhetoric really believed it could deliver. That was why, when Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cohorts contended that Sri Lanka was in danger of falling into a middle income trap and the Rajapaksas had empowered the middle class without setting barricades against the inflationary pressures this would result in, we placed our faith in the Cabinet he and the President had formed.

But then, somewhere in 2017, that rift between mass popularity and parliamentary presence began to work the other way around, FOR the JO.

It began when the people realised that the current government wasn't implementing those policies it had harped on about, and was content in spreading their gospel. A population that had been taught about good governance, constitutional reforms, and sanhindiyawa began to grow tired. The middle class, the force behind the campaign to get Maithripala Sirisena elected, shifted gears. It had had taken a risk and rooted for a maverick, when traditionally it had privileged stability and continuity. That maverick had clipped his own powers and handed over the legislature to a party that had NOT won a mandate to govern from that institution. Worse, his program, overseen by that very same party, had begun to unravel itself badly.

Our middle class thus did what it was destined to do. Hedge its bets on the only movement that could take us back to the way things were. That movement was not the JVP. It was not the TNA, the JHU, or for that matter the Frontline Socialist Party. It was the Joint Opposition. Having rebranded itself as the Podu Jana Peramuna, it thus soon began to capture the middle class, hitherto the preserve of the UNP and, at least with respect to its more nationalist segment, the Hela Urumaya.

The apathy of the government, the even more pathetic apathy of the Opposition (to call it an Opposition would be to insult the legacy of poorly equipped Oppositions the UNP bequeathed to this country during the Rajapaksa years), and the silence of those ideologues hostile to the Rajapaksas and their brand of nationalism all conspired to empower the SLPP to get in more and more of this particular demographic.

The mainstream polity ridiculed the Joint Opposition and the SLPP for not having the numbers. That is a problem it is still afflicted with. But as the local elections showed, parliamentary presence can be a poor barricade against popular revolt.

It took an entire week for the storm that the SLPP's upset victory compelled to go away. A complacent government that had prepared itself for an insignificant margin of defeat (even those rooting for the Podu Jana Peramuna prepared themselves for a UNP victory) saw the front against the Rajapaksas that had held them together wear away, and eventually collapse. Never again would the President and the Prime Minister look at each other. After their clash, each would let it out that the other would be nothing without him politically: the Prime Minister, because he had to depend on the President for his return to the parliament; the President, because without the UNP, he could not have been the common candidate. Talk about the power of fringe parties!

There was another factor. The rise of the Alt-Right. Whether or not commentators are correct in terming Gotabaya Rajapaksa a neo-fascist who should be condemned on the same terms that (neo)liberals condemn Hitler and Caligula with, there's no denying that Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson made it possible for people to see things differently. The world, until then, had been largely determined by globalist financiers who supported centrists no different to the warmongers they were opposed to (a claim made not just by right wing conspiracy theorists and outfits like Breitbart, by the way). A world in which Obama was championed as a President for Peace thus grew disenchanted when, even with the hullaballoo against Donald Trump, it became evident this peace-loving leader of the free world had vastly expanded his country's drone program. The movement against the interests he stood for, predictably, emerged from outside the Congress, even outside the Republican Party. What happened later, to both ends of the mainstream political spectrum, we know by now.

What does all this amount to? One simple truism: the people have lost faith in the traditional institutions. In 2015, the momentum around the world was such that it was inconceivable that people could vote for a Donald Trump. The faith reposed on the three arms of the state, so strong then, was a legacy of the liberal tradition of the West, the same tradition the UNP sought to impose here in the name of democracy, freedom, and a better deal for everyone. In the end, tragically, all that failed.

The rift between fringe popularity and parliamentary presence befitted the political establishment in a world where liberalism trumped everything else. But we live in different times. Now the momentum is with those who exist outside the parliament. It is with those who can compensate for lack of parliamentary prestige with numbers drawn from outside the legislature. For now at least, that momentum belongs to the SLPP. And behind them, supporting them, there is, not the peasantry the Rajapaksas have always counted on, but a terribly disillusioned middle class.

TV Royal: Making the waves



I missed SPARK. Sure, I missed and continue to miss a whole lot of plays, films, and other events and this due to the fact that I hardly find the time and what little time I get tends to be spent (or wasted) doing nothing. And yet, SPARK was special. At a time when the government is emphasising on the importance of fostering innovation and creativity, the event, organised by Royal College and held from September 25 to 28, was a veritable exhibition (or an "Innovation Expo") showcasing what a typical student (more than 100,000 students from over 500 schools took part), given enough leeway, could do with what he picks up from his studies. It was one of a kind, though not unprecedented, and it was representative of the country.

