Mirror Magazine


We can’t afford to look only to the West for inspiration, writes Charith Sarathchandra.
A peaceful coexistence
It is often the case that the visitor proves to be more adept than the native when it comes to accurately observing and recording the customs, culture and society of a particular nation. Just as an individual only learns his true nature once his reflection has been revealed to him in the mirror of public opinion, so it is that a society requires the impartiality of an outsider in order to truly illuminate its collective personality.

I was born in Sri Lanka in 1979 but have resided in England for the last twenty years, and although the visits back to my motherland are frequent, I still feel somewhat of a tourist. And in spite of my dark complexion differentiating me from my fellow holidaymakers, I remain able to locate and identify the various social intricacies and eccentricities of Sri Lanka to an extent in which its local inhabitants might never hope to emulate.

One especially worrying and widespread societal trend I have noticed in recent years has been the endemic westernisation of Sri Lankan culture. I remember clearly the days when a visit to Sri Lanka would signify an escape from the crass commercialism and soul-destroying consumerism that England represented. I would long for the cultural purification which only my birthplace could supply; a country schooled in the legend of its own rich history, where tradition would never be sacrificed for the sake of superficial ‘progress’. In short, Sri Lanka was the perfect antidote to the capitalist monotony of the western world.

Alas those days are no more. Perhaps I am viewing the recent past with rose-tinted glasses, or maybe during my previous visits I was too naïve to notice the gradual changes that a society with ambitions to join the modern global economy must inevitably make. But no, I fear that history will prove me correct, and that Sri Lanka is on its way to losing its Asian identity as it strives to become yet another western ‘clone’.

Ours is an era of globalisation, with capitalism the religion and America the messiah. And where America leads, the rest of the world will undoubtedly follow. Viewed in purely economic terms, this is not necessarily a negative thing. With its embrace of free enterprise the United States has demonstrated that financial prosperity is available for all those individuals who are willing to work for it, and it is thus no surprise that many other countries view America’s economy as a model that they wish to emulate.

However, one consequence of increased affluence is the cult of consumerism which inevitably ensues, and it is this growing shift towards material obsession that is having a damaging effect on Sri Lanka, and more specifically those youthful members of Sri Lanka’s elite. Youngsters, seemingly empowered by their parents’ wealth, are able to buy into that lifestyle which Western societies ascribe so much unwarranted kudos to. They must have the latest mobile telephone, wear the most fashionable clothes and listen to the latest music. In their fascination with all things western, they have neglected their own culture in their efforts to embrace another.

For an outside observer, whose heart remains in Sri Lanka, this is a depressing state of affairs. It is not my intention to resort to hyperbole for sensationalism’s sake, but it appears that financial progress has resulted in moral corruption. Economic evolution and cultural development is inevitable, and often necessary, but Sri Lanka’s promising future has to be reconciled with its illustrious past.

My birthplace is a land of happy contradictions, where chaotic, bustling freeways sit comfortably alongside serene, sandy beaches. So why can’t Colombo’s emergent cosmopolitanism and rampant commercial growth coexist in conjunction with the ancient magnificence of Polonnaruwa?

Your cultural history, indeed my cultural history, is a precious, wondrous thing, and it is precisely because it’s so very precious that it must be guarded and protected. It’s survival is vital if Sri Lanka is to maintain a semblance of its past glories and hold on to its national identity. It is thus the duty of those members of society’s upper echelons, for these are the people who effectively run our country, to ensure the preservation of our distinguished heritage.

If a whole generation of adolescents spend their formative years constantly looking to the west for inspiration and cultural leadership, then our own rich traditions risk obliteration. And that is a price too high for any amount of progress to justify.

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