The Root and the Hour

The “Sinhala nation” does not exist, and yet the state is designed in its service, and all politics revolves around its fears and desires. This is how we got where we are.

This is not the need of the hour, you might say: we were talking about gas, and food, and fertilizer, and the absent dollar. I agree. This is not the need of the hour. The hour, which has many needs, is greedy. It wishes to swallow up all thought with its many mouths. The hour has no time for the day or the decade, much less the century. With nothing but the eternity of hours in our hands, we exchange the important for the urgent. The hazard is not simply that the one goes unaddressed in favour of the other: it is that the many branchings of the urgent are rooted in the important, and by ignoring the root for the branch, we address symptom but not cause. Worse, we accept the unaddressed cause as a given, take its framings for histories, incorporate its agendas into our purported solutions, and thereby create more and more urgent needs for the hours to come. That, too, is how we got where we are.

El incendio de noche, Francisco Goya, c. 1793

Ever since independence, and in fact, even before independence, Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination, boycotts, and pogroms against minorities—“riots” is how they are often described, but we are beyond euphemism and out of fucks to give—are the basis of how this country works. The pogrom, in particular, is not a moment of aberration. It is fundamental. The pogrom is a disciplining engine. Its purpose is to restate the nation-state. The pogrom is a ceremonial recitation of the vision statement, for a country defined in the attempt to create a clear-cut, fixed Sinhala majority that would forever rule the island: rendering of half the Tamil population stateless, boycotts against Tamil businesses, the erasure of the Tamil language, violence against peaceful Tamil protestors. This was the defining issue at independence, and, with hundreds of thousands dead and the North under occupation, it is the defining issue today. This is not, as it is usually framed, “the Tamil question.” This is the Sinhala question.

The baseline environment of discrimination, punctuated by the regular cycle of pogroms, serves economic purposes, ideological purposes, and political purposes: undermining, destroying, and looting minority businesses; intimidating and terrifying minorities and dissenters into submission; and creating security crises that can be exploited for political power. It reinforces the border of the nation: who belongs to the majority and who does not. It is a simple machine, containing no sophisticated electronics but only mechanical wheels and levers that any fool can oil and maintain. Many fools have.

There is a problem of rhetoric in describing the pogroms as solely either disorganised or organised. Casual descriptions tend to fall into one or the other, but neither works as an explanation by itself.

On the one hand, if you say the Sri Lankan pogrom is solely disorganised, spontaneous violence by Sinhala Buddhists against Tamils or Muslims, then you risk absolving state actors (or other ruling-class actors, such as opposition politicians attempting to destabilise the state) of responsibility. The direct involvement of the likes of Rajaratna and Mettananda in the 50s or Cyril Matthew in the 80s or any number of contemporary examples demonstrate that state and ruling class actors are absolutely a factor and cannot be ignored. Much scolding of “ignorant mobs” or appeals to the better nature of said “mobs” relies on the underlying idea that violence erupts spontaneously because of bad ideas held by other people, and can therefore be avoided by exhorting said other people toward personal growth. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that a lot of perfectly ordinary people have terrible, racist, violent ideas, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine many of them happily joining a mob given the opportunity. We can accept this as a contributing factor, but not the sole or ultimate cause.

On the other hand, if you say such violence is solely organised, entirely managed by the state and/or other nefarious actors, then you risk absolving the Sinhala Buddhist polity at large—it’s essentially a denial that widespread or structural racism is a serious contributing factor, which it undoubtedly is. Pogroms require years of indoctrination and propaganda, to prime and maintain a sufficiently large segment of the population in the necessary cultural separatism, supremacism, paranoia, and ethical illiteracy required to make mass outbreaks of violence possible when its instigators demand it.

So. obviously, the answer must be that the pogroms are both organised and disorganised. They have always been nurtured and prepared and heated up over years, then actively incited and led in the moment of boiling over. It’s important not to lose sight of this “both,” though, because what matters is the interaction between organisation and disorganisation. Instigation can but does not require conspiracy of the more obvious sort. Sri Lanka is, by design, a leaking gas cylinder and the political culture is to sit on it and light matches.

It is not enough to say “stop lighting matches.” Even the leak isn’t the root of the problem: it is the nation-state, framed as compressed, productive, explosive fuel. This is indeed useful for those who cook with it—we know their names and their dynasties well—and they are least inclined to change the state of affairs, because for them these are the affairs of state. But for those of us who are under pressure inside the cylinder, rendered and reproduced as toxic and flammable, the need of the hour and the need of the century are aligned: we have to find our own safe way out, because the only other destinies that shall be made available to us are conflagration or consumption.

The Sinhala question is not a question: it lacks precisely that sense of questioning, of openness or discovery. The Sinhala question is an assertion, a definition, a tautology; it is only a question in that it troubles those capable of being troubled, just as it comforts those who are not. The Sinhala assertion is simply this: the island belongs to the Sinhala nation from the strait to the ocean, and the state, coterminous with the island, must serve the Sinhala nation. The occasional attempt to gentle and liberalize this assertion simply adds one word (“first”) to the end of that assertion, acknowledging that those outside the nation may also be included on sufferance within the state. As our constitution puts it, Buddhism shall have the foremost place, while other religions shall have their rights assured; the official language is Sinhala, and Tamil shall also be an official language. The Sinhala state serves the Sinhala nation, which is formulated as a fixed, pre-democratic majority and therefore defines the Sinhala state, and in this way the two continually reproduce each other. And meanwhile other people may also be there, as long as they remain relegated and understated, which is to say, neither part of this nation or another.

