Lucian De Zilwa and SJK Crowther, as Ceylonese writers of Pre-Independence, go beyond being given credit for, in forging a political position in reflecting on issues of social transition. As much as an early Chinua Achebe or a young Ngugi Wa’Thiong’o – or even a greenhorn Mulk Raj Anand – is relevant, the works of De Zilwa and Crowther, too, demand a close re-reading.
A branch of scholarship into Pre-Independence Ceylonese writing readily identify works such as Lucian De Zilwa’s The Dice of the Gods, SJK Crowther’s The Knight Errent and J. Vijayatunge’s Grass for My Feet as crucial “moments” in the evolution of that field. While acknowledging these early efforts of Pre-Independence writers – specially, in a context where the Anglo-Asian novel was being pioneered by English-educated writers from the subcontinent – critics are yet to completely lay aside the patronizing tone with which these works are often referred to; and by which they are denied full legitimacy. Specially, in the case of De Zilwa and Crowther, critics have stopped short of seeing these work as renditions of “satire” and “humour”, which lack a more meditated socio-political and historic intervention.
However, I wish to propose that both De Zilwa and Crowther – in the work I have isolated for the current discussion – are no less crucial to us than a writer of the early Chinua Achebe’s caliber, in delving into social complexity, historical understanding and in bringing in insights to a changing socio-economic face of Colombo in the 1910s. Crowther’s protagonist Peter, for instance, is molded with much socio-political relevance and resonance that The Knight Errant – as much as it may display aspects of satire – yet becomes a strong portrayal of the times and climes. Peter, at one level, can be taken as an epitome of the very social transition Ceylon was experiencing at the point of history in question. At one level, Peter is a metaphor for the modern bilingual Ceylonese of the day. At yet another point of reference, he himself is the “nation” – for he, from being Pedru in a backwater village of Pamunugama, is baptized/”civilized” as Peter and is given a launching pad to a life of western sophistication.
Peter is the metonym for the “success story” under colonial occupation; and the “model product” of the British imperial system. Crowther, however, does not terminate there, but makes us aware of the complexities and contradictions many colonial educated youth of Peter’s caliber present. Their socio-economic viability makes them ambiguous – both in the private sphere as well as in national activity. They are made into cultural and social hybrids: a “colonial psyche” of displacement. In Peter, we note a tripartite movement from a rural Pamunugama to Hitigalla; from there to Plymouth College, Colombo; and a third distinct shift triggers off upon Peter’s transformation into being a “nationalist” when he returns from London.
The three stages above denote key moments of Peter’s upward social mobility. But, in a metonymical value, Peter becomes a tool that is used to satirize a certain type of bourgeois intellectuality. In the scale of mobility, there is a movement from being Pedru, to “becoming” Sri Ananda Premadasa (the nationalist he ends up becoming). But, in the person we see reflected a larger society that is striving to come to terms with class and social identity. Peter’s “becoming” Premadasa, in particular, captures the tensions of surging nationalism; and the complex ways in which it gets unleashed on society.
Characters similar to / resonant of Peter can be seen in the emergent Sinhala fiction of the mid twentieth century, as well: Martin Wickramasinghe’s Marlin (of Yuganthaya) is disillusioned of his bourgeois capitalist lifestyle upon his return from England. His friend Aravinda completes the “dialectic” by making his newly achieved “state of grace” a ladder to the high society which Marlin denounces. When we consider Chinua Achebe, who writes from Nigeria four decades after Crowther, his Obi Okonkwo in No Longer at Ease, too, resonates a trajectory not too different to where we locate Crowther’s Peter. All these suggest that in Crowther’s work there is a deep vibration of social tensions and mobility patterns felt during the last quarter or so of colonial rule.
In a much quoted and equally memorable passage in The Knight Errant Andris visits Peter at Hitigalla, following the latter’s passing of the Junior Cambridge examination. Here, there is a five year hiatus between Peter’s leaving Pamunugama and of his “acquired social grace” through his western education. Peter’s stay at the Missionary school throws him in the deep end of social mobility – where he competes with other students from more affluent backgrounds and strives for acceptance. In the process he “re-writes” his history by making his father – a cook by profession – a “post master”; until, of course, the man turns up in person carrying two pineapples and an oil-soaked parcel of kavum (Crowther, 43). Peter is utterly unnerved by this – for this appearance unsettles in a moment the “façade of mobility” through which he had re-initiated himself at the Hitigalla Missionary School.