On Day Three at the College Hall, an announcement was made and a website was launched. Both had to do with the inauguration of a TV Channel, unconnected to the Expo. Well, SPARK is gone and I am sad to say that I missed it. But that channel, TV Royal, is yet to make the waves. It will be aired on October 26, 27, and 28 (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) on PEO TV. It will air pre-scripted episodes, live streamed events, even a short film competition. Sure, it has nothing to do with SPARK. But it has everything to do with the spirit of innovation that SPARK stood for.

People have preferences. This is known. And this applies to the media. Television used to be about storytelling, documentaries, and creative advertising. Now it is about crass mega series, propaganda pieces, and senseless 30 second spots that neither grab attention nor relay a coherent message. And yet, that's what people demand.

I'm guessing that most of us want to wade through what little free time we get after school or work with programs that are easy on the eyes. That is how mega serials have become a huge market. That is how Poya Day serials, so memorable back then, have become so bowdlerised now. Banality is the name of the game here, and programmers aren't just cautious about treading on new territory, they are terrified. It took years and years for the team behind Koombiyo to get it on the air after all, let's not forget.

TV Royal fulfils two aims. The first, Kaif Sally, one of the two organisers behind the project, told me, is "selfish". There are at present 48 clubs and societies extending to almost every field of activity, from astronomy to zoology, at Royal. As Kaif put it, "they are drawn to the competition that results from the pressure of proving that your club is better than your friend's." For this reason, TV Royal will attempt to bring out the sense of kinship between them.

The second aim, which I am interested in, is "selfless", and it entails "setting a trend" for other schools to follow. To put it more succinctly, this is the first time that a school here will telecast its own channel. "We do not want to set a precedent and then prevent others from matching that precedent. We want them to equal us, do better than us, and along the way, reinvigorate the concept of media units in the country."

The problem, as he points out, is that there is a serious dearth of such media units in Sri Lanka. The way I see it, this is buttressed by the lack of three things: equipment, interest among the students, and a set of media competitions.

It is not that schools, even those outside Colombo, lack willpower. Just three months ago, for instance, St Anne's College, Kurunegala organised "Sanvidha Sanjani" (which I missed, though for reasons of health), which delved into several facets of the media, from broadcasting to scriptwriting. But such events are more the exception than the norm ("Sanvidha" was held after a long time) and they depend, for the most, on the interest of a student or a group of students. That is the issue that TV Royal is trying to resolve, just as SPARK tried to resolve (in its own special way) the virtual absence of a culture of innovation in our students. To this end, a brief note on the organisers, the episodes, and the objective that the project is set to achieve, is called for.

TV Royal is the brainchild of one institution. MURC. That's the Media Unit of Royal College. It is unique, not only because of the resources it and the school it is affiliated to are endowed with, but also because it has managed to "step out" to. Established in 2001, it traces its beginnings to the late 1990s, when the Sinhala Literary Association went beyond its comfort zone and set up an "unofficial" media unit that facilitated news broadcasts. "We were limited in what we did when we started out. It was all about announcing. After 2007, we moved. We 'embraced' photography. Videography. Graphic designing. And live streaming." All these boil down to four outfits: the News Team, the Video Crew, MURC Creatives (covering everything from photography to event management), and Le Postre (something of a talent agency that enables students to take their creativity beyond the school).


Today, MURC is everything a media company can be. It organises workshops every year and practically every month, to select and groom students who wish to engage in the media. Be it graphic designing or photography or even announcing, the process is the same: the senior selects the students who then "become" his understudies. This system, despite its share of flaws, works. It works because, as Kaif tells me, seniors are shrewd enough to pick students who exhibit merit. It is this intricate relationship, between seniors and juniors, that found its way to TV Royal: mooted in 2014 by the MURC Board, it became the "idea of the year" four years later, THIS year, for Kaif and the other main organiser, Abdul Rizvie.

In essence, the project, budgeted at five million rupees, will involve 10 directors, 22 managers (that is, the chairmen of the clubs and societies), and around 40 or 50 crew members. As Abdul puts it, "it is easier to think of a television line-up than to actually plan one", which is probably why, even with the involvement of so many young professionals, there have been edits, cuts, and inordinate delays.

Each episode will be 30 minutes long. They will be broadcast later on YouTube. Apart from those dedicated to current events, there will be episodes on history, the buildings within the school, the spaces they have occupied over the years. Nostalgic, yes, and also in-house. For that reason, I am more interested in the episodes that will be about the world beyond those buildings and spaces. In other words, those which will be about the projects of the clubs and societies.

