09 July 2018

The Tigers’ Captive Tells His Tale

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka
by Cdre Ajith Boyagoda
as told to Sunila Galappatti
2016, London, Hurst

On the night of 19 September 1994, in shallow water off the Kalpitiya Peninsula, the Sri Lanka Navy patrol vessel Sagarawardene was attacked and sunk by the Sea Tigers, the naval commando arm of the infamous Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Most of those aboard were killed in the attack or drowned in the aftermath. Among the survivors was the captain of the vessel, Ajith Boyagoda. Rescued by the Tigers, he would spend the following eight years as their prisoner.

In A Long Watch, Commodore Boyagoda tells the story of his captivity, release and return, assisted by the author and ‘dramaturge’ Sunila Galappatti. I am not fond of war stories, and must confess that it was only Ms Galappatti’s involvement that persuaded me to pick up this book at all; I know her socially and was keen to find out what kind of a writer she is. It is a pleasure to report that A Long Watch is lucidly and elegantly written, and has been edited and proofread by people who actually knew what they were doing.

Ms Galappatti has seen to it that Cdre Boyagoda’s story is told in British rather than Sri Lankan English – so British, in fact, that every instance of a South Asian coinage such as mammoty is loquaciously defined in the endnotes. I, for one, am not complaining. What a delight to find a book written in English by Sri Lankans that is, for once, unsullied by barbarous grammar, obstacle-course punctuation, florid capitalization and the shameless fondling of battered ornaments. Better even that this, here is a first-person narrative wholly free of sentimentality, pomposity and cliche. It won’t win any style awards, but A Long Watch is a pleasure to read. I was particularly impressed by the unobtrusiveness of Ms Galappatti’s skill: although it is obvious from internal evidence that it was she who did the actual writing, it is Cdre Boyagoda’s voice, and his alone, that we hear in our mind’s ear as we read.

It is, given the context in which we encounter it, a remarkable voice: judicious and temperate, full of worldly experience and psychological insight, devoid of belligerence or animosity. You wait in vain for the note of resentment, the flash of anger towards the Tigers or those on Boyagoda’s own side who accused him of cowardice and treachery. After a while, its non-appearance begins to make you suspicious. Surely the commander of a naval vessel involved in combat operations cannot be as saintly a fellow as this?

From the moment of his capture, the Commodore seems to do just about everything right. He surrenders to the Tigers like a gentlemen. He doesn’t make trouble, or try to escape when an opportunity (of sorts) presents itself. He accepts the various pains and deprivations of his confinement stoically, insisting that he and his fellow prisoners were, for the most part, well treated. Even when his group of captives is briefly delivered into the hands of a vengeful and sadistic custodian, his account passes lightly over the cruelties they endure and focuses instead on the ways they find to cope with and make the best of the situation. Selflessly, he acts as counsellor and confessor to his fellow captives and as their advocate with the Tigers and the Red Cross inspectors who come to visit. He takes part in Prisoners vs. Tigers cricket matches, enjoys visits from his captors’ children, attends social gatherings in the jungle. Most remarkable of all, he shows no sign of resentment against a Sri Lankan government and military establishment that abandoned him and his fellows to the mercy of the LTTE, making no effort at all to contact them or secure their safety – far less their release – until it became politically advantageous to do so. Instead, throughout the narrative, he takes pains to emphasize the common humanity of the prisoners and their captors, and more broadly that of Sinhalese and Tamils.

All this is laudable indeed, but it sounds rather too good to be true. The Commodore speaks often of the anguish, frustration and despair of imprisonment; did they never drive him to rage, to curse, to rattle his chains? This reader, for one, found it impossible to believe that they did not.

I do not suppose this lack of candour is intentional. The trouble, rather, is that Ajith Boyagoda has told his story many, many times, to a great many different interrogators and audiences. As stories always do, it has improved with the telling. In the Commodore’s mind, over the many years that have passed since his release, the older man has gradually replaced the younger in remembered captivity; the experience and wisdom of sixty years or more now inform the thoughts, words and deeds of the imprisoned forty-year-old naval officer.

To note this is not necessarily to slight Cdre Boyagoda; such are the ways of human nature. The fault, if there is one, lies with his amanuensis. It is hard to believe that Sunila Galappatti did not notice the implausibility of the character she was helping create on the page. If it is so evident to the reader – and more than one reviewer has commented upon it – it must have been equally obvious to her. But perhaps the ‘dramaturge’ sees objective truth as lying somehow beyond her remit: she may have conceived her task as simply that of a midwife, whose job is to deliver the baby and not to count the fingers. Or perhaps she is a good Postmodernist and rejects the very concept of objective truth. Or maybe the Commodore just wanted his story told like that, and wouldn’t let her change a word.

I think the last explanation somewhat unlikely. There are passages in the book that would probably have benefited from a more decisive input by the Commodore – the bit, for instance, where a naval officer with decades of seafaring experience defines the bows of a ship as ‘a platform near the front’, or the unnecessarily laboured technical paragraph about LTTE mortar pellets that ends with the hilarious coinage ‘ball razor’ – and which seem to indicate that Ms Galappatti had as much control over the text as she wanted. If so, it’s a shame she wasn’t a little harder on her subject, that she didn’t ask more probing questions, hang him over the edge a few times; the dramaturgical relationship might have suffered, but the result would have been a more honest, more credible book.

