The revenge of modernity
By Uditha Devapriya
This is the second in a series of essays examining the Bandung Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the latter’s eventual dissolution.
Asked for his opinion of Western civilisation, Gandhi famously replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” There were many things Rabindranath Tagore agreed with Gandhi. His estimation of the West was not one of them. When the father of India’s independence struggle implored everyone to use the charka, the soul of the Bengali Renaissance begged to differ: “The charka,” he said, “does not require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheel of the antiquated invention endlessly, using the minimum of judgment and stamina.”
For Tagore, Western civilisation could be a source of liberation; for Gandhi, it could only be the object of amusement. To borrow an analogy by Isaiah Berlin, Gandhi was a hedgehog, a believer in the superiority of one way of life all others, while Tagore was a fox, a believer in the potential of human reason, individual freedom, and modernity. The latter is of particular significance and relevance, and forms the subject of my piece.
One of the most perplexing dilemmas of the 20th century has been the issue of modernity. Just what is it? Particularly for the postcolonial world order, the search for modernity has been coterminous with the search for identity. Western scholars, understandably, would pin it down to a clash of civilisations between East and West, and point out that modernisation inevitably involves Westernisation. Others, derided as “nativists”, would look to the East, at home-grown ideologies. The conflict between these two schools of thought has dominated the narrative throughout the Cold War, surviving its very end.
Francis Fukuyama believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union would usher in the end of history, transforming a bipolar world into a unipolar one: all world systems would flow into one, with the West dominating. For some time, the optimism of the West at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the transition from Communism to capitalism in the Soviet bloc seemed to confirm this thesis. Modernity had returned, in the form of the marketplace. “Since 1991,” wrote Fareed Zakaria in 2008, “we have lived under a U.S. imperium, a unique, unipolar world in which the open global economy has expanded and accelerated.”
Samuel Huntington discounted such optimism. To him the collapse of a bipolar world could only lead to the rise of diametrically opposed ideologies, clashing with one another. Implicit in his view was a pragmatic belief in the withering away of nation states: now ethnicity, not nations, would reshape history. Nationalism, in other words, would transcend borders, and defy sovereignty. Huntington named eight cultures which would triumph over national borders in that manner: Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Japanese, and Buddhist. No wonder Gunadasa Amarasekara, the enduring symbol of the Sinhala Buddhist intelligentsia, referred to Huntington in his essays: it validated his own thesis of a world of competing civilisations, cultures, and worldviews.
Western civilisation continues to evoke hatred and infatuation among nationalist elites, and not just in countries like ours. Post-war Japan teetered, for instance, between adulation of Western culture, including forms of dress, with displays of exclusionary nationalism at times bordering on xenophobia. Thus when Marlon Brando rode a motorbike in The Wild One and Audrey Hepburn cut her hair short in Roman Holiday, Japanese teenagers followed suit, yet when cafes popped up in Tokyo, many of them actively excluded foreigners. The situation was certainly not as stark in other parts of Asia, least of all here: as with India, our tryst with the West has historically been a less complicated affair. In general though, we’ve been as ambiguous in our encounters with modernity as them.
For some, it would seem that modernity is white, male, bourgeois, and European. I hate to put it so bluntly, but that’s the truth. A corollary to this argument is the view that if we must embrace modernity, we must embrace the West. The only exception to that I can think of, from the last century, has to be the Non-Aligned Movement: it tried to forge a modernity acceptable to the ex-colonies of the Third World. That vision was many things: progressive, liberating, yet traditionalist. Anchored to the past, it sailed towards the future. It held the promise of growth, minus the dictates of Bretton Woods; an exit from underdevelopment that wouldn’t involve, much less depend on, the IMF and the World Bank.
Until the revival of neoliberalism in periphery countries (Sri Lanka included) in the late 1970s, this way out for developing societies seemed to work. Yet wrecked by differences in culture, growth and development potentials, resource endowments, and a frustrating lack of political consensus, it gradually fell apart. When Fouad Ajami wrote his critique of it (“The Third World Challenge: The Fate of Nonalignment”, Foreign Affairs, Winter 1980/1981), he began, fittingly enough, by quoting J. R. Jayewardene: “[t]he only real nonaligned countries in the world are the United States and the Soviet Union.”
To me it’s one of the biggest ironies that an outfit committed to neutrality between capitalism and Communism should come to be influenced by both camps. The capitalist bloc, led by the US, helped rightwing authoritarian elites, particularly in the military, to overthrow democratically elected leftwing governments; the Communist bloc, led by the USSR, supported reformist nationalist elites, often but not always in the military, who had overthrown or defeated at the polls dependent, compradore rulers.
Each believed that history was on their side, and ironically both were wrong for the same reason: they assumed that the regimes they supported would respond to the people. In this, however, the socialist bloc proved to be more correct of the two in the long run: opposed as leftwing reformist nationalists may have been to a socialist revolution in their front yards, they nevertheless did manage to fulfil the aspirations of the peasantry, something rightwing compradore elites could never hope to do or achieve.
Meanwhile, the Non-Aligned Movement’s vision of modernity was being buttressed by culture. “Islamic lands,” Fouad Ajami wrote in his obituary of it, “had developed a powerful consensus in favor of Islamizing modernity.” As with these Islamic lands, so with Buddhist, Hindu, and the other non-Christian nonaligned societies of the world: Pan-Africanism, the Bhoomiputra movement in South-East Asia, and over here, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and the Sinhala Basha Peramuna among other outfits. These appealed to a nationalist petty bourgeoisie. By pandering to them, the governments of their societies contributed to the Movement’s very demise. Not owing to what they had, but owing to what they lacked: a cultural consensus on which such a group could build a political consensus.
As much as I disagree with much of what the Jathika Chintanaya ideologues say and write, the likes of Nalin de Silva got it right when they claimed that almost all forms of Western culture and philosophy, including rationalism, were rooted in a Judeo-Christian framework. Fernand Braudel also made this claim: “Western Christianity,” he wrote, “was and remains the main constituent element in European thought.” From classical antiquity to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, encompassing the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment – from Thomas Aquinas to Adam Smith – the paradigm shifts of Western society never actually swerved from the faith of Abraham and Moses.
From Galileo to Descartes, and from Einstein to Hawking and Dawkins, the growth of Christianity hence paralleled that of Western civilisation. Post hoc ergo, propter hoc: these in turn paralleled the evolution of Western modernity. A deeply unified culture, nourished by over four centuries of exploitation of colonies across Asia and Africa, the West gradually came to monopolise the idea of growth, progress, liberty, and modernity. Added to this was the formation of the colonial bourgeoisie, which in most colonies displaced the traditional ruling elites. Their thinking was no different to that of European officialdom, and even the most radical among them conformed to the decrees of the colonial bureaucracy.
That sped up the Westernisation of these societies even more.
The Non-Aligned Movement lacked that kind of unifying culture, and with it the rudiments of a political consensus. Ergo, its vision of modernity could not hold. Once it unravelled, the ideal of modernity had to revert to its assumed homeland: the West.
It’s not surprising that the descent of the Movement should coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Communism. The fortunes of the Non-Aligned Movement had been built on the Cold War: while it represented countries from both capitalist and socialist camps, it overwhelmingly represented the latter. If there’s one legacy of the Soviet Union’s support for these countries, it was the enrichment of a nationalist petty bourgeoisie. Yet as I wrote in my earlier essay, the Soviets vastly overestimated the potential of bourgeois democratic nationalist leaders to take forward the revolution in these societies. In Egypt as in Sri Lanka, the dalliance between bourgeois nationalists and leftists soured: Egypt with the dissolution of Communist parties in 1965, Sri Lanka with the expulsion of the LSSP in 1975.
The faith which Marxists placed in Third World bourgeois nationalists was hence, if not misplaced, then misaligned. Their main electorate, despite their efforts at land reform in favour of the peasantry, remained the petty bourgeoisie. Nationalism is by no means petty bourgeois dominated – that is a crass simplification – but in their hands, it invariably turns into the dominant political ideology. That is exactly what happened here.
The experience of the Non-Aligned Movement shows that even with Moscow’s support, this petty bourgeoisie consistently prevented the leaders of their countries from transcending a nationalist political framework, thereby preventing that much needed cultural and political consensus in the Movement. What it led to, firstly, was the defeat of the socialist project in favour of a neoliberal restoration – Jayewardena after Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Sadat after Nasser in Egypt – and secondly, the widening of cultural division.
