Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections on the South

I was born in Colombo but am reluctant to call it home. What is home, anyway? Is it necessarily predicated on where you grew up with your family? Perhaps, but not quite. I’ve come to believe that “home” is as multifaceted as everything else in this wide universe of ours, and while one cannot and should not claim that one is rooted to one particular place, it’s certainly true that, to twist and contort an oft-quoted phrase, home is where the heart should be. For me then, Colombo is not home. There are reasons for this (and I will get down to them later), all of which congeal to one basic point: my heart was and always will be in the South.

Yes, the South. That much loved region. Much abused too, because in arguably the biggest tragedy we as a community continue to encounter, we are wont to trash the outsider, the bumpkin, the outstation resident. We shouldn’t rejoice at it, but that is a reality we must acknowledge.

I confess I don’t know half the things that make up the South as those who live there do, but that shouldn’t stop one from assessing its historical import. It is in the South that this country sought refuge in, that continues to boost the numbers of those entering the Armed Forces, and that cradles our civilization.

There are many reasons to like a place and many reasons to hate it. There are a great many reasons to claim pride as a resident of the South. Starting with its people.

From Ambalangoda to Matara, from Matara to Hambanthota, you come across the most hospitable citizens in this country. Yes, you come across emotionally invested people as well, those who choose to express their hopes, aspirations, and fears in ways derided as too unbecoming by those who wear lounge suits and drink coffee in luxury suites. But I prefer the brutally honest to the painfully pretentious. Those from that region voice their aspirations frankly and honesty. I like being frank and I like being honest. Therefore, I like the Southerner.

I know of people who are ashamed to trace their ancestry there. Why, though? What is there to be ashamed about? Their way of engaging with other people? Why are we so obsessed with hiding behind a fa├žade of sophistication, pretending to things we can’t really claim? It’s a virtual rat-race in the city, and in the South, no matter how urbanised you may be, you just don’t let go of those values that demarcate the hospitality for which we as a country have become famous. Is that cause for shame? Certainly not.

Sure, Galle is no Cinnamon Gardens and I know that we are, from an early age, groomed to inhabit the most elegant and cosmopolitan places this country has to offer. It’s a tragedy that we are never taught to keep our feet in both worlds, that is, to both be rooted and be accommodative of the rest of the world. The South is derided, rather unfairly, as a repository for frogs in the well. In this rush to rid ourselves of frogs, we forget one key thing: that the real wells are the ones we inhabit, as we force ourselves to be classier and more pretentious than we are now. If by sophistication you mean being uprooted and culturally castrated hence, then I’d rather be a frog. And I’d rather die a frog.

I am yet to come across another part of this country where people are as ready to serve their guests with so much food. Whether you announce your arrival in advance or not, whether they know that you are coming or not, they are ready. They may be busy, but they are still able to fill you up. I have gone to other places, I have announced my arrival weeks in advance, but I have unfortunately come across people who, while being apologetic, try to prevail on me to wait hours before they cook up their dinner. Secretly they are glad to see me go, so that they don’t have to spend bucks on me. They don’t even serve tea.

The Southerner is not like that. Never was, never will be.

It’s not just the people of course. It’s the culture and the history. I confess I am a dud at both these fields, but it doesn’t take much to realise that there is a sense of belonging and rootedness in the Southerner which is virtually unparalleled. They can be quite vocal about it as well, and this has, through the years, attracted censure. That however tends to marginalise the moderate, a species of human beings that is not rare in the region. Yes, there are those who contend for coexistence, who are genuinely suspicious of demagogues, and who prefer living with other communities. It’s just that the cosmopolite, in his or her quest to unearth everything wrong in the country, attributes the discordant voice of the communalist to the South. A sign of bankruptcy, no doubt.

And as for beauty: from the mask makers of Ambalangoda to the seafood from Dodanduwa and beyond, there isn’t much in this area that can move one to boredom. Instead there is always colour. Everywhere. No, it’s not just the beaches: even a residential street will fill a visitor with enthusiasm. The temples and shrines too: the shrines of Seenigama for instance, bottled as they are with a sense of the holy that can’t really be put in words, will move the religiously inclined and the secular cosmopolitan in equal measure.

The beauty of a place can’t be gleaned through random, unplanned visits, but even the sketchiest tourist will not fail to be entranced by these sites. That is the magic of the South.

Not every individual portrayed today as a hero emerged from here, but a great many such persons did. From the arty to the popular, from those who enriched our intellect to those who enriched our popular consciousness, the South bred them all, gave them a sense of identity, and encouraged them to step beyond the confines of home to conquer the country and if possible, the world. Not through rhetoric, not through arrogance and self-inflation, but through action.

Sketches do scant justice to a person or an area. I don’t really hail from the South but nor am I an outsider: for that reason, trapped as I am between two worlds, I cannot describe either in detail. Suffice it to say that I am not entranced by surface-allure only, but also by the cultural and political significance of an area.

The truth is that the South contains the histories that bind us together, as a nation and as a people. It is insular only for the insular, chauvinistic only for the chauvinist, and bigoted only for those who have an axe to grind with the community that make up the majority of the region. It is a strange place, certainly, but strangeness, or amuthu kama, should not be equated with adbutha kama, or otherworldliness.

That is why it is deplorable that we pick on the South on the basis of the dialect of its inhabitants. That is why it is deplorable that we poke fun at how they spell and articulate words. What is the harm of having your own dialect, after all? Those in Colombo have their own speaking patterns, those in Jaffna, Kandy, and Polonnaruwa have their own speaking patterns, and those in the Americas have their own speaking patterns. Are we to deride them on that count? Or are we, as civilized human beings, to be respectful of and enthralled by the melting pot and variety that this entails? I believe we should opt for the latter.

Malinda Seneviratne, in the only properly written English language tribute to Ranbanda Seneviratne, observes that the latter was not ashamed of being (called) a bumpkin. He could have elongated his name, to sharpen it and appear more respectful to the world outside, by calling himself Bandara. “Today, no one wants to be called Banda, they would go instead for Bandara, the former having been bestowed with all kinds of derogatory meanings over the years” was what Malinda wrote. He was correct. We are more content with naming ourselves after the elite. We are ashamed to say that we are rooted. We have hence become ashamed to acknowledge ourselves for who we are. No country can progress with such a mindset, this much must be noted.

The country belongs to the Kolombians (a term that Malinda in his wit and wisdom coined), some say. Its destiny can only be shaped by those who emerge from Cinnamon Gardens (physically and metaphorically), others blurt out. Not true. A country cannot be led by those who have no sense of culture and history. The elite of Cinnamon Gardens don’t even know what culture and history are.

Those who reside (again, physically or metaphorically) outside Colombo will continue to make the waves in this country. These places will continue to breed those who are rooted in and not cut off from the past. And the South, leading them all perhaps, will continue with what it always has done: produce and nourish the roots of a society still reeling from the post-colonial moment.

We can hate it. We can ignore it. We can embrace it. I choose to embrace it.