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Tuesday
Nov222011

Ceylon and the Ceylonese

Minnesota, which is a Sioux word meaning ‘sky water,’ became the 32nd state of the United States of America, in the mid nineteenth century. The Mississippi river was central to commerce and transportation in those early days of European settlement; it was decades later that railways bisected the state. In 1899, as the railway extended south, a small new settlement began to grow near the tracks. It was yet unnamed. “At that time, legend has it,” Wikipedia tells us, “there was a gathering in a local general store, where they were trying to pick out a name for their new settlement. Someone saw a box of tea that was from "Ceylon", and suggested that as a name.”

Ceylon, Minnesota or Ceylon, MN 56121, given its current zip code, came into being. It’s a small place, really tiny, but Walter Mondale, who was once Vice President of the US, was born there in 1928. The town still exists. I actually lived in Minneapolis, the captial city of the state, when I was a young professor, in 1999. I thought Ceylon was lost in the mists of time, and far away. I had no idea how close it was!

We all know, here in paradise, how we came to be named. Ceylon, they tell us, was a Roman name, Selan, the Portuguese Ceilão, Spanish Ceilán, French Selon, Dutch Zeilan, Ceilan and Seylon, and of course the English Ceylon. In 1972, when it was changed after the adoption of the first republican constitution, the argument was, of course, that Lanka was older, the Sri underlined the sacredness of the island, and finally we had our own name.

Of course, in a delicious sleight of hand that only we could understand, the name change also aligned the country with the name of the political party that was the major coalition partner of the United Front government that brought the new constitution into being, in 1972. And in everyday colloquial Sinhala, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, that great, venerable institution is called, to this day, I would say, just ‘Sri Lanka.’ As in ‘api Sri Lanka,’ meaning we support and vote for the SLFP. So, it was in a way, a smart rebranding, the kind of thing marketing gurus like. I’ll come back to that because there is more to be said on the brand of Ceylon.

But at that time, I don’t know if we ever had a national debate about the name change. I was just seven years old but I remember one conversation about it: our family doctor, who happened to be a colleague of my father’s who was also a physician but practiced in Galle, told my mother with a jocular shrug, ‘we are all going to be Lankanese now.’ It took me a while to even get that; well I suppose we hadn’t worked it out, since supposedly we’d been Ceylonese up until that point, and so it seemed like we were going to be Lankanese after the 22nd of May, 1972. If the great S.W.R.D Bandaranaike had lived to see the day, he would have said no doubt, ‘this is an era of transition.’ We certainly are still in transit, and I don’t think any of us are quite sure when we are going to arrive.

One reason is so plain, so obvious, so written about and worried over, that it makes a fellow like me, who likes to worry about stuff, want to keep worrying. Are we Lankanese? Lankans? Ceylonese? Many will tell you, this is why we’ve not arrived; we don’t know who we are, as a community, a people and a nation, and so, we’ve got a little lost. Most recently, and most eloquently, the celebrated Sangakkara, closed his Cowdrey lecture at the MCC with those very thoughts, couched in positive and inspiring tones, yet labored and wrought with, I think, hidden worry.

It is a deep, near intractable problem; I don’t think we realize how deep it is.  What strikes me about Ceylon, MN 56212, USA, is that it’s a symptom of it that we don’t quite see at first pass. Go back to the story of the founding, of that small town, please. It goes like this. They found the name on a box of tea. Well, of course, you’d say, “Ceylon Tea,” it would have been on the packing case.

All very straightforward? No, I don’t think so. There is French Wine and Belgian chocolates, (and they don’t even have cocoa in Belgium, do they?); not France Wine and Belgium Chocolates. The product is named after a community, a people, a nation who we imagine made the thing and enjoy it, and now offer it to us for a small price. Shouldn’t it have been Ceylonese Tea? It’s not, because we were just a place, not a people, not a nation. It wasn’t just that the place was named for us, it is also that we had no name. It’s profound in its oddness, I think, if you pause over it.

It’s one thing to name a country, it’s quite another to make a nation. There is a lot in-between. In these columns of Ceylon Today, I will try each week to add to the confusion, with the hope of offering moments of clarity, as we wait in the transit lounge.

(Published in print in the inaugural issue of Ceylon Today, on Friday, 18th Nov., 2011)

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Reader Comments (3)

Ceylon, it has been argued, a corruption though it is, is more 'us' than 'sri lanka'.
November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMalinda Seneviratne
Was chatting with a friend in Bruxelles, a student from Russia and she asked me where i came from and I said Sri Lanka known as Ceylon to the Brits and she said .... oh no that cant be Ceylon is a brand of tea...
November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJaakotu
Thank you Malinda, yes, we've never understood what Ceylon was, I think. That's really funny Jaakotu; just my point too! Wow.
November 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan

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