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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Cultural Rediscovery-II

If a cook merely boiled some white or red rice and offered it you, you would eat it if you were very, very hungry, right? But it would be basically flat and tasteless. On the other hand, if the cook added some turmeric to it, some peppercorns, cardamoms, cloves, a stick of cinnamon, some pieces of rampe [Pandanus latifolia], a few leaves of karapincha [Murraya Koenigii], and some salt; then tempered it with some sliced big onions in sizzling coconut oil and added it to the rice (your salivary glands are already working overtime), the aromas from that dish of rice and the taste would be out-of-this-world, right? You’d also eat it with gusto. If I were to stray into the realm of our curries this would become more of a culinary article. Our culture or the composite Sri Lankan culture is something like this analogy about the spiced rice.

There’s no gainsaying the fact that in the urban centres the inhabitants enjoy the astonishing variety of our cuisine represented by the Sonahar [Moor] godhamba-rotti with mutton curry made of lots of coriander and coconut milk; or the Tamil masala thosai with shambar and ulundhu-vaddai; or lampries baked in a banana-leaf; or rice with pol-sambola and kiri-hodhi (aanang). Each, in its inimitable way, is a treat to be savoured. On the other hand, if it was merely rice with pol-sambola and kiri-hodhi, everyday and everywhere, that would be very, very boring. This is just one aspect of our mutually-shared and enjoyed culture. Our attractiveness lies, hopefully, in our profoundly enduring diversity

When it comes to sweetmeats we have the unique bibikkan [or bolo de coco] or coconut cake made from coconut jaggery, rice flour, and a bouquet of spices; then the Flemish dough cake or Breudher [Broeder] beloved of the Burghers; Kalu dhodhol with embedded cashew nuts vies for place with bright crimson or amber yellow maskat; and then, from Jaffna, Kolukaddai and Seeni Ariyatharam. The sheer variety of home-made food and beverage is exhausting. Who hasn’t enjoyed Chicken Buriyani or Ghee Rice; Malay beef curry or Nasi Goreng?

There are an entire gamut of religious and secular cultural festivals and festive occasions celebrated in and outside homes with friends and family such as ‘Magula’ or the wedding, the Devana Gamana—Maha Magula three day’s later, Aluth Avuruddha or New Year, Vadiviya Pamineema or Coming-of-age, Kath Bandi Magula, Aluth Sahal Mangalaya, Kiri Ammalage Dana, Maha Shivarathri, Navarathri, Thai Pongal, Id-ul-Fitr or Ramazan, Id-ul-Azha or Hajj, Ka-Muruthal, Nikkah, and so on. Each is different in the various regions of the country. The Sonahar and the Malays, though both following Islam, have different ceremonies and ways in which these are celebrated or commemorated. The Christian community largely celebrates Christmas and Easter and the Catholics of Negombo have their Passion play on Duwa Island.

All segments of the population have different types of music and dance: The Sinhalese have three classical dance forms—the Kandyan, Sabaragamuva and the Ruhunu; the Tamils have the classical Bharata Natyam, the Burghers their Kaffiringha Baila with its toe-tapping rhythms and humourous lyrics. The miniscule Kaffir community has its Manga (pron. ‘manja’) with tambourines, coconut shells, bottles and spoons.

All of this is enjoyed by everyone unless there are some few brooding Cassandra-like bigots decrying the polyglot nature of Sri Lankan culture.

