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Unmaking the present, remaking memory: Sri Lankan stories and a politics of coexistence.

Hatton was a tea-town. People did not choose to live in Hatton, they were posted there, and left it as quickly as they decently could. Except, that is, for the coolies, who lived and perished among the tea-bushes and nourished them with their remains when they were dead. Even the one proper road that ran through Hatton entered it with a rush and ... left it precipitately. On either side of the road were bunched the lodgings of the artisans ... and on its tributary stood the houses of the professionals. Behind and beyond them rose row upon row of interminable tea-bushes reaching up to the skyline ... And somewhere in between, in a break in the bushes ... huddled the dark, dank line-rooms of the coolies.[1]

I was born near Hatton and lived in its adjacent hills until, at the age of eight, I was sent away to school. My parents, it is true, had not chosen Hatton, but were chosen by it. Weary of years in `government service', they simply decided not to move on when the inevitable transfer came. We lived on the top of a hill in an area carefully demarcated as `Fruit Hill'. There wasn't a tea-bush in sight, but the brute reality of tea pervaded our lives all the same.

Our connection with Jaffna seemed remote. An annual crate of mangoes arrived by train, and was shared among friends not lucky enough to have family there. We were `Tamils'. The women, men and children who had toiled for generations in these hills were `Indians'. Infinite--though unacknowledged--labour was expended in distinguishing us from them. The language they spoke was `Indian Tamil', even if we could not deny that their names sounded a lot like ours.

Class, not ethnicity or religion, formed the daily allegiances and obvious identifications of our lives. Every year the `Indians' held their festivals of fire and drums, which I watched as alien, terrifying spectacles. But Vesak, the Id, Deepavali and Easter were true red-letter days. At Ramazan 1 eagerly awaited the wide basins of buriyani, studded with golden eggs, that would arrive from each Muslim household we knew. At Hindu and Buddhist New Year, although we were neither, we girls had new clothes in the year's auspicious colour.

Tamil, my official mother tongue, was the language I came to speak third in life. The language I spoke first of all was Sinhala, the language of Ellen Atapattu, my ayah. One of the few stories I know about her is that before I was born, or when I was too young to remember, she saved us from the language thugs who attacked our house because of the Tamil lettering on the sign outside my father's surgery. The `thugs', by day my father's respectful patients, had visited him earlier to ask if he could remove the sign so they wouldn't have to tar it like all the other Tamil houses and shops. It seems they had their own kind of honour, as he had his when he refused.

Caught between different sorts of honour, Ellen, ayah, confronted the mobs that night. A tiny, grey-haired, unlettered woman, she defied the champions of her ancient language and religion. She routed them that time, but tarbrush campaigns and other, more violent, attacks against Tamils were a regular feature of the late 1950s and early '60s. These were not spontaneous `riots', as they came to be misleadingly described, but organised campaigns of intimidation, co-ordinated with the introduction of new discriminatory language and citizenship laws. One time, my mother says, the men tarred the sign, but after a few months notified my father he could replace it. When he refused, they cleaned it themselves. But there must have been another time they tarred the sign again, later, because in my memory the Tamil lettering remains permanently blackened on my father's neatly polished, once trilingual, brass Doctor's sign until, several years later, after he had died, we moved away.

The author was not known to him, hut the story, that of a country, doctor in England, seemed more familiar These others, Hardy and Forster and them, he reflected, familiarized us with their cities and villages ... through their tales, but the tales themselves had nothing to say to us ... They had a language perhaps and a history, that were spread so wide that they, could talk of Northanger Abbey or Howards End or Hyde Park and the whole world would understand. It was
   common currency. We had no history or we had several, mostly not of our
   doing, or we had forgotten that part of it which was, or it was apart too
   late to remember.' it could only unmake the present.[2]

In the Peabody Museum at Harvard University is an often-reproduced photographic collage, Types of the Native Races met with in Ceylon. It represents `types' of `races' such as `Malay girl', `Kandyan villager', `Jaffna Tamil (high caste)', `Sinhalese postman', `Moorman from coast of India', `Colombo Chetty (Shroff)'. The collage exemplifies the logic of categorisation and apartness that has dominated official thinking about Sri Lankan peoples from colonial times. But disregard the ethnographic trappings, and the photographs in the collection defy their title, displaying, not a range of racial `types', but some bodies arrayed in the props and cliches of the exotic orient. Look again, and the bodies in the collage are pushing back, making mock of the ludicrous anthropological precision of their labels.

