Diaspora and the perks of marginal identities
All beginnings are not easy and it took some time for me to succumb to the persistent charms (and nudging) of Gaya and get down to writing. I live in an Asian metropolis for a good part of the year, am Ceylonese by birth and Sri Lankan by citizenship – at least according to my passport. I am not one of those lucky sods who have two or more passports and can navigate international borders with ease – it is not as if the opportunity were not there but for a myriad reasons I let it pass by.
I spent a near idyllic childhood in pre-war Sri Lanka, shattered to some extent by the JVP in 1971. This brought some excitement to our humdrum existence from the perspective of a child, but since I remain a firm advocate of non-violence, I am not particularly grateful that the JVP brought an end to an era of relative peace that seems so distant and elusive now.
I am choosing to write this column using a pseudonym – first, because I wish to be unencumbered of some baggage I carry with me. This is the baggage we call gender, race, ethnicity, religion, kinship and so on. The moment I write down my name, the Sinhalese will say oh, but that’s a Tamil and the Tamils oh, but that’s a Sinhalese, and the Muslims oh, but that’s a Burgher and the Burgher’s oh, but that’s a Muslim. And the men will say oh, but that’s a woman, and the women, oh, but that’s a man. You get the picture.
Then there are also those people whose preoccupation in life is researching family genealogies. They will say I know her/his great grandfather was a scoundrel and his/her great grandmother was a slut. Sri Lanka is such a small place and people always seem to care more about whom you are related to, rather than whether you might have anything worthwhile to say. Second, there might be occasions where I express things that might potentially land me inside a white van and I don’t want to unwittingly deprive my offspring of a loving parent. Finally, it’s liberating to have an alter-ego – yet another marginal identity.
Sinhalese? Tamil? Muslim ? Burgher ???!!
To elaborate on the issue of identity, I went back to Colombo after college in North America many moons ago and was looking for an annex to rent when I started my second real job. One sunny weekend armed with the classifieds section of the Sunday Observer, I checked out almost every single available annex. The prospective landlord or landlady looked me over from head to foot, and I was bemused to discover that the Sinhalese thought that I was Tamil, Tamils that I was Muslim, Muslims that I was Sinhalese and Burghers, bless them, “mistook” me for one of themselves.
The Burghers, of course, got it right because everyone in Sri Lanka is essentially a Burgher (which after all means “citizen” in Dutch) – or better a delightful achcharu (a word we share with Malayalee speakers and a root achar we share with Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Assamese speakers). If any Sri Lankan traces his/her ancestry far enough he or she will find out that s/he is a wonderful mix of North and South Indian, Arab (via South India), Malay (via Indonesia), aboriginal Veddah and European descent (a smattering of Portuguese, Dutch or British for good measure). I am delighted by this achcharu of my heritage. It is too bad that many Sri Lankans are not and insist on fiercely guarding their permeable ethnic turfs. Good fences make good neighbours?
Suffice to say that I have lived and continue to spend a good part of my life in Sri Lanka and I love the land “where every prospect pleases and only man is vile”. Reverend Heber seems to have exempted the women of Sri Lanka from his observation, so let’s assume that there is some hope for the human beings that inhabit the little island, which some of us consider the centre of the universe. I accepted Gaya’s invitation to write this column on the musings of a Sri Lankan with one foot on the island and the other in the diaspora, in my capacity as an “independent thinker”. So it matters not, who I am. What I have to say hopefully matters more.
Nothing is simple
I share with you the thoughts of a bird of passage – in my view, a rather privileged vantage point. Birds as you know move easily across land, water, forests, farms, gardens, villages, cities, countries, continents. Of course, they do get disoriented, cold, hot, hurt, shot, killed, lose their habitats. All of this is the universe of my ponderings.
If you are like me, we can leave our Sinhaleseness, Tamilness, Muslimness and so on behind but it’s difficult to leave the Sri Lankaness (or the Ceyloneseness) even when things get pretty bad. Those few diasporans (is that a word?) who have responded to the call of returning to and rebuilding the motherland have often found, much to their chagrin, that people with knowledge and exposure to other (and sometimes better) ways of doing things, frogs who have made it out of the proverbial well, are not necessarily welcome back. The frogs deeply entrenched in the mire of the well are deeply threatened and jump around discomfiting and/or chasing away these hapless returnees. And never mind the returnees. In Sri Lanka even the competent frogs, who have never left the well, barely have a croak of a chance.
Things that will add up
So is the situation hopeless? I tend to see glasses as half full. Two recent events both posted on this site offer a glimmer of light leading out of the darkness. The first is the conference of youth leaders held recently in Jaffna by Sri Lanka Unites. To get 500 young people, representing all of the districts, as well as parts of the diaspora, to sit down and discuss their common life experiences (some of which have been very painful) and their aspirations and visions for a different future is no mean feat. They lead by example where a myopic adult leadership has consistently failed. The personal journey made by Tanya Ekanayake to Jaffna to engage in understanding and healing through music is a similarly worthy and inspiring endeavour.
So I am convinced that there are things that we can all do or support. Little things, perhaps, in the larger scheme of things. In the long run that is what will add up. Not what politicians will do or not do for us.
Bird of Passage corresponds every other week exclusively with iSrilankans.