on 1 March 2012
THE DEVIL DANCERS is a book of `faction', that is to say, fiction based on historical, factual events. Those events took place over half a century ago, in 1958, in the small island of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). 1958 provided a watershed in Sri Lanka's post-colonial history and could be said to have created the seeds of what later became a vicious civil war, based on ethnic, religious and language differences, which lasted for nearly thirty years and which tore this little country apart.
In 1958, I was a young schoolboy of Eurasian (`burgher') descent attending one of Sri Lanka's major English-language private schools outside the capital, Colombo. I remember how the school closed down during the emergency that was declared and how mob rule had erupted and blown away forever the idyllic and peaceful country I knew as a child. At the age of 11 I was suddenly confronted with the trauma of the nasty side of human behaviour and the events of those days led my family to join the exodus of many other English-speaking families to leave the country to join a diaspora spread all over the planet. Over the last sixty years, that diaspora continued to grow as more Ceylon-born families felt forced to leave a motherland which continued to tear itself apart with sectarianism.
Finding ourselves at the tail-end of Empire, having to leave an entire life-style behind and start anew, many of us chose to forget the past and to consign it to history. But, of course, the past can never be forgotten, especially when one finds oneself a stranger in one's own land, a stranger who has little choice but to leave that land and to seek refuge elsewhere. That is the story of the diaspora of which I am a part.
This book had the effect of pushing a lot of buttons, of bringing a vivid recall of that terrible time, the haunting fear of a hysterical mob. Although written around the fictional lives of a group of Sinhalese and Tamils the author has, in fact, drawn heavily from historical events. Their experiences could well have been those of many others who lived through those times.
At the historical level, we discover how a well-spoken Oxford graduate become politician helped to sow the hotbed of national chauvinism that led inexorably to the cultural divisions and violence which spewed out in 1958. That politician, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, it was who engineered the fatal Sinhala Only Act, which while consigning English into history as Ceylon's official language, claimed the country for the majority Sinhalese Buddhists at the expense of all other minority cultures, the largest of which were and are the Hindu/Christian Tamils. Bandaranaike flirted with Sinhalese chauvinism and got bitten hard in return. It finally cost him his life. Sadly, it cost the lives of many thousands of others, leading to terrorism, civil war and the committing of war crimes that are yet to be investigated by the international courts.
In The Devil Dancers we see how an increasingly desperate Premier, Bandaranaike, now worried for his political career, deserts his Oxford background and rational humanitarianism to seek the patronage of a demon demi-god, Hooniyam, promoted in Ceylon in the 1940's by, strangely, a Buddhist monk. In the Devil Dancers, Hooniyam is -almost endearingly- brought to life and we see him flying around the country, helping to bring about chaos and bloodshed as he does so. It is worth observing that although nominally Buddhist, the Sinhalese are a superstitious people who have never quite deserted the Hindu pantheon of gods of their pre-Buddhist past. They have also been fed on a diet of predominantly anti-Indian sentiments and the myth of a golden age of Sinhalese culture culminating in the Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka claiming to be the upholders and protectors of the Buddhadharma. The popularity of sorcery and Hooniyam-worshipping shows just how the veneer of Buddhism among some Sinhalese is quickly replaced by a demonic energy which, in 1958, swept across the land.
The shadow of Hooniyam is ever-present in The Devil Dancers, It reminded me of the famous English author, D.H. Lawrence, who on visiting Ceylon in the 1920's, observed that below the ascetic surface of Buddhism he felt lay something far more primordial which echoed in the hypnotic throb of the drumming of the devil dancers. Was it that psychic undercurrent which led to an explosion of unresolved cultural issues in 1958? After nearly four hundred years of colonial rule, during which Sinhalese cultural chauvinism was effectively suppressed, perhaps it was inevitable that a newly-independent country, suddenly finding itself facing the racial and cultural myths of its ancient, pre-Buddhist past, should blow up in an orgy of violence?
The author of The Devil Dancers uses mythology to explain "historical events as the consequence of supernatural intervention in the affairs of men." [...]
"The use of magical realism ... seemed appropriate when trying to describe the thoughts and beliefs of contemporary Ceylonese at a time when their country was beginning the painful transition from its colonial past to Independence." It is an entirely unmapped territory for which the rational mind simply has no explanation. Yet it is worth considering that the mundane lives of so many in The Devil Dancers were finally decided upon not by rationality but an unidentified zeitgeist...