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Midweek Review

Vision for a Holistic Education

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Closer Connections among Different Branches of Human Knowledge:

by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

(A shortened version of a plenary speech given by Prof. Amarakeerthi at the International Conference of Sabaragamuwa University, Sri Lanka, on 03 December)

Every year I teach a course in aesthetics and non-linguistic arts. In that, I discuss what we ‘get’ from visual art works such as painting. One of the difficulties I constantly have is to explain to my students what they gain from looking at a painting, watching a dance performance, or listening to a piece of music.

Getting something out of art is a tricky business. Visual arts appeal to our eyes and through that sensory agent, a painting creates a certain aesthetic effect on us. Alexander Baumgarten, the first philosopher to open up the field what is now called “aesthetics”, thought that human beings gain a certain knowledge of themselves and the world through aesthetic objects. That knowledge is, he argued, acquired through our senses, eyes, ear, skin, tongue. This bodily perception he thought is inferior to rational knowledge. For him, only the rational mind can produce superior knowledge. In his book, Aesthetica (1750), he famously said, ” Aesthetics is the sister of logic.” One can easily see the Cartesian separation of mind and body here. Descartes’ has it that, “I think, therefore I am.” Here think means, logical thinking, the activity of the mind. But the ‘aesthetic cognition’ of Baumgarten was about bodily perception, about what we feel with our senses. Descartes or card-carrying Cartesians would never say, “I feel, therefore, I am.”

In the Western discussions about knowledge after Descartes, a tragic separation of the rational mind and emotional body takes place and it has continued to exist and widen despite numerous attempts to bridge it. My speech today is about creating points of contact across this divide. This is not a new theme in the scholarly discussions, of course, but in Sri Lanka this requires much more attention.

Professor Antonio Damasio has demonstrated in his excellent book, Descartes’ Error, maintains that the mind/body separation was a mistake made in the rationalist tradition. According to him, rational thoughts and emotions nurture and supplement each other. In fact, it is in the fertile ground of emotions that rational thought achieves its richest form. Damasio claims in the fields of neuroscience and biochemistry emotions have been given the due place they disserve: “Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as percepts”(xxv). After all, it might not all that wrong to call, ” I feel, therefore, I am.”

Taking cue from scientists

Taking a cue from scientists like Damasio, I think that these new developments in natural sciences can be wisely used to create a new dialogue between sciences and the humanities, the latter being often regarded as fields that deal with human emotions.

In a striking paragraph in their Primordial Bond, Stephen Schneider and Lynn Morton state,

“Along with the attempt to separate himself from Nature, man has also separated himself from his fellow man. We have subdivided ourselves into groups: professions, nationalities, religions, sexes, and even intellectual sectors like artists and scientists”(1981, 21).

Separations of this kind might be somewhat conceptual in the West, here, in Sri Lanka, the separation is physical, social, and even political. It is physical in the sense that those of us who are in these separate subject areas are physically distanced from each other as exemplified in the way different faculties are separated at the best-planned university, Peradeniya. The separation is social because those who have the expertise in different subjects are hierarchically organized – doctors at the top and others are bellow at different degrees. At least in the public imagination, this is usually the case. That separation is political in the sense powerful trade unions of doctors to continue to the get the lion’s share from the country economy. Remember, those were the ones who go the lion’s share of the country’s education in the first place.

This kind of intellectual or cultural attitudes are absent, at least in a crude form like the above, in countries where the idea of liberal arts has persisted for centuries. A typical liberal arts curriculum includes natural sciences, mathematics, history, literature, economics, languages, fine arts and so on. All these subjects are taught all the way up the university entrance level. At the university, students are required to take humanities and social science courses no matter what subject they are going to major in. For example, to get into the medical school, one has to pass some pre-med courses which typically include the following: Biology, biochemistry, calculus, ethics, psychology, sociology, statistics, genetics, humanities, public health, and human physiology.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I have met pre-med students and students from the School of Engineering, and the Business School taking courses in literature, drama and philosophy at the school of Arts and Sciences.

Even this long tradition of liberal arts in such powerful countries has been under threat in recent times. But when that happens over there, numerous educationists come forward to defend that concept of holistic education. One such scholar, Mark William Roche wrote an excellent book, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? when the idea of holistic education came under attack nearly decade ago. Let me quote a paragraph that might resonate with all of you: “Liberal arts students are encouraged to develop not only an awareness of knowledge intrinsic to their major but a recognition of what that discipline’s position within the larger mosaic of knowledge. The college or university citizen invested in the search for not only specialized knowledge but also the relation of the diverse parts of knowledge to one another. To be liberally educated involves knowing the relative position of the little one knows within the whole knowledge. Mathematics helps us see the basic structures and complex patterns of the universe, and the sciences help us understand and analyze the laws that animate the natural world, the inner world, and the social world. History opens a window onto the development of the natural and social world. The intellectual fruits of arts and literature, the wisdom of religion, and the ultimate questions of philosophy illuminate for us the world as it should be. In essence, the arts and sciences explore the world as it is and the world as it should be (pp. 21-2).

