Bawa Art Industry: Lunuganga and Chandrajeewa Workshop: Wennappuwa – The Island

By Uditha Devapriya

Review of Sri Lanka by Padma Rao Sunderji:
The new country

HarperCollins India, 2015, INR 499, 322 pages

What does it mean to be Sri Lankan? Am I Sri Lankan? I would like to think and say that I am. However, to be Sri Lankan is to be many things, often at the same time. In my case, it can also mean being Sinhalese and Buddhist. Similarly, another person can claim another identity. While useful in one sense, however, these terms tend to be divisive. We can endlessly debate the meaning of these words, but do they add up to an overall identity? Sri Lanka is a land full of potential and promise, a distinct geographical entity that has carved out a place for itself in the sun. How can we all be part of this entity?

Being Sri Lankan is obviously a matter of reflection and speculation. We can debate and discuss. Arguments will probably never end. Yet, deep down inside, there is no doubt that we are, ultimately, one family. Dayan Jayatilleka called it “intelligent patriotism”: an all-encompassing national identity that could account for the demands of race and religion. Mervyn de Silva spoke of an “age of identity” in which “ethnicity walks on water”. He could have written about any country, from any part of the world. But here he was talking about the land of his birth. Either way, and however you describe it, it is inevitable that this country will be full of complex identities and complex people.

Some books are hard to put down. This one certainly is. Published in 2015, a pivotal year for Sri Lanka’s post-independence and post-war history, Sri Lanka: the new country reflects the country and its people. It’s not thin, but it’s lucid, and it dwells at length on what Sri Lankans feel about being Sri Lankan. Filled with insights and pointed observations, it is both a travelogue and a political narrative. Sunderji does her best to cut to the chase, getting to the heart of the matter wherever she is. It reflects her deeply sincere love for the country, a love she frequently emphasizes before explaining her connection to an island that feels like her surrogate homeland.

I felt intrigued by the title of the book. For many foreign commentators, post-2009 has been an era of great transformation in Sri Lanka, politically and economically. Yet, in the minds of those of them who had dismissed Sri Lanka as a failed state, a nation born from the ashes of war but unable to make peace with itself, this new era did not deserve a definite article: for them, Sri Lanka after 2009 was just another new country, no different from others that had won wars but lost peace. Sunderji, however, inserts a specific article: Sri Lanka, for her, is THE new country: unique, full of hope, free from the burdens of the past.

In his foreword, Suderji admits that it aims “to offer readers interested in Sri Lanka an opportunity to hear the other side”. What is this other side? “The generals of the Sri Lankan army, its president, its new chief minister of the Northern Province and, most importantly, the ordinary Sinhalese and Tamil citizens who are rebuilding their lives.” A not-so-modest goal, though she herself downplays the scope of her work, calling it “a collection of stories.” The condemnation is felt no matter who she talks to and who she talks to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best parts of the book are where she engages with ordinary people and soldiers, instead of the usually motley crew of politicians, governors, and bureaucrats.

The importance of Sunderji’s contribution cannot be underestimated. Until the publication of this book, most accounts of Sri Lanka and its post-war phase revolved around its failure to achieve peace, its obsession with growing infrastructure, and the consolidation of a ethno-nationalist political consciousness. Sunderji does not minimize or deny, to his credit, these realities. Yet she points out that post-war Sri Lanka is much, much more than most commentators prefer to see. Along the way, she criticizes foreign correspondents, especially those reporting from the confines of a hotel or another country, for propagating false and maliciously misguided stereotypes about what is happening in Sri Lanka.

“I knew from previous experiences that many Western journalists – and NGOs – had repeatedly arrived in Sri Lanka as ‘tourists’ and then written damning and unsubstantiated reports about the country. Most did so from the veranda of the Galle Face Hotel in mild Colombo, of course, as setting foot in the north and northeast would have been too visible, given the widespread presence of the army.

