The rights of movie-goers

BIRD OF PASSAGE

Of the staggering protests, fasts, self-immolations, assaults, arrests, claims, counter-claims, travel claims, per diem claims, grandstanding, dillydallying, diplomatic duplicity, horse trading and other activities that accompanied the watered-down US resolution on/against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC in distant Geneva, the event that disturbed me most was this one.  DNA India of 20th March 2013 reported under the headline “Tamil film industry fumes against Sri Lanka”, the following:

“The Indian Tamil film industry will put a stop to exports of Tamil movies to Sri Lanka if the UN doesn’t charge Colombo with “genocide” of Tamils,” a known filmmaker said on Wednesday.

“If the union government does not take a favourable decision on this issue, then we don’t mind breaking all ties with Sri Lanka,” the president of the Film Employees Federation of South India said. “We will ensure no Tamil films are screened there,” he added.

This was followed by a report on Zee News on 2nd April 2013 that the Tamil film industry in Chennai participated in a day-long fast to demand rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils and an international probe on war crimes. Not to be outdone, the secretary of the Sinhala Buddhist extremist organization Ravana Balaya, Iththepane Saddhatissa called for a ban on Indian Tamil movies in Sri Lanka on 8th April 2013. I was under the impression that Buddhist monks were not permitted to watch movies according to the Vinaya rules but perhaps that’s outdated.

At any rate, the two sub-continental neighbours are now poised for the War of the Movies, not to be confused with the War of the Roses that took place many centuries ago on another island far away.

The South Indian Tamil film industry seems to be well tuned to the immense losses that will be suffered by Sri Lankan audiences if they are deprived of watching brave lovers (Sundar and Sneha) fight against the machinations of the evil land and gold grabbing zameendar (Suman) in “Murattu kaalai” or of applauding the super hero (Aadhi) singlehandedly challenge hurdle after hurdle put in his path by the duplicitous politician (Suresh) to prevent him from marrying beautiful daughter (Poorna) in “Aadu puli”. It would indeed be a major disaster not to follow the progress of amnesiac hulk (Ganesh Venkatraman) through San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles trying to prove his love for the heroine (Shobana) while succumbing to the charms of an ABCD (Kalpana Pandit) in “Panithuli” or not to cling to the edge of the seat for the action packed thriller depicting fearless cop Prabhakaran (Vishal) disguising himself as a gym teacher to save estranged sister (Poonam Kaur) from revengeful gangster enemies, while winning the heart of his sister’s beautiful friend (Sameera Reddy) in “Vedi”.

The proposed embargo/ban will seriously affect Sri Lankan movie theatres, whose revenue has already gone down considerably with the advent of TV, pirate DVDs and streaming. This move in all likelihood would result in them going entirely out of business. The advertising revenue of several TV channels in Sri Lanka will also be substantially reduced, if Tamil movies were not to be screened.

To make the Tamil Nadu embargo more effective Bollywood and Hollywood might take a cue from Kollywood and stop exports of their movies to Sri Lanka as a retaliatory measure too. Imagine, a Sri Lankan audience not being able to watch secret agents (Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor) romp through half a dozen countries to save India from nuclear disaster in “Agent Vinod”, or be entranced by hero (Shahid Kapoor) falling in love three times over with heroine (Priyanka Chopra) in three different time periods in “Teri meri kahaani”, or root for suitors (Akshay Kumar and John Abrahams) competing for the post of richest son-in-law in the masala caper “Housefull 2”. Of course, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis making out in “Friends with benefits” or Cameron Diaz’ award winning performance as the amoral, gold-digging “Bad teacher”, are hardly of the same league, but will also be sorely missed.

For any good tit-for-tat to work, a retaliatory measure needs to be accompanied by another retaliatory measure. In this case, the Sri Lankan film federation would have no option but to deprive Indian film goers of enjoying Sinhala films by also instituting an export embargo. Unfortunately, the same strategy is unlikely to work for the US, since audiences there hardly know that a country called Sri Lanka exists, leave alone are familiar with its iconic film industry.