A rethink needed

In Sri Lanka too, it is time for us to reconsider the separation of various branches of knowledge and to imagine the ways by which we can reconnect- most rewarding ways to reconnect. Regular discussions with some of my colleagues in natural sciences at Peradeniya, and engineering have convinced me that there are so many intelligent and creative people on the other side of the divide, eagerly waiting to hold on to a friendly hand extended from our side.

This does not mean that the disciplinary hierarchies within the world of education have suddenly fallen down, and all have become equals. That is hardly the case. The subordination of all other subjects to natural sciences still continues. Publishing industry, funding mechanisms, ranking systems, the methods of rewarding scholars are more or less dominated by the scientific way of thinking. Scientism, that is elevating science to an object of worship, is also visible.

But still it is worthwhile for those of us in the humanities to engage in discussions at least with some branches of natural science. In fact, I think that, as a first step towards initiating this dialogue, everyone enters the faculties of arts should be provided with opportunities to learn the basics of science. In addition, a course in philosophy of science will show them both potentials and the limits of science.

A Union of Nature and Culture

Already, in cultural studies, there is a closer dialogue between natural sciences and social sciences in the effort understand how much of our ways of being in the world owes to nature and how much can be attributed to culture, and more importantly how much of culture gets into our psyche during the course of evolution or history. The way we carry ourselves in the world has been determined by both culture and Nature. Much of human nature is in that sense both cultural and natural.

Constructivism

Cultural constructivism had a major blow after that famous Canadian experiment in 1960s failed. Let me remind you that famous case. When a Canadian baby boy being circumcised, a doctor accidentally cuts off a large part of the boy’s penis. It was the heyday of cultural constructivism and the baby’s parents and the doctors decided to remove the remaining part of the penis, and to turn the boy into a girl. The plan was to raise the child as a girl, and surgically change the penis into a vagina, and, when she comes to the age of puberty, they would give her required hormones to help her move into complete womanhood. The parents named her “Brenda.” Famous psychologist named John Money advised the doctors and parents about how culture constructs gender, and Brenda was raised as a girl. Her clothing, toys, games and so on all were the ones typically assigned to girls. But Brenda never felt at ease with any of these. She did not feel comfortable among girls. The carefully planned socialization program failed.

But the textbooks on gender difference instructed the parents that the project should succeed. John Money the psychologist did not want to admit that it was a failure because of the impact it was likely to have on his career. By the time, Brenda was going to be given hormone injections to transform her completely into a woman, she rebelled and the parents decided to tell her what really happened. Brenda gave up all her cultural identity of a woman and took a male name. Of course, he is unable to father children. He married a woman who had two children from a previous relationship and became the father to them.

Culture and socialisation

Culture and socialisation, two mechanisms, the constructivists thought could transform a boy into normal girl, failed making a huge impact on the constructivist school of thought. Our biological hardwiring and genes are so crucial in deciding who we are. The culture, society, ideology and the like are still important creating and sustaining our identities. A much finer understanding between natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities can help us get the bigger picture of being human. We might never understand the final or the most perfect picture of all realities of the humanity. One of the remarkable truths the study of genes reveals is that a minute genetic uniqueness can result in giving each of us a unique identity, and end up making us significantly different from each other. Culture and socialization can only strengthen, even overdetermine, that difference. Moreover, socialisation can make us see our shared humanity as well. One may recall here Simone de Beauvoir’s famous sentence, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. (The Second Sex).

These scientists are not suggesting at all that we should return to biological determinism to argue, contrary to de Beauvoir’s point, that all the attributes of a woman are natural and she is born with them. No. We know much of what makes a woman is socio-culturally determined. But Brenda’s case invites us to come up with much richer understanding of nature/culture divide.

What I am suggesting here is that the humanities will certainly benefit by paying closer attention to some meticulous research in natural sciences. Yet, I am no expert to use scientific knowledge in a scientific manner. Therefore, what I am saying here might be incomplete and partial. But still, these facts, I hope, that make some sense.

Amygdala, the Almond

Let me tell you about the story of Amygdala – a small segment of the human brain. In Greek, Amygdala means, ‘almond’ because it is what this particular part of the brain looks like. This small area of the brain is so crucial in determining human behavior, especially various behaviors related to aggression. We in the humanities and social sciences, often study causes of human aggression. In the field literature, we interpret aggressive behaviours looking into their social-cultural origins. We often use one person’s actions as windows into human action in general in a given social or historical contexts. I truly believe that scientific explanations about the workings of Amygdala reveals us certain realities of human life that we cannot ignore. Incorporated into our culturalist or behaviorist explanations about human affairs, these scientific revelations can deepen our understating of ourselves. Extreme naturalists too can learn one or two things from the humanities and social sciences.

