To defy the nation
By Radhika Coomaraswamy
WOMEN AND THE NATIONS
When the Sinhala Only Act was passed in Parliament in 1956, Dr. Colvin R. De Silva claimed that it would eventually lead to two "bleeding nations". In many ways these are prophetic words in that Sinhala nationalism and Tamil nationalism have emerged today as strident forces with mutually exclusive worldviews. Sinhala nationalism that sees Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist nation and Tamil nationalism as it finds expression in the Thimpu principles have a irreconcilable quality about them and as we head toward a peace process, we must also come to terms with the seemingly intractable nature of the ethnic conflict.
Neloufer de Mels new book "WOMEN AND THE NATIONS NARRATIVE" is a welcome respite from the rhetoric of nationalism. It is an attempt to see how nationalism as it has emerged in Sri Lanka has affected the lives of individual women. Through portraits and general essays, she gives us a sense of how women negotiate their relationship with nationalism sometimes swimming with the current and sometimes against it.
In the beginning of the book Neloufer points out four areas in which nationalism deals with what may be called "The Womens question. Firstly, nationalism posits ideals for women and through these ideal constructs roles for women. It articulates codes of dress habit and conduct and through these codes regulates womens freedom and their sexuality. Secondly, nationalism often has to negotiate a relationship with modernism and modern ideas especially as they emanate from the western world and the global media. This interface is in a constant dialectic, changing and transforming at the same time that it seeks to give us permanence and eternal ways of being. Thirdly, nationalism deals with collective identities and the agency of individuals within these identities. Nationalism marks boundaries and rigid lines of control within which women are sometimes given a measure of agency and empowerment. And finally, nationalism has to deal with the issue of universal feminism and the growth of womens movements in Sri Lanka and abroad.
In many ways, Neloufers book works with these themes through portraits of individual women and individual organisations. The first chapter is concerned with a nationalist heroine and her part in the production of the ideal Sinhala nationalist women in the imagined community of the Sinhalese. This is a fascinating chapter as it takes us into the life of Annie Boteju who played the heroine in many of John De Silvas nationalist plays. In some ways she is just an excuse for Neloufer to explore the full depth of Sri Lankan and Indian theatre and the nationalist use of the theatre to posit their ideas and norms of conduct. She explores issues of female impersonation - no woman could act on stage till the 1920s in Sri Lanka - and the construction of gender identity in the theatre world. She gives us thoughtful insights into the development of theatre in Sri Lanka especially during the colonial period. We are given a sense of a dynamic nationalist theatre that sets ideals for women through its main characters. These characters such as Ehelepola Kumarihamy and other heroines are self-sacrificing, long-suffering, chaste, dutiful and serene women who are prone to tragedy. They are the custodians of the nations culture and the nations virtues. They are always posited against the "other" female who brings shame and humiliation to the Sinhala nation. These "others" are the westernised women who drink, smoke and are educated. In John De Silvas plays they are pilloried as evil, wanton and selfish, who make the sitaesque nationalist heroines look good. Infact the nationalist heroine would not be a heroine if she did not have this "other" to be counterpoised against. Like the Madonna Circe distinction of western Europe, the national vs westernized woman distinction in Sri Lanka only helps create shallow female characters who are denied the fullness of a normal life.
Ironically, Annie Boteju the nationalist heroine, who believed in her nationalist dream often expressing anti-Muslim and anti-Tamil sentiments, was in her private life a real maverick. She never married and had three children without revealing the names of their fathers. But then nationalism is about a dream and what happens in real life never really matters to the nationalist imagination. Annie Boteju, the monogamous virtuous wife on stage and the strong independent single mother in everyday life captures the terrible hypocrisy of trying to live out impossible dreams in less than perfect reality. Neloufer brilliantly pulls out the gender constructions and the gender fantasies of the nationalist theatre but weaves it around in-depth research into the theatre as a means of entertainment in India as well as Sri Lanka.
Nationalism then is deeply committed to the regulation of female conduct and female sexuality. This is one of its universal characteristics. Into this narrow chauvinist world of conspiring men steps Anil de Silva, a lover of aesthetics, a free woman who is well aware of her own sexuality and the importance of passion in her life. She horrifies the men of the nationalist generation both of the liberal and communist variety though many of them are aroused by her charms. Neloufer brings out her personality with a certain vividly and empathy that makes this chapter very rich and enjoyable. Anil is subject to the worst forms of vilification, that of caste and that of gender. Her fathers social origins result in terrible lampooning and her love life is a source of speculation and ridicule. Her free mind and cosmopolitanism made it inevitable that she leave Sri Lanka and settle among like minded people elsewhere. And yet Anil in her own way is a great nationalist- the tradition of nationalism that we unfortunately did not inherit. She was of the "new aesthetics" school that rediscovered the beauty of the past in a fight against colonialism without being entrapped and narrowed by the experience. She helped edit Marg magazine- the Haute magazine of South Asian cultural life during that period. Because of her, Buddhist civilisation in Sri Lanka and the work of Group of 43 were often captured in its pages. She brought Buddhism alive both in Sri Lanka and China accepting a Buddhist aesthetics that today has become unfashionable. In some ways she really brought more glory to Buddhist civilisation in Sri Lanka than most of her detractors. So Anil in her won way was a nationalist- most leftists of the earlier generation were those who believed in fighting colonialism by recapturing the past- but it was open, expansive, pluralist nationalism a tradition that has now got lost in the Sri Lankan battle of the trenches.
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