Kollywood, Bollywood and Hollywood need however to be aware that Sri Lanka is very protective towards its own blockbusters. Many local film producers will breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that there is no overseas competition that would threaten them from making more of their own. I have compiled a personal list of the decade’s top five Sinhala box office hits that Indian audiences will especially feel deprived of not seeing, if these mutual embargoes take effect:

Rae Daniyel Daval Migel 3

The sequel to two other movies of the same title, this is a story of a Jekyll-and-Hyde character who operates as a criminal by night and plays hero by day, thought by most critics to give near faithful portrayals of several uber powerful political figures in the current regime.

One Shot

A heroic “might makes right” Robin Hood who fights for the oppressed against unbeatable odds, winning the heart of a corrupt politician’s daughter after killing her evil father right before her eyes. According to a critic, “he saved the day by performing a stunt even Tarzan would be envious of”.

Anjalika

Rich England-returned boy falls in love with poor village girl, much to the despair of the rich father and rich childhood sweetheart. Poor village girl is kidnapped and presumed dead but comes back to life during the rich boy’s visit to Malaysia, where his father has managed to ferret her out of his way. Happy ending as the lovers unite but critics wonder which rich Sri Lankan father would spend money on an air ticket to Kuala Lumpur to get rid of an unsuitable daughter-in-law-to-be, rather than buying her out with a measly sum of money or hiring a contract killer.

Leader

An underworld bad guy kills a not-so-corrupt politician whose daughter is the only witness to the dastardly act. The macho bodyguard, Leader, hired to protect her turns out to be her muscleman fairy godfather and romantic interest rolled into one and, of course, saves her from the evil underworld killer. Critics consider this an intriguing example of the magical realist genre in the Sri Lankan context.

Aba

The story of an infant prince whose ten uncles want him dead because he’s prophesied to kill them all when he grows up. Therefore the queen, his mother, manages to smuggle him secretly away to be raised by rural foster parents, after faking his death. The uncles eventually discover the ruse, march into the idyllic village, which has sheltered the prince, and massacre every child in the village. However, the hero fortunately manages to find a safe hiding place and eventually becomes king of Lanka, after killing his uncles. A historical narrative of murder and treachery that should make a Buddhist society proud, this movie has been considered monumental, stirring the patriotic sentiments of powerful political figures.

As it becomes clear, it would be a great loss to Indian film goers to miss out on these much acclaimed Sinhala blockbusters, just as it would be for Sri Lankan film goers to be deprived of the aforementioned Kollywood, Bollywood and Hollywood masterpieces. Unless the Oriya or Bengali film industries are prepared to step in and fill the void by sending Oriya or Bengali movies to their Sinhalese brethren. The Tamil-speaking peoples of Sri Lanka are going to be badly affected either way.

The US should be forewarned to work on a Resolution urging, nay calling upon the Sri Lankan and Indian governments to conduct an independent and credible investigation on the violation of fundamental cultural rights of movie goers in these two UN member countries and to provide unfettered access to, nay encourage them to extend invitations to the UNESCO High Commissioner of Cultural Rights in Paris to support this process.

Why the BBS does not want us to eat halal meat

BIRD OF PASSAGE

I was pondering over Gaya’s piece on what one may write about if one were a Sri Lankan without being labeled racist, reductionist, fascist, sexist, speciesist, androgynous and so on, and thought, well, food is one topic, that should be unifying and uncontroversial. We are known the world over for our love of good Sri Lankan food. But then along came the anti-halal campaign of the Bodu Bala Sena.
[Read more…]

The Ides of March

BIRD OF PASSAGE

As March dawns again, conspiracies abound in the island where every prospect pleases but only man is… It appears that the circus is once again coming to Geneva town.

From the Sri Lankan government side there are the worthy diplomats who apparently are “in charge” this time to lie for their country, although an erstwhile Minister who was supposed to be kept away from Geneva has been given marching orders at the eleventh hour to turn up, despite messing up big time last year.

The neo-LTTE remnants have been busy loading the human rights cum media bandwagon with a spate of new stories of child murders and custodial rapes, just weeks before this year’s UNHRC session, as if nobody knew that these atrocities were taking place throughout the war. The opposition, busily engaging in a “non-violent guerilla operation” to lure people “with opposing views” to the UNP before the next election, has nothing much to offer in the way of Geneva, although the TNA has sent a delegation to put pressure on the government to deliver on its promises.