Scientists have experimented with Amygdala for years using various animals in addition to human beings. When this particular portion of the brain is damaged or wounded by some scientific methods, rates of aggression in that animal significantly decline. Conversely, when the Amygdala is stimulated by implanting electrodes there, aggression of the animal increases. In humans too, scientists have found out that the functioning of amygdala is so crucial for aggressive behaviour.

Human aggression has some important pathological source, and by scientifically controlling Amygdala aggression can be controlled. In other words, surgery knife, electric shocks or injections can be more useful in suppressing riots than armies or police forces! Perhaps, that is already happening.

Robert Sapolsky discusses two cases, one from Germany and another from the US, where two perfectly normal people turning into gangsters and murderers simply because their amygdala is damaged. In the two cases, more than socio-cultural causes, the damaged amygdala was the most apparent reason for them to become what they later became. The whole story of two cases are the stuff of novels and films- things we regularly discuss in our classrooms, lecture halls and in our literary or cinematic criticism. We are more than likely to use these two cases as points of departure to embark on much larger socio-cultural analysis.

Not only aggression

Amygdala is related to many other emotions, mental traits and behaviors. Anxiety, fear, and certain phobias might have their origin in certain parts of amygdala. This part of the brain plays a crucial role in making social and emotional decisions. Even at the risk of this speech turning into a lesson in neurology, please allow me to cite some more examples.

When we accidentally chew on some rotten food, we instantly spit it out even before we could make a conscious decision of it. That is amygdala at work. A chemical reaction happens there, gets what is harmful to us out of our body. What is interesting for us is this: When see something morally disgusting such as woman being subjected to violence, the same chemical reaction takes place in amygdala and prompts us to take appropriate actions. Here amygdala and the frontal cortex of the brain work in unison to alert us about the right kind of behavior.

It is not surprising perhaps that amygdala gets activated by rotten food because it is nature’s way of protecting us from harm. But we activate amygdala when we think about morally disgusting things. Remember, when we think about them. In other words, a mental image of such a thing can still get us physically activated. Perhaps, this explains how and why literary works and films can move us into moral actions.

But there are ways this becomes complicated. These chemical reactions to disgust occur in the brain, for examples when accidentally chew on a cockroach or think about doing so. Things get still more complicated, my friends- still more complicated! Similar chemical reactions in our brain take place when we feel that a neighboring tribe, a group of people are like ‘loathsome cockroaches'(Sapolsky. Behave. 41-2). Now, you can see that neuro-chemistry in our bodies participate in our nationalism, racism and the self/other divide.

I do not want to argue here that nationalism, racism or political rivalry is all about a set of chemical-electric work within the body. I am just drawing your attention to the fact that our biochemistry has a significant role in our cultural, social and political life. No scientist, whose work I have studied so far claim that our culture, our social relations and so on are all about biochemistry. They certainly acknowledge the significance of socio-cultural contexts. In the concluding section to his monumental book, Behave, professor Sapolsky puts it four words: “Brains and cultures coevolve.” (672)

US and Them

Human beings, like some other animals, separate the world into Us and Them. This division often takes to be fundamentally cultural. Many of signs that are interpreted as US are indeed cultural. But the function of amygdala tells us something interesting. Us and Them separation may have a biological foundation. Explaining how empathy and brain are related, Sapolsky states,

“‘…Amygdala activates when viewing fearful faces, but only of in-group members; when it is an out-group member, them showing fear even might be good news — if it scares Them, bring it on”(395).

In winding up, this speech, let me repeat my main argument: The isolation of different branches of knowledge from each other has been a perennial problem in our education. Specialized knowledge is important indeed. But still there must be intense discussions among those fields because for a holistic understanding of our lives, societies, and the world can only be arrived at by attempting to create an organic whole in which each field of knowledge has a gap to fill. Where the gap is seemingly filled by one branch of knowledge, still other branches of knowledge might be able to fortify filling even further. And there may be certain gaps the humanity will never fill, and that is where we need much more engaged discussion among ourselves.

In this speech, I suggested that liberal arts model followed in the US and elsewhere, could guide us to think of model of our own to integrate various forms of knowledge. To begin this process of integration, those of us in the humanities should consider the ground-breaking new research, some of which, I have summarized above. Those of us in the natural sciences too need to learn the art of writing science in a manner that can be understood by the non-specialists.

