By W.A. Wijewardena –
Defeat the enemy within to give correct value to life and make development inclusive
The value of life: The unresolved problem
Economists have worked hard to give a value to life. They have created a new branch of economics called ‘social economics’ – a way to look at economic issues by using apparatuses available in sociology – to examine the issue.
They have failed because the assessment of the value of life cannot be done objectively and therefore a unique valuation cannot be made. This is because of the wide disparity in the assessment by the person who owns the life – the supply side – and the assessment done by those who are around him – the demand side.
The person possessing the life will give the highest value to his life. But will the society around him give the same value to his life? Yes, if the valuations made by both parties are one and the same. But it is unlikely to be so, because societal valuation of life will depend on many factors – economic, social, psychological and political – that would not be the same as the valuation made by the person possessing the life.
In the case of ordinary goods too there is such a divergent valuation but eventually a compromise is reached through the market by getting the market to decide on the value. However, the value of life cannot be tested in the market like the value of a loaf of bread. Hence, any assignment of value to life is arbitrary and fraught with defects. One good example is the valuations made by insurance agents. They give a zero value to old people and a positive value to young people purely on the basis of the economic values they assign to different age groups.
Handagama’s Ini Avan: Value life without prejudices or biases
Given these practical difficulties in assigning a true value to human life, Asoka Handagama, the rebellious artist and award-winning film director, has tried to assign a value to human life through his latest artistic creation, Ini Avan, which in Tamil means ‘sweet-natured man’ when taken together but loosely translated into English as ‘him, here after’ meaning that the main character (Him) representing a generation of young Tamils in post-war Sri Lanka is (Here) now but with an uncertain future (After).
Anyone who watches the movie will not be able to give a quantitative value to life. But, he will come out of the movie theatre with a bagful of reasoning within him that the value of life of a person, whether it is the life of an ex-combatant or a simple widow or a child born to a mother widowed by the death of her husband or a refugee woman or any other person, is infinite and he or she should not be deprived of life according to the arbitrary, prejudiced or biased wishes of others.
The ex-combatant not welcomed in his village
The story of the movie is wound around the post war Northern Province of Sri Lanka. The lead character – or hero – is a young Tamil LTTE soldier, captured and rehabilitated by the Sri Lankan Army and released to his native village with only a travelling bag of a few clothes. He does not get a good welcome from the villagers. When he stands in front of a village kiosk after alighting from a bus, a little boy who sees him runs away despite the friendly smile he sports on his face.
When he walks through the village lane toward his ancestral house, the other villagers look at him as if they have seen Death walking around. One man who is bolder than others comes to the turnstile of the fence around his house and starts cursing him. His complaint is that this fellow is living while his sons who had been recruited by him are all dead. The kiosk owner does not welcome him. When he goes to the town to get a driving licence, he is told of a prohibitive charge despite his already knowing how to drive.
His old girlfriend is now widowed with a child having been married off to a man older than her father to avoid conscription by LTTE. She too does not welcome him at first. His mother goes around the village with an old gold jewellery to pawn and raise some money to finance his driving licence, but is turned away. He being of lower caste descent is looked down upon by the father of his old girlfriend.
Handagama has delivered two strong messages so far.
Powerful gun-bearers become nobodies when disarmed
One is the divergence in the valuation of life by the two parties. The ex-combatant has given the highest value to his life having escaped death (he could have committed suicide having bitten a phial containing cyanide, a gesture of giving a zero value to life, but the fact that he is living means that he had not done so thereby giving a positive value to his life) and agreeing to go through the rehabilitation programme. But the society around him has given him a zero valuation.
There, Handagama brings forth a political reality to his viewers without telling them: A man with a gun in hand can command the highest valuation for his life but when he is disarmed, he is nobody. People who had knelt before him with fearful eyes and praising him with eulogies previously are now bold enough even to curse him in face. From his side, people who had been given zero valuation by him have now emerged as immensely important people commanding the highest valuation for their lives. Look at the kiosk owner or jewelry shop owners or the driving licence agent. They all can say now, without fear or trepidation, no to him and even ridicule him in the most disparaging way.
