Sunday, January 31, 2016

The intersection of history and anecdote

Review of Kamalika Pieris’ “Kularatne of Ananda: The Life and Work of P. de S. Kularatne”, published in 2015

Biography and reportage don’t go hand in hand. There are facts to be inflated, comments to be forced in, and anecdotes to be recounted, and because of this a person’s life becomes subject to poetic licence at the hands of the biographer. Those who resist the urge to fictionalise, to point at a particular anecdote and use it as a summing up of one man’s life and career, are rare. Those who don’t are not. For this reason and others therefore, the biographer who practises restraint and resists is to be lauded. Always.

“Kularatne of Ananda” isn’t presened a comment on a personality. It’s instead written as an account (and a faithful one) of a life and career, sustained for more than 75 years and preserved for posterity upon death. Kamalika Pieris, who wrote it, has stated quite clearly that her attempt wasn’t to recreate, but to recount. We can regard her among those rare biographers, hence. True, there’ll be those who’ll consider this book a compilation, which would appeal more to the historian and sociologist than the common reader. But they are wrong. This book has a great deal in store for the common reader. I doubt I can do justice to it in one review.

What comes out through Kamalika’s prose, teeming with facts and coloured only slightly with anecdote, is the account of a man who became larger-than-life with those usual attendant obstacles that visit and revisit such figures. Indeed, had she opted for another way of recounting her story, she would have failed. That is why, when in her preface she explains and slightly apologises for her suppression of the subject of caste that featured in Kularatne’s career, we are ready to forgive, forget, and move on.

This doesn’t make her selective, of course, at least not of the myopic, mischievous kind. What “Kularatne of Ananda” sustains from beginning to end is the thesis that the man was a revolutionist and ideologue, whose entire life was devoted to one primary end: providing an adequate and dignified education for Buddhists, and that (as per Kamalika) in a way which “delivered elite ‘English education’ in a Buddhist atmosphere.” That he succeeded, and that there are those who thank him for this even today, isn’t in doubt.

What’s in doubt (as is typical of such personalities) is his political career, and more importantly the image of him as an inconsistent ideologue. This is where Kamalika throws questions at the reader and waits, patiently, for the subject of her book to offer response. So it is when, in the run up to the government’s decision to take over both assisted and fee-levying schools, Kularatne first affirmed the spirit of that decision and then backtracked on whether Catholic schools should be taken over as well.

There are those who labelled him an opportunist, who looked at him and blurted out “Tightrope-walker!” Typically and thankfully however, Kamalika indulges in neither absolution nor condemnation, and in the end, when we hear Kularatne justifying his decision (he wanted state support for Buddhist schools, and wished to leave the Catholic ones alone), we take his side, but not to the extent of empathising with his act of political tightrope-walking all the way. Like all readable biographies, therefore, there’s no attempt made at presenting the man as infallible.

The book implies that Kularatne and Ananda were one and the same, and (again) to her credit, Kamalika doesn’t take this as a license to insert bias or blow out of proportion. Yes, she devotes no less than six chapters on Ananda College, one of them aimed purely at its cultural, religious, and social contribution to the country. And yet, even in these pages, we see Kamalika shying away from colouring reminiscence and memory with needless frill. Instead we see her describing what happened, with precision, well sourced and footnote-backed. That stands as her biggest strength in her book, because when (especially in these chapters) she swerves off and does make comment, she retains honesty, which lends credence to what she’s saying.

Moreover, with this approach Kamalika not only injects conviction but also gives us a broad canvas in which we can place her subject. She rarely delves into controversy, and where she does (as with the pages she devotes to the conflicts between Kularatne and the Buddhist Theosophical Society), she doesn’t blow it out of proportion, but instead leaves us with enough information for reflection and conjecture. It isn’t the author who engages in guesswork, but the reader. So it is with her depiction of his stints at politics, and so it is with his contribution to our education system.

Which brings me to another point: to whom should we bequeath this book? The sociologist? The historian? The educationist? Kamalika doesn’t question the social content of the movement that Kularatne headed, and she is almost effortless in her attempts at portraying him as apolitical, opposed to ideology but not to the point where he didn’t indulge in it. But there’s so much here that both the sociologist and historian can examine, quote, and add to. That this remains her broader motive can be gleaned from her own words: “I have included every iota of information which I thought would be useful for a researcher later on.”

Some will object to this, arguing that her approach should have been different, more subjective and more in line with the sociological treatise they try to read it as. But for an endeavour such as this (“Kularatne of Ananda” is the first real biography of the man), that approach would have jarred. True, there’s so much in the revivalist movement that Colonel Olcott unleashed, which bequeathed its legacy to the likes of Kularatne, that historians have endlessly pored over.

The debate between theosophy and Buddhism, the emancipation of the Sinhala-speaking rural and urban bourgeoisie in and after 1956, its later transformation to a hybridised elite that teetered between cosmopolitanism and racialism, and the differentiation of the English-speaking, rightwing Buddhist elite (the resurgence of whom Kamalika inadvertently attributes to Ananda throughout the book), who favoured a division between the laity and the clergy, between the secular and the spiritual (“Lay Organisations and the Buddhist Revival: 1890 – 1940”, The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka, George D. Bond), are just some of the themes that her book implicitly touches on, best answered elsewhere. Of course Kularatne doesn’t figure in them all, but what Kamalika presents is enough for us to draw our own conclusions.

In short, “Kularatne of Ananda” contributes much in terms of research, scholarship, and light reading, for both student and academic. It’s a virtual treatise, though mercifully free of value-judgment (for the most at least). And in the end, when Kamalika wishes her subject a speedy journey through samsara, we realise that her book is a good reason to consider biography, not as a subjective, value-imbibed genre, but as a genre that has potential for scholarship and history-reportage. Commendable, to say the least.