(Amarakeerthi is professor of Sinhala at University of Peradeniya)



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Midweek Review

Post-war foreign relations: A diplomatic quagmire for Lanka

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flanked by PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chinese FM Wang Yi launch Sri Lanka China Friendship Sailing Cup at the Port City last Sunday.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Chinese Ambassador to Colombo Qi Zhenhong seems quite confident of Sri Lanka’s capacity to overcome the current economic turmoil the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is experiencing.

 The top Chinese envoy, at an informal meeting with a selected group of print media journalists on Sunday (09), soon after the departure of Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, asserted that the crisis was temporary.  Ambassador Qi Zhenhong declared that as Sri Lanka had overcome far bigger challenges the country wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the current challenge in debt servicing. The meet took place at the King Emperor Suite of the Galle Face Hotel

 Wang departed following high level political talks with the Sri Lankan leadership. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chinese FM Wang inaugurated the Sri Lanka-China Sailing Cup 2022 at the Port City to celebrate the 65th anniversary of China and Sri Lanka diplomatic relations and the 70th anniversary of the Rubber-Rice pact. Interestingly, former Premier and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP, was among the invitees. Wickremesinghe, whose government delayed the Port City project by about one and half years, sat next to Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, who returned from an official visit to Seoul the previous day.

 Is Ambassador Qi Zhenhong right in his assessment? Had there been far bigger crises in the recent past that threatened to overwhelm Sri Lanka? Perhaps Ambassador Qi Zhenhong is right in his appraisal. Maybe, he is not. Having joined the Chinese Foreign Service in 1988, Ambassador Qi Zhenhong took over the Chinese diplomatic mission in Colombo about a year ago at the height of Covid-19 eruption.

 Amidst a simmering row with the Sri Lankan government over the rejection of an allegedly contaminated Chinese carbonic fertiliser consignment, Ambassador Qi Zhenhong undertook a three-day visit (Dec 15-17, 2021) to the Jaffna peninsula.

Colombo-based The Hindu correspondent, Meera Srinivasan, in a story dated Dec 26, 2021, headlined ‘Chinese Ambassador’s visit to Jaffna sparks concern, commentary in Sri Lanka’, described the visit as an intensification of geopolitical contest between India and China. Qi Zhenhong underscored China’s right to engage people in any part of Sri Lanka. Responding to media at the Emperor’s Suite, Qi Zhenhong pointed out: “Jaffna is in the northern part of Sri Lanka, not south of any other country.”

 Ambassador Qi visited the Jaffna public library and the Adam’s Bridge, a row of limestone shoals across the narrow Palk Strait between Mannar and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.

The Ambassador visited a seafood factory in Mannar district, built with Chinese investment, and a sea cucumber farm in Jaffna.

The Chinese entry into Sri Lanka and the gradual expansion of its role here should be examined against the backdrop of Indian-funded terrorism project that destabilised the entire country. The Sri Lanka Army couldn’t have withstood the terrorist firepower if not for military assistance provided by China, Pakistan, Russia and Israel during the early stages of the conflict. Having paid a heavy price for destabilising its smaller neighbour, India allowed the annihilation of separatist Tamil conventional military capability in 2009. The eradication of terrorism has paved the way for geopolitical contest between the two Asian nuclear powers here. Both China and India seemed confident in pursuing their agendas as the cash-strapped SLPP government struggled on multiple fronts. The deterioration of Sri Lanka’s economy as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic delivering a devastating blow to its once vibrant tourism industry and expatriate worker remittances, (both raked in huge amounts of foreign exchange), as well as waste, corruption and mismanagement at every level appeared to have facilitated anti-Sri Lanka foreign projects much to the dismay of the vast majority of people. Sri Lanka seems to be at the mercy of foreign powers.

Superpower politics

 Chinese and Indian investments as well as relations with political parties here cannot be discussed leaving out the ongoing battle between China and the US-led grouping. India is part of the latter. South Korea is also in that group though it has so far refrained from joining the four-nation ‘Quad’ comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia. Post-war Sri Lanka is in a dicey situation. In spite of overcoming terrorism 12 years ago, Sri Lanka is under tremendous pressure from both parties as each seeks investment opportunities advantageous to them.

 Recently, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda expressed concerns over China and India seeking to invest in the Point Pedro fisheries harbour. Devananda, the leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), one of the smaller terrorist groups, that took to the democratic path long before the LTTE terror mechanism was annihilated and primarily active in the Northern region vowed not to allow China to exploit the Northern population. Obviously Devananda is playing politics. The Fisheries Minister cannot take a view contrary to that of the Rajapaksas.

Pathfinder, an organisation founded by Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, Milinda Moragoda, in its latest report titled ‘Sri Lanka has no room to maneuver’ carried in the January 10 edition of The Island warns of a catastrophe unless the government adopts remedial measures, immediately. While appreciating the arrangement Sri Lanka has reached with India to meet immediate challenges, Pathfinder recommended (i) restructuring of external debt (ii) an arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (iii) mobilisation of ‘bridging finance’ to meet the external financing gap up to June 2022.

