My invitation to the readers of Babel and Lingua to let me know what they think has produced a steady stream of emails, most of them interesting and many heart-warming. Occasionally, however, the effect is chilling, and here’s an example.
The Babel chapter about Tamil is mostly about India, but it also touches on Sri Lanka, which has a sizeable Tamil-speaking minority. Since independence in 1948, relations between the two major ethnic and linguistic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, have been tense at best and frequently violent. While tension and violence can never be exclusively blamed on one side, Sinhalese nationalism and suppression of Tamil rights did much to ignite the powder keg into civil war – a powder keg created by the British colonial administration, I should add.
This is how most of the outside world sees the issue. Not so the conflicting parties, of course. And when you publish a book in English, some of the people involved may read it and take exception
Some time ago, I received a message from a Sri Lankan-American medical professor who believed he had found a mistake in Babel. Let me quote him in at full length, capitals and all:
Subject: SRI LANKA IS NOT TAMIL!!
Comment: You made a complete false undertaking in this venture when you knew that in S Asia there are so many languages spoken that it is insane to show a country & paint it with ONE LANGUAGE!! Sri Lanka majority language is SINHALA & NOT TAMIL!!! period! Same with INDIA, so many damn lang. Tamil is spoken in the South of India & N of Sri Lamka!!
I am sorry to give you the TRUTH! Pl. ask when you NOT SURE,SIR!! Prof. [name], [company name], [city and state], USA
What had aroused his wrath was a map, let’s call it map A, in which Sri Lanka seemed to be depicted as a Tamil-speaking country. But it didn’t; it merely said that Tamil, one of the 20 languages of Babel, has official status at the national level. Another map, B, made it clear that Sri Lankan Tamil speakers mostly live in the North and East of the island. Sinhalese wasn’t depicted on the map for the simple reason that Babel doesn’t deal with it. By the same token, the whole of Belgium is depicted as a French-language country in map A, while only the South (and Brussels) are colour-coded for French in map B.
I half expected this explanation would take him off the boil. In fact, it seemed to fire him up even more.
NO NO!! you mixed FALSE PROPAGANDA BY THE TAMILS AG. OTHER RACES LIVING IN THAT MULTI-CULTURAL COUNTRY! IN YOUR BOOK! ITS NONSENSICAL POLITICS BECAUSE I AM A SRI LANKAN FIRST & THEN WHATEVER RACE YOU WANT TO PAINT ON ME !! RACE IS A FALSE HOOD PROPAGATED BY IGNORANT PEOPLE WHO DONT UNDERSTAND HUMAN GENETICS!! ALL SO CALLED RACES HAVE 99.9% OF THE GENOME SAME & IDENTICAL!! THAT 0.1% IS CULTURAL &
A BIG DEAL!!
TAMILS GET AROUND YOU AMERICANS & CRY !! TO GET YOUR SYMPATHY & SPREAD FALSE PROPAGANDA AG THE BUDDHISTS & THE SINHALA RACE WHO ARE ONLY IN SRI LANKA, WHEREAS TAMILS ARE ALL OVER THE WORLD!!
He’s absolutely and evidently right in claiming there’s only one human race. I wouldn’t dream of calling Sinhalese, Tamils or Sri Lankans ‘races’; they’re two ethnic and linguistic groups and one nationality. What bemused me was his hatred of Tamils, being ‘all over the world’, spreading ‘false propaganda’ to get the sympathy of ‘you Americans’ (I’m actually European, which I don’t keep dark from my readers). To me, this is strongly reminiscent of bad old anti-Semitism or modern-day anti-Muslim sentiments in the West. The professor’s outburst did perhaps more than any sober and factual article to bring the intensity of the Sri Lankan conflict home to me. Here was a highly educated person, living thousands of kilometres away from his native country, who started foaming at the mouth and lost all reason because to his mind, a despised minority was placed in too favourable a light.
Let me end on a more hopeful note. The Sinhalese filmmaker Asoka Handagama takes a more conciliatory perspective on the country’s diversity and future. Not only did he make a Tamil-language film about the aftermath of the civil war, he also took a map of the 2015 election results, which partly reflected the ethnic divide, and added some black lines to depict a very different Sri Lanka: