Review: Public Writing on Sri Lanka, Vol. 111


Professor Charles Sarvan

By Christopher Rezel

I AM SURE many of us would share the same sense of guilt on reflecting that as children we enjoyed "Red Indian" films in which the Native American was made out to be a savage, bent on rape, mayhem, and the collection of scalps.

We were blind to the fact the Native Americans were fighting for their lands and survival.

Ironically, at the end of such films, with the Native American wiped out, we came away elated that right had triumphed.

I was compelled to revisit such misguided beliefs when reading Professor Charles Sarvan’s Public Writing on Sri Lanka, Vol 111.

The Native American metaphor surfaces when Sarvan shares thoughts on War and History. We are reminded that "To triumph in war is also to triumph in the making of History."

He notes that what will be subsequently "written" will not only go "in books and articles but in films, plays and stories. And in this way a myth is created, propagated, repeated and soon taken to be fact, the total truth."

He says part of the myth will be to make out the enemy to have been a formidable and blood-thirsty foe.

"One safely inflates the threat the (dead) enemy posed in order to lavish greater credit on oneself."

Vol 111, together with Vol 1 & 11, are a requisite for anyone interested in Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem.

They extensively discuss the Sinhala-Tamil issue and its present stalemate, doing so against the backdrop of myth, the Colonial and post-Colonial periods, and the 30-year LTTE war.

Among the 20 articles in Vol 111 are Professor Sarvan’s appraisals of Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s, Road to Nandikadal, and Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s, A Long Watch.

He views Road to Nandikadal - about the ending of the 30-year war and defeat of the LTTE at Nandikadal Lagoon - as "excessively boastful" and a display of "emotionalism".

In contrast he points to the "restraint and self-effacement" of Boyagoda’s manuscript that documents eight years of imprisonment by the LTTE.

However Sarvan is sure it is Gunaratne’s work that will be popular and accepted as one of the authoritative accounts of the LTTE war.

In a display of prescience, Boyangoda himself explains why no one would want to hear his story in his post-prison memoir, A Long Watch. There is, he notes, the suspicion he had "sold out" to the LTTE. The public wanted to hear a story that "reinforced their prejudices".

Sarvan is a Sri Lankan Tamil with a lifelong interest in the island’s ethnic issue. His concerns naturally derive from a Tamil point of view.

His comments, from the other side of the divide, presented in a composed manner, perhaps is reason enough why we should be reading him if we seek to understand Sri Lanka’s knotty ethnic issue.

Allowing the clamour of the majority to suppress such lesser-heard voices will surely be self-defeating.

In these carefully researched and collated articles, Sarvan comments on a wide range of books, opinions and concerns of others. Works on ethnicity get special attention.

In reviewing Shiva Naipaul’s North of South: An African journey, Sarvan reminds us that Colonial policy found it expedient to keep indentured Tamil workers apart from earlier black slave-populations in the Caribbean."In this way, ethnic animosity was deliberately fostered, to the advantage of imperial capitalist owners. Group consciousness and feelings, not class solidarity, came to be dominant."

The connection to Sri Lanka’s own experiences needs no emphasis.

Sarvan goes on to discuss Naipaul’s posthumously published, An unfinished Journey. It documents the aftermath of just such ethnic hatred and Naipaul’s distaste following a visit to Sri Lanka post July 1983.

In the article titled "Race" and racism: sharing some thoughts, Sarvan brings together the thinking of a number of specialists.

He himself believes the discourse of racism "is a palimpsest written differently to suit varying emotions and agenda".

Mentioned in support are writers who state that no biologist has ever been able to provide a satisfactory definition of race, a definition that includes all members of a given race and excludes all others.

Cited are others who argue that race is a social artefact; that it is "now almost a cliché that race is invented or socially constructed".

Shlomo Sand is quoted, a Jew and Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, who argues in his ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ that there is no biological basis for a belief in a separate Jewish race.

Sarvan’s writing benefits from decades of studying and teaching English Literature and Philosophy, subjects mastered at university in London.

