“The traditions of all the dead generations weighs like an incubus upon the brain of the living”
– Karl Marx
“No other country I knew had so many layers of wretchedness, and few countries were as populous. I felt I was in a continent where, separate from the rest of the world, a mysterious calamity had occurred. Yet what was overwhelming to me, so much in the foreground, was not to be found in modern day writing I knew, Indian or English. In one Kipling story an Indian famine was a background to an English romance. The extraordinary distress of India, when acknowledged, was something given, eternal, something to be read only as background.
“It took time to break through the bias and fantasies of Indian political ideas about the Indian past. The independence struggle, the movement against the British, had obscured the calamities of India before the British. Evidence of those calamities lay on every side. But the independence movement was like a religion; it didn’t see what it didn’t want to see. For more than 600 years after 1000 A.D. the Muslim invaders had ravaged the subcontinent at will. They had established kingdoms and empires and fought with one another. They had obliterated temples and local religions
“For twentieth-century Indian nationalism those centuries of defeat were awkward. So history was re-jigged; ruler and the ruled before the British, conqueror and the subject, believer and infidel became one. In the face of the great British power, it made a kind of sense, to promote the idea of the wholeness of India, before the British.
“The 14th-century Moroccan Muslim theologian and world traveller Ibn Battuta didn’t fit in so easily with this idea of Indian wholeness. Ibn Battuta wished to travel to all the countries of the Muslim world. Everywhere he went he lived on the bounty of Muslim rulers. He came to India as a conquered Muslim land. He was granted the revenues (or crops) of five villages, then – in spite of a famine – two more. In Ibn Battuta’s narrative the local people were only obliquely seen. They were serfs in the village (property of the ruler that could be offered the traveller) or simple slaves (Ibn Battuta liked to travel with slave girls).
“The Muslim ruler in Delhi, Ibn Battuta’s ultimate patron, liked blood, daily executions and torture on the threshold of his hall of audience, with bodies left lying for days. Even Ibn Battuta, though used to the ways of Muslim despots the world over, began to take fright. When four guards were set to watch him, he thought his time had come...” – Reading and Writing – V.S. Naipaul
Despite the shared heritage, we have been mercifully spared the extremes of the Subcontinent. Our poverty is not desperate; our crowds, not the teeming millions of India, less overwhelming. The island is not subject to the extreme moods of nature as much, a climate relatively mild, possessing a generous soil. It appears this moderation of climate is complemented by the make- up of the island’s inhabitants, the noticeable absences of large personalities; leaders, writers, artists, industrialists, only of middling order, in aspect as well as aptitude; of no lasting stature, leave alone any relevance outside of our shores.
It is difficult to imagine a ruling class which mocks the concept as much as what we have brought forth, managing only pseudo nationalists in the native garb or fraudulent mimics in western attire. There is neither inspiration nor moral leadership to be found. Anything our leaders put their hands to, will atrophy, eventually becoming another burden the nation must carry.
Inept attempts at constitution/law making has led only to legal deadlocks and muddles. In our so called development efforts since independence, it is the under-performance that strikes the eye; the corruption, the mediocre growth (rate) and the smallness of the nation’s achievements. For long we have been planting basics like rice, tea and rubber. Yet, our harvests from these crops lag behind India, per acre-wise, itself a low yield producer. Even at sports, at the recently held Asian Games the country failed to win a single medal, placed behind much smaller nations; small people, big talk, small doings.
I quoted at length from Naipaul, because one cannot lay bare the Subcontinent’s agonies and the confusions more perceptively than the Nobel Prize winning writer. On a much smaller stage, with local deviations, our history too follows similar patterns.
We also are quick to lay the blame for our ills on the foreign powers which dominated the island for nearly 500 years. When the European seafarers moored their ships in our bays, our political unity was already fractured and whatever power we could claim was infinitely inferior to what the strangers could command. History teaches us that new and better ideas will overcome the old and ineffective, the progressive will eventually oust the regressive.
When it comes to claiming past glories, we are second to none; not only a ready granary for the neighbouring countries encountering food shortages (the rice variety we grow today has no market outside of the country) but also a technological marvel capable of even making flying machines. Little merit is given to the impact of later advances in transport, banking, and communication which revolutionised trade between nations, from the primitive and sporadic bartering that prevailed until then. If the lost manuscripts that recorded the specifications of the ancient flying-machine is unearthed now, we surely could transform our present low-tech economy.
Having played no role in the dazzling advances in science and technology of the last few centuries, we downgrade the know-how required to take flight as well as navigate heavy machines in the air. Confronting a distressing reality, there is comfort in fantasy and mythology.
The evening of our civilisation had begun long before the European adventurers sighted our shores. History does not stand still, but the kings did. In nearly everything; new ideas, technology, methods and capabilities the visitors from the far-away lands were resurgent, while we were on the wane. Societies that do not evolve and move forward will recede, and be beaten.
A mysterious calamity had befallen India thought Naipaul, a calamity that happened gradually, imperceptibly, leaving the Subcontinent completely sapped; absurdly poor and weak. The colonial rule united the vast land, gave it cohesion, bestowing new ideas and institutions of governance. In recent times, the economic model of India has begun to change. Not only that the vast Indian diaspora is investing in the country, but are also bringing new ideas to their old land. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for the millions calling India home now; a quality of life which could be seen and experienced, categorised, counted and given value, not just fantasy and legend.
A calamity has hit Sri Lanka too; an early agrarian society has ended up a struggling nation in a perpetual state of crisis. Hugely in debt, we are even proud to be considered credit worthy by an international lending organisation, in the manner of a village boutique keeper bragging about a small facility extended by a rural bank to steady his unstable enterprise.
A major source of foreign exchange for the country, as well as a mode of upliftment for many families, is foreign employment. These are mainly in blue collar and domestic capacities, a good number filled by females. Our so-called public service – politicised, inefficient and corrupt – is viewed only as a safe and secure way of earning a livelihood with no occupational demands or responsibilities. Other countries loathe to encourage Sri Lankans to visit them, entry visas are granted most grudgingly, after a demeaning process of verifying the integrity of the applicant. No one wants our currency either, the value of the rupee sliding nearly on a daily basis.
These are not considered intolerable humiliations or even extraordinary misfortunes, but only as a given, unchanging background. There is poverty, corruption, degradation, they have always been there, nothing can be done about them! For those who may, like Ibn Battuta, the idea of fleeing the gory scene, or in terms of modern choices, the attraction of a dual citizenship, beckons irresistibly.
In these bleak times we need men with vision, courage, resolution; strong men, with open minds and moral strength. But a calamity has happened. We don’t have such men; we have no leaders.