30 January 2016

Anglophony, Old & New

The following originally appeared as a comment on a post appearing on the Reviewing & Editing Project Facebook page. I felt that what I’d written deserved a post on my own blog, so here it is.

Many people today think it was a post-Independence Ceylon government that abolished education in English. This is not strictly true. The decision to educate most Ceylonese in Sinhala or Tamil was originally made in 1870, following the Morgan Committee report on the Central Schools Commission. From that time to this, English education in Ceylon has been — apart from teaching English as a school subject, and apart from one government school, Royal College — left to private providers. Originally these were Christian missionary and church organizations, later the so-called ‘international’ schools.

Education in English cost money — quite a lot of money if you wanted a good one. Only a privileged minority could afford it.

The actions of various post-Independence governments then resulted in a period when even the private provision of education in English was all but banned outright. Although this was illiberal, deliberately provocative and ultimately disastrous for the country, the number of students directly affected by it was quite small. Mostly, they belonged to the aforementioned privileged minority – members of the old colonial comprador class.

(I, though relatively less privileged, was one of the lucky ones. I just made it under the rope. The year after I sat them, the option of taking one’s senior school qualifying examinations in English was scrapped for all subjects save English itself.)

That old English-speaking elite is almost gone now, and not a day too soon. Perhaps there was a time when it could have been integrated into the bigger social picture and become a vital national asset. A few of its members, true patriots that they were, still managed to achieve this, but more generally the historical moment for reconciliation and integration, if it ever existed, had already passed several years before Ceylon achieved independence. Instead of integrating, the elite emigrated.

With the demise of the Anglophone elite the coterie of soi-disant (and mostly manqué) scriveners who were part of it — all those brave souls who struggled self-consciously to produce a ‘Sri Lankan’ literature in English — are vanishing too. Considering how little work of value they ever produced (the best stuff has always been done by outsiders like Regi Siriwardena, Carl Muller and Shehan Karunatilaka), they are not much of a loss, and in sociopolitical terms, their extinction is long overdue. Still, one feels obliged to acknowledge their passing.

But meanwhile, and gratifyingly, enormous numbers of ordinary Sri Lankans have acquired a working knowledge of spoken and written English, partly at school but mostly from private tuition classes and the media. They’re hardly masters of the language, but they get by. Perhaps, some day, a few of them will fully embrace the language and go on to produce works worth reading in it. There are hopeful signs, though there’s a lot of word salad about too. But even if no Sri Lankan ever wins the Booker Prize, it’s hardly a big deal; a non-Anglophone country does not need an English literature.

What Sri Lanka does need, desperately, are vibrant Sinhala and Tamil literatures created by people who are not mediaevalists, reactionaries or narrow-minded ideologues. And make no mistake, they are emerging. I don’t know much about the Tamil literary scene, which is mostly, I suspect, dominated by South Indian writers and publishers; but in the last fifteen years or so, the Sinhala publishing scene has exploded. The last time I attended the Colombo Book Fair, I was astonished by the amount there was — both original writing and works translated from English and other languages. It was, to be quite honest, a revelation.

I believe that is where the future lies, and it can’t come too soon for this country.