Book Talk

Anton Piyarathne, Constructing Commongrounds: Everyday Lifeworlds Beyond Politicised Ethnicities in Sri Lanka, 2018, pp. 274. Nugegoda, Sri Lanka: Sarasavi Publishers. ISBN-9789553111111.

~ Gitanjali Surendran, Jindal Global Law School, India

On the face of it one of the greatest challenges for humans in a modern age marked by conflict, is how to live together with atl east the minimum degree of security and harmony. I once heard a Palestinian film maker say to an audience in Delhi that he was tired of being asked his prescription for how Palestinians and Israelis could live together. He retorted that Palestinians and Israelis already live together. While the outside world only sees tension, violence and warring communities, there existseven in this region, however fraught, an everyday practice of living together.

Anton Piyarathne’s book Constructing Commongrounds: Everyday Lifeworlds Beyond Politicised Ethnicities in Sri Lankaintervenes in this question at a time when entire regions of the globe are engulfed in various crises around immigration, minorities, refugee flows and genocide. Sri Lanka’s own recent past has been marked by Tamil – Sinhala conflict that only ended with the state resorting to indiscriminate violence. But, for Piyarathne, the question is not the more common place one of why the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority do not get along but how they have actually lived together for as long as they have. According to Piyarathne, both the state and academic researchers (including the famous Sri Lankan anthropologist, the late Stanley Tambiah) have tended to overemphasise ethnic division and strife. His investigation assumes that the two communities have lived together, have cooperated and continuously transgressed ethnic lines in performing that act of living side by side, through the creation of ‘commongrounds’. It is these commongrounds that lie at the heart of an everyday work and life of ethnicity (12). He sees his task as rendering these hitherto “invisible commongrounds visible” (2). So what is a ‘commonground’ according to Piyarathne? It is a survival strategy. It is a solution to an ethnic problem that is primarily a political creation. It is the creative use of shared ‘embodied’and ‘enminded’ understandings of the social and material world by Sri Lankans of different ethnic groups to live and relate to one another (7, 8). These commongrounds are never static or tension free, and are not necessarily passed down generationally. They continuously evolve, grow and are a source of some of the most creative thinking around the business of living together.

In Chapter 1, Piyarathne takes a deep dive into the theoretical literature on ethnic strife and reflects on his experiences conducting ethnography on his own society.He concludes that ethnic identity is situational and contextual, and that boundaries between ethnicities are more about the denial of cultural resemblance rather than merely an establishment of cultural difference. Moreover, the conduct of everyday life challenges the Sri Lankan nationalist metanarrative of antagonistic ethnic identities.

Chapter 2 recounts a familiar history of colonial knowledge generated at the service of the colonizer highlighting caste, ethnicity, and division. This, intertwined with the political history of post-independent Sri Lanka, makes for a fascinating account of the ways in which colonial attempts to ‘understand’ Sri Lankan society resulted in ‘communalization’ around ethnicity that both the colonizers and colonial native elites, and after independence in 1948, the political class, exploited for political gain.

Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 test, elaborate and illustrate his commongrounds thesis. In Chapter 3, hedescribes life on Crow Island, whose middle class, English speaking residents meet at events like picnics and in shared spaces of leisure like the beach thus creating commongrounds and embodied habits of living together. He attended numerous social gatherings, formal and informal, and notes the ways in which residents deploy strategies to maintain the effectiveness of commongrounds – by avoiding potentially inflammatory talk about politics or war, by eating food that is offered to them irrespective of their ethnic culinary preferences, by emphasizing issues of common cause like beach beautification, by speaking and singing in different languages, and even accepting mixed marriage. “Class capital” allows residents to transgress ethnic boundaries and construct commongrounds within their class segment (105).

Chapter 4 examines a less privileged subculture of Colombo—the ‘watta community’ in De Mel Watta. Their shared experience of living in a low income shanty town leads them to create commongrounds in “unorganized” ways to forge a decent social life even though there is considerable tension over,for example,water and other scarce resources(108).Unlike on Crow Island, residents refer to each other using kinship terminology irrespective of ethnic differences. Inter ethnic and inter religious marriage of which he notes many examples, and everyday interfaith interactions help residents to avoid ethnic identification (136). Despite the attempts of political parties to mobilize residents on ethnic grounds, for the most part, Piyarathne does not believe that people view each other through ethnicity but through their shared struggle as marginalized people struggling for everyday survival.

