1996

When I realize the 31st of January 2013 was 18 years ago, I find myself disoriented. Disbelief.

Had it really been that long since that turning point morning that those of us who grew up in Colombo under the bleak shadow of a stalemate war can still vividly recall. We still talk about that morning sometimes, that particular war story, which brought everything that Sri Lanka had endured for over a decade before that close to our cosseted homes. I was in Grade 4, in the middle of a singing lesson, sprawled on the black and white marble floors of my primary school hall with the rest of my class when the 19th century building shuddered.

‘Surely something fell down upstairs…’ The piano teacher is unconvincing.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur as we are shepherded from building to building, girls weeping in fear of the possibilities contained in that prolonged tremble and fragments of news from the flurry of anxious parents who pressed against the gates to be checked and let in.

We had been prepared for this; bomb drills- take cover under the table when the bell is rung- and extended and unexplained weeks off from school marked by tiresome photocopied study packs. All those worst-case whispers culminated that morning, 18 years ago, heralding a new tide of precautions- a disrupted school year, bag checks- but most of all, the devastating aftermath crumpling those who lost friends and family when a truck carrying 440 pounds of explosives crashed through the main gates of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank in Fort, crushing the heart of Colombo’s financial district. It was reported that 91 persons were killed and nearly 1400 others were injured. Central Colombo was soon rendered largely inaccessible for well over a decade by hurdles of security men and barricades. Several months later in July, the Dehiwela train bombing reportedly resulted in 64 deaths, and injuries to 400 others when multiple bombs exploded in four carriages in a commuter train.

Nearly 2 decades later and the estimated deaths of 80,000-100,000 people between 1982 – 2009, I wonder what these numbers mean to us now, especially those many thousand contested casualties that mark the horrific final phase of the armed conflict.

Perhaps we are weary of knowing little else but loss for so long, or have we forgotten or chosen to move on?

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Literary Guide to Sri Lanka

Lately, before I set off on travels, I try to pick out a holiday read set in my destination- because, what better way to experience a book than in the place where it was written or set, right? So, I discovered Malaysia through the tale of Johnny Lim in Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory and attempted to understand the paradoxes of contemporary India through Edward Luce’s Inspite of the Gods.

The Telegraph has compiled a lovely series of Literary Guides to East Africa, Turkey, and China, just to name my favourites. My own literary affections lie close to home. Amidst the explosion of nascent and diaspora South Asian fiction, Sri Lankan English language literature although not voluminous, has not disappointed.

Here I’ve picked out my favourites towards a Literary Guide to Sri Lanka:

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

Although I didn’t love the story, Munaweera’s emotive prose is beautiful. She paints a poetic and vibrant portrait of a resplendent island caught in the throes of the civil war. From the beaches of the South to the palmyra groves of the North, few books evoke Sri Lanka’s sights, sounds and smells with Munaweera’s melodious flair.

The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser

One of my favourite books of all time, The Hamilton Case is set in 1930s Sri Lanka (Or Ceylon as it was known then) and told through the story of well-to-do misfit Sam Obeysekera. The unhurried tale essentially revolves around a scandalous murder which takes place on a tea plantation. Yet through its painterly narrative as delicate, delicious and manifold as a mille-feuille, de Kretser explores the complexity of Sri Lanka’s colonial experience, not simply through personhoods and laden human interactions that shape society and politics, but objects and images which she carefully constructs into powerfully symbolic mise-en-scènes patiently layered in rich and thoughtful details that absolutely delight.

Monsoons and Potholes by Manuka Wijesinghe

One of the wittiest works of contemporary Sri Lankan fiction I have encountered, Wijesinghe’s laugh-out-loud satirical account of growing up in independent Sri Lanka plots the musings and wanderings of the irrepressible protagonist Manuka who navigates the humorous idiosyncrasies of Sri Lankan families and society against its faltering and no less amusing politics.

Love Marriage by V. V. Ganeshananthan

Family trees with far-reaching branches and deep roots lie at the heart of Sri Lankan identities and relationships. Ganeshananthan’s foray into not simply love marriage, but arranged marriage, is a nuanced deliberation of family in the shadow of conflict and politics as told by a thoughtful protagonist Yalini, the daughter of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants who while caring for her dying former militant uncle begins to understand the significance of homeland in relation to her family’s past and her present.

What would you add to the Literary Guide to Sri Lanka?

