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Reviewed by:
  • The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics Edited by John Clifford Holt
  • Victor C. De Munck
The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Edited by John Clifford Holt. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011. 792 pp. $109.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

This review can be summarized in two statements. First, this is a must-have book for all Sri Lankan scholars. Second, given the number of important scholars missing, one feels the need for a second parallel reader.

The book was put together by John Holt, and it probably entailed much pondering and hair-pulling over what to include and what to exclude. It is divided up into five sections: “From Ancient to Modern” (106 pp.); “The Colonial Encounter” (195 pp.); “Emerging Identities” (258 pp.); “Independence, Insurrections, and Social Change” (119 pp.); and “Political Epilogue” (18 pp.). The sections are organized temporally. The strengths of this book are that the articles are short, direct, and well written. One does not have to labor through jargon and convoluted arguments.

I begin my overall assessment of the book with negatives and then work to the positives. My assessments are shaped by my career as an anthropologist who has worked in “village Sri Lanka.” Village Sri Lanka, the everyday life of Sri Lankans, is mostly missing in this book. Martin Wickramasinghe reflects on the simple pleasures of growing up in a village, and that’s about it. We do not learn about the religion, culture, or politics of family life, birth, growing up, marriage, death, cooking, shopping, and so on. We do read about gender in the contexts of migration, working in a textile factory, and living as Tamil refugees. There are snippets of everyday life sprinkled here and there, but the local, outside the urban areas (predominantly Kandy and Colombo), is looked at, if at all, through a telescope. The scale or frame of the texts is steadfastly national or subjective, not local or intersubjective.

How can one have a “reader” of Sri Lanka without including one word from Gananath Obeyesekere? Where is Daniel Valentine on Tamils and tea estates? Instead the chapter on tea estates by Wickremeratne centers mostly on the economic reliance on and benefits of the tea industry and elides Valentine’s “perumal cut.” Imagine Wickremeratene’s economically based article on the tea estate on one side of a teeter-totter and Valentine’s Tamil estate laborer chopping a precise perumal-sized cut from the colonist’s planter’s arm on the other and then note that the teeter-totter rests firmly on the ground on the side of Wickremeratene’s tea estate, and that is what the strength and problem of this reader are in a nutshell.

It is not the raw footage and notice of colonial wrongs that are missing [End Page 670] (there are articles on this), but rather the lives of ordinary people outside the urban penumbras of Kandy and Colombo. Gamburd’s and Lynch’s articles provide a bit of counterbalance. Leach, Kapferer, Qadri Ismail, Deborah Winslow, Robert Stirrat, John Rogers, Jonathan Spencer, James Brow, Carla Risseuw, Sandya Hewamanne, Mike Woost, and Mark Whitaker are among the missing. A few of the above would be understandable; inclusion of some would have strengthened the book. There is too much emphasis on religion as text or as infused with politics rather than as precepts and practices. In the section on emerging identities, the first identity is Buddhist, and a more complete Sinhala identity is missing. When introducing the set or readings on Tamil identities, the editor writes, “the question of an emergent Tamil identity is every bit as complicated, if not more so, as the question of Sinhala and Muslim identities” (p. 458). Thus, in accordance with Obeyesekere’s equation, Sinhala and Buddhist are equated, but apparently not Tamil and Hindu or Islam and Muslim. Further, none of these identities are “emergent,” they have been around for a while. It is a bit of a mess. One might argue that they are emerging as ethno-political identities, but the counterargument might be, “Well everything is emerging all the time, so what else is new? And while we are at it, how do...


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