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.