Recent US and Indian investments in the energy sector should be viewed against the backdrop of much economically weakened Sri Lanka. The controversial energy deals with US-based New Fortress Energy, and Indian Oil Corporation Limited finalised on Sept 17, 2021 and January 5, 2022, respectively, generated much public interest. The latter was finalised just days before the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit. Both agreements have been challenged in the Supreme Court. The SC is in the process of hearing several petitions against the US energy deal whereas Ven. Wakmulle Uditha Thera of Nayigala Raja Mahaviharaya, Agrahara, Weeraketiya, filed a fundamental rights petition against the agreement on Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm. The Ven. Thera is believed to be acting on behalf of the JVP, the only party to move court against both the US and Indian investments.

Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila, who along with Cabinet colleagues, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Wimal Weerawansa moved SC against US energy deal that came through the backdoor, in a booklet titled ‘Regaining Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm’ declared that he gave the ‘strategic leadership’ to the project. In spite of accusations of a sellout and betrayal by many quarters, including the Federation of National Organisations, led by Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, which demanded a thorough investigation. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila defended the latest agreement. The booklet released by the Energy Ministry contained a letter dated July 29, 1987 signed by the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that dealt with the Trincomalee oil tank farm, President JRJ’s response, an agreement finalised on Feb 7, 2003, during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on economic projects signed in 2017 also during Wickremesinghe’s premiership. What really surprised the public was that though the Energy Ministry compared the 2017 MoU with the recently finalised agreement, the ministry quite conveniently left the January 5 agreement out of the booklet. The ministry may claim that the agreement couldn’t be included as at the time of the releasing of the booklet, it hadn’t been signed. Perhaps, the printing of the booklet should have been delayed till the finalisation of the agreement.

Declaring the project received political guidance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Energy Ministry revealed the identities of the two negotiating teams. Accordingly, the Sri Lankan delegation comprised Lalith Vidanagamage, Advisor, Energy Ministry, Buddhika Madihahewa, Managing Director, CPC, Mrs. Hasitha Paragahagoda, Legal Officer, Energy Ministry and Nalin Beligaswatta, Research Officer, Energy Ministry.

The Energy Ministry also named the Indian negotiating team. Deputy High Commissioner Vinod K. Jacob has led the Indian delegation that included Dr. Rakesh Pandey, Head of Commerce, Indian HC, Ms Irina Thakur, First Secretary, Commerce and Cultural Affairs and Manoj Gupta, Managing Director, LIOC.

The Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm comprised two sections (i) Lower Tank Farm and (ii) Upper Tank Farm spread over 827 acres of land.

One cannot forget the circumstances India forced the Indo-Lanka Accord on the latter. That agreement finalised at the height of the US-Soviet cold war encompassed the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm. Today, US-India relations have reached zenith whereas at the time of the Indo-Lanka Accord India was seen as being much closer to the Soviet Union and constantly feared the US using Sri Lanka as a platform to destabilise the country. The letters exchanged between Rajiv Gandhi and JRJ agreed on the restoration and operation of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as a joint venture. With the latest agreement, India has consolidated its position in the strategic port city of Trincomalee close on the heels of politically influential Adani Group’s investment at the Colombo port. Gujarat-headquartered company signed a Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) agreement with Sri Lanka’s largest listed company John Keells Holdings and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to jointly develop the Colombo West International Container Terminal (CWICT) at the Colombo Port, situated amidst one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. China has secured a terminal of its own during the previous Rajapaksa administration as the war was raging with hardly any other investor showing interest and during the Yahapalana administration won a 99-year lease on the Hambantota port. Controversy surrounds the Hambantota port deal, too. Arjuna Ranatunga, who had served as the Ports and Shipping Minister at that time had to give up the portfolio as he didn’t agree with the terms. The then President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe brought in SLFPer Mahinda Samarasinghe as the Ports and Shipping Minister to put the finishing touches to it. Having finalised the agreement in 2017, Samarasinghe switched his allegiance to the SLFP in the run-up to the last parliamentary election in August 2020. The one-time UNPer recently gave up his Kalutara District parliamentary seat to receive appointment as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington.