The Sinhala assertion justifies the Sinhala state, but it produces the Sinhala nation as a given. It is easy to identify the Sinhala state. It is the deterministic finite state machine—the elected representatives, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the laws, the police, the military—dominated by those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests. It accepts certain inputs but not others, and produces predictable outputs in response. It is, by definition, unjust and undemocratic.

But what, exactly, is the Sinhala nation? Is it those enculturated as Sinhala, speaking Sinhala, and prioritizing Sinhala interests? No, not quite. Imagine an enthusiastic Western tourist who becomes a de facto immigrant, perhaps living down south and opening a boutique bed and breakfast, who learns fluent Sinhala, adopts Sinhala customs such as the New Year, wears sarongs, converts to Buddhism and can quote his Walpola Rahula as easily as his D.T. Suzuki, goes to temple on Poya days, makes Vesak lanterns, marries a Sinhalese and fathers children, identifies so strongly with the culture that he says we when he speaks of Sinhala interests, and is proud of it. Is this person Sinhala or part of the Sinhala nation? Obviously not. The answer is “No, but his children are half Sinhalese.” This answer is not really an answer to a question: this answer is the Sinhala question, which is the Sinhala assertion. It is the statement that to be Sinhala is not in the mouth, not in the head nor body, not even in the heart, but in the blood.

This statement is a fiction, a fantasy—an epic fantasy, a myth of origins imbued with great power, for all that it is, at a very simple level, without meaning. It means nothing, and yet it means everything: it is why blood is shed. It is the essence of Sinhala racial-national thinking. Not to be too Sapir-Whorfian about it, but there’s something telling about the use of the same word for race and nation (and species for that matter,) especially when that word becomes a rallying cry.

What, precisely, does ජාතිය mean in Jathika Chinthanaya? It is usually translated nation, as in National Thought or National Consciousness, but Gunadasa Amarasekara, its primary theorist (most recently seen being cringe on main) has of course long since clearly identified the nation with the Sinhala Buddhist, so it could be translated more accurately as Racial Consciousness. That is indeed the great intellectual contribution this ideology represents: anxieties about birth rates, fertility, and replacement, racialized demographics as power. As with the Mahinda Chinthanaya, it barely deserves the description of thought, much less consciousness. It is, rather, the unexamined unconscious of an unconscious nation, tottering somnambulistically over brink after brink, doing itself terrible damage with each crash but so far, never waking up all the way.

In this, the ideology is far older than the late articulation given to it by the likes of Amarasekara. It is the same reasoning through which the demographics of the island, as represented in the flag, were set at 5:1:1; proportions obtained through not only the violent disenfranchisement and deportation of Tamil populations in the very moment of independence, but through the differential definition of populations by race and religion. Tamil-speakers are broken up by religious and regional groupings, and Sinhala-speakers are not, though they could also be: a grandparental generation contended with Kandyan and Low-Country Sinhalese as distinct races, and if Sinhala Christians and Sinhala Hindus and Sinhala Muslims had been counted in similarly distinct silos, the proportions would shift again. All such definitions are fluid, unfixed, and of relatively recent provenance: the “Sinhala nation” is about as old as the car, or the telephone, which is to say, a device utterly inextricable from modernity. It is impossible to use a colonial tool of division for anticolonial campaigning without opening the way to tremendous postcolonial violence. The inability to rid ourselves of this device is, at root, how we got where we are.

Ranil Wickremasinghe gave a speech the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to the island—under Ranil’s protection, as always, continuing his service as Gota-by-proxy for these past few months. In this speech, he cited Buddhism as an explanation and justification for a neoliberal capitalism. An incoherent one, in that he described it in terms of a national desire, rooted in Buddhism, to be free of debt 1, while the world he and Gota are building is one of deep and permanent indebtedness, but this is only incoherent at the level of mere economics, whereas Ranil is speaking on the level of Racial Consciousness. The appeal is to Sinhala pride, traditionally a precursor to tremendous violence (the Sinhala nation having willfully inherited the mantle of whiteness, “Sinhala pride” is merely Kandyan KKK kosplay, and nothing to be proud of) but Ranil wants to extend this technique to directly support economic violence as well.

This rhetorical gambit seems to be a pet theme for Ranil. A notable previous attempt was his 2005 book Politics and Dharma, presumably ghostwritten but no doubt to his direction, which argued, via a tiresome and irrelevant restatement of samma ajiva, that capitalism was fully compatible with Buddhist values. Perhaps it is: the idea of what “Buddhist values” are has been so severely degraded in this country, from Mahanama to Mahinda, that there seems to be no reason why Buddhism should object to mere exploitation once it has already enthusiastically condoned genocide. But unlike Buddhist jingoism and unlike Buddhist pogroms, which rouse passionate, violent support from much of the self-identified Sinhala nation, Buddhist capitalism only tends to rouse mumbling acquiescence at best. The Sinhala nation is a great many people who have been successfully taught to hate the other, while the neoliberal capitalist rhetoric has successfully taught a great many people to hate themselves (as witness the many people begging for their own impoverishment and exploitation that you will see in any conversation about privatisation: many actively wish for public services to go away and despise the notion of a public good.) But the two rhetorics do not (yet) fit together, despite Ranil’s attempts to try and make them click into place. Persuasion is a field of wrecked experiments from whose ruins you can trace the outline of many a political project, but just because something has crashed before doesn’t mean that failure is preordained.

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1: This, incidentally, is why it is important to look first at the dirty underside of things, whether speeches by a President, press releases by the IMF, strategic meetings by a ruling party. There are always positive, or at least less-negative spins or aspects or readings that are possible. But if you don’t anchor yourself, then you risk getting lost in a frothy cloud of hypothetical positivities that may or, more likely, may not transpire. The worst that is openly spoken of, on the other hand, can be guaranteed to be the least of the trials to come. In most public statements from political actors, only the worst even approximates the real. The rest is sugarcoating, or more pyrotechnically, flares being sent up to distract any heat-seeking criticism. Top Gun isn’t the only 80s propaganda currently enjoying a massive resurgence.

The Sri Lankan crisis and some ways to help

Updated Oct 6 2022

As you have probably heard by now, Sri Lanka is in crisis. That link, and pretty much any news source at this point, has more coverage if you need it; if you’re looking for deeper analysis, I recommend these articles by Mario Arulthas and Ahilan Kadirgamar as good starting points.

The short version: price hikes, inflation, and severe shortages are hitting all Sri Lankans hard, and obviously working-class Sri Lankans, who constitute the vast majority of this country, are the hardest hit.

Official poverty rates aside (they tend to be defined in such a way to minimize the number of people who are formally “poor”, so as to make good poverty reduction stats), even before the crisis hit, nine out of ten Sri Lankans were living on less than $3 a day. Seven of those nine lived on about half that. The conversion of those numbers from rupees to dollars is based on current (and collapsing) exchange rates to give you an idea of how far your donations would go right now, and how much even small donations matter.

A meal, as costed by most of the relief efforts below, is less than $1. For $10, you can make sure ten people get a square meal.

I want to add that those income stats themselves are actually from an official government survey in 2016: long before the pandemic, even, never mind the current collapse. So they are certainly far too positive for what’s going on right now, but it’s the best official number I could find. Conditions were already precarious at best: we are now over the edge and in free-fall, which is why so many people are protesting across classes and political tendencies.

Small-scale mutual aid initiatives are obviously not going to solve the crisis. But they do keep at least some people fed in the meantime, and as anybody who has ever been hungry knows, that’s hell of a lot better than nothing.

I’ve been trying to keep this page updated as various relief initiatives spin up or wind down, so as long as the date at the top of this post is relatively recent, the below are active.

As of late 2022, many projects have wound down or gone on hiatus. The best way to help at this point is supporting mutual aid efforts for food and dry rations via Amalini De Sayrah’s Google document, which is the most comprehensive resource tracking many relief efforts.

Everything listed in the above document are on-the-ground mutual aid initiatives. If you’re on the island, you can donate directly via bank transfer, and if you’re donating from overseas, you can use do an international bank transfer or use a service like Bank details and instructions on how to use Wise are in the document.

These are efforts to provide food and dry rations to low-income communities in different parts of the island, all of whom have been hit very hard by the shortages and price hikes. Any and all of them are good to support, and deserve whatever you can give! (Document linked in the tweet below is the same Google doc.)

Please donate and signal boost as much as you can! Any help you can give is deeply appreciated.

The Red Flag

This was going to be a Twitter thread but then I was just typing furiously and realized it was just too long, so here it is in abbreviated essay form.

The first and most important thing to understand about the Sri Lankan flag is that every version of the lion flag is, definitionally, racist and fascist in symbolism, including the official one. It was intentionally designed that way, by committee. The proportions of the “majority box” to the “minority stripes” (5:1:1) were determined by population ratios which were determined by:

  1. racialized census categories introduced by the British Empire in the preceding few decades and enthusiastically taken up by the burgeoning Sinhala-supremacist postcolony, which divided the Tamil-speaking population into sub-races by religion but not the Sinhala-speaking population and
  2. the chaos introduced by the then-contemporary Citizenship Act, which made a massive proportion of the Tamil-speaking population stateless and disenfranchised.

The clear intention of the national flag’s design was to centre this Sinhala supremacism and marginalize minorities, represent them as barely-tolerated outsiders at best. Contemporary dissent (e.g. Senator Nadesan) makes it clear that this was not an analysis that was somehow beyond them. It was pointed out, very explicitly, and ignored.

The reason the flag is fascist in addition to being racist is (in addition to its reliance on racialization, the glorification of the dominant “race”, and the warlike symbolism, all fascist standbys) is because this lion also came accompanied by an entirely fictional mytho-history concocted by E.W. Perera and D.R. Wijewardena. The story is that the lion flag represents a return to a mythic precolonial history, which it does not. Purported centuries-old or millennia-old connections to Kandyan flags and Dutugemunu &c. are nonsense: fantastical worldbuilding as background for nation-building. Flags of the precolonial world did not serve the same purposes as nation-state era flags, any more than “Sinhalese” represented a racial designation rather than a political designation in the era before colonial racialization. They did not carry the same meanings, and the lion had no special place: you’ll find plenty of other animals wandering about in flags and other precolonial iconography, a whole zoo of them. The idea that there could be any sort of rebooted franchise, a meaningful remake, a direct connection between a symbol and its meaning before and after over two hundred years of colonial reprogramming and brainwashing is laughable.

Perera, an epic fantasy writer before his time, simply invented a brief and outsourced the design to a London designer (Southwood & Co. in Regent Street), presumably some white guy, who knocked off a generic European heraldic lion passant with finials and called it a day. At best, they were more likely influenced by British and Dutch colonial flags of the preceding generation than anything else, but seeing as how Perera, Wijewardena et al. were already thoroughly brainwashed by colonial programming, this would have been perfectly acceptable to the Sinhala supremacist mindset. It was Britishness that the Sinhala elite wanted and envied, to finally become the white man, the colonizer, the master sir.

