15th June 1997

Darlings of the ex-colonial conquerers

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Sir Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Shiva and V. S. Naipaul. What do all these characters have in common? Shiva was the younger and the more flamboyant of the brilliant Naipaul brothers. On all occasions Shiva came to Sri Lanka, he fought with various nincompoops. One of his most notorious fights was with the mandarins of the British Council, who were of course more British than the British, even in those spacious days.

Unfortunately, Shiva Naipaul died of a heart attack. That was like manna from heaven for V. S. Naipaul, because the younger brother Shiva was on the eve of eclipsing him as one of the most evocative post-colonial writers. When Shiva died, VS shone, and today Shiva is almost unheard of, though VS is regularly deified by the Western literary elite.....

This is almost parallel to the little tiff between Micheal Ondaatje and Christopher Ondaatje that was played out on the sidelines of the Sri Lankan literary scene sometime ago. Colombo society was however a little too pre-occupied being in love with the Ondaatje brothers to really notice what was happening. But, nevertheless, what happened did happen.

What happened in short was this: Micheal Ondaatje wrote the Booker winning English Patient and became an international celebrity. Micheal as we all know, has the manner of the literati, the grey eyes and the hair that looks suitably handsome. (Not blow dried, not too unkempt — but thickly hirsute.)

Micheal's international celebrity was received by the English reading public here with great joy and acclaim, and soon he was back here in Sri Lanka, and there was a big party. Even TIME magazine had referred to Micheal Ondaatje as a Greek god, and that was much before Attorney General Sarath Silva was being referred to as Adonis.

Michael lectures to students of English literature at a Canadian university, and with books like Coming Through Slaughter and Running in the Family already under his belt, he had acquired celebrity status both for his good looks and his considerable story-telling abilities.

This we know did not sit too well with fans of brother Christopher, who being one of the most successful business tycoons in Canada, was nevertheless not very well known in these parts of the world. Christopher owned publishing houses (and what not) in the North American continent, and was a steely mercenary tycoon who in Rupert Murdoch style could be admired for sheer ruthless business efficiency.

But, the problem with being a tycoon in Canada was that you were not very well known in the old country. What had Micheal done anyway? Only written a book, a piece of clever sophisticated F-I-C-T-I-O-N. Chrisoptheor was a different kettle of fish. He shook the Western world in what they are good at —building massive empires of business.....

Yet, a prophet is unknown in his own country, and so, with brother Micheal being treated as a grey eyed celebrity here, Christopher came back to Sri Lanka too, and among other things bought Forbes and Walker and wrote a book on a man-eating spotty cat from some place called Punani....

Sibling rivalry we thought until then was something that takes place in the creche.

Anyway, man-eater of Punani was not a book, it was in the tradition of a coffee table blockbuster, and was soon lapped up by Colombo's coffee morning glitterati. The literati revelled in brother Micheal's English Patient, bringing it under their armpits to be autographed by the formidable author himself at the British Council.

But we have to thank providence that both Ondaatje brothers are living, and that one did not die of a heart attack as in the case of the unfortunate Naipauls.

All that was a digression anyway, while on the subject of the Naipuals and the Sobers types who were archtype colonial darlings. The Naipauls and the Kanhais were colonial darlings mainly because they basically did well what the ex-colonial conquerors would have liked them to do. The Naipuals —particularly VS — wrote versions about the West Indies from Western eyes, and essentially from a smug Western vista which sat quite well with smug Western literary tastes.

Meanwhile, the West Indians started playing cricket the way the Naipaul's wrote, and so we had greats of the calibre of Sobers and Kanhai who were eventually the darlings of the Wisden cricket connoisseur.

I make absolutely no pretensions here of being an expert on cricket, that excruciatingly genteel of British sport, but suffice to say that Sober's and Kanhai, in the assessment of many, played cricket in the manner that gladdened many beer imbibing British cricketing sensibilities. Sir Sobers was classy. Small wonder that he was knighted and today is a slurring Sir, making his expert comments in a staccato spit-spouting English.

Kanhai and others such as Lloyd, (though I am definitely open to correction by the Sports Editor ) were of the same mould, though Lloyd for instance was rumbustious in a way that would have been considered rude by Sobers.

This is why when our cricketers play in the Caribbean , they are more than just a cricketing phenomenon. They are a bit of a global cultural phenomenon as well, because the Jayasuriyas and the Aravindas are decidedly hick by the genteel standards of Sobers and the like. Methinks, if Sobers and Kanhai were post colonialists like the Naipauls, that Jayasuriya and his company are not post-colonialists but a Protestant breed who are of an indigenous brand. Crippled values may have led them to cricket, but they play and talk as if they are playing a game that was never ever played by the British. Even in the West Indies these boys appear a little like Maldive fish on a Sri Lankan plate — raw, and so removed that if

Sri Lanka is remote, this is from the back of beyond.

Endpiece: The Cabinet has been reshuffled, but scribes are having it out because Mangala Samaraweera has been appointed Media Minister, a post that is of tremendous import to media people but of no particular interest to the average Tomia Perera and Harriet. Samaraweera smiles the big smile and loves to philosophise, but he is no spring chicken nor a sweet innocent. Dharmasiri was a man who could not alienate the media because he was basically of a different breed. A short gentleman who would have missed the indulgences of the maverick classes of the press.

Not so Mangala. He would seek to put the press in its place without much contrition, but on the other hand, when it comes to a push even Mangala is bound to get all sensitive and mushy because he was a maverick to begin with. In the end what matters is that it does not matter as long as the Minister and the press mind their manners.....

Go to the Jungle Telegraph

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to Rajpal's Column Archive