With the dissolution of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Soviet bloc, the contradictions of globalisation and market fundamentalism led ethno-religious nationalism to erupt in and fracture these societies. Huntington called this the clash of civilisations, though it remains a reductionist and deeply cynical diagnosis to me. In any case, modernity has had its revenge: after a full four decades of “the East” endeavouring to come up with a tenable alternative to what Nalin de Silva refers to as “Judeo-Christian values”, it has returned to its assumed land of birth, leaving one half of the world reeling in chaos. Modernity, Gandhi could well have said today, thus remains, at best, a good idea for us. I doubt Tagore would retort.
Note: In my previous article on the Non-Aligned Movement (“After Bandung: Marxism’s exit from the Third World”), I wrote that J. R. Jayewardene made his facetious remark on the organisation at the 1979 Havana Summit. In reality, he mentioned it in an interview with the New York Times, which quoted him in the May 22, 1979 issue.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)
Breathe clean for better health
Air impurities enter the respiratory system via inhalation, causing various health effects in all age groups.
Air pollution and climate change were recognized as the top environmental global threats to human health in 2019 by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Air impurities enter the respiratory system via inhalation, causing various health effects in all age groups. The health of susceptible and sensitive individuals (pregnant women, kids, elderly and people with severe disorders) can be impacted even on low air pollution days.
Short-term exposure to air pollutants is closely related to cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, with high rates of hospitalization. Long-term exposure to these also leads to severe conditions like lung cancer, heart disease and central nervous system dysfunctions.
Nasal hygiene matters
Your nose is a passage to various air impurities; hence it is important to take care of your nose. Air impurities e.g. allergens, pollutants, bacteria or viruses etc. may enter the nose and get trapped, leading to complications.
Take care of your overall health:
*Manage diet – Antioxidants, fibre, protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may help you beat the effects of air pollutants.
*Regular Nasal Washing -Saline sprays wash out the impurities and debris trapped in the nasal passage and helps to prevent allergy symptoms and sinus infections. It also supports natural nose functions.
Benefits of nasal saline wash
* It is a good habit to use a saline wash every day to clean the trapped debris and impurities.
* It also helps to moisturize your dry nose, especially in winter.
* If you are taking any steroids or medications to treat your nasal allergies, it is suggested to rinse your nose with saline before using them. It will clear out debris/mucus and help medications work better.
Take care of your nose and practice nasal hygiene regularly to breathe cleaner.
Minimise the exposure to air pollutants:
* Shift from motorized to active travel e.g. walking and cycling
* Track the air quality index in your area
*Exercise regularly but moderate outdoor activity when air pollution levels are high
* Ventilate your kitchen or cooking room
Places and people
Raddella and Karangoda
By Uditha Devapriya
With input from Roshan Jayarathna
From Panadura to Ratnapura the bus takes three hours to complete the ride. It goes through Horana, Ingiriya, Idangoda, Kiriella, and Kahangama before reaching its destination. The bus stop at Ratnapura is largely empty after six in the evening, and after eight there’s no one. It was raining last December. I was getting late. The clock struck 4.30 when I reached Kiriella. Another hour or so, and there wouldn’t be anyone to take me. I had come to visit Raddella, 25 minutes away. I would be staying for Christmas: I wanted an escape from the fireworks, and I wanted some peace and quiet. Raddella promised both.
Tucked away in a far off corner, Elapatha is one of 17 Divisional Secretariats in the Ratnapura District. The road to it is small, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. Located seven kilometres from Ratnapura Town, it turns and swerves for three more kilometres before you reach a village called Karangoda. From there to Raddella it takes 10 minutes. Filled with forbidding roads and welcoming homes, Elapatha, to which it belongs, is located in Niwithigala, in turn a part of Palle Pattuwa in the Nawadun Korale.
The area is of immense historical interest, though it’s not obvious at first glance. Ratnapura, of course, features in the travels of Marco Polo. Yet this part of the country figured in the country’s history long, long before Polo’s visit, particularly in the reign of Parakramabahu I. In 1156 AD he faced a revolt in Ruhunurata led by the mother of an aspirant to the throne, Manabharana, whom he had defeated and vanquished. The mother, Sugala Devi, provoked an uprising in the South in the hopes of restoring the monarchy to her son.