The term polymath comes to mind when he embeds his work effortlessly, consistently, with quotations by ancient and contemporary thinkers, philosophers, and literary giants.

Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and other moral teachers are drawn in, as are past and present political commentators. Such excerpts never jar, but flow easily along side the discussions. They illustrate the writing and acquaint readers with a corpus that seems to go back to the beginnings of human reasoning.

In an essay on Religion and Violence, Sarvan reminds us it is not new to ask, How is it that horrible things are perpetrated in the name of religion? He quotes Roman Lucretius (born circa BCE 99), who noted in the opening pages of his On the Nature of Things, that religion, in the name of piety, has visited "foul impieties" on humanity.

Sarvan reflects that the Spanish in America believed they were saving souls for eternity by baptizing native-American babies before dashing their heads against the rocks.

And yet, says Sarvan, "compassion" is the word most associated with the Buddha and "gentle" the adjective associated most frequently with Jesus Christ. It is always "the compassionate Buddha" and "gentle Jesus".

He suggests a distinction between original doctrine or teaching and religion. He says "religious teaching or doctrine is believed to be from a blessed personage: Moses and Judaism, the Buddha and Buddhism, Christ and Christianity; the Prophet and Islam.

"On the other hand, religion with its paraphernalia, rituals and myths is a human construct, often used to secure not spiritual but very earthly ends."

In a discussion on sexual violence, Sarvan recalls the response of an academic and previous government official who when questioned by a journalist about the possible rape of a detainee by a soldier, quipped … "it could have been a discussion on Ancient Greek philosophy, we don’t know."

He considers the reply a disappointment but not a surprise. He says "one can study and teach lofty literary texts; be suave in manner but crude and cruel in nature, lacking the imagination which leads to empathy.

"No doubt, such an example calls into question the value of the Humanities. Dickens and Kipling did not escape the infections of their times, nor did Eliot remain uncontaminated by anti-Semitism. The "lofty" philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was an unrepentant Nazi."

He notes that after work at the Auschwitz Nazi extermination camp the notorious Dr Josef Mengele, ‘the Angel of Death’, and the women’s camp commander, Maria Mandl, known as ‘the Beast’, would listen to music played by an orchestra whose members included musically talented camp inmates, including a child called Anita Lasker-Wallfisch.

Sarvan challenges entrenched beliefs and is aware he will fall foul of those at the extremes, both Sinhalese and Tamil.

He says readers can be prone to "misreading and misunderstanding", and to being "easily excited" and thereby focussing on "trivialities and irrelevancies".

But he encourages people to engage with his views before quarrelling with them, holding that disagreement and discussion can bring about positive outcomes.

He comments on Moral Man & Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), the American, Protestant theologian, moral philosopher and political analyst.

The question Niebuhr asks is why our behaviour as members of a collective is much less moral than our conduct as individual human beings. Niebuhr explores this phenomenon, showing its complexity and avoiding simplistic answers.

Niebuhr suggests that as individuals we are capable of reason and understanding of the needs and feelings of others. He describes such traits as "self-transcendence", or an ability to rise above our selfish self.

But when caught up in a group, we lose our capacity to reason and guide our conduct, to check our impulses, to transcend ourselves.

Niebuhr says the tragedy of human history is that we have been unable to match our collective behaviour to the ideals we cherish as individuals.

Indeed, our group-behaviour can encompass the unjust, the cruel, the horrific.

Sarvan explores parallels in recent Sri Lanka history.

Public Writing on Sri Lanka, Vol 111, is sequel to Vol 1 & 2 of the same name. The articles read easily but require reflection for greater benefit.

They demonstrate how opinion, even though sometimes dissenting, should be presented. Many articles are cross-references to the earlier volumes.

Among the thought-provoking articles are: Inclusive Ceylon to excluding Sri Lanka, The Prabhakaran phenomenon, A Still-Unfinished War, Race and racism, Inclusive Left to excluding Right.

But it is never political throughout. For instance, the chapter The Violet Hour, is a reflection on human mortality, presented by someone who has earnestly sought to understand human nature and how to live a good life.


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