The other day, Sunanda Deshapriya (who used to convene the Free Media Movement, no less!) tweeted, “It looks like #SriLanka Railway Department has been sold to China! No other language, only English and #Chinese!” This came with a photograph of a train schedule. Deshapriya acknowledges, ‘Photo from FB.’ That’s the ‘all’ of his media ethics.
The said photograph is not, as claimed by many, a timetable put up by the Mt Lavinia Railway Station. It is essentially a part promotional and part client-friendly move by the Mount Lavinia Hotel. The photograph that Deshapriya shared, in fact, carries the legend ‘Mount Lavinia Hotel’, whereas other posts similar to Deshapriya’s beef leave it out. Deshapriya has let his political angst get the better of commonsense; others have been a tad more careful, but nevertheless demonstrating intelligence levels closer to dumb that average—the lie, simply, just wouldn’t hold.
All this is incidental. The issue is China. The so-called ‘Chinese Footprint.’ The “OMG Chinese are taking over!” chorus. All part of the story.
Now here are some questions. If footprints constitute a concern, did the OMG-China Choir offer even a murmur or protest when all of a sudden Arabic signs started coming up in certain Muslim-dominated areas in the country? If it’s a product of ‘nationalism’ did they ever utter ‘OMG, the USA’ or, perhaps in a different era, their parents rant and rave about the British? Was there ever an OMG equivalent for English footprints?
Interestingly and not surprisingly the Sinophobes happen to belong to that interesting tribe which we can call the Anglophiles who often wistfully sigh, “If only the British had not left!” and rarely let pass an opportunity to sneer at anyone and everyone who can’t speak English or speak it ‘wrong’ (yes, within inverted commas, for there’s politics of language AND ignorance in all of that).
“Them yakkos!” they utter in disdain. “Them godayaas” too! And, in a context where political clout has to be exercised behind the scenes (courtesy, democracy and the sheer weight of numbers standing against the Anglophiles) ‘feel goodness’ has often been obtained by sneering at ‘mispronunciation’ (yes, again within inverted commas).
Now there are those who aren’t fluent in English but dearly want to join the Anglophilic club. They believe that mimicking the membership would suffice; mimicking not the language, but lifestyles, and more crucially aligning themselves politically. So they regurgitate the tired narrative: “Things were better under the British” (for whom, they won’t say); the problem is that we got independence on a platter, unlike India (yes, they have not heard of the battles, the genocidal response costing hundreds of thousands of lives, the vandalizing of temples, outright plunder and so on).
It might help to look at things from a different angle, that of the Mother Country, the Lords and Ladies whose lifestyles and fashion-choices whose adoption they mistakenly believed would make them ‘as British’ and position them above the riffraff. Take a look at the poster calling people to join the Army.
It is a cheap but telling juxtaposition. There’s the British lion waving the Union Jack and a ‘Lion of Lanka’ with a lion-flag (no green and orange stripes, interestingly). The British beast is clawed, the Lankan counterpart has been manicured or rather, pedicured. The former has a bloodied tongue and actually resembles the lion in the wilds; the latter is, well, ornamental, more like a puppy actually brandishing something that looks like a butter knife!
Now it’s the colonial army that the Lankans are asked to join. “We feed you, we clothe you, we make a new man of you!” (Subtext: you are starved, naked and as for your manhood, it requires a make-over!). And what is all this for? They urge, “Man the defence of Lanka, your home!”
Well, we know the fate of those who did just that—they were butchered. So, when the invaders are under threat, ownership is conceded (in a poster, only) and the invaded are invited to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Actually, not that close.
The look-down-the-nose is still quite apparent. Those who did join the Army may not have noticed. The Anglophilic ancestors of the current breed might have actually cheered, relishing the opportunity to lay down their lives for the empire!
Back in the day, when people wanted to defend their land, their Lanka, the full wrath of the empire was unleashed on them. Today, that’s not possible. There are other means (for, as the Nanda Malini song in the ‘Pavana’ album goes, sudda yanna giyeth nae, nogihin hitiyeth nae — the white man didn’t stay, neither did he leave) including the threat of sanctions, resolutions in Geneva and the sophomoric give-the-middle-finger move of lighting up the British Parliament with the flag of a terrorist organization which sought to fracture the land.
The anglophiles are part of the story. A product of the story. Adjuncts too. Their Sinophobia has nothing to do with some kind of ‘nationalism.’
What’s missing here is that the name of the plunderer or resources, extractor of value and/or exploiter of the people is less important than the facts of plunder, value-extraction and exploitation. It’s about the nature of the oppressive footprint and not the owner of the foot. It matters not whether it is an Englishman, an American (of the US), a German, an Indian or even a Sri Lankan, that’s wearing the jackboot. It’s the trampling that ought to concern the trampled. Except in the case of those who are spared the boot on account of being commissioned to polish it!
So that’s the politics of language here. It’s the railway stations of the mind that have been plastered, not with English or Chinese, but all the languages of oppression. Nothing fake about that.
Bantu Stephen Biko, the South African nationalist tortured and killed in 1977 by the white South Africa cops, once described characteristics of a defeated race thus (captured in a collection of his writings under the title ‘I write what I like’):
‘[a] race that brags about expensive clothes that they wear, that are produced by another race; a race that brags about cars that they drive, that are manufactured by companies owned by another race; a race that brags about their houses that are financed by financial institutions owned by another race; a race that takes their kids to school to be taught by another race; a race that will celebrate their wedding in the style of another race; a race that has fully adopted language and religion of another race; a race that will hate each other defending another race; a race that will get excited to work for another race; a race that the only freedom it has is the freedom to vote and not economic freedom; a race that will kill each other just to have a political position and be in office and not be in power.’
Here’s the remedy: ‘The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.’
Who then is complicit in the crime of abuse and continued reign of evil? Language is a window. It is also a mirror.
It won’t hurt any of us to take a look.