I know that I usually…

I know that I usually have to force myself to read history, or poli sci. Part of what I'm trying to do in the book I'm writing now, a travelogue/memoir about love and nationalism, among other things, is to incorporate some of this history in more of a story-form. So in case that's helpful, here's two brief excerpts from the book-in-progress:


We drive north to Anuradhapura, one of the ancient cities, where two thousand years ago, kings ruled over most of the island. I spent a semester in grad school studying Sri Lankan history, reading about the Sinhala king Dutthagamani of the south, and his battle against Elara, the Tamil king who ruled over Anuradhapura and the north. This is where they fought for control of the island.

Once upon a time, there was a righteous Sinhalese king, a virtuous Buddhist of course, whose people were threatened by the evil Tamil invaders. King Dutthagamani fought a holy war to rescue the Sinhalese people, the true Sri Lankans, and in the end he conquered Elara and united our land for the first time, ruling all with justice and compassion, as a good Sinhalese Buddhist should.'

This is the story told to Sinhalese children in colorful comic books today, the story they grow up believing. The comic book version is a satisfying tale, I have to admit -- the story speaks to the soul. The idea of a patriot, valiantly throwing out the foreign invaders, if you're Sinhalese. Or the idea of Elara, struggling valiantly to preserve his people's lands against the onslaught of Dutthagamani's overhelming forces. He lost in the end, but ah, what a glorious struggle. It's no wonder that it's so easy to fan the flames of hatred in modern hearts, when they grow up hearing these stories. I'm not claiming that these dangerous stories are the reason why so many Tamils were slaughtered by their Sinhalese neighbors in the '83 riots -- but they didn't help.

The real story goes more like this:

Once upon a time there was a king, Kavantissa, Dutthagamani's father. He ruled one of the many independent kingdoms of Sri Lanka, but he wanted to rule them all. He fought many battles during his life, subduing all the southern, Sinhalese, kingdoms, one by one. When he wasn't certain of his ability to win by outright conquest, he relied on stealth and treachery. In the kingdoms of Soma and Seru, Kavantissa moved into the area on the pretext of building a religious monument dedicated to the Buddha, in apparent fulfillment of a prophecy of the Buddha himself. Once he and his many men were there, the kings had little hope of dislodging him. And when his son Dutthagamani came to power, he fought not just the Tamil king Elara, but as many as thirty-two battles with different rulers in the course of his campaign. He united the island, yes -- by conquering all of his sovereign neighbors and killing their kings, priests, and thousands of innocent subjects.

Stealth, treachery, overweening ambition, greed, invasion and bloodthirsty slaughter. It's harder to inspire youngsters to leave their families, to come fight and kill and die for you, with that kind of story.

...and from later in the book:

Karina tries to get me to appreciate the wonders of Kandalama hotel; eventually I must grudgingly admit that it is wondrous. Secretly, I am proud of Bama's achievement, and find myself taking pleasure in it as a Sri Lankan. I think to myself, Ah, one of our people built this! We've driven through the jungle from Dambulla and encountered a huge and seemingly impenetrable ridge. The hotel entrance is shaped like a wide fissure near the top of the ridge, reached by a massive ramp; a cavernous corridor leads from the entrance through the ridge to reveal the hotel's main terraces and a view across the lake towards Sigiriya Rock. The hallways are open air terraces, cut into the cliff face, and bats fly through them, high above our heads. In our room, the shower wall is a single pane of glass flush against the cliff -- if you could lean out, you would tumble down forever. Vines wind across the glass, the walls; Bama has striven to integrate the hotel as naturally as possible into the surrounding landscape. This hotel is more than beautiful -- it's stunning.

The flat roof has been turned into a garden, and the hotel with its cloak of foliage melts into the jungle to such a degree that from the opposite shore of the tank it is almost invisible. It is environmentally kind; water is drawn from wells, sewage is carefully treated, and all waste is removed from the site. Yet Bama also maintained tremendous drama -- I'm astonished by the infinity pool, a swimming pool that goes to the edge of the sheer cliff drop. There's a protective wall to keep you from swimming off the edge, but it's just below the surface of the water, so it's not visible to the eye. It looks like you could just swim over the edge, straight down to the water, the Kandalama Tank. The tank is one of the ancient wonders of Sri Lanka -- a massive 1700-year-old irrigation tank, the size of a lake. I can't imagine how much work it must have been to build the original tank. I wonder how many workers died in the process.

When I was studying Sri Lankan history in grad school, one of my favorite parts was reading about irrigation. Not because I have any inherent interest in irrigation, or farming. But the history book said that for a long, long time, Sri Lanka had the most advanced irrigation system in the world. Bailey, a nineteenth century British official, wrote at one point, "probably no other country can exhibit works so numerous, and at the same time so ancient and extensive, within the same limited area, as this Island." I quietly exult in the knowledge that my people were once the most advanced in the world.

The system was developed during Dutthagamani's rule (the Sinhalese king who conquered the Tamil king Elara, and united the island, ruling from the Anaradhapura Kingdom). He doesn't get all the credit for it -- the advanced, pervasive irrigation system of massive tanks (the size of lakes, big enough that you couldn't see the other side) and canals was made possible by relatively stable village structures, with management mostly in the hands of monastaries or the gentry. But Dutthagamani did have the vision to initiate the building of the tanks and canals, to develop the system. Even though I resent a little, in the secret chambers of my heart, the need to give credit to this Sinhalese conqueror, I am simultaneously proud of his accomplishment.

It's not logical, that I should take pleasure in the actions of a man who lived a thousand years before me, whose only connection to me is that we were born within the bounds of a certain island, an arbitrarily-defined nation. Yet the pleasure is there, the whisper in the mind that says, We are both Sri Lankans; his accomplishments are a part of me. We are the same. I want to say there's nothing wrong with that -- it's a harmless identification, a moment of pleasant civic pride, love of one's people. Yet there is a danger. It's the same type of identity politics that leads me to be bitterly glad that later Sinhalese kings, Parakramabahu I and Nissanka Malla, overextended their hydraulic expansions, leading to the eventual collapse of the last great Sinhalese kingdom. How vile and petty is that feeling in the heart that says, They are Sinhalese, and I am Tamil. They have treated my people poorly, and I have the right to rejoice in their downfall. We are not the same, and I am glad.

This is the downside of love.

-- from Arbitrary Passions, work-in-progress

1 thought on “I know that I usually…”

  1. hm, interesting. let me first say, i really enjoyed “bodies in motion”. i found it entertaining, and loved the style of intertwining short stories.

    i know you’re doing a lot of research for your other novel and are trying to get a grant to travel there. and to write on a subject that broaches the conflict is a formidable task that i myself would not be able to do. but i hope you’ll be open to some (hopefully constructive) criticism.

    “Stealth, treachery, overweening ambition, greed, invasion and bloodthirsty slaughter. It’s harder to inspire youngsters to leave their families, to come fight and kill and die for you, with that kind of story.”

    bothers me—mostly b/c i think the communal violence that erupted resulted more from a perceived oppression and resentment under british rule, rather some centuries-long ethnic grudge based on ancient stories. i know you acknowledge this after the first story…but i think the complexity of the conflict should be characterized in more concrete terms.

    also, i would be hesitant to label one ancient story as “real” and another as hyperbole…i think maybe a better description would be to say, “based on [these resources], i discovered that…”

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