Friday, October 23, 2009

Old thoughts and expired memories

My father commented this old letter I had written home about four and a half years ago as he was cleaning the "Inbox"... bringing back memories of the 'International Student" that I once was.
"I stand alone among the multitude… just another insignificant head among thousands of others walking along in a big free world. When I come back, along with the stories of pride and joy, of poverty and sacrifice, of victory and defeat, of freedom and confinement, I will also tell you what it feels like to live in a place where you are nobody's son… nobody's brother… or grand child or nephew… where even friends hardly notice you unless they think they are in competition with you and you win. I will also tell you of the pride you feel when you simply manage to survive in such a place for as long as I have… I am sure many others have done it before me, but I stand proud today for going though such times and not losing my sensitivity, my pride, or without forgetting who I am."
It's surreal now to look back at the course of my life. The way I have matured through the it's twists and turns of the last five years... but even more how much I have learnt... and yet remain none the wiser for it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Untold stories

[Snippet 4] elaborated...

The serene stillness of the vehicle and calm rhythmic beat of its engine contrasted the looks of weariness and impatience on the faces of its passengers who were in a hurry to reach numerous destinations. Their bus bore without shame or self consciousness, evidence of rugged use, neglect, wear and tear of unkind roads, tolerance of ill mannered children who cut the lining on its modest seats and adolescents who etched their names on its sides, immortalising their desire for cheap fame. But the vehicle which had singularly served its rural village route for nearly three and a half decades looked much older and frail even considering the fact that it was toiling well past its retirement age. Perhaps it was not an icon of reassurance and dependability in the minds of its passengers, but even strangers who boarded it hardly found any reason to doubt its commitment to take them to their destination.

Passengers, who sat themselves on its rigid seats or prepared to endure the rocking journey with the aid of a steady metal pole fixed to its roof, rarely expected the ride to be comfortable or fast. A dented front bumper, gashed grill, smoky lights and rusted wipers that drooped across the scratched windshields, sculpted a look of profound sadness on its face, which was accentuated by occasional wails and shrieks of invisible body parts. Engineered into the body of this lifeless machine was however an eerie reflection of the sadness that some of its passengers bore deep inside.

The hollow metal chassis afforded them a space in which they were free to take off masks of stern looks and tight lips that they had worn through the day. It silently offered them comfort and empathy; perhaps because it is easier to embrace sadness in the company of others who are sad and therefore can understand and empathise with us in our misery. The burden of misery is amplified in the company of those who are happy, whose happiness enforces itself on us and compels us to smile out of fear and guilt, that any hint of sadness on our faces might rob them of their fleeting moment of bliss.

Yet the bus did not inhibit happiness. In fact it had witnessed on a daily basis, emotions ranging from the blissful excitement and hopeful anticipation to moments of life-altering happiness. For well over a generation, it had witnessed courtship, the composition and exchange of love letters which it often also couriered along with their bearers and recipients, a first brief kiss of lovers, holding hands and secret whispers.

It had hosted meetings of long lost friends and companies of youth on adventurous road-trips. Its windows had reflected smiles that passengers often stole from a bygone memory, an imagined conversation or a happy surprise; in the mysterious solitude within a community of tightly compressed commuters. At times those same windows may have framed and showcased a spectrum of emotions on those faces to a curious bystander standing by the roadside.

Even though its metal heart was too rigid to melt and dissolve with tears of a despondent soul, it was often sensitive enough to dry those tears with a murky breeze or hide them among stray raindrops that sometimes flew in through open shutters. The passage of many years had taught the rickety old metal beast to appreciate the richness of human life and the broad emotional spectrum of human experience.

There have been a few rare moments in its life when it actually felt more 'human' than the soulless, lifeless and senseless machine that people who nervously crossed the road in front of it, often suspected it to be. The driver and conductor harboured an unfurnished gratitude for the share of hard labour it had contributed to sustaining their lives and feeding their families. But with every pothole that it crawled back out of and with each passing year, the frail metal box and its wheels lost the ability to satisfy their patron's demands for comfort and speed.

Few of its passengers if any, held it in their thoughts, let alone feel a debt of thankfulness for its part in easing their daily struggles. Perhaps it was fitting that they didn't, because the bus would have been tormented by the guilt inducing suspicion that it may have robbed from its patrons, moments and thoughts that belonged to their own loved ones. Their mechanical slave that ungrudgingly took them to work, to school and to the markets in the city; did not possess any faculty to love its clients and so it did not make demands of love and affection from them either, or even make them feel obliged.

Yet the dead metal of its body, the worn out seats and wooden floor held in fond memory; each stop that punctuated the torturously monotonous journey that it repeated a dozen times each day. It remembered with affection, the faces of those who got on and off at each stop.

It paid equal attention to their moods each day and with patience and silent wisdom, watched their lives unfold. A child whose birth was excitedly announced within its chamber had grown into a man and had children of his own, and confined over all those years to the same narrow stretch of road that linked the green fields of an anonymous village to the intimidating highways and bellows of a crowded gray city, it chronicled wordlessly the unobserved stories of a nation.

(Published in The Sunday Times - Mirror Magazine (20/01/2008)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

4. Healing Wounds

Living in a very small world: and dying to have a piece of it

I was the last person in our group to come out of the station after divulging the intricacies of my visit to the somnolent policeman and the Civil Defence Force home guard who had checked me to make sure I didn’t poses any lethal weapons. I have never had to sit at a desk interrogating and recording the personal details and intentions of a few thousand people on a daily basis, nor have I had to poke and prod them hoping not to stumble on a firearm or explosive-packed vest. Neither have I had to wield a firearm or been trained to use deadly force without any inhibitions to ensure my own survival and the survival of my comrades. Given my life’s experience, I would be a wretched judge of these men and their actions.

What’s more, I had grown up with a war that I knew very little about, let alone the intricate details about how wars are fought, by whom or for what reason. So, as I walked out of the station, still debating the pros and cons of the sacrifices we have made in the name of fighting terrorism, I was confronted with the humbling realisation that most of my opinions and biases about human dignity, civility and morality had not encountered the realities of war and the toxic world of deadly combat.

Outside the station, Sachindra introduced me to Rev. Lasantha who was animatedly talking to the others. Perhaps he may not have expected to find any familiar faces among the crowd that was trickling out of the station. The priest’s white robes contrasted with the arid rural landscape that surrounded the station while his glaring and honest smile stood out in the crowd. We all introduced ourselves – first by our names and then by which part of Sri Lanka we were from.

Despite being a tiny island, Sri Lankans have a strong association of which part of the country we were born in and raised. My grandmother could often say where a person was from merely by their surname, and I felt she could do this with reasonable accuracy. A few decades ago, a persons name would have given some indication of their ancestral village or town as well as which clan and caste they belonged to – factors that may ultimately define their role in society, their occupations, rights, obligations, limits to their freedom and power. It is difficult not to appreciate that we have progressed a fair distance as a society on our journey in pursuit of liberty and equity since then. Within a span of two generations, most of us have all but forgotten that the caste system even existed, and in principle, we could all aspire to have the same opportunities and same rights irrespective of what our surnames were on account of (almost) universal access to education.

My surname is Portuguese as are the top three or four most common surnames in Sri Lanka, but it distinctly identified me as a Sinhalese. The Portuguese were not as organised in their medieval conquests as the Dutch and British were. I feel it is perhaps because they did not have the same ambitions for empire building and trade as the later did. The band of Portuguese sailors who landed on our shores in 1505 would have been driven more by the passion for the exotic than perhaps the riches of trade and the power of conquest and ‘integrated’ well with the natives of the land as the prevalence of their names now suggest. Shazard’s name was perhaps the only prominent facet of his personality that identified him distinctly as a Muslim. Mauran’s surname and Gopi’s clearly identified them as Tamils as much as Sachindra’s surname could not be mistaken for anything other than being Sinhalese.

Outside the main cities, the different ethnic groups cluster together more closely. Even though we all essentially look indistinguishable from our physical features, our names reveal our ethnicity and it is hard not to imagine that the policemen at the railway station would have paid more attention to Mauran and Gopi because they were Tamil. It seems our names do more than merely identify us - they determine the level of freedom we can enjoy and the ideas and thoughts we are allowed or prohibited to express. Not only that; but they often even insinuate our loyalties and prejudices, beliefs and biases to a society that has been made paranoid by its exposure to the mindlessness of ethnic war and increasingly stands in judgement of individuals for what race and religion they belong to.

Yet, because of the war and the publicity it got, the truth about the differences in our names that have led to differences in the way we are treated in society themselves being the gravest threat, to life and the curtailment of liberty, has had to fight for its realisation in the collective conscience of Sri Lankans for many decades. As a result, many were conscripted by violence in a vain attempt of to secure power under the guise of fighting against such unfair discrimination. The fact that their names sounded similar to Mauran’s and Gopi’s seems reason enough for many, to suspect my friends also to have the same violent ambitions.

The Reverend’s questions about our names and where we were from were not so sinister or even judgemental. They are of course how strangers often enter a conversation and more so among Sri Lankans, no matter where in the world they meet. And for a reason, because we are a very closely knit society where it seems everyone knows someone who knows you. Finding out that I was from Kandy and now lived in Australia was enough to prompt Rev. Lasantha to ask me whether I happen to know his nephew who was also from Kandy and recently migrated to Melbourne. Despite there being a twenty million or so of us, it seems almost a rarity for two random Sri Lankans to meet in a random corner of the world and not find that they have a mutual friend, at most once or twice removed. Indeed I knew the priest’s nephew – in fact I was now sharing a flat with him! Maybe it is bizarre that we could be so closely connected. However in that light, it is even more bizarre that a civil war could break out within such a closely knit society made up of friends of friends of friends.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

3. Healing Wounds

Crossing over to the other side: of a unitary state

The refurbished metal “Queen of Jaffna” gracefully strode up to the platform in Medawachchiya by 10.30 am - the time I usually start to begin to consider the prospect of crawling out of bed on a regular holiday. But this day was different. I was running without knowing why, being urged by Sachindra to hurry, and dashing along the platform without knowing what the rush is all about, clutching my travel bag by its failing strap and water bottle in tow.

