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Closing the Circle: Revisiting Amarasekara

Gunadasa Amarasekara turned 80 last year. In an attempt to re-evaluate him as a writer, his publisher has named this year "the year of revisiting Amarasekara". But Dr. Amarasekara is more than a writer. He is one of most influential and authentic intellectuals of our time.

Book publishers come up with various projects to promote their publications and to keep their business going and growing. Even Cumaratunga Munidasa’s grandson, the owner of Visidunu Publishers, is bound by this logic of business. Therefore, regardless of the fact that Gevindu Kumaratunghe is an intellectual in his own right, the project of re-evaluating Amarasekara is primarily a business venture, perhaps to keep his books in print for some more years to come. Other than the publisher, any of Amarasekara’s ideological children who are key players in various Sinhala nationalist or racist organisations, have not shown any keen interest in seriously assessing the Amarasekara oeuvre. The intellectual or the businessman in the owner of Visidunu, however, is initiating a dialogue all of us must engage in: rethinking Amarasekara Chinthanaya, which is often taken to be "Jathika Chinthanaya."

Amarasekara is an authentic intellectual. All that means is that he is deeply engaged with his chosen community, Sinhala Buddhist people and, during the last few decades, Amarasekara has influenced nearly all cultural and political discourses of his people. There is no other local intellectual who shaped the thinking of radical Sinhala youth during that time as much as Amarasekara. A student of medicine from Lumumba University, named Wijeweera, and a dentist from the University of Ceylon, named Amarasekara, were two of the most significant people trying to cure social maladies of Sinhala society. In fact, Amarasekara spent about four decades trying to stuff Wijeweera’s Marxist head - taking Wijeweera as a symbol of many others- with ‘national thought’ (Jathika Chinthanaya), and in the process, one could argue, Amarasekara effectively destroyed a courageous challenger to the Sri Lankan state if not the status quo of the Sinhala South (JVP did not challenge all the aspects of the status quo).

Rare authenticity

Yet Amarasekara is an authentic intellectual. Our universities, political parties and NGOs have not been able to produce such an intellectual. For whatever reason, the university has failed to produce engaging and original thinkers. Some are engaging but not original while some are original but hardly engaging. In some rare occasions those two qualities joined together in some of our brilliant scholars, but even those people had very little connection with the masses and their politics. To put it briefly, there is no one in the university whose stature as a public intellectual equals that of Amarasekara. Of late, mainstream political parties have not been intellectual centres at all. The publications coming out of them suggest that there is no real thought-provoking dialogue inside those parties. Ironically, almost all political parties do have individuals of high intellectual status even though they have not been able get their respective parties to engage in intellectual debates.

NGOs are, almost by nature, intellectual centres attracting the most radical thinkers in the country. But only a few of NGO operatives could be called authentic. Writing mainly in English, they could not really reach out to the monolingual masses. Therefore, some of them sound like highly paid parrots talking to themselves in an unknown tongue, living in comfortable cages.

Only a few among those intellectuals could deeply respond to or engage with literature and art produced by Sinhala- speaking people- to focus on my own native language group. The bilingual intellectuals associated with NGOs are more or less ignorant or cynical of Sinhala literary and works of art. Situation in the Tamil community is said to be better, Tamil intellectuals being truly ‘bilingual’ and developing deep connections with Tamil language cultural worlds. I am still to see, however, a Partha Chatterjee or a Dipesh Chakrabarthy, who are equally at home in post-structuralist theory and Bengali pre-modern and modern literature, among the Sri Lankan English- speaking class(es).Without genuine and authentic connections with vernacular cultural life, some important work by NGO intellectuals had very little impact on the masses. In addition, their failure to produce a sustained critique of LTTE violence during the last three decades even created a certain resentment of them among the masses. Of course, some NGO intellectuals were systematically vilified by loud-mouthed nationalists, such as Gunadasa Amarasekara. But had they had some genuine connections with ordinary folk, such vilifications would not have been easy.

Gunadasa Amarasekara has been truly authentic compared to many of those ‘funded’ intellectuals. His being effective has more to do with his authenticity than with the accuracy of his thought. His Jathika Chinthanaya has ended up creating a kind of cultural relativism that easily translates into something like, "Humans in this country are only Sinhala Buddhists." That cultural relativism, instead of producing any Buddhist science or Buddhist theory of development, which takes the planet earth as our co-being rather than a bundle of nature to be mastered by modernity, has resulted in producing hypocritical middle class consumerists as social beings and racists as political beings. Consumerism and racism nicely synthesise in Sri Lanka’s new Buddhist.