Still, the one that did emerge isn’t at all bad. I wouldn’t go as far as Michael Ondaatje, who apparently thinks it is ‘the best book to come out of the Sri Lankan war’. It certainly isn’t that, but it’s pretty good, and I recommend it heartily. Just don’t go believing everything that you read in it.

30 May 2018

Gene Editing Made Simple

A Crack in Creation
by Jennifer A. Doudna
& Samuel H. Sternberg

If you’re looking for a simple explanation of how CRISPR and other forms of gene editing work, what they are capable of and what they aren’t, you’ll find it here, and straight from the horse’s mouth at that. There’s also a great deal of discussion about the social, ethical and evolutionary issues involved with manipulation of the human germline. I found that part of the book rather boring, I’m afraid, having heard it all before. Anyone paying attention has heard it all by now.

Indeed, if you really have been paying attention, you may notice a yawning gap in this book. This concerns another CRISPR pioneer, Feng Zhang, whose work at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT was also critical to the development of CRISPR gene editing, but whom Doudna and her colleagues apparently regard as competitors for recognition. Of course, that kind of thing is hardly unknown among academics.

The writing is lucid and works hard to meet the reader more than halfway, but it is also generic, slick and affectless. I recognized many of the tricks American professional authors employ: my guess is that a ghostly hack was present in addition to the two scientists identified as co-authors.

14 May 2018

Not So New, Really

The Silk Roads
A New History of the World
by Peter Frankopan

The fourth star is awarded grudgingly. Mr Frankopan’s subject is so interesting that it would take real effort to to produce a dull book about it. This he has not done, but I think he could have made much more of his material.

His thesis – that Central Asia, the crossroads of the world, is also the place of origin of many of the peoples, events and movements that have shaped history – is one it would be hard to rebut. The author makes his case by giving us the history of the world as a series of transactions between far-flung peoples, transactions that profoundly affect the individuals and cultures that participate in them. This is all quite convincing, but unfortunately Mr Frankopan’s perspective remains very much a Western one, and after we reach the twentieth century (the history of which occupies about half of this thick, square volume) the focus shifts across the Atlantic and the tale becomes mostly about American foreign policy in relation to the Old World rather than about changes taking place in that world itself. In the end we are left with the impression that it is the West, even in decline, that really matters – at least to the author.

There needed to be a lot more Silk Road in this book: a lot more Central Asia, a lot more about the cultures that grew up there and what life was like in the lands that lay along these major international trade routes. Instead, we get far too much about how life changed for Europeans due to the influence of such trade, and far too much about US foreign policy in the twentieth century – a period long after Central Asia had ceased to be any kind of omphalos at all, except perhaps to the energy industry. The author’s account of the history of Iran during this period is valuable; the rest is just the old familiar tale of Cold War woe.

And here we come to the biggest problem of all. To be complete, Mr Frankopan’s thesis must describe and account for the decline and fall of the Russian (later Soviet) Empire in parallel to the decline of the West, especially since he has given us such a lot about the rise of Russia in his book; yet the Bolshevik revolution and the later collapse of the USSR are subjects he barely touches. This, to my mind, is a huge, almost fatal flaw in the work.

Other gaps in the account yawn nearly as wide. This is a ‘history of the world’ that tells us hardly anything about Africa or Latin America; what little there is treats of these continents as mere playgrounds of Western culture. In truth, Mr Frankopan’s supposed rejection of ‘Eurocentricism’ is entirely cosmetic; this is just another history of the West written by a Western historian, though with a slightly different skew than usual.

Taken as such, it’s a three-star read at best. The prose, for instance, is pedestrian. The extra star is awarded merely for the plethora of incidental detail presented by the author – if we get any idea of life on and athwart the Silk Roads from his book, it is through these fragments. Sadly, they weren’t nearly enough to satisfy this reader.

22 April 2018

Something Extraordinary

The Art of the Violin

The Midori Violin Studio Project

On the evening of 17 March at the Lionel Wendt Theatre, under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo and before an invited audience of its patrons, the great Midori and some of her protégés gave an exhibition of classical violin music of a quality and virtuosity never before heard in this country, and unlikely, in my opinion, ever to be heard again. I was privileged to be a member of that audience, and I found the performance breathtaking. I also got to hear some pieces of music I had never expected to see played live, simply because no-one in our part of the world is physically capable of playing them.

That Midori Goto (who is known professionally only by her first name) should have chosen to perform in Sri Lanka at all seems implausible at first blush. This is a woman who stands in the front rank of classical violinists; her performances and recordings are normally supported by the world’s most celebrated orchestras, and she is one of the few performers ever to have recorded a version of Saint-Saëns’s formidable First Violin Concerto. At the time of writing she holds the Jascha Heifetz Chair at the University of Southern California’s Thornton Music School and an honorary professorship at the Beijing Conservatory, as well as guest professorships at Shanghai and in her native city of Osaka, Japan. For some time, she was also a humanitas professor at Oxford. Classic FM magazine has named her one of the world’s top twenty-five violinists.

How did humble Sri Lanka manage to attract a musician so grand? Part of the answer, as I heard from CMSC concertmaster Lakshman Joseph de Saram, is that he and Midori were once students together at Juilliard Pre-College in New York. Midori also collaborated for some time with an accomplished pianist of Sri Lankan origin, Rohan de Silva, and he, assisted by another highly regarded Sri Lanka-born American pianist, Sujeeva Hapugalle, helped arrange her visit. But of course, personal acquaintance is not nearly enough, of itself, to alter the schedule of one of the world’s top concert violinists; the lady had her own reasons.