The specifics of the flag’s design clearly didn’t really matter to Perera or Wijewardena, in any case, given that they found whatever the designer came back with acceptable. One wonders if there were private rounds of feedback and redesign, but I suspect not. The details only matter if you give a shit. All they wanted was to put a lion on it. Their strategy of decolonization was merely to ensure above all that the “Sinhalese” inherited the colonial mantle of whiteness on the island. Whiteness exists to be the race that dominates other races—this is why “race” exists and why it was invented—and in the postcolony, at least in Sri Lanka and probably elsewhere too, the changing of the guard was not reflected by the deconstruction of this construct of race, but by its rigorous enforcement. The goal was not and never unity: such things are judged by what people do, not what people say, and the national flag is the perfect example. Taking the colonizer’s place, becoming the colonizer was the only ambition of decolonization-era Sinhala elites. And it remains true today, which is why the national flag now exists in multiple unofficial variations, each one making the flag’s true nature more explicit than the last.

The version of the flag seen in the tweet, meanwhile, is of particular interest because it actually has no history that I’m aware of: it is an entirely new thing under the sun. Even the alleged historic flag of Kandy had finials, not fig leaves, so this is not that. Besides, all legitimized versions of the flag have the lion holding the sword by the hilt, not by the blade. The only flag that I’ve seen before with that design is Dayasiri Jayasekera’s innovation from 2020.

At the time, this was seen as a simple, if ludicrous error, given that it apparently got all the way to this moment without anybody noticing.

Of course, this version of the flag has the minority stripes, so it too is not a match. The perahera flag cannot claim a history even two years old; it is freshly hatched, mere days in the making.

But the return of this blade-holding lion makes me think that this is perhaps not an error after all. Perhaps it is merely a catwhistle, a new icon chosen by fascist thought leaders as being more appropriate for contemporary Sinhala modernity, a self-harming lion, a bleeding lion that can’t stop cutting itself.

O torment A Worm compelld

From Blake’s Four Zoas, which I have never managed to read in its entirety but do enjoy occasionally dipping into. Orc here is not an orc but a heartfelt serpent or perhaps a hell-whale, addressing Urizen, the local tyrant god:

Then Orc cried Curse thy Cold hypocrisy. already round thy Tree
In scales that shine with gold & rubies thou beginnest to weaken
My divided Spirit Like a worm I rise in peace unbound
From wrath Now When I rage my fetters bind me more
O torment O torment A Worm compelld. Am I a worm
Is it in strong deceit that man is born. In strong deceit
Thou dost restrain my fury that the worm may fold the tree

Deceit means in its parts to take from. Its latter syllable shares a root with cop and chase and capture. This makes perfect sense, because policing and arrest and detention are of course practices of deceit. The taking of persons from their lives, their families, from the world; the taking of their time, their days and years, under not merely false pretenses but an entire ecosystem of lies and deceptions enabled by police, judiciary, legislation, and media acting in concert to serve petty goals of gaining and keeping power on the back of atrocity. Ahnaf Jazeem’s first interview, on his release from detention after a year and a half (the translation project Free Ahnaf Jazeem has a nearly complete translation of Ahnaf’s allegedly controversial book now, by the by, with much thanks to Shash Trevett and the other translators) is telling on many fronts, not least of which is a first-hand window into the abysmal treatment of prisoners under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which cannot be reformed and must be repealed), the farcical, clownish “investigation,” and the lengths to which the police go to attempt to force Ahnaf Jazeem to frame Hejaaz Hizbullah, who has been imprisoned even longer than Ahnaf and was recently denied bail on a deeply petty technicality: I hope, as many of us do, that he will finally be released by the Court of Appeal on Monday, even if purely as a pragmatic strategy to brush some of the dirt off Sri Lanka’s deeply stained reputation before the spotlight of the upcoming UNHRC sessions. In the absence of a functioning justice system but still trapped within the hollow space that it should have occupied, it seems accidentally positive outcomes as a byproduct of petty politicking are the best that can be hoped for.

(Which is not to say the best possible outcomes: merely the best that can be hoped for, because hope in itself provides very little leverage to make the world other than what it is. What is needed is will, built upon and beyond hope, but if we know anything about these, it is that while hope is cheap, will costs so very, very much.)

These two cases are tied together, of course. Both of them were targeted through the faux-investigation into the 2019 Easter bombings: Hejaaz for having been an activist lawyer and thorn in the side of power, Ahnaf for having the temerity to have produced art in Tamil, unreadable to Sinhala police or judges, in an area designated as suspicious because of its tenuous connection to the then recently-arrested Hejaaz. With both of them detained, the pressure mounted on Ahnaf to give a false confession implicating Hejaaz: a man that he had never met, never seen or communicated with, never even heard of until Hejaaz made the national news with his arrest. This Ahnaf refused to do. Others were similarly coerced. The single coerced witness who actually made it to the stand, himself until very recently a minor, could not even keep his lines straight. The thing is absurd, the whole of the thing. This country, where we its citizen worms are compelled to follow along with so much façile worldmaking that would never pass muster in fiction. This is Urizen’s island now, chained by technocracy and disconnected from the real, first narrowing the world into a well and then diving in headfirst to wallow in bottomless incompetence. As long as he is stuck there, truth cannot get out to shame us.

From The First Book of Urizen, via the William Blake Archive.


A few years ago I half-wrote this (some of it escaped as twitter-thread radiation at the time, so if some of this sounds familiar, that’s why) in reaction to, among other things, a Sri Lanka politician—it was Mangala Samaraweera, in fact, whose recent death and subsequent hagiographies are what reminded me of this half-written essay again, before today’s headlines—saying that he was not a Buddhist but “a person who follows the Buddhist philosophy,” which has long been a Sri Lankan middlebrow commonplace for people who want to distance themselves from the tacky or ugly parts of Buddhism. The objectionable, depending on the objectors, might be the old-fashioned ritual trappings, the pogroms, the philosophical or salvific failures, or the politicized establishment. Common in all of these is the rescue of Buddhism from itself. Each is a search for some pure and uncorrupted heart, a philosophy, a way of life, some higher teaching separate from the muddy and the goday and the bloody. But at least for those whose objection to actually existing Buddhism in Sri Lanka is its cost in lives and to life, this search merely recreates the problem on slightly higher ground. Looking for the pure and uncorrupted heart is how hell was made.

The Gandharan Fasting Siddhartha, from the Lahore Museum. I like him as an icon of failure—this represents one of the unbuddhist paths of experiment. Also, he looks metal af.

Since this is a context where religion is racialized, it is also commonplace to say that you were born a Buddhist. I was born a Buddhist, in this sense, which means that I went to temple on the full moon, learned the Pali prayers by heart, cut bamboo to make Vesak lanterns in May, and as the members of my family died one by one, invited seven monks from the local temples to come sing the prayer for the dead. All that sort of thing. I did these things not out of considered and intentional choice but simply because this was the world I knew, and those were the things one did in it. Eventually, as with most things lacking a heart, my practice of the rituals faded away. I have not made a Vesak lantern in decades. I don’t miss it, but I remember the feeling of that childish religiosity like fresh-cut bamboo on my fingertips—too smooth, too easily broken, and too sharp at the edges.

I don’t call myself Buddhist any more. There was a long time when I still automatically used it as an identifier in forms and affidavits, but even that has passed many years ago. But because Buddhism is racialized in Sri Lanka, it’s also impossible to entirely escape it: regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, practice or don’t, Buddhist privilege is inescapable if you have a Sinhala name or had a Buddhist childhood. For example, I know the ඉතිපිසෝ, which is a short prayer of praise for the Buddha, now most notable for its use as a shibboleth to distinguish Tamil speakers from Sinhala speakers during the 1983 pogrom. Once you know things like that, I feel, this prayer—and all the other Pali prayers—become unspeakable. They stop meaning what they say; they stop meaning what they might have once meant. Now they mean something else.

That article, itself a hagiography to yet another asshole politician, includes anecdotes spanning the period between the 1977 election and the 1983 pogrom—I was born in 1979, of an age with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, so when I say this was the world I knew, I mean that I have never known a Sinhala Buddhism that was free of this violence. And its pedigree goes back decades, arguably centuries: it is safe to say, at minimum, that no-one now alive has ever known a different Sinhala Buddhism. And yet people constantly appeal to the spectre of one, something clean and untainted whose abstract purity in a higher realm justifies the violence in its defense in this one. This appeal is the heart of Buddhist fascism, and as a rhetorical move it is not restricted to the Sinhalese.

However, if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated — if there was no other way. I could justify violence only in this extreme case, to save the last living knowledge of Buddhism itself.

The Dalai Lama, 1997 interview

Is it necessary to explain that this is wrong and deeply foolish? Is it not self-evident? Clearly, it is not self-evident. Myanmar’s 969 movement adapts this fatuous comment with ease into a justification for more generalized violence in Buddhism’s “defense,” and you will find the same language and same reasoning anywhere you care to look in Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric. It is the standard rhetorical manoeuvre by which Buddhists declare themselves above normative Buddhist ethics. Buddhist ethics is valuable, they say, because, e.g., it forbids killing, therefore killing is justified to preserve those ethics, which are certainly too valuable for everyday use. Buddhist ethics are like the good china, the fancy heirloom teapot you have in the glass cabinet for visitors to admire, but you are definitely not going to serve tea out of it.

To the Sinhala Buddhist proponent of violence, what they are doing is not hypocrisy, but sacrifice. Their belief is that they are selflessly ruining their own karma in order to save Buddhism for future generations. The violence, you see, is altruistic. The well-known fascist monk Gnanasara, for instance, made a production of this rhetorical move in 2019, by first declaring first that he would abandon his political activism to meditate and focus on religious pursuits, and then “changing his mind” because nirvana can always wait, but fascism is urgent. And “nirvana can always wait” has been standard-issue since before Independence, and the work of Walpola Rahula. In contemporary Sri Lankan Theravada, Buddhism is what is most useless to Buddhism, and exists only to be put aside.

But even that little zinger risks replicating the same manoeuvre I’m trying to argue against: the implication that there is a cleaner Buddhism, somewhere, even if in a purely hypothetical realm.

Why do I say “unbuddhist” instead of “non-religious”? Why අබෞද්ධ instead of නිරාගමික? Mostly, it’s that the latter tastes like cardboard to me. An airless word, a nothing word of studied neutrality: that isn’t what I’m getting at. People also say “atheist” here sometimes, by analogy with the popular Christian version, but that is entirely meaningless in this context, since the (non)existence of gods is not at issue. I like “unbuddhist” because it’s a pejorative to reclaim, perhaps, but also because it signals both opposition and proximity, in the same way that an atheist is someone who exists in a theistic framework and opposes it. Much of my thought, my fiction included, is inflected by buddhisms of various types. Nor is it particularly unusual for people to customize their buddhisms in this way, by dropping the parts they find objectionable and streamlining others—in fact, this was how the 20th century reform movement worked in the first place, stripping out what they considered empty ritual and ramping up the activist politicization.

