Interviews and Opinions

Nihal Perera on Social Production of Space

TAP’s Thirangie Jayatilake met up with Nihal Perera in Colombo on 15 July 2020 to talk about his book Decolonizing Ceylon (OUP, 1999), especially its upcoming Sinhala translation and his ventures in the study of social space.

As a young architecture student, a core question that piqued Professor Nihal Perera’s curiosity was, “why do Sri Lankans build the way that they build?” He says, this question stayed with him for years, eventually leading him to the study of social production of space. He realised that in order to understand why Sri Lankans build the way they do, it was necessary to first understand the social and political forces behind the creation of cities, and how cities are mapped by power-actors as well as those who are supposed to use them. His first book, Decolonizing Ceylon examines how European colonization, and in particular British colonization, constructed cities according to the ideals of European cities but in the local social and cultural contexts. The book deals with how modern Ceylonese cities were first built as a part of building west-European empires and how the roads, buildings, districts, and even transportation methods were dependent on Ceylon’s role as a colony.

Professor Perera explains that even today, the western point of view tends to be at the centre of academic writing to a large extent. In Decolonizing Ceylon, he approaches the material from a contemporary Sri Lankan perspective, thereby subverting the dominant academic structure of writing. He argues that the second part of the book in particular is presented from a Sri Lankan perspective, juxtaposed against the first part viewed from the standpoint of power, highlighting the contested nature of society and space.

Decolonizing Ceylon is currently in the process of being translated into Sinhala and will be published by Tambapanni Academic Publishers shortly under the title, ලංකාව නිර්යටත්විජිතකරණයට ලක්කිරීම: ශ්රී ලංකාවේ යටත්විජිතවාදය, ජාතිකවාදය හා අවකාශය පිලිබඳ දේශපාලනය (2021).


Thirangie Jayatilake: What motivated you to write Decolonizing Ceylon?

Nihal Perera: It was a long journey. My first degree is in architecture; so I practiced architecture for a few years. I was a part of many projects, including several factories. I was very lucky to be part of these. And then I became interested in public architecture, because I was also doing politics. That is, I was interested in people, and was not very happy with the injustice many of them faced. So I wanted to move away from the architecture of designing for rich people, which would have actually made me rich.

Then I joined the Mahaweli Project and became the Chief Architect-Planner very soon. I was simply a young guy joined at the lowest level but I critiqued Mahaweli towns for not serving the people very well. These took 30 years to become functioning towns. As a young naïve guy, but with the help of consultant, I suggested to the minister that they should be working from day one. With his support, we managed to build 12 new towns on an incremental model that worked as small towns from the outset and grew into bigger ones. I also learned about the shortcomings.

And then over time, I came to ask the question, why did the people build the way they did? Where did they get ideas? I was an architect and planner; so it was more like a self-critique, [or a] self-examination, to put it that way to ask, where did I get the ideas when I was an architect and planner? So eventually, I did my Masters at the Development and Planning in London and then studied housing at M.I.T.  Finally, for PhD, I searched across disciplines to figure out why people build the way they do? This is a broad question. I mean, I don’t think anybody can answer the question because there are many, many issues involved. The focus on Sri Lanka helped to narrow it down and ground the question.

One is we operate in the Western academy but, in my mind, the Western academy does not provide frameworks to understand the non-west. When we use western theories, Asia/Sri Lanka becomes data. The worst part is silencing them of explanation, turning even ideas into data.  But, to approach it from the opposite side, as you know, there are no authentic Sinhalese or Buddhists or Sri Lankans, because we are all hybrid forms in the larger cultural flows of ideas, images, and materialities.

So, I was stuck, wondering how to study what I wanted, that is Sri Lankan social space. Then I decided to map out the spaces the Colonials produced on the island: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, and to see how the Sri Lankans responded to this. That would actually reveal who these Sri Lankans were, how they thought and the way in which they have built. So it is a bit unfixed compared to traditional social science. In regard to Sri Lankans, From the Sri Lankan end, I started to look at the capitalists, the socialists, nationalists, the JVP, and the separatists.  All these different people groups.  I was first motivated by my own interest in the “project” but increasingly the issues, process, and findings kept me going. They began to give me the idea that no one has tried this before.

Thirangie Jayatilake: What were your influences when you were writing this book?