Midori, as I have recently learnt, is the founder and chief executive of a USC-backed charity or ‘community engagement project’ aimed at bringing great Western classical music to people who, through poverty, disability or similar disadvantages, might otherwise never hear it. She achieves this in the simplest possible way: by going and playing to them herself. Much of her work is conducted in Asia: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar and Nepal have all been beneficiaries of the project. Sri Lanka was, you might say, due a visit.

That she and her studio members ended up at the Lionel Wendt, playing to a Colombo audience all dressed to the nines, was, in a way, incidental. This wasn’t the gig they really came to play. Over the previous few days, the maestra and her studio had already performed several times – at the Victoria Home for Incurables at Rajagiriya, the Deaf & Blind School and the MJF Special Needs School in Ratmalana, and at a home for the aged run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious order, in Colombo. The audiences for these shows comprised only the inmates and staff of the said institutions. Apart from a few CMSC members, no outsiders were present.

I don’t suppose many of those listeners were aficionados of classical music, or had any idea who Midori was, but I was assured that they enjoyed the music all the same. I am fully prepared to believe it. I have been a regular at Chamber Music Society recitals for several years now, but though I can tell Bach from Mozart and Vivaldi from Beethoven I wouldn’t call myself knowledgeable about what people call classical music. Nevertheless, I found myself perfectly able to engage with the music played at the ’Wendt that Saturday night. How could I doubt that the institutional residents and students who heard Midori and her group play earlier in their visit were any less delighted than I?


The audience, comprising long-term patrons and sponsors of the Chamber Music Society, were in their seats well before curtain time and had settled down nicely by the time the first performers entered stage right. These were Jiyoung Park, the first of a long parade of soloists, and Jiayi Shi, the pianist who was to perform their accompanying music. The young lady who helped Ms Shi with her sheet music would later be identified as Yue Qian, another of Midori’s violin students.

Ms Park gave us Hindemith’s Sonata in E flat Major, a work written in 1918. Like many of the other players we heard that evening, she is currently at USC Thornton, studying for her doctorate under Prof. Goto (Midori’s academic alter ego) while carving out a concert career for herself. Her interpretation of the Hindemith lived up to the composer’s own tempo instructions for the first movement: frisch, or, in English, ‘fresh’. Ms Park’s tone was like good Chablis: a little thin, with a touch of acid, but vivid and invigorating just the same.

Next in the programme was Chausson’s Poéme, performed by Mei Ching Huang, a seasoned orchestral player (her credits include the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the San Diego Symphony) for whom the piece was barely an appetizer. Poéme is, of course, popular with audiences for its moody rises and falls, but I found myself less captivated by it than by Ms Huang’s second offering, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz in a transcription by Nathan Milstein that made the famous work sound more diabolical than ever. A New York Times critic once wrote that Milstein’s transcription ‘pared down’ Liszt’s music, with ‘repetitions eliminated, harmonies altered, leaving only Mephisto, the violinist, executing sweeps and pluckings that composed a frightening concordance of instrumental daring.’ That describes Ms Huang’s performance pretty well, too, and I need only add that her cherry-red stiletto heels made Mephisto seem even more devilish than usual. This old man’s breath was well and truly taken away.

A change of mood was provided by the next soloist, Yabing Tan, who played Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me. Its soft, rather sentimental melody was well served by the performance, though Ms Tan herself appeared rather fierce, perhaps due to the various electronic bleats and tweets now being given off by barbarians in the audience. By this time, however, I had become utterly charmed by Jiayi Shi’s piano-playing. I learnt later that Ms Shi is Midori’s own principal collaborator, working with the maestra on her concert and recital schedules as well as in her work with violin students. The versatility she demonstrated on this night was staggering, but what was still more impressive was the musicality and sensitivity of expression she brought to every piece. Although she never upstaged a soloist, there were moments when my ear, of its own volition, found itself attending more to the piano than the violin.

The first part of the programme came to a climax with the appearance of Midori herself. She had chosen to perform the Sonata in B Minor for Violin & Piano by Ottorino Respighi, an intense, harmonically tricky composition in three movements that takes about twenty-five minutes to play. I had never heard it before and I fear the attention it demanded from me as a first-time listener was stolen instead by the sound and sight of Midori. In contrast to the elegantly gowned soloists who had appeared so far, she was dressed down, in a printed smock and nondescript pants, her long hair secured by a simple slide. Her comportment, too, was in marked contrast to the soloists’, for in place of their formal, almost hieratic decorum Midori danced – bobbing and weaving like a bantamweight prizefighter, attacking her priceless three hundred-year-old fiddle with exuberant slashes and stabs of her bow. The sound she generated from the instrument was huge: ripe and round and luxuriant, intrinsically laced with drama. Twenty-five minutes went past in what seemed like four or five, and I am afraid you will have to press somebody else for a detailed critique of the performance for it was, I confess, too fiery a draught for my inexperienced head.


After a short interval – a necessary respite post Respighi – the programme continued with the Melody from Orfeo ed Euridice in a violin and piano transcription by Fritz Kreisler. The piece featured the first male soloist of the evening, James McFadden Talbot. Gluck’s lovely, plaintive melody did its usual work, but Talbot’s performance seemed somehow constrained, more correct than heartfelt.

This piece by an eighteenth-century composer of operas was followed, quite appropriately, by a work from a living composer perhaps best known for his Grammy- and Oscar-winning movie scores: the Sonata for Violin & Piano by John Corigliani. It seemed to me not to have worn especially well since its debut in 1964; its Phrygian seconds and jazzy rhythms no longer seem as audacious as they must have done half a century ago. The soloist was Chang He, a chamber music and violin tutor at the Beijing Conservatory with a particular interest in modern music.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this piece a little better if someone a few rows behind me had not found it necessary to search inside an apparently labyrinthine plastic bag in search of, I don’t know, a nose-bone or a loincloth or something. The crackling plastic effectively drowned out the musicians and appeared to go on for hours. How bizarre that a member of an invited audience should behave so boorishly; even by Colombo’s ankle-high standards of public considerateness, it was a bit much.

Massenet’s familiar Meditation Thaïs came next, featuring Moni Simeonov on violin. A former doctoral student under Midori, Mr Simeonov has now gained considerable eminence in his own right. The Meditation, in its original form, is a piece for solo violin and small orchestra that even features a vocal chorus, though most of us know it better in stripped-down form for violin and piano, or just piano. For Mr Simeonov it was just the amuse-bouche before the feast; although he made the yearning melody work its customary magic, it was with the next piece that he really showed his mettle.

This was Ravel’s Tzigane, a rhapsodic, at times delirious affair originally written for solo violin and piano. Tzigane used to be in Midori’s own concert repertoire – I don’t know if it still is – but Mr Simeonov’s approach was, to my ear, less aggressively busy than his mentor’s. It was emphatic enough for all that; this is a piece that demands the skills of a virtuoso, but Mr Simeonov was not only equal to the challenge, he had enough technical headroom left over to make the music affecting as well as dazzling. Politically-correct killjoys might decry the unconscious Orientalism of this soi-disant ‘gypsy’ composition, but for this audience member at least, Tzigane offered the evening’s most perfect combination of music, musician and moment.

But we were not yet done with Moni Simeonov, who then led his fellow-protégés in a dazzling performance of Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, a breathless gallop for eight violins that revives the old concerto da camera trick of passing themes and musical fragments back and forth among the players – but these are postmodernist fragments, all squalling glissandi and crashing dissonances. Historically connected with USC Thornton, Norman’s piece is inspired by, among other things, the video game of the same name, and it is, indeed, a sort of musical car race in which the slightest misjudgement or hesitation can bring disaster. Gran Turismo was first performed in 2004, and I doubt that any audience member at the ’Wendt had heard it before, even on record. When it was over there was an audible release of breath before the applause began.

Another brief interval followed – so brief, in fact, that the audience weren’t allowed to leave their seats. The programme had already run well over time. But there was one more work to be presented – a finale in which Midori and her group were joined by members of the CMSC on violins, violas and basses. The piece was Vivaldi’s Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins – an obvious bonbon to placate an audience whose patience had been tested, for well over two hours at that point, by some very challenging music. The four violinists were Ms Huang, an award-winning Midori ex-student named Strauss Shi, the CMSC’s own Ursula Nelius and Concertmaster de Saram. Midori herself took the stage as a supporting player. The whole thing had the air of a family knees-up at Christmastime – an effect enhanced by the decision of the Society players (LJdeS and Ms Nelius excepted) to dress down as Midori had done. I must confess to being rather displeased by the effect this created on stage; the contrast between the elegant formality of the soloists and the come-as-you-are motley of the Society players seemed to imply a social as well as a musical distinction between them and Midori’s people. Whose idea this was I do not know – whether the Society members decided on their own, whether Midori requested it, or whether the dry cleaner simply failed to get to the theatre on time – but it definitely shouldn’t have happened. As for the Vivaldi itself, it was pretty good, and the Society players held their own well enough, but by now my ears were too saturated with music to pay close attention. We had been in our seats for nearly three hours.


Afterwards my friends and I retired to the home of one of us, where a coming-of-age birthday party was in progress. Isolating ourselves from the celebrations and their thumping soundtrack, we talked late into the night about what we had heard. Each of us had responded differently to particular pieces, but all were in agreement that we had just been to one of the best ‘classical’ concerts of our lives. I must add that none of us are really regular concertgoers, so this isn’t as momentous a verdict as it would be if it came from the music correspondent of the New York Times. All the same, we’re a critical crew, and the fact that we were all equally impressed must be worth something.

As I said before, I’m no expert on this kind of music, so I shan’t be indulging in any kind of artistic or critical reflection here. I wrote this review mainly to express how grateful I am – to Midori and the charity work that brought her to Sri Lanka, to the brilliant young musicians who performed for us, to Lakshman Joseph de Saram and the CMSC, and to the sponsors of the Society who met one-third of the costs of Midori’s visit (the rest was funded by her charity) and made it possible for me, personally, to hear all this great music.

Of course, the most important beneficiaries of the initiative were not at the Lionel Wendt that evening; but then, they’d gotten to hear the music before we did. It was for them, not us, that Midori came to play, and they didn’t even have to leave home to hear her. Lucky them. But lucky us, too.

11 April 2018

20 February 2018

Mongrel Musings

Understanding the Sinhalese 
by J.B. Disanayaka
Colombo, 1998, S. Godage

I’m Sinhalese. It says so on my birth certificate, just as it did on my father’s. Like me, he was the son of a Eurasian mother, but this is how it works in Sri Lanka: your ‘race’, as noted in official records, is always deemed to be that of your father.

