Shrewd Sinhala businessman made Lafir world champ

by Izeth Hussain

(January 09, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) For the Lion Flag - How do you identify a racist? The question is an important one because people no longer avow their racism, not since racism began to stink in the nostrils of civilized humanity consequent to the Hitler Gang’s genocidal lunacy against the Jews. Not only do people refuse to avow their racism, they are not even conscious of their own racism. Consequently, to identify the racist we have to engage in a hermeneutic reading of the signs, a deconstruction of texts to show what lurks beneath at the level of the sub-text. It is admittedly a risky procedure because we can be mistaken, but I see no alternative to it.

A true nationalist

Some time ago I was engaged in a controversy over megaphone diplomacy, which did more harm to our relations with the West than has been recognized. In the course of it I became aware that some of the contributions had behind them the implicitly racist notion that a minority member could not be a true nationalist. One of my antagonists charged that I had advocated the removal of the lion from the national flag. I declared that I had done nothing of the sort, and challenged him to provide the proof, but although he could not do so he still insisted that I was guilty of the charge. It seemed to me 12-1that behind that irrationality there was an enduring racist mind-set according to which no minority member could be a true nationalist.

I had in fact become fond of the Lion Flag over the years, partly because it is aesthetically pleasing, with its clashing colours somehow synchronizing into a harmonious whole. Some may even regard it as a pop-art masterpiece. Kurt Vonnegut in his novel The Sirens of Titan referred to the national flags of the US, the Soviet Union, and Japan in neutral terms, but he wrote this of the Lion Flag: “Past that was a wonderful green, orange, yellow, and purple banner, showing a lion holding a sword. It was the flag of Ceylon.” Vonnegut appears to have become enamoured of Sri Lanka, perhaps mainly or even exclusively because of the splendour of our flag. After referring to the four flags, he wrote, “The banners signified the countries that the various Martian units would attack and paralyze when the war between Mars and Earth began.” In that 1959 novel Vonnegut put us together with the most important countries in the world of that time, namely the US, the Soviet Union, and Japan, in the vanguard of the defense of the earth against the invading Martians. Vonnegut knew our true worth - all because of the Lion Flag!

Recently there have been suggestions that we should scrap our flag because those coloured strips signifying the minorities point to our divisions, not to our unity. But to exclude them and keep only the lion would be even more divisive because it would signify that this country belongs to the Lion Race while the minorities are no more than visitors. On the other hand the exclusion of that lion should be unthinkable because the Sinhalese formed their ethnic identity long before most other ethnic groups did, and the symbol of that identity has been the lion. We must remember furthermore that the flag was designed after much debate, and only after getting the full concurrence of the minorities.

Of late the idea has been growing that the Lion is threateningly brandishing a sword at the minorities. The poor poor purblind fools who think that, the solemn emasculated asses who evidently haven’t been out much at nights! Surely, as I pointed out some time ago, that lion is in a jocund mood and that sword can be seen as a phallic symbol extended to the minorities in an Invitation to the Dance. It points to the merry cross-ethnic copulation that has been going on since the dawn of history, of which we Sri Lankans too are the products. It is known that there has been considerable cross-ethnic intermixture between the Sinhalese and the Tamils down the centuries, between the Muslims and the Tamils and the Sinhalese, and that is true of the Burghers also. It becomes arguable that while we have our distinctive ethnic identities we are at the same time varieties of the same Sri Lankan people. The Lion Flag therefore symbolizes the unity underlying our divisions. That unity is a multi-cultural one, and since multi-culturalism has been all the vogue for some time in the contemporary world we can hold that the founding fathers of independent Sri Lanka were way ahead of their time in adopting that flag.

World Champ and Racism - In an earlier contribution I alerted against the propensity to demonize the Other since it is important in dealing with the problem of racism to recognize it in all its complexity instead of simplifying it. It is mistaken to think in terms of a binary opposition between racists and anti-racists because while all racists are racist some are much more racist than others. The realistic approach would be to place racists and anti-racists not at opposite ends of a spectrum, but as occupying intermediate positions along it. I gave what seemed to me some convincing examples to establish my point.

Simplifying racism

If we are to be alert against simplifying racism in the case of individuals there is all the more reason for it in the case of whole societies which are far more complex than even individuals. In the case of societies we have to be particularly alert against the essentialising habit of mind that is typical of the racist because it leads to the formation of stereotypes, and that I believe is a very serious matter because a racist stereotype amounts to a denial of the humanity of the individuals belonging to another ethnic group. SL Muslim businessmen as a whole, just like businessmen all over the world, tend to be seen as cunning, devious, untrustworthy. It may be broadly speaking a true stereotype because a businessman has to be sharp or he comes a cropper, unlike a SL politician or administrator who can carelessly muck and wreck everything and still go merrily up the greasy pole. But the stereotype becomes racist when it is applied to all SL Muslims, not just the businessmen among them. The point was brought home to me most unpleasantly when I engaged in controversy about megaphone diplomacy, and even more when I had the temerity to allege possible anti-Muslim racism in selections to the national cricket team. The focus was not on the facts and arguments marshaled by me. It was an ad hominem focus on me as being cunning, devious, untrustworthy. There was a virtual racist denial of my humanity.

Of course racist stereotyping takes place just as much among the minorities as among the majorities. As an example of the former I will take the case of Lafir, the Muslim who became world champion at billiards in the first half of the ‘seventies, the only world champion produced by Sri Lanka. Since then some Muslims have complained that Lafir got nothing by way of adequate recognition from the state, in the form for instance of a gifted house, all because Lafir was a Muslim and the Sinhalese are racists. I don’t know the details of that case, so that I am in no position to make a sound judgment on it. But I do know the details of how Lafir came to win that championship.

Billiards is a game of skill in which nerves count for a great deal. It had been noticed that the form of many great players went to pot on approaching the finals, and that seemed to be Lafir’s problem too. But a shrewd and wealthy Sinhalese businessman, U.W. Sumathipala a great enthusiast for billiards, suspected that in Lafir’s case the problem of nerves was compounded by a propensity to imbibe excessively of the forbidden liquid on approaching the finals. The businessman worked out the novel strategy of sharing Lafir’s hotel room in Bombay so as to control that excessive imbibing, backed by the promise that as soon as Lafir won the championship a whole case of Scotch would be his. The strategy worked. A Muslim became a world champion because of a Sinh

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