Nihal Perera: Of course, my own background and my earlier interests in socialism, social injustice, combined with architecture, planning, and development. Then my teachers with whom I was very fortunate to work. For instance, Senaka Bandaranayake who was a Marxist was able to help me –an undergraduate– understand the class-structure of the Sri Lankan built-environment and the dynamics of its historical production. Then in London, there were all sorts of politics. I managed to understand the social production of space from a Marxist standpoint in relation to social justice.

Then I went to Binghamton where I did my PhD. There I worked with art historians, sociologists especially Immanuel Wallerstein who came up with the idea of the capitalist world economy and Anthony King who had written the book on colonial urban development. James Duncan too, who wrote this book called City as Text focusing on Kandy. I met so many scholars who visited our school and met at conferences. So these were all influences.

Of course, the cultural studies scholars were not particularly liked by some scholars, especially structuralists, because, for them, the cultural studies scholars were all over the place! They did not have the capacity to understand them; nor was I at the beginning. So, at the end, I learned that, when Europe was expanding, west-European scholars were exploring the world. That means, they mapped out the world that they were exploring and subjecting from their perspective. But now, when we go to university, most professors don’t let us do that. They would ask which theory do you use. That essentially means you have to abide by some white guy who did something sometime ago as part of European expansion, or following that, not the process they engaged in.

I was in a good place where I was able to explore why Sri Lankan people created space the way they did. They were all very helpful. That is, my teachers in these places.

Thirangie Jayatilake: Why did you decide to translate this book into Sinhala especially since the original book came out 22 years ago? What kind of readership do you want to engage with in Sinhala?

Nihal Perera: I personally think that the main beneficiaries of this book are Sri Lankans because it’s about Sri Lanka. It’s about the social production of space in Sri Lanka and the production of Sri Lanka through space. For me, it challenges a lot of existing views about the production and reproduction of society and space. Unfortunately, Sri Lankans did not have the benefit for over 20 years to read the book, except for some people who could read it in English. It was also not widely available in the country. Not everybody can read in English or afford to buy books from Amazon for fifty or sixty US Dollars. So it was just not available. The Head of the Department of Sociology at Colombo University told me, maybe five or 10 years ago, that I should translate my work into Sinhala. Most students don’t read in English anyway in Sri Lanka. So I think it’s very beneficial.  The people who have read it, including two leading historians, thought it was good. When presenting the national physical plan to the nation — maybe sometime in the 1990s, the head of the National Physical Planning Department used parts from this book, and asked me, why don’t you update this book to address contemporary times too? The book actually ends in 1993. So I thought, it is good to translate.

Thirangie Jayatilake: In the book you say that space is a social relationship. Can you elaborate what you mean by this?

Nihal Perera: Space is a social relation. This is what Henri Lefebvre also demonstrates. He’s considered the guru of the modern idea of social space. Social relationships come out of structurations and they are not random things. If you scan architecture books, space means rafters and physical things; sociologists talk about social relations but hardly refer to physical space as such. David Harvey later argued that we need to bring social and special imaginations together because governments, policies, etc. do not exist in thin air; they all exist in space. Similarly, physical space is neither apolitical nor asocial. Yet, these don’t get clearly articulated or understood.

In geography, there are two fields: one is called physical geography where they talk about mountains, rivers and so on. The other one is human geography, and human geographers don’t necessarily relate to physical geographers. So to relate to the latter was easier for me. Lefebvre, being a Marxist, and struggling during a huge shift in scholarship, thought that all spaces are defined by social relations – meaning, if we live in a capitalist society, then everything is defined by capitalism. Maybe he went a little bit too far. So, for the most part, space is a social relations, something socially produced through class, gender, and other power and non-power relations. Right now, we have created a space in this restaurant; we have created our own little space, we’re having this conversation in a space created to have food. It is not unacceptable for the owners, but it is not the purpose of the restaurant. Similarly while the authorities and owners create space people to transform them to accommodate their own cultural processes and daily activities. This is further elaborated in my People’s Spaces (Routledge, 2016)

Thirangie Jayatilake: In the book, you talk about Sri Lankan spaces. How would you describe these kinds of social spaces?