 

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The People Who Remember

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Open Edit: Mobile Library Sri Lanka, a thoughtful foray into the intriguing voices and silences of the Sri Lankan archive organised by Raking Leaves and Asia Art Archive in partnership with the Goethe InstitutGroundviews and the University of Jaffna, was held over the weekend, comprising of an enthralling exhibition of 16 works of art created in response to the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture & Design, and the Mobile Library (a collection of 400 books, exhibition catalogues, periodicals, and monographs) which began its travels in Jaffna, where it was housed for three months and accompanied by a series of programmes for artists, students and academics, and a series of talks on the Archive.

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Aside from being blown away by the truly provocative and inspiring artwork, I was fortunate enough to attend two of the talks: Archiving the Archivists in Jaffna: Material, Memory and Loss by P. Ahilan and The Search for Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya by Anomaa Rajakaruna.

Mr. Ahilan spoke of three personal archives in Jaffna belonging to the late Kalaigani Selvaratnum, a studio photographer; Mylankoodaloor P. Nadarajan, a retired school teacher; Kurumpasity R. Kanagaratnam, retired from the private sector; and Mr A. Jesurajah, a retired Post Master, locating it in the contentious space of the personal and political and its relationship to the Sri Lankan conflict. Ms. Rajakaruna spoke of the search for Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya, which has been identified as the pièce de résistance of Sri Lankan cinema, which was lost in the studio burnings of 1983, highlighting the need for preserving the modern history of independent Sri Lanka, particularly in terms of the rich trove of audiovisual materials which have been detrimentally neglected.

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My own interest with archiving began when I encountered the work of Walter Benjamin,  an early 20th century German-Jewish  intellectual and persnickety curator of extensive personal archives, maintained a lifelong project (for 13 years between 1927-1940, until he died of ill-fated circumstances on the French-Spanish border during the war), deliberating the city life that resonated within the contemporaneous arcades of Paris, and in many ways inspired the formation of this particular internet space. Benjamin was significant precursor to the postmodern wit of Foucault and Derrida, his Arcades Project deliberated the notion of montage in everyday life; fragment and swift transformations that summed up the transient air of the volatile era.

When deliberating the meticulously constructed personal archives of Mylankoodaloor P. Nadarajan, Kurumpasity R. Kanagaratnam and Mr A. Jesurajah and their moving efforts to preserve their collection for posterity in times of conflict and thoughtless destruction (two of the archives were lost during the war), the loss of the Nidhanaya negatives, and 28 nascent Tamil language films which have now disappeared from the archives and perhaps even memory without a trace, the conscious containment of alternative histories, identities and archival spaces becomes pronounced.

Derrida tells us of a labyrinthine archive; a place of inception and death, of state authority and political repression, of history and the spectres of the future containing impressions of defunct knowledge and the progresses of collective memory. It has been dubbed a repository of presence and absence forging bonds between memory and materiality. Archives, he states, are spaces of power founded on the decisions to include and exclude. These exclusions exist as archival silences. Within the narrative of recent Sri Lankan history, our archival silences are made up of the perspectives, narratives and alternative histories which do not align with the single-file grand majoritatrian chronicle.

Particularly, upon hearing the story of Mr. Kanagaratnam, devastated by the destruction of his collection, penned down what he could of the contents of his archive by memory, I am reminded again of Benjamin, whose own archive diverged from the rationality and formulae of the institutional archive, using memory as a medium for exploring the past in a manner which reflects the aspirations and despair of the people who remember.

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The people who remember, defiantly occupy these distinct archival silences, tirelessly curating responses to suppression- particularly where histories are being manipulated and reoriented by the dominant ideological powers, with little consideration for those whose identities don’t fall within the legitimacy of the majority and its democratic government.

They quietly transform shards of everyday life, personal explorations of materiality, writing and memory into the political; a necessary, implicit rebellion within a compelled silence.

For their efforts, I am grateful.

For it is the archival silences that speak the loudest.

 

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Apologies for the Inconvenience

We apologise for the inconvenience of the categories you were compelled to impose on the certificates of our birth, to remind us that we are not of one blood.

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Freedom of Hate Speech

*Reader discretion advised: Post contains quoted content which could be considered objectionable or offensive.