My fellow-Sinhalese, however, rarely take me for one of themselves. I’m tall and fairly light-skinned and my name is of obvious European derivation. My mother-tongue is English. Most Sri Lankans would guess that I’m a Burgher; that is what we call a person of mixed Ceylonese and continental European ancestry. But my non-native forebears came from England rather than the continent, so I don’t meet the qualifications for a Burgher either. In reality, I am simply a mongrel, a typical product of that multiple pile-up on the highway of history that we call European imperialism.

All the same, it wasn’t till I was well into my twenties that I began to think of myself as anything other than Sinhalese. Nowadays I embrace my multi-ethnic ancestry with pride, boasting that I am more Sri Lankan than any pure-blooded son of the soil because, in addition to my Sinhalese and English forebears, I also have Tamil ones and can thus claim to represent three significant ethnicities in one package. Earlier, I simply accepted the label that had been attached to me.

Not that any real Sinhalese were fooled. They can tell a mile off that someone is sankara (a Sanskrit word for people of mixed parentage that has entered the Sinhala language as a term of derogation). This was the case even with my father, whose appearance and complexion were indistinguishable from those of his contemporaries. You might think it was because our native tongue was English rather than Sinhalese, but you’d be wrong, because there are many full-blooded Sinhalese whose first language is English. It wasn’t due to our Christianity, either; this, too, is a trait shared by hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese. No, what gives us away is not what we have or what we are, but what we lack: a set of cultural markers that not only defines a person as Sinhalese, but identifies the precise location he or she occupies in the matrix of traditional society. According to J.B. Disanayaka, formerly head of the Department of Sinhala at the University of Colombo, it is these identifiers which serve to determine exactly where one Sinhalese stands relative to another in the world. As a side-effect, they also determine (in cultural rather than genetic terms) who is really a Sinhalese and who is not.

Understanding the Sinhalese is Prof. Disanayaka’s attempt to ‘decode Sinhala culture so that [readers may] understand the paradoxes, contradictions and other strange ways... of the Sinhalese’. He is well qualified for his task, being the author of at least twenty books on various aspects of Sinhalese history, culture and language. If anyone can be said to understand the Sinhalese, it is he. I took up his book hoping for greater insight into a culture that is nominally my own, but in which I have always felt, and been treated as, an outsider. I found little in these pages that I did not already know, though I hadn’t always been aware of the significance of what I knew. There are plenty of insights concerning Sinhalese culture in Prof. Disanayaka’s book but I’m sorry to say that they served mostly to confirm what I had long regarded as my prejudices. Reading it has convinced me that I am, culturally at least, no Sinhalese and, furthermore, that I would be wise to remain just as I am.


Prof. Disanayaka’s thesis is that traditional Sinhalese society defines the role and status of its members with extraordinary precision, ensuring that everyone knows their place and exactly what is expected of (and forbidden to) them. His book lists and explains the various indicators and determinants of position among the Sinhalese: name, place of origin, family history, place in the filial order, caste and occupation. These parameters define for every Sinhalese which step of the social pyramid he or she occupies and how one should, accordingly, act both in public and in private. They dictate whom one may or may not marry, what work one may and may not do, to whom one speaks and by whom one is spoken to. They also define, with remarkable precision, the role one is called upon to play in traditional ceremonies and festivals. A picture emerges of a society in which every social interaction is a dramatic performance, with scripted roles for each participant and very little room for improvisation. Independent speech and action are discouraged. Personal responsibility is minimized. All action is viewed as collective, so there is no such thing as individual guilt, only collective shame. And as long as an action accords with the traditional script, there is no shame, whatever damage and hurt may have ensued from it. If someone suffers injury as a result of another’s actions, that is simply their karma – suffering and sorrow are preordained, unavoidable.

Understanding the Sinhalese dedicates several successive chapters to each of these defining cultural scripts. In the section devoted to family names, the author explains how these can indicate a person’s geographical origins, religion, caste, social prominence and his or her male forebears’ occupation and status in the home village. Names, of course, encode social origins in many cultures, but Prof. Disanayaka argues convincingly that the Sinhalese system is unusually precise and fraught with significance. His claim is borne out by the remarkable frequency with which Sinhalese people change their names, a phenomenon dating to at least the mid-1800s, although the fact that many historical figures of the Kotte period are referred to by more than one name in the records of the time suggests that the practice is, in fact, centuries older. Interestingly, many Kotte-era ranks and titles (such as, for example, Disanayaka) have since evolved into Sinhalese surnames.

Traditional Sinhalese families are patriarchal and extended, although the degree of power and freedom afforded women, both within and outside the home, are unusual among the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. The author acknowledges this – in particular, the role of women as transmitters of culture – but his section on family dwells rather sentimentally on the strength of filial bonds among the Sinhalese. It seems to me that Prof. Disanayaka mistakes customary obeisances and formal protestations for genuine feeling, although he does manage to convey how closely family life is governed by these norms and rites.
The chapters on caste are somewhat confusing. The author takes some trouble to emphasize that caste is not always considered occupational among the Sinhalese, as it is in India, only to undercut his own assertion by admitting that those who take this line are generally ‘lower’-caste revisionists arguing that they deserve higher status. But if caste is no longer based on occupation, how is it to be justified at all? And why is it still so important in Sinhalese culture?

The answer turns out to be that, if they are to be performed along correct traditional lines, the scripts for social functions, religious celebrations and domestic rituals among the higher castes – such as, for example, the weaning of an infant or the ‘coming-of-age’ of a pubescent daughter – involve ceremonies and rites that must be performed by members of lower castes. The economic and social realities of modern life have necessitated some compromises, of course, but those who possess the necessary funds and influence still continue to call upon these services at the appropriate times. Culture-as-folk-theatre thus demands the survival of caste distinctions, which are perpetuated by means of taboos against inter-caste marriage.


In ancient Lankan society, groups or individuals who received lands and preferment from a king were, in return, obliged to provide soldiers in wartime, labour for public works, cultivators for the king’s own lands, servants for the royal household and so on. To fill these places, each landholder called upon his own retainers and tenants. Tenants who farmed Buddhist monastery lands had similar obligations to fulfil. These networks of obligation enmeshed nearly every Sinhalese household. Peasants provided the brute labour while landholders and magnates carried out supervisory duties and paid the tributes required of them. These assignments conferred official status and respectability.

After European imperial powers took the place of the native kings of Lanka and built up the apparatus of modern government in their territories, the deference afforded royally-appointed officials and functionaries was transferred to the agents, tax-farmers, translators, clerks and notaries of the colonial state. The old term, rajakariya, which used to mean compulsory labour at the king’s pleasure, came to mean salaried and pensionable work in a government office. To this day, having a ‘government job’ – even that of cashier at a state-owned brick kiln – provides a degree of respectability no private-sector job can match. A promise to obtain such jobs for supporters has been a sure-fire vote-catcher for politicians ever since the introduction of the franchise in 1930, a dynamic that has ensured the survival of mediaeval networks of patronage and obligation in modern form. The process was facilitated and ultimately entrenched through the embrace of ‘socialism’ by Sinhalese nationalist voters during the Sixties and Seventies.

Prof. Disanayaka doesn’t go into all this. Rather, he describes the social roles and status accorded to respected professionals such as astrologers, exorcists, matchmakers (in traditional Sinhalese society all marriages are arranged) and Ayurvedic physicians. By focusing on these traditional professions (whose membership is not, or so I gather, determined by caste), the author cannot help but invoke the malign, crowded, invisible world in which all pre-modern peoples have part of their being. Reading these chapters, I recalled the childhood horror stories told by country cousins and the domestic servants every middle-class home employed in those days: bloodcurdling tales of yakku and preteyo, demons and lost souls that swarm unseen about us, waiting for an opportunity to deceive, injure, infect or impoverish us. Some lie with sleeping virgins at night or accost travellers on lonely roads in the guise of seductive women. Others drink the blood of infants in their cradles. Many cause disease; in fact, traditional lore holds that demonic powers and ‘malefic’ planetary influences are the proximate cause of all illness. They must be placated with sacrifices, or guarded against with amulets and charms. Children are gravely warned against certain actions, such as eating fried food before walking outdoors after dark, which attract the attention of these beings.

Superstitions of this kind hark back to the most ancient condition of humanity. They are, of course, common to all cultures. Sinhalese culture also cherishes many other divisions and grades of superstitious compulsion. Belief in astrology creates an obsession with auspicious and inauspicious times and a terror of setting out on any enterprise except at the astrologically determined opportune moment. Prospective brides and grooms have their horoscopes compared to determine compatibility. This kind of mummery, wasteful of time as well as money, attends every practical enterprise. And the supernatural world holds other dangers, too: wrong your neighbour and he might ‘charm’ you with the aid of a sorcerer for hire, so that your hair falls out and you develop running sores on your face; be rude to an itinerant fortune-teller and she might dry up the milk in your breasts; leave home to the sound of a gecko’s clucking call and your journey is certain to end in disaster.

The effect of this all-pervading superstition is to lengthen the list of approved and forbidden behaviours to which people in traditional culture must conform, further reducing their scope for independent thought and action. Magic and taboo thus play a substantial part in defining the place of the individual in Sinhalese society and the regulation of his or her conduct.


Understanding the Sinhalese is a short book, written in good plain English, it contents well organized and lucidly presented. I found it easy and pleasant to read, something you cannot always say about writing in English by Sri Lankan intellectuals. Concerning its exposition of Sinhalese culture, I found little to disagree with but much to regret.  To someone whose values are modern, Western and liberal, traditional Sinhalese society as described by Prof. Disanayaka can seem deeply restrictive, even oppressive. To live within it is to have one’s ideas, as well as one’s speech and actions, dictated largely by custom – that is to say, by others. Any original thought or word is treated with suspicion. Imitation is privileged, creativity frowned upon. Making an identity for oneself is impossible; one has no option but to accept the role defined for one by society. There is no Sinhala Bildungsroman.

Disheartening indeed, to the modern liberal mind; yet the student of traditional cultures will find nothing very unusual in these aspects of Sinhalese society as described by Prof. Disanayaka. Traditional societies nearly all tend to be prescriptive in terms of acceptable speech and behaviour. Most are patriarchal and hierarchical, and the rules that bind their members are sanctioned by faith and folk belief as much as by law and tradition. They allow little space for the discussion of ideas; they frown on innovation and are terrified by ambiguity.

