Saturday, August 18, 2007

Floodgates of time

Growing up in an old city and passing buildings that were centuries old on my way to school everyday, I have often wondered how those whitewashed walls would have seen countless other little boys walk past them, grow up to become men, their age whither and make way for fresh naïve faces.

A few weeks ago, I was seated next to my grandmother after a break of two years and knowing that I only had a few weeks before I had to leave again, I eagerly listened to the stories of her life, the most interesting parts of which it seemed I had never heard before. As vivid memories of her childhood and youth flowed out with colourful descriptions, I noticed her wedding ring which would have shared in her labours for sixty two years of wedded life. Now it lies in isolation having lost its partner a few months ago. As I held it in my hands, I tried to imagine the tales that a pound of gold would tell me if I could listen and understand.

Most of what we perceive as history is actually derived from lifeless objects. Firsthand memories available to a generation usually don’t stretch for more than a century. The rest of our history is sourced from second hand accounts, ranging from those bearing detailed stories and verifiably accurate accounts, to scraps of scrambled information. Those accounts of ancient times seem respectable mostly because they are narrated by archaeologists who in truth can only fill in the gaps with educated guesses at the best of times and at other times their imagination. The spectrum of sources and the accuracy with which they recount the stories of our past and of whom we are - can, and in fact must - be debated.

But this is not a debate about the authenticity of what we consider to be historical fact. It is rather about how history is taught, what is remembered and what is forgotten with time - which forms our perception, not only of who we are, but what we ought to do. History teaches us what is important and what is not; to some even the difference between mortality and immortality.

Personally for me, history was by far the most boring of all the subjects I learned in school because I simply failed to see the point of learning what I was taught. The general idea was that learning history is about knowing the year in which a certain King died (or was killed – more often than not, by his own son or brother) or being able to name a few designated ‘national heroes’. Perhaps boredom was the only way that the soul of a raw schoolboy could protest the atrocity of reducing the invaluable experiences of a nation into the memorization of mere numbers and oversimplified facts, with no regard for their actual implications.

Yet the critical mind probes history in search of richer lessons. Even though the text books on history glorifies wars and rebellions and illustrate their leaders as national heroes – though some of them are to their credit – the history of a country is not built on wars and violence. History and human civilization itself is built on less glamorous things like the labour of farmers, the work of artists, writers, philosophers, builders and musicians. The engineers who designed and built the monuments that belong to the ancient world that stand to this day are silent and forgotten as the credit is usually attributed to the kings. The proportion of hard work that the 'unknown' scientists, mathematicians, doctors, teachers and spiritual leaders have contributed to building the grand history of human civilization has been quantitatively more than that of the 'Unknown Soldier' whose statue has always attracted a disproportionate degree of adulation. I say so, not to undermine the sacrifice of the soldiers but to make the point that great advancements in history have been made by creative men engaged in the creative process. The destructive forces of violence that have always been a part of human nature - and therefore even in its 'civilization' - have only undermine what is civilized within us together with every value that we hold sacred within it.

The grand history of nations and of human kind in general, and whatever artefacts that remain as testimony to it, was built by the farmer that gave humanity the confidence to settle down in one place and build cities and who fed the nation with his surplus. History remembers too few names - and those too far in between - of priests who strengthened the social fabric and repaired it when it was torn, the engineers and builders who channelled rivers to nourish the land and built eternal monuments.

Yet it surprises me how easy it is to stand among the gigantic monuments in the ancient cities of Sri Lanka and be reminded the name of a king who in some cases didn’t even live to see those monuments completed, yet not the creative genius of the faceless architects, engineers and builders who’s names history itself seem to have forgotten. It would sadden me, if future generations who look back on mine, also remember us for the war we endured and the violence we perpetrated on each other. It would be a catastrophe however, if they forget how it destroyed lives and crippled a nation to celebrate one side's victory over another as we were taught we should.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


A smile floats from a silent dream
Like a six-winged snowflake, falling
Music flows through a waning night
I listen to a quiet heartbeat's calling

Sweet melodies flow through empty space
And we stand still in a timeless world
A secret wish fights to escape my heart
And rest in another exposed, unfurled

Two hands toil for that silent dream
And a heart is hopeful, though weary
Two unknown eyes in soft moonlight
I imagine, asleep in innocent reverie

Monday, August 06, 2007

Signing in

I have not blogged in a while, for which this is no apology, but a finely brewed cocktail of the silent thoughts that stirred within me during the past three months. Last June, I flew back home after spending two years in exile and returned just over a week ago. Perhaps I should start where my holiday ended.

Seated in the departure lounge at the Bandaranaike Airport with a friend who was also getting back with me – perhaps our sad faces being starkly contrasted by the excited throng of 125 senior scouts making their way to a jamboree in England – I looked up to see three supersonic fighter jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force take off with a thundering roar. I had dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot all my life and for a moment, that dream came back. As they banked shapely soon after taking off, I imagined the G-forces and the thrill of riding in one of those cockpits. As we strolled through the duty free shops, I wondered what their target was, as my friend commented about how he would dread to be a terrorist in whatever place they were going to attack in a few minutes. I briefed him on the science of it and that ordinary terrorist combatants on the ground don’t even hear supersonic aircraft until well after they have bombed them and turned around to go back.

Forty five minutes later, it was time to board our plane and an hour later as our aircraft was taxiing on to the runway, the three jets landed just ahead of us and almost magically disappeared in a few seconds. It was then that I realised the depth of what I had witnessed during that hour – that someone not too far away would have lost a parent, a child, a spouse or sibling, a loved one, a friend. They will cry, mourn, there will be a funeral if they could find the mortal remains of someone who was alive at the time I saw the jets taking off, but was dead an hour later. Out of the hundreds of friends and loved ones I met during the last seven and a half weeks, some will call it a victory over terrorism and rejoice, some will at least hurt even though they may not mourn the loss of a person who speaks their language and worships the same God. Some will not even know.

It is not easy – even after a week – for me to describe, let alone define what I felt then. What I felt about the country and people I was leaving behind, the faces of loved ones, the warmth of friends, the smiles of strangers, the emerald green treetops and gleaming paddy fields that never seem to change, the narrow cratered roads and the rickety vehicles that whistle past on them… but I had never seen a supersonic jet take off on a sortie before, so that image never came up in my mind when I thought about home… but it does now…