It seemed the whole train was disembarking and everyone was running in from both directions of the platform towards the only exit. Sachindra was already standing in line and I joined him a few paces behind. Soon a throng of people were waiting impatiently, in a line that stretched beyond my view of the distant edge of the platform, to be interrogated and for their belongings and bodies to be dug and prodded by unfriendly policemen.

Having spent five years away from Sri Lanka, I could no longer take roadblocks and body checks as facts of daily life. My mind was no longer numb to the predicament of the lady in front of us whose neatly packed clothes were casually pulled out of her bag and routinely put back in by the male serviceman. My ideological right cerebral hemisphere was protesting her unquestioned submission to this gross invasion of privacy and the insensitivity of the individual policeman. I was next, and as clothes, chocolates and a torch were dug out from my bag, a residual anger frothed inside me, not so much about the inconvenience I had to suffer but for the embarrassment a fellow citizen, much like my own mother, had been subjected to a few minutes before. Yet, the less emotional left cerebral hemisphere kept interjecting that these body and bag checks made my journey relatively safer. Would she prefer a higher level of 'customer care' at the cost of an additional delay, perhaps an hour or two more for the entire train to be checked with gentle courtesy? ‘But the war is over’, the right side of the brain shot back. ‘Is it really?’ the left planted an arguably rational, but forever undeterminable, state-sponsored doubt.

It took another two and a half hours until all the passengers and the train itself was declared bomb free. By then, the entire length of the train, its every passenger and their belongings had been thoroughly checked. Our destinations, intentions of travel, national identity card details, those of our host and the intended date of return had all been recorded in a large register by two other policemen. I assumed their neck muscles would not have survived a single day if they had looked up from the register to spare a smile or polite glance at each individual traveller. Any terrorist whose details were recorded in that book, would have the peace of mind that a search for his or her record in it would take longer than their life-expectancy at birth - however long terrorists and their human shields were expected to live.

I have a faint memory of the news of the “Yal Devi” train being blown up by the LTTE. There was even a song about it that I repeatedly heard on TV, “Yal Devi dumriya mediri, pipiree visiunaa… Thrasthavadin kala aparaaden, mithuran ahimi unaa…” I could not explain how, but after 24 years, I cloud still remember its tune and opening stanza. Would those people who lost their lives on that fateful day in January 1985 still be alive if the passengers were checked as we were? Between then and now, when did we stop writing songs for the friends we lost in this war? How could we have learned to be numb and submissive in the face of so much death and violence and yet have so much energy and sensitivity left over to celebrate its end?

I could not recall being so thoroughly checked or interrogated in any of my limited travels abroad. As permanent resident of Australia (but a Sri Lankan citizen travelling on a Sri Lankan passport) I would not be hassled so much on a visit to New Zealand. Here I was, travelling from one city to another within Sri Lanka as a Sri Lankan citizen! Politically, the war had been won and the country has been ‘unified’ under one government and its rule of law. Constitutionally, Sri Lanka is a unitary state because we can travel within the country without a visa. In reality however, under the provisions of the enacted state of emergency, it is more difficult Sri Lankan citizens to gain access to the northern regions beyond Medawachchiya than it is to enter Singapore – where Sri Lankan citizens are given temporary visas on arrival. Legally, we were travelling within a free and democratic country, but practically it felt like crossing over to another country. Literally, I could get assaulted or threatened (I hope not killed) for publicly voicing such ‘unpatriotic’ thoughts.

I had embarked on this journey with preconceived opinions about the sanctity of human liberty what it means to be free, uninformed perceptions about war and its consequences as well as moral and intellectual biases that tinted my view of society, its power structures and politics. Men and women had to submit their bodies to be searched, for the soldiers to determine whether any of us posed a threat to national security. As I walked out of the station, still debating the pros and cons of how we have chosen to fight terrorism, I was confronted with the humbling realisation that all my opinions, perceptions and biases were being severely challenged by the complexity of this reality that I had grown up with, yet knew very little about and remained unexplored and unchallenged by thought or reason.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

2. Healing Wounds

Linking North and South: what trains cannot do

Weeks before coming to Sri Lanka, I shared with some friends; a desire to help war affected Sri Lankans in whatever capacity possible while I am home. I had a vague grasp of the fact that refugees were just one fraction of the victims of war. Combatants constituted another fraction. I have never heard gunshots or seen bombs going off. However, having grown up in an impoverished country which spent hundreds of billions of rupees on armaments, and cultured by a desensitising daily death toll in the news every night, perhaps I too was one of its victims. So who were the ‘war affected’ that I was going to help and where were they?

One of my friends introduced me to Sachindra, who was organising groups of volunteers from the Colombo University to help with the food distribution efforts at Menik Farm – a camp housing more than a quarter million Sri Lankans who have been driven out of their homes during the recently concluded fighting in the north and east of the country. Through a series of electronic epistles that were haphazardly exchanged over the subsequent days, we arranged to work at Menik Farm for a week, with a local NGO that was responsible for distributing food to ‘Internally Displaced Sri Lankans’. The opportunity was random, but the choice was obvious.

