Frances Harrison in her Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War (2012, 2013) observes that Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities of are sealed off from each other. In other words, they are trapped within their own experience and resulting perspective. There is little, if any, of inter-ethnic comprehension. Each group speaks of itself and to its own. If the other group is spoken to, usually it’s only to reproach and blame; accuse and abuse. Palmyra Grove is an attempt to build a bridge (or should I write “a modest plank”?) of communication and understanding. It consists of some of the writings of the Rev. Terence Fernando, a Sinhalese Jesuit priest, written during and immediately after the war. The book is in the Sinhala language, meant for Sinhalese readers, and that fact makes me feel like one who stands outside a room, unable to enter because he doesn’t have the key: sensing that the beautiful Ceylon (“beautiful” in more important terms than landscape and scenery) I had known was undergoing a violent metamorphosis, I left in 1963 and can’t read Sinhala. The sign on the door (the book’s title), was kindly translated for me by Rev. Fernando in a message dated 26 May with the comment that the palmyra palm being associated with Tamils, the title could be read as The Heartbeat of the Tamil People. I suppose, an alternate title could be Tamil Experiences. However, about one-sixth of the book is in English; I peep through that opening, and what I see tells me the room contains matters of human and national importance. The book also has a few photographs, notably by one Lal Laxman. I attempted to contact him but failed: pictures can be very eloquent.
The background to anti-Tamil violence is the (Sinhalese) JVP uprisings against the government, the second of which was put down (according to Ajit Hadley Perera in an introductory note) with the loss of about 60,000 lives (page 246). The medical student Thrimawithane “was brutally killed by nailing on the head and [being] dragged on the roads by a jeep” (Perera, page 245). The beauty queen Premawathie Manamperi was forced to walk the street naked, tortured, raped and buried while still alive. Tortured bodies on burning tyres, and bodies floating on the river were not rare sights. Ben Bavinck writes in his Of Tamils and Tigers (Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2011) that outside an army camp in Baddegama, “a corpse has been hung in a crucified position with a large nail in its head”. A number of youth were beheaded in Kandy and their heads displayed with a sign reading, “Coconuts for sale”: see, Sarvan, Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, pages 162 & 163. Reading Bavinck’s comment that children play the game of who has seen more dead bodies, reminds me of lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 1) which I paraphrase: Domestic fury and fierce civil strife; blood and destruction shall be common, and pity choked so that mothers will but smile when they see their children carrying weapons. Bavinck’s book was originally a diary, and he asks himself: What has gone wrong? How it is possible that these things happen in a country where Buddhism, a religion of peace and non-violence, is supposed to dominate life? (See, Sarvan, op.cit, page 163.)
Rev Fernando spoke out against abduction, torture and killings; he went in search of the missing young men and women, at great personal risk; helped to bury burnt bodies “killed by the army or para-military groups”. The same high ideals, courage and the readiness to pay the personal price will, I fear, now lead some to see him as deluded or, worse, a traitor: he observes that the soldiers who abducted, tortured and killed the sons and daughters of the people of the South are now hailed as heroes when they behave in the same way in the North and East (page 256). His comment that the JVP uprising was suppressed brutally, “without addressing the causes of the unrest” (page 265; italics not in the original) is relevant in another context. What’s more, some members of the JVP who “fought against discrimination seeking justice, today have become the partners of the oppressors and the oppressive system” (page 265). It was seen as brave, selfless and admirable of Rev. Fernando to fight against violence unleashed on Sinhalese during the JVP uprising, but for the same person to protest injustice and violence against Tamils is deemed traitorous. But here I am being unjust to Rev. Fernando because rare individuals like him neither see nor think on group-lines. For such, what matters is not being Sinhalese or Tamil; Buddhist, Christian or Hindu but belonging to our common humanity. They do not see themselves as trying to help Sinhalese or Tamils but only their fellow human beings. In the Christian tradition, man was made by God in His image. (Buddhism includes not only human beings but all living things in care and compassion. This accounts for vegetarianism, led by Buddhist monks, being widespread in Sri Lanka.)
