In pursuit of status

Print edition : December 22, 2002
SUSAN RAM

Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka by Kumari Jayawardena; LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2001; pages xxx + 412, Rs. 650.

IN an obituary essay for Sirima Bandaranaike following her death in October 2000, British journalist John Rettie reminded readers of the privileged social milieu from which both she and her husband, Solomon "Solla" W.R.D. Bandaranaike, sprang. As Mudaliyars from the top goyigama caste of landowners, the politically driven husband-and-wife team drew upon a wealthy, socially assured heritage characterised by its anglicised culture, aristocratic pretensions and instinctive hauter. United in 1940 by what was described at the time as "the wedding of the century", Sirima and Solla proved more than capable of remodelling themselves to meet the challenge of new times, in particular the mass politics ushered in by Independence. The 1950s saw Solla, who had resigned from the United National Party (UNP) in 1951 to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), fashion a new political idiom embracing democratic socialism and Sinhalese resurgence. Following his assassination in 1959 at the hands of the Buddhist monk, his widow stepped up the momentum, in the process building and defending a central position for herself and her family in Sri Lankan politics that endures to this day.

That the Bandaranaikes successfully drew upon their socially and economically advantaged inheritance, using the headstart it conferred as a basis for political innovation and family empire building, is an unsurprising story by no means confined to the "dynastic democracies" of South Asia. But as Kumari Jayawardena reminds us in her richly textured, wide-ranging new study, today's 'Somebodies' were once - and often not so long ago - 'Nobodies', part of the great anonymous human mass whose lives remain hidden from history.

In the case of the Mudaliyars of Sri Lanka, their claims to aristocratic lineage seem particularly far-fetched: their rise out of obscurity began only a couple of centuries ago, in the context of colonial rule and the opportunities it afforded indigenous 'Nobodies' with middleman aptitudes. But as the first away from the starting line, the Mudaliyars enthroned themselves on the high ground, looking down disdainfully on the strivings of subsequent waves of social upstarts. Behind this complex jockeying for position, this tapestry of family tales, inter-caste rivalries and dreams of upward mobility, a new class - the Sri Lankan bourgeoise - was taking shape, cutting across caste and ethnic boundaries while never quite liberating itself from the grip of the past.

In her new book, Kumari Jayawardena, a distinguished political scientist currently teaching in the Women's Studies Programme at the University of Colombo, seeks to grapple with the process of class formation in all its intricate, contradictory ways. Rejecting traditional caste-based interpretations of Sri Lanka's modern economic history (which, with their focus on individual castes, necessarily compartmentalise and fragment experience), she applies a "wide spectrum lens" that seeks to encompass the rise and development of the bourgeoisie as a totality. In the process, she attempts to enrich and extend conventional Marxist analysis, with its focus on the economic roots of class, by applying her lens deep into the social realm and into the play of politics. The result is an ambitious, densely textured portrait of class formation, one which lights up the past while also offering new perspectives of Sri Lanka's troubled present.

The organisation of the book reflects the author's concern to dissolve orthodox academic barriers in pursuit of a more rounded, and detailed, engagement with historical reality. The first two parts follow the track of economic history, unearthing the origins of the bourgeoisie, identifying the process of capital accumulation which fuelled its rise, and providing a broad characterisation of the class as it developed in the context of a colonial plantation economy. In Part Three, there is a shift to sociology as the author seeks to establish connections between economic realities and the construction of caste and ethnic identities. Further exploration of the cultural domain follows in Part Four, where Kumari Jayawardena broadens the debate still further, analysing the fledgling bourgeoisie in terms of its relationship to cultural assimilation, religious revivalism and the changing position of women. In the book's fifth and concluding part, she pursues her themes into the political realm, tracking the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie's political involvements before Independence, and suggesting continuities with what came later.

Academic convention is further challenged by Kumari Jayawardena's resolve, throughout her study, to zoom her lens into close-up mode, shifting from large themes and broad conclusions to focus on specific lived experience. As in her earlier book The White Woman's Other Burden (and exploration of independent-minded Western women who ventured to colonial South Asia to pursue agendas quite district from those of the burra memsahib), she proposes biography not as a rarefied literary pursuit but as a valid tool for the social sciences, integral to the whole project of retrieving the past.

There results, in her latest book, a rare dialogue between generalised finding and individual case history. At every stage, the author seeks to flesh out her arguments with stories, to draw sustenance for her findings from chronicles of past lives. Family histories spill out of this book; patriarchs pursue ambitious upward paths; conflicts smoulder or erupt; fortunes are made and squandered. Each story is meticulously documented, underlining the author's commitment to scrupulous, painstaking archival research; there is an almost forensic quality to her unearthing skills, her attention to detail.

What emerges is a portrait of the nascent Sri Lanka bourgeoisie that captures its parasitical traits and contradictions in all their complexity. As Kumari Jayawardena notes, the development of capitalism in Sri Lanka, as in other colonial economies, was to prove "unfinished business", bequeathing a combined formation in which "the archaic and the modern were yoked together". Under the specific conditions of an enclave plantation economy, the emergent indigenous bourgeoisie would never grow beyond its rentier roots to become an entrepreneurial class; locked into backwardness, it indulged in conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of status, investing in land over industry, holding fast to traditional norms and retaining a robust caste consciousness.

