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Sri Lanka: Window to India's Past, Present & Future

Sri Lanka: Window to India's Past, Present & Future

Publication: People's Reporter
Date: April 25 - May 10, 2001
[Speech by His Excellency the High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, Gopalakrishna Gandhi, at the Gratiaen Awards Ceremony 2001. The Gratiaen award for the best Sri Lankan fiction in English was endowed by Michael Ondaatje, in remembrance of his mother, from the Booker Prize award for his novel, The English Patient].

Nature has used India as an oyster clasp for its genetics. A pearl of the rarest refraction has emerged from that bi-valve of mind and matter, as Sri Lanka. India's spirit no less than its seed, ethos no less than ethnicity have quickened life on this isle. Sri Lanka is, to wit, India miniaturized. And yet, within its sub-continental gestation, this dveepa has acquired a hue all its own, a glint that stands apart from its originations.

Sri Lanka derives from India but is not of it; she owes to India but belongs only to herself. If history has vouchsafed her exclusivity, geography has validated it but after - almost - changing its mind. Consider the Palk Straits. which set off Sri Lanka from the Indian coastline. A series of shy islets between Talai Mannar and Dhanushkodi hyphenate that sliver of sea. They hyphenate, neither joining up nor staying apart. They are an elliptical bridge of sand-discs strung on a filament chain of salt, where it requires expertise to say this one, here, is India's and this one, Sri Lanka's.

Salinity is sharp. Salt-water divides and creates more decisively than any other substance in nature. The sea, be it ever so narrow, ever so superficial, sunders continuity and nature. So that this side of the brine becomes mine and the other, thine. And not just this land-side, this shore, but even this stretch of the sea - this ceases to be mine, becomes yours. Tuna move unblinkingly from one Territorial water to another; prawn trespass. But they are tuna and prawn. They are free to do so. Not so the fishers of tuna and prawn. And they - the fishers - are netted. By Immigration. Near can be far. 'Here', in a trice, can become 'there'.

" Ceylon" wrote Ananda Coomaraswamy "is a more perfect window to gaze on India's past than can be found in India itself". He is right. The question arises: Is Sri Lanka, the window to India's past, also frozen in the same past? Or is it a window to gaze on India's present and India's future, a window that is keeping time with the transformations in the subject of its gaze? Is the window learning, unlearning, borrowing without inhibition, discarding without regret ? Or is it a painting of Still Life, fixated on some one image of India?

There are those who would like to freeze India and Sri Lanka in the time warps of their preference. I have found with more irritation than surprise the following account in a 1996 British publication dealing with literature on the Indian subcontinent. Writing on "the first historic settlements" in Sri Lanka it says: "These settlers came from India, and were composed of Sinhalese from north India, speaking an Indo-Aryan language and Tamils from South India speaking a Dravidian language".

Doubtless the writer thinks they came on an upper and lower deck of the same ark, one marked "North Indians headed for Southern Ceylon" and the other "South Indians headed for Northern Ceylon". Who is to explain to these simple labellers of the world's population that even in that remote antiquity those who moved out of India were unrecognizably interbred even before the Tamil queens at Polonnaruwa and the Nayakkar kings of Kandy contributed to the ethnic toss-up of the genetic dice in this dveepa, so that a 'throw' can land on any one of the DNA's multiple faces?

India is a civilisation of many constants and many more variables; which is why it is perennial. 'Only that which moves, stays'. Barring some prismatists most Lankans know that their window gaze of India is, essentially, the gaze of one dynanmic pluralism at another. Likewise, barring some incorrigible ethnicists, most Indians know the diversity of their component parts to be part of a mosaic, which is, in turn, fascinating, bewildering, exasperating, traumatising but which is always - India, greater than the sum of its parts. Like pieces in a kaleidoscope, forming new patterns with each turn of Time's hand - new patterns that yet remain, each in itself, the same. So that when an earthquake brings a part of India down, something survives the rubble, something vital, something deathless. Deathless not just because it is a billion plus strong, but because it is -- India. A torment to the dividers-up of the world into neat blocs, a nightmare to colonialists and postcolonialists unlike, an impossibility to all categorizers, north-south wallas, second-world-third-world types, an oxymoron for segregationists, integrationists, congregationists, India is a delight, a joy and a rapture for the higher human sensibility. Also, of course, ever so often, a cause for lamentation, sorrow and, always, for contemplation. Such is India. A house of laughter and of pain, of remorse and of self-confidence, of memory, and of dreams. But a house that is itself.

The literatures of India or Sri Lanka as, for that matter, of the whole subcontinent bear a family resemblance; they cannot but since they are true to themselves. Tagore, Iqbal, Nazrul Islam, Bharati and Ananda Samarakoon have created national - as opposed to nationalist verse of the same timbre. Yet Bengali, Urdu, Tamil and Sinhala retain - thank God their individualities. Likewise, Vikram Seth and Michael Ondaatje when writing, albeit in English about India and Sri Lanka, write about the same chapter of life in which we, South Asians, have been sited.

Coomaraswamy has written "India without Ceylon is incomplete". The geopolitical Indian in me was a little startled to read that line. I read it again. Yes, it was put in exactly those words. "India without Ceylon is incomplete". What could Coomaraswamy who has also spoken of Ceylon as a perfect window to gaze on India's past, I wondered, have meant by that line "India without Ceylon is incomplete?" And after a while of contemplation, I understood; I understood it perfectly. Just as the different components of India, remaining distinct, go to complete India, so also in the dimension of India's non-territorial culture, its imperium of human pluralism, does Sri Lanka complete India.

Sri Lanka is not a postscript or an epilogue to the Tactatus Indica. It is the epigram that encapsulates the epic. It is the pith, the quintessence, the quintus, the fifth, that concludes and completes the proverbial 'four essences' which form and pervade the culture of India.

Not for nothing is Sri Lanka the most perfect window because if it is a window that sees it is also one that can show up. Equally, it is a window that can see and imbibe.

Sri Lanka cannot forget India in her thoughts and writings because she cannot forget her derivations. She cannot ignore India, for she cannot ignore diversities. She cannot forsake India for she cannot forsake her destiny. India and Sri Lanka recognise themselves in one another. We see in the other, the prides and prejudices, we know, and the littleness that often mar our daily lives. Equally, we see our humanity, our keenness of mind, our largeness of heart.

We have, I am afraid, no way of repaying what we have borrowed. But perhaps we can lend without arrogance and borrow without feeling crushed by the debt, for do we not know that each loan between peoples has come from a borrowing. And let us remember, in the umbilism of the Palk Straits, we are all-but linked, all-but-the-same. Thank God for distinctions which do not divide, the similarities which do not typify.

May something in us never grow out of innocence into the venality of modem adulthood. Let the world worship globalisation and wire-connected globalism. Let us celebrate something akin but also fundamentally different: let us celebrate internationalism which, in the words of Coomaraswamy: "Is the recognition of the rights of others to their self-development and of the incompleteness of the civilized world if their special culture - contribution is missing".

And may the literatures of Sri Lanka - English, Sinhala, Tamil which we celebrate today, with the help of Michael Ondaatje's endowment, help Sri Lanka, the "perfect window", to gaze at India's past, present and future, and in doing so, see not just its mould but its soul-mate.

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