It is because of these transgressions that Sunderji is doing all she can to ensure her independence as an observer in Sri Lanka. Although cautioned against visiting the island, she finds her transit and travels here a relatively peaceful affair, barring an altercation at a military checkpoint. Elsewhere, whether it’s an interview with the president, a chat with a Tamil Buddhist evangelist figure in the north, or a Skype chat with someone posing as the heir to an ancient Jaffna dynasty, the Aryacakravartis, it blends into the world around it. It encourages him to reflect anecdotally on otherwise insignificant matters, such as the quality of service at military-run hotels in the north and northeast.

“The Sandy Bay Hotel once again confirms my reservations about hotels run by the armed forces. Of course, this is peacetime. The armed forces now have excess time and funds in their pockets. And as long as there are rumors of separatism, as long as the whereabouts of the fugitive LTTE cadres are not known, the armed forces will have to remain in certain vulnerable regions of Sri Lanka. Yet, I find myself wishing again that they would employ the services of professionals from Sri Lanka’s flawless hospitality industry to design these places, run them and give them a softer, warmer touch.

Even here the criticism is fair: Sunderji does not vilify an otherwise heavily vilified organization, the Sri Lankan military, as it has been and continues to be by other commentators. It is for this reason that her interviews with military personnel and majors resonate so well: she does not judge or editorialize their answers, but lets them express themselves. By offering them the benefit of the doubt, she paints a more complex picture of the relationship between the military, the political system and the people on the ground in the north and northeast.

Therefore, the conclusions she draws are not only fresh but also unbiased. For example, she clearly points out that the Channel 4 documentary, The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, despite the way his account was accepted everywhere, never substantiated his claim of 40,000 civilians killed by the military towards the end of the war: “It surprised me that the allegations of a lone TV station had unquestionably taken up and reproduced”.

The Sri Lanka that emerges from these reports, of course, is both colorful and colorless: they reduce the island to a bloody tear (the tear association, unsurprisingly, infuriates him: it simplifies an otherwise complicated) with the same old, hackneyed, hackneyed, fashionable dichotomies: Sinhalese vs. Tamil, Buddhist vs. Hindu. As Janaka Perera said in response to an article by Robert Kaplan in Atlantic (“Buddha’s Savage Peace”), the violence in Sri Lanka was never linked to a religious crisis, as there was a lot of syncretism between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Given the prevalence of these thinly concealed simplifications and falsifications, then, is it any wonder that we still encounter lies propagated by the media in world-renowned publications? Such falsifications are not the prerogative of foreigners alone, since the publications have local correspondents based in “sweet Colombo”, who still give in to the demands of Western publishers. That’s why Sunderji, who readily describes herself as an “outsider” several times in her book, attempts to maintain a narrative that doesn’t play gallery or subsume the Sri Lankan experience into its own close encounters.

What keeps his book alive is his interest in reconciling, rather than differentiating, the many polarities that have amplified and telescoped in Sri Lanka. Given the size of the country, it is hardly surprising that an ethnic crisis turns into an ethnic conflict within a few years. But perhaps the most important factor that helped turn this crisis into a conflict was the many comparison errors made by foreign observers.

Even John Pilger, that most prolific commentator, who has frequently exposed the underside of the Western media, cannot help comparing the Sri Lankan separatist conflict to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, forgetting that while Israel and Palestine have large and significant populations in the region and elsewhere, in Sri Lanka the ethnic majority, the Sinhalese, happen to be a global minority, while the “occupied” minority, the Tamils, constitute a global majority: a point that Dayan Jayatilleka argued in Long war, cold peace.

Right now, therefore, we need a book that brings together, not separates, the differences. From now on, Padma Rao Sunderji’s book fulfills this task magnificently. It’s richly detailed, lucid, and not insignificantly evocative: written from the head as much as from the heart.

The author can be contacted at [email protected]

Christopher S. Washington