Midweek Review
Has English destroyed indigenous culture or enriched it?

By Douglas Walathara
I have read the Ludowyk memorial lecture of Prof. Thiru Kandiah delivered on 19th October, 1999 at Peradeniya as I had the privilege of receiving a copy of it from Thiru himself. It is a formidable piece of thinking. It is about the ambiguities of post-colonial practice in relation to English. The title is "Re-visioning, Revolution, Revisionism: English and the Ambiguities of Post-Colonial Practice."

The thinking is intricate, the conceptualisations are subtle and the insights are valuable. But to me it seems there are more refinements needed and Thiru’s "Abhidhamma" on English( as I would call it, not carpingly, as any deep investigations must become Abhidhamma-used with no disrespect to the Dhamma at all) will become even more complex and recondite if I were to add my two cents’ worth. What I want to ask is whether we have to make English just a marketable "commodity" in the new post-colonial situation in Sri Lanka for jobs, for business, and for trade in the world of global business, or whether we could not let remain a "Complementary" role for English in the evolving of a new National Language culture and identity.

It would appear that writers like Ismail and Parakrama are "furious" in their attacks on the Dept of English, at least, Ismail is. Both saw the Dept. of English ,so Tiru conjectures, as a "near - icon of the entire privileged world of English". It appears to have been felt that the Ludowyk-Passe-de Souza tradition (don’t forget Ernest B. de Chickera, perhaps peripheral but valiant) was a colonial one which drew its strength from what is called a ‘colonial centre’ and passed on ‘the literary thought ‘ of that centre in actually a ‘diluted form’ to the growing masses outside the centre.

In sum, there was a privileged world of English in the centre and ,outside of it, the indigenous world - of indigenous culture and language. English was an instrument for causing the dispossession for the majority of a place in the centre. This is the burden of the cry of the new nationalists who were seeking to take over, and did really take over, after several years following Independence. This analysis has always been rather simplistic, and the new products of the post-colonial discipline of English joined in the complaint ,thus, I suppose, endorsing the cry of the defenders against the blows of the "kaduwa" and making themselves also a part of "The Others themselves. Thus ,in a sense, they were helping to close the gap between centre-insiders and the rest-the outsiders. Thus the centre also was becoming outsiders, so restoring the unity of the nation! That could be a description of the role of what perhaps is the Post Ludowyk -Passe English Department English products-some even of American vintage.

I would like to defend the English Department from this charge of passing down a watered down culture to the country and getting involved in what Thiru calls a "multiple dialectic" in his description of what happened.

There is another way of looking at what happened. Actually there is a case for the passing on of new cultural elements to create a tradition for establishing a universality which is essential for a global civilisation. This may look like a defensive contention of a privileged person who had admission to the colonial culture via English schools, the Christian Church, and the highly artificial English department "culture". But remember there were several local cultural traditions- the Up country tradition of Walauwe society, the low-country traditions enriched by the mixing with the "people in-between" and low country traditions that tried to keep clean (even though only in name) and both low country and upcountry variety of caste traditions. Isn’t there then a case for there having been the need even among the "outsiders" for some degree of universalisation which actually came about because of the Colonial Centre-rather a back-handed result of Colonialism itself! My view is that the English Department of Lyn Ludowyk, Hector Passe and Doric de Souza was a powerful agent for this process but it really began earlier with Englishmen themselves like administrators (Leonard Woolf), historians David Hussey- educationists, father LeGoc, F. L. Woodward, W. T. Keble, and Sri Lankans too who had no connection with the English Dept. axis, such as S. F. de Silva and even Sarathchandra ( who taught, I am told, English literature at STC.) and Martin Wickremesinghe who read all his Russian novels in English. These had ,if not actual involvement in, a very sensitive understanding of the colonial culture and the English language.