But if you disavow the monks, political or otherwise, assuming an otherwise is even coherent; if you take away temples, relics, prayers, and rituals; if you take away poyas and the flag; if you ignore all the endlessly pedantic numbered lists of nonsense like the Thirty-Two Characteristics of Great Men; if you put aside orthodox understandings of karma and rebirth, samsara/nirvana, and meditation; if you have little interest in the alleged life of Siddhartha Gautama and less still in jatakas, buddhas, pacceka-buddhas, arahats, bodhisattvas, heavens, hells, or gamified enlightenment bonus points; if you ascribe little significance to the middle way, the four truths, the five precepts, the eightfold path, and so on, in that the important parts of those are derivable from ethical first principles and the rest are historical oddities and stray leftover bits; if you are specifically opposed to the linking of buddhism to race and nation and history, to “Sinhala-ness” in Buddhism, to the idea that a “Buddhism” even exists that could or should be “protected” or put in a constitutionally “foremost” place, all of which I do—then even if you continue to find, for instance, the paticcasamuppada, the trilaksana, and the idea of sunyata valuable and emotionally and intellectually significant, as I also do, you are definitely not a buddhist. You are merely a picky asshole, as I am. What I’m talking about here is not reformatory. This is not a stripping down to essentials, because I also don’t care about a lot of the essentials. This is merely an accommodation: my accommodation to the religious world I grew up in. This is what’s left of that world, after some consideration. It is possible, I think, and desirable, to disavow without appeal to purity.

But let’s talk about a real Buddhist instead.

Earlier today (and this is what prompted me to dust off this half-written essay yet again—truly this is an extremely cold take despite its hot-takeish timing) Gnanasara was appointed chairman of a “One Country One Law” presidential task force, signaling not a mainstreaming, exactly, since he was already thoroughly mainstream, but perhaps an upshift in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s willingness to publicly and directly associate himself with the likes of Gnanasara, something the Rajapaksas used to be a little shyer about. More precisely, it’s a signal that the administration believes that the mainstreaming of Buddhist fascism has been successful enough that a figure who was once somewhat controversial even for their own base might now be more broadly acceptable. Perhaps they are wrong about this, but in a way the appointment is a self-fulfilling prophecy: even if it gets reversed, it means that the next ratchet on the overton window will be that much easier.

I’m mixing the personal and the political here in a messy way. I’ve been trying to write about my own experience of navigating a buddhistic worldview, but it would be hard to explain why all that flensing was necessary without pointing at what was and is in the world. Buddhism is not about the ideas. It’s not even mostly about the ideas. It is a social practice with an organic history. In Sri Lanka, that history has been violent for a long time even before the tremendous violence of the last few generations, from the caste restrictions of the nikayas to the genocidal justifications of the Mahavamsa.

But I bring up Gnanasara here because he’s exactly the kind of monk a great many Sinhala Buddhists would say (or used to say—I would guess that he is more acceptable to them today than he used to be ten or even five years ago) was not a “real” monk. And yet his real-monk-ness was formally endorsed and insisted upon by the highest Buddhist authority in Sri Lanka. If you wanted to call the Dalai Lama and ask him for a second opinion, it is fully consistent with Gnanasara’s perspective. This is the real Buddhism: if you think it isn’t, the error and the apostasy are yours.

Strange Halves

I started thinking about this essay after my story “Redder” was published, to briefly talk about a specific technique of storytelling: stories whose structure is intentionally discontinuous but nondual, built out of seeming halves. As always, this essay is brought to you with the support of my patrons! Some personal news in the meantime: having written what will hopefully be my first novel, I am now represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Satpralat (2004) is called Tropical Malady in English, not Strange Creature, which would be a more literal translation of สัตว์ประหลาด. Most reviews speak of the film as having two halves. In fact, it’s difficult not to speak of it as having two halves—there is an explicit transition between the two, and while there is (some) continuity of character, there is a massive shift in style, register, and tone. This may not seem all that uncommon a device: for example, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) does something very similar, where Aubrey Plaza’s character goes from being the manipulator in the first half to the manipulated in the second. But Black Bear flattens itself with its framing device that repeatedly shows (yet another?) Aubrey Plaza character drafting multiple versions of a screenplay, of which the two halves—the bear in the road and the bear near the boathouse—are only drafts in different genres. So Black Bear is less what I’m talking about and more like an American remake of Sion Sono’s Antiporno (2016), where the first half is revealed in the second half to be a film, with the power dynamics of the film-within-the-film being inverted in the story of the production of that film-within-the-film. But both Black Bear and Antiporno have continuity between their halves: they are not discontinuous halves but unfoldings.

In Satpralat, the first half is a romance between two men set in a world seems like ours. The second half is a world apart, a fantastical sequence of transformation and apparition, where one of the lovers is sometimes a tiger, but not the generic cinematic weretiger that one might be forced to imagine, with the howls and chains and writhing and cracking bones and predictable guilts; no, this is not that. Between these worlds, these halves, there is a pause: a black screen that slowly fades into a tiger who announces that we are embarking on a new path.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the threshold between its halves.

The halves read each other, but we encounter them, necessarily, in sequence. So it is only in the second half that we understand that we’re meant to read both what we’re seeing now and reread what we saw before. An hour later, when we get to the tiger facing the man in the jungle, we understand their dynamic of desire and pursuit. The first half reads the second as much as the other way around. This isn’t metafiction: this is a mirror-fiction that doesn’t tell you which side of the mirror you’re on.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the climactic faceoff.