"Good luck to you, Dr. Amarasekara"

There is another legacy of Amarasekara’s Jathika Chinthanaya: many children of 1956 turned their own inabilities into a form of Jathika Chinthanaya. For example, those who do not know any language other than Sinhala elevated their monolingualism into a form of being "Jathika." These days universities are full of those ‘national thinkers.’ Some others who are afraid of engaging with the most serious thinkers of our time argue that the Buddha has taught us everything we need. According to them, Jataka Pota is enough, and we do not need Derrida’s Grammatology or Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, for example. The Jataka Pota, to be sure, is a very good book. But it is hardly enough. Those who claim that The Jataka Book is enough cannot read Derrida or Foucault and they cannot deal with such rigorous thought, so they disguise their inability as Jathika Chinthanaya. One cannot begin to describe how the sublimation of mediocrity has destroyed this country. Thousands that surround Amarasekara are such "national thinkers." About Amarasekara’s voyage with these fellows I can only say this: "Good luck to you, Dr. Amarasekara".

Those who really can engage with Amarasekara are the ones who are called, of course by Amarasekara himself, "enemies of the nation", "agents of the West" and "imitators of the West". Over the years Amarasekara has successfully taught his followers such name- calling which shuts down any form of intellectual dialogue.

My Wittgenstein, of course he is Western, has taught me that conversation is the essence of humanity. An entire school of mediocre ‘thinkers,’ masquerading as national thinkers, (Jathika Chinthakayas) is constantly at work to rid our society of genuine conversation. In any institution; including the private sector, the people of average skills and knowledge are the most nationalist calling any innovative and energetic person "non-nationalist". For these disciples of the Jathika Chinthana school, being productive and creative means being Western. Therefore, those who have done nothing substantial for the Sinhala nation are the most vocal defenders of it. Rajitha Dissanayake’s new play, "Apahu Herenna Bee", beautifully depicts certain qualities of these "friends" of the nation. I hope very much that Dr. Amarasekara will live long enough to see the destruction his theories have resulted in. And I hope the poet in him will still be honest on that day to regret his mistake.

The critique is worthwhile only when the critiqued is authentic. Amarasekara is such an influential writer that it is always rewarding to disagree with him. In reading his best short stories, I find myself agreeing with him too. His brilliance as a writer manifests itself in his mid- career stories included in ‘Ekatamen Polowata’, ‘Ekama Kathawa’ and ‘Katha Pahak’. In them, Amarasekara critically evaluates Sri Lanka’s postcolonial citizen without any overt ideologically leanings. After those stories, Amarasekara the thinker begins to overshadow the creative writer in him and before long literature becomes his surgical knife to cut open various ‘enemies and friends’ of the nation. Even in some those ideologically- motivated literary works there are some moments of brilliance but after the late 1980s Amarasekara becomes increasingly predictable as a writer and his artifice becomes obvious and fails to surprise. They are ideas without delight.

One of my favorites of Amarasekara’s stories happens to have a title that signifies a turning point in the writer’s career: "Etamen polowata nohot Upadi Dhariniya". Roughly translated the title means: "Down to Earth from the Ivory Tower or A Female Graduate." The collection which includes the story, marks Amarasekara’s revolt against what he calls, "Peradeni literature". I often use this story in my lectures on postcolonial literature for it is a fine portrayal of what colonial education does to people.

Education is an important social leveller. But in many postcolonial situations, education only introduces a new kind of stratification and hierarchy that prevents truly human relationships among people. Nimala, the graduate in the story finds her true ‘soul mate’, the most interesting conversation partner in Siripala, the bus conductor. In a world without any social stratification, these two would have made an ideal couple. Failing to enter the university, Siripala ends up becoming a bus conductor, but he is an avid reader and perceptive connoisseur of literature – particularly of the major works of the Sinhala literary resurgence of postcolonial Sri Lanka. When she meets Siripala again on the bus to a school where she works as a voluntary teacher, for she is still an unemployed graduate, their old friendship rekindles through a series of conversations on modern Sinhala literature. During these conversations she finds out that Siripala, the conductor, is a far superior reader and a much better human being. Their reunion thus grows into a warm relationship.

Before long, Nimala’s ivory tower mentality creeps back in reminding her that the graduate is far superior to a mere bus conductor. What would have been a great union of human beings ends abruptly, imprisoning the girl in her ‘tower.’ The story is not only about what education does to people in post colonial Sri Lanka, but is also a critique of ‘so-called people’s literature’ in which the love would have won against all socio-cultural odds. In addition, the story is an implied critique of ‘Peradeni literature’ which often idealizes liberal humanism.