Parakramabahu was by then engaged in bringing the country under one dominion, a feat unaccomplished since the days of Dutugemunu. Perturbed at the machinations of Sugala Devi, he ordered two of his generals, Damiladhikari Rakkha and Kacukinayaka Rakkha, to traverse to Ruhuna and subjugate her. The mission took years, and it threatened to drain the country’s resources. Yet in the end, the king triumphed.
Codrington speculated that Kacukinayaka Rakkha proceeded to Devanagama, or Dondra, after suffering defeat at Mahavalukagama, or Weligama. From there he and his army made their way through Kammaragama (Kamburugama), Mahapanalagama, Manakapithi, the ford of the Nilwala River, and Kadalipathi. Damiladhikari Rakkha, on the other hand, had taken the route from Ratnapura: Codrington wrote that he may have gone through the mountains between Rakwana and Deniyaya, or the mountains of the Kolonne Korale on the outskirts of the Ratnapura District. Either way, he reached Koggala, and from there to Magama, where he waged a series of battles after which, finally, he won the war.
As they marched through Ratnapura, Damiladhikari’s troops captured the villages of Donivagga (Denawaka) and Navayojana (Nawadun). From there we are told they advanced to Kalagiribanda, or Kalugalbodarata, encompassing the Kukul, Atakalan, Kolonna, and Morawaka Korales; from there, to the Atakalan Korale, Dandava between Kahawatte and Opanayake, Tambagamuwa near Madampe, Bogahawela, Binnegama, and finally Butkanda. Nawadun, roughly the Nawadun Korale of today, hence became the army’s first priority; so impossible to claim did it become that the army despaired of it as “hard to pass through.” During the civil war Parakramabahu had waged with Manabharana, he set about taking the region from Manabharana’s forces, and eventually succeeded in doing so.
The writing of the Tripitakaya precedes Parakramabahu, Manabharana, and Sugala Devi by several centuries. It was in Nawadun that the first puskola poth on which it would be written were made. Two kilometres before Raddella, you stop by the village of Karangoda, which reputedly got its name from the word given to the remnants of ola leaves after they’ve been used to make books. Here, at a temple less well heard of than anything Parakramabahu built and came up with, the first talipot books were put together for the Fourth Buddhist Council. Thus the region from Elapatha to Raddella is linked to two of the most important events in our history: the unification of the Sangha by Vatta Gamini Abhaya, and the unification of the polity by Parakramabahu I a thousand years later.
After Vatta Gamini Abhaya suffered defeat at the hands of a South Indian dynasty, he and a group of his most faithful followers retreated from the capital, Anuradhapura. Among them was a monk, Kushikkala Tissa; he would settle in Karangoda with his disciples and several other refugees from the war torn capital. The village of Weragama is not too far away, and there a sentry by the name of Bodhinayake, who befitting his title had been in charge of the Sri Maha Bodhiya, founded a settlement of his own, giving it its present-day name. Those who hail from the Bodhinayake line, according to local sources, continue to reside in the area. Its history, and the history of the sangha parapura from Kushikkala Tissa, has a great deal to do with that temple in Karangoda: the Potgul Viharaya.
Locals call Potgula the second Sri Pada. There’s no real resemblance: the association with the latter comes off mainly in the fact that locals, and even those passing by the area, tend to pay their respects to it before making their way to the Holy Peak. Not unlike the maha giri dambe at Sri Pada there’s a series of steps – 460 according to a pamphlet issued at the temple, 469 according to Explore Sri Lanka – to ascend before reaching the viharaya. The climb stiffens the limbs, though shorter than Dambulla. Yet despite its reputation, not many seem to have heard of it: an anomaly that proves to be more curious when you consider its history is tied, inextricably, to the history of the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka.
A. H. Mirando has written of the emergence of Ganinnanses or lay monks, comparable to the Achars of Cambodia, in Kandy in the 17th and 18th centuries. With vast sections of land coming into their possession, he observes, they remained priests in name only, contravening the rules of Vinaya and getting involved in the affairs of the laity. Owing to their persecution by the tempestuous Sitawaka Rajasinghe, many Buddhist monks fled to Kotte, contributing to the disintegration of the Sangha in the upcountry further. Dutch and British annexation of the littoral regions distanced the Kandyan priesthood from low country monks, compelling the latter to seek favours from colonial officials.
