Friday, June 2, 2017

In search of a Sri Lankan cultural modernity

The death of Siri Gunasinghe last week left the nation’s cultural establishment numbed. And not for nothing: Professor Gunasinghe, who among other things was one of only two novelists here who directed a movie (and a landmark one at that), was the last of the bilingual literati that made the waves here and overseas. Everyone else who followed him were politically and philosophically of a different breed, the sole exception (at least to an extent) being Gunadasa Amarasekera.

Gunasinghe’s death, a personal tragedy as it is, interests me more for what it means to our cultural establishment, the same establishment which has tried so hard to chart a kind of modernity that was not uprooted. That is has failed, and that its failure has to do largely with the culture of inferiority which has gripped our people since 1956, leaves no room for doubt.

At the cost of simplifying an already simplified situation, I will hence say this: politically, socially, and philosophically, our country has imbibed a potent form of anti-intellectualism. We are so confused as to why this anti-intellectualism has come about, moreover, that we rationalise it in terms of the nationalist/anti-nationalist dichotomy which provides an easy copout point for the political commentator. The truth is that modernity is not incongruent with nationalism. The truth is that modernity can and does subsist on tradition. To understand how this simple point has evaded our notice, it’s apt to look back at 1956 and what transpired subsequently.

Political movements never really end. They can only be stopped, and that at the cost of stalling an otherwise gradual social process. 1956, on that count, was less a movement than an experiment, which signalled the upheaval of the anglicised elite through the leadership of a scion of that same elite. I remember reading in one of those travel books (by Discovery) on Sri Lanka that the 1956 election passed power from the legatees of colonialism to an indigenous leader. That is patently false. Power was passed, yes, but only from one shade of Westernisation to another. As subsequent elections showed, it was a social transformation effected by the grassroots but denied by the self-contradictions of its own leadership.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s program, as I mentioned in this column last week, derived for the most from two sources: Western liberalism and the Bengali Renaissance. The former, critics and commentators have explored. The latter, to a considerable extent at least, they have not. A tragedy at one level, primarily because we tend to forget that in trying to emulate the Tagorean experiment of fusing modernity and tradition, Bandaranaike’s own personality denied the validity of such a fusion for anything other than our cultural sphere. This latter point merits further discussion.

Amartya Sen, in an article written to the New Republic six years ago, contended that Tagore, far from being the romantic traditionalist he is touted as today, was actually a modernist railing against the social order of his day. He was at odds with Gandhi, whose idealisation of the spinning wheel or charka as a symbol of a return to the past he critiqued as lacking judgment and energy (“The charka does not require anyone to think”). Despite his enthusiasm for Gandhi’s political campaign, consequently, he was doubtful about Gandhi’s social persona, filled as it was with repulsion towards Western civilization. In this, however, Tagore was no imitator, no rootless cosmopolitan who idealised that same Western civilization he championed with regard to the progress it attained in the realms of science, literature, and political philosophy.

That kind of fearless, revolutionary thinking seems to be lacking in our modernists of today. Sadly. In the fifties and sixties, a Siri Gunasinghe or a Lester James Peries could critique the conventional wisdom by carving a different path, one that brought together tradition and modernity. It happened in Tagore’s land of birth as well: Satyajit Ray was his intellectual and artistic heir, and to an extent at least he was responsible for prolonging the Bengali Renaissance from Tagore’s death to the end of the 20th century. In comparison, the modernists of today are a horde of gandabba commentators, either rubbishing the same roots which sustained them or condemning those roots to the dustbin of history.

Added to that was another, more potent problem: unlike in Bengal and even India (also nurtured by a Renaissance), the cultural revolution which 1956 wrought was first affirmed and then denied by its political leadership. 1956 in that respect could not have happened were it not for three figures: Professor Sarachchandra, Lester James Peries, and Martin Wickramasinghe. All three were well versed in Western modernity, while Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe were equally versed in the national ethos (Peries’ upbringing denied him that ethos until later on).

The political pamphleteers behind Sinhala Only, on the other hand, were less interested in that kind of fusion than in an irrationally radical chauvinism which, ironically, gave birth to the same political figures who would deny any place to that chauvinism later on. In other words, it is in 1956 that we see the basis for the later and equally narrow-minded demands for separatism and federalism, not to mention the present day anti-unitary campaigns of the TNA.

Plainly put, what happened that year was a bifurcation of our intelligentsia into the indigenous and the uprooted. It gave a set of false channels for the underprivileged to vent out their collective rage, which in the end left class structures intact and empowered the uprooted elite while giving the impression that they were placed on the same pedestal as that of the indigenous. The lack of any congruence between the cultural and the political in the “revolution” wrought that year facilitated that: the same revolution which helped the likes of Siri Gunasinghe would deny bilingualism its due place and hypocritically demean English (in the political sphere) while fermenting a culture of envy among those who could not wield it. The most immediate result of this, obviously, was the absenting of an educated bilingual intelligentsia.

That is why (going back to my earlier point) I say that we are seeing a horrendous form of anti-intellectualism. Here. Today. Those who are unable to wield the language of access, English, repudiate their roots to join the English-speaking intelligentsia. Those who are able to, and by dint of that ability are members of that intelligentsia, sustain the myth that there are no indigenous intellectuals, and that to become an intellectual, one must deny one’s cultural sensibilities. Small wonder, then, that anti-intellectualism is on the rise. Without a modernity that takes over from the past, only an aberration in the form of a gandabba, neither-here-nor-there nation can result. Anti-intellectualism thrives on just that.

And you know what? We don’t seem to be worried. Not by a long shot.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 2 2017