Thursday, August 13, 2009

A deprived generation strikes back

by Ajith Samaranayake

The season of peace on earth and goodwill to all men and the extinguishing year bring back old friends traversing the continents and crossing frontiers. From Perth, Australia comes Sunil Govinnage and from Hawaii Wimal Dissanayake.

And where does Sunil take us for lunch but to the Hilton sitting in easy proximity to Lake House where in the placid waters of the pond by the restaurant swans, black and white lazily amble under a thin drizzle. So here is a microcosm of the urban Sri Lankan condition. Expatriate academic and expatriate writer take journalist friend for lunch to five-star hotel to munch over old times, a vanished world.

Living in Australia for 16 years Sunil Govinnage is much preoccupied with what he terms 'the diasporic condition'. It is a situation common to most Sri Lankans, whether Sinhala or Tamil, who have uprooted themselves either voluntarily or under compulsion, to transplant themselves uneasily and unsteadily in alien soil sometimes hostile or resistant to them.

Whether it is communal conflict, a sense of uneasiness at social change, ambitions for their children or other reasons which drive people to foreign climes the fact remains that there is a large and sprawling Sri Lankan diaspora spread across the global village.

Some of them might be comfortable in their adopted homes, others uneasy, yet others desperately nostalgic for their forsaken motherland but the diasporic condition is the badge of our times uprooting people from a country splintered and riven by multiple differences.

Most of these people will never return home except for brief jet-propelled excursions where too they will live within a small foreign cocoon. To their children Sri Lanka will be a distant and dim memory, a strange country, a foreign people, an exotic land.

In his poem 'To our daughter who is on the move' Govinnage writes.

You write from Toronto, Warner Troyer's country now I have to call it Ondaatje's country!
"I got the message you left last night, I was at ice hockey with my friend.
The leafs won 4-0!"
What to me is ice hockey? Who to me are leafs?
For me leaves are for falling, like life; like your fondness for us.

Although the diasporic parents and elders may be troubled by the uncertain fondness of their offspring, the children will have few such doubts and anxieties. They are the true citizens of the global village with only dim memories of their original homes and all the world as their home, a far cry from the lost lament of an earlier time of the Indian poet Dom Moraes for example who cried 'Never at home' in his autobiography.

Moraes and Govinnage belong to a generation old enough to remember other and sunnier times and feel a nostalgic twinge for what they have foresaken. The brief return home has awakened the (Sinhala) Muse in Govinnage who shows me a poem he had written at Singapore Airport on his way back. Earlier he had written:

My Sinhala poems sleep in a back room
Lamenting their exile
Like children forbidden from play.
Home and exile, Sinhala and English, coupled or juxtaposed, are then the dilemmas and the anxieties of the more sensitive of the diaspora.

Govinnage for example talks nostalgically about his school days at Isipathana Vidyalaya, of the homes he had known in Kalutara and Kiribathgoda and meeting Wimal Dissanayake kindles old memories of literary life in the late 1970s, in hindsight a golden afternoon, of newspaper columns and radio discussions, of the long corridors of the SLBC, of departed friends such as the incomparable Dayasena Gunasinghe, poet, journalist and good companion.

Wimal Dissanayake himself is a busy academic gravitating between Hawaii and Hong Kong, Sri Lanka's original media guru, an acknowledged authority on the Asian Cinema and a much sought-after guest lecturer on the seminar circuit.

All three of us are conscious of belonging to a privileged class not only because we are eating at the Hilton off Sunil's Australian money but because we belong to the English speaking Brahmin caste which has for good or ill had such a profound influence on post-Independence Sri Lanka.
However we assuage our guilt by thinking that although we speak and write in English we are not wholly alienated from the mainstream of society, that indeed we speak and read Sinhala, that we have led our lives interpreting for the English readership the works of literature, drama and cinema being produced in Sinhala. But is this life of the literary middle-man satisfactory? Have we fallen between two stools?

Such a sense of self-doubt and anxiety can become acute particularly when we are faced with what looks like the triumph of popular culture. True, there are serious literary, dramatic and cinematic works still emerging but these are being increasingly swamped by the trivia of television and radio and the tabloid sections of the popular press which are holding the emerging semi-literate lower middle class young produced by a half-baked education in a steady thraldom.
Have we then betrayed this emerging generation? All three of us could remember a time when there was serious intellectual and literary discussion in the press and over the airwaves, the days of Sarachchandra, Regi Siriwardena, A.J. Gunawardena, of 'Vivechana Saha Vimarshana' on radio presented by Tilaka Sudharman de Silva and even the later time in the 1980s of stormy literary seminars at the Public Library with Prof. Sucharitha Gamlath at the centre.

But now the storm has receded and an uneasy lull has settled on the land. It is broken only by the babble of an ill-digested post-modernism among the more literary young. This itself is quite a phenomenon of our times.

It is almost as if the Sinhala-educated generation has wrought its revenge on the bi-lingual brahmins by resorting to the gobbledegook of post-modernist theory, post-modernism is not the easiest of pabulum to digest and this is compounded when the young admit that they have learnt English by themselves, through their own efforts, without aid from teachers or elders in order to read this new literature.

So this is a different kind of 'kaduwa,' deprived of an education in English by the organised system the young are striking back in the language of the French structuralists, linguists and post-modernists, and what is more they have no sense of piety or reverence for the old Brahmins. They are in a fierce iconoclastic mood.

Again the nagging doubt; have we betrayed them now that they no longer need us? In a mood of nostalgia, euphoria and half melancholia our long lunch comes to an end.

The drizzle has ceased. The swans continue their serenade. The exiles will return to their chosen exile.

Note: extracts from Sunil Govinnage's poems are from 'White Masks: an anthology of new Australian poetry.

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