Midweek Review

Remembering Gamini Salgado...
'Tale of hunting would be different if Lions had historians'

by Carl Muller
From Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Lancashire, and published by Open House Press, Liverpool, comes a scintillating module titled "Picturing South Asian Culture in English: Textual and Visual Representations." It was my good fortune that this book was sent to me by Dr. Mrs. Ummanga Jolly, J.P. of Lancashire (daughter of the late, great Artie Lankatilleke). I found the work fascinating. As the editors say, there are obvious practical reasons for examining South Asian culture through the medium of English: "...by examining the representation of South Asian culture in English ...we are holding up a mirror to two cultures simultaneously."

Such a study is diverse, complex and challenging. We have the maturing of postcolonial South Asia; the ever-growing diaspora communities now situated in the West; continuity and transformation of tradition; the impact of imperialism; Lankan and Indian English - all areas of debate. The book seeks to deconstruct history and this is why the quote in the title of today’s Lobby is, I think, most apt. It is an African proverb and it reminds us that there is always an unsaid other side.

Of significance is a paper presented by Professor John Simons, Head of the Edge Hill School of Humanities and Arts. He has given an engaging account of Gamini Salgado, an immigrant Sri Lankan Professor of English at Exeter University. Simons identifies continuities between Salgado’s native Sinhalese culture and his scholarship on English Renaissance Literature — demonstrating the possible consequences of a colonial education, the absorption of imaginative spheres of English literature - and the real lived experiences in old Ceylon. There seems to have been a happy marriage between the rhythm of Salgado’s native language and culture and the British literary classics through which he was educated, and Simons asserts that Salgado stood for the integration and assimilation of South Asian culture with English.

In Salgado’s posthumous publication, "The True Paradise" (Carcanet Press, 1993), the inside cover jacket introduces him as an "exceptional person growing up in one culture and gradually being possessed by European attitudes." The same could be said of India poet A. K. Ramanujan who also appeared to be vaguely searching for identity in middle-age which was neither entirely Indian nor entirely English. In his book "Twelve Modern Indian Poets" (Oxford University Press, Delhi), A. K Mehotra quotes Ramanujan as follows:

"English and my disciplines (linguistics, anthropology) gave me my ‘outer’ forms - linguistic, metrical, logical and other such ways of shaping experience; and my first thirty years in India, my frequent visits and field trips, my personal and professional preoccupations with Kannada, Tamil, the classics and folklore, gave me my substance, my ‘inner’ forms, images and symbols. They are continuous with each other and I no longer can tell what comes from where."

Simons paper is titled "Finding Ceylon in 1693: Remembering Gamini Salgado." He says he wishes to remind readers of Gamini as a man who was an important figure in the English and Sri Lankan academic establishments, but was never sufficiently prominent to be generally remembered. Which is exactly why I chose this topic. Men like Gamini must be remembered. He showed us at least one possible way of understanding the manner in which the memory and experience of growing up in colonial South Asia could become inextricably linked with mastery and partial adoption of the colonizing culture.

Let us listen to Simons:

"Gamini Salgado was born in Ceylon in 1929 and died suddenly and tragically in England in 1985. Between these two dates, he achieved the signal distinction of being the first Sri Lankan to become a Professor of English in a British University (Exeter) and very probably, certainly as far as I am aware, the first South Asian of any nationality to achieve this rank. Gamini came to England in 1947 where he took a first in English at the University of Nottingham and followed this up with a Doctorate at the same university. Thereafter, with the exception of a brief period back home in Ceylon working for Unilever and another as a lecturer at the University of Singapore, Gamini made his home in the UK and posts at Belfast and Sussex preceded his appointment to the chair at Exeter in 1977. At the end of his life he spent a brief period teaching in Saudi Arabia before returning to England and an early retirement that was cut short by the early death that had been predicted for him by the astrologer who cast his chart when he was born."

Is it now left to the British to remember Gamini so dearly and so well? Professor D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, in a survey of Sri Lankan criticism, has mentioned Gamini a the most successful of the group of scholars who came under the influence of the dominant Cambridge English approach propounded by Professor E. F. C. Ludowyk at the University of Ceylon. We have mention of this in "The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Post Colonial Literatures in English" (Routledge, 1994).

Gamini’s academic achievements were many and various. His early research on D. H. Lawrence (his doctoral thesis) was the basis of later work on the establishment of the Lawrence canon. He was also an enthusiastic actor and an imaginative director. He wrote "The Everyman Companion to the Theatre" (Dent, 1985), "A Preface to Lawrence" (Longman, 1982) and "English Drama: A Critical Introduction" (Arnold, 1980).

But, as Simons says, Gamini’s greatest scholarly achievements lay in his address to Elizabethan and Jacobean culture. He was an editor and commentator on the dramatic works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and on the Restoration. His student cast production of Aphra Ben’s "The Rover" in 1981 was a success and he also edited "Othello" (Longman, 1976) and the text and performance volume of" King Lear" (Macmillan, 1984). He provided facsimiles of George Saville’s "Micellanies" (Gregg International, 1971) and "An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Power in England" (Gregg International, 1971). He also gave us "Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare" (Chatto & Windus, 1975).

