Recently, Subo De Zoysa made an interesting comment on my commentating predilections pertaining to Kolombians and others. He said, ‘when you write in English, you speak AT the Kolombians. When you write in Sinhala, you speak TO the people.’
My response was, ‘I write TO and AT all kinds of people, Kolombiansincluded (even though they are not named in the TO-pieces, I admit).’ I should have added ‘In Sinhala and in English’. In any event, Subo got me thinking and I felt that a re-examination of the term would be interesting.
First, the term. My friend Kanishka Goonewardena prefers to call them ‘Colomboans’for reasons of etymological propriety, but I find it harder on the tongue. So Kolombiansit is. For now.
It’s shorthand, obviously. At first glance one might be tempted to think it refers to those who live in Colombo or else consider Colombo their home. No. Colombo can be cut (like the peasantry and bourgeoisie) along many lines. For example, there are over 500 slum communities within the municipal limits of Colombo and they are not the people I am talking about when I use the term ‘Kolombians’. In fact, neither would I say that those at the other end of the impoverished-affluent spectrum make up that community.
So who are the Kolumbians? Two observations, one a fairly decent political opinion and the other a rant, would help at this point. The first by SWRD Bandaranaike, a demagogue by all account even though he is unfairly named as the villain of the piece of inter-ethnic tensions (Tamil Nationalism preceded his flirtation with ‘Sinhala Only’). This is a slice of what he said SWRD at the inauguration of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP):
‘[There is a] feeling in the minds of some people that our freedom is not something that the people have obtained but one that a few individuals have succeeded in getting, and one therefore that is looked upon to a great extent as the private property of these individuals, the benefits of which should be chiefly enjoyed by them.
Now here’s something an ex TV presenter who calls says she’s a ‘Buddhist’ as opposed to a ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ recently wrote on Facebook. She is anti-Rajapaksa. Nothing wrong with that and one can even make excuses for the rabidity of her antipathies. The post was cheered by many. Few among those living in Colombo and who shared her political preferences saw reason to object. That says a lot. Anyway, the following are relevant excerpts from the post, addressed to, in her words, ‘ALL those bloody lowlife guttersnipe Baiyas who can’t mind their own damn business’:
‘YES! I am a Walawe Hamu because I come from one of the oldest and wealthiest landowning Govigami families in Galle... My mother is a Radala Kandyan... You, ill bred lowlife Biyas can ask your master, Mahinda Rajapaksa for more details of my family…
‘YES! I am not fluent in Sinhala because from the day I was born, English is the language I heard as it was the language my parents used to communicate. Hence I regard English as my mother tongue…..I DO NOT need to apologize for my excellent command of the English language.
‘YES! I am a Buddhist who follows the Buddhist philosophy and NOT the fake racist religion - Sinhala Buddhism - you Baiyas follow.’
She has, inter alia, referred to her friendship with Arjuna Mahendran, who she believes is ‘a gentleman par excellence.’ Nothing wrong in friendship. Nothing wrong in considering English her mother tongue. She certainly doesn’t have to apologize for command of any language. However, as a proclaimed Buddhist ‘who follows the Buddhist philosophy’ she might do well to reflect on the Four Sublime States (sathara brahma viharana), namely unconditional love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, and test the validity of her claim in terms of rhetoric and practice.
How is this relevant to the definition of a Kolombian? Well, first, it resonates well with SWRD’s claim (even though he could have laid out similar credentials which, his family has not shied away from asserting on occasion, in word and deed). It’s the condescension, folks. It’s the allusion to and illusion of some kind of birthright.
A comment to this post reveals the general mindset (names have been expunged for obvious reason): ‘That’s what I say - whether u live in the village or town -THE BREED SHOWS. Most of the baiayas who have been attacking you - their ancestors may perhaps have been from the class your parents would have employed as servants. Thanks to free education and the “shishtathvaya” - as well as the district wise selection for universities - some may be in comfortable jobs, donned in western attire - but their breed is from the gutter.’ [Note: this is a faithful transcription of a screen shot of the comment, inclusive of language error, e.g. ‘shishtathvaya’ instead of ‘shishyathvaya’ (scholarship exam)].
Neither the high caste, self-proclaimed ‘Buddhist’ nor any of her cheerleaders thought fit to object. This stuff is familiar and old: west is good, what’s not is bad; those of the lower classes/castes are gutter-bred’ and should also shut up.
My contention is that it is this kind of people who make up (or were misled by) the Funded-Voices, Born-Again Democrats and Candlelight Ladies who emerged from the woodworks lately.
How does one talk TO such people? If talking AT such people could result in civilized debate and discussion, then of course there is a case for doing so; my hunch is it would be a waste of time.
That said, there are people in Colombo (and even outside the shanty-communities in Colombo 7 and Colombo 3) who share with many who belong to ‘the other’ so derived in the Facebook post and comments thereto referred to above healthy notions of equality, civility and respect for difference. Their silence is worrisome of course, but that’s another matter. They are not Kolombians, in the sense in which I use the term, even though they could be mistaken for Kolombians due to the (relatively innocent) crimes of association and silence.
It is also important to note that just as there are Kolombians, there are also Kolombian Wannabes. They want to feel, like Rosy Senanayake, that Colombo ‘is the heart of the nation’. They would even say ‘Colombo IS Sri Lanka’ if they feel that would help them obtain Kolombian membership. However, it’s not that easy.
A few years ago, I wrote a satirical piece titled ‘Shortcuts to being a Kolombian’. A summary follows: 1) It’s not about where you are located but how you locate yourself, 2) Fluency in English is a must, 3) Adopting practices is important, not just dress and obtaining membership of certain clubs and circles but echoing Kolombian cheers and sneers (e.g. jeering those who don’t know English and who don’t get the accent right, and cheering those who ridicule such yakkos or baiyyas and act as though everything written, said and sung in Sinhala or Tamil, by ‘definition’, is inferior and worthy only of contempt), 4) Ridiculing and dismissing as inferior or stupid things not said said/written in English or borrowed/derived from Europe and North America.
So, some have membership, others do not. Some want it but will not get it. Some resent it. Some consider it hilarious. The important thing is to understand that not allKolombians are from Colombo and neither is everyone in Colombo a Kolombian.
The author can be contacted on email: firstname.lastname@example.org.Website: www.maindawords.blogspot.com