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Living with forged sense of uniqueness

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Dr. Sarath Gamini de Silva’s article “Early education towards racial harmony” appearing in The Island of 3rd February (Midweek Review) contains commendable ideas towards eschewing socially acquired and divisive identities of race and religion. It begins describing how a baby, who is born with no ‘identities’ attached to her, gradually gets ‘labelled’ by family members, according to the ‘identification process’ of their culture. Thus, as the child grows, up, she gradually begins to define herself on the basis of the ‘stickers’ stamped on her.

Many have worked towards promoting ethnic harmony but few have attempted to look at the issue in more fundamental ways. Decades ago, Dr. E.W. Adikram, a free thinker and promoter of nonviolence, rejected ‘ethnicity’ offhand as a social construct.

In his article, “Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?” Adikaram argues how a child acquires a sense of racial identity through an unshakable process of conditioning. He says:

As that child, who is common to the entire human race grows up, he will be given a name and will be deemed to belong to a particular race or nationality. That child who… cannot discern fact from non-fact … accepts unthinkingly and unknowingly the nationality that has been thrust upon him. Having accepted it, he gradually comes to believe that he belongs to that particular nationality.

What he underlines is the subjection of a child to a tagging process whereby she is given a sense of belonging in a community of people who have been subjected to the same process as children. This is a multifaceted conditioning programme in which the child’s first language becomes the principal apparatus through which she constructs her identity, the ‘building blocks’ of which are as varied as family environment, customs, habits, beliefs, education, value systems and many other social and cultural factors, including religion. However, since all these formative experiences are laced through her first language, it becomes the principal marker of her identity. Thus a child born to Sinhala-speaking parents and subsequently adopted by Tamil-speaking ‘parents’ would identify herself as a Tamil, her first language being Tamil. Thus her intuitive identity or, ‘gut-feeling’ identity of herself, would be Tamil. Accordingly, as a grown-up, she may vigorously fight for Tamil rights!

Now, how can society label her? Is she Tamil or Sinhalese? Does she have a ‘real’ ethnic identity and if so what is it? If she ever gets to know that her biological parents were Sinhala speaking, what factors would influence her to decide whether she should:

 

  • continue to fight for Tamil rights
  • stop fighting but remain with her Tamil speaking parents
  • go back to her biological parents (Sinhala speaking)
  • go back to her biological parents and join a group fighting for Sinhala rights
  • begin to work towards ethnic harmony while living with either of the two families

The above are some of the likely options. In fact, we can only speculate but her final decision would be made through a complex process involving a subconscious process of sifting diverse factors such as her emotions, age, her level of intelligence, education, pressure from peers, the strength of her family bonds, etc. One thing we can be sure of is that the unexpected ‘discovery’ would enable her to become much more contemplative and complex with respect to her hitherto fixed notions of ‘ethnic identity.’ No matter whatever decision she may take, the ‘finding’ would jolt her to question her entrenched perceptions of ethnicity at a deeply personal level. Her situation will demonstrate the wobbly nature of what we take to be our ethnic identity. Who can give a conclusive answer to what she should do – which family should she live with?

Those who would advise her to join the Sinhala-speaking family may argue that she has ‘Sinhala blood’ and consequently, she is Sinhala. In opposition, those who would recommend the other option would contend that she is Tamil in every imaginable way – to herself and to the whole world, except for the “four parents” who were privy to the secret. Of course a DNA test would establish her link with her biological parents. However, shorn of the social context, wouldn’t the biological proof be the least important for her to make up her mind regarding who she should live with after the unsettling event? Undeniably, her future relations with either family would significantly depend on her shifting emotional undercurrents combined with multiple sociocultural and even economic factors relevant in the context- surely, not the DNA factor taken in isolation.

