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A Prosperity Gospel on the peerless Silk Route


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I was down south a little over a week ago today. At the increasingly misnamed Galle Literary Festival (GLF): which, in its more recent incarnations particularly, is more ‘culinary’ than ‘literary’! But where, be that nasty aside as it may, an interesting talk by an Oxford-don historian stimulated local audiences; challenging their often monolithic thinking to face the winds of diverse worldviews. Also accept the changes these bring to culture, civilisation, zeitgeist.Untitled-1

His talk focussed on a misunderstanding of the historical idea of The Silk Route. This scholar was at pains to point out that there was no singular vector, but rather a nexus of networks: The Silk Roads. Along these highways and byways, across oceans and through malarial swamps, mountain passes, or desolate swathes of desert-seas came caravans laden with exotic foods and other goods. Greeks, Persians, Arabians, from west to east; Mongols and Huns from east to west; Vikings sweeping down into Europe’s hinterland from their icy northern wastes; these – and other tribes of explorers and adventurers – set a pattern of and offer a template for the transportation of treasure, the importation of wealth from one country to another region, the induction of a cosmopolitan commercial web in which to travel is to trade and bring prosperity.  

Such a weltanschaung would be welcome to proponents of Sri Lanka’s political ‘Prosperity Gospel’, seeking as they do to embrace the largesse of global generosity in their travels towards our thrice-blessed isle. In his talk, that British scholar above – Dr Peter Frankopan: author of The Silk Roads: A New History Of The World – moved auditors at the Hall de Galle to think of GLF as a marketplace of ideas. And, by extension and application, our island as an important pivot in a transcontinental transhipment tradeoff. He also mentioned in earnest more the pros than the cons of ‘The Silk Route’ philosophy which down the ages has brought both Europe and the East to Serendip’s doorstep, and which still brings colonisers and neo-colonial powers to our shores. 

It made one critically reassess the merits and/or otherwise of ‘The Silk Roads’ that have traditionally brought wealth through trade and commerce. But also brought subversion through a treasure store of hybrid or bastardised ideas. As well as caused migration and seen the movement of military might across continents in pursuit of a pot of gold and/or rich ‘pasture’-lands. In the end, however, there is nothing good or bad, but that thinking makes it so; more so for the Maritime Silk Road that has brought the ascending Orient to our fair havens, harbouring submarine ambitions to make the Occident wary and northerly neighbours less than nicely positioned to execute their own aspirations for the hegemony of the Indian Ocean. Alarmist or realist, time will tell… but the discerning interpreter of events already knows the answer; based on the repeating patterns of history and humanity’s traditional propensity to build empires on goods and services over mere military might.



Old idea, new hope

The speakers and the spectators alike at GLF were polyglot, multicultural, internationalist. They waxed eloquent about mice and men (and women, lest the likes of Lesley Hazleton and her radical rewriting of the unbiblical Jezebel vis-à-vis the mores of the fairer sex be forgotten). These ambassadors of globalism’s gain and growth brought fresh breezes of emotion and intellect to the machines and movements and monuments of a post-modern, post-one-planet, world. Of which our isle is a microcosm. It was simultaneously intoxicating, as well as being not a little intimidating, for those who reflected on the ramifications of such openness of heart and mind. It was caviar to the general, although the field marshals and mandarins and other senior bureaucrats and politicians who hold our transcontinental island’s fate in their trembling hands were conspicuous by their absence. 

GLF is, was, and will be, a brave new idea that’s as old as the historical silk roads; but as fresh as home-made sausage with grandmother’s traditional/secret sauce recipe to the straw-hatted, short-skirted, sunglass-atop-head sophisticates who flirted and frolicked and fellowshipped with likeminded literati and glitterati under a forgiving southern sun. Fair haven though Galle is, farther south and furthering a similar happiness at the comfort of strangers, Hambantota and all that that port town holds for our island’s future in terms of it being the tangible locus of our present well-being was also on my mind as the same sun set in the west over sundowners and sultry conversations about the scandal of the day at GLF.



New idea, no scope

The same participants who heard preachers pound their pulpits on the Prosperity Gospel of The Silk Route would have warmed the cockles of their favourite politicos’ hybrid and bastardised hearts. Back in Colombo, they waxed eloquent about just how GLF had been a jab in the arm of an island-imagination. As much as how Good Governance’s GDP “Prosperity Gospel” will blow Sri Lanka fine trade winds and fair commercial havens! In their febrile fiction-fuelled fantasies, the advent of the adventurer portends Growth, Development, Progress. A port city here, a harbour development project there, jobs for everyone everywhere. We labour to persuade others about that which we are perhaps least convinced ourselves. Thus the plethora of posts on social media about how the pantheon of our present GDP gods are bringing a panoply of wealth and welfare and treasure and things – along The Silk Route. But least said about equity, environmental concerns, economics of justice, the better for all and sundry?

The art of the possible means that our political masters will use present mandates to position economic trends as vectoring in or towards eminently desirable goals. 

The science of realpolitik will mean that credit for GDP objectives met will redound to the glory and honour of the drivers of this Prosperity Gospel – progress without equity or accountability, or peace without justice – if it works. 

The debit side is equally forbidding for those who oppose the Hambantota Syndrome if it works; for their objections run the risk of being exposed as cant, hypocrisy, or incompetence in not knowing a good deal or the real thing when they see it. 

The safer side of The Silk Roads is for both public perception and political prudence to remain critically engaged with the Prosperity Gospel of the oriental powers that is wafting along the corridors of power in its attractive guise of being a panacea for what ailed Sri Lanka under the previous administration. 

The trick is to remember of that regime that while “to violence, rapine, and plunder they give the name ‘government’… they make a desert, and call it peace”, the incumbents are no less culpable of deception than to make a pact and call it progress. The present Joint Opposition splits the difference between being mal-intentioned and misinformed about it all.



Fiction, fantasy, fate

GLF was good as far as metaphors go to illustrate the many benefits of a marketplace for the meeting of minds. GDP – the Growth, Development, Progress-oriented Prosperity Gospel of the powers that be – embodies much of the morale of that parabolic symbolism. Fair winds bring full galleons laden with the gold of material prosperity. As much as open minds embrace the treasure of old ideas disguised as new: thinly veiled with the patina of fame and fortune, but transparent to those who can see the veneer of falseness from leagues away. And readers, auditors, followers of Prosperity Gospels along The Silk Roads from past to future would do well to remain critically engaged with present concerns rather than willingly suspend disbelief about the Greeks – or Golden Oriental Dragons – that come bearing gifts in their harbour-mouths.

Feel now, a week after the heady trade winds of The Silk Route lecture, that there is a world of old ideas disguised as new, which Colombo/Sri Lanka/the political south/the cognoscenti of realpolitik can adapt and adopt. Much of literary criticism made meaningful stems from recognising the genre of the literature at hand, remaining critically engaged with content and context, respecting a diversity of worldviews and interpretations and applications. Good Governance is not the villain of the peace just because it appears to have embraced an Eastern Adventurer’s strategic arms and aims, nor is it the conquering hero who brings home the dragon’s head and the gryphon-guarded cauldron of gold.

There must be accountability and transparency to accompany safeguarding our sovereignty and strategically fostering national economic interests. It is a moral fable Sri Lanka’s socio-political ‘readers, auditors, followers,’ have heard so often that they find it hard to remain critically engaged with the genre of Good Governance. Almost as hard as the bearers of GDP’s alluring “Prosperity Gospel” find it hard to remain true, true to themselves, and trust in the voice of dissent.


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