In Jess Barton’s strangely doubled poem “Lord, Be A Femme” (2017), published on Tumblr, read by the author here, and included in the Nameless Woman anthology, available here for free, the transition is similarly tight and explicit—“My asshole becomes a glorious portal through time and space fucked back to Mayan brothels in Guatemalan jungles.” Then it does, and we are in another world peopled by men who are jaguars, not tigers. But at the same time (and in another time) it’s the same people and the same story, too. This is what’s important about these strange halves: despite being clearly distinct, they are not dyadic but nondual. Not separate stories cut together, not unfoldings of a fiction into a metafiction, but each half precisely a reading of the other. A prediction, or a prophesy—a vision. The cloud of connotations shifts too much with each of those words. Prediction is too sfnal, a model or forecast; prophesy is too fantastical, a destiny, a fate, a doom. Vision, at least, feels appropriately mystical, or at least mysterious: a weird, a word, a word in your ear, whispered by the voices of the dead.

In April 2019, Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested for a short story that he had posted on Facebook. The story was in Sinhala, called “අර්ධ”: ardha, which means half. The strange arrest was instigated by a faction of Buddhist monks who I would have called hardliners if there existed a softer line worth speaking of; as it is, they are merely representative. Their problem with the story was, in a word, blasphemy.

It would be four months before Sathkumara was even given bail. The case is still ongoing, and the possibility of prison time is still on the table. Meanwhile, the story, originally written in Sinhala, was eventually translated into English and published by the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. I did my own translation, too, though I didn’t publish it at the time: well, there it is, for what it’s worth. It seemed redundant then, and perhaps it is even now, because such cases are not truly about the words or about art or its place in our lives.

What precisely about Sathkumara’s story was so objectionable as to land its author in prison is itself somewhat entangled. One half of that tangle is simply that it depicts monks in an unflatteringly realistic way, such as by acknowledging the rampant child abuse that characterizes Buddhist temples or by having a monk named Gnanasara show up as a character accusing social workers of helping “Tiger families,” or even just by having the main character be an ex-monk who sees monkhood as pointless and miserable and is glad to be rid of it. In other words, the story depicts Sri Lankan Buddhism as it is. Its genre is unbearable realism.

Then there is the other half, perhaps the major part of the offense that was taken: the blasphemy. This is the brief short-story-within-the-short-story where Siddhartha is cuckolded by his charioteer. This fiction-within is too small, you might say, to constitute a half. But considering its outsize impact, its wildly disproportionate consequence, it would be more correct to say that this paragraph is the bigger half of the story. As the fiction-within gives way to the metafiction, the characters acknowledge that the joke is unspeakable: the narrator urges its author to burn the story-within. Perhaps if he had, the author’s author would not have gone to prison. But what then would have been lost, and whose loss would it have been?

In May 2020, Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested for a book of poems, “நவரசம்,” Navarasam, written in Tamil. He is still in prison. The book is now online but not yet in translation. The accusation this time is not blasphemy, but promoting terrorism; where Sathkumara was detained under “hate speech” legislation, Jazeem is being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As that article notes:

Ahnaf’s book of poetry was also cleared by an eminent scholar of the Tamil language and retired Professor of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya, M.A. Nuhman, who famously authored “The Murder of Buddha,” a poem about the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981. Professor Nuhman said he had read Jazeem’s tiny anthology of 45 poems after hearing of the poet’s prolonged detention under the PTA and found nothing on extremism in the collection.

“On the contrary, there are several poems against extremism, violence, and war in this collection,” Professor Nuhman said in a statement on Jazeem’s arrest.

Professor Nuhman, a widely respected Tamil scholar, said Jazeem work mostly concerned religious morality, humanism, love and a peaceful life. “How can these sentiments be seen as promoting extremism,” he questioned, adding that the authorities who could not read or understand poetry in the Tamil language may have run away with that notion because there were a few pictures of people in arms depicted in the printed version of Jazeem’s anthology.

The discontinuity between prosecution and defense is so complete that these two halves of each case are not even debating the same thing. These cases are absolutely about the freedom of art (dead as it is on this island, are we not still haunted) but at the same time these cases are, clearly, not truly about art at all. What here has been lost, and whose loss is it? These cases aren’t even necessarily about words: Ahnaf was arrested and detained without investigators or magistrate being able to read the book, which they still are not. The prosecution happily wallows in illiteracy; it is the belated defense that must now read poetry, that must seek real translation, that must argue that words mean things and that the truth matters. The prosecuting state is happy to take the easy position that truth is reducible to power, and that art is at best a nuisance and at worst a kind of disease—hardly a pandemic, of course, merely the last remnant pockets of infection, something nearly eradicated.

History’s Anteroom

Recent publications: a couple of short stories—“Mulch” in See The Elephant #4 from Metaphysical Circus Press and “The Dreaded Name: Thirty-Nine Crowdsourced Annotations on an Anonymous Manifesto Promoting Tactical Human Extinction” (my longest story title ever, by some margin) in the anthology The Internet is Where the Robots Live Now from Paper Dog Books—and a poem, “Vajrakantakasalmali”, in Syntax & Salt.

Since we are in a Janus-faced moment (see also: resolutions and irresolutions, the takings and leavings of stock) there is a round-up of everything I published in 2018 listed here in my bibliography, or alternatively and perhaps more intriguingly in full tweet-thread form here, where I even did little blurb-type things for each of them.