Lately, sentiments of violent Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism have turned into powerful Orwellian prolefeed (From 1984: a constant stream of mindless entertainment produced to distract and occupy the masses), not simply stirring up repugnant chauvinism but actively promoting hate and violence against those who do not subscribe to their novelty Sri Lankan Buddhism. This prolefeed has found a fertile breeding-ground on social media; regional, local, national-level pages belonging to various extreme Sinhala Buddhist factions mushrooming at alarming frequency. Each group has disturbing reach and terrifying engagement by members who post vile, incomprehensibly hateful, racist comments provoking and even on occasion, threatening physical and sexual violence and death.

These Facebook pages have become spaces for free but detrimental expression that demands our action, considering the spate of violence against places of Christian and Muslim religious worship, Muslim-owned businesses and even patrons. These hate campaigns have gained wide, concerning ground on Facebook in particular, where a demographic comprised of (arguably impressionable) young males whose malevolence is commended and egged on unchecked.

The BBS page for example, posted photographs of participants from the peaceful vigil which happened in Colombo last week under the album title ‘Treasonous Savages Who Distorted the National Anthem’ and ‘Enemies With No Race or Religion’ (translated from Sinhalese), requesting members to help identify the traitors. The comments attacking race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and gender on these photographs which were mostly made in Sinhala (transliterated and text) by members of the Facebook group were truly horrifying.

‘He’s a (expletive) that sells his mother for a living’

‘Tiger prostitutes (expletive)’

‘Nightclub prostitute bitches’

‘May these people be struck by lightning the sons of prostitutes (expletive) devouring this country. This is our country, a Sinhala country, devils.’

‘They are prostitutes with no race or religion’

‘These people haven’t even grazed past Buddhism. They are NGO people. If they were so concerned about the country and Buddhism, where were these (expletive) when temples were being bulldozed? They are just giving (expletive) here, it would be good if they mind their business without getting murdered by the real Sinhalese’

‘Bastard dogs’

‘These are a bunch of Colombo people trying to be cute. Have they even taken shelter from the rain at a temple? They are trying to teach us religion they should be taken in for questioning to the CID.’

-> Response: ‘Excellent comment. They should be raped.’

‘They  look like midgets chased out of South India. There’s not even an speck of Buddhism in them. They look like Ethiopian cows.’

‘Don’t worry I was there when this NGO band protested in front of the Bodu Bala Sena Base. They have even distorted the National Anthem. They are rising to destroy the Buddhist power, but the security forces and the priests of the Bodu Bala Sena intervened and successfully defeated this treasonous, unpatriotic effort. (BBS Monk)

‘(Expletive) if I see you in Battaramulla, I will definitely open up your (expletive), you dog. Be careful when you’re on the road, you NGO cow born to a dog. (expletive)’

-> Response by BBS monk: ‘Help us identify this man’

‘These (expletive) planned this while Gnanasara Priest (BBS monk) was out of the country. If Gnanasara was there these people would have been stripped and forced to run away naked.’

‘Nature will punish these people. When you’re on the road be extra careful, there are big lorries and buses coming your way’

‘Don’t be disheartened by these efforts, even Lord Buddha defeated the Demons. This protest was not done by real Sinhalese, but a flock of mixed-race miscreants. If you need anything priest, we are always with the Bodu Bala Sena’

These comments are a mere sampling of what is being said in response to the photos of the participants who attended the peaceful vigil. Not only was the content aimed at identifying participants in order to orchestrate an abhorrent response on-line (and frighteningly maybe even potentially off-line, given the identification of people’s names and places of employment), the comments unquestionably call for murder, physical violence and rape.

The process of reporting the page and its contents to Facebook appears to be straightforward: The ‘I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook’ option provides you with another to report ‘Hate speech’ under multiple categories of  targeting race or ethnicity, religious group, based on gender and orientation, based on disability or disease. While there is no ‘all of the above’ option which sum up the BBS page’s contents, myself and many others have reported this page and similar pages repeatedly. Facebook, however, does not find this reason enough to either issue a warning to the page owners to moderate, clean up the content or have it taken down. Understandably, the content is in transliterated and text Sinhala, which at first glance will not check any hate speech boxes, but does terrifying and unapologetic hate speech only deserve Facebook’s attention if it is in English?