Some of the most interesting social processes play out in our schools. For obvious reasons. Students make up a significant demographic. They represent the ecology of their societies. They determine the trajectory of their country. Whoever contends that schools thrive on a way of life divorced from the reality outside them, then, is telling half the story. There is always some relevance in what school bodies engage with, no matter how insular the institution they are affiliated to may be, or may get.

TV Royal will highlight these bodies. There is the Scouts Association. The Western Orchestra. The Oriental Music Society. The Red Cross Society. And the Library Readers' Association. These are not the only clubs, but with what little time I had, I only managed to talk with their chairmen.

The Scouts will feature a "hike" across Mandaram Nuwara. The Orchestra will feature some Western classical pieces and English songs and a recounting of their history. The Oriental Music Society will feature some old Sinhala songs (from "Sanda Hiru Tharu " to "Mage Punchi Rosa Male") and a "reading" of their lyrics. The Red Cross Society, with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Project, will feature the elephant-human conflict and one innovative way through which it can be resolved (a hint: "pani dodam"). The Library Readers' Association will feature a certain writer and a montage of clips on the world of literature. These clubs and projects are "in-house", but at the same time, they are about things that exist outside their walls, their perimeters.

These are children. Students. Still in school. Most of them will be sitting for their A Levels next year. Most of them have found ways of "marketing" their passions. A few, very few, have planned out a life after A Levels holding on to those passions. MURC has helped them considerably, of this we can be sure.

Sahan Kithmina, Chairman of the Readers' Association, summed up for me what he wanted to do with his society: "Api ramuwen eliyata yanna oni." In other words, get out of the frame. The same can be said of the projects, going beyond the four walls of an institution, that the other clubs will indulge in. I'm guessing it will be "easy on the eyes". But I'm also guessing it will offer a veritable "alternative" to what television, so long in the hands of crass commercialists and profiteers, have offered or ever will offer. So no, I won't miss it. Not for the world.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 16 2018

History is version, or 'The English and Their History'

A partial review of Robert Tombs's The English and Their History.

History is version. I remembered this as I read through three books: Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy, Peter Conradi's Who Lost Russia, and Robert Tombs's The English and Their History. The first two made me realise that, when it comes to the Russian Revolution and Russia in general, Western scholars are not merely divided, they are confused. Figes's treatment of the event is probably the most widely read in the post-Soviet era, but even he gets certain facts muddled up. (Case in point: did the Soviet delegation to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty really compel a random peasant to come with them for the negotiations, as he points out?) As for Conradi's account, it is typical of the anti-Putin diatribes that scholars have been writing for years. The National Review puts it best: "The West misread Russia in the 1990s." Well, so did Conradi, the Review, and every other scholar.

Both Figes and Conradi tackle a particular period. Robert Tombs, on the other hand, tackles an entire civilisation. England being England, the "largest nation in Europe to lack a state of its own" (David Frum), there are enough and more historical realities and anecdotes that should make up a multifarious account of that civilisation. The role of the country in the slave trade, the colonialist enterprise, and the subjugation of its own people (particularly the Irish) would fill up any history book.

And yet, beautifully written though his treatment is, Tombs avoids these hard facts and conjures an alternative history in which the governments wanted to do away with slavery, ameliorate the evils of imperialism, and spread the spirit of charity among its less privileged citizens and brethren. History is version? You bet!

Is The English and Their History, as detractors may suggest, a "patriotic history of England"? Or is it, as David Frum suggests, a "systematic refutation of the most familiar lines of indictment"? Frum argues that it is no polemic, "not even an anti-polemic", which means that the objective is not to propagate a view, no matter how orthodox or unconventional. In three areas, however, Tombs becomes a revisionist: the slave trade, the state of the proletariat during the Industrial Revolution, and the response of the British government to the Irish Famine.

Tombs, when setting the record straight on these three events, refutes the orthodox accounts and their writers: the Abolitionists, the Marxists, the Irish Nationalists. From 1815 to 1850, the heyday of Dickensian England, for instance, the English experience was, for the likes of William Morris, William Blake, Arnold Toynbee, and Friedrich Engels, one of drudgery and unbearable poverty. In contrast to them, Tombs observes that drudgery and poverty in the slums of London, Liverpool, and Manchester was borne, not out of the Industrial Revolution, but of rapid, unplanned urbanisation. He takes on Engels's conventionally accepted work on The Working Class of England and writes against its pessimism, arguing that "an 1860s survey found 95 per cent of houses in Hull and 72 per cent in Manchester to be 'comfortable'."