From colonial Ceylon to republican Sri Lanka, the logic of apartness and separation, of distinct racial `types' and categories, has provided a continuity to official policy-making. From the trusted British adage of `divide and rule' to the post-independence state's practice of systematic linguistic, religious and regional discrimination was an easy, though by no means inevitable, transition. Independence marked the end of a long process during which multiple points of identification and difference between peoples (along lines of language, geography, religion, gender, class, caste) were re-ordered into four distinct groupings: `Burger', `Muslim', `Tamil', `Sinhala'. A clumsy amalgam of sometimes contradictory racial, ethnic and religious elements,[3] these categories were given fixity on the flag of the new nation. Each group had its designated colour and allotted space: no leaks, no overlaps.

Ambiguity survived in our readings of this seemingly transparent text: are Tamils the maroon or the orange? the Sinhala the gold or the maroon? green must stand for the Muslims, but then where are the Burgers? Also, we were well aware, the solid categories so confidently represented on the flag were capable of both infinite splitting and infinite multiplication: `up-country', `low-country' and `coastal' Sinhala; `Jaffna', `Colombo' and `Batticoloa' Tamil, as well as `Indian Tamil' and `Ceylon' `Tamil'; `Muslims' could be `Moors', `Indian Muslims' or `Malays', and `Burgers' `Portuguese' or `Dutch' Burgers. These identities and groupings didn't even begin to account for ramifications of caste and religion.

But somewhere in the collaboration between colonial bureaucrats and the locals who would replace them, ethnicity had become naturalised, marked as the primary category of official identification. The exchange between these compulsory official identities and the collective and private subjectivities that they both produced and were produced by, the ways in which identification as `Burger', `Sinhala', `Muslim' or `Tamil' came to be assumed as central to -- even constitutive of -- our identities, is a long and complex story. It is, in great part, the story of the post-independence state, its adoption of a politics of ethno-nationalism, and the blatant `competitive chauvinism' of its key political parties.[4] State practices of linguistic and religious discrimination impacted on all minoritised groups, but were directed with particular violence at Tamil-speaking peoples, through the illegitimisation of the `Indian' Tamils in the hills and the `internal colonisation' of Tamil-dominated regions in the North and East. Put another way, the post-independence chauvinism of the state recast the multiplicity of Sri Lanka into a binary struggle between essentialised `Sinhala' and `Tamil' antagonists. In turn, policies of state-sponsored Sinhala nationalism produced their obverse -- a Tamil nationalism, coupled with demands for a `separate state' or `partition' of Tamil regions.

This will to partition us is an old trick in which politicians of every cast have received support from a variety of learned collaborators. Valentine Daniel has discussed, for example, how westernised discourses of anthropology and history were employed to produce a teleological narrative of the nation, `dwarfing, thereby, all uncertainties and ambiguities about its people's past'.[5] Areas of cultural, linguistic and religious overlap, of common regional affiliations and daily interactions in shared spaces, are overwritten by the organisation of a various population into distinct racial/ethnic categories, hierarchically positioned in the space and time of a singular national story. This is a narrative characterised by claims of primacy and belatedness (who came when) and accusations of illegitimacy (the `Dravidian' invader, the `illicit immigrant', the `kalla thoni') which, in turn, give rise to oppositional counter-claims of racial/ ethnic essentialism.

The naturalisation of a narrative of distinguishable `racial types', and its widespread adoption as an explanatory model for contemporary political conflict, are exemplified in an article published in the New York Times, that newspaper of global record, when Sri Lanka briefly made the world's front pages after the 1983 pogroms: `The Sinhalese and Tamils are divided not only by religion but by ethnic background: the Sinhalese are of Aryan stock, the Tamils are of darker-skinned Dravidian extraction.'[6] As easy as that, and what encrusted snaggles of history are quickly shaved out of our lives. To the dispassionate gaze of the ethnographer and his present-day incarnation, the foreign correspondent, our story is plain to tell: different racial beginnings, religion, language and culture, all signalled by a visible and measurable difference of skin colour.

