Monday, December 11, 2017

The children of the children: The culture of envy

It’s convenient now and then to root our collective, national incapacity for something, anything, in our (real or imagined) feelings of cultural inferiority. Not just convenient, but also justifiable, given our harrowing trysts with colonialism. But what is convenient and justifiable emotionally and in terms of rhetoric isn’t always what is true and what should be true. That is why we have to move on, though not at the cost of forgetting what decades and centuries of black-and-white exploitation left us with: a ramshackle economy which never took off thanks in large part to the inability of the colonial (and post-colonial) bourgeoisie to transform it into an industrialised society. Our bourgeoisie are modernists only when it comes to their ability to emulate superficially the Occident. They’ll probably be surprised to learn that Anagarika Dharmapala, whom they vilify using all sorts of expletives and what-not today, was more of a modernist than them.

I believe that a firm engagement with history, its pluses and minuses, its flattering and less than flattering facets, is what makes for the blooming and nurturing of a cultural sensibility. In Sri Lanka that sensibility never really endured for long, considerably owing to the fact that we are, after all, still a post-colonial society. Our filmmakers and artists are wont to describing our society as post-war, but in this they are only partly correct: neither the war, nor the efforts made at building bridges after the war, can conceal the inexorable culture of apathy on the one hand and elitism on the other hand which our bourgeoisie continues to stand for. And affirm. The emergence of an alternative education system in the late 70s and 80s is, I rather suspect, a good indication of that culture. For the fact of the matter is, and I am being quite blunt here, that the rise and proliferation of private, international schools was a vague result of the emergence of a swabasha education sector after 1956. The one necessitated the other through English.

It has been said of the Israel that its founding fathers (and mothers) were idealists, while those who were chosen to lead it after their demise were the realists. I suppose the same can be said of other incidents in history, including the founding of the United States, with the truism that ideals are always tempered by disenchantment. The aborted project that was 1956, which we can trace to the writings of Dharmapala and also, faintly, in the Buddhist Renaissance brought about by the Theosophists, empowered one generation, a generation who were already vassals to an education system which privileged entrance to the Civil Service as the only mark of distinction in society that mattered. The irony is that our elite sent their children to Oxford and Cambridge for the sole purpose of entering that Civil Service, and not for anything that was nationally, economically, productive. (Part of the reason why P. de S. Kularatne returned to Sri Lanka to act as Principal at Ananda College was his realisation that the British were less interested in the Civil Service he himself hoped to enter than his own countrymen.)

The rift which existed before 1956 was largely economic but also determined by language, specifically English. In his book on the LSSP, Working Underground, Regi Siriwardena observes that in colonial society the latter sometimes overrode the former to such an extent that even the middle class, bereft of privilege and occupying an intermediate position between the haves and have-nots, were able to rise socially. A revolution, cultural or political, is decided at the outset by this intermediate class, who enjoyed the benefits of a median position without the inhibitions and deficiencies that visited the elite and the multitude equally. Siriwardena became our foremost critic, translating our cultural sphere to the patrons of the Lionel Wendt and our English Departments despite his inability to wield Sinhala, the language of the 1956 revolution, properly. But this intermediate position wasn’t filled only by those who spoke and wrote in English. It was also filled by the rural and the urban Sinhala Only bourgeoisie. They would elect Bandaranaike as the idealists, while their children would become the realists.

The dichotomy between the ideal and the real in our cultural and political spheres this point reveals is important because, carried away by the world of social empowerment that the Bandaranaike government promised would open to the Sinhala Only bourgeoisie, the idealistic elders educated their later-to-be pragmatic children in the vernacular, forgetting, or choosing to ignore, the fact that what transpired in 1956 was the substitution for the hitherto existing class discrepancies of a more insidious form of elitism. The social rifts which prevailed until then were bottled up, repressed in fact, until what resulted was a culture of envy (as I pointed out last week). A key element of this new culture of envy was the inability of those who had been promised rice from the moon to comprehend the alternate space that the English intelligentsia carved for themselves here. The latter lacked the numbers, but what they lacked in numbers was compensated for by their sway over policy. They became the policy elite: Michael Young’s technocrats.

And in seeing the hegemony that these new elites and their offspring wallowed in, the empowered ones found themselves quickly to be disempowered and disarmed. They were the insurrectionists who had felt betrayed by a largely obsolete left movement. They attempted to abort elected governments in 1971 and 1988, the former largely drawn from our universities and the latter from the rural, political South. (It’s interesting to note here that many of those who led the 1971 insurrection, and were later rehabilitated, remained JVP’ers while partaking of the NGO sphere that invaded the country in the eighties. Some of these former insurrectionists have today become apologists for whatever government spouts their rhetoric of federalism and devolution.) Being largely rural and pragmatic they would have realised the follies of their elders who had elected for swabasha in 1956. Being insurrectionists they would have confused the follies of their elders for an excuse, on their part, to discern each and every organ of the State – including the judiciary and the education sector – as an arm of a rightwing status quo.

The fringe movement of the JVP has always been that party’s most vocal, committed, and eloquent crusader against the intrusion of the private sphere on the public. But in being radicals they were unable to fully become the pragmatists that the Sinhala Only middle class and bourgeoisie were, because while the Sinhala Only peasantry became disenchanted and turned into crusaders, the former forewent on their fidelity to the rhetoric of 1956 and embraced the same uprooted, neither-here-nor-there lifestyle that their parents had heard Dharmapala condemn. We are a nation of imitators because the colonial bourgeoisie are still in power. When we see them emulate the West thinking that the West is best, we want to emulate them because in that act of emulation we are guaranteed social upliftment. So when our education sector was opened to the private sphere in the eighties, with the establishment of international schools, the children of the children of 1956, who hailed from the Sinhala Only middle class, embraced them. They had been educated in the vernacular. Owing to the feelings of insecurity this compelled in them, they chose to send their children, not to the bastions of vernacular education their elders had idealised, but to the institutions of privilege those elders had decried.

The international school system in Sri Lanka was initially divided into two broad categories: the elite schools that catered to the children of diplomats and other top-ranking professionals, and the budget schools that catered to the middle class. The latter made and continues to make good business sense because, in stark contrast to the former, they were targeted not at a specific market segment but at an entire sensibility: the sensibility that had grown tired of the Sinhala Only rhetoric of the Bandaranaike years. They had studied in Sinhala and had come to know how lowly they were regarded by their better off countrymen. So they sent their children, thinking and hoping that those children would not meet the fate they had. This class still flourishes because there is always a middle class that studied in the vernacular, who wish to see their children acquire the privileges that English and a Westernised education bring.

But then the international school system, which had before bifurcated between the elitist institutions on the one hand and the budget institutions on the other, splintered off to yet another category, this one comprising of institutions which were set up everywhere, on an ad-hoc basis, because (to this date) private and international schools are not monitored by the State. The milieu that patronises these new international schools do not approximate to the middle class that earlier sent their offspring to the budget institutions. They belong to a more ruralised, less ambitious, but nevertheless pragmatic milieu, whose knowledge of English is far less than that of the post-1956 Sinhala Only bourgeoisie. This makes good business sense because these new schools are staffed by teachers who are paid more relative to the state sector and because their standards, or the lack thereof, are never questioned by their intended customers (who after all can’t spot out the mistakes in the curriculum their children are taught).

All these leave much to reflect on. What that is, however, I will get to next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 8 2017