The US government is once again wagging fingers at Sri Lanka with a new “resolution” while its occupation forces continue their drone induced killing spree in Afghan villages and dismiss criminal charges against troops burning Korans. Indian media reports affirm that India will support the US resolution while the suave Janata leader (intriguingly enough of Tamil origin) assures the Sri Lanka government of a “positive outcome” in Geneva, despite the pressure exerted by extremist Tamil Nadu politicians. India’s unblemished human rights record apparently includes some 500 perpetrators of abuse and torture, ranging from soldiers to generals, who have been decorated and promoted for their appalling deeds in Kashmir.

In the absence of China, Russia and Cuba to rely on for their valuable votes in the UNHRC, the Sri Lankan government is making untiring efforts to buy the US and India away from the resolution – by scheduling the country’s biggest ever auction of oil and gas concessions just around the March meeting. Perhaps it is counting on Exxon or Reliance to influence foreign policy decisions in their respective countries, when all other attempts appear to have failed. The two Asian economic giants, China (no longer a voting member) and Japan, meanwhile have assured Sri Lanka of their support in Geneva, no doubt increasing exponentially their chances of winning the oil bids, while Korea (which is a voting member) recently democratically elected the daughter of their previous dictator as president, with a reputation for her tough stand on security and terrorism.

So is the stage set in Geneva once again for a ritual show of solidarity by Asian member states (sans India) plus the Brazil-Venezuela-Ecuador bloc, taking offense at the hypocritical rantings of US, Canada, the European states and their third world minions? What has Geneva ever accomplished in providing those human beings, who have been oppressed and dispossessed, lives of security, dignity and respect, not only in Sri Lanka but anywhere in the world? All it demands is yet another investigation and report to be written by UNHRC consultants, each of who earns in one day at least half of a house that can be built in the Northeast for one dispossessed family. That is if the regime allows the consultants to come in. And if they let them talk to people independently. And if the consultants are objective and hear all sides dispassionately. And if the report is not rejected by the regime, merely creating a media sensation for a few days, otherwise to be buried in the dustbins of history. Or accepted by the regime with promises of compliance and thrown anyway into the dustbins of history. Meanwhile, those who were violated, will continue to suffer.

Sri-Lanka-seen-from-space

Much has been said about building peace and reconciliation. In Sri Lanka, the regime, its supporters and opponents continue to be locked in the “us” and “them” syndrome. The conflict that resulted in ethnic fratricide in the island is between groups that have co-existed, whose histories and genealogies have been interlinked for centuries.

Is the Ides of March the right forum to bring about this peace and reconciliation or is it merely a confrontational space for one-upmanship? What is torn aside by fratricide needs to be healed by reconstructing brotherhood and sisterhood. Acknowledging, accounting and atoning for violence is an important step, as is the ability to live with different perceptions of what happened to individuals, communities and ethnic groups during 30 years of war. A UNHRC investigation and report will not establish the “truth” as some of its proponents hope and its opponents fear.

Perhaps it’s time to learn some ancient wisdom from the Japanese concept of takakuteki or multiplicity as an approach to conflict resolution – the need to engage multi-dimensionally or multilaterally, rather than as “us” vs. “them”. Cardinal principles are that there is no absolute need to be consistent across all contexts and there is no need to engage directly when this will only result in further conflict. The principle of multiplicity accepts that it is not possible every time to eliminate the contradictions in conflicting perceptions, values and principles. These differences can be allowed to exist in the same space, without harming one another, until such time that antagonism cools down and rapprochement is possible.

The raison d’être of the UNHRC is to be yet another playground of global geo-politics. The Ides of March and its logic is most likely to continue to hurtle Sri Lanka into its familiar galaxy of violence and destruction – as is the objective of some of its proponents. Trouble is good for local politicians to keep constituencies pacified and for global players to occupy banana republics. However, while the current Ides of March is a lot about posturing, what is uncertain is whether caesars still need beware, lest their last words be “Et tu, Brutus?”.

The spectre of ugliness: desecrating sacred spaces

 

BIRD OF PASSAGE

 

A few months ago, Sri Lanka witnessed on camera the incredulous sight of Buddhist monks in saffron robes running amok in a small, vulnerable, poor people’s mosque in Dambulla. The reason for the attack apparently was that the little mosque was taking up too much of the sacred space of the Dambulla Rangiri Buddhist temple, a feudal landlord owning thousands of acres. The monks in question did not pause to think that their action of unloving unkindness was a desecration of sacred space by any sacred book. In this case, the religion also happened to be Buddhism, based on the principles of non-violence, compassion and tolerance.

