Colombo, Identity, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Sri Lankan exiles and emigrants: Some thoughts

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Still from the movie Silenced Voices

But when you arrive in Ithaca, don’t expect to find jewels… Without Ithaca, you would not have set out… And through this journey… Such things have you learned.
(Cavafy. Translated from the Greek)

By way of a preface, I mention the perception in some religions that we all are exiles, sojourning through a foreign land, amidst a people more or less alien to us. I recall taking my mother to the British High Commission in Lusaka (she had come to us consequent of the savage anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983) in order to get her a visa to visit my sister in London. The official at the Commission studied her application and said, “I fear once you are in London, you will apply for permanent residence.” My mother smiled gently at him and replied, looking upward, “Young man, my permanent residence is elsewhere.” He signed the papers. (Mother died in Sri Lanka, 1988.)

The dictionary defines “emigrants” as those who leave their own country to settle permanently in another, and “exile” as the state of being banned from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. While “exile” implies compulsion, “emigration” suggests choice, but the instance of Frederica Jansz illustrates that the distinction is not always clear.

In an interview (‘The Seattle Times’, 24 June 2013) Ms Jansz is quoted as saying she can never return to Sri Lanka. In other words, she’s an exile, banned and barred. (One is reminded of Ovid, BCE 43 – CE 17, and his work, ‘Sorrows of an Exile’.) However, neither by Presidential decree nor by legal process was Ms Jansz expelled from Sri Lanka, “the Island of the Compassionate and Moral Doctrine of the Buddha”. So it can be argued she’s an emigrant and not an exile. But the offices of the ‘Sunday Leader’ of which she was the Editor had been set on fire more than once; death-threats had been made against her and, according to the interview, she was followed, harassed and threatened in various ways, including by one at the very highest level of government. Rejecting the usual options (silence, self-censorship, acquiescence, collaboration, sycophancy and its rewards etc.); fearing for her two children and what would become of them if something happened to her (she is a single-parent), Frederica Jansz felt compelled to flee the Island. After all, the previous editor, Lasantha Wickrematunga, having been warned and threatened, was murdered in broad daylight. (Anticipating his murder, Wickrematunga wrote a “J’accuse!” letter which was published posthumously by the ‘Sunday Leader’;  a perceptive, passionate and moving voice from the grave.) Though Ms Jansz is not de jure an exile she, like several other individuals in History, is de facto one. I know that her sorrow at never again being able to see the country in which she was born and lived; the country she loved and loves, is shared by other exiles, both Tamil and Sinhalese. If “extinction is for ever”, so it seems is exile.

But this is to take too despondent a view. Later, if not sooner, there could be a change of government and of those wielding power. The culture of individuals and groups, not to mention the government itself, acting outside the law, violently and with impunity, may change and “decency” ushered in. (“Decency” is a crucial word when estimating any society: see, Avishai Margalit, ‘The Decent Society’, Harvard University, 1996.) History provides instances of those driven into the desert of exile returning in “green” triumph, on the alliterative lines of “from prison to the Presidential palace”. Lesser mortals too can then return, though without fanfare and public notice, and try to pick up something of the pieces of their previous life.

Immediately after independence in 1948, thousands of Up-country Tamils were disenfranchised and sent to India. I do not say “returned” to India because most of them had lived in ‘Ceylon’ for generations and knew no other home. These poor, mostly illiterate, folk were not “repatriated” but unkindly “expatriated”. (Unfortunately, there’s much in post-independence Sri Lankan history to deplore and deeply regret.) About a decade later, the Burghers felt no longer “at home” in what had been their home, and most took flight, leaving the remainder either to assimilate and lose original identity or to cling to a fast fading way of life (see, Charles Sarvan, ‘Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches’, 2011, pages 25 – 39). The ‘Sinhala-only’ bill passed by Parliament, the anti-Tamil riots beginning in the 1950s (that of 1958 had much to do with my own departure) and the introduction of an ethnic-quota system for university entrance began the Tamil flight from Sri Lanka. The war against the Tamil Tigers, and worst of all, government policy and conduct in its aftermath, have driven many Tamils to despair of life in Sri Lanka. Many in the North and East are desperate to get out of “the Paradise Isle” – largely for the sake of their children and the latter’s future. In grammatical terms, “greener” is a comparative but Tamils who pay heavily and cram into precarious boats to undertake a dangerous voyage with an uncertain end are not seeking “greener pastures”: the pasture at home is not green. On the contrary, it has become harsh and barren to them, with no prospect on the horizon of rain, and the growth and happiness it can bring. There is a similarity with the instance of Frederica Jansz, and one can ask whether the exit of Tamils isn’t really exile, enforced by the state and its military, rather emigration.

Turning again to the dictionary, a “refugee” is defined as a person who has been forced (emphasised) to leave her or his country in order to escape calamities such as war and persecution. Refugees, therefore, are exiles but with the important difference that the former, unlike the latter, can return, be it temporarily or permanently.

Emigrants, unlike the exile, can hope to visit, and many indeed do, and that too, on a regular basis – Tamils far less, for evident reasons. Some with dual citizenship enjoy “the best of two worlds”. Though emigrants may leave with the intention of returning permanently, many finally do not because their children settle in their host-country, and parents don’t wish to part from their children and, years later, from their grandchildren. No doubt, exiles and emigrants suffer, to differing degree, a sense of loss, one that the passage of time may sharpen rather than heal, but there’s a good chance their children grow up to feel at home in their host country –  even more “at home”, more secure in the present and more confident about the future than they did in blessed Sri Lanka. The age at which one becomes an exile or emigrant plays an important role: the younger, the better the chance of adjusting, coming to terms, and succeeding.

The tendency when on the subject of exile and emigration is to have in mind writers, intellectuals, academics, individuals with achievement in some field or other, and members of the middle-class. Those ‘below’ though far greater in number remain unseen. This latter group suffers the handicap of not knowing the language of their host country and, if beyond a certain age on arrival, never quite master it:  employment prospects, social ease and status are tied to linguistic competence. As Heidegger noted, language is the house of Being, and it is language that lets Being appear.

“It is the genius of Shakespeare that when Mowbray is sent into exile, he doesn’t identify and lament the loss of relations and friends, or a familiar and loved physical and social environment, but language: his “tongue” is of no more use to him, doubly “portcullised” behind his teeth and lips. He is too old to learn a new language, and feels condemned to “speechlessness,” which is a living death (Richard 11, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 147-167). For Mowbray, exile from home means exile from language; exile from language is exile from home”

(Sarvan, ‘Literary Essays & Sketches’, page 84)

The exile / emigrant who arrives in a foreign country past middle-age may or may not suffer irreparable loss, and emotional and psychological damage but, most likely, not her or his children. Children are linguistic chameleons and remarkably adaptable to a new geographic and cultural environment. Soon most of them become not Australian or Canadian Sinhalese or Tamil but Australians or Canadians who happen to be of Sinhalese or Tamil origin. Marriage or long-term partnership with individuals from other ethnic groups further distances Sri Lanka. If there’s loss on the part of parents, there’s  gain on the part of succeeding generations, many of whom grow up to fulfil their potential and to enjoy a far better life – “better” in several, and not only in the material senses – than they would have had in present-day Sri Lanka. I wonder if parents who remain in Sri Lanka but have children abroad will, however reluctantly and sadly, acknowledge this.