There is very good reason for this. In the modern world, where people are, for the most part, safe, well-nourished, healthy and protected from natural hazards, we have begun to forget how precarious life can be for those who enjoy none of these goods. Folk in traditional cultures rightly fear novelty because, in their experience, any deviation from the established order of things usually means trouble. There is nothing more frightening to the pre-modern mind than the unknown.

Although the Sinhalese are no longer beset by traditional dangers, they seem loth to forgo the reassurance of traditional ways and ideas. In fairness to them, their experience of modernity and change have not been encouraging. The impact of the first three centuries of colonialism in Sri Lanka was traumatic, even catastrophic, and the years since Independence have brought little relief. The response typical of Sinhalese intellectuals and activists, ever since the late nineteenth century, has been to angrily denounce and reject anything modern or foreign. Their prescription for the ills of the present day is a return to the glories of the ancient, mythologized past. Inevitably, this makes adaptation to present-day reality even more painful and difficult.

The pundits’ views are conventionally approved by Sinhalese at every level of society – who, nonetheless, unhesitatingly adopt from Western civilization whatever ideas, goods and fashions they find useful or appealing. This disconnect between ideal and reality has resulted in a steady leakage of meaning and relevance from the common culture. Presented as ancient, changeless and perfect, designed to regulate a society that has vanished for ever, it is of little help to present-day Sinhalese trying to live and raise their families in a dynamic, changing world. In fact, its own survival in that world is problematic. Small wonder that many Sinhalese – the dominant majority in their homeland, recently triumphant in a long and hard-fought civil war – still look upon themselves as a harrassed, threatened people.

But there is another Sinhalese culture, despised and largely ignored by the revered arbiters of what is Sinhalese and what is not. The Sinhala language, as it is spoken today, bears little resemblance to the plodding syntax and deliberately archaicized vocabulary of academia. It is versatile, colourful and heavily freighted (as it has always been) with borrowings from other languages. There has been an explosion of Sinhala publishing in the last decade or so, much of it educational or vocational, although there is also plenty of romantic or thrilling stuff to excite less serious readers. Sinhala film is smothered by the dead hand of state patronage, but Sinhala TV programmes and music videos flourish, as do Sinhala popular music and decorative art. Cricket is unofficially established as the Sinhalese national game.

Traditionalists do not recognize these manifestations of creativity as authentic expressions of Sinhalese culture. They regard them as forms of racial pollution. Sinhala hip-hop stars and TV sweethearts are – like the author of this review – sankara: trivial, half-bred and possibly unclean. Yet when the idols of formal culture have crumbled to dust and the last vestiges of traditional life and society have vanished beneath the tide of change, it is these despised gauds and baubles that will give meaning and joy to ordinary Sinhalese folk. What Martin Wickramasinghe, fifty years ago, called a ‘cultural recrudescence’ may yet bloom into a future renaissance.

Sadly, I do not see it happening in my lifetime: the forces of tradition and reaction are still too strong. As for myself, I cannot do other than embrace the reality of my sankara, multicultural, postcolonial condition and make the best of it that I can. I am of an improvising nature, and find it impossible to follow any kind of script for long.

13 February 2018

The Parson’s Bind

by Alec Ryrie

‘I also,’ states the author in the introduction to his book, ‘have my own corner to defend, and it is only fair to be plain about it. I am myself a believing Protestant Christian and a licensed lay preacher in the Church of England.’

In fact, as we learn from the acknowledgements (which have been placed after the text, very near the end of the volume), Alec Ryrie is Professor of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps it was simple modesty that discouraged Prof. Ryrie from being more truthful about the size and shape of his ‘corner’. All the same, his evasion is symptomatic of the slippery nature of theology itself. It is the study of something that is acknowledged to be rationally incomprehensible, so we cannot expect either logical rigour or fidelity to empirical evidence from its arguments. Not that this book is a theological treatise; there is, for my money, a great deal less theology in it than there should be. Ryrie shows little interest in the philosophical and doctrinal differences that distinguish one variety of Protestantism from another.
My argument throughout this book has been that Protestants are best treated as a family... [whose common] characteristics are hard to pin down, but you know them when you see them. Protestants are divided from one another by their beliefs but tied together by a deeper unity of mood and emotion. Their tradition began from Martin Luther’s ravishing love affair with the God he met in the Bible... Since his day, Protestants have pursued that love in radically different ways... Often that old flame has been reduced to a simmer or doused altogether, sometimes it has blazed beyond any control, but it is the same fire...
Clearly nervous about being held to any strict account, the author insists repeatedly that his book isn’t about Protestantism, but about Protestants. Rubbish. There are a few more or less rudimentary character-sketches of famous individual Protestants – the founding fathers of the Reformation and a few pivotal figures from later in the history of the movement – but nothing remotely resembling biography in the tradition of Plutarch or Suetonius. Nor is it in any sense a book about the ‘Protestant character’; Ryrie is far from convinced that any such thing exists, and I agree with him. No, Protestants is a history of Protestantism, pure and simple, though the range of wildly differing sects and cults that Ryrie is willing to subsume under the heading of ‘Protestant’ is far wider than many people, religious or not, will accept.

