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.

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