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English: Storming the elitist citadel

Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake

The annual E.F.C. Ludowyk memorial lecture delivered by Gamini K. Haththotuwegama struck the genteel groves of English academia at Peradeniya with the force of a thunderbolt.

Born in Galle, educated at Richmond E.F.C. Ludowyk is seen here in his adopted home in Sussex, England. Gamini K. Haththotuwegama who hails from the same township Galle is also a product of Richmond.

For no more incongruous figure could have been imagined than GK (as he is better known) to pay homage to the ultimate high priest of English letters in Sri Lanka. For not only do they represent two different cultural eras in the country but also two different cultural attitudes.

If Ludowyk was the impeccable scholar and teacher reared in the colonial era and retiring in the face of the overturn of 1956, GK has been the stormy petrel of the English Department and perhaps more to the point the pioneer guru of a racy, irreverent street theatre. However on a closer examination similarities too emerge.

For although he did not make a fetish of it Ludowyk was a sympathiser of the then militant LSSP and was no ivory tower scholar cringing from the sordid realities of life. Even his decision to retire in 1956 came not so much from an inability to adapt to social change but from a recognition (surely vindicated by later developments) of the essentially majoritarian nature of the Sinhala Only Act.

Then there is, of course, the common factor of drama. It was Ludowyk's productions which laid the basis for a sophisticated English-language theatre in Sri Lanka and Ediriweera Sarachchandra's collaboration with him led to the seminal works of translation and adaptation which in turn paved the way for his path-breaking 'Maname'. GK, of course, blazed quite a different trail forsaking the proscenium stage altogether and choosing the pavements and the railway stations as the arena for his subversive drama.

GK's lecture was no staid academic discourse, the ritual tribute to a great luminary. He ranged far and wide, roamed hither and thither and while uttering some home truths and puncturing some pomposities also paid tribute where such was due to those who had tried to salvage the English Department from the stigmata of elitism.

He spoke of the role of Peradeniya academics in coming to the help of students incarcerated after the JVP insurrections of 1971 and 1989 and how some of them had rescued Tamil students from massacre in 1983 when for the first time in university history Tamil students were attacked in a prelude to the islandwide massacre of that year.

But his best snippet though macabre captured in its simplicity the utter erosion of all decencies, which has afflicted our society during the last several decades. It was the Campus carter's story of his bull who had refused to proceed beyond the pond where the decapitated heads of 18-20 students had been made to form what GK called a gruesome wreath during the height of the 1987-89 terror. The bull had smelled blood and was recoiling from the horror enacted by humans.

But where does the teaching of English fit in into this scheme of things? What is the relevance of English in a dominantly Sinhala-ruled milieu? How does one teach English to students who may not even have studied English for their A Levels or who come from Madhya Maha Vidyalayas with their rural milieu? GK speaks on one pole about the girl (with no grounding in AL English) who had taken one look at the GAQ paper and fled in terror never to return and on the other pole of three teachers from Training Colleges who had acted in one of his plays and in his own words 'not blue blood Dramsoc(k)ers.'

In other words it is this second type of student whom the system should encourage, those who have not been reared in an elitist English milieu but rooted in the soil and capable of responding to the language and the literature although they may be 'shaky' in expression in the eyes of the purists.

This it would appear to be is the heart of the matter. It will be an illusion to think that English Departments will be any longer able to produce scholars of the old type steeped in an exclusively English milieu, coming from the correct schools and talking with the proper accents. But if English is to take root in Sri Lanka it has to assume a native complexion and voice, take root in the soil and be nourished by it.

This task will necessarily devolve on the products of the Maha Vidyalayas thrown up by the countryside and nourished by it but free of ultra-nationalist blinkers and able to enter into a healthy dialogue with English.

For that, however, English will first have to be demystified. It will have to be revealed as just another cultural tool among others and not the intimidating 'kaduwa' of student mythology. It will have to be stripped of its colonial trappings and its class status erased.

How does one set about this ? GK talks encouragingly of AL students at a revision seminar singing Michael Jackson's 'Heal the World' or Bob Dylan's 'Blowing in the Wind.' More to the point is the trilingual version of Dylan's song, which his own theatre group had done. All this can help to bring English down from its old Anglo-Saxon pedestal and relate it to the more immediate realities of life as lived by the average non-elitist student.

For this is where the future of English in Sri Lanka will lie. It will be futile to expect the progeny of the old English-educated elite to keep the flag flying. Most of them are not interested anyway or have succumbed to a culture of 'Thannane naa-thane naa' as GK caustically comments.

They are more interested in jobs in the private sector or studying the computer than in English. In such a context English will have to be kept alive by the large swathe of the middle-class and the bi-lingual intelligentsia. But even these latter sections will lack the intellectual sophistication and breadth of interests, which marked the preceding generations of the 1940-70s.

The English that they will practise will be essentially different to the old Standard English whether one calls it Sri Lankan English, Commonwealth English, post-colonial English, new English or by any other nomenclature.

The challenge here would be to forge a kind of Sri Lankan English best described by Chinua Achebe as quoted in D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke's recent book 'Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003'. Achebe said in the context of his native Africa: I feel that the English language will be able to carry the burden of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home, but altered to suit its new African surroundings.

Source: Chinua Achebe's comment is excerpted from The African Writer and the English Language in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, p 434.

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