While liberals may argue that shutting these pages down are a threat to the freedom of speech in a country where most freedoms are delusional at best, do these pages deserve space for engagement (and evident indoctrination as far as an impressionable young membership is concerned)? While the admin-uploaded contents do not directly threaten harm to anyone (save for requests to members to help identify so-called perpetrators and distastefully condemn them in captions and album titles), the administrators are allowing rabidly racist commentary to continue, irrefutably violating Facebook’s Community Standards.

While the BBS page was taken down briefly yesterday, today it has returned with English language comments deleted (likely for the benefit of Facebook checks on hate speech), while the Sinhala language content remains untouched. Additionally, when those captured in the photographs reported the content to Facebook as harassment, the social media platform failed to respond to multiple complaints. Meanwhile, these photos are being shared and commented on, rapidly replicated in similar pages, subject to streams of comment abuse, shocking misuse and photo-manipulation. We must be weary of the pervasive and fluid nature of social media, and consider its impacts outside the relative freedoms, anonymity and bravado of the Internet.

Where freedoms have been fought for over centuries of human history, they are not simply easy entitlements won by others long-gone for willful abuse, but must like all rights be tied to responsibilities. Those who do not respect these responsibilities, are entirely undeserving of these freedoms- especially where they are actively encouraging hatred and inciting violence against those who do not subscribe to their beliefs.

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A Quiet People

In August 2012, examining the  ethnic violence against the Rohingya and the attack of the Dambulla mosque in Sri Lanka incited on both instances by Buddhist monks, I wrote,

The tenet of reincarnation forms the core of Eastern-religions, by which the soul renews itself in new guises, moulded by the sins and virtues of one’s biological life. Thus, at the conclusion of a life’s consciousness, another manifestation comes into being – human, animal, divine or malevolent… Buddhism in its socio-political samsara has begun to embody a malevolent reincarnation in the face of tense identity politics, the political self-determination of monks and intolerant calls for violence antithetical to its teachings of wisdom, morality and discipline.

Many months later, the massacre of the Rohingya continues and virulent Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism continues to gain disconcerting momentum in post-war Sri Lanka, with multiple attacks on places of Christian and Muslim religious worship and the vicious inciting of violence against minorities by Fascist monks who make a mockery of the thoughtful introspection of their Teacher.

The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Organization, a Buddhist extremist group extolling an anti-everything-but-jingoistic-novelty-Buddhism, has been visibly responsible for a spate of vitriolic hate-mongering. At first it seemed laughable (perhaps naïvely so); was anyone so gullible to be swayed by their vocal and virulent claims of  extreme nationalism and attacks against other religious groups? Yet, their belligerent rhetoric against genocidal candy, Halal certifications, clothing choices, on international conspiracies to destroy their version of Sri Lankan Buddhism have gained disturbing ground, legitimised by unapologetic corporations and the obedient actions of many and the quiet inaction of others.

Yesterday (12th April 2013), a group of citizens organised a peaceful candlelight vigil against the Bodu Bala Sena, expressing their concern regarding the hateful stance of the BBS.

The contents of these videos require no interpretation; the complicity of the state manifesting in the unacceptable behaviour of the police in obstructing freedom of association, movement and speech; the reality that we have no rights or space to voice concerns that fall outside the sanctions of sugarplum state propaganda of peace and progress; and most significantly the sheer necessity for our collective quiet to end, to oppose the injustices we so resolutely ignore, perhaps in optimism that they will subside, in fear that we will be reprimanded or worse in apathy because we no longer care.

In 1983, there was quiet, as violent mobs rampaged unchecked murdering Tamils and destroying their homes and livelihoods.

1987-87, there was quiet, as thousands were culled in the name of skewed politics.

1983-2009, there was quiet, as explosions shattered our towns and bullets riddled our people.

In 2009, there was quiet, as thousands of civilians were massacred in the final stages of the civil-war and others were detained in inhuman conditions.

Nearly at the four-year mark since the end of the war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE), the island lolls in a warm ocean of delusional contentment. We are told the economy is flourishing, for surely, the viral red pavements and white elephant harbours and airports are testament to prosperity. We are sung songs of triumphalism heralding that the ethnic conflict is no more, as all people now know a peace that was paid for by the sacrifice of a thousand of heroes.

We are told that Sri Lankans are an entitled people.

Yet to most like the BBS, the only true Sri Lankans are those who speak a particular shade of Sinhala, worship a particular variation of Buddhism, and embrace a particular sentiment of Sinhala-Buddhist entitlement, who shun the tongues, gods, heritage and choices of others, who by those vices are somehow less Sri Lankan and consequently treacherous conspirators who must be dealt with, lest we pollute this rabid flag-waving chauvinism with non-compliance.