Another brilliant story, "Kalanidhi hewath Pachaweda" (Kalanidhi or the Fake Doctor), juxtaposes a student of Western medicine and a ‘student’ of indigenous medicine in such a way that the story becomes a fine analysis of what happens to natives and their knowledge systems when colonial knowledge presents itself as ‘naturally’ superior. This is only one reading of this richly layered story.

The most fertile period in the history of the realist short story easily belongs to Amarasekara and in many ways he is way ahead of other writers of his generation. Amarasekara’s stories are unique in their structure as well since the author had very little regard for notions like "unity of impression", "slice of life" and the like and his stories are not sketchy ‘short shorts.’ Quite rightly, his search for ‘human truth’ is always predicated upon a certain historic truth. Amarasekara, the fiction writer provides invaluable insights into Sri Lanka’s postcolonial condition and those insights are far more illuminating than anything Amarasekara the ideologue preaches.

After a series of wonderful stories like these ones, Amarasekara’s stories became rather one dimensional and less nuanced. His textual space ceased to be animated by what I would call ‘artistic indeterminacy’- a quality abundant in Ajith Tilakasena’s stories. But still all the way up to his ‘Vila Langa Maranaya’ (2007) Amarasekara uses narrative to engage with postcolonial Sri Lankan citizens, often implying that this citizen fails because he/she lacks ‘Jathika Chinthanaya’. For me, Sri Lanka’s true national quality has to be found in its rich diversity- not in an unbroken Sinhala- Buddhistness. There are many ways of being Sinhala and Sri Lankan. In addition, it is impossible to recover the pure Sinhala person who ‘got lost’ in a confluence of other cultures; that moment of past purity is a creation of the present and when we look behind the layers of time what me see is yet another meeting of many cultures, thought and modes of being. If there is any cultural ‘essence’, it is always in the making, shifting and shaping itself making it impossible to pin down the essence. For one thing, the essence is no longer the essence when we find it. Another thing, a country needs a bunch of Pol Pots to launch the political project of recovering that essence. Our country has had enough of bloodbaths and this era must end.

End of an era

Sri Lanka’s ‘Sinhala only youth’ have learned so much from Gunadasa Amarasekara but when the great writer turns 80, a dramatic epoch in our history ends by making it essential for us to rethink Amarasekara’s thinking. Ideologies of people like Amarasekara enjoy unprecedented state power these days and Amarasekara seems to be the ‘ideological president’ of the country. Stupidly ugly words that he speaks of people like Premasiri Khemadasa show that he enjoys being close to state power. When certain ideologies enjoy state power it is time for people to expedite the critique of them. State is a violent machine that needs to be checked all the time. To do so is a progressive act, and in doing so, one must critique ideologies of the state. It is said that the ‘total military defeat of the LTTE’ is just a few weeks away. At least after that we need to remind ourselves that Sri Lanka is an extremely diverse country where multiple modes of thought or ‘Chinthanayas’ coexist, and there is no one ‘Chinthanaya’ or one basa". Our generation has the challenge of finding the best ‘structures’ that simultaneously nourish many thoughts, many modes, many voices, and so on.

In order to do so, we need to take a closer look at what is hidden under the blanket of nation. Under that is quite unpleasant. Everything under that big blanket cannot and should not go on without reform. Under the blanket, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. New forms of stratification have come to being, while old ones are reproducing themselves. Under the cover of nation, many thieves have robbed their way into ‘nobility’ and power. New nobodies have become new some bodies.

Almost all the institutions on which true democracy should rest have been politicized and manned by corrupt brats of 1956. People like Amarasekara have not been able to produce a sustained critique of these things for they are busy saving the nation. It is like Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’; once it is saved nothing worthwhile is left. Therefore, the future of Sri Lanka partly depends on the way we unlearn what Amarasekara has taught us over the years. We must do that unlearning with a sense of gratitude.

(Writer teaches at the university of Peradeniya)


Amarasekera in retrospect

Launch of poetry books and felicitation at the University of Peradeniya

A felicitation ceremony will be held at the University of Peradeniya in the collaboration with the Arts Faculty as part of a series of events organised under ‘AMARASEKERA IN RETROSPECT’. It will be devoted to a discussion on his poetry. Visidunu Publishers have brought out his entire collection of poetry running in to six volumes.

The speakers will be Prof. P. B. Meegaskumbura and eminent poet Parakrama Kodituwakku.

Gunadasa Amarasekera himself will reflect on the experiences that have gone in to his poetic creations. The event will be chaired by Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, Prof. Anura Wickramasinghe.

The seminar/felicitation will be held on Wednesday, the 1st of April, at 4pm, at the Arts Theatre of the University of Peradeniya.

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