Yet despite his reluctance, typical of academic theologians, to own up to a definite statement about anything, Ryrie must have surely have used some working definition to decide what to write about in his book and what not to; and so indeed it proves.
As a historian, I prefer a genealogical definition: Protestants are Christians whose religion derives ultimately from Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church.
Well then, that’s that sorted. Now all we need to decide is who qualifies as ‘Christian’. Do Jehovah’s Witnesses? the author says yes, even though JWs deny the divinity of Christ. How about Mormons? No, although the full name of their religious organization invokes that of Jesus. The Taiping rebels of nineteenth-century China? No again – despite the fact that they fit Ryrie’s genealogical definition pretty well.

Before we continue, I suppose I should do as the author has done, and declare my own bias. I am culturally an Anglican, baptized and confirmed in the Church of Ceylon: a formerly religious man whose own individualism and fondness for ethical inquiry, combined with a scientific education, slowly eroded his faith in God without destroying his acceptance of the moral philosophy of Christianity or his fondness for the rituals and liturgy of the Church in which he was raised. I am no longer a Christian but you may call me a sympathetic fellow-traveller; and what I think the world needs is a history of Protestantism written, not by a believer like Alec Ryrie, but by someone like myself – someone who despises religious double-talk and is willing to take a firm empirical and moral attitude towards his material. Sadly, it is hard to imagine any unbeliever taking the trouble.

You’ll have guessed by now that I don’t think much of this book, though I slogged through it almost to the end. I skimmed through the penultimate chapter (about Pentecostalism, of which the author seems strangely fond), and let the last chapter go unfinished because I thought Ryrie’s predictions concerning the future of Protestantism were based on a poor and ill-informed understanding of trends and developments in the secular world. For all that, I found much to interest me within these pages, and quite a bit to praise. Concerning the former, the moral and theological support given to apartheid by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa shocked and revolted me. It also put me in mind of the devil’s bargain between institutional Buddhism and majority-community racialism in my own country, especially when I read how ‘“Christian” was a tribal identity, “race-and-religion” a single word’ among Boer revivalists. In Sri Lanka, ‘Sinhalese Buddism’ is a tribal identity of exactly the same kind, race and religion proclaimed as one – but I digress.

Returning to Ryrie’s book, I must say it was news to me, though perhaps it should not have been, to read that Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered serious persecution in Germany under the Nazis (over a thousand died in concentration camps). I also found Ryrie’s account of the growth of Protestantism in Korea absorbing and enlightening; I had had no idea that, until the division of the country, there had been more Christians in the north of Korea than the south. By contrast, the chapter on China was plodding and rather confusing in terms of timelines, and much of the material concerning the Mao era seems to have been assembled from hearsay evidence.

I was equally disappointed by what the book leaves out. The theology professor seems largely inclined to paper over theological controversies; the Reformation and Counter-Reformation period are reasonably well covered, but there is almost nothing about – for example – the quarrels over ritual and doctrine among English Christians in the nineteenth century. There’s hardly anything about political Evangelicalism, no more than two sentences about Anglo-Catholicism, nothing at all about Muscular Christianity or the Oxford Movement. There are other yawning gaps of this kind: not nearly enough about colonial missionary efforts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or about the establishment and growth of Protestantism in the colonized world (China, Korea and South Africa are the only exceptions); nothing at all about huge missionary societies like the CMS and the rivalries between missionary groups that so agitated Protestants in that era. The public controversy over evolution and the age of the Earth, which was inflamed by the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 and continues to this day, is handled with asbestos gloves and the author’s eyes nervously averted; apart from this, the effects of the scientific challenge to Christianity (and especially to Biblical literalism) are largely ignored.

Concerning the interaction of Protestantism with the secular world, many obviously evil actors receive the benefit of Christian charity and tolerance not only for themselves, which is perhaps acceptable, but for their ideas. The section in which Ryrie recounts the pro arguments concerning the theological justifications for apartheid (which, he willingly admits, was ‘a form not of fascism but of Calvinism’) is positively nauseous.

So what are we to make of this deceitful book, which claims to be about Protestants but is really about Protestantism, which pretends to make no judgements while being constantly selective in the material it chooses to treat of, and says almost nothing about the ‘corner’ its author claims to defend?

Reading it wasn’t exactly a waste of time. Although history is a principal interest of mine, Protestantism isn’t my field, and there were many things I didn’t know until I read this book. For example, I was quite ignorant about the details of the Reformation and the developments that followed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I wish this section of the book had been bigger. I also wish the author had spent more time on the events in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, instead of saving the bulk of his attention for the twentieth.

A more secular and sceptical approach to the material would have freed Alec Ryrie from the parson’s bind of never being able to call a spade a spade. This is what the book most lacks, and what is most likely to irritate those of us whose moral compasses do not need constant recalibration by Divine Authority. Protestants is a milk-and-water treatment of a religious movement that trades largely in fire and brimstone; a lukewarm posset, richly deserving of the treatment prescribed for such potions in Revelation 3:16.

What did stay with me from my reading was a sense of the apparently unbreakable association between Protestantism (however loosely defined) and intolerance. This intolerance appears in many forms: doctrinal, ritual, textual, racial, sexual, behavioural. Some Protestants even refuse to tolerate facts, as in the widespread refusal to ‘believe in’ evolution. Sometimes it is private or communal, and results in a turning away from secular society, as with the Quakers or the Amish; more often it explodes into public violence of one kind or another: witch-burnings, the drawing and quartering of heretics, pogroms and lynchings, religious wars and uprisings. It is hard, reading this book, not to think of Protestantism as a religion of hate. This is the real case the movement has to answer. Ryrie barely touches it.