In the realm of language, Sri Lankans have adopted hundreds, if not, thousands of words, from all over the world. Here’s a representative sample of loan-words: Raban, sarong, sampan (Malay); Kapiri, marakkal, arrack (Arabic); kokis, piscaal, kakkussiya, kantoruva (Dutch); pipigna, baila, sumbaraya, sappathu, pigana, mesaya, sabang, saala, saya, tombuva, beeralu-renda, nauv (Portuguese), Amma, appa, aiya, akka, kannadi, kottai, mudaliyar, aiyo, manna, kasi, aanang, thakkali, katamaran, adi, gova (Tamil), Aappa, idiappa (Malayalam; Kankung, rickshaw, ayah (Chinese); Deshaya, grama sevaka, sangeeth, devi (Hindi); Kochiya, enigma, club, bus, tyre, cricket, bistek, rosa, nombara (English), Praja-tantra, shalya-karma, chaya-rupa, surya-balaya, trasta-vadaya, harda-spandana, parigana-kaya, vag-vidya, and rupa-vahini (Sanskrit). This list could go on and on and what it means is that these words have been seamlessly integrated into the everyday language, enriching it immeasurably. Many plants, herbs and fruit trees were introduced and bear their original names sometimes slightly modified to suit our speech patterns—rambutan, mangus, durian, biling, kambaranga, beetroot, rabu, karrot, manyokka, gova, thakkali, pappol, minchi, saldiri, saladha and so on.

What all this and more demonstrates is that we Sri Lankans have more things in common with each other and the countries around us that we should have no difficulty whatsoever in thinking of ourselves as Sri Lankans FIRST and whatever else afterwards. If we look back objectively we’ll find that our troubles began with ‘communal’ representation and the subsequent jockeying for the power to command and control. That’s where this ‘majoritarian’ business came in. The European theory of ‘Aryan superiority’ propounded by Arthur Joseph Comte de Gobineau and later by his disciple, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, gained ardent converts here who believed that because the Sinhalese spoke an Indo-Aryan language that they were racially ‘Aryans.’ But the whole ‘Indo-Aryan’ theory was about language and not about race—but the damage had been done and its bloodiest manifestation was the race terror during the Nazi Era.

The politicians of almost a hundred years ago (not quite) bought this specious theory and used it to further their agendas in both the North and the South. The insecure Northerners became the ‘victims’ and the Southerners raised the bogey of their domination through the bureaucracy. The tom-tom beating began in earnest with ‘race,’ ‘language,’ and ‘religion’ as the rallying cries and both sides were equally guilty of fanning the flames of hatred, distrust, and separatism. We must collectively kill this and bury it, especially so when the Mahinda Rajapakse Government is talking to the political leaders of the Tamil National Alliance in the hopes of reaching a modus operandi or ‘way of working together’ towards a full and final reconciliation even though the wounds may take a couple of generations to heal thoroughly. Let us all pray that this will happen.

Biologically, the inhabitants of this Island have more genes in common with each other and nothing to prove that any segment of the population is either superior or inferior to another. Therefore, if there are so many factors that conduce towards an overarching unity why should we keep on quibbling about ‘ethnic’ rights instead of arguing about fundamental human rights for all? Why do we want to perpetuate ethno-religious representation that divides rather than unites? These arguments are irrational and illogical. We must wake-up to ground realities after over three decades of bloody, murderous war in which over an estimated 100,000 died. Those deaths and the many thousands still living in our midst without limbs, eyesight and other grave disabilities should tell us in unequivocal terms that there can be no more bloodletting. If ‘ethnicity’ or ‘language’ or ‘religion’ were at the bottom of it we should take a long, hard look at ourselves and ask the question: "Was it worth it?" This question should be asked in Point Pedro and in Devinuvara, in Batticaloa as well as Colombo. This is the only piece of Planet Earth that we could all call "Home" and we must learn to live within that home peacefully without trampling each other’s ‘tails.’ One could well ask the question: "Why the hell can’t we or are we all a bunch of air-headed morons?" Seriously, the Tamil Union, the Sinhalese Sports Club, the BRC and the Malay Cricket Club should all be able to play friendly 50-over matches or even Test Matches in the real spirit of the game and we don’t need some woolly-headed ideologue telling us that it is an imperialist imposition. We must learn to play the game all over again in the spirit of brotherhood and camaraderie and repair the tears in the tapestry of Sri Lanka—otherwise, we’ll have to paraphrase the words of a melancholic song and sing: "Don’t Cry for Me—Sri Lanka."

By J. B. Muller


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