Now that some water has flown under the bridge since that incident – although a resolution remains unclear  – it is opportune to ponder on the meaning of sacred spaces to all of us.  I had not been to the Dambulla cave temple since I was a teenager. The last I remember of it is a rather simple whitewashed entrance that led to several caves with impressive statues of a myriad Buddhas, but also of Vishnu and Saman, and magnificent frescoes on the cave walls depicting the life of the Buddha, his past lives, as well as the myths and legends of the island. These images of the Buddha and his life are, of course, sacred art and objects of veneration to the faithful who came from all corners of Sri Lanka.

 

Buddha in the marketplace

 

What took me by surprise in the aftermath of the act of violence in Dambulla was a photo of the hideous new façade of the Rangiri Golden Temple, which by itself should constitute a desecration of a sacred space – an insult to the master sculptors and painters of the Kandy period, creators of the art inside the Dambulla caves. Small wonder then that people surrounding themselves with such ugliness would not go around desecrating a humble sacred space of fellow citizens practising another religion. No, I am not being facetious here.

It was in the early 1970s that one of Sri Lanka’s foremost anthropologists, referred to a trend, which he termed “Buddha in the market place”. Newly moneyed people who had one foot in the country and the other in town, (there were barely any cities then) went around with collection sheets and/or persuaded local political leaders to construct garish Buddha statues in many prominent locations, not only confined to the “market place”.  He pointed out that Buddha statues used to be in Buddhist temples, tucked away in little villages or neigbourhoods. This enterprise of bringing Buddhas into public spaces has expanded exponentially during recent times. Is there is any street corner left untouched by one of these mass produced, crude plaster mould statues, adorned with christmas lights blinking furiously into the night? The meteoric rise of street corner Buddhism seems to have some correlation with the rising power of the JHU and their increased political legitimacy in Parliament.

The problem is not only that these people cannot see an empty street corner without wanting to install a Buddha statue there. As of late when they see an empty hill-top, they want to place a statue there too. Sri Lanka’s countryside is studded with beautiful hills, covered in verdant forests or gardens, occasionally dotted by a small white stupa or some other inconspicuous shrine. Lest we forget, the tops of these hills were once sacred spaces to our Veddah ancestors. Climb one of them and even if you are a non-religious person, a feeling of spirituality encompasses you – standing underneath the wisps of clouds floating in a blue sky, with the wind blowing in your hair and the marvellous patchwork of lemon green paddy fields, emerald gardens, specks of houses and shimmering tanks spread below your eyes. But take a glance at a hilltop now and you immediately want to blindfold your eyes. These once sacred hill-tops of the Veddahs are increasingly being desecrated by gigantic, monstrous Buddha statues, with non-compassionate eyes glaring at you.

Screen shot 2013-01-16 at 9.48.32 AM

Shared spaces of more than one religion

 

Compare these statues with the work of our master sculptors in stone, such as the Samadhi Buddha in Anuradhapura or the reclining Buddha in Polonnaruwa. We can start weeping for the sadness of it all. Do we, the descendants of a civilization that produced such beauty, have to accept these new monstrosities thrust upon us? What does that say of us? Our renowned anthropologist has warned us that the aesthetic ugliness of these new statues amounts to the “uglification” of the Buddha’s spiritual message and the “inner uglification” of the Buddhist conscience. The once noble Buddhist message and conscience were tenets of our society and culture, regardless of which ethnic group to which we belong or which religion we practice or not.

One reason for this common ground was that many of our holiest of spaces are shared sacred spaces of more than one religion. For centuries, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian shrines have existed side by side. Kataragama and Adam’s Peak are examples that come immediately to mind but think also of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Dambulla, Madhu and so on.  Anuradhapura, apparently in its heyday, even hosted Greek and Jewish temples. Visited by thousands of devotees, these spaces have been declared as “Sacred Areas” by the government, which invests in their maintenance and in providing facilities for the use of pilgrims. This by itself is not a bad thing. However, the process of being transformed into official “Sacred Areas” has resulted in a space belonging to small people being taken away by an insidious, dominant form of Buddhism, aligned with state power, creeping into the fabric of these sacred spaces, an agenda relentlessly pursued by fundamentalist Buddhists with political support.