Against these official narratives of partition are complex, intertwined histories and enmeshed, interlocking identities -- a dense, untidy tapestry of interactions, peaceful and otherwise, of people in Sri Lanka. These intractable, difficult stories of entwined pasts and futures have recently begun to be acknowledged. To speak only of work in English, since 1983 a valuable collection of theoretical writings has been compiled, painstakingly attempting to deconstruct the narratives of `Aryan' and `Dravidian' racial types, to reveal the ideological investments that sustain these dominant narratives of separation, and to gesture towards the alternative histories that they overwrite.[7]

These alternative stories are also being mapped, more slowly, in a fiction beginning to break from the aesthetic and political givens of the novel in England. Vijay reflects in When Memory Dies, `they could talk of Northanger Abbey or Howards End or Hyde Park and the whole world would understand. It was common currency. We had no history or we had several, mostly not of our doing, or we had forgotten that part of it which was, or it was a part too late to remember: it could only unmake the present.' To unmake the present is to refuse its dominant constructions and the orthodoxies that organise how the present is understood and made sense of. The challenge of giving currency is to make culturally intelligible in a wider context, the context of neocolonialism, other understandings of the past, alternative stories that re-order the present, that insist there is no single story, that acknowledge multiple hierarchies and inequalities in Sri Lankan history, and yet simultaneously represent a web of interactions that crisscrosses and traverses the various divides.

In recent years, several successful novels have opened out questions of Sri Lankan cultural identity -- Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens, Romesh Gunesekera's Reef and Monkfish Moon. Their publication in the West, and packaging under the increasingly depoliticising label of `postcolonial literature', however, often enables their recuperation into disembodied, ahistorical celebrations of `hybridity' or `multiculturalism'.[8] Equally seductive is an uncritical nostalgia that reads these texts as invoking the cosmopolitanism of better times, forgetful of the fractures of class, caste, region and language upon which it rested.

Between representations of the easy cosmopolitanism of the anglicised, Colombo-centred elites and the essentialist exclusions of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism is what can be named a practice of coexistence. Coexistence encompasses the range of quotidian transactions within shared spaces, both symbolic and physical: the embodied activities of travelling and trading; of eating, working and celebrating; of invoking, appeasing and casting out the same demons and deities. Above all, it refers to the parallel and intersecting trajectories of everyday desires, aspirations and struggles, the daily proximities of peoples who have lived together over centuries, in love and war.

Coexistence, in this understanding, does not preclude violence or conflict, but excludes literal or symbolic casting-out as a response to conflict. As Ram Manikkalingam points out in his discussion of the form of Tamil nationalism he calls `Tigerism', the denial of coexistence at the level of the racial/ethnic group inevitably leads to the denial of coexistence within the group that is so constructed:
   The Tigers invented a new Tamil identity by, simultaneously, drawing upon
   and denying history. This identity claims to be tied to history on the
   basis of language, region and tradition. But the Tigers are anti-historical
   in that they are committed to denying that the Tamil identity also includes
   a history of co-existence with other communities. The denial of pluralism
   among communities is only a step away from the denial of pluralism within a
   community. Thus one invention of this newly invented Tamil identity ... is
   that the Tigers have to deny and eliminate real or potential differences
   ... and interests among Tamils. The monolithic unity violently asserted by
   the Tigers is both the cause of and consequence of Tamil essentialism, and
   ultimately culminated in a new political ideology -- Tigerism.[9]

This analysis can be extended to the Sinhala counterparts of `Tigerism' that seek the erasure of difference by other means, most obviously through the various forms of violence available to the state. In response to these forms of essentialist violence, to acknowledge histories of coexistence is a necessary first step towards an active politics of coexistence, a politics that involves unmaking the anti-historical absolutism of the present, and remaking, or re-membering, other understandings of the past.

In their principled opposition to the absolutism represented by `Tigerism', writers from a range of political positions have begun to represent and re-member new narratives of Tamil identity. One recent example, in spite of its conservative politics and alarmingly reactionary social vision, is Ratnajeevan Hoole's An Exile's Return which deconstructs cherished myths about distinctively Tamil characteristics and exposes the tensions and contradictions within Jaffna Tamil identities. A resolutely anti-nostalgic author, Hoole forewarns us that his book `is not about an idealised Jaffna where one is served sliced mangoes by a loving grandmother'.[10] But although this obsessive, encyclopaedic study refuses the notion of a singular, romanticised Tamil identity and debunks the posturings of expatriate middle-class Tamil nationalism, it remains entirely silent about a political direction for the present. The book ends with the protagonist's return from a comfortable life in the US to a more satisfying, if uncertain, future in Colombo, but fails to address the political implications of this ending. Hoole's implicit acknowledgment of coexistence remains an unexamined and depoliticised one.

In contrast to the texts mentioned above, the major achievement of When Memory Dies is its mapping of the everyday coexistence of Sri Lankan peoples across classes, regions and ethnicities. Even as the novel tracks the historical stages by which attempts to sustain an antiessentialist politics were foreclosed through the `competitive chauvinism' of the various Sinhala-nationalist parties, it simultaneously registers the possibility of other choices, the directions not taken which have added up to the making of the present. In doing so, it also builds a case for a future politics of coexistence, by re-membering the pieces (anti-colonial activism, workers' rights, universal education, anti-communalism) jettisoned along the way.