I expected Shazard to be waving at me from a door or window on the train but there was no sign of him. I would not recognise any of the others that I was meeting for the first time. I got into the train and walked through the compartments and found them looking for me. I was meeting Shazard after four years and Sachindra, Gopi and Mauran for the first time. Gopi had grown up in Vavuniya, but now lived with his family in the suburbs of Colombo. Mauran was from Batticaloa and his family still lived there. They both had just passed out as Engineers from the University of Moratuwa, and as Tamils, had experienced the war and its consequences more intimately.

Sachindra pulled out a couple of sheets of paper. One was a letter from the head of the NGO that we were affiliated to. It was a vital document confirming that we were indeed working with an NGO that was authorised to function inside the tightly guarded camps. The government calls them “Welfare Villages” - almost tempting the uninitated to want to go and live there. Those opposed to the government’s policy of detaining these people in camps – admittedly for their own protection, until they are screened and resettled – calls them “concentration camps”, evoking deliberately, ghastly images of Nazi Germany. The true description of these camps floats unexplored and unadmitted somewhere in between these two extremes. We had plenty of warnings about the tight security in place around the camps and how access to the northern region in general is highly restricted, so Sachindra had diligently made copies of the original documents for each member of our group.

Sachindra had another document which he had printed out for himself and for me. It was a list of Tamil words in Sinhala typeface together with their meanings and this was for our use exclusively. Almost all Tamils who had lived outside the war zone are conversant in Sinhala. Gopi and Mauran were native Tamil speakers who spoke good English and could manage a conversation in Sinhala when necessary. Shazard spoke all three languages at home and had learnt enough Bangala (Bengali) to survive five years in Bangladesh while studying to be a Doctor in Medicine. To say that Sachindra and I are not fluent in Tamil would be a gross understatement. Yet we were going to be working among people who have been all but totally cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka for the past thirty years. All the children and most young adults of our age group living in the camps would not have even seen a Sinhala person until a couple of weeks ago.

I went through the list of words several times as the “Yal Devi” (Queen of Jaffna) chugged cheerfully on her way to Medawachchiya from where it will continue up to Vavuniya. This train had been a symbolic link between the Tamil speaking north and the Sinhala dominated south for decades, until the LTTE blew it up on 19 January 1985. At the end of the war, the government launched a well publicised project to reconstruct the pillaged railway infrastructure up to Jaffna and resume “Yal Devi” services to the estranged peninsula. The president had called the project a symbol of “our resolve for unity and coexistence” and had even donated his monthly salary in May to boost the reconstruction effort. We have inherited from our past a culture that is rich in such symbolism and imposing traditions. But the more I struggled to remember each new Tamil word and its meaning, the more I appreciated the futility in entrusting a train (let alone the deleterious Railway Department) with the task of representing our resolve for unity and coexistence.

The north and south of the country were like two siblings, separated at a time that now lay buried under layers of history that has been contaminated by many incomplete and unverifiable memories. One had been adopted by brutal, dehumanising violence and grwon up in its arid north-eastern plains and the other by deceit and corruption in the fertile valleys and misty mountains in post colonial Sri Lanka.

War, in a strange and cruel way, has brought us together. Perhaps we would recognise our common ancestry and intimate relationship if only we could talk to each other, but we cannot yet speak each other’s languages.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mortal soul

Between Earth and smoky sky, originally uploaded by halwis.
Oh delicate, supple, unbounded mortal soul
Dance and sing through timeless, spaceless eternity
Enrich with life the living and spare death’s due toll
Your wealth lie in moments etched in fragile memory

The river and ocean is yours, every valley and knoll
And a spirit to cherish, not conquer their mystery
Forever and always may it be your unhindered goal
The treasures of life, and death's blissful serenity

Friday, June 26, 2009

1. Healing Wounds

End of a conflict: An ideal time to bear witness to a brutal war

The strap of my bag unbuckled under the strain as I squeezed out of the bus in Kurunegala. The clock tower read an unrushed 6.40 am on its weary face. It was quite possibly a relic from the Premadasa era, bearing testament to a President who erected large clocks in many city centres and villages, subtle messages about punctuality woven into a fabric of ageless and often useful, chaos. I checked my wrist watch, because the clock face that looked over the sleepy town looked too burdened to be reliable. If the train was on time, I had forty minutes to get to the railway station which I knew couldn’t be too far.

Struggling to buckle the strap, I went into the nearest shop to ask for directions. “It’s that way, you won’t miss it”. The little I knew about Kurunegala town was enough to give me confidence that I had all the information needed to walk to the station in time. As I stepped out on to the road, I realised that I may have left my cap in the car when my father dropped me - sleepy eyed and still jet lagged - at the central bus-stand in Kandy an hour and forty minutes ago. It seemed like I was going to miss it a lot.