Former PM Wickremesinghe, FM Prof. Peiris, Minister Namal Rajapaksa and Chinese Ambassador to Colombo Qi Zhenhong at the launch of Sri Lanka China Friendship Sailing Cup at the Port City last Sunday (pics courtesy PM Media)

Wijeyadasa strikes discordant note

 In spite of China and Sri Lanka enjoying excellent relations and the latter regularly referring to China as an all-weather friend, there had been a number of contentious issues. The Island had an opportunity to raise some of them with Ambassador Qi Zhenhong during last Sunday’s meeting. Reference was made to accusations made by the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake as regards China taking advantage of Sri Lanka, dispute over contaminated carbonic fertiliser consignment that had to be settled by paying USD 6.7 mn to the Chinese firm concerned and SLPP lawmaker Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s fiery letter to the Chinese President Xi Jinping. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a lawmaker writing to the Chinese leader through its Ambassador in Colombo. Ambassador Qi Zhenhong dismissed Rajapakse’s concerns over China changing its strategy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka in the wake of the high profile ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project meant to improving connectivity and cooperation among multiple countries spread across the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. One-time Justice Minister and former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) accused China of following an agenda intended to destroy Sri Lanka’s relations with the US, the UK, India, Japan, Korea, Australia and in time to come Russia.

Lawmaker Rajapakse’s stand cannot be examined without taking his call during the previous administration to rescind the Sri Lanka-China agreement on the Hambantota port through the intervention of the Parliament. That call was made in his capacity as a UNP Member of Parliament, whereas he wrote the January 3 dated letter as an SLPP lawmaker.

MP Rajapakse accused China of ruining Sri Lanka’s economy to facilitate their project. The former Justice Minister seemed to have no issue with Quad members, the UK and Korea. Quad members never stood by Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) whereas Western powers brazenly pursued a policy detriment to Sri Lanka. They either voted against Sri Lanka or skipped the vote as in the case of Japan regardless of the Comprehensive Partnership the two countries entered into in Oct 2015. Obviously, Japan lacked the political will to go against the US wishes at the Geneva HRC, whereas Seoul voted against Colombo. On the basis of the Geneva process, the Sri Lankan military is being targeted by the US and some of her allies as part of the overall campaign directed at Sri Lanka.

Regardless of Sri Lanka’s close relations with China, the accusations made by MP Rajapakse cannot be dismissed lightly. The MP issued a warning over possible Chinese investments under the ‘Selendiva’ project, having questioned the investments on the Colombo Port, South Terminal, Coal-fired power plant complex at Norochcholai, International Airport at Mattala, Lotus Tower (Nelum Kuluna) in Colombo, Lotus Theatre (Nelum Pokuna) in Colombo, International Cricket Stadium at Suriyawewa and International Conference Hall in Hambantota. Alleging China created a debt trap, lawmaker Rajapakse said that he lost his portfolio during the Yahapalana administration as he opposed the Hambantota port deal. The copies of MP Rajapakse’s explosive letter have been sent to the President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Most Venerable High Prelates, the Archbishop Colombo, Foreign Minister, Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka and Colombo-based High Commissioners and the Ambassadors of the other countries.

Can the SLPP government afford to ignore Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s actions, particularly against the backdrop of stripping Susil Premjayantha of his portfolio over criticism of the government? Similarly, can Ministers Vasudeva, Wimal and Udaya get away after having challenged their Cabinet colleagues over the US energy deal? The government needs to address these issues as the ruling coalition as well as other political parties represented in Parliament struggle to come to terms with a rapidly changing situation. Avoiding Chinese as well as Western moves and that of India seem a herculean task for Sri Lanka, trying to walk the diplomatic tightrope.

During the Yahapalana administration, the US pushed for three agreements, namely ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement), SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact. On the approval of President Sirisena, the government signed ACSA in August 2017 though the remaining agreements couldn’t be finalised. No one can forget how Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe authorised one-sided CFA (Ceasefire Agreement) or the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo allowed the Singapore Sri Lanka Free Trade Pact. If those in power and the Opposition are genuinely interested in protecting national assets, they’ll agree on a political mechanism to reach consensus on agreements with external powers/foreign parties.

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Midweek Review

What is so luring about John Steinbeck’s The Pearl: A translator’s view

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Book: Dimuthuwa (A translation of The Pearl)
Translator: K. A. I Kalyanaratne
Publisher: Sarasavi

By K. A. I Kalyanaratne

Having studied Sinhala and English since my early schooling, I thought of rendering into Sinhala an English masterpiece. I knew that such an exercise would help not only test my comprehension in that contextual setting but also measure my capacity to reproduce the ideas in idiomatic Sinhala so that the reader would feel that the rendering was not foreign to him or her.

I did not want to estrange the local reader.

Translator’s responsibilities

I began my search for a read-worthy book for that purpose. I came across a book, not so voluminous, I had attempted several times to render into Sinhala, without much success. I had given up all my previous attempts halfway upon realisation that the time was not opportune for me to undertake such a responsible task, for any writer has a responsibility by the society to uplift it to the best of one’s ability, and retain the ingenuity of the original writer. I was also concerned about the sanctity of the language, the most sacred tool of its users. It means that any writer should be mindful of the correct idiomatic expressions of that language.