Yes, we the minority who do not fall into their trappings of Sri Lankan, because of the language we choose to speak, the gods we choose not to worship, our education, associations, desires, callings and commitments which make us lesser and unworthy of voices, and unworthy of Sri Lanka, for we are simply not them.  We are a quiet people.

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Chasing Mirages

Amidst an inundation of news relating to Rizana Nafeek’s tragic execution, I was reminded of this encounter from a a few years ago, which I wrote about in the past incarnation of this blog.

I find myself wondering about these girls. All I can hope for is that they are okay and that they have found their freedoms.

11th March 2009

Katunayaka International Airport, several minutes had ticked by half-past six when I stumbled towards the liminal olive green immigration desks to fill out the embarkation forms. Laden with a weighty laptop and a folder of documents which traced my life in a paper trail, legitimizing me in the eyes of British Border Control, in the event they decided to question my presence at a place which has been my reluctant domicile for nearly 3 years now. I still need proof that I have no plans of leeching off an overburdened welfare system or disappearing into the woodwork to wo-man the counter of a rural 7-11. Because that’s what an MA will bring you these days: a minimum wage job in a country that can never replace home.  I hope the sarcasm has not been lost.

My country may have its share of problems but that kind of desperation doesn’t affect me. The kind of desperation which leads to catamaran journeys to Cyprus and Sicily. I’m happy where I am, thanks very much. But the papers I carry, just in case they do not appreciate this implausibility.

I scribble in my tired details etched on tens of forms identical to this, filed away in some musty corner, picturesquely gathering mould. The government plans on recycling are rather sketchy. “Nangi.” (Younger sister) A veiled woman approaches me. I’m complacently contained in my own personal semiosphere of memories, goodbyes just said and the dread of a day long journey ahead. I’m made uncomfortable by such acknowledgements of kinship, looking up uncertainly. An unnecessary cultural idiosyncrasy of uncles and aunties.

Expectantly she hands her embarkation form over. “I cannot understand what is said. I don’t know how to fill it in.” I would be lying if I said I wasn’t irritated. She could not read. So much for a 90% literacy, the pride of South Asia. My travel karma did not need unnecessary jinxing. Unnecessary like Nangi. I glance at her crisp novelty of a passport branded for the next decade as “House Maid”; a bold proclamation from the profession box.  House Maid. No euphemisms, no embellishments. Were we post-political correctness already?

Forgive my post-modern cynicism.

Born in 1982, somewhere in the slums of an undiscussed part of the capital. The other peripheral worlds marked by petti-kadeslelli geval and communal taps, rife with crime and unspoken professions. Bound to Jordan, several worlds and a universe away. That House Maid stamp seems awfully permanent for three years. She had that snappy sensibility only an urban existence could mould. I do not say anything as I hand over a completed form. She thanks me curtly.

Another hovers over my shoulder, insistent not expectant, as if it were my cheerful obligation fill out her form. She cannot read either. Sleeplessness and general morning grumpiness blankets me protectively as I complain to myself. I’m ready to settle down with a book at departures, catching snatches of sleep between the mechanical announcements of planes which pendulum between the Occident and Orient.

Born 1991 in a village off “Polonnaruwa?” I couldn’t contain my shock. A child. I am horrified. 18, perched somewhere between the wisdoms of my 21 year old self, and that of my 11 year old sister. Still horrified, I realise the width and depth of the chasm which divides Polonnaruwa and Beirut.  Across the Universe, five oceans and seven seas. I am afraid for her. She did not offer her thanks, strolling to the queue. I’m still taken aback. I do not know what to say. Do I wish such naivety well, as they chase their dreams into deserts faraway?

I watch them huddled together at the Gate making their last phone calls to extended family and friends, running out money as they swap sim cards. She gingerly sips the last of her Polonnaruwa water from a refilled Mixed Fruit Nectar bottle.

I plug in my iPod and return to a soundsphere suspended between the angst of Nirvana and Jason Mraz’s cheer. Conflicted.

I am still afraid for the mirages they chase, towards the oases of dowries and new homes, husbands and children.

The journey ahead would be no smooth sailing.

Rest In Peace, Rizana.

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