The descendants of Kushikkala Tissa had made Potgula their sanctuary, and despite the moral decline of the Ganinnanses, the sangha parapura flourished. We next hear of a Chief Incumbent whose contribution to the revival of Buddhism has been as scantily noticed as the historical significance of the Potgul Viharaya itself: Vehalle Sri Dhamadinna. Together with Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti, the last non-Govigama monk to be initiated into the Siyam Nikaya, Dhamadinna began a campaign to breathe new life to the order and the doctrine in the Maritime Provinces. The two of them had been ordained by Kadurupokune Navaratne Buddharakkitha, who resided in Tissamaharama and became one of two monks initiating a generation of reformists to the priesthood; the other, Suriyagoda Kitsirigoda, Rajaguru and Dhammanusasaka of Narendrasinghe, would ordain Velivita Saranankara.
In 1753 when the upasampadawa was finally established under Kirti Sri Rajasinghe and Buddharakkitha’s students underwent the ceremony to symbolise the beginning of the new chapter, Dhammadinna, who took part in it with 22 Ganinnanses from Sabaragamuwa and 20 Ganinnanses from Matara, would have been 74; if so he was 97 when he passed away in 1776. Together with Malimbada Dhammadara and Kumburupitiye Gunaratne, he formed a trio of low country monks who, after Saranankara’s demise, were placed in charge of the Shrine at the Sri Pada. This proved to be a source of contention once they came to hold two offices – Chief Monk of the low country and the Shrine – following the separation of those offices after Kamburupitiye Gunaratne’s passing away in 1779.
Far, far away, 12 kilometres from Raddella, the Sumana Saman Devalaya continues to occupy a preeminent place in the Sabaragamuwa Province. 13 kilometres away in Kuruwita, the Delgamuwa Viharaya, a quiet, empty, yet still hallowed reflection of its past, links the entire region to the patronage of Buddhism. It was to Delgamuwa that Mayadunne moved the Tooth Relic in the early 16th century. Faced with the threat of destruction at the hands of Portuguese marauders and proselytisers in Kotte, it remained hidden beneath a kurahan gala in Delgamuwa for 43 years. Around it an entire culture and way of life came into being: Sabaragamuwa natum, instituted for the perahera of the Relic, and angampora, instituted for the protection of the Relic from thieves, spies, and proselytisers.
Tourists and devotees flock by the hundreds to the Saman Devalaya, yet few, if any, seem to visit Delgamuwa. The road to it is narrow, empty, and quiet: house after house line up along the way, reminding you more of a suburb than a religious site.
Potgula endures the same fate, though more pilgrims make their way there. There, at the viharaya after climbing the 40 or so steps, you come across a well full of holy water – and plastic cups to drink it with, used and reused by devotees and visitors – as well as a stupa, a watering hole, a swarm of wasps said to be descendants of the sentries who had guarded the temple, and a long, winding, though enclosed tunnel which some believe goes up to the Ehelepola Walawwa in Ratnapura town. Regarding the latter, no one really knows where it ends: a local told me someone tried to test the Ehelepola Walawwa thesis and lost his way, never to be found again. Vatta Gamini Abhaya apparently hid himself here, though locals dispute it: according to them, given his contribution to Buddhism, temples everywhere went on claiming that he and his family sought shelter in them.
Living next to these edifices, genuflecting to them, but also dispelling them of the myths surrounding them, are the people of Ratnapura. At least one local I met took me by surprise with his candour. Unlike the people of the South who tend to accept unconditionally the folklore their societies are rooted in, their counterparts here who I met didn’t seem to buy the Orientalist aura visitors conjure up about their surroundings.
