Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Malinda Seneviratne

The Colonial Project- how did my family benefit from plunder?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 27 2011

Last week Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. He also referred to the publication by Juliet’s company of Marlon Ariyasinghe’s poetry collection Froteztology. I have read some of Malinda’s own poetry and, on the strength of that, I respect his judgement enough to want to read Marlon’s work. I am working on my own poetry collection with the provisional title of The Toxicity of Taxonomy. My running themes are the poisonous nature of stereotyping, nationalism and racism and how the inexorable tides of imperialism and other isms drown helpless little people. I’m looking for a publisher, Juliet!

Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.

I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago, Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle – Rajpal’s articles about the gay mafia in the UNP reminded me of Edward’s court) and later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.

Sam1

I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.

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As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.

Sam3

Imperial service certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.

 

My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.

My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.

My father made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.

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Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university. Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.

When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.

No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex  inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’

Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.

The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.

I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals” and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.

 

Where Are the Prosecutions, Punishments?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Colman's Column3

 

On Monday 16 June 2014, I went to Badulla to take a dog to the vet. Everything seemed normal in town. I was shocked to see pictures later in the day on Asian Mirror, showing a mob stoning familiar shops on Bazaar Street. The BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) staged a protest in Badulla demanding the release of several suspects who were arrested for attacking a Muslim shop in the town a few days before. The suspects, according to Police, are members of the BBS.

This is a disturbing echo, closer to my own home, of the appalling events at Aluthgama. The Aluthgama riot and bloodshed apparently arose out of a road rage incident or a physical assault on a bhikkhu. The Badulla incident apparently arose out of a sexual harassment allegation.

The Badulla story goes that two Sinhalese girls had entered a Muslim-owned shop and asked to purchase a pair of denims. The girls then allege that the sales clerk videoed them from above the changing room using his cell phone. A variant version was that the shop owners had fixed CCTV cameras in the changing room. The girls’ father recruited a mob and stormed the shop, assaulting the salesman. Police had intervened to maintain the peace and taken the sales clerk into custody. Police investigation into the incident is in progress.

On June 20, Badulla was calm but tense. On every street there were policemen in riot helmets carrying big sticks.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote: “Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault.  What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.”

As a Guardian reader succinctly commented: “What ‘triggered the incident’ was the propensity of stupid people to believe stupid things, especially if the stupid things target a group they are predisposed to hate.” Another viewpoint is that this is becoming a common ruse adopted by extremist organisations to attack Muslim-owned businesses, and that Muslim entrepreneurs need to take adequate precautions to protect their interests. Could that lead to further violence?

These incidents reminded me of a much more serious “trigger”, even closer to my home, a couple of years ago. A Muslim youth stabbed and killed a Sinhalese boy. Their dispute was not about religion and had nothing to do with communal strife. The two boys had been firm friends since childhood. This was a crime of passion – they had fought in rivalry over the affections of a girl. Luckily, BBS were not around to exploit the incident and all sections of the local community sprang into action to dampen any sparks of conflict. All local shops closed voluntarily and the police imposed a curfew. Meetings were held between Buddhist and Muslim clerics, the families of the dead youth and his assailant and the police. There was no further violence, although one still reads about jealous husbands killing wives and vice versa.

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts abroad are bemoaning the moral turpitude of “the average Sri Lankan”. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”. I would hesitate to judge “the average Sri Lankan”. I  would like to take a more optimistic line. I do not like headlines about “communal strife”. I live in a poor village, which has many Muslims and Tamils. It sometimes feels as though the Sinhalese are the minority. I am not saying that it is an idyllic paradise. There are often disputes but they are not on an ethnic basis. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese generally get on OK and even intermarry- a woman who works for us is a Tamil married to a Muslim and they have an adopted son who is Tamil (but does not know it). We have Sinhalese workers who live in the Tamil lines. Many Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu. The broker who arranges our car insurance has a Muslim name but is a staunch Catholic. There could be harmony if the BBS would allow it.

Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese seem to get along with each other, and with the Sinhalese, and with this Irishman. Our immediate neighbours are Muslims. We were here before them. We have not always enjoyed perfect harmony- there used to be some intimidation from them and on one occasion, there was an angry mob at our gate wielding knives. They were responding to a false rumour about what we were doing with the water supply. This was the kind of thing Malinda referred to. I responded to other incidents of aggression on my neighbour’s part by presenting him with a box of avocadoes from our trees. Our sympathetic response to a couple of deaths in their family has led to a situation where we rub along generally and help each other out on occasion. As I write, their cattle are tearing at our hedge again!

We are fortunate in that the high priest of our local Buddhist temple, who has been a good friend to us for ten years, is a wise, compassionate and humorous man. Most of the people who work for him are Tamils and they worship him. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school at the temple. He regularly attends events organised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

As I write, the situation is still not clear because most of the news is coming to us from abroad and the Government is saying nothing. It seems that seven died, three of whom perished in a drive-by shooting indicating that BBS might have an armed militia. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator  owned by the Beacham group, classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts who live abroad have expressed fears that nothing has been learnt from the horror that was Black July in 1983, when Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils and sparked off a thirty-year civil war. One woman in Aluthgama was quoted in the press: “At this rate, it won’t be long before a Muslim Prabhakaran is born.”

There was one positive aspect in 1983. Many Sinhalese -and I have heard eye-witnesses reports about this – endangered themselves by having the courage to protect Tamils who were strangers to them. This time one of my Muslim contacts reports that “Buddhist work friends collected funds in an office and donated for the affected at Aluthgama. Very noble of them. Why , it’s entirely possible that BBS will lose adherents in greater numbers than gaining them. Allah Akbar!”

In Aluthgama, a Sinhalese citizen told Dharisha Bastians. “We have no grouse with the people on that side of the village. They are our friends. We know them. We didn’t recognise the people who fought last night, they were not from here”.

Encouraging news came from Dickwella. The Chief Incumbent Priests of eight Buddhist temples spent two hours at the Muhiyibdeen Jumma Mosque at Yonakpura, Dickwella. The act of solidarity was to strengthen communal ties and avert any fears of copycat incidents in the area. The clergy said that the root cause of the incidents in Aluthgama and Beruwala was misinformation and that the people of Dickwella should be vigilant about attempts to instigate communal disharmony in their town. Dickwella Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Krishali Muthukumarana said that Dickwella people have lived in harmony by respecting each other’s beliefs and customs. All the members of the PS irrespective of their political affiliations would ensure that no communal hatred was instigated.

Harendra Alwis on Groundviews explored this issue in a philosophical mode but also offered some practical advice on avoiding despair, promoting tolerance and social integration and embracing diversity. I feel a smidgeon of caution about one thing Harendra says. “Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say.” It is true that these issues have to be exposed to the cleansing sunshine and fresh air of open debate. Groundviews has an important role to play in this. There is, however, a danger that passions could be further inflamed by polemic in the social media. As Nick Hart commented on Groundviews, it is “nonsensical and irresponsible to attempt to tar all Buddhist monks with the brush of intolerance, or to imply that every individual from a minority group is an innocent victim. Sri Lanka and the world know that this is not the case.” I recall that Groundviews itself seemed to be dangerously stoking the fire in the controversy over halal products, when Sanjana Hattotuwa strained very hard to find insult to Muslims in the packaging of a certain item.

 

The use of terms like “communal strife” makes me queasy. Just like every act of communal violence in Sri Lanka’s history, the recent “riots” in Aluthgama against Muslims were not spontaneous expressions of ethnic or religious grievance involving ordinary civilians. There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. Buddhists need to convince their Muslim neighbors that BBS are not acting in their name. That, of course will be futile if the police allow BBS to continue their thuggery. Where are the prosecutions and punishments?

 

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