Nihal Perera: First of all, I’m glad that I think I introduced the study of social spaces to Sri Lanka because I don’t think we had that concept here before. Now, there are many others too. There is Anoma Pieris, Tariq Jazeel, and the likes who study social space. The biggest thing that I learnt through this project is that Sri Lankan space and that of the city of Colombo still remains somewhat colonial and under studied. We still have that. Instead of looking at buildings, in this book, I went into how territories, urban structures, and communication infrastructure are shaped. I learnt that Sri Lanka as a territory was produced by the British. Sri Lanka is a British production in spatial terms. The main thing I learned is that Ceylon itself the politico-territory and its structure were produced by the colonials from Colombo and London.

Thirangie Jayatilake: How would you describe pre-colonial Sri Lankan social spaces?

Nihal Perera: I can’t claim any serious expertise on that subject and I don’t address that from a scholarly standpoint except colonial transformation of the extant social and spatial structures. I try to avoid employing the current nation state to understand history. There’s a fabulous book called Rescuing History from the Nation. Reading it might offer some responses to this question. Some Sri Lankans like to think our nation existed before colonialism. 2,500 years and all that. But it did not exist. India did not exist either. Almost all (modern) social and spatial systems that we have in Sri Lanka today have begun to exist since the 19th century. But there were other systems that existed. I use the word Lanka as an apolitical (spatial) term to identify the island-territory which provided a stage for older kingdoms and other structures and processes related to these pre-colonial times.

So, the difference is, when there were kingdoms — spatially speaking – each kingdom had a capital city and a territory. These were also different from one kingdom to the next. Say for example, in the Kandyan kingdom they thought they were in the middle of the earth. Until the British came, we didn’t have boundaries in the way we understand them today. We only had frontiers, like the king of Kandy did not have a lot of authority over even Anuradhapura (Nuwara Kalawiya). He was very powerful yes, but slowly the power decreased as it moves further away from Kandy. Nowadays, there is a national boundary and just outside of it there is another state. This is a Dutch-led European invention in the 16th hundreds. Today we call these states nation states. So, we have no real comparisons to pre-colonial times from today. Simply, the spatial organization of pre-colonial societies were quite different.

Coming back to Colombo, the city was basically a European product. It was not produced by anybody here. I’m not talking about somebody landing in Colombo 3,000 years ago and discovering it. I’m talking about the present-day Colombo and how it developed as a city.

During this study, I learnt that Colombo created Ceylon, and not the other way around. Because if you go to school, you will learn that they happily take the idea of evolution from the West and would simply say that cities and states evolved: Once upon a time, people were hunters and gatherers. They made villages, villages become towns, etc. This is all nonsense. Europeans came and established Colombo, and they gradually invaded the interiors, the British were able to invade much further than others and finally took over the whole island.

So if you look at the road system that emanates from Colombo to other parts of the country, and how it has structured the social space of Sri Lanka, I have argued that there were at least four stages of colonialism: the first is the military takeover; spatially, this is represented in Colombo which was the first produced as a European-colonial outpost. Unlike in the pre-colonial times, it was connected to the metropole, first Lisbon, then Amsterdam and then London. So that is why it was a port city right at the edge of the territory; not in the middle as in old kingdoms. The second, once they captured, is the establishment of an administration and a revenue system. So, they created five provinces (later nine) and connected their capitals to Colombo, by roads and, later, rail and telegraph. Colombo created this physical structure through military engineering. Now we have a clear social relation. That is, Colombo was now creating these provinces and of course the provinces were named north, south, east, west and central. Sri Lankan people were totally unfamiliar with this typology. Never Kandy, Anuradhapura and so on, which they would have been familiar with. Nothing like this; it was an act of erasing local identities. They totally defamiliarised and de-historicized spaces for local people. They totally changed the history and un-familiarised the space. So, what we have today is a British-made spatial structure, at the base. The third aspect of colonialism was the incorporation of Ceylon into the European world-economy; so, if you grow coffee or beans in your backyard, you cannot be a part of this economy. You have to have spaces that are compatible with the European world-economy, meaning large-scale raw material production units such as mines and plantations. As the world-economy is so big, so are its jerks; these production units should be able to survive. If you have a small boutique, you might have to close it down during a downturn. After surviving such jerks in the 1840s, the plantation system established itself. So, Ceylon became a part of the European world-economy, commonly called an import-export economy. We’re still a part of that.