Modernity in the Western, cosmetic sense has obviously arrived, and you see it in patches everywhere. The old cohabits with the new. Thus family bonds are reinforced and adhered to, while the lucrative occupations – not just gem mining but also textiles, groceries, and the law – are breaking them apart. Religiosity exists with rationalism: one generation follows the myths of popular Buddhism, while the other spurns them. And of course, there’s the dialect. Osmund Jayaratne, canvassing for the LSSP here, was once offered a maluwa. Expecting fish, he was astonished at being handed a completely vegetarian lunch: “Maluwa,” he was told, “can include anything with rice in it.” Things have in one sense changed from then – a period of half a century – yet in another, they have not: I too could barely conceal my astonishment when, expecting fish, I was handed a maluwa full of anything but fish.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
IDIOMS: Befriend Languages and Communities
‘Idioms are the distilled wisdom of a community’
By K. A. I. Kalyanaratne
Consultant – Publications
Postgraduate Institute of Management
University of Sri Jayewardenepura
Vice President, Hela Havula
While being locked down with the rising high tide of the recent COVID-19 gush in the country, I kept on reading as there was nothing much to do to spend the spare time. This was of course in addition to my legitimate work of the office. In my ponderings while reading I came across a phrase which said “a bad apple would spoil all the apples that surround it”. It struck me that a bad apple would be like someone who would act irresponsibly, without caring a tuppence for the incessant publicity given by the authorities as to how we should behave and act hygienically. In fact, these practices have taken near-mandatory status, as they are that important in our struggle to bring new-normalcy to the society. It is a must that one should get acclimatized to ward off the threat of the current pandemic. Is it that necessity knows no law?
I was imagining what would happen if there’s one rotten apple inside a basket of apples. This picture will help you to convince that a bad apple is someone who creates problems or trouble, or exerts a bad influence on the other people in a group. Herein I was pondering as to how COVID-19 has been capable of bringing back to normalcy certain words and phrases in our attempt to create new normalcy!
Becoming Curiouser and Curiouser to Know More About Idioms
It is but natural that when you come across a peculiar word or phrase, obviously, you become curious to find out more about it. So I accessed the sources at hand, and that search gave me the clue, that ‘a bad apple’ is an idiom. This is how I began to dip my pen to write this short essay. As I became curiouser and curiouser to know more about idioms I searched in every possible nook and cranny to first find how the word ‘idiom’ crept into the English vocabulary. The English language is full of idioms. My university teacher Dr. George Thambaiyapillai, climatologist, writing his research findings on rainfall in Ceylon commenced his monograph with the sentence ‘In Ceylon it never rains but it pours”. I was then wondering whether what he meant by this phrase was the ferocity of the downpour we experience, especially our monsoonal and inter-monsoon tropical thunderstorm weather. However, I little knew then that it’s an idiom he has used to connote a deeper meaning. Now I know that in modern English this is an idiom which means that a series of events, and especially misfortunes never come singly. The Proverb Hunter website elucidates this idiom with an apt episode,
‘What a day it’s been’, sighed Mrs Wood. ‘First, I burnt out the kettle, then the electricity fused, then Mrs Mopp didn’t arrive, then the butcher didn’t deliver the meat in time for lunch, then the doctor called and said Tommy’s got measles. It was one thing after another. They say it never rains but it pours.’
Origins of Idioms – Covered with a Haze Dust
No one has so far been certain as to how ‘Idioms’ entered the English language. It is guesstimated that the origin of idioms goes back to the 14th century. Those who have researched say that the idiom ‘nook and cranny’ had come into usage after the two words first appeared from mid-1300s and 1450s respectively. While ‘nook’ had been used to connote ‘a distant corner’. ‘cranny’ had meant ‘a crack or gap’. It thus becomes pretty obvious that the particular idiom came into being after 1450s.
As we know English is a ‘mixed up bowl’ or a ‘mixed bowl’, and the word ‘idiom’ had got mixed up in this bowl from the French word ‘idiome’, which had been again borrowed from late Latin ‘idioma’, which had again been a word loaned from Greek ‘idiome’, which meant ‘peculiarity, peculiar phraseology’. Fowler, the famous lexicographer writes that “A manifestation of the peculiar” is “the closest possible translation of the Greek word” idiome. He further says that idioms are sometimes treated as ungrammatical. It is normally said that ‘borrowed things will never shine’. But whatever said and done, after the word got into the English-bowl, idioms are ‘shining like nothing’.
Idioms Bemuse All Measures of Grammatical Classification
It is found to be a common trait in any structured language that those who are familiar with that language know at a glance to which part of a speech a word belongs. It is also a common trait in many languages that some words can belong to two or more parts of speech. However, there is a category of words which cannot be readily understood or brought under any part of speech. Their meanings can only be construed through the common usage of years or centuries, for that matter. Such a category of words (or phrases) that bemuses all linguists and grammarians are the so called idioms. Idioms, thus have not only bemused them, but have also brought haziness that challenges all the rules that classify and define the parts of speech.