This contrasts with the practice of Buddhist kings in the past who considered Buddhism as a shade giving tree of sufficient largess to nurture and protect all other religions practised by the diverse groups of Sri Lanka.  A sacred space was sacred precisely because it was sacred to all. It was this important principle that was violated by the Buddhist monks in Dambulla and their political supporters. Did anybody in authority take it upon themselves to admonish or punish these monks? Not Malwatte, not Asgiriya, not the government. Apparently the monks conveniently have their own order, which is not under the disciplinary jurisdiction of either Asgiriya or Malwatte.

 

Taking over shared spaces

 

Unfortunately these Buddhist fundamentalist attempts are not limited to major “Sacred Areas” or occasionally violent events reported by the media. Smaller, local Hindu and Muslim sacred spaces in the North and East are regularly being eclipsed or taken over for Buddhist temples or hideous statues. This process is even taking place in the deity shrines (devales) of the South. These devales, hosting a series of major and minor deities, are small sacred spaces, local “power spots”, associated with but not controlled by Buddhism.  They have been cornerstones of rural farming communities and their harvest rituals, officiated by part-time priests, the kapuralas. The devales, just as Hindu kovils, are the places where Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims worship side by side, recognizing one another’s gods and goddesses and sharing one another’s bhakthi.

In my wanderings across the country, time and again I have marvelled at how these sacred spaces with their expansive rituals, inclusive of all local deities and their worshippers, nurtured and preserved ethnic co-existence during the worst excesses of the conflict. What were once small tile roofed buildings besides a ficus or mango tree, aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity, are now more often than not hidden by two storey kade facades, occupied and controlled by politically powerful, wheeler-dealer monks, concealed behind saffron robes.

A spectre is haunting our land – the spectre of ugliness. Perhaps it is time to make a stand and put a stop to the desecration of sacred spaces by those with little taste, little bhakthi, little compassion and little tolerance?

Origins or the deep insecurities of our murky past

BIRD OF PASSAGE

Some Sri Lankans think our forefathers/mothers dropped out of the sky straight into this tear-drop island, or at least landed here on a magic silk carpet, 1001 Arabian Nights style. Others find it reasonable enough to assume that our ancestors found their way by canoe, raft or boat from the closest landmass, which is India. Yet others believe that we evolved from the Veddahs, an aboriginal people related to those in Andaman Islands or even Australia. Perhaps that is why some of us are so determined these days to get to Aussieland by air or by sea.

Alike or different?

The problem is, of course, that at the end of the day, we all look pretty similar. [Read more…]

Divi Neguma: Don’t you want to uplift your life?

BIRD OF PASSAGE

 

We all want to uplift our lives – that’s obvious, right?  I mean, who would launch a programme called Divi Vetuma or Divi Nesuma?  Nobody wants to fall into the abyss of poverty or into the claws of death.  So the present government has this bill called Divi Neguma – uplifting lives. They are intent on getting it passed – through hook or by crook. They seem to have a little bit of trouble convincing some people that their lives need uplifting. Now who would object to uplifting their lives?

Just like this year’s release from Hollywood, there are Three Stooges leading Sri Lanka’s government, bumbling around on wide screen – messing with things like human rights, the 13th amendment and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. These Three Stooges have a grand scheme for uplifting lives. Already around 40% plus of the country’s budget is in their control – that’s called uplifting lives through microfinance. And then of course, there are all those orchards they have invested in California – that’s uplifting lives through agricultural development. They have first hand experience and expertise in all the different avenues of uplifting lives.

Divi Neguma, as you might have heard, is a novel programme to uplift lives. First they are going to set up community–based Uplifting Lives societies in the villages. Except already there are an infinite number of community-based societies in villages. There are Samurdhi societies, farmer societies, funeral assistant societies, Cooperative Rural Bank societies, SANASA societies, Sarvodaya societies and so on. Ever wondered what they are all doing?

Then they are going to organize these societies into regional, district and provincial Uplifting Lives federations. There are, of course, institutions called Divisional Secretariats and District Secretariats, with government officers already being paid to work on uplifting lives. And there are Pradeshiya Sabhas and Provincial Councils with budget allocations to uplift lives. Ever wondered what they have been doing all these years?

