Sri Lanka’s New President, Maithripala Sirisena, Claims That He Only Speaks Sinhalese! Sacrebleu.
by Anura Guruge
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Let me just start off by saying, just in case anybody gets the wrong impression, that I have NOTHING, absolutely nothing, against this new President. In the pictures of him that I have seen he comes across as a very amenable and personable Sri Lankan. I am sure we would get on well IF we ever met — BUT therein lies the problem. Though we are BOTH Sri Lankan, Sinhalese at that, born 2 years and 1 day apart, according to him we have no common tongue. He only speaks, per his claim, Sinhalese and I, alas, just English (and that not too well).
Let me also just say that I do not know him and only became aware of him just a couple of weeks ago. Until this election I had NOT followed Sri Lankan politics or politicians for 30 years. I was not a Sri Lankan citizen, had no assets in Sri Lanka and as such had lost interest. So, that out of the way … and I do wish Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena all the best. He has a daunting but rewarding task ahead. I hope he succeeds.
I find it hard that he claims just to speak Sinhalese. That is pretty hard to do in Sri Lanka! Most people especially in Colombo (and surroundings) speak English.
As I said Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena is just 2 years and 1 day older than me. He was born just 3 years after independence. Yes, he grew up in a village far from the cosmopolitan Colombo that I grew up in. But at his age, two years older than me, he would have HAD to have learned English at school. It was mandatory. We all learned English at school. We had at least one, maybe 2, English channels on Radio Ceylon. Sri Lanka didn’t have TV till the 1980s but when they did they had English shows.
My point is that it is difficult for a Sri Lankan of his vintage to have escaped English.
I am 100% sure that he understands English and can read English. He might not be a fluent speaker (but neither am I).
My bone of contention is simple. I think he is trying to convey a sense of unsophistication to Sri Lanka that is unbecoming and wrong.
Sri Lanka is a modern country with a well educated population.
That is also the reason I was put out that he was propagating all the superstitious mumbo jumbo about auspicious times.
As the new President I had hoped he would impart an air worthy and reflective of Sri Lanka of sophistication, sauve and class.
I think back to J.R. Jayewardene. I knew him in his 50s, decades before he was the President. He was a bit like Nehru. Impressive.
I still believe that Sri Lanka can have Presidents of that calibre.
That is all.
I wish Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena well. he is going to need it.
He and I, other than being born a day apart in September, which according his astrological beliefs would make us ‘close’, share similar names. His first name and my third name have the same root, i.e., ‘Palle’. I think it is an allusion to a temple.
For Sri Lankans not to be able to talk English is not unusual. The incongruity in the case of Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena having to do with his generation.
He and I are of the same generation.
My grandfather, a postman (and a J.P.), though he could read and write English (as postman had to do given that he served under the British) claimed he could not speak English. But he was two generations before us.
The last time we met was in 1980. He was well into his 70s but walked 4 miles, with no effort, in the evening to come and see me at my hotel in Kandy. I had left Ceylon 13 years earlier, at 14, and no longer was able to speak (fluently) in Sinhalese. But we chatted away, for a long time, and people watched us in amazement. He would speak to me in Sinhalese. In those days (unlike now) I understood Sinhalese with no trouble. It had been my mother tongue. It had been my ‘medium of instruction’, i.e., the language used for teaching in school. So I would comprehend what he was saying or asking and reply in my by then normal English. He understood English; just didn’t feel that he could speak it. He would respond in Sinhalese. This went on. Neither of us thought this was strange. In some ways this had been normal in Ceylon. Many households were multilingual with people switching back between Sinhalese and English, sometimes in mid-sentence. But this is different story.