Preethi Vesak, dears! That, by the way, is how we are supposed to greet each other on this festival of lights, this season of enlightenment – not “Happy Vesak!”, or “Blessed Vesak!” But “Preethi Vesak!” And, judging by the joy and food and peace and light that were scattered abroad over these holidays, one is justified in remarking “preethi, preethi, may ratay” (or, “delight indeed is abroad in this land”, for those of you who don’t speak the mother tongue of many – if not the most…).
Which reminds me… what is your mother tongue, dear? Is it Tamil or Sinhala, those alien languages spoken little elsewhere on the planet that we are pleased to call “our vernaculars”? Or, like me – and, I suspect, a host of others who will be loath to admit it – is it English? (Yes, that other alien language!) For one can argue that a mother tongue is neither merely the language one’s parents spoke most fluently, nor the entry in your birth certificate which corresponds to the speech more familiar to folks of your given race.
One can make a case for one’s mother tongue being the lingo on which you hang your identity as a person; the tongue in which you think and dream; the jargon you use in conversation with your God, your loved one or significant other, and the peers who are most like you. Of course, the pedants will object that human beings think more in a cognitive state which is perhaps best termed ‘mentalese’. And the purists will insist that one’s mother tongue is inalienably the language of one’s ancestors, the medium of instruction in which you were schooled or tutored, and the official jargon-rich marker that makes up your ethno-linguistic identity: in short, your race in the eyes of the state.
Be that as it may, that is neither here nor there (as the actress said to the bishop). More to the point is what the state would do well to do, in terms of considering a link language. And this is especially germane in the aftermath of the war, at a time when the powers that be are mooting military parades to mark a (shall we say, Pyrrhic?) victory. So “Preethi Vesak” and chauvinist triumphalism aside, pray lend your ears to a modest proposal…
Make Sinhala the link language. Not English, on which pots of money have been spent, and for the promulgation of which acres of trees have been and will be felled; nor Tamil, about which more hot air has been spouted in academic, bureaucratic, and cultural circles; but Sinhala. Yes, Sinhala: the proud tongue of the so-called ‘lion race’; the lingua franca of “patriots” and “traitors” alike, in this harrowingly schizoid age; the acme, the epitome, the pièce de resistance and crème de la crème of our gnarled and ancient and pre-senile civilization.
Now don’t get me wrong, dear. I am no chauvinist, no chest-thumping patriot or lover of modern languages spoken in primal and primitive settings. I hold no brief for one tongue over another – save on the grounds of pragmatism, expedience, and reason. All concepts that have been uprooted and usurped in our time for twisted ends, but bear with me awhile. The best is yet to come, as the bishop said to the actress.
Firstly, reason. It is the language that has the greatest use, reach, and influence across the widest cross section of demographics that occupy the territorial integrity (thought I’d sneak that one in!) of Sri Lanka.
Secondly, expedience. It will keep the majority happy (although that utilitarian ethic in itself is not always the best motive to essay such modest proposals). And heaven knows they have enough to be happy about at present – so, hopefully, there will be no quibble about what the state language will be if Sinhala is made the link language.
Thirdly: pragmatism. It is more practical to make a language that already links a majority of our people – personally, professionally, and commercially – the link language, than any other tongue that will have to be fitted and moulded into a clearly defined pre-existent praxis.
In the end, no matter what the state may say or governments legislate, it is the people who daily communicate with each other – for business, pleasure, or that heady amalgam of both which we call politics – who will have the last word. And though it is a tongue that my mother never taught me, I bet my best Vesak lantern that the last word will be in Sinhala.