Book Talk

Ronit Ricci, Banishment and Belonging, Exile and Diaspora in Sarandib, Lanka and Ceylon, 2019, pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-72724-2.

~ Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden University

At different moments in time Sri Lanka was known by different names, Serendib for the Arabs, Lanka in the Ramayana and other chronicles and Ceylon for the successive European rulers who conquered parts of the island from the sixteenth century. In modern day Sri Lanka there is a small and distinct community known as Sri Lankan Malays,  a minority of Malay speaking people within the larger Muslim community of the island. These communities claim different origins, the East Indies (Indonesia) in the case of the Malays and Arabia and India for the majority of Muslims. The term Malay was used by the British  in the nineteenth century in a loose and unqualified manner to describe people who they believed had roots in the East Indies. The Dutch, the colonial power that preceded the British,  had used the term Oosterlingen (Easterners) to describe people who had been living in Batavia before migrating or being forcefully sent to Sri Lanka, together with the term Javanese. This single term ‘Malay’ warns Ricci,  masked in the nineteenth century a much more diverse group of peoples who would have spoken other languages than Malay  and who were not all Muslim.

Banishment and Belonging traces and examines narratives of banishment and exile created by people from the East Indies, Indonesian royalty, convicts, soldiers and slaves who were sent by colonial powers to Sri Lanka. Many of those banished were central figures such as the Javanese king Amangkurat III of Surakarta exiled with his retinue in 1704 who died in Sri Lanka thirty years later or the Sultan of Gowa in 1767. Indeed banishment was a common way of dealing with trouble-makers who found themselves exiled to places as far away as Cape colony.

Ronit Ricci ’s ambition in this remarkable book is not of recreating their lives, which would have been fragmentary in any case. She asks the following central question: ‘How do the different – perhaps distinct, overlapping or competing – names of a place shape the ways in which that place is imagined, and the way its histories are told and retold across space, time and literary culture’ (1). For this she musters her prodigious linguistic skills, using colonial and indigenous sources that span several periods in a variety of languages, Arabic, Dutch, Javanese, Malay, Sinhala, Sanskrit and Tamil most of which she reads fluently and follows the traces and echoes to locations in the wider Indian Ocean world.

Her book is exceptional for the close reading of an array of texts that range from a Malay Compendium of the early 19th century to letters written by Javanese exiles in Trincomalee and Jaffna in the 1720s, the Hikayat Tuan Gusti that retells the story of Java’s islamization, Javanese manuscripts of the historical babad genre. She uses these often complex texts to distil how life in exile was understood and experienced. Particularly striking is her chapter on the relevance to colonial exiled Malays in Ceylon of Adam’s fall to Sarandib. She demonstrates that exile to Ceylon was not solely an expulsion but also via Adam’s sacred biography, a return. There are wonderful details that illuminate the argument she makes. The term Ceylon, she reminds us,  became a Malay and Javanese verb that connotes banishment (disailankan). Few people would have heard of the Malay retelling of the Ramayana in the Hikayat Siri Rama where Ravanna and Adam are both exiled on the island of Sarandib!

This book inserts Sri Lanka in a broader Indian Ocean history, unmooring it from its  island-nation rootedness and its conventional South Asian frame. It is thinking of the island in terms of Sarandib furthermore that allows Ricci to connect it to a rich array of stories and textual traditions that are shadows in the dominant narratives of the nation-state. Banishment and Belonging is also an invitation to for scholars to rethink the boundaries of the ‘Malay world’ which rarely includes Sri Lanka. Finally it is an important contribution to understanding  the divided and contradictory relation to place by diasporic people, who mourn the loss of rootedness and from an ‘uprooted’ position cast a critical gaze on both previous and present places.

This is not a book about ordinary people or a social history of convicts as is for instance Clare Anderson ‘s Subaltern Lives. Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World 1790-1920 (New York: Cambridge University press 2012). It tells us very little of the events in the rest of the island and of the others who share the living space of the Malays. Was it a racialized space or one where difference was based on freedom and unfreedom?  The book remains the work of a textual scholar although it does capture the intimate and painful details of the experience of being banished and the sadness of those left behind. For this reason  Banishment and Belonging  is sometimes a difficult read as it stays very close to the text and ambulates with it. But the effort is worth it. Ricci’s book is a compelling account, beautifully written and full of original insights.

(This review was initially published in Society and Culture in South Asia, Vol. 6 Issue 2 (June 2020. It is republished in TAP Book Talk with the consent of the Editorial Board, Society and Culture in South Asia)


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