I think the most important aspect of European colonization, the fourth, is the cultural hegemony. The colonizers not only built above parts of the system, but also taught the Sri Lankans how to understand and maintain using building by-laws, ordinances, and various other tools. This was epistemic. Even today we have the revised versions of the housing ordinance of 1915 that determines how we build. Still that is the idea; with no grounding, it lends itself to corruption. In the same way, the provinces the British introduced are also still here. They are still subject to Colombo as they were before. Plantations are still there too. And even the railway lines and the roads we have only changed very little from the colonial period. But Sri Lankans, especially the politicians and experts, hardly understand this state of affairs. You can’t change a structure that you don’t understand. I have written two pieces after this book on importing problems (the title of an article), even western problems. Slums, shanties, these kinds of issues were imported in 1915. Some people might say ‘oh we are not colonized’. But we are extremely colonized.

Yet, people are resilient, people negotiate. In a Sri Lankan way as opposed to an Indian way or Nepali way, but they all carry the colonial seal.

Thirangie Jayatilake: What is your view of spatial and urban studies in Sri Lanka?

Nihal Perera: There are some very interesting work but there’s a long way to go. The issue is most academics don’t even understand the impact of colonialism in many things we do. It has muted the explaining capacity of the locals. The colonial background is to be reckoned with; so there is a long way to go. There are very interesting studies that have come out. Madduma Bandara questions colonial geographic perceptions; Nalani Hennayake exposes us to urban political-economy; Nishara Fernando is totally involved in Owita; I like Sasanka Perera’s analysis of the use of malls; some scholars study the new high rise living, and more. They contribute to different kinds of studies. In order to study space as social relations, we definitely need to delve into how social relations work. This is very complex, especially in regard to Colombo, as it is the most diverse city in Sri Lanka.  I am currently working on a book on Colombo which should come out next year.

Thirangie Jayatilake: To you, what does it mean to decolonize a space?

Nihal Perera: Firstly, postcoloniality is two-fold; It is both a break from colonialism, especially the colonial rule, and the continuation of colonialism in almost all other fields including the economy, but especially culture for culture is the slowest to change. As the built environment is mostly connected to the culture, as evident in my study, space and the built environment lingers longer. Although Ceylon became independent in 1948, the colonial built environment continued for another three decades.

I think there could be two different ways to understand decolonization. One is over time, colonization will disappear, I don’t know whether in a 100 years, 500 years or may be in 700 years. Sometimes they don’t just disappear. Europe was colonized by the Romans over 2,000 years ago. Europe is still Christian, especially in thought. So, the thing is, some aspects of colonialism may never disappear. Some aspects will disappear over time and this happens through hybridity, adapting foreign ideas, in addition to giving up some of the colonial ideas. Maybe a decade ago, many women in Sri Lanka started wearing kurtas now there’s heavy Chinese influence in many areas of culture and politics. Hollywood and Bollywood have been central to the US and Indian cultural influence. The Chinese are radically transforming the Sri Lankan built environment; this affects the culture. Many Sri Lankan people even watch Chinese television serials without even knowing the language.

Intellectually, I think we have to have a sense of what colonialism is and what it can be. By understanding it clearly, I think we might be able to challenge it better. Nonetheless, I don’t believe in directly challenging colonialism because that is oppositional; oppositional politics, as Eagleton highlighted, tend to follow the terrain already mapped out by its antagonists.

There are two ways in which people respond to the colonial past: one is like randomly trying things without knowing the depth of the structure. A few politicians thought of moving the capital from Colombo. We cannot just move the capital from Colombo, just like that. People have done this in other places like Myanmar. They moved the capital to Naypyidaw but most of the government officials still live in the colonial capital Yangon; it is still the largest main city like Colombo. In Gujarat State, in India, they moved the capital from Ahmedabad to Ghandinagar. But the judges refused to leave and so the courts and several other important institutions are still is in Ahmedabad, 100 km away. This is why the Sri Lankan capital is just outside of Colombo

So I think you cannot just defeat or ignore the colonial structure without ever knowing what it is. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to follow the colonial path. Nor am I saying that we need to be nationalist (oppositional) to fight this, but definitely worth understanding it. So this book contributes towards an understanding.

