Most of us depend on the English language when in a foreign land. However, the same would not have held true in Sri Lanka were it not for Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, whose efforts have given recognition to English language in his country.
“Monolinguals are destructive,” pronounced Professor Rajiva when recently in the City to participate in a discussion on his recent book Mirrored Images – An anthology of Sri Lankan poetry. The learned professor shared details of how the very language in which you read this article now, was looked upon as a deterrent by Sri Lankans for a long time.
“English as a language has the potential to liberate people from their orthodoxies and make them live in harmony. Knowing two languages opens one’s mind, in addition to facilitating communication with others on an equal basis,” opined Rajiva for whom, the task to reduce the widening gap between Tamilians and Sinhalese through the medium of this language, was quite daunting.
“When I first began teaching at the University of Peradeniya, I was quite disappointed because the English department was quite elitist and comprised those who had gone to top schools and English was their first language. What I found disappointing was that for a long time I had to battle hard with the establishment about starting English as a degree for people who didn’t have English as the first language,” he says in a candid chat with Metrolife.
Talking about how he went back to the University and “started English for kids who didn’t have advance-level English because schools didn’t offer it,” he says “As my rank went up, my University went down, so I was teaching at a university which was not seen as prestigious by many in Sri Lanka. But I was allowed to experiment and introduced the course unit system with English as a compulsory language.”
He was attacked by colleagues and faced resistance by politicos leaving him no option but to enter politics for the ‘cause’. And it all paid off in the due course of time. “I was utterly vindicated when one of my students, a farmer’s son who couldn’t speak English earlier, was appointed to the University of Colombo at the post of a lecturer,” he says, adding with well-justified pride, “It worked, but required a lot of hard work and constant badgering.”
Recalling moments and incidents that touched him immensely, he says that the one that stands out is when he made a University student stand on the bench as punishment and the student union got furious. “But the punished student stopped the union from going on a strike by saying ‘That man is so mad that if you upset him he’ll leave. So just shut up!’,” recounts the professor with much merriment.
Though a Member of Parliament, he doesn’t see himself as a politician “but as a political thinker.” Even before one doubts his success as a politician, he remarks, “Sri Lanka does need some thinking people in politics, and I think the Liberal Party has managed to get some ideas into circulation now. Also, we need to consider different perspectives, which my literary training encouraged and is vital in Sri Lanka now.”
The professor-turned-politico is still battling to make Sri Lankan literature gain exposure. “We do not have proper publishers who love books and market excellence. I have tried to get Indian publishers to work in Sri Lanka but the book-selling mafia there did not permit this, and we can’t even promote partnerships which would spread some expertise and commitment around.”While he fights and finds a way out, we wait for him to return and share more anecdotes.