7 min read

Getting Out of the Hole

by Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

You are putting me in a hole.

No, I am taking you out of it!

Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.

I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and wanted to use the opportunity.

All of a sudden, I was told that they didn’t need such a person.

I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results. It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.

And now, I was out of one.

I tried contacting friends, acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.

None of it worked.

Frantically, I fired off one email after another.

I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.

Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.

By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.

I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” subject, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.

There was a problem, however. For over a decade I had studied mostly in English. I came from a Sinhala speaking background. Since I spent eight hours at school and a few precious active hours at home, however, this didn’t amount to much.

In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular – Sinhala or Tamil – yet after leaving school had felt it would be better for their children to be taught in English.

State schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school, called international schools, had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.

The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were implicitly forbidden from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.

The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, or even our people. I was no exception. Westernized, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I hailed from. Distanced for so long from our roots, many of us felt ignorant of and indifferent to our society.

When I interviewed Sri Lanka’s leading filmmaker Lester James Peries in 2016, he recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.

Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.

This was a sentiment I could relate to.

As a freelance writer, of course, I could save some face, though as time went by and I got to review events and talk to people, I found it hard to write at length on topics like Buddhism and Sinhala literature. Nevertheless, I felt I could shield myself.

As a copywriter, even an English one, however, I found it difficult to avoid betraying my ignorance on these matters. The thing about advertising is that, ultimately, it’s what you say that matters. What you say is indelibly influenced by what you think, and what you think depends on where you come from. Sri Lanka did not lack English copywriters, but it lacked English copywriters who were well-versed in local culture and the vernaculars. Since I was writing on art and culture, I thought I would be different.

Over the next few months I realized that this was not the case. I may have been writing to newspapers on art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English. It was difficult to get out of this hole.

Though my co-workers stepped in and willingly helped me brush up my knowledge, I realized I could expect only so much from them.

Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.

Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines and you are free to write what you want to write on. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.

In 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, apparently the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the competition, and they wanted an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.

I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.

It was then that I discovered that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was widely seen as the leading elite public school in the country, Royal College, they had all entered it through a scholarship exam and had been boarded at the school Hostel.

Hailing from villages far away from Colombo, the country’s capital, they almost seemed the antithesis of my personality. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of their growing up, of encountering Colombo for the first time.

At first our parents were worried. Would we grow distant from them?

The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.

Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.

We in turn mocked the English medium students. They seemed too namby-pamby, too polite.

It was always Thank You and Excuse Me and Pardon Me.

We were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important to learn until it was too late.

A colorful and diverse enough bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. Sri Lanka may be a small country, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about these cultures. In the way they dress, they way they talk, walk, behave, interact with people, the way they look at the world, Sri Lankans differ from place to place. Talking to them, I got to encounter the very societies and communities I had distanced myself from.

Slowly, but surely, these associations turned into friendships.

Along the way, we realized that though they and I looked at the world in different ways, in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all getting used to a new culture.

For them, it was a process of discovery: English novels, films, television series.

For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala literature, language, Buddhism.

I confessed my ignorance of these subjects to them. They in turn confessed their ignorance of subjects they wanted to learn about. We ended up teaching each other, often laughing at each other but always watching out for each other.

It was like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders, the difference being that they were as much an object of curiosity to me as I was to them.

And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us. I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, no doubt because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed them convincingly.

Gods don’t exist. They exist only if we believe in them.

This is why they don’t exist much in the cities, why they do in villages.

I dare you to come over, I will show you where they reside.

If this is by far the boldest, most insightful comment on God-worship in Sri Lanka I have come across – which it is – then it’s because it was expressed by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters.

In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. 

Later, when I got interested in and started reading about anthropology, which is more or less the study of human cultures, my mind went back to these encounters. They have, of course, not ended: I am still in touch with these boys, and many of them are out of school. But those first encounters opened for me a door to another world.

I have not completely got out of the cocoon of indifference I grew up in. I am still ignorant on cultural matters, and I still make gaffes, colossally embarrassing ones. At times I feel like a foreigner in my country. Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.

Last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and pushing him to work with them, one of these boys expostulated.

You are putting me in a hole.

To which I replied.

No, I am taking you out of it!

Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we strike.

It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.

It is about teaching new things and learning new things.

Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.

Like what these boys did to me – and I did to them.