It is true that various well-intentioned groups try to promote peace in multicultural societies. While it would be worthwhile to push for campaigns directed towards ‘ethnic harmony,’ we may take a moment to ask ourselves whether our ‘ethnic identity’ is something intrinsic in a physical sense. Is it situated in any part of our body, or, alternatively, is it the inevitable result of our being socially programmed? Would the child in the above example have ever felt at any point in her life that she wouldn’t belong to the family in which she grew up? By the way, how many of us have asked ourselves whether the two people who we have known in all our life as mother and father are our biological parents? How far would the establishment of this biological link through a DNA test change your relations with them, one way or the other? Consider this hypothetical situation. If two babies born around the same time were swapped without the knowledge of their mothers speaking two different languages, would the babies subsequently develop an instinctive dislike for their ‘parents,’ which could be traced to their genetic discrepancy?

Is it worth living this elusive ‘reality’ at the price of recurrent conflicts sometimes leading to mutual destruction, while trying to move heaven and earth in an attempt to ‘solve’ what are smugly labelled as ‘ethnic conflicts?’ May it not be possible for us to see that this fluid notion of ‘ethnicity,’ has constantly proved to be a needless blinker and not something that would foster our collective happiness? Isn’t the genetic factor the weakest ‘rationale’ in the entire game of perpetuating the notion of ‘ethnic difference?’ Isn’t it time we brought the concept of ‘ethnicity’ under the pressure of rational discussion, if we really wish to rid the world of at least one of its societal blights.

Diversity may be beautiful, but not all are lucky enough to appreciate it. Just think of animals. Hare and deer, being at the bottom of the food pyramid, would not obviously have the peace of mind to enjoy the diversity of nature to the degree a lion or a tiger would. When it comes to cultural diversity, you may enjoy it cosily seated in an air-conditioned theatre watching culture appearing in its more urbane forms like music and dancing- but not when it bares its fangs insidiously moulded by indoctrination. Culture may not always have a smiley face, but many of us would be shy of admitting it.

The following assertion made by the American anthropologist, Donald Symons, throws light on how ‘culture’ may give an aura of legitimacy to blatant acts of cruelty:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade….the only question would be how severely that person should be punished… but where millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ‘culture’ and magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible…

The labelling process, which may pass as a completely normal and innocuous practice within the framework of culture, may entail equally appalling consequences.

 

Susantha Hewa



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Opinion

Alan Henricus- A Stalwart Sportsman Of Yesteryear Passes Away

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Alan Henricus (10-Feb 1933 – 26 Nov 2022)

by Hugh Karunanayake

Alan Henricus the youngest of five outstanding sporting brothers who represented their school Royal College, and their country then known as Ceylon, passed away a few days ago. He would have been 90 years of age if he survived up to his birthday in February next year.

The Henricus brothers grew up in Kohuwela where their father a former Feather Weight Boxing Champion of Ceylon lived. He served as an administrator of the sport first as Hony Secretary of the Amateur Boxing Association of Ceylon and later as its President. He helped build the Baptist Church in Nugegoda and was its Treasurer for 25 years. The road leading to their property was named Henricus Mawatha in honour of this outstanding family.

Alan represented Royal in Boxing, Athletics and Rugby, and won school colours in all three sports. He was also a school prefect, highly respected and regarded by both his schoolmates and staff. The family consisting of five brothers and two sisters were all nurtured in the best sporting traditions of colonial Ceylon. Eldest brother Barney represented Ceylon in boxing at the Empire Games and won a gold medal winning the feather weight title. The next, Basil, held the national record for 100 yards sprint and I believe his record still stands. He also represented the Havelocks Sports Club and All Ceylon at Rugby. The next brother George, for many years the Master Attendant in the Colombo Port was also a champion boxer, as was Derrick the fourth in line.

Remarkable sportsmen such as Alan reached their great heights from a base of raw innate talent fostered by regular training and a disciplined approach to life. When I was a 10-year old schoolboy I used to watch with awe and admiration Alan doing his training run at 6 a.m in the morning, jogging all the way from his home in Kohuwela to the Havelock Park and back on most weekends. Alan was senior to me in school by about three years and in those days that was an age gap filled with respect and admiration for a senior student. To us younger kids the high achieving Alan was a hero.

I recall in one Public Schools Athletics meet for the Tarbat Cup, either in 1950 or 1951,Royal College was able to obtain a total of 15 points only, and were never serious contenders for the trophy. However the 15 points that Royal earned was almost single handedly collected through Alan’s efforts. He won the pole vault event, was first in the 120 metres hurdles, and was a member of the 4 X 400 metre relay team which won the event. Although the Tarbat Cup was won by another school, the assembled gathering of Royalists carried Alan shoulder high around the grounds!