Andy Higginbottom's review of When Memory Dies, published in the magazine Hot Spring, a publication highly supportive of the LTTE, claims that, in its last section, When Memory Dies `seems to veer towards a strained pacifism'.[11] Higginbottom's misrecognition of a politics of coexistence as `pacifism' suggests the extent of work to be done to give currency and cultural intelligibility to a non-absolutist politics. The possibility of asserting Tamil rights', and aspirations, while rejecting ethno-nationalism and affirming a politics of coexistence, Manikkalingam suggests, is currently prevented by the dominance of `Tigerism'. This is the possibility fleetingly imagined at the close of When Memory Dies.

Translating an acknowledgment of coexistence into a viable politics for the future is the formidable task that confronts opponents of both Tigerism and its Sinhala counterparts. Efforts such as The Broken Palmyrah, a work of extraordinary courage by four Jaffna University academics, testify that the politics of absolutism have been continually subject to challenge and refutation. It is now just short of ten years since the murder, in September 1989, of Rajani Thiranagama, one of the key figures in the production of The Broken Palmyrah. In a postscript, completed shortly before her killing, Thiranagama wrote, in a section entitled `The future':
   The present belongs to the forces of reaction. What is the future for this
   beleaguered land? ... For the people, any solution to the brutal and
   intense violence has to come from within the communities and cannot be
   imposed from outside. The development of these internal structures is a
   long and arduous task, a process which is only just beginning to be

Ten years later, the present still belongs to the forces of reaction. But, trusting in the conviction of Thiranagama, who wrote about the politics of a desperately entangled war with a clear-eyed, yet passionate, acumen that remains unequalled, I note the beginning of a process of comprehending what needs to be done. The insights of When Memory Dies are indispensable to that process.


[1] A. Sivanandan, When Memory Dies (London, Arcadia Books, 1997), p. 256.

[2] Ibid. p. 289.

[3] For an excellent discussion of the formation of `Muslim', for example, see Qadri Ismail's `Unmooring identity: the antinomies of elite Muslim self representation in modern Sri Lanka', in Pradeep Jeganathan and Qadri Ismail, eds., Unmaking the Nation (Colombo, Social Scientists' Association, 1995), pp. 55-105.

[4] For a discussion of the `competitive chauvinism', especially between the UNP and SLFP, see Sumantra Bose's discussion in States. Nations, Sovereignty (New Delhi, Sage, 1994), pp. 58-80.

[5] E. Valentine Daniel, Charred Lullabies (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996) p. 50.

[6] `Recent fighting in Sri Lanka dims hope for peace', New York Times (22 April 1984).

[7] To name only a handful: Kumari Jayewardene, `Class and ethnic consciousness' in The Lanka Guardian (Vol. 6, nos. 5 and 6, 1983); Radhika Coomaraswamy, `Nationalism: Sinhala and Tamil myths' in South Asia Bulletin (Vol. VI, no. 2, 1986); Charles Abeyasekera and Newton Gunasinghe, eds., Facets of Ethnicity in Sri Lanka (Colombo, Social Scientists' Association, 1987); `Sri Lanka: racism and the authoritarian state', Race & Class (Vol. 26, no. 1, 1984); Michael Roberts, ed., Sri Lanka Collective Identities Revisited, vols 1 & 2 (Colombo, Marga Institute, 1997); Pradeep Jeganathan and Qadri Ismail, Unmaking the Nation, op.cit.

[8] For example, see Neluka Silva's essay on `Running in the family', Frontline (Vol. 16, no. 4, 13-26 February 1999).

[9] Ram Manikkalingam, Tigerism and Other Essays (Colombo, Ethnic Studies Group, 1995), pp. 4-5. I thank Suki Thurairajah for bringing this text to my attention.

[10] S. Ratnajeevan Hoole, The Exile Returned (Dehiwala, Aruvi Publishers, 1997), p. xvii.

[11] Andy Higginbottom, `Sri Lanka: three works of fiction', Hot Spring (May-June 1997), pp. 25-6. I am grateful to Ernest MacIntyre for discussing this review with me.

[12] Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K. Sritharan and Rajani Thiranagama, The Broken Palmyrah (Claremont, Sri Lanka Studies Institute, 1992), p. 417.

Suvendrini Kanagasabai Perera teaches in the School of English at La Trobe University, Australia. She is author of Reaches of Empire and editor of Asian and Pacific Inscriptions.' Identities/Ethnicities/Nationalities.
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Publication:Race and Class
Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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