I used to find that sort of thing harder to do than writing the stories—social media self-promotion in general, or worse, writing blurby bits about my own work and trying to say what a thing is about, when obviously everything is about a lot of things. But sometimes you can just say some words and move on with your life? It seems the salve for many of life’s thorns is to try to relax and do the thing and not worry about it too much. And this is perhaps good advice not just for the minor but also the major arcana. See also: the leavings and takings of leave, the piya vippayoga dukkha, which is the name of the thing that flutters in the extremely occupied cage and makes it hard work for the other organs to organ. A lung must lung without having to worry about stray claws and beaks and feathers. A heart must heart.

Max Porter, "Grief is the Thing with Feathers" (2015)

Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is fortunately not about Ted Hughes as such despite the overwhelming stench of Crow, but rather about a Ted Hughes scholar. It’s a small lovely book about grief as the madness with sanction, the permitted abandon. There are the things we see and the voices we hear, the half-world we inhabit, sometimes for too long, eating and drinking of it, until we can’t quite come all the way back. That’s me, you see. It took me about seven years to breathe out and say, okay, maybe I’m never going to come all the way back. But then there was an eighth year (and we are in it still—calendrical regimes are complicated) in which I am like, well, fuck it, I can make this work too. It may seem like I’m talking about several things at once. I am, because everything is about a lot of things. Griefs—what an awkward-ass plural that is; it should at least be grieves for the echo, for we be reft when we be reaved—braid. And the pain of being separated from those you love, the diamond-edged precision of this term, the piya vippayoga dukkha, does not speak of death at all, except to encompass it by implication. Death is not the mystery: sundering is.

Once the classless society had been defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogeneous time was trans­formed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity. In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance—provided only that it is defined in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem.

From Benjamin’s Paralipomena
H.L. Seneviratne, "The Work of Kings" (2000)

This anteroom is a hazard for the handling of infinite tasks. This is, for example, how orthodox Sri Lankan Theravada handles the problem of nirvana: defined as an impossible problem of many lifetimes, it’s easy to put it aside altogether and do other things of more worldly import. H.L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings records a particular argument about the heritage of a Theravada Buddhist monk in the late 1940s, overlapping with the struggle for nation-making. Walpola Rahula argues for the politicization of the monk, and a social role in keeping with the Christian model; his critic Henpitagedara Gnanavasa argues for a vibhavagami path that precludes this kind of usefulness. Of course, Gnanavasa lost this argument so thoroughly that (as I noted when I tweeted about this book a while back) now, seventy years later, it is bizarre to expect that Buddhist monks should practice Buddhism. Organized Sri Lankan Theravada entered history’s anteroom then, and has since made itself very comfortable there: to yr average frothing-at-the-mouth monk, that anteroom is the world.

The classless society and nirvana are not the only kind of infinite tasks, though. These are not truly infinite tasks: they could be any task of sufficient scope and ambition that it can easily be (mis)construed as infinite. This is, as are many things, a problem of definition. Healing can become an infinite task, if you’re not careful. So can Great Works, if one is so incautious as to attempt them. It’s a pattern that occurs in the large and the small, like nautilus shells and spiral galaxies. But this kind of connection between the large and the small is itself the beginning of an answer, if sundering were a question. Listen, that is Earth under your feet, the same as mine.

Resident Guest

(This is my intro post for the Sharkes, which originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

My approach to the Sharkes is probably going to be less about the award per se―its Britishness, its ups and downs: I mean, I read and deeply enjoyed “Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3” like everybody else, but apart from that it’s all a bit distant and hazy from where I live, much like the various hullabaloos about the American awards—and more about using the award’s official submissions list as a frame for my reading.

Until relatively recently, the only SFF awards I knew were those mentioned on book covers: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Clarke. The first Clarke winner I ever read was probably either The Handmaid’s Tale or Take Back Plenty, but those were older editions that didn’t mention it on the covers, so at that time I didn’t know. So the first time I realized there was such a thing as a Clarke Award was when I saw it on the cover of Paul McAuley’s Fairyland, the 1996 mass market paperback with the big blue face on the cover, with “Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award” on its forehead.

It’s almost funny that I hadn’t heard of the award by that time, given that Clarke was a local celebrity. If there were ever any local announcements of the original 1987 grant or of any of the subsequent winners, I missed it. I don’t think there were any, though. Things were a lot more disconnected in those days, and the award was firmly rooted somewhere else. And anyway, Clarke lived in a different version of Colombo than I did. A few years before I was born (and not long after Elizabeth II finally stopped being our head of state, nearly a quarter-century after independence from the Empire) the Sri Lankan government brought into law an entire new immigration status, the non-citizen Resident Guest, to accommodate Clarke personally. Apparently even as late as 1982 this was still being called “the Arthur Clarke Law,” which we might call that a fourth law on top of the better-known three already named for him (and the only one which is actual law.)

Looking back at the Clarke winners and nominees now, I recognize many of my fin de siècle favourites that don’t appear on the Hugo or Nebula lists of the same period: Eon, Use of Weapons, The Broken God, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Vurt. So in that sense, even though I didn’t follow any of the conversations at the time, it seems in retrospect one might say that my taste has always been closer to the Clarke than to the other awards.

But then this uncanny affinity is not mysterious. I read most of those books by borrowing them from the British Council library in Colombo, and it seems reasonable to assume their Clarke Award wins or nominations ensured that they were stocked. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that my early taste in SFF was heavily influenced by the Clarke in the first place. Which seems a rather terrifying responsibility for those that end up on the actual juries. Who is to blame for me having read Vurt at seventeen, and everything that this led to? And so on. Which is why I appreciate that the shadow jury allows one the pleasure of reading and talking about books in public space, without being required to make terrible choices in camera that might affect the tastes of new generations of readers and writers to come.