A while ago I wrote an ineloquent rant about a British article that portrayed Sri Lankan cuisine and its people as curious objects of the tropics, the latter of which didn’t understand what a national treasure our hoppers/aappa/appam were and needed a white woman to ‘discover’ it for international/British consumption. A few weeks ago, while eating said aappa at home watching television I came across this advertisement by Munchee for the release of their new (and admittedly delicious) cracker, the Sun Cracker. It shows a white woman tourist who blogs and internally discusses what makes Sri Lankans such curious people, referring to an interminable number of stereotypes about ‘island people’ such as how they’re ‘easy-going’, ‘agree to anything’, and ‘the best part is, they let things go’. She posits that, oh, it must be because of *drumroll* the Sun (cue images of Sun cracker hidden in people’s hands/pockets). I swallowed my aappa in quiet anger, infuriated at this same caricaturing of Sri Lankans as harmless, happy-go-lucky, sun-dazed simpletons who don’t know what they’re worth and need a benevolent foreigner to point it out. Of course, I was even more so outraged that this advertisement came from a group of Sri Lankans them/ourselves. Since when did we start defining our own self-worth by how foreigners see us? OK, I hear you, since forever. But to the point that we are reproducing this Orientalized image of ourselves to market products to ourselves. My disbelief warrants the double bold-italic emphasis.
The term ‘Orientalism’ is a fancy term that means the process where colonial Europeans viewed and understood non-European cultures as something exotic and cool but (importantly and inherently) weird and different. But still cool. And exotic. But definitely not equal to theirs. It was a way of distancing themselves from these new cultures they came across and not recognizing them as human. Orientalism can seem positive – like when island people are seen as laid-back and easy-going – and it can seem negative – like when domestic violence is allowed in a colonized land because the colonizer thinks ‘it’s just their culture, let them be’. The point is that colonizers didn’t see us as human beings with human cultures that just happened to be different – but equal – to theirs. So, whether that’s the dehumanizing process that justified slavery in their eyes or the dehumanizing process of seeing Hindu belief systems and traditions like yoga as spiritually superior and therefore immune to critique, colonial Europeans did not see us or our cultures as human, equally capable of greatness and great foolishness.
I hope the horror of that Sun cracker ad is clearer now. It’s not just the advertisement itself and the stereotypes it perpetuates, it’s what it means in the bigger picture: that we now see ourselves through this Orientalizing (dehumanizing) lens. We can chastise the companies involved in making this advertisement but the fact of the matter is that they are pitching to what they (often justifiably) believe is the status quo of society. And they’re right: this perception of ourselves as Orientalized ‘islanders’ pervades our everyday.
Look at the tourism sector. We are obsessed with the idea of selling the exotic.
Those who have minted money out of the idea of ‘Ayurveda’ hardly use any real principles of this highly studied area of medicine. Instead, we are comfortable with promoting ‘Ayurveda’ in tourism as just some random concoction of spices and pleasant scents in conjunction with images of ancient kings and queens waltzing through exotic junglescapes looking for… I mean, who really knows, a massage? The apple of Eden? Some chronologically appropriate attire? And if you’ve ever actually had kasaya or pas panguwa, you’ll know that stuff tastes more like extract of burnt dog than cinnamon or mint.* What is pictured above is not ayurveda – it’s an imagination of exotic release, the promise of sensual paradise, available for your consumption at RsRsRs.
And while on the one hand we promote the exotic, we are also comfortable with promoting our colonial past as though it’s something to preserve uncritically. I’m as much a fan of the beloved Galle Face Hotel doorman as the next person; he brought such a spirit to the Hotel. But we can’t ignore the fact that he spent no less than 72 years of his life playing the role of the ever-smiling islander in servitude. Sure, it was consensual and I am not laying blame with anyone here – I am merely pointing out how much we have come to expect and enjoy certain representations of the ‘Sri Lankan’ experience. One of which is this type of caricatured colonial subject, ever at your service. And guess what? Mr. Kuttan wasn’t an islander. He was from Kerala. He was a migrant who came here looking for work. But to the consumers of the colonial experience, what does that difference matter? One brown colonial subject is interchangeable for the next, are we not? We were interchangeable for rulers a few decades ago and now, amongst ourselves, we apparently still are.
I will pause here to reflect that there are indeed some interesting tourism projects, such as small eco-tourism initiatives that put the environment and local life front and centre as priority in their business models and shift the way tourists see their positioning vis-à-vis natural habitats and local cultures. However, the majority of what we see in tourism are things like the picture below where a company has literally built houses upon houses in Nuwara Eliya to look like a little version of England, with period architecture.
They clearly could not give a flying fiddle about how horrifically violent British plantation culture was (homes and all) and how its legacy continues today in the (still violent) abuse and unjust treatment of plantation workers. Instead, the aim is to sell this very colonial experience and whitewash its violence through a rejuvenating tourist experience. And this company is certainly not alone in their use of the British colonial experience for tourism in the Hill Country.