 Of course, to uplift lives one needs cash. The Three Stooges are planning to get their hands on lots of it – 80 billion rupees to be exact going into an Uplifting Lives Development Fund and an Uplifting Lives Revolving Fund. The Uplifting Lives Revolving Fund will go into Uplifting Lives community-based banking societies and Uplifting Lives community-based banks. God only knows where and when this fund will revolve into some black hole in the universe. Or perhaps into more orchards in California. We are talking a lot of money here just to win friends and influence people. Already, the villages in our country have plenty of community-based banking societies and banks – for example, Samurdhi, Cooperative Rural Banks, SANASA, and Sarvodya. In fact, 80% of Grama Niladhari divisions in the country have access to at least three of these institutions, according to a study done by the government’s leading policy institute. So how will the Uplifting Lives banks and banking societies add value? By uplifting the lives of the Three Stooges a little bit more?

 What’s more, this new Uplifting Lives Department comes with a top secrecy clause on information – gee, it’s almost like the CID, I mean, uplifting people’s lives in villages might actually threaten national security, right? We don’t want to take any chances. In this cloak and dagger world, one of the Three Stooges, known by the alias of Liza had a conversation with one of his advisors, known by the alias of Peter. According to the grapevine, this is how the conversation went.

Fetch me some water, dear Peter, dear Peter, fetch me the bucket of uplifting lives. There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, uplifting lives is the mandate of the Provincial Councils, dear Liza. Well fix it with straw, dear Peter, dear Peter, get their approval, dear Peter. But there’s no Northern Provincial Council to approve it, dear Liza, dear Liza. Then ask the Northern Province Governor to approve it, dear Peter, dear Peter. The Governor is not elected, dear Liza, dear Liza, it has to be approved by an elected Northern Provincial Council, dear Liza. Well get rid of the Provincial Councils, dear Peter, dear Peter. There’s the 13th amendment, dear Liza, dear Liza, we can’t get rid of Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment, dear Liza.  Then get rid of the 13th Amendment, dear Peter, dear Peter. There’s the Supreme Court ruling, dear Liza, dear Liza, that upholds the 13th Amendment, dear Liza.  Then get rid of the Chief Justice, dear Peter, dear Peter. The Judiciary needs to be independent and impartial, dear Liza, dear Liza, the UN Human Rights Council might black list us, dear Liza. Tell them how we are going to uplift lives, dear Peter, dear Peter. The Supreme Court has ruled that uplifting lives need to be approved by a 2/3rd majority in parliament, dear Liza, dear Liza, and a popular referendum, dear Liza.  Well, amend the unconstitutional clauses of the bill, dear Peter, dear Peter, and start uplifting lives, for god’s sake, dear Peter.

As you can see, uplifting lives is an exhausting business. There might be more holes in the bucket for all you know. Apparently the Three Stooges are bumbling around hither and thither to the shrines of Lord Ganesh, asking the Lord to remove the pernicious obstacles in their path, in the island where every prospect pleases but only man is vile.

Bird of Passage corresponds every other week exclusively with iSrilankans.

FUTA: How I stopped worrying and learned to love conspiracy theories

No, it’s not the acronym for the football association of Sri Lanka, in case you are wondering. It’s the federation of university teachers’ associations that we are talking about. Why did they suddenly come into the limelight? Because they led one of the longest trade union strikes in recent Sri Lankan history, and have gathered support from more quarters than anticipated. [Read more…]

An iSrilankan Exclusive: Bird of Passage on the quirks of being Srilankan


 

Diaspora and the perks of marginal identities

 

All beginnings are not easy and it took some time for me to succumb to the persistent charms (and nudging) of Gaya and get down to writing. I live in an Asian metropolis for a good part of the year, am Ceylonese by birth and Sri Lankan by citizenship – at least according to my passport. I am not one of those lucky sods who have two or more passports and can navigate international borders with ease – it is not as if the opportunity were not there but for a myriad reasons I let it pass by.

 

I spent a near idyllic childhood in pre-war Sri Lanka, shattered to some extent by the JVP in 1971. This brought some excitement to our humdrum existence from the perspective of a child, but since I remain a firm advocate of non-violence, I am not particularly grateful that the JVP brought an end to an era of relative peace that seems so distant and elusive now.
 