Kumari Jayawardena locates the roots of this rentier formation in the early phase of colonial rule, when European rulers, whether Dutch or British, required indigenous factotums to mediate with the local population. The first set of Sri Lankan 'Nobodies' to exploit such openings were the Mudaliyars, low country Sinhalese landowners who proved adept at recruiting labour, collecting revenue and maintaining law and order - services for which they were rewarded with tax-free grants of land. But soon other categories of 'Nobodies' got wind of the enticing new opportunities. And nowhere were the rewards more ample, the returns more tempting than in the arrack trade.

One theme which every reader of Kumari Jayawardena's study will carry away with them is the bond between the production and marketing of alcohol, thrust upon an exploited and vulnerable working population, and the rise of a bourgeoisie much given (in later days) to vaunting its purported high status and cultural finesse. For the British, seasoned drug-pushers whose opium trade would cut deep into the fabric of Chinese society, arrack in Sri Lanka represented a growth market and a rich source of revenue. Rather than control the trade directly, they instituted a revenue farming system by which arrack rents were auctioned to the highest bidder. The beauty of the arrangement, from the renters' point of view, was that once the agreed rent was paid to the government an open season for rapacity could be declared. Kumari Jayawardena, on the basis of an impressive amassing of evidence, argues that arrack represented the major source of local capital accumulation in Sri Lanka in the first half of the 19th century. In a real sense, it was the engine of growth of the bourgeoisie.

With the advent of plantation capitalism in the 1830s, the arrack trade feasted on a swiftly expanding market. Among the renters, the transition from 'Nobody' to 'Somebody' became ever more telescoped; as the author notes, "in one generation there was a social transformation from tavern-keeper to gentleman planter." Among the stories she provides by way of illustration, none is more graphic than the rise of the Warusahennedige Soysa family, karavas from the south-western coastal belt with a background in trade. In the space of five years, from 1829 to 1834, the family patriarch, Jeronis Soysa, would propel himself from a small-time tavern renter at Kadugannawa paying an annual rent of 38.5 to the position of having under his control the entire rents of the Central Province. The family would never look back.

The prominence of such rack-renting rentier capitalism, within the context of a colonial plantation economy, would have important implications for the subsequent development of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie. Kumari Jayawardene argues that, to a significantly greater degree than in India, what took shape in Sri Lanka was a dependent capitalism incapable of making the transition to industrial entrepreneurship.

Dependency in the economic sphere found reflection in cultural practice: Sri Lanka's 'Somebodies', whether old or new, looked to assimilate with their colonial masters, mimicking their taste in fashion and furnishings, adopting Western names, not infrequently abandoning their own religious faiths to embrace Christianity. At the same time, facets of tradition lived on or were reinvented in the face of new exigencies. While growing occupational mobility cut at the roots of caste as a mode of division of labour, caste consciousness retained its potency, and caste links, cemented through marriage alliances, helped build business empires. Ethnic identity, too, proved persistent and malleable, whether within the emergent Tamil professional middle class, the Muslim trading community or among the island's Eurasians.

In the political sphere, Sri Lanka's bourgeoisie would prove incapable of even the limited, compromised opposition to colonial rule offered by its Indian counterparts. In the book's concluding section, Kumari Jayawardena chronicles a less-than-inspiring story of intra-class Whig-Tory squabbles over who exactly was to occupy seats in the Legislative Council. Limited reforms introduced by the British in the 1920s (partly in response to the Moderate Ceylon National Congress and its gentlemanly pursuit of greater political representation) coexisted with the retention of a very narrow franchise that enabled members of the bourgeoisie to take a firm grip on local politics. Even the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1931 could make little impact on a political system readying itself for a long, entrenched existence. After 1947, Kumari Jayawardena argues, "the stamp of the old order remained, and leadership in politics in Sri Lanka continued, with a few exceptions, to be exercised by the same families whose rise to fame and fortune had occurred in the 19th century. The 'Somebodies' of the past held on and the 'Nobodies' who had become 'Somebodies' in the early twentieth century also emerged as the 'leaders of the people'."

In a real sense, the "dynastic politics" that has proved so dominant a feature of Sri Lanka's post-Independence experience can be traced to the weak, collaborative, consumption-minded bourgeoisie that, with its pockets full of arrack money (as well as riches from other sources), took shape in the 19th century.

Kumari Jayawardena's attempt to piece the story together, to extrapolate from the past in such a way as to render it comprehensible while retaining a sense of nuance and detail, is both impressive and persuasive. At time, the deployment of her wide-focus lens results in a certain fuzziness: the sharpness of her discussion of the economic roots of the bourgeoisie in the opening two parts of the book is not always sustained in later sections. It is, for example, not always clear how her explorations of ethnic identity and the position of women tie in to the central theme of class formation. There is also an element of repetitiveness (arguments are on occasion restated without reference to their appearance earlier in the book) which tighter editing could have eliminated. But, such quibbles apart, this ambitious, category-defying book succeeds both as a work of scholarship and as an open-ended engagement with the past. To read it is to be pushed beyond established ways of seeing, to acquire something of the author's audacity, her resolve to step across boundaries to think things afresh.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor