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.