Gratiaen’s ghosts

Both the keynote speaker (Prof. Senake Bandaranayake) and the chairperson of the judges (Mr. Tissa Abeysekera) at the recently held Gratiaen Prize ceremony prefaced their speeches with notes of sadness, the former remembering the ‘beleaguered and brutalized people of Iraq’ and the latter lamenting the passing away of the singer Mr. Gunadasa Kapuge whose cremation was being held that evening. Some of us also silently and sadly remembered a group of ordinary people whose ghostly presence at the Barefoot Gallery on the evening of April 6th was more chillingly felt, first when Prof. Bandaranayake spoke about the Sri Lankan intellectual landscape from the 1940’s to the 1970’s and second when the prize was awarded to an English translation of a two-part Sinhala novel by Mr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, the father of ‘Jathika Chinthanaya’.

The ghosts I refer to are those of the thousands of non-Sinhala speaking Burgher and Tamil Sri Lankans who were forced to leave the land of their birth and make homes in strange lands following the introduction of the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy in the 1950s. Those who suffered most by the displacement were mainly non-intellectuals from the middle and lower levels of government service the clerks, teachers, post office workers, railway employees, those in the estate sector etc.

So Prof. Bandaranayake’s glittering ‘extensive mountain terrain’ of ‘bi-lingual or multi-lingual’ intellectuals in the Sri Lankan landscape of the 1960’s and 1970’s had many dark valleys filled with the graveyards of mono-linguals. There are also other graveyards. In righting one wrong with another wrong and creating gross contradictions and inequalities in our society, the Sinhala Only policy created generations of intelligent and educated mono-lingual Sinhalese who were left reaping the bitter harvest of political expediency. With little or no English in their lives - in its multiple forms as a language, a literature and a many faceted culture - they are now finding themselves unemployable, and misfits in the rapidly spreading English language-led globalized world.

Jathika Chinthanaya’s ethnocentric, backward looking ideology is one of the many modern day branches of that tragic policy which took root in this country in the 1950’s and which has resulted in the mess we are in today. So the irony was not lost when the Gratiaen Award for the best creative writing in English for 2002 was given to Mr. Gunadasa Amarasekera and his translator, Mrs Vijitha Fernando. It had the Barefoot burghers buzzing till breakfast.
Robert Crusz