Thirangie Jayatilake: Are there any additions that you have made to the Sinhala edition?

Nihal Perera: No, it’s twenty odd years since the original was published. As a scholar, I have myself moved on. I have built on this study and made different arguments that go beyond it. Yet this is one of the first books, if not the first, on social space of/in Sri Lanka. I think I will leave the translation as it is, because I think the readers can actually learn about the more recent times that I have not addressed from other publications and will leave room for others as well.

One of the biggest struggles I have had is, when you study in the western academy – whether it is in England or United States or in Colombo – the so-called ‘theory.’ The theory at-large is an abstraction of the western experience, even when the westerners wrote about Sri Lanka, it’s all about the western experience. Even Mahavamsa, when it was translated it was interpreted that way. Nothing can be just translated; can’t even be read without being mediated by one’s own concepts and interpreted. So my book will also be interpreted to current day conditions when it is translated and read.

I was struggling to understand Sri Lanka of a particular time. I was mindful that, if I bring the western experience to understand this — how we do things — I will also miss the point. Then there is this relationship, between the core and periphery. The relationship between the developed countries and the developing countries, usually used in regard to the economy but goes with the knowledge too. In all these structures, Sri Lanka is in a subordinate place. So our view of the world is limited because, in all the structures, the head is in the US or Britain or some other place like that. If you use an urban hierarchy of cities, like global cities, Colombo will be like a Jakarta or Kuala Lampur with no identity of its own except for a generalized one subjected to the structure. Colombo doesn’t really exist because it’s a level 7 city, and the top ones exist because they are unique. So the uniqueness of Colombo and Sri Lanka is hard to explain. All these structures objectify Colombo removing its ability to speak.

So, I was struggling with that, and actually I wrote a piece on this called Exploring Colombo: The Relevance of the Knowledge of New York? In it, I was questing how, not totally, irrelevant the knowledge of New York was in understanding Colombo. Eventually, this is why I decided to develop a framework first mapping out what spaces and spatial structures the colonials produced and, against that, what did the Sri Lankans create in relation to that.

I can take this discourse to another level. I realized a lot of things from the book by looking at how other people saw it. After I published the book, a historian who reviewed said this it is not good history because I don’t address the Dutch period. I realized that I was actually writing a social history of Sri Lanka and I wasn’t writing a history in the conventional chronological sense. In that sense, there was no need to fill in all these gaps; it is a history of social space in Sri Lanka or history of Sri Lanka through the eye of social space.

The difference between the first and second parts of the book were also pertinently observed. The first part of the book is about core-periphery relations and colonialism, which the western people can understand very well. The second part was about the LSSP, the JVP and so on and a non-Sri Lankan has to learn a bit about Sri Lanka to make sense. The people who can understand the first part found it very difficult to understand the second because they found it very difficult remember all these names and incidents — because I use a Sri Lanka register. And then, I realized you don’t have to write books form one vantage point at all. So, I learned a lot from trying to write this book, especially that I cannot only view the world from Sri Lanka but also from the standpoint of subjects such as the colonized, the working class, women, and coloured people. These feature in my work after this book.

Then, learning from this book, I went on to look at cities and spaces from the subordinate people’s standpoint. I wrote a piece called Indigenizing Colombo. I wrote another piece called Feminizing Colombo, looking at how women transformed the white male city into one that was easier to live in. So the book gave me lot of insights into my own thinking. So my later books, Transforming Asian Cities and People’s Spaces have all benefitted from this critical learning and changes in perspective.

Then again, it’s very difficult, when they ask what is your theory. Although there are enough abstractions in my work, they are asking how to understand what I wrote from their perspectives. This is fair but a tremendously difficult thing to do. The question that I am contemplating is whether theory is the solution or the problem? If it is the latter, how to move on? How to produce knowledge? Hence, what I have been doing is to pay attention to local interpretations and theorize without turning local interpretations into data explained using western theories and trajectories.

Whether they understand or not, I have understood that Sri Lanka is at the centre of this discourse, and this is a publication that actually questions the mainstream knowledge production from Sri Lanka, although there is a long way to go. It is a critique of the mainstream thought through a notion of how social spaces and relations are produced and reproduced, which can be critiqued from a Sri Lankan vantage point.


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