Ceylon

It’s amazing what a name can evoke. Ceylon and Sri Lanka are, ostensibly, the same place. But they sound so different. I suppose one is an older name and one is a newer name. But the newer name sounds old, and the older name sounds new, to me at least. I suppose that is because my own conception of newness is rooted in the western modern aesthetic. That is how I am rooted: western, and modern, and that is why the name Ceylon resonates more strongly with me than the name Sri Lanka.

Ceylon is a western name, or creation of a sort, and Sri Lanka is an eastern name. Every Sri Lankan in my immedate family was born on an island called Ceylon. Even before leaving Sri Lanka, in 1965 for my mother‘s family and in 1981 for my father, my family members were steeped in a colonial hybrid culture of east meeting west. The name Sri Lanka didn’t come about until 1972; well after my mother’s family had left, and only for a few years did my father ever live in a land known as such.

Like many countries formed after independence from a colonial power; my undergraduate thesis explored this concept as pertained to India, Sri Lanka was a new concept of nation, versus a return to a place that had been before. Post independence Sri Lankans their own, new national identity. The process wasn’t smooth. Many of the majority Sinhalese wanted a Sinhala Buddhist state; naturally, many non-Sinhala Buddhists objected. The history and aesthetic of the Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms informed the new state and aimed to restore what was lost — though, this all happened hundreds of years after the last Sinhala and Tamil living under their own kingdoms, and not under Europeans, had passed. Today’s Sri Lanka at its inception was retro, but fundamentally new. And my family simply didn’t stick long enough to fully absorb the country’s new, post-colonial identity. I would argue my cultural heritage is more distinctively Ceylonese than Sri Lankan.

When I think of what Ceylon was, versus what Sri Lanka is, I think of a very British place. Clearly, my family, before moving to America, was very…almost…British. Being particularly wealthy in British Ceylon meant they were deeply anglicized, far more so than a typical Ceylonese person would have been. It was clear that my mother’s mother in particular took great pride in being British, and Ceylonese, though she was careful about how so expressed that, perhaps sensitive to the general disdain towards imperial history. There was no doubt that the brown-skinned natives were distinctively a class below the whites.

But then again, essentially every British person was in a class below the royals, and western and eastern cultures of recent history were alike in a general acceptance of societal class hierarchies. That my grandmother was not of the highest class; though she certainly was of a higher class than most other Ceylonese, did not not necessarily give her disdain towards that British colonial system. Upon reflection I see that idea of class, in more British conception focused on honor, nobility, and wealth versus South Asian notions of caste, was a silent pillar of my upbringing.

This realization came about, funnily enough, while watching The Crown. So much of that show resonates with me because it represents a cultural milieu I have been acquainted with my entire life but had never been pinned down: British-imperial-drama-chic. Indeed, the one photo my grandmother took the most pride in was not one from her marriage, children, or professional accomplishments; rather, it was a photograph of her and her father, in which you can only see about a third of her face, with Queen Elizabeth.

For much of my life I tried exploring my Sri Lankan heritage to better understand myself. I worked in Sri Lankan cities. I lived in villages. I spent time with distant relatives who were born and raised there. Nothing resonated, and now I see why.

My family was never really Sri Lankan. They were Ceylonese, which is a distinct identity further removed from the Sri Lanka of today than one might expect. For all of their fondness and feeling of connection to Sri Lanka, the country that today represents the land of their birth, they are far more American now than Sri Lankan, and are still far more Ceylonese than they will ever be Sri Lankan.

My father is the closest to the exception, as his primary language in school was Sinhala. But even his father’s primary language was English, just like my mother’s parents. Much of what all of them might see as Sri Lankan is a fading memory of their Ceylonese past; this concept is not unfamiliar, as many Indians also report that relatives who emigrated long ago are attached to and preserving cultural traditions that would today be considered antiquated in the home nation.

Today, I have clarity as to who I am. I am 100% American, and probably 20% influenced by my the British Ceylonese cultural heritage of my parents and grandparents, and maybe 10% influenced by what I’ve learned about modern Sri Lanka during my lifetime (one great thing about American heritage as an immigrant, minority, or native in America is that you can be more than 100%; and yes, if you didn’t catch it, that is all of us). It’s too bad that Ceylon is no longer around, as it makes it harder to reconnect with that heritage. I am proud of who I am, and will watch The Crown with the glee and bemusement that my grandmother herself would have certainly had.

There is a still a Bank of Ceylon branch in London which I happened upon some years back (src)

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