This is a familiar social process through which individuals, in the aspiration of mobility, have painfully dragged themselves through. The shedding of parentage and the annexation of fathers that you never had have been often spoken of in both folk lore and in literature. The climax of this tension is arrived at when Peter returns to Ceylon after his stay in London. At the harbour, upon arrival, the “nationalist” Sri Ananda Premadasa, in the face of two English fellows who travel with him, disowns Andris as his own father (172).
Lucian De Zilwa’s The Dice of the Gods opens out the corners and ends of Colombo life of the last quarter of colonial occupation in a way which strongly resonates the ambiance of a changing society. He brings to the fore the changes faced by different identities – the Burgher community in particular –, thereby, making his narrative a documentary of historical change. In De Zilwa, too, we locate a “return from England” – where Martin comes home after being inducted into the “gentlemanly order”, following his education in London. Coming abreast of Martin is the protagonist of the novel William, who familiarizes us with the “Burgher community” of the time; who as a social group is already seen as “cracking up” in the face of growing Sinhala and Tamil nationalism. The transitions of the Eurasian / Burgher identity can be well detected in the Van Der Beck household, to which De Zilwa makes reference in detail. The Van Der Becks have their cultural stem in Portuguese (De Zilwa, 24) but that influence is fast dying out. Among the last of this order is Jack’s mother-in-law: “a fat, jolly faced old lady who could not speak English” and who “sat silent throughout, trying to look sociable by simpering and smiling, apropos of nothing” (De Zilwa, 35-36).
Both Crowther and De Zilwa show much commitment in their descriptions of Colombo, as both try to characterize the growing city with animation. Both writers are sensitive to the multicultural and multi-ethnic profile of the society around them. De Zilwa’s agenda allows the reader a credible view of the streets of the city, with “[r]uddy Malayalis” and “Sinhalese carters…(with) wild cries of ‘Dhak! Mak! Dhak! Pita!’” (13). As William Van Der Beck is driven through the streets of Colombo he is greeted by the cries of “Poppadum” and the beckoning calls of “Bombaya muttai” sellers (15). In fact, the sequence from which the above fragments are extracted runs well into four pages – giving us a solid indicator that De Zilwa has a mind of drawing to our attention the lay of Colombo’s social face. Of course, his descriptions run the risk of reinforcing ethnic and cultural stereotypes; but, that is not our concern here.
Another concern that is dealt with by De Zilwa is the concern with caste / ethnic politics. John Caspar, the journalist, goes the extra mile to warn William that “you have to be on your guard…or you would wake up to find that you have been made a tool of, by the Vellalas, against the Karawas, or by the Karawas against the Salagamas” (De Zilwa, 48). This, I felt, was an attempt at drawing in the sharp caste divide of the times, which has always beenpivotal in Ceylonese social traffic. Aligned to this is the insecurity and destabilization the Burgher identity was beginning to feel, as an ethnic group. The resurgent nationalistic trends and the reactions to these by those with “colonial roots” is seen in the annexations of Sinhala surnames to families with Portuguese baptisms: “Those who have for generations had Portuguese surnames such as Silva or Fernando are assuming in addition family names of purely Sinhala character” (174).
The resurgence of the Hindu and Buddhist movements – a driving force of the independence movement of Ceylon –, too, are documented by De Zilwa. However, while marking the revivalist spirit in these religious tendencies De Zilwa – as author – intervenes to pass his own judgment: that he sees “the idea of a Ceylonese people, entirely homogenous and united, seem hopelessly impossible” (175). He sees around him inter-marriages; but, he also notes that “they were the exceptions that proved the rule” (175).
In fact, Lucian De Zilwa faintly sees the complications Sri Lanka is to face as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious fabric in the future years to come; and the defeatist strain with which he identifies these tendencies reflects the skepticism and the doubts some likeminded individuals as the author may have had of a “reviving Ceylon”. Whether justifiable or not, it nonetheless proves that De Zilwa strides beyond the parameters of satire, for in his judgment we see a conclusive political position with regard to social transition. The stance he takes in itself is a testimony to the commitment he has as a writer who is conscious of social-political phenomena of the time. It dislocates any criticism that De Zilwa is merely a “satirist”.
Neither Lucian De Zilwa nor SJK Crowther are in print today and except for a fast-retiring breed of “old school” scholars and an even remorter collection in libraries preserve the work cited above, which are quite out of fashion in the national and university syllabuses. Yet, as much as an early Achebe or a young Ngugi Wa’Thiong’o – or even a greenhorn Mulk Raj Anand – is relevant, the works of De Zilwa and Crowther, too, demand a close re-reading.