But it’s not just the tourism sector nor this projection of some exotic paradise that perpetuates Orientalism. It shapes the way that we think about our relationships with each other as well.
I was chatting to a small group of friends in the business sector a while ago. They were an assortment of locals and foreigners who were either trying to start their own business, were employed in companies here, or played leadership roles in large enterprises. Almost everyone was complaining about the laziness and poor work ethic of their staff or colleagues. There was no discussion of any labour issues, like the kinds of individualism that arises due to poor wages and benefits, labour competition, job insecurity, investment insecurity, you know, anything that could actually explain a poor work ethic anywhere in the world. Nope. Instead, everyone reached the easy consensus that this was just typical lazy islander behaviour – that a poor work ethic and the lack of ambition was inherent to us as islanders. At one point, one person knowledgeably explained that islanders were like this because historically, we did not have to fight for food but merely took what was available from our resplendent jungles. Of course, the Sri Lankans in the group agreed as well (barring a few who were too gobsmacked/upset to even respond). Those who agreed somehow saw themselves outside of this definition of ‘Sri Lankan’. Similarly, for the foreigners, the presence of incredibly successful, driven, ambitious Sri Lankans in that very group didn’t seem to negate the broad generalization they so comfortably made. Perhaps these ones’ ancestors had to fight for their coconuts?
How did we come to see ourselves in such a fractured sense? Believing that generalizations made about islanders or Sri Lankans somehow exempt some of us? When people critique the laziness of islanders, they do of all of us. When they project that our worth comes from our ability to be happy, smiling servants, they do of all of us. And when we market ourselves as a playground or theatre for people to play out their colonial fantasies, it’s still all of us who become the playground. Those of us who create and perpetuate these images and stereotypes are not magically exempt from it. Remember, one brown person is interchangeable for another.
All of these images and stereotypes discussed here are part and parcel of one big construction. If we agree that we are, as the Sun cracker ad wants us to believe, ‘easy-going’ child-people who ‘agree to anything’ then we are also that smiling doorman greeting people for 72 years without anyone knowing any nuance of his identity. If we agree that ‘the best part is that [we] let things go’ then we are at the same time happy to hand over our lands and freedom for people to play out their colonial fantasies. We cannot cherry pick this image. It’s isn’t our image to begin with, so we have no control over it. Which is why I want to cry out: are we really so unimaginative that we cannot take control of our own identity and image? At the very time that we should be re-imagining and reclaiming what it means to be Sri Lankan, we are instead reproducing tired tropes that have been handed down to us by those that certainly did not have our best interests at heart.
What is overarchingly upsetting about this self-perpetuated Orientalism is that, on a macro level, it even commands our national economic priorities. The public and private imagination is crippled when it thinks about what directions Sri Lanka can head towards. We slip into paths of least resistance. It’s easier to sell this image of the exotic Oriental ayurveda treatment instead of working on Intellectual Property rights that will protect, promote, and monetise actual ayurveda. It’s easier to build mock-colonial homes instead of developing the resources available to conservationists and archaeologists to work on the very historical treasures that bring tourists here in the first place. It’s easier to mass produce products that look ‘ethnic’ rather than stimulate the actual artisan community by organizing them and their work. And leaving culture aside, why are the natural sciences seen as doomed in the public eye when, even with (and at times because of) our limited resources we have come up with such innovative solutions to public health issues such as this antivenom production unit, this drug to treat dengue, this safe low-cost alternative to kerosene lamps, and this citronella-ink for newspapers to ward away mosquitoes? Can we not shift our imagination of Sri Lanka away from being a site of extraction and service towards being a site of knowledge production?
When I first came across Partha Chatterjee’s claim that colonization has been so comprehensive that ‘Even our imagination must remain forever colonised’, I was appalled and objected sincerely to it. But 26 years from his publication and nearly 70 years since gaining independence, Chatterjee’s claim still has a chilling resonance. But I suppose I still remain hopeful – because what else can you do – that we can free our imaginations and shape our own identity. There are, counter to what’s been presented here, smaller-scale creatives who have shaped really cool ideas and initiatives in Sri Lanka. But there’s a long way to go before the general public’s imaginary centres on these ideas of Sri Lanka instead of the tropes seen above. I hope we can stand in solidarity with one another (we’re in the same boat anyway) and challenge ourselves creatively instead of sliding down that easy, slippery slope…
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*I absolutely swear by paspanguwa. That stuff is like a nuke attack on your flu. Even my parents are afraid of getting a cold when I’m nearby because I’ll whip up the paspanguwa faster than you can kimung.
**Does anybody know what the doorman’s living conditions/economic state was at the end of his life?? Let me know if you do!