Monday, January 2, 2012

The Amazing Bulls In Our Bullring

Published in my column in The Nation ‘The Painted Goose’ on January 1, 2012

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Ernest Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting and wrote two books revolving around it. When I was in school or just after, I read one, ‘The Dangerous Summer’ it must have been not ‘The Sun Also Rises’ or I would remember the plot. What I remember is Hemingway being disdainful and scathing about periodic moans by aficionados that the bulls are getting smaller. He was such a persuasive author that I came away from the book determined to always believe in the bulls of my time.

Looking into the metaphorical bullring of Sri Lanka’s ethno-political intellectual space and watching the leading bulls in action, this belief helps me not to despair of the sport when the smaller bulls come charging in and it looks as if they are the overwhelming majority and one may have to accept certain really small bulls as the current gold standard of their category. You need to remind yourself that the bigger bulls are out there, they will eventually come into the ring and there’s no need to prune down your expectations and settle for a lesser and lower sport. So many bulls exposed to the force-field of our ethno-political intellectual space turn out small because there is an inbuilt blight, almost a curse on it. A bull has to have exceptional potential for bigness to withstand the enormous pressures exerted by this resident blight and turn out be of even a reasonable stature. I have (at least) three metaphorical bulls in my sights (I use the bull metaphor irrespective of gender as you will see). Let’s give each of them a connoisseur’s once over. This week’s selection is Dr. Jehan Perera.

In 2010, Dr. Jehan Perera inspired me to write the following paragraph;
“One of the saddest features characterizing Sri Lanka’s Peace process was the widespread infestation of blight and decay afflicting its front guard. The key symptoms were downright lying, the shoddy, almost illiterate nature of the construct building and the inability to display enough intellectual vigour and research ability to support a B gradable school project report, let alone communications worthy of National change agents and opinion leaders.”

Yet, it was not his overall performance in the ring that inspired it but a single incident. It all started with a footnote;
“When a highly educated Sinhalese scholar like Jehan Perera, one who is a genuine grassroots worker for multi-cultural accommodation, is unaware (personal comment in late Jan. 2000) that the eastern coast of Sri Lanka was an integral part of the Kingdom of Kandy from the late sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the gaps in information—and the success of Tamil propaganda—are starkly manifest.”

Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities and
Issues Michael Roberts April 2004- (Footnote 57)

I was immediately deeply skeptical of such historical virginity and did some sniffing around and hit gold one day on the Tamil Canadian, where Dr. Jehan Perera was cited as an authority. In an article entitled, "Balanced compromise on the north-east unit" published in the Sunday Island in the late 90s, he had said the following;
"The fact is that in the census of 1920 only 4 percent of the population of the Eastern Province was Sinhalese. The Sinhalese settlements in the east were small and scattered, even though there is historical evidence that most of the east came under the umbrella of the Kandyan Kingdom. But while the ultimate rulers were in the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kandy, the people of the east were mostly Tamils and Muslims. It is only in the past fifty years that there has been a substantial influx of Sinhalese settlements through state intervention."

This made me write an article with the purple heading (purple headings my specialty) “Why did Dr. Jehan Perera lie to Dr. Michael Roberts? A Sri Lankan Horror Story” . My article also contained the following paragraph;
“Therefore what was starkly manifest to me reading the above footnote in Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities and Issues, Michael Roberts was not ‘the gaps in information—and the success of Tamil propaganda’ but the incredible naiveté and innocence of Dr. Michael Roberts.”

This was clearly a mistake. A stony silence greeted my mail to Dr. Roberts asking for a review. Another mail elicited the following reply; “I could not work out who was saying what and found the topic esoteric and pedantic”

When the dust had settled, Dr. Roberts explained that when Dr. Jehan Perera confessed his ignorance his manner was absolutely genuine and nothing would induce him (Dr. Roberts) to believe that he (Dr. Jehan Perera) was only pretending ignorance. Apparently at that seminar or conference, after the statement linking the eastern coast with the Kandyan Kingdom was made, Dr. Jehan Perera sidled up and said sotto voce words to the effect “is it true?” and it was this bashful innocence of manner, which convinced Dr. Roberts.

It is a mystery. If the corporeal Dr. Jehan Perera was whispering in 2000 that he was unaware of any relationship between the East and the Kandyan Kingdom, who wrote "Balanced compromise on the north-east unit" in the late 1990s?

Holmes... I know…a ghostwriter!. Yes Watson, a ghostwriter whose writings, opinions and selective snippets of knowledge form no part of Dr. Jehan Perera’s waking consciousness. But Holmes!... an opinion leader whose opinions (at least some of them) are formed and articulated without his awareness based on knowledge unfamiliar to him? Moreover a research and media director who refrains from research? Where does that leave us? That leaves us Watson back in the bullring watching a very small bull in action and pining for the bigger bulls.

So frankly, I think there need to be bigger bulls to represent the reconciliation circuit and I believe they are out there. I myself know at least one and perhaps I will even write about him. But not next week. Next week we will run our connoisseurs’ hands along the flanks (metaphorical) of that new bull Niromi De Soyza and assess her.