Bastard Tamils and Sinhala Leftists: Socialist Oceanic Cosmpolitics in Somachandra Wijesuria’s First Rising

Mahendran Thiruvarangan

The descendants of the indentured Tamil workers brought by the British from colonial India in the 19th and 20th centuries across the Indian Ocean to work in the plantations in the central hills of Ceylon identify themselves as Malaiyaha Thamilar in the political and cultural discourses of contemporary Sri Lanka. As descendants of a laboring populace, the Malaiyaha Thamilar’s claims over the land that they inhabit are rejected by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist narratives which project the Sinhala-Buddhists as the sons of the soil. The Malaiyaha Thamilar community, on the other hand, does not have an insider status in the putatively counter-hegemonic Tamil nationalism that revolves around the figure of the north-eastern Tamil and hinges on the idea that the north-eastern parts of the island are the traditional homelands of the Tamils of Sri Lankan/Ceylonese origin. The alienation that the Malaiyaha Thamilar community faces due to its ‘non-originary’ status vis-à-vis land is compounded and aggravated by its status as a working class population and linguistic minority in the post-colonial nation. Many Sri Lankan English writers have represented the Malaiyaha Thamil figure in their work merely as a coolie, a victim of ethnic violence, a servant in an affluent household or a stateless figure. These writings have failed to capture the political energy that this figure generates in challenging narrow nationalist discourses and (neo) imperialism. By contrast, Somachandra Wijesuria’s novel First Rising, while highlighting the poverty-stricken, exploitation-ridden lives of the Malaiyaha Thamil workers in the plantations in the 1950s and 60s, situates the Malaiyaha Thamil subject as a key agent within its imagination of a (new) socialist politics that values cultural liminality positively.

In this paper, I would like to discuss the ways in which Somachandra Wijesuria foregrounds the limitations of the socialist inspired national revolution of 1956 which furthered the Othering and marginalization of the Malaiyaha Thamilar community in post-independence Ceylon. I would read First Rising as a novel that exposes the exclusivist thrust of anti-(neo) colonial nationalism in Sri Lanka because the latter’s opposition is often directed not just towards imperialists and the comprador bourgeois class but also the linguistic and religious minorities and ‘immigrant’ workers in the country. At another level, my paper will attempt to situate First Rising as a text about south-south migration and inter-ethnic/inter-national solidarity that envisages a socialist oceanic cosmopolitics as an ideology of radical resistance to the neo-colonial cultural and economic hegemonies of the Western metropolis.