Remembering Sri Lanka, INDRAN AMIRTHANAYAGAM tries to find an answer to the riddle of conflict.
Jaffna ... all has changed.
THE masked faces of the Black Tigers, disciplined, assembled for the world's television cameras in December 2002 on the Jaffna Peninsula, impel these reflections on Sri Lanka and war and my own journey to America. I write across two oceans, Indian and Atlantic, yet from the distance of a keyboard, through the internet, only inches away from these sombre and ghoulish reminders of the past 20 years in which Sri Lanka has been at war with itself, internecine, between the covers, in the family.
Sri Lanka has suffered many young men and women, boys and girls, take leave of parents, beds and schools to put on masks and wreak vengeance on fellow residents in the island. Although I do not accept vengeance as proper human(e) conduct, I often repeat stories of elephants, mistreated as calves, who reach their majority and cannot fit into the herd, and become rogues, and seek out their hapless torturers. Perhaps the torturers will have guns and protect themselves in what they deem a Manichean fight between right and wrong. Yet, we must not reduce our complaints to grenades and machine guns, blood-curdling orgies, the apocalyptic beauty of helicopter gunships in formation about to strafe a town.
Yeats observed aptly in describing the Republican losses in "Easter, 1916": "All's changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born." Yet, why should gunships in formation, black masked gunslingers necked with cyanide capsules, the doomed Connolly and Pearse, become part of youthful folly, the dreams of madmen, and the stuff of terrible beauty? I wonder if one can answer the above only in the field of aesthetics. Cause or reason do not matter, the rhyme, my friends, determines the sense. Let's go to war and make it a symphony. Let's put on a smart black uniform and black hood and march on the parade ground. Let's snuggle our way into the target's house as a servant boy, a member of the staff, better to learn the ways of the master before murdering him. Let us be Trotsky's assassin in Mexico City, or the Sri Lankan President Premadasa's in Colombo.
Yet, why kill our fellow residents on earth? Why curse ourselves by spilling blood that cannot be washed away? Yet memory lasts a generation or two. Who walks the fields of Waterloo and conjures up the War of 1815 and the thousands slain? Human flesh appears cheap; expires through decay or a bullet; why bother ourselves about growing up in the shadows of war and exile? Why contribute to collections of essays that try to explain the inexplicable? Surely, the quest for money, control over land, kidnapping of the first daughter are only partial and unsatisfactory first steps towards an answer about the riddle of war. Surely, words hammered out in a line, "pull down thy vanity, I say pull down ." to cite ones written by a beaten old man jailed in Italy at the end of World War II put the response on an ethical plane. "Never never never never never" howled King Lear as he realised his folly. Get out spot, I cry, as I invoke the gods' help in cleaning my blotter. And who would use a blotter these days, and ink, and nibs, and shout and swear, flap about, and declare the house is cursed, the oracle walks now in daylight, black bees have sprouted metallic wings and buzz about our Jaffna hamlet heaving bombs? Poets and madmen speak in metaphors. Painters use palettes to embody their metaphors on canvas. Guernica is etched in my consciousness as the image of defencelessness, trampled innocence, Franco's savagery. I resuscitate the scene when I try to imagine the bombing of Jaffna. I have heard from recent visitors of the devastation, razing of so many Dutch-inspired courtyards, verandahs, sloping tiles and shade trees. Few buildings of earlier epochs remain. What's left are concrete, and building plans for less genteel and cultivated visions, the efficiency of stacked boxes blotting out the memory still remaining after the bombs.
What peace after the bomb? forgetfulness, making of amends, fence-building, the conscious lifting up of spirit, out of sorrow in the morning sun. In the obituary columns of Sri Lanka's Daily News, Jayarajah, Candappa, Amirthalingam, Ponnambalam, Ratnanather, names from my family, from the larger community, the polis, politics, victims of heart attacks, strokes, bullets the most recent dead leave their beloveds in Canada (Indrajit), Australia (Rohini), the United Kingdom (Basil). Sri Lankans have stowed away on hundreds of boats in far-away seas over the past 20 years. The sirens have now been silenced, the choppy seas turned into breakwater and harbour. Let us go ashore. Let us walk down the pier with our landing gear well-strapped to our shoulders.
So, what shall we pull first from the suitcases? Tamil grammars? Pappa's hunting knife? A well-turned and yellowed mystery by Enid Blyton? How about a cassette of film songs, or seeds that will flower one day in a windowsill, bringing curry leaves and coriander to the American kitchen? Let us spend many hours getting to know the kitchen from dishwasher to ice box to garbage disposal. Let us break bread, cook these are sustainable activities, they feed the body, calm the mind. Nightmares of assembling camps, scampering away from sniper fire while pedalling a bicycle, such darknesses of dark lands let's extinguish them in a stew a many-hued, sweet and spicy casserole.
Yet, we feel compelled to contribute to the American democracy. We feel relief and a tremendous sense of debt to the colossal inn, the great American shelter. But we do not understand the idea of the promised land.
Why does Cain kill Abel in the promised land? Why do millions of registered and unregistered firearms occupy chests of drawers, gun cases, glove compartments and holsters in the promised land? Why cannot America eliminate the scourges of narcotics and prejudice and road rage? Do I presume too much? May I return in a time capsule to the Berkeley Public Library in 1956 to see Allen Ginsberg rail against America and put his queer shoulder to the wheel while smiling as broadly as the Cheshire Cat? Let me fold myself into Walt Whitman's long continental beard and read his progeny, Ginsberg, Neruda, Williams, dig into the epic American poem, muck about with the latest Doonesbury. America is vast, contradictory, delicious and a great tonic for the Sri Lankan seeking a new name. Henceforth, I shall wander about the supermarket. From here to eternity I will burn cow dung, smoke bidis, wrap my walls in batiks and play the cowherd's flute on my compact disk player. But the supermarket will never sell dung; and I will have to visit specialty shops for the bidis: and the cowherd flute on a CD strikes me as out of place and time.
I will adjust I say to the mirror every morning, and to my family every night always the same words, the same tune, broken, bruised. But surely, there are answers that are not merely aesthetic. I have always loved Cavafy 's "Ithaca " how, in the poem, the traveller comes to understand that he will never reach Ithaca and this does not matter. The journey is all. The horror is all. Getting off the boat or plane and saying here are my belongings and thank you for taking me in, this is almost all. Then, after a few months, or years, at some point I hope in every immigrant's case, let the man or woman say to all Americans: listen to me now, let me help in building our house, schools, courts, philosophies.
I have been at war. I am here now, alive still, ready to share my counsel, to help stop Cain in his eternal and murderous voyage through human populations.
Indran Amirthanayagam's book include The Elephants of Reckoning, Ceylon R.I.P. and El Infierno de los Pajaros. E-mail him at email@example.com
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