Histories of Connections between Southeast Asia and Sarandib

Farzana Haniffa

Ronit Ricci’s Banishment and Belonging is a book about stories from literary texts and describes connections between Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia spanning several centuries, languages, naming practices, and religio-cultural worlds. The book is written based on texts in several different languages and is a stellar example of the knowledge that can be produced and when skills with multiple language are deployed for inquiry across regions. Ricci unearths connections that might otherwise have been missed and her close reading of manuscripts and documents gathered from Malay communities in Sri Lanka and the Indonesian peninsular has resulted in an important book  that presents the island as a place of religio-cultural dynamism.

Ronnit Ricci’s book, which should be widely read recounts the manner in which the Malay community in the country emerged from the Malay diaspora of the colonial period. The book traces the multiple names – Lanka, Sarandib, and Ceylon – used by the Malay diaspora to refer to what is now Sri Lanka, from the 17th century onwards. The origins of the different names could be traced to the colonial administrations and to the diasporic communities who were either exiled to or stationed for military purposes on the island. The book discusses what meanings were attributed through each name as it was used by the Southeast Asian kingdoms and the diaspora.  

The Malays, an approximately 50 thousand strong minority Muslim community dispersed over several locations of the Island, speak a specific Sri Lankan version of the Malay language and claim to originate from various parts of Indonesia but mainly Java. Their preserved literary texts, as described by Ricci, record the history of exchange between the Island of Sarandib/Lanka/Ceylon and Java, and also the attempts at maintaining a literary culture across these vast distances.

The history of the Malays as told by Ricci through the reading of preserved manuscripts also describes the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia and the influence of the colonial powers in the dispersal of populations across vast distances – through banishment of political exiles, employment in imperial armies, but also through slavery. The book points to the usage of multiple languages in single texts as indications of the influences of both place and faith in the literary culture of the exiled/displaced communities. Texts are produced through the use of Javanese and Arabic and sometimes, Arabu Thamil. The book also emphasizes the cultivated interconnectedness of communities that were subject to banishment. It traces exchanges of letters among exiles within the country as well as exchanges with Java and stories of longing to return to the places of origin. The book also presents the manner in which Ceylon – a location for exile –  was looked upon by the Javanese. The experience of banishment is sometimes referred to by Javanese writers as ‘being Ceyloned’.

I find the book interesting and look forward to including it in my teaching as it serves to highlight Sri Lanka’s place in global networks of literary and cultural exchange that is largely absent in conversations in the country. As Ricci points out, the trends in Global History has bypassed Sri Lanka for the most part and it is only now, several years in, that Sri Lanka is being integrated in to these conversations. Ricci’s book is important in the manner in which it inserts Sri Lanka into a narrative of connections that spans Southeast Asia during both Dutch and British colonial administrations.

As Nira Wickremasinghe and others have pointed out, history writing and teaching in Sri Lanka has been notorious in its commitment to a singular narrative that foregrounds the Sinhala-Buddhist past alone. Part of a somewhat tragic nation building project in the immediate post independence moment, Sri Lanka has suffered greatly due to the lack of stories regarding its ‘minority’ peoples. This propensity has enabled one civil war between Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan state so far and provided a fertile backdrop to the more recent cultivation of anti-Muslim animosity. The readily available evidence of the country’s plural past or the histories of the diverse communities that make up the larger Sri Lankan population are not part of existing conversations either in popular media or in academic fora. Ricci’s book compels us to pay attention to the richness of connections that emerge in the story of the Malays as a diaspora in Sri Lanka.

The attempt to integrate Sri Lanka into the global history framework is yet to include a detailed study of early Arab settlements or the arrival and spread of Islam on the island. The scholarly work on Sri Lankan Muslims is sparse in general and is limited to contemporary accounts. Ricci’s work – dealing with one of Sri Lanka’s Muslim communities – gestures towards these large gaps in the literature. By looking at the manner in which the exiled Muslim Javanese made sense of their experience through the trope of the prophet Adam’s banishment from paradise, Ricci draws attention to the centrality of Ceylon/Sarandib in the imagination of the Muslim world and Muslim myth making at the time. In the stories of the people who were exiled as Ricci explains, the stories of Adam’s descent on to earth from heaven, and the stories of how Ceylon’s Adam’s Peak is closest to paradise are discussed. The text is also peppered with Javanese exiles’ references to local Muslims. Ricci’s book then serves to remind us that Sri Lanka was long in the middle of global networks, and points to the lacuna – the absent Muslims – that continue to haunt these stories of connection.

As an anthropologist I was interested in the material culture of the preserved manuscripts that Ricci collected from Malay families in Sri Lanka. What is the culture of manuscript preservation, what are the practices of reading these older literary works among the different Malay families that Ricci interviewed in her research? This is a story that the book does not attempt to tell. A greater exploration of that culture would be a noteworthy next step from this very important contribution to the study of Sri Lanka’s different peoples.