Friday, December 15, 2017

A shell shocked world: More cuts on the private sphere

The private sphere of this country and of most other postcolonial societies, even India, did not open up fully to the Westernised paradigm of modernity and progress that it was supposed to open up to. What we got instead was a fatal contradiction, since that sphere, in whatever form and sector (even education) uprooted itself from cultural sensibilities and at the same time followed the worst elements of a patriarchal, quasi-feudalistic world. When CEOs of global companies from our part of the world contend, in front of a panel or interviewers, that it is good karma for women not to ask for pay rises, they are pandering to the superficial elements of a culture, any culture, which does not require them to let go of their Westernised outlook. The cosmetics of such cultures (the “pansakulaya, malwatti, and upparawatti” as Professor Nalin de Silva memorably wrote) appeal to those who believe that even in the private sphere, a balance must be struck between the need to be “nationalised” and also “globalised.”

This was largely a legacy of the split in the Buddhist order, firstly between the laity and the clergy achieved by the British after we were colonised, and secondly between the traditionalists and the reformists, the wielders of the faith and the wielders of a new secularism, that the intrusion of Theosophy brought about. By this I am not belittling the attempts of Colonel Olcott or Helena Blavatsky, rather I am pointing out that in the Theosophist movement we see a sustained division between the worldly and the otherworldly (noted by William Ames and Heinz Bechert) that found its way to postcolonial societies like ours. By artificially creating a rift between culture and society, the proponents of this new secularism had found a rationale for their offspring and even they themselves to wallow in the materialism, the crass consumerism, and Westernisation which their parents and grandparents had fervently opposed in 1956.

The new secularists, who were veritable champions of the cosmetic elements of culture, were the “children of the children” (as I pointed out in last week’s column): they let themselves be overwhelmed by the new culture of social upliftment. It was a new way of thinking, of looking at the world (they would call this “positive thinking” as the years went by), and the result of it all was that they were only too willing to target those who shared that worldview. The emergence and creation of an alternative education sector, free from the constraints of the Ministry of Education, was one method of catering to that worldview, and our new secularists, whose own children would go beyond them in being Westernised and uprooted, soon became shrewd businessman. Those who went through this alternative education sector from the nineties can attest that these institutions were never preoccupied with the profit motive – and those behind them were not enamoured of that profit motive either, yet – because they didn’t need to be: they had targeted the perfect single market, less a market, in fact, than a collective inhibited by an inferiority complex.

Gunadasa Amarasekara writes about this collective and milieu in many of his novels after Yali Upannemi and Karumakkarayo (the last two he wrote before he renounced the Western conception of literature he had been entranced by), particularly (though I have not read them yet) the cycle of stories revolving around Piyadasa (Gamanaka Mula, Gamanaka Mada, etc). He subtly points out the gulf between the idealists and the pragmatists, between the devotees and the secularists, between the nationalists and the “nationalists”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, certainly, one which shows us that no matter how universally feasible globalisation may be, all it does at the end of the day is destroy entire collectives while preserving the cosmetic elements of the cultures of those collectives: Keats’s Grecian Urn, Lawrence’s Arabia. For the West the East can only be salvaged through those cosmetics, an attitude largely shared by the new secularists who emphasised on rote learning history and religion in their institutions.

History is not a series of dates that need to be remembered, and religion is not a series of sermons and chants that need to be memorised. They are more, much more, than what their surfaces will have you believe. The children of the children were guilty for having abandoned in their professional lives their faith and heritage, so when they targeted the cultural sensibility they themselves acceded to, they tried to ensure that both faith and heritage would remain (ostensibly) core elements of their curriculum. I remember one of these new secularists, who had sent her child to one of these institutions at the behest of an aunt, impatiently glaring at one of those commentators who on television frequently reiterated the need to know one’s language properly. By denying their children a proper space to learn that language, the maw basa, they were in effect turning the need into an option: it was no longer mandatory to seep oneself in the past as before, it was rather a choice that had to be made by their children.

It was a half-baked world but one can’t blame those who were resident in it because no culture, in this postcolonial phase of history, can survive the inhibitions of those who imbibe the Western paradigm of development and modernism. Limited to one or two periods, the maw basa (Sinhala and Tamil), the agama (particularly Buddhism), and the sanskruthiya (based largely on extracurricular activities like dancing, music, and the Hewisi Band) were by and by afterthoughts of the new secularists who wanted a premium education for their children, even though these subjects and activities had the effect of entrancing those children to the culture their elders were repudiating. The world had moved on, and the elders were still very much behind. They wanted their children to learn faster, to let go of any affiliations to their country and even live abroad. Even our nationalist politicians see no contradiction in subscribing to this attitude when it comes to the education of their offspring. It’s an elephant in the room.

The debate over the international school system has so far been conducted by the rabid nationalists and the would-be modernists: the former decry any attempt at opening an alternative space in our education sector, while the latter see in that space a veritable chance of redeeming their inhibitions, their sense of inferiority, by westernising their children. No proper debate, consequently, has followed our international schools because the extremists, on either side, have so far headed it. It is my contention that the international school system as is present in Sri Lanka, particularly with respect to schools which target a bourgeoning middle class, opens up a complex interrelationship between the imperatives of culture and the imperatives of the material world, an interrelationship that I believe deserves another article.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 15 2017