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.

12 October 2017

Black, No Sugar

Karnak Café
by Naguib Mahfouz

This was my first experience of reading Mahfouz. Like most works in translation, it loses some of what one presumes to be its characteristic quality when rendered in English. Arabic is a notoriously difficult language for translators to work with.

I thought this was a pretty good book. When reading fiction from cultures beyond the Western world (and Japan), especially in translation, it is important to moderate one’s expectations concerning style, form and technique; the novel – and even more so, the short story – are alien forms in most of these cultures, and the writers are learning (mostly from outdated Western European or Russian models) as they go along. In terms of stylistic and technical development, Karnak Café, published in 1971, might have been written forty years previously; it makes one think of Goodbye to Berlin with its engaged but faceless, cipher-like first-person narrator. Or maybe Kafka without the absurdism (and the jokes).

But Mahfouz get a lot of things right; there’s a lot of art and insight packed into this slim novel. Its timeline covers a few months or years on either side of the Six Day War of 1967, a conflict whose outcome deeply shocked and humiliated Arabs, and particularly Egyptians, and which is known in Arabic as al Naksa, ‘The Setback’. As a Sri Lankan, I have had to live with the erosion of the rule of law, civil society and freedom in my own country, which began in 1970 and continued well into the present century. In Egypt, this all happened much faster and was, no doubt, correspondingly more surreal and nightmarish. Mahfouz captures those qualities of the process well, together with the astonished paralysis of those who suddenly find everything – one’s job, one’s relationships to other people, the customary and legal boundaries one has always respected, one’s moral code itself – swept away by the malfeasance and corruption of the state, which has for largely spurious reasons declared people like yourself its enemy. He also shows how this malfeasance and corruption infect everything they touch, most particularly their victims.

It happens almost naturally, in everyday life, to ordinary people: in this case, the habituées of a Cairo cafe run by a retired belly-dancer, Qurunfula. We follow the progress of their condition through anxiety and terror to hopelessness and ultimately, acceptance and subornment. A number of incarcerations and interrogations are reported, but always in retrospect – accounts given by the victims after their release, in conversation at the cafe, with the worst abuses and atrocities decently veiled in allusions and ellipses. Yet enough is revealed, and commented upon, to have caused some Arab reviewers to describe Karnak Café as ‘Mahfouz’s angriest book’.

Qurunfula herself is an obvious metaphor for modern Egypt, desperate to retain her integrity yet given to falling in love with unsuitable characters and entertaining implausible hopes. Her various would-be lovers seem to represent the various ideas Egyptians have had about their country and its politics; in the end, she has either done with them all, or they have, seemingly, done with her; yet as the novel ends she is somehow full of hope for the future.

Considering the state of Egypt today, almost half a century later, that is probably the saddest thing about this distinguished literary work from an equally distinguished author.

14 August 2017

Hardwired Hallelujahs

The “God” Part of the Brain
by Matthew Alper

Allow me to save you the trouble of reading this book by describing it to you.

Matthew Alper notes that the spiritual/religious (his formulation) impulse is universal among humanity, extending to all cultures and periods. From this he deduces, probably correctly, that spirituality/religion is an evolved function of our species. Evolutionary biology tends to agree with this premise, but has been unable, so far, to explain why the function, or rather functions, evolved. What use are they to us in the lifelong struggle to survive and reproduce successfully?

Mr Alper has an explanation. He wrote it down. This book is it.

The first half consists of a brief rundown of the history of the universe, ending with the evolution of consciousness in Homo Sapiens. The content of this section spans physics, cosmology, astronomy, chemistry, biochemistry and evolutionary biology. It is replete with scientific howlers (matter turns into energy if you accelerate it fast enough) but the overall picture it paints is reasonably correct. From it, the author derives a materialistic and naturalistic worldview – also fair enough, though highly debatable. Based on this worldview, he deduces that we must have a religious/spiritual (yes, I’m getting tired of these slashes, too) instinct that is hardwired into our brains. This does not necessarily follow, although I agree with Mr Alper that it seems likely.

