Not Quite Paradise
An American professor recalls her sojourn in Sri Lanka.
Three weeks after 9/11, University of Arizona professor Adele Barker arrived in Sri Lanka as a senior Fulbright Scholar to teach Russian literature, feminist literary theory, and American literature to select students at the University of Peradeniya. But her own education about the history and people of the island nation takes center page in her latest title, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka.Skip to next paragraph
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With centuries’ worth of visitors – “[s]ome were blown off course; some came for the spices; some to conquer and rule; some, much later, simply to sunbathe” – much of Sri Lanka’s history can be summarized in its names given by foreigners: the Roman Taprobane, the Arab Serendib, the Portuguese Ceilao, the Dutch Ceylan, the British Ceylon, and finally “[i]n 1972, the people who actually live on this island reclaimed the name Sri Lanka.”
Settling into a sprawling home in Kandy with her teenage son, Barker initially insists, “I didn’t want people who are darker than me fixing our meals and cleaning for us.” With her landlord’s gentle prodding, however, she realizes that not employing the locals is more damaging to the tenuous economy than upholding her anticolonialist principles. With its Sinhalese owners, Tamil caretaker, and ever-changing international visitors, Barker’s guesthouse compound is an oasis amid the “civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tiger rebels ... [that] had already been raging since 1983” and claimed 40,000 lives by 2001. But beyond the walls are daily reminders of war, from grenades to riots to murders. Sri Lanka, Barker learns, is a land of paradox: the endless violence “against the backdrop of something whose beauty is heart-stopping.”
Ironically, language – the universal tool of communication – is at the root of the Sinhalese/Tamil conflict: “Much of the tension between the two sides was initially created by the Official Language Act of 1956, making Sinhalese,... the official language of the country.” When the British left in 1948, Sri Lankans spoke Sinhalese, Tamil, and the “bridge language” of English. To Tamils, the Sinhalese-only law threatened “not only their language but their rights, their culture, and their status as equal citizens of Sri Lanka....” The initially peaceful protests quickly turned violent, resulting in a geographical separation with Tamils fleeing north, Sinhalese claiming the south.
In spite of perpetual conflict, Barker observes that she has never lived “with such a hybrid mix” of Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers of Dutch and Portuguese ancestry, Moors, and Malays. Surprisingly, religion – Sri Lanka is majority Buddhist – “has never been a factor in this war.”