Walking to the station through the light mist, trying to read the faces of over worked strangers on a regular Monday morning, I resisted the temptation to take a three-wheeler. Busses limped past me on all fours, saturated and overflowing with white uniforms, heavy schoolbags, briefcases and flowery saris – battle fatigues of sorts I thought. I called Shazard to make sure that they were on the train and that the train itself was on track. Time has also steadily eroded the Railways. Over years of being one of its loyal customers, the Railway Department had taught me to expect its services to be reliably late and not to take such minor blessings for granted.

What if we missed the train or never even volunteered to dedicate a week of our time and energy to help out at the camps? We had no grand illusions about what we were trying to achieve or contribute. I could not believe that my efforts were going to make a noticeable difference, because in my absence there would have been plenty of others to take this place. But I hoped that our presence there on the other hand would make a difference. We hoped it would personify a more meaningful expression of a message that was being preached from high platforms. It was a personal acknowledgement of the hard work that lie ahead of as while the notion that forces of evil in this country have been defeated and that the nation has been unified - at least politically –was being celebrated with fireworks and parties.

Perhaps we needed to do something - if only to convince ourselves that we have done 'something'. Even though we have all been brutalised by the violence and horrors of war, demonstrating that we still had a capacity to empathise and care would make us feel better. Maybe we were guided by our moral obligation to serve. Despite having lived under the clouds of war, I have never been exposed to the downpour of its terror and violent images. Now the war was over and this was a fleeting chance to catch the last glimpse of what it was all about. I had read about the psychological implications of war and violence on society and tried to understand how soldiers are trained and prepare for battle. I have tried to understand what they experience on the battlefield and afterwards. Survivors of this war are still denied the space and liberty to share their stories and i suppose many of those stories will never be told. I felt intellectually and morally obliged to hear the silent stories and know for myself what so many around me were speaking about with unquestioned authority. I felt obliged as a Sri Lankan, to find out and share in whatever way I could - the experiences of so many of my own countrymen and women who has known this war as a fact of daily life. Their lives have so far been so very distant from my own.

The train was indeed on its way and a stranger assured me in his haste that I was making good time to get on it.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

~ Rabindranath Tagore ~

Our yesterdays are stained with the blood of many loved ones, friends and fellow Sri Lankans. We would have been friends and relatives if we had not been forced to be trapped on two sides of a fabricated division. This moment belongs to those who faced unimaginable violence and were consumed by it during past three decades. This is a moment to solemnly remember the many tens of thousands of victims of meaningless violence. This is a moment to understand that the images of this violence will continue to haunt the worriors and victims for the rest of their lives. For every physical casualty of war, there are two (unreported) physiological casualties. Post Traumatic Stress will plague them and us for at least a couple of generations. That is part of the costs of this war that we will have to bear for many decades.

So if anything, this is the time to say "NEVER AGAIN!!"
Never again will the sons and daughters of Sri Lanka be divided or deprived... Never again will we fight with each other, but we will always fight for each other... never again will the blood of our countrymen be shed in vain. Never again will we let ourselves be conscripted by inequality, injustice, racism or moral poverty.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Shadow 360, originally uploaded by halwis.

Listen, the final bugle calls. Come sing with it, when the final shot is fired towards the waking stars... Look! The final worrier falls into a bloody pit; and our search for peace, though mired, under the magnificent starlight pass. History, for a brief moment has been summoned with sacrificial offerings. All our countrymen and women who have been victims of violence or denied human dignity - on the battle field and in our neighbourhood streets - have paid with their lives, for the freedom we can now hope to enjoy.

Today, they lie on a different plain, a different time. This moment belongs to them; to their silent memory. Let us not rob this moment from them. We owe it to them at least now, in solemn reflection, to cherish the hope and promise of this moment. Our yesterdays are stained with their blood. It is left for us to remember their plight so that our ‘tomorrow’ would be a monument befitting their memory.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Condensed exhilaration, originally uploaded by halwis.

I moved… away from the edge of a raucous highway to a quiet edge of suburbia… where I am welcomed home every day by a warm sunset that dissolves into a distant tree line and watch the stars awaking to a night undisturbed by city lights. (Note to self: get a decent telescope) There’s space to revel in the pleasure of soft grass under my feet and for my ears to recuperate in a therapeutic silence. The spine is also unwinding to its natural shape once again (and I should definitely get this embarrassing little pot-belly replaced with decent abdominal muscles). Life is improving at a noticeable pace again. I’ve just had a few very good weekends of dignified company, clean fun, a lot of laughter and exhilaration. The gods of photography has also been particularly kind. My heart is beating a pace… the days are still bright, even though the saffron tint of autumn is lurking to swoop across the landscape as the last fragments of summer are blown away in the cold southerly winds… maybe it’s time to take out the guitar again and resume my quest for the finest melody and still finer words…

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Promised land


Fly through the smoke my mortal friend
Knells of death will light your way
As you wade through a sea of immortal woes
Sparing not your hopes of a another day
Others may fall wounded, maimed or dead
They all are parts of a vexing power play
Fear not; your children will be cared and fed
And spared from a life of senseless fray

When you come to my side of this insane world
(Look! I am waving at you from across the bay)
You will never be confined to an ethnic state
(The world is boundless and shrinking everyday!)
So numb your thoughts; let me show you how
To respect their guns and watch what you say
Those killed in March will get flowers in April
And convoys of freedom will arrive in May

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Aftermath

Chapter 1 (Missing)
(c) Harendra Alwis | Not to be reproduced without permission

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Samuel had an obsession for uncovering details in his stories that would have gone unnoticed in the eyes of most other journalists. His fearless and daring reports from the West bank had earned him a Pulitzer nomination two years ago and his colleagues at the Jerusalem Journal respected the professionalism with which he went about his work. To the world he was a celebrated journalist, anyone who could afford cable news anywhere in the world, knew his face well. His humour and playful personality masked the seriousness of his work and his razor-sharp wit.