Pseudonym

 
I am choosing to write this column using a pseudonym – first, because I wish to be unencumbered of some baggage I carry with me. This is the baggage we call gender, race, ethnicity, religion, kinship and so on. The moment I write down my name, the Sinhalese will say oh, but that’s a Tamil and the Tamils oh, but that’s a Sinhalese, and the Muslims oh, but that’s a Burgher and the Burgher’s oh, but that’s a Muslim. And the men will say oh, but that’s a woman, and the women, oh, but that’s a man. You get the picture.

Then there are also those people whose preoccupation in life is researching family genealogies. They will say I know her/his great grandfather was a scoundrel and his/her great grandmother was a slut. Sri Lanka is such a small place and people always seem to care more about whom you are related to, rather than whether you might have anything worthwhile to say. Second, there might be occasions where I express things that might potentially land me inside a white van and I don’t want to unwittingly deprive my offspring of a loving parent. Finally, it’s liberating to have an alter-ego – yet another marginal identity.
 

Sinhalese? Tamil? Muslim ? Burgher ???!!

 
To elaborate on the issue of identity, I went back to Colombo after college in North America many moons ago and was looking for an annex to rent when I started my second real job. One sunny weekend armed with the classifieds section of the Sunday Observer, I checked out almost every single available annex. The prospective landlord or landlady looked me over from head to foot, and I was bemused to discover that the Sinhalese thought that I was Tamil, Tamils that I was Muslim, Muslims that I was Sinhalese and Burghers, bless them, “mistook” me for one of themselves.

The Burghers, of course, got it right because everyone in Sri Lanka is essentially a Burgher (which after all means “citizen” in Dutch) – or better a delightful achcharu (a word we share with Malayalee speakers and a root achar we share with Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Assamese speakers). If any Sri Lankan traces his/her ancestry far enough he or she will find out that s/he is a wonderful mix of North and South Indian, Arab (via South India), Malay (via Indonesia), aboriginal Veddah and European descent (a smattering of Portuguese, Dutch or British for good measure). I am delighted by this achcharu of my heritage. It is too bad that many Sri Lankans are not and insist on fiercely guarding their permeable ethnic turfs. Good fences make good neighbours?

Suffice to say that I have lived and continue to spend a good part of my life in Sri Lanka and I love the land “where every prospect pleases and only man is vile”. Reverend Heber seems to have exempted the women of Sri Lanka from his observation, so let’s assume that there is some hope for the human beings that inhabit the little island, which some of us consider the centre of the universe. I accepted Gaya’s invitation to write this column on the musings of a Sri Lankan with one foot on the island and the other in the diaspora, in my capacity as an “independent thinker”. So it matters not, who I am. What I have to say hopefully matters more.
 

Nothing is simple

 
I share with you the thoughts of a bird of passage – in my view, a rather privileged vantage point. Birds as you know move easily across land, water, forests, farms, gardens, villages, cities, countries, continents. Of course, they do get disoriented, cold, hot, hurt, shot, killed, lose their habitats. All of this is the universe of my ponderings.

If you are like me, we can leave our Sinhaleseness, Tamilness, Muslimness and so on behind but it’s difficult to leave the Sri Lankaness (or the Ceyloneseness) even when things get pretty bad. Those few diasporans (is that a word?) who have responded to the call of returning to and rebuilding the motherland have often found, much to their chagrin, that people with knowledge and exposure to other (and sometimes better) ways of doing things, frogs who have made it out of the proverbial well, are not necessarily welcome back. The frogs deeply entrenched in the mire of the well are deeply threatened and jump around discomfiting and/or chasing away these hapless returnees. And never mind the returnees. In Sri Lanka even the competent frogs, who have never left the well, barely have a croak of a chance.
 

Things that will add up

 
So is the situation hopeless? I tend to see glasses as half full. Two recent events both posted on this site offer a glimmer of light leading out of the darkness. The first is the conference of youth leaders held recently in Jaffna by Sri Lanka Unites. To get 500 young people, representing all of the districts, as well as parts of the diaspora, to sit down and discuss their common life experiences (some of which have been very painful) and their aspirations and visions for a different future is no mean feat. They lead by example where a myopic adult leadership has consistently failed. The personal journey made by Tanya Ekanayake to Jaffna to engage in understanding and healing through music is a similarly worthy and inspiring endeavour.

So I am convinced that there are things that we can all do or support. Little things, perhaps, in the larger scheme of things. In the long run that is what will add up. Not what politicians will do or not do for us.

Bird of Passage corresponds every other week exclusively with iSrilankans.