I returned from Sri Lanka last month. At the Galle Literary Festival I was asked to speak to reporters about the relationship of the festival to Sri Lankan readers and writers abroad. Here are my remarks:
Words For a Press Conference, Galle, January 2008
At times I have trouble in the diaspora. I don’t know all the rules. There are so many groups gathered in the world’s cities. Do we share the same mother? Have we been weaned to long for the same distant father? I have been asked to reflect on the possibilities that this festival engenders for Sri Lankan readers and writers throughout the world. I remember sitting in my office at the Embassy in Abidjan one morning in 1998 when I got a call from the front desk. A countryman had come to visit. Out of the blue. He invited me to his flat in Treichville. On the wall I saw the blue sea off Trincomalee and the curries were finely spiced, lentiled and mutton hot. The young men in that flat arrived via the Middle East; had stowed away on ships bound for the remote West African coast where another Tamil representing the United States had come to rest.
How to make sense of these multiple loyalties, carrying cards from birthplace, landing status in one of the Schengen countries, the euro? How about—in dancing with locals-- forgetting slowly that jarring speech, treacle and curd, called the mother tongue?
But we are here to celebrate a different mother. Yes, we are children of many diverse parents. This particular long haired beauty rode a white horse stark naked into my dreamery. Godiva, Mary Queen of Scotts, Twiggy. But the sexual is only a partial answer to the pleasures of exile, the adoption of the new tongue. Certainly, for many of us it has been a very old tongue, passed down from missionary teachers through generations, or whipped up by a dedicated colonial servant. But the language has been made Ceylonese, jellied up in a Christmas cake or a bruda, pickled by Malays. I put my poems in the dickey the other day along with my sarong. But I forget. I need to return to the island to stock up on the Sri Lankan English language.
So this festival can encourage the return of the island’s diasporas, to have them come back for cutlets and tea, to walk upon Galle Face Green, to visit the bird sanctuaries and climb Adam’s Peak.
But then how to fend off the accusation of being a tourist, a visitor in one’s own country? I wish rather that we would be made to feel at home, our Sri Lankan roots honored with national identity cards, recognition that even living abroad we are welcome and continue to be citizens of this island.
Another ideal I wish to pursue is the notion of the Garden of Eden, paradise on earth. In 1948 we numbered 8 million; we have doubled that and continue on the way up—around 20 million according to Wikipedia. At the same time, we cull our elephants, shoot monkeys, scissor thalagoyas, and keep cobras at bay. We grow our own ecologists, and persevere in trying to keep some of the other species alive, but we cede our tropical hard woods to the top bidder. There is of course a defensible logic to development, the need to feed and clothe and prosper. Yet, in this conference dedicated also to reflection on the climate, let us think about Sri Lankans abroad and how we can help in the preservation struggle, contribute a bit of Sri Lankan sun vision to the ecological challenges of our host countries.
So many words….we will hear a lot these days. Not enough I say, not enough colored by the particular variant of English modified on a tear of the Indian Ocean-- this Ceylon, this Sri Lanka we love and want to see at peace with itself. Let us work to make that peace. Let us remove from the stage the possessed beast whirling and whirring in a fevered dance trying to find and eat its own tail. Let us make commerce with metaphors, and let us talk sense, and over drinks, nonsense.
-- c) 2008 Indran Amirthanayagam