He knew that something wasn't right about this story. Some of the details in it puzzled him. He found it difficult to put them together because they simply didn't seem to fit. Reason and logic could not glue the pieces of this puzzle in a way that made sense. Perhaps it required a degree of faith that he possibly couldn't admit to have.

He replayed every detail of what had happened during the last few days in his mind, as he drove to work. 'It's all over now', he told himself, all he had left to do was to investigate a few odd ends and he was sure he could seal the case forever. Suddenly his phone vibrated, throwing him off the mountain of thoughts he had built up in his mind. The number that lighted up his screen made him feel a bit nervous. The conversation lasted less than 5 minutes, but at the end of it, Samuel knew that the story was far from over - in fact this was just the beginning. He immediately called the Temple and after a brief but intense conversation, he could do nothing to wipe off the look of bewilderment from his face.

Eli was the news editor at the Jerusalem Journal. He had assigned Samuel to cover the execution of a man from Galilee who has been preaching to the masses all around the country for nearly three years. His name was Jesus - son of a wealthy carpenter. Some people claimed that he performed miracles and many others believed them. It was the mass popularity of his sermons however, that gave this story a significant political relevance. He had arrived in Jerusalem a few weeks ago and now lay dead in a tomb - crucified on the day before Passover.

Samuel had always been sceptical of religious people and that is why he was reluctant at first to work on the story. "God is not a magician" he told his mother over the phone once, who had called to tell him that her naigbhour had seen a blind man being cured by Jesus as he was passing through Samuel's hometown in Judea. In fact nobody in Jerusalem took much notice until the trial began. When Eli noticed that the Jewish elders who had sanctioned his arrest had backed off from making a judgement themselves, but had sent him to Governor Pilate, he sensed for the first time about the popular support that Jesus had from the people. But Pilate also refused to pass judgement and sent the man to Herod who also happened to be in Jerusalem at the time claiming he had no jurisdiction over people from Galilee. But in a bizarre turn of events, Herod had also refused to sentence Jesus and sent him back to Pilate. It was clear that nobody wanted to be seen with the blood of this man on their hands, possibly fearing a political backlash. That is when Eli asked Samuel to cover the story because he wanted his best political commentator on the job. As far as he was concerned, a story about any man who was popular enough to make the highest ranking Roman officials in Jerusalem think twice before executing him, would sell his newspaper.

The news Samuel had just received from his sources at the Governor's office had startled him. What had just happened seemed more unreal than any of the miracles that the man is said to have performed. Samuel was sure that this story could have no more twists, because after all, Jesus was now dead. That partially explained his bewilderment.

Briefly stopping at the door to knock, Samuel walked into Eli's office as soon as he saw Eli acknowledge his presence with a glance. Eli noticed the look on the young reporters face, but couldn't make up his mind whether he was excited or worried.

'How is the story coming up?' he asked calmly, 'I need it on my desk by 4 o'clock', but Samuel didn't seem concerned about the deadline. 'You may want to hear this first' he said, trying to arouse Eli's curiosity. 'The Governor's office had just issued a statement claiming that there had been an incident this morning at the tomb where Jesus had been buried and that his body is 'missing'. I just got off the phone with my source there and they tell me that it is likely the tomb was robbed early this morning. They can't confirm what time the attack took place. The high-priests have requested that the soldiers who were guarding the tomb to be locked away and they have now tightened security around the area'.

Eli's face lit up with the news. Like Samuel and many others in Jerusalem, Eli had also never taken much notice of Jesus. However, he knew that there were plenty of people who would notice the story now; and the expressions on their faces would also change when they glance at the headline with their morning coffee in hand. That was what mattered to him. 'Did you ask for an interview with the soldiers or the centurion who was in-charge?' Eli was always aware of the level of credibility and integrity he had to maintain in the news reports he authorised. People, who did not trust a single word that came out of a politician, trusted the same words when they were quoted in his newspaper. A reporters job however is to find out all the facts and write up the story with enough objectivity to make it seem credible, but at the same time stretch the facts to the borders of fiction - without actually crossing over - to make a full story out of it. Coupled with a sensational headline, a good story was a gold mine.

