9th March 1997

The revolution that never took place

By Rajpal Abeynayake

With the Royal-Thomian, the grand season of elitist revelry begins next week. Nobody really believed that elitism was dead when S.W. R.D. Bandaranaike ushered in the flamboyant revolution of 1956. All that happened was that some elitist symbols were taken over by the working classes.

J.R. Jayawardene's presence at the Royal Thomian was one event which was faithfully noted each year by the press. It was like a ritual which the press respectfully carried out. Jayewardene was usually surrounded by the aging Mustangs who thought being seen with J R was worth being in a "Mustang".

The Mustangs (for the uninitiated) was a tent where people came more to be seen than to see. Bacchus reigned there over a rowdy din...

Though writing about the Royal Thomian and the big match is also almost ritualistic in itself at this time of the year, it's worth asking why all the old habits die hard.

When it became socially anathema to flaunt caste and clan, other symbols of elitism had to appear in the void. Of these, the old school tie appears to be the most enduring.

The complexion of Parliament, or of the Sri Lankan cricket team may have changed. Though these institutions now look more like a microcosm of society, it is worth asking how much the old school tie counts where the money is mostly made and the shots are called.

Commercial banks and most private companies in Colombo continue to be respectors of the old school tie. But, these days, the thread runs gently.

Events such as the big match are in this context barometers of social mobility.

Plain revelry is still in. But, for keeping up socially it is hard to beat the environment of the big school big event.

But that's not unusual in a society which has still been unable to shed the mentality of class, though the classless society was apparently enthroned some forty years back. The concept of classless, in retrospect, served only to accentuate the divide.

The Sinhala Buddhist schools such as Ananda and Nalanda which were the answers to the exclusive colonial institutions that bred the ruling class, for instance, followed the public school traditions and made them their own. Nalanda College boys debated in tie, long sleeves and white jacket, not in the natty national. So, the pace was set. From cricket, Ananda and Nalanda eventually graduated to rugger, and now it seems that the schools of the revolution were at best diluted versions of their missionary forerunners.

No inherent harm of course in Ananda playing rugger or cricket. But it's in big match season that the futility of the cultural, revolution is best observed.

To be blunt about it, the Buddhist schools enjoy aping the traditions of the Royal-Thomian and other original big matches which are in turn modelled on the British public school tradition. The public ritually recoils at the sight of semi drunk schoolboys passing the hat in buses and public places. But irrespective of the colour of the school tie, these practices are well maintained.

In a society in which merit is not the assured criteria of social mobility, the ethos of, the old school tie thrives. Obviously, the social revolution is a sham. It never happened.

Even if it happened, it happened at the middle levels of society where there was an inclusion of sections which were hitherto in society's excluded periphery. The veda-mahattayas may have come to Parliament. The school teachers may have contributed to educational policy. But, in the upper echelons, the system remained the same. More people clamoured to belong to the set which celebrated the big match, got out of school and got a job which paid them enough to go for the big match.

This year there is an added attraction. The loud colours of the political parties will compete for the public eye with the colours of the school tie. This will be a strange juxtaposition. Those who ask for your vote are not necessarily those who display the old school tie as a qualification.

Politics was definitely sensitive to the 'social revolution.' Politics had to be. By bringing in the Sangha, veda, guru, proletarian combination, Bandaranaike was offering these sections some social inclusion. A concomitant of that promise was that elitism as society knew at that time would disappear.

But in a way, Bandaranaike has only ossified elitist traditions. For instance, he wittingly or not paved the way for a line of rule from his family who do not believe at least in the trappings of the working classes. Bandaranaike wore the national even as he smoked the pipe. But, his progeny don't see the need for that kind of incongruity. They don't believe in the national dress at all!

Anura Bandaranaike is regularly seen at the Royal Thomian, for example, and it is well known that Chandrika Kumaratunga is proud of her old convent tie. The revolution has come a full circle?

What's sad are the goings on in the political arena, where the sporting stakes are more serious. The elite or the aspiring to be, will back-slap, drunk a few beers maybe, have a few roaring fights and go home.

But, in the real world where the elite usually get involved only by proxy, the atmosphere is clearly not that of a party. 700 incidents have been recorded in the past two weeks of electioneering, and if this is any measure, the social revolution was never percolated into our political culture.

True, there was Nalanda Ellawala, a Thomian and Patrician to boot, who was killed in the run-up to the local government campaign. But as far as the demographics of election violence goes, his death is merely the aberration.

Most of those who are enmeshed in the violence now are the sections that Bandaranaike brought into the political arena, the underprivileged who thought they were displacing the rule of the kultur.

In retrospect, it is almost funny that anybody even entertained such thoughts. As noted, the elite still maintain their hegemony, and their act is even more loud and blatant.

From the big match to the big picture, in cricket or in politics, it still pays to hold on to an old school tie. But, if A.K. Sunil or W. Chandralatha from Ambalangoda wants to believe, they can try running for the Municipality. But, out there, its definitely not cricket.

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