‘THE PEARL’

Finally, I selected ‘THE PEARL’ by the American novelist and Nobel prize-winner John Steinbeck. Having read it a couple of times, I was familiar with its content. Considering the number of characters and the span of time involving the narration, many a writer treats The Pearl as a ‘novella’ or a ‘novelette’. As the story is full of dramatic episodes, it is also referred to as a ‘chilling-novella’. As Steibeck has himself expressed in his epigraph to the Pearl, he has re-told a Mexican folktale which relates a series of tragic events that unraveled with a scorpion biting Kino’s son Coyotito.

In his inimitable style Steinbeck says

“In the town they tell the story of the great pearl – how it was found, and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind. And, as with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere.

If the story is a parable, perhaps everyone reads his or her own life into it. In any case, they say in the town that…”

 

” මෙ වෙසෙයි දිමුතුව ලද සැටිත්, ඒ යළි නැති වුණු සැටිත් පිළිබඳ පවත ඒ නියැරියෝ පවසති. එ මෙන් ම, ධීවර කීනෝත්, ඔහු ගේ බිරිය ජුවානාත්, ඔවුන් ගේ පුත් කොයෝතිතෝත් පිළිබඳ ව ඔවුහු පවසති. තව ද, මෙ පවත නෙ වර පවසනු ලැබ ඇති හෙයින්, ඒ සෑම අයකු ගේ ම සිත්හි මුල් බැස ගෙන ඇත. මිනිස් සිත්හි එල්බ ගත්, එ මෙන් ම, යළි යළිත් පැවැසුණු පවත්හි රඳා පවතිනුයේ යහඅයහ දේ පමණි. ක`ථ-සුදු දේ පමණි. සිරි-දුසිරි දේ පමණි. මෙ අතරැ වූ කිසිවක් කවර තැනෙක හෝ තිබෙනු නො හැකි යි.

මෙ පවත උපමා කතාවක් සේ සැලැකෙන්නේ නම්, සෑම අයකු ම ඔහුට සීමා වූ අරුතක් ඉන් උකහා ගනු ඇත. තමන් ගේ ම දිවි පෙවෙත ඊට කාවද්දනු ඇත. මෙ කවර අයුරු වුව ද එ නුවර වැසියෝ මෙ සේ පවසත්”

Dramatic End of The Pearl

The Kino’s pearl of the world, incomparable in its beauty, radiance and size, around which Steinbeck spins the whole story with a few characters who in their peculiar contexts behave in self-centred ambitions and aspirations, ultimately meets its own playground, the big blue sea, in whose womb it was born. At last, when Kino realises that the pearl is evil, he throws it back to the sea. The humour, sarcasm and pathos, which Steinbeck aims to generate, is the last of such incidents he narrates when he writes:

“And Kino drew back his arm and flung the pearl with all his might. Kino and Juana watched it go, winking and glimmering under the setting sun. They saw the little splash in the distance, and they stood side by side watching the place for a long time.

“And the pearl settled into the lovely green water and dropped towards the bottom.

The waving branches of the algae called to it and beckoned to it. The lights on its surface were green and lovely. It settled down to the sand bottom among the fern-like plants. Above, the surface of water was a green mirror. And the pearl lay on the floor of the sea. A crab scampering over the bottom raised a little cloud of sand, and when it settled the pearl was gone.

And the music of the pearl drifted to a whisper and disappeared.”

යළි තමා වෙත ඇදගත් අතින්, කිනෝ මු`ථ වැර යොදා, දිමුතුව මුහුදට විසි කෙළේ ය. අවරට යන හිරු ගේ හෙළියෙන් දිලෙමින් ද බැබැළෙමින් ද, එය ඈතට විසි වී යන අයුරු කිනෝ ද, ජුවානා ද හොඳින් බලා සිටියහ. එ ඈතින් දියට වැටී හට ගත් දිය කැළැඹුම දෙස ද බලා සිටි ඔවුහු, දිගු වේලාවක් එහි රැඳී සිටියහ.

දිමුතුව ද, ප‍්‍රසන්න නිල් පැහැති මුහුදුු දියෙහි තැන්පත් ව, මුහුදු පතුළට කිඳා බැස්සේ ය. එ විට මුහුදු පතුළෙහි වූ මුහුදු පැළෑටිවල
සසල වූ අතු පත් අත් වනමින් දිමුතුව කඳවා ගෙන ගියා සේ යි. මතු පිටට පතිත වූ ආලෝකයෙන් ඒ කොළ පැහැ ගැන් වී, ප‍්‍රසන්න වී තිබිණි. මීවන වන් පැළෑටි අතරින් ගොස්, පතුළේ වූ වැලි මත එය තැන්පත් විය. එ මත්තෙහි වූ මතුපිට දිය කඳ කොළ පැහැති කැටපතක් බඳු විය. එ දිමුතුව දැන් මුහුදු පතුළෙහි රැුඳී ඇත. එ පතුළෙහි ම, දුව පැන යමින් සිටි කකු`ථවකු නිසා කුඩා වැලි වළාවෙකින් නැ`ගුණු වැලි යළි තැන්පත් වත් ම, එ දිමුතුව දැක්මෙන් ඔබ්බට ගොස් තිබිණි.