Thiru says "It (English) was not only the symbol and major linguistic means of the colonial imposition but it was also the emblem of a complicity middle class, elite who had never shown themselves averse to playing the comparator to the erstwhile rulers." But what is unfortunately not recognised is that the sensitive layers of this middle class elite offered a new recognition of Human and humane values antagonistic to caste differences- which did enrich culture and even lay the foundation for the values of a global civilisation of a technological modernisation that was in the offing, which has now seized us lock, stock and barrel. One way in which this universalisation was effected was through the cultural content enshrined in the great literature of a developed language ( how it developed is not of any use now for let’s face the fact that it has, though it may be through suppression, domination, imperialism and military conquest). It seems to me that the English Dept. of Ludowyk and Co. refined the "otherness" of the Centre and let it permeate the country through the University .( Don’t forget that Gam Peraliya and Maname were first blazoned to fame by this newly refined "outsider" element. Lester James gave Gam Peraliya fame as a film-he had the patronage of Lionel Wendt. We must not forget Prof. Ashley Halpe’s contribution to the indigenous culture).

On page 34 of his paper, Prof. Thiru Kandiah shows that he himself is aware of the simplistic nature of the Ismail analysis: Both (that is Otherness and Selfhood) have been intimately implicated in each other by the dialectical movements of history, making it impossible to confine either to dichotomised water-tight compartments from which the other has been excised. The kind of experience, thought and sensibility which emerge from that history is something which may be described as symbiotic. That is, they hold within themselves elements of both or all of the different cultural inputs, in varying proportions among different segments of life and society-giving nourishment to both. The elements exist sometimes in harmony, at other times in tension or even overt opposition with each other. But together they define the inescapable realities of being, existence and knowledge in the community. (Kandiah has adequately sized up the so -called dichotomy in a paper of 1981 and 1989.)

Kandiah makes a most sensitive judgement at the end of this quote from his paper-"AII of which, of course, means that the national) identity which post-colonialism was striving to retrieve and the idiom in which it would express itself could hardly assume some presumed pure, pre-colonial nature. Rather, they would manifest the creative transformation of the indigenous traditions and their enduring instrinsic features in dynamic interaction with very many of those other features which had come in from outside during colonial times to become a necessary part of reality they now belonged within" I do not wish to quote at length but page 35 of Thiru’s printed version of his lecture is necessary reading for one who wants to eschew simplisticity.

I think all this points out to the complementary role of English. I do not think that it has to be made an indigenous language as do argue those who talk of the varieties of English and the different Englishes (!)especially foreign advisors! It should be taught for the great humane values in the literature. A point I may mention in this connection is that when I lectured in the Govt. Training College from 1950 to 1970 together with Evelyn Geddes, Augustine Tambimuttu and others ,training teachers of English, we taught the teachers to teach English through literature. We never dissociated the language from the literature as became the case when the foreign experts took over. Some of the teachers we trained were really the best t}" country had after English became a Second Language. Today what ? English teaching is a money job done through mikes and English is a saleable commodity. Even when I lectured to managers in PIM I certainly did not sacrifice its complementary role. I don’t know whether they became better managers but at least I think they became aware that there was something more to hiring and firing and answering the telephone and correspondence, memos and reports. They knew that "though the woods were lovely dark and deep they did have miles to go before they slept".

What created the Kaduwa was the destruction of English for values, for its complementary role. On page 46 of Prof. Kandiah’s lecture he states," The constitution of English as the outsider language was already not too difficult by virtue of its foreign provenance. But the process of making it an acceptable, non threatening outsider was further facilitated by reducing it to almost purely pragmatic, instrumental and utilitarian dimensions, as the language of international commerce, technology, increasingly available foreign and local jobs, international dealings and such like." Thus "Kaduwa" referred to the new values coming through the market -process and not through what should have been a complementary role. So we got the students collecting the "lumpen values" distributed by general English such as such as ragging ,strikes, protests, slogans, mod-clothes, T-shirts with daring slogans and brand names, and media English, entertainment, Bollywood and advertising culture.

We should return to English for its "Complementary" role.