These are assertions, and their sources hold water in roughly the same way that most of Figes's sources in A People's Tragedy do: that is to say, they reflect the particular, peculiar views of certain historians. That 1860s survey, for instance, was taken from Michael Mason's The Making of Victorian Sexuality, which refutes the view that Victorian England was a haven of prudery and hypocrisy; in Masons's eyes, at least, it was "in reality a code intelligently embraced by wealthy and poor alike as part of a humane and progressive vision of society's future."

I find that description hard to swallow, given that much of Sri Lanka's laws relating to marriage and divorce stem from Victorian morals. The Penal Code's hostility towards homosexuality, for instance, is at odds with the flowering of gay rights in 19th century Germany. To be sure, the German legal system also forbade relations between males (especially after the German Empire was unified in 1871), but German doctors, in stark contrast to their British counterparts, pioneered research which concluded that homosexuality "should not be viewed as a psychic depravity or sickness."

In Sri Lanka, of course, homosexuality remains a depravity and sickness. The Penal Code was enacted in 1883. Sections 365 and 365A criminalises relations between the same gender, with a term of imprisonment of two years. It is hard to conclude that these reflected the ethos of the civilisation on which it was imposed, given that a) the Code was a watered down version of its Indian equivalent, enacted almost a quarter century before, and b) it was a legal expression of a way of thinking that succeeded a period of capitalist accumulation in the country of its origin.

It was during Victorian England that vast strides were made in urban planning (a "stupendous effort in bricks and mortar", as Tombs puts it). It was an attempt at unifying different classes after the clashes between the bourgeoisie and proletariat that had characterised the period from 1815 to 1850. Whether or not the attempt worked, there's no denying that during this pivotal era, prosperity met with prudery, and the two joined hands. The result was a body of law which has never since been equalled in its universality and sexual hypocrisy. India, more populous than us, managed to move away from it. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, remains bonded to it.

Tombs's book is both an alternative and a watered down account of history. Personally, I believe it is relevant even to Sri Lankan historians, because it paints a picture of colonialism and exploitation which is at once deceptively self-evident and distorted. On the slave trade, for instance, Tombs argues that there was a sustained campaign led against it by the British state, which culminated with the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. A closer examination of this piece of legislation, its historical antecedents, and its ramifications for a world in which the balance of power had shifted to the other side of the Atlantic are called for, I rather think.

The British state, which passed the Abolition Act in the 19th century, competed fiercely with the French and the Portuguese over the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Slavery was not born in England, nor was it a Western creation: as Tombs points out, between 1530 and 1640, more than one million European civilians were kidnapped and sold by Arab raiders in the Middle East. But the difference with the British slave trade, and indeed the European slave trade in general, was that it was systematic, brutal, and carefully planned out. It was an institution, not a practice.

Tombs's argument is that to view the Atlantic slave trade purely in terms of British involvement would be unfair, given that it was a joint effort between European buyers and African sellers. This is no different to the assertion that the British didn't conquer countries like ours, rather we let them conquer us, because the rulers we had were too cruel. Yes, collaboration does presuppose collusion, and the fact is that the slave trade was the result of an agreement between the exploiter and the exploited. Still.

To the writer's credit, he minces no words in depicting the horrors of slavery. But the end of it, oppressive as the institution of slavery was (the campaign against it became "the most important humanitarian campaign in English history") did not spell out the end of exploitation. On the contrary, its end was the result of two distinct yet related realities: the fear of the British ruling class of Africans becoming their competitors, and the shift to colonialism in Asia. It is significant to note here that the Abolition Act excluded from its ambit the "Territories in the Possession of the East India Company", which included India and Sri Lanka. The British may have been magnanimous, but they were hardly saints.

The truth was that the slave trade was indispensible to the accumulation of capital in Western civilisation. No matter how well intentioned the Abolitionists were, no matter how effective their campaigns may have been, there was a range of factors which had a say in the enactment of the Abolition Act, among them the emergence of America as the centre of Western power. It wouldn't be until 40 years later when the United States passed its own Abolition Act in the form of the 13th Amendment, but then, even with the advent of the Civil War, which according to certain romantic historians "freed" the slaves, slavery was never completely abolished: it was changed and it continued in the form of segregation, right until the Civil Rights Movement.

So what do we gain from these assertions, Tombs's and mine? The awful truth: that the history of the struggle against imperialism has almost always been underscored by considerations of realpolitik. The British may have been underrated in their love of humanity. But saints they were not.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, October 21 2018