From school he was selected for training as a Naval officer cadet in Dartmouth in Devonshire in England. Fellow Royalists the late Norman Gunawardena, and Humphrey Wijesinghe were among the cadets who were selected for Dartmouth together with Alan. On returning to Ceylon after his naval training at Dartmouth, he served the Royal Ceylon Navy and its successor Sri Lanka Navy for several years until retirement. On retirement from the Navy he served for a short period as an Executive in a Mercantile firm in Colombo, before migrating with his family to Australia.

The stint at Dartmouth would carry many precious memories for him, as that was where he met Maureen the love of his life. On migrating to Australia in the 1970s Alan joined the Royal Australian Navy which he served with distinction as Lieut Commander. On my migrating to Australia in 1984 I met Alan and Maureen at a Sunday luncheon hosted by the late Brendon Goonratne. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and Alan and Maureen remained very close friends of ours.

Over the years we used to meet every three months at lunch at the Rosehill Bowling Club organized for old Royalist Seniors through the initiative of Chandra Senaratne. Other social engagements over the years have strengthened our friendship, and it is with deep distress that I heard of his terminal illness about two months ago. I rang him immediately and he was stoic as ever, the brave naval officer that he was. He said in no uncertain terms that he was not seeking to extend his life on this earth, and that he would wait in his home until the final call.

Alan’s departure marks another severance with the old Ceylon we knew, and its traditions and honorable ways. The Last Post will be played at his funeral at the Baptist Church, Epping on Friday December 2 at 3pm. He is survived by his dear wife Maureen, sons Andrew and Richard,, daughter in law Caroline, and grandson Ryan.

“The song is ended but the melody lingers on “

Farewell dear Alan.

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Opinion

Controversy Over Female Teachers’ Dress To School

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Our country and its people always get involved with unnecessary things which is of no interest to the majority of people. The latest debate in this never -a -dull -moment country (as always for the wrong reason) is the dress the female teachers are expected to wear to school. This is something that should be decided by the Ministry of Education in respect of the teachers of government schools.

I recollect when we were students the majority of female teachers wore saree to school. Then there were several teachers who wore frocks. These were the Burgher ladies. And there was no problem at all. I am not indicating this to show support that the teachers should be left to decide on their dress.

Now the strange thing about this controversy is that Buddhist monks have got involved in the debate and they are trying to determine the dress that teachers should wear. They do not seem to realize that the teachers must pay for the sarees. And they need to possess several sarees as they cannot wear the same saree over and over again. Given the monks get their robes free from the dayakayas, they should never get involved in matters of this nature, even though the female nurses may be happy to have one as the president of their union!

This controversy, if settled in favour of the teachers being given the option to decide on the dress and if they wear various types of dresses, the students too might get a bright idea to wear anything they want rather than the uniform that they have to wear at present.

It might be a good thing if the Ministry of Education could decide on a uniform for female teachers in Government schools. Some private hospitals, private firms and Sri Lankan Airlines have uniforms of their own and one could identify them easily. If there is such a uniform in saree and blouse for teachers in government schools, everybody outside too would be able to identify them as teachers and give the respect due to them.

However, this is not the time to worry about dress for teachers when there are children who do not get a proper education and suffer from malnutrition. It seems our rulers always get their priorities wrong, and this always affects the country and the people adversely. First, the teachers must do their job properly so that the schoolchildren do not have to attend tuition classes. We hear that sometimes only one teacher is available, and as a result the children keep away from attending school.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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Opinion

Dr Shafi’s daughter

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Just read on WhatsApp about the daughter of  famous Dr. Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi. I do not like to even mention why he became famous or infamous. His daughter after several years of rejection and trauma has passed GCE (OL) examination with Eight As.

The persons who generated disaster to an innocent family used it to gain positions as President, Ministers and MPs. Teachers and student friends of Dr Shafi’s children too insulted and rejected them as dirt. Has anyone of  these people apologized to this family for their suffering?

B Perera

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