Additionally, Gamini edited a selection of pamphlets on life in the Elizabethan criminal underworld ("Cony Catchers and Bawdy Baskets" - Penguin, 1972) and an excellent monograph, "The Elizabethan Underworld" (Dent, 1977) that is still in print.

Simons had the privilege of teaching with Gamini at Exeter and in 1981, they designed a special option course on Elizabethan popular literature. As Simons says:

"Gamini had a very distinctive teaching style. His work appeared unstructured and casual, but as the hour unfolded he would take the students through unfamiliar texts and we would always end on time and with a sense of a closed argument that offered further reading and more to say. My role was as a kind of straight man and occasional provider of dates of publication. Gamini would begin most classes by lighting a cigarette (in those days everyone still smoked) - he would always strike the match on the wall of the classroom - and then leaning back and exhaling a series of perfect smoke rings -one of his great skills - he would start a kind of meditation on the text in hand punctuated by disconcertingly direct questions to the students."

The focus of Simons’ paper is that while Gamini researched and taught of material drawn from the street cultures of Elizabethan England, he was also reproducing and representing to himself and his British students some aspects of the cultures of his native Ceylon.

"When teaching a class on Elizabethan ballads concerned with crime, Gamini reminisced about a ballad singer he had heard when he was a child in Ceylon. It was the story of a man who had broken into a house to rob, then discovered the householder’s beautiful daughter asleep in bed. Overcome with lust, he advanced on her, but at that moment the roof, heavy with monsoon rain, collapsed and the ensuing deluge not only woke the household but also, quite literally, dampened the would-be rapists ardour.

As Gamini observed, such a story was very typical of the sort of cautionary ballads popular in pre-industrial England. He showed how traditions can survive and mutate around a common core of material, impervious to specific cultural influences."

It was this approach, Simons says, that made Gamini a good scholar and teacher. He was able to link himself not only to the great traditions of English literature, but also to the traditions of Sinhalese popular culture.

Many of us old buffers know, well enough, how British literature and English formed an important part of childhood and formative influences. Early education for many born under the influence of British colonial rule was carried out in a context which appeared to have been "More English than the English".

In Gamini’s posthumous book, "The True paradise", he raises memories of a very British schooling. Even the journey to school was punctuated by English advertisements (Sunlight Soap, Robin starch, Wills Gold Flake tobacco) and propaganda posters during World War 11 showing gardeners digging for victory. Even the Sinhalese he spoke interacted with the rhythms of English together with the stories of precolonial days, Sinhala ballads and the chapbooks performed and sold by street vendors. Mixed in with all this was Burns, Dickens, Wodehouse, Stevenson, Arnold, Edgar Wallace, Macaulay, Emerson, Kingsley, Shakespeare, Longfellow and Conan Doyle.

Yet, the Sinhalese peddlers would carry their chapbooks to market - romantic love stories, tales of the many incarnations of the Buddha. What was becoming of Gamini? He was, Simons declares, not only participating in the traditional cultures of Ceylon, but also becoming part of a transnational communicative web which does not depend on any local materials for sustenance.

What Gamini found in the Ceylon of the late 1930s and early 1940s was no different from the way in which popular reading material was transmitted in Britain and Ireland between the 17th and mid 19th centuries. To Gamini, there was always the interplay between the vernacular and the English language - an interplay that forms the heart of the post-colonial experience. In his inaugural lecture on taking up his chair at Exeter he pointed out that although the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa set enormous problems for the translator as the flora and fauna of India were not familiar to most Western readers, it was no different from his own encounter with the daffodils, primroses and oxlips of Shakespeare. He stressed that what was needed was literary understanding- an act of spiritual reconstruction, a recognition of value in Otherness.

Simons feels, surely, that Gamini’s attention to the Elizabethan underworld was stimulated, consciously or unconsciously, by his early life experiences in Ceylon. He remembered the peddlers, beggars, itinerant performers and snake charmers that passed down the road outside his family home in Ceylon and saw connections with the Elizabethan underworld. His descriptive typology of the beggars of Ceylon in the 1930s was not very different from the sort of thing produced by Robert Greene in the second half of the 16th century. What Gamini did was to bring together the first-hand experience of one culture with the imaginative and intellectual realization of the other. He found in the London of 1603 the rural Ceylon of 1943 - a post-colonial discovery of a rare kind - and enabled a language for the description of both.

Finally, Simons insists:

"Gamini deserves to be remembered not only as a scholar but also as an important figure in the history of the South Asian community in the UK."

Well said, indeed. My own suggestion may count for little, but I do wish the University of Colombo, together with the British Council and the University of Exeter conduct a special Gamini Salgado forum both in the UK and in Sri Lanka. In 2005, it will be the twentieth anniversary of Gamini’s death. He deserves to be remembered!


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