එ අනුයමින් ම, දිමුතුවේ සංගීතය අවසනැ හුදු මිමිනීමක් පමණක් බවට පත් ව අතුරුදන් විය

Here, one remembers a line from T. S. Elliot’s Little Gidding: “Dust in the air suspended, Marks the place where a story ended”.

“Language is the Dress of Thought.” — Samuel Johnson

The language of The Pearl is one of the enticing aspects which lured me to undertake this exercise to render it into Sinhala. I questioned myself on several occasions whether my Sinhala diction was rich enough to express, with the same efficacy, the nuances of human feelings and sentiments that Steinbeck conveys in The Pearl.

In his retelling of a Mexican folktale, Steinbeck relates the tale of Kino, fisherman, who finds the pearl of the world during one of his dives. Showing how money is the root of all evil, Steinbeck delivers a poignant tale. Fish and pearls are usually the common source of the livelihood of fisherfolk. However, the story tells how each member of the village desires part of Kino’s newfound wealth. Hence, rather than being pleased with and sharing the happiness of this prized discovery, each villager offers his/her unique suggestion as to how Kino should spend his winnings. Steinbeck thus not only exposes human nature but also through a few characters like the doctor who later came in to treat Coyotito, Kino’s son, the priest, and the pearl brokers who attempt to swindle Kino, tells how greed erodes the cherished values, and how people who come upon sudden wealth are affected. This story also teaches us how disastrous it is to take on its face-value and acts mindlessly. The Pearl is, thus, a tale of greed, exposing how people would act and react, if pitted against the circumstances as revealed in the story. In short, The Pearl is a true representation of the secrets of man’s nature, irrespective of time or clime, and the ‘darkest depths of evil”.

An Attempt to Add Depth to the Translation of ‘The Pearl’

I strove to make ‘Dimuthuwa’ go beyond a mere translation of Steinbeck’s novelette and presume that the reader should know the background of the story as well if he or she is to enjoy the translation to the fullest. Hence, the following additional pages have been added to the translation:

i. Background – which provides the geographical setting and the novelist’s objective of turning out a folktale to a novel.

ii. The historical setting revealing the discrimination and injustice that prevailed in society, which became the crux of the story.

iii. Specialty in John Steinbeck’s style of writing and his use of the figurative language especially in describing incidents and the surroundings.

iv. The Pearl Quotes – The products of famous writers contain sayings that will live have their value beyond times and climes. They become eternal truths, and therefore, they become universal truth that are of eternal value. Some describe these sayings as ‘Distilled Wisdom’. One such quote by Steinbeck is appended below:

“For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”

All these quotes have been rendered into Sinhala in this special section.

John Steinbeck’ background

The Pearl is a novella, a seemingly simple book, woven around a story of classic simplicity, based on a Mexican folk tale. John Steinbeck was an American writer. He was the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, published in 1939 and the novella ‘Of Mice and Men’, published in 1937. He wrote 25 books, including sixteen novels,6 non-fiction books and several collections of short stories. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature. It so happened that after I completed translating ‘The Pearl’, I was presented a voluminous publication by a friend of mine, which contained five of his novels written before The Pearl, running to over 950 pages. Published in the UK by Octopus Books Limited, its introduction ends with a quote of H. G. Wells: “Steinbeck’s robustness was always mirrored by delicacy of feelings; his pride was always matched by modesty, humility even. He saw himself as a craftsman.” But his readers concur H. G. Wells on his assessment of Steinbeck – ‘THAT TREMENDOUS GENIUS’.

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Midweek Review

The Mod-Con Tea Party

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By Lynn Ockersz

They sure are ‘talking’,

But tongue-tied all the same,

And though at the same table,

Flushed with the thrill of partying,

There’s no mind-to-mind bonhomie,

And the only sounds to be heard,

Are the endless thumping of cell phones,

And the ritualistic rendering of courtesies;

A pantomime of voiceless souls it seems,

But let not this be seen as an ICT Age freak,

For, the land groans under a rash of pains,

With depression emerging a chief dread,

And the need for quality talk is dire;

But the crisis is not beyond repair,

For, a defrosting of hearts and tongues,

And the sensible use of mod cons,

Could some of this longsuffering help end.

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