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Identity And The ‘Other’: The Case Of Sri Lanka – OpEd


By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Reading is an ever-receding horizon with one book leading to another and that to still others, ad infinitum. So it is that Toni Morrison’s ‘The Origin of Others’ (Harvard University, 2017) led me to ‘A Good Man is Hard To Find’ by Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) and in that anthology to ‘The Artificial Nigger’. This short story is apposite to Morrison’s comment that no one is born a racist, and that we need the ‘Other’ in order to define and have a sense of our own group-identity.

The story is about Mr Head, aged sixty (then considered to be old) who takes his ten-year old grandson, Nelson, from their county to visit the city of Atlanta. Mr Head considers himself to be religious and moral, with an understanding of life that “makes him a suitable guide for the young”. Nelson has never seen an Afro-American – “There hasn’t been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago” – and so doesn’t recognise the first one they see in the train. “What was that?” challenges Mr Head. (It’s significant he doesn’t ask, “Who was that?”) The boy feels his intelligence insulted by so easy a question and replies, “A man”. When his grandfather asks what kind of man, the boy replies “A fat man”. Trying to get to what matters to him, Mr Head persists in asking what kind of man and gets the unsatisfactory reply: “An old man”. The boy’s wrong answer showing Mr Head his own superior knowledge, the grandfather triumphantly announces: “That was a nigger”. But the boy is indignant: How can I know the correct answer when you tell me wrong things? You said they were black but that man was tan. The boy doesn’t know there is far more to such words than their literal meaning. Similarly, Fielding in ‘A Passage of India’ causes outrage among his fellow whites by his witticism that there are really no “white” people. However, at the end the “shaping” of Nelson is complete. The physical suggesting the mental, grandfather and grandson have their “necks forward at almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost exactly the same way…” Returning then to the title of this short story, the “Nigger” is indeed an “artificial” construct but necessary for the construction of a superior, ‘white’, identity.

The first identification Nelson makes is that the other is a man, a human being. This is what is most important to him – and, indeed, ought to be. When pressed, he comes up with “fat” and “old”. Skin-colour, of paramount importance to his grandfather, is of no significance to the little boy. As I have written elsewhere, identity is not single and simple but multiple and complex. Let us take an imaginary Sri Lankan male. He belongs to a certain religion and takes an active part in the life of his church, mosque or temple (alphabetical order). He is employed as an X, and finds his work interesting and rewarding. Yet another pillar of his existence is his family, and also his relations and close friends. He supports a certain cricket team, and has various other interests but all these different strands that go to form the composite individual are denied, erased, made of no import when he is labelled “Tamil”. Innocent Nelson didn’t know that what mattered most to his society was ‘accidental’ skin-colour: so too, for many in the ‘Paradise Isle’ what counts above all else is ethnic origin. It is the strand that is prioritised; secondly, religion; more precisely, Buddhism. But to say of an individual that he is a “Nigger”, as Mr Head does, or that someone is a Tamil, tells us more about the speaker than the person spoken of.

I now turn from the fictional to the factual; from a short story to lived experience, though the distinction is not sharp: it has been said that literary fiction creates lies in order to tell truths about human beings and life. Indeed, Nadine Gordimer, Nobel-Prize winner for Literature, said that nothing factual she writes is more true than her fiction. However, experience and poetry seem to merge in a poem by the Africian-American, Countee Cullen (1903-1946). I quote two stanzas:

“Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.”

Whether this is autobiographical, a recollection of a childhood incident or creative imagination, we don’t know.

The following (taken from an article of mine titled ‘Racism and “exceptionalism’”, published by the Sunday Leader: 17 January 2010) is apropos what Mr A. Sivanandan said in an interview, published in the New Left Review (London, Nov-Dec 2009 issue, pages 79-98) under the caption ‘An Island Tragedy: Buddhist ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka’. Sivanandan (1923-2018) was director of the UK’s Institute of Race Relations for forty years. He was also editor of Race & Class, and is the author of a much-acclaimed novel, When Memory Dies. Tamil Sivanandan, married to a Sinhalese, spoke Sinhala fluently and, as he says in the interview, had no special sense at all of being a Tamil, that is, until the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 violently forced a Tamil identity on him. I cite from the Sunday Leader:

“In Sri Lanka, children and young people politely address those much older as “Uncle” or “Aunt”, even if the person is not related. Sivanandan recalls that in 1958, seeing someone he didn’t know in the house of his (Sinhalese) mother-in-law, he asked his eldest daughter, aged about five, who that uncle was. She replied in Sinhala: “That’s not an uncle, that’s a Tamil” (p. 87). Horrified that his own daughter had been poisoned with racism, and at so early an age, he decided to leave the Island.”

Many years ago, while teaching in the Middle East I was friends with a Sinhalese family. The Sinhala I then spoke, though limited, was idiomatic. For this and other reasons, it was not infrequently assumed I was Sinhalese. Their daughter – let’s call her Nalini – was about twelve. One day, as I walked into their home, little Nalini met me at the door with a worried, earnest, expression on her face: “Uncle, is it true you are Tamil?” Her eyes asked I should deny and reassure; say that someone was teasing her. It was as if she’d suddenly been told that I was, in fact, a paedophile. Her parents were my friends; I was well-regarded and freely walked into their house, yet Nalini had been infected with ‘racism’. How could that happen? A possible explanation is ‘exceptionalism’. If a member of the ‘Other’ group can’t be reproached, she or he is made an exception; and an exception, we are told, proves what’s otherwise general, normal. But if that person fails in one way or another; to a smaller or greater degree, then she or he is not seen as an individual but as a typical member of that ‘Other’ group. It is a “no-win situation” which preserves group prejudice, and passes it on from generation to generation.

The word education comes from the Latin and means to lead outwards. T S Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring /
Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” However, fictional Nelson was not led outward but racially inward. The term “information” has “form” embedded in it: the information we receive, particularly in our early years, goes to form our thinking. This “forming” can be both through overt pedagogy and through indirect, unconscious, pathways: for example, via the stories (myths included) we are told as children; through anecdotes, songs, films, jokes and casual comment. “Innocence” can also mean “ignorance”: Nelson was innocent (in a positive sense) but, ironically, the “in-form-ing” he received from his grandfather and white society in general makes him ignorant and unjust.

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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