Idioms as Seen by Sinhala Grammarians
Idioms are common to all communities as they are offshoots or spinoffs (upstarts?) of their total communication process. In the Sinhala language idioms are referred to as ‘prastha pirulu’. (in the spoken dialect ‘pirula’ has been changed to ‘piruvata’. In a verse composed by Veedagama Thero ‘pirula’ appears in a poem starting with ‘Pirulen aragath abarana mangulata’ which means ‘jewellery borrowed/loaned for the ceremony’. Hence, the word ‘Pirula’ means borrowed or loaned. The Pujavaliya of the Dambadeniya period had used ‘pirula’ in the transformed form ‘piruvata’. ‘Prastha pirulu’, therefore, connote words/phrases that are borrowed/loaned for the occasion. ‘Sinhala grammarian, linguist, writer and poet, the late Raphael Tennekoon, explaining Sinhala idioms in his ‘Honda Sinhala’ says that idioms of the language could be categorized under upama and bevahara:
‘upama’ (Similes) are those words used by learned people of the past, to elucidate or to explain some phenomenon and to make it clear and easy to understand. ‘uru thudehi datha thebuwa se’ is an example cited for a simile by Tennekoon. A pig could dig into the soil with its long snout that is strengthened by a prenasal bone and by a disc of cartilage at the tip. The simile says that ‘placing a tooth in the pig’s snout’ would make its digging much easier.
‘bevahara’ (Vyavahara/Usages) are traditional or popular sayings that have been passed down through ages. These are also rendered into English as ‘proverbs’. For a proverb or a traditional usage Tennekoon refers to the famous saying ‘inguru deela miris gaththa vagei’. which means ‘an injudicious exchange; that is about ditching one invader for another. According to Tennekoon a usage or proverb (bevahara) differs from a simile (upama) as the former derives its origin from a previous event or incident. The idiom referred to above is a well-known saying in the Sinhala language, the origin of which is King Rajasinghe II, in 1656, seeking help of the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese from the coastal areas. It’s an important revelation as a majority of the students and teachers wouldn’t know this difference, and they put everything in one basket.
Logicality and Rationality of Idioms
A deep study of both these categories of idioms would reveal that although the origins of a majority of them are shrouded in mystery, they are, nevertheless, extremely logical and rational. They stand to reason, giving the indication that whosoever had originated these sayings they could, for certain, be men of standing in society. Take for instance the old Arab proverb ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. There’s a similar saying in Sinhala which says ‘Hathurage hathura mithurayi’. Look at this Tamil idiom ‘Aadu nanayuthendru Onai Aluthathu’ which says ‘Wolf crying that sheep are getting wet’. A marvelous gesture from a good-mannered and sympathetic wolf, out of all the other animals! Sheep are said to be eternal prey of wolves. See how rational it is to advise someone to ‘Put on your thinking cap’. If you tell someone to put their thinking cap on, you ask him/her to find an idea or solve a problem by thinking about it. It is certain that Edward de Bono’s concepts of Six Thinking Hats, had its origin in this idiom. Instead of one thinking cap de Bono has twisted it to say Six Thinking Hats. De Bono introduced the concept of using six different coloured hats, so participants can use it for thinking logically as well as creatively to generate and assess innovative and different ideas.
Idioms Build Bridges Across Communities
A comparative study of idioms also unearth several hidden facts, which indicate that amidst the differences that exist among communities there’s a common chord that binds humanity across all the man-made barriers. It is, therefore, heartening to expose such similarities as they, more often, reveal that humans are a single species, although socio-cultural and political factors have kept them apart. The following tabulation clearly shows that irrespective of the differences in the communities they either use almost the same or different expressions to convey similar sentiments/ideas.