Panama village in the eastern part of the island is the subject of Chapter 5. In this village, Tamils and Sinhalas live in such close proximity that a tremendous degree of ‘resemblance’ has emerged between the two cultures. Using caste, marriage and kinship, and religious practices, Piyarathne suggests that commongrounds arise here out of such ‘resemblance’.In fact he claims that casteplays a role in ensuring harmony as people of different castes have a strong sense of their place in the social hierarchy. For instance, dhobis or washermen will show respect to high castes irrespective of whether the high caste person is Sinhala or Tamil.Here too the common practice of inter-ethnic marriage and interfaith interactions around festivities arepotent tools in discarding ethnic identification.

Of all the locales in which Piyarathne conducts his field work, it is the village of Pottuvil, the subject of Chapter 6, that is most marked by ethnic tension. The focus in this chapter is particularly on Muslims and their mobilization on ethno-nationalist lines owing to LTTE’s attacks on them as well as the establishment of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). And yet, members of all communities continue to enthusiastically participate in and sponsor musical programmes, share moral codes and aesthetic tastes, have similar marriage rituals and kinship systems, share food, and assist each other in times of need such as when the Tsunami hit in December 2004.

In his valuable summary of this research findings in the concluding chapter of the book, Piyarathnewrites that he does not have a “magic formula” for peace but emphasizes the importance of understanding how diverse ethnic groups live and engage with each other on a daily basis in different locales even while the dominant ethno-nationalist narrative suggests hardened ethnic boundaries and hostility.

And in this project he is largely successful. Yet, one wonders how to reconcile the two stories—one of horrific inter-ethnic violence, and the other of living together and forging successful social worlds. Too often, Piyarathne falls back on the model of ‘outsider’ forces in the shape of political parties with their ethno-nationalist rhetoric as the main culprits in inter-ethnic strife. And yet there are clearly tremendous faultlines that exist within the communities he examines, even as he tends to highlight moments of coming together and everyday interaction. For instance, in the case of Panama, he makes the contentious claim that caste is a stabilizing force in the community. Caste can result in a certain social stability but surely not harmony, often producing its own tensions and faultlines. Similarly, Buddhist Sinhalas and Hindu Tamils in Panama are united in their general anti-Muslim sentiment even though they frequently have positive interactions with Muslims. While his point about being attentive to commongrounds is well taken, it need not be to the neglect of faultlines, ethnic or otherwise. Further, inexclusively blaming political parties for the rise of an aggressive ethno-nationalism he is overstating the case.

Thisbook is full of interesting stories, anecdotes and insights. For instance, in his chapter on Crow Island, he provides a fascinating history of the beach. His description of the Ankeliya festivities, the ‘Greased Devil’ scare, and commodity exchange around the betel nut involving Tamils, Sinhalas and Muslim are just a few further examples. Occasionally, the reader may feel like these needed a little more time to ripen. With his clear sense of urgency in putting out his research, one casualty has been sharper editing.

Piyarathne’s work is strongest when he is recounting the stories of individuals and their negotiation or negation of difference in each of his research locales. Among the stories that will stay with me is the scholar Valentine Daniel’s about a well-heeled Sinhala woman on the bus who held her Tamil fellow passenger’s hand as a gang tried to identify Tamils. She got off at the next stop without exchanging a word with the passenger whose life she very likely saved. Stories of the ordinariness of warm interactions between people abound in this book.

To conclude, we can only hope that more such studies of other regions on the Indian subcontinent can highlight for us similar stories of commongrounds in times of terrifying sectarian and ethnic conflict. Piyarathne’s is a timely reminder that people have lived together peacefully for longer than they have not and that it is possible to effectively theorise that fact.

(This review was initially published in Society and Culture in South Asia, Vol. 5 Issue 2 (July 2019). It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the consent of the Editorial Board, Society and Culture in South Asia)


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