Samuel was aware of the fraction of veracity that he was expected to sacrifice when he wrote for a living, but he was convinced that he was fairly compensated for it. He never did anything against his conscience, but knew that he had to recast the truth into the shapes, sizes and colours that his audience preferred. 'The soldiers have already been remanded as requested by the high-priest's council and nobody is allowed to speak to them' Samuel blamed himself for not getting to the soldiers before they were taken away and missing the opportunity to find out what really happened. 'When I called the high priest's office they denied that they had made any such request and accused that security at the tomb was not tight enough. The Temple hasn't issued a public statement yet, but it's unlikely that they would accuse the Roman authorities publicly' he said without making any effort to hide his scepticism of the official explanation. 'The Governor's office on the other hand said that security was tight enough. They say that they had expected people loyal to the Nazarene to cause further controversy and were well prepared for it. I have the Centurion on record saying that the soldiers had instructions to be alert to attempts aimed at causing damage to the tomb or pilfer the body. After all, everyone was aware of the extent of public support the man had'.

'But how can they say that security was tight enough when they've already admitted that the body had been stolen from the tomb?' Eli didn't try to hide his confusion. 'The statement says that the body is 'missing', so technically, nobody's saying that it's been stolen' Samuel pointed out hesitantly. He always choose his own words carefully and knew how to pick up the hazy underlying semantics of a sentence even when the idea it conveyed seemed straightforward and clear. 'Actually I thought it was the end of this story when they crucified the man' said Eli, sounding genuinely intrigued for the first time during the conversation, 'but seems like somebody opened up a whole new can or worms'.

Samuel agreed. He had thought this was an open and shut case of an execution of a political prisoner. The man was surely insulting God by leading people to believe he was the 'messiah'; not that he cared much personally. He had no doubt that it must have been this heresy and blasphemy which ultimately convinced the people that Jesus deserved death on a cross. But he knew nothing that could explain why anyone would now risk their lives to steal his corpse. The facts he already had in his head led him to dead ends. He thought about who would rob the dead man's body and about a possible motive. The robbers weren't after any gold or silver because there was none in the tomb, and they had to be motivated by a reason so powerful as to make them want to risk attacking a troop of armed soldiers. What could they possibly do with the body anyway? The robbers had to be armed and in sufficient numbers.

These thoughts bounced off the edges of his mind in all directions as he walked along the straight line of bare grass that he had made over time, as he walked across the lawn everyday to avoid the longer route over the paved path form the car park to his office. He considered the bigger picture. Politicians always had facts to hide from the public eye. That's how things worked in Jerusalem. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the crucifixion of someone who dared to challenge the establishment. Samuel had no quarrels about the fact that such dissidents were a social burden and should be eliminated for the greater good. The history and social science he learnt in school had created no room in his mind for any doubt that the preservation of order and discipline in the country needed such measures.

Could the authorities have staged the robbery? However, he didn't understand what it was about this dead man that worried the temple so much as to stage a robbery of his tomb three days after his death. 'Is it possible that the high priests wanted to accuse the men who were faithful to Jesus of attacking the soldiers at the tomb and then prosecute them in the same fashion?' he asked himself. That would prevent any resurgence of the ideology that Jesus preached and reduce it to an unspoken memory that would die away with those who dared to stand by it. Samuel congratulated himself for making one possible connection. But on the other hand, it didn't make much sense because if that was the case, they would have already arrested some of his followers. Besides, it would embarrass the roman army if someone suggested that less than a dozen men could attack an armed Roman troop and run away with a corpse. As unlikely as his theories were, he didn't rule out any of them. He knew what he had to do now. He wanted to find out whether the men who came with Jesus had any motive to pilfer the body and whether they had enough men and weapons to challenge the armed soldiers. For that, he first had to find out where they were.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nature's 'tools'

Dream-fire, originally uploaded by halwis.

Living in a liberal democracy as free thinking individuals, getting by in cities surrounded by hoards of other people and being connected to a world where most of our daily chores are ‘enabled’ or ‘powered’ by reasonably sophisticated technology, where I sit at a desk and carry out intellectually challenging tasks to make a living and buy practically all my needs at a supermarket or department store… really sucks.
It sucks because I am not made to live this way. Millions of years of evolution did not design me to live life this way. This lifestyle has been engineered in a matter of a couple of centuries at most, while our bodies and most of the uncontrollable parts of our minds are literally still trapped in the stone age.
I am actually made – I’ll say optimised - to live in a small clan, to hunt for food, be obedient and subservient to the leader of my clan. Natural selection was kind to those who followed such simple rules and so that way of life is etched into our genetic memory. Now that I am at the prime of my youth, biology and hormones in particular conspire to make me feel horny and ever eager to do horny things with equally horny lasses from neighbouring clans. Then civilization comes along to muck it all up and poetic notions about love and morality have made me a social outcast by working against my hormones to keep me celibate.
Multitudes cramped up into cities meant we had to draw up elaborate social conventions and stricter codes of behaviour to maintain order and peace. But the real destroyer was philosophy, science and their offshoot - technology. Medicine gave every nincompoop an almost equal chance of survival. That is not how nature worked. Even though evolution by mutation continued to create more diversity, natural selection had no say in who survived and who didn’t. You didn't have to adapt to your environment to survive. Well, on the other hand natural selection would have purged Dr. Stephen Hawking’s genes out of humanity and propagated those of say... any powerful, not necessarily intelligent but dominating men like Dr. Silva for example (if only to illustrate the point). But is humanity better off for having someone who claims to know a lot about Blackholes? Maybe, but it’s sort of like giving a five-star safety rating to a car because it’s got leather seats and climate control, while knowing that its brakes are faulty.
In a just, egalitarian, democratic, world; brawn would matter less. In free flowing lanes, a car without brakes would not be at a disadvantage. But it seems our biology is not yet sophisticated enough to enable us to blend seamlessly into an egalitarian, democratic, peaceful world let alone being equipped to create one. Even though the learnable, programmable parts of our minds creates a fleeting glimmer of hope for such a world, the hard-wired vestiges of a long and brutal route through evolution has preserved in us a genetic memory of tribalism, violence and selfishness. We are poorly equipped to be in a fostering and peaceful coexistence with each other - let alone share a wonderful planet with an incomprehensibly rich diversity of other species.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Situation Report

