Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 18 March 2012
I’m neither a historian nor chef, but have a healthy interest in both their subjects. I wish the two come together more often! I tried such a ‘fusion’ in words less than 100 days after Sri Lanka’s war ended.
The resulting essay, titled ‘Sri Lanka: Spice Island or Bland Nation?’ (published in Himal Southasian magazine in July 2009, and in compact form on Groundviews.org) highlighted challenges of the mind that we face as we rebuild our nation.
Today, just over a thousand days after the war’s end, my words still hold true. If anything, they are more pertinent now given the shrilly rhetoric we’ve heard in recent weeks. So here is another version of my original essay:
Located strategically in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was a hub in the maritime silk and spice routes for millennia. It drew traders from the Mediterranean and Middle East to Indonesia and China who arrived for business and pleasure. Notable among the attractions were spices – their many aromas and flavours formed part of the tropical paradise experience.
The traditional Lankan curry contained up to a baker’s dozen of spices and herbs. Most such plants were not native – black pepper came from South India, cloves from Indonesia and chilli all the way from the Americas. Cinnamon was Sri Lanka’s contribution to this delightful mix.
The diverse origins didn’t really matter: the islanders knew just how to mix the native and foreign to achieve legendary results.
As Sri Lanka embarks on national integration and reconciliation after three decades of war, it’s worth recalling this particular aspect of our heritage. For the war not only devastated the economy and blighted the prospects of a generation; it also nurtured high levels of insecurity and insularity. Dissent is considered decidedly unpatriotic. Everything foreign is suspect – especially if it emanates from the western world.
Unless we are careful, the spice island of lore can turn into a ‘bland’ nation.
Paradoxically, Sri Lanka today is more closely linked to the rest of the world than ever before. Geography is still a strong part of our destiny – we are tapping the benefits of being in the right location. A good proportion of Indian Ocean shipping passes through our ports. Some vessels bring what we cannot (yet) produce on our own; others routinely carry our tea, rubber and other exports to the world.
But Sri Lanka is no longer just a seller of agri-produce. We now actively market our hospitality, dexterity and genius. In the wake of peace, the travel industry hopes to attract a million tourists per year.
Meanwhile, one out of every 20 Lankans works overseas, remitting billions of dollars that keep our economy going. Partly fuelled by this Diaspora, thousands of voice calls and terabytes of data are flowing in and out of the island every day and night. This enhanced tele-connectivity is only a decade old, but it is already taken for granted – except when an undersea fibre optic cable occasionally snaps.
All this suggests that Lankans have found their niche in the incessantly chattering, moving and trading global family. But a closer look shows that many among us are still uneasy in actually engaging the world.
Such apprehensions provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. They constantly warn of elaborate international plots to ‘undermine and destabilise’ little Sri Lanka. The usual suspects include cocktail of acronyms – among them the CIA, MI5, RAW, the IMF (and its twin, the World Bank), certain UN agencies and an assortment of supposedly ‘evil’ multinational corporations. In real X-Files style, we are told to ‘Trust No One’!
Worryingly, an alarmingly high number of Lankans take these imaginary scenarios for real. High levels of literacy and schooling make little difference. Our media often peddle — and amplify – these for cheap thrills or higher ratings.
This is not how we engaged the world in the past.
For much of our recorded history, we had open frontiers that welcomed traders, scholars, pilgrims, artistes, missionaries and others from the East and West. This was the ‘ehi-passika’ (meaning ‘come and see’) formula in Buddhism, which made our kings and courtiers open minded.
Such engagement had their pros and cons, but on the whole, the island nation was richer for the free flow of genes, ideas and technologies. It was only during the last five centuries – out of 25 in recorded history – that the balance was lost due to European colonisation.
As with the spices, ancient Lankans knew how to mix the home-grown with external elements. Indeed, the island’s fauna, flora and people would be radically different today if such influences and cross-fertilisation didn’t happen.
Excepting our aboriginal veddahs, all other races are immigrants from elsewhere. All our religious faiths are also ‘imported’. Sri Lanka today is a result of endless assimilating and remixing.
We take pride in the high number of plant and animal species that share our crowded island. Nearly a quarter of them are found nowhere else in the world, which makes Sri Lanka a biological treasure trove. Curiously, some environmental activists who want to preserve this biological diversity do not appreciate our equally rich cultural diversity.
Those who advocate cultural hegemony should re-read their own history. For two thousand years, the spice island practised Mahatma Gandhi’s timeless advice (long before he articulated it): “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
As we leave the war’s legacy behind, we need revive our intellectual curiosity and spirit of tolerance. We must resume discussing and debating public policies, choices, alternatives and trade-offs on the road to peace and prosperity. As President John F Kennedy once said, “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive.”
Part of this pluralism involves dissent. Can our media, civil society and intelligentsia now take up Martin Luther King, Jr.’s definition of dissent — “the right to protest for right” – and resume their suspended cacophony? What a bland nation we would become without the ‘spice’ of discordant voices adding to our melting pot!
Throughout history, this spice island has nurtured pluralism without losing its identity or integrity. It has withstood numerous invasions, colonialism and tsunamis. Sri Lanka is more resilient than we think — and more vibrant and diverse than it appears at first glance.
Let genes, ideas and spices flow freely again!