Culture can mean the high Arts, including ancient architecture, or it can signify the way of life of a people. Writing during the JVP uprising, Rev. Fernando dares to say that Sri Lankan culture is marked by division, violence and hatred. (One may add corruption to this sorry list.) ‘The Blessed Isle’ has become “a tribal and racist society”, and its way of life marked by “racism and hegemony” (page 254). It is remarkable how we human beings learn to accept and live with the unacceptable, the abnormal – to use a phrase one hears often, “the new normal”. Let Us Commemorate Rev. Fr Paul Capsersz mentions the great sense of relief when Rev. Caspersz, who had been summoned by the police to present himself at the “4th floor”, emerges unharmed: “Hardly anyone called there for investigation, ever left the place alive”! (Satyodaya publication, Kandy, 2018, page 19). This specially equipped place of horror, the notorious “4th floor”, is accepted, even as one accepts the topical heat as something natural; as something about which nothing can be done. As Tisaranee Gunasekara writes (Colombo Telegraph, 15 July 2018), “Crimes today are more brutal, often sickeningly so”. Mostly, it’s Tamils who are at the receiving end of violence, and that might help to explain the indifference of politicians and people. A Tamil woman tells Rev. Fernando through her tears that if she is to be born again in this world, it shouldn’t be as a Tamil woman in Sri Lanka (page 257). I am reminded of what was said in South Africa during the apartheid years: It’s bad to be poor; worse to be poor and black, but worst of all is to be poor, black and female.
Organised religion, a branch of which Rev. Fernando represents, does not escape his frank scrutiny and criticism. He cites the parable related by Jesus of a man attacked, robbed and left by the wayside. A priest and then a Levite go past without stopping to help, and it’s left to a member of the despised group, the Samaritans, to render help. The central question the parable seeks to answer is: Who is my brother? Christ’s reply is that all, even those outside the group to which one belongs, are our brothers and sisters. A Tamil priest tells Rev. Fernando that he will speak with lay Sinhalese but not with Sinhalese Christian priests because of their silence and inactivity. As Edward Gibbon notes in his famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the official church has always sided with the state. So one is not surprised to read in Colombo Telegraph (July 2018) that the Catholic Archbishop of Sri Lanka is in favour of reinstating the death penalty: see Jude Fernando’s article titled ‘Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s endorsement of the death penalty’ in Colombo Telegraph, 15 July 2018. Official religious organisations are silent in the face of injustice and suffering because ethnic feeling is far more potent than religious affinity. Religious leaders should be in the forefront of advocating justice for the downtrodden: their deafening silence erodes their spiritual and moral authority. What guides Rev. Fernando is simple but also dangerous and very difficult: If we fail our fellow human beings, we fail our religion (page 284).
Though Palmyra Grove largely excludes me, I am glad the book is in Sinhala, and hope it will receive attention. Though it is important to talk about the people, and more important to talk for the people, it’s most important is to talk with the people. And to do that, one must talk in their language and, preferably, idiom. My impression is that much of the ‘talking’ is done in English, and the talking in Sinhala largely left to the worst elements. I hope a Tamil with a long and tested record of integrity and courage (such as Rev. Fernando has earned) will talk with her or his Sinhalese contacts; listen to what they say about the injustices and atrocities visited by Tamils on the Sinhalese – not in ancient times; not vaguely but with the specificity here provided – and write about it in Tamil so that Tamils will understand the Sinhalese experience and the resulting attitudes, feelings and conduct. In that way, mutual understanding now absent (noted and regretted by Frances Harrison and others) can be built. Intention is important: the purpose of testimony is not to dwell in recrimination; not to indulge in a “we have been more sinned against than sinning” but to heal through mutual understanding.
I end by citing (Satyodaya publication, op. cit., page 35) another Sri Lankan Jesuit priest, Rev. Paul Caspersz citing from Che Guevara’s last letter to his children: “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world”.