Image reproduced from: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

Valiant troops of 1st Dutugamunu regiment led by Maj. Silva and 4th Chinthana regiment commanded by Lt. Col. Goatspirit together with close air support provided by the Impotent Elephant Force have captured the strategically important Law and Order area in Sri Lanka. They were ably assisted by 30 years of crimes and oppression conducted by the Pussycat regiment troops led by self styled Col. Velupulli who covered the flanks of the government's offensive by veiling their actions in a perception of legitimacy.
This decisive victory for the government comes after decades of abuse and covert manipulation of the once sovereign citizenry who have been waging a protracted submission to despotic rule and a half-arsed digestion of Minotaur Dung that they have been made to swallow through government media. Deep penetration units of a hitherto secret battle formation carried out successful attacks at identified targets in the deep battle space last month, including a radio and TV station in the outskirts of Colombo and a newspaper editor who was fatally shot on his way to work. Thugs who conducted these operations have confirmed that the targets were successfully engaged. Exact damages to the civil liberties and freedoms of citizens are yet to be confirmed.
Meanwhile defence analysts warned that liberal thinkers and prominent voices of non-violent dissent in the south of the country will continue to be targeted in the ongoing inhumanitarian operation of the government as in the North for many decades. Other hysterical elements fear the possibility that the next generation of forces similar to the 2nd Silva regiment and the disbanded Seenibola regiment – famous for their low IQ and night-club brawls - could be waiting in the wings to stage an attack to dismantle any remaining resistance by a surprise rear shafting manoeuvre behind people's defence lines.
Historians point out that the people of Sri Lanka have shown resilience during the past century by resisting and withstanding more systematic assaults by colonial forces and staging strong fight-backs to regain lost independence and freedom. Such acts of resistance was enabled by their ability in the past to unite across lines of race and creed to form a common front in the face of tyranny and injustice. This however seems an unlikely possibility in the current theater of battle, given the fact that a significant majority of the masses have been incapacitated by a dysfunctional education system, manipulated media and violence perpetrated on them by elements ranging from 'obese, psychopathic, wannabe terrorist, feline flatulence globules to the very trustees of their unalienable sovereignty.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Who we are and what we do

Glass and Stone, originally uploaded by halwis.

There is nothing noticeably different between two red blood cells of two individuals. Yet, each cell inherits the unique (though somewhat similar) genetic code of each donor – out of which an identical copy of the donor could be cloned. The character of every living thing and even inanimate object is partly defined and partly influenced by the duality of inheritance and conditioning. A rock may inherit the basis for its rigidity and colour from a unique mineral composition, but its strength, shape and size may have been conditioned by geological forces and erosion or even manual forces such as the stokes of a stone mason's chisel. Similarly, living things inherit form and function from their ancestors while their knowledge and traditions are conditioned by their experience of the environment and by society.
The influence of inheritance and conditioning can reasonably explain how things are. However, they do not offer useful explanations about why we do some of the things we do. Perhaps this is because imagination, ambition, desire... are not inherited nor can they be easily conditioned into or out of us. These are our creations. Our actions and what we do are also in their final sense – creations. But are we what we do?
I’ve always wondered about the link between who we are and what we do. Even a mildly introspective person would take little time to realise that there are contradictions between the way we think of our selves and the way we act. If our actions are separated from their underlying motives, it becomes increasingly difficult to classify them narrowly as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
It seems obviously too simplistic to see individuals being classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘peacenik’ or even ‘sane’ or ‘insane’. Classification and generalisation can be useful tools to define and understand broad principles but such principals do not constitute any real or useful knowledge. Arguably, the constituent raw elements of our personalities such as our thoughts, words and actions have no distinguishable form or shape or colour of their own. They combine to create the perception of ‘who we are’ but it is not always clear whether our thoughts are directly linked to our words or inturn to our actions.
The visible boundaries of our self-knowledge such as the extent to which our personalities and actions are inherited or can be conditioned remain yet unexplored. I am not in the mood to explore them either, because I have a couple of hefty bills to pay today, much to learn about ASP.NET and a never ending list of applications to audit (and document) at work and dreading the fact that I have groceries to shop for and half a bag of potatoes to boil and peal before dinner.