Sinhala, Tamil, English
Kimbul kandulu helanava (shedding crocodile tears) Mudalai kanneer (shedding crocodile tears) shed crocodile tears (To display hypocritical sadness) Linde inna mediya vage (like a frog in the well)
(in Sanskrit) Kinatruth thvalai (frog in the well) A frog in the well (an individual who cannot or refuses to see the big picture) Betalu hama poravagath wrukaya veni (an insincere pretender) Aadu nanayuthendru onai aluthathu (wolf crying that sheep are getting wet) A wolf in sheep’s clothing
(those playing a role contrary to their real character Poth gulla (book mite/weevil) Puthagam puzhu (Book worm) Book worm (a person reading/ studying more than usual) Have nose in a book (people who always seem to be reading) Gal hithak (stony heart/mind) Kurangu pidy (Monkey grip / stubbornness) Stubborn as a mule (intractable/ refractory) Hulangata desana karannakmen (like preaching to the wind/ a futile act) Eeyotudal (chasing flies away* no occupation) A futile act Pouring water off a duck’s back (a futile act as water doesn’t retain on a duck’s back)
Humour in Idioms
Irrespective of what the language is, a close study of idioms would reveal they have been coined by master-craftsmen, who are both witty and humourous. In this background it becomes pretty obvious that quite a number of idioms are bent on sarcasm as well. As most idioms are products of communities who had enough time to enjoy life idioms reflect that most of their sayings were either witty, humourous, sarcastic or punchy.
If you look closely at the literal meanings of most idioms, you will realize that they are often downright hilarious. Here is a compilation of some such humerous idioms found in Sinhala and English.
Labba degawwayi labu wela gawwayi
– while the pumpkin-creeper is only a gavva away, the pumpkin is two gavvas away. A ‘gavva’ is said to be a league in Sinhala which is taken as a distance of three and a quarter miles.
This idiom is similar to ‘a bridge too far’ in English – a goal or plan which is too far.
Do a Devon Loch –
is an idiom which says a person giving up half way when everybody expects him to succeed. Devon Loch was a racehorse that collapsed just short of the winning line of the 1956 Grand National race in the United Kingdom.
‘Theetam tinunne pattiku ariyamo oochinde mannam’ is a Malayali idiom which says ‘the dog that eats shit cannot smell a fart’. How similar is the Sinhala idiom which says ‘urulevata uge ganda therenne ne’. It means a civet-cat cannot smell its own smell (odour).
Idioms – A Veritable Palimpsest of a Community
While planning to conclude this short essay with a punchy note, it stuck me that I had come across a very rarely used phrase, ‘a veritable palimpsest’; a phrase which could be used only in very special circumstances related to subjects like geology, topography, architecture or inscriptions where evidence is found of superimpositions on effaced earlier features. They, in fact, still bear the evidence of original surfaces. Based on this premise I strongly think that idioms are ‘veritable palimpsests’, that still show so many facets of a community out of which these had emerged. They either reflect beliefs, virtues, and even habits, behaviours and human relationships built on moral, principles and respect of a community. Moral is related to the standards of what is right or just in behaviour. Or as rightly exposed by Raphael Tennekoon, erudite scholar, many idiom are off-shoots of historical incidents/events. So a ‘veritable palimpsest’ itself is an idiom that could be used on very special occasions as spelt out above.
‘Puhul hora Karin denai’, –
The pumpkin-thief is seen by his shoulder’
‘Raigamayata Gampolaya ekvuna veniyi’,
– Similar to meeting of Raigamaya with Gampolaya.
‘Kana kiri pata keeva se’
– like the blind person told the colour of milk’
‘Straight from the horse’s mouth’
which means getting information from the most reliable source, is said to come from the 1900s, when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth.
Why We Need to Study Idioms in a Language
Every developed language is rich in idioms. Although it is possible to converse correctly in non-idiomatic language, anyone with only a superficial knowledge of that particular language will find himself/herself at a serious disadvantage in his/her reading, and even more so, when he/she takes part in discussions and other means of communication.
Although cultural variables would make differences in the settings or use of words, all idioms help stress particular points. Therefore, cultivating familiarity with and using them often, even a foreigner would sound more like a native, and can also boost his comprehension skills. By now you would have been sufficiently convinced that idioms are a fun subject that will, for certain, help making one’s communication descriptive, colourful, creative, lively, interesting, exciting and at times concise/precise as well. Idioms have, thus, enriched every language. The more one uses idioms in his/her communication, the more he/she becomes closer to a native speaker.
Idioms are Distilled Wisdom of a Community
An idiom is an everyday figure of speech or metaphorical expression whose meaning cannot be taken literary. They often go against the logical “rules of language and grammar” despite being commonly used by the language’s native speakers.
Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1940-1945) who had not stepped into a university in pursuit of higher education, once said that eighty percent of his education had been through the study of idioms. In fact, he referred to idioms as “Distilled Wisdom” of a community.
The writer can be reached on email@example.com
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