But then he goes further, stating his conviction that there must be a particular site in the human brain (the eponymous “God” part) devoted to religion/spirituality (would that be one part, then, or two?) And he says there must be genes for it too, since everything physical in our bodies is manufactured according to the instructions encoded in our genes. That’s right, gentle reader: Mr Alper would like you to believe you have a gene for religion and one (maybe the same one) for spirituality too. Just like, you know, there’s a gay gene and a music-loving gene and a boogie-chillun gene and suchlike.

Mr Alper then devotes a very short middle section to explaining why he thinks our brains evolved a “God” part. His explanation: we are the only animals that are conscious of our own mortality, and the fear and anxiety arising from the knowledge that we must die are so crippling that, just to allay our mortal timorousness and get on with the necessary tasks of making a living and making babies, we evolved the ability to tell ourselves a pack of lies about sky fairies and life after death, and believe them. This is actually quite a good idea, though there are, to my mind, more persuasive explanations for the existence of religion. I have my own – doesn’t every atheist and agnostic have one?

The second half of Mr Alper’s book (as an editor, I appreciate the symmetry of structure) expands, extends and attempts to reinforce his thesis. After reading a chapter or two farther and finding that the error count and the nonsense level were rising exponentially, I quit. Mr Alper’s pedantic, pedestrian, repetitive style had long since soured on me by then; if my only concerns with this book were literary, I would have quit before the end of Chapter Two.

Don’t waste your time with this ‘cult classic’. It’s rubbish.

Photo credit: Godong/Getty Images. Borrowed from here.

15 June 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (5)

The story of Ceylon tea begins with coffee – the first crop successfully adapted to plantation agriculture in the central hills of the island. It was coffee, not tea, which first made fortunes for British proprietors and speculators in Ceylon, financed the establishment of a modern government and administration in the colony and made possible the rise of an educated local elite and middle class. As a famous historian remarked as recently as 1980, ‘almost every salient feature of modern Sri Lanka can be traced back to the coffee era.’ After the collapse of coffee, tea inherited the cleared plantations with their fine bungalows and resident labour forces, the mercantile trading system, the up-country road network, the railway and Colombo’s modern harbour, all of which were originally brought into being to serve the coffee enterprise.
       This, the fifth (and last) in a series of excerpts from my soon-to-be-published book Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation, takes readers back to the early days of coffee in Ceylon.

11 June 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (4)

Few people, even in the tea trade, now recall the report of the commission appointed by the United Front Government of 1970-77 to inquire into the workings of plantation agency houses and broking firms. The commission, led by LSSP stalwart Bernard Soysa and the leftist intellectual Kumari Jayawardena, had a strongly Marxist and nationalist orientation and was evidently prejudiced against the industry. Its report, published after much delay in May 1975, made numerous charges, both general and specific, of collusion among plantation-industry capitalists, the intent of which was to loot Sri Lanka of the proceeds of its key industries, for the benefit of a few, mainly English beneficiaries. The report caused a sensation when it came out and provided the State with the excuse it needed to nationalize the estates and remove them from agency-house control – though as it turned out, the state still needed the agency houses after all.
     The following excerpt from Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation describes how the Agency House Commission Report was received by the government and the trade, and what happened next.

22 May 2017

The Trade That Made A Nation (3)

When told that I was writing a book about the Ceylon tea trade, the first question many socially-aware friends asked me was ‘What are you going to say about the estate workers?’ A pertinent question: the status of Sri Lankan plantation workers and their treatment at the hands of estate owners, the general public and the State are heavily fraught and controversial subjects. My answer – that I would deal with the workers and their troubles as truthfully and fairly as I was able – was often met with a sceptical smile. Wasn’t my work being sponsored by the tea trade – the putative oppressors themselves? I could only counsel my friends to wait and see.
       This, the third in a series of extracts from Ceylon Tea: The Trade That Made A Nation, begins the story of the plantation workers. The tale commences not in the age of tea but in the coffee-planting era that preceded it. From here, the story is carried through the rest of the book, becoming one of the principal strands out of which the narrative is woven.