Sitting on a ticking time bomb
Handagama seriously questions the validity of this social behaviour in his movie. Should a man be valued by the powers he is enjoying in society or his good natured intentions? The ex-combatant has the good intention of starting a new life all along. He does not mean harm to anyone but wants to live a life in harmony with others making himself a useful partner. He calls others to understand this and allow him to live a peaceful life. But he is rejected. Why? Because he has no gun in his hand.
If he takes out the gun which he had buried in his garden and started to use it once again for which he is amply skilled, perhaps things would have been different. Then, he would have been treated a hero once again and even the father of his ex-girlfriend would have cast away the strong caste feelings he had been holding so dearly. So, he is here now with peaceful motives with no intention to use a gun again. But it gives him only boiling anger within him.
Handagama’s message is that unless something is done quickly enough, the boiling pan can explode into another bloody rebellion in the movie hero’s “After”. He has conveyed this message beautifully using his creative skills. Instead of using background music, he has used a ticking sound of a clock that starts counting down as if one is faced with a time bomb that might go off at any time. So, Sri Lanka has not solved its war problem permanently. Instead, there is a time bomb ticking off at its backyard and it is only time that will tell when it would go off destroying everything that has been achieved in the past.
Defeat the enemy within instead of looking for enemies outside
This leads to Handagama’s second message which is the solution. There is an enemy within each one and it is that enemy who has to be defeated and not any perceived enemy outside. Tamils (for that matter, the Sinhalese too) carry so many enemies within them and those enemies have no place in a post-conflict society struggling to resuscitate itself after being devastated on many counts: mentally, spiritually, socially, economically and politically for long.
Who are those enemies? These are the enemies who divide the society and act as a real obstacle for any meaningful reconciliation and inclusive development. First the ethnic supremacy feelings on one side and the fear of being annihilated by other ethnic or religious groups on the other are the worst enemy within. It divides the society on ethnic, religious and language lines and makes inter-group communication impossible.
On many occasions, in Handagama’s movie, when Tamils are addressed in Sinhalese, no meaningful responses are given. The reverse would also have been the same, though it is not portrayed in the movie. Then the second enemy within is the unreserved allegiance to caste, regional or clan differences. The third enemy is the fear and suspicion and failure to differentiate between the good intentions and bad intentions.
Then comes the fourth enemy, the love for power and the slavish worshipping of those who wield power either through the accumulation of money or the use of the gun or both. As long as these enemies are harboured within, the society cannot move forward toward development; even when some development is achieved, it is an exclusive development meaning that a selected few will move up and not an inclusive development which is the goal to be aspired in a post-conflict society.
The survival test of those who have defeated the enemy within
The hero in Handagama’s movie, and the two heroines too, are those who have defeated the enemy within. The hero makes a correct assessment of the bad intention of the former “Boy” who had escaped to Canada and returned to the locality after the war had ended. The latter is therefore avoided at all costs when he tries to recruit the hero for another underground but immensely profitable engagement.
Perhaps the old disappointing experience may still be living in his mind. He accepts the widowed ex-girlfriend with a child and brings her home to give care and receive care in return. This means that he has understood the value of working together to come out of the deep pit to which they all have fallen together. When the dead body of the man who had been cursing him had been dumped in his front compound, for a moment, he gets angry but later, mobilising the villagers who had just been immobile, gives him a decent cremation. His brief angry encounter with a jeweller makes a security guard with a family jobless placing him on the job.
This is yet another instance portrayed by Handagama as an exclusive development: if one gets a job, another has to lose. But when he is elevated to the position of the jeweller’s underhand deal confidante, he gets his boss to agree to reemploy the ex-security guard. But when everything turns sour and the security guard’s wife is subject to a brutal sexual-attack by the jeweller and his friends, he rescues her in a completely crumpled up form and brings her back to her cadjan hut. The implication there is that it is a world to be built together disregarding differences that is being sought after by him, a truly inclusive development that does not leave anyone behind. That is the true value which one should give to life.
End the gun cycle and liberate yourself
The two heroines – ex-girlfriend and the security guard’s wife – have also defeated the enemy within. Ex-girlfriend decides to come with him defying her parents and without knowing what her future would be. Having seen the brutality and the destruction of the previous armed struggle, she does everything possible to keep her man away from arms once again. She hides the buried gun elsewhere so that he cannot use it again to destroy a life in a hurry.
When he is pursued by two assassins and when they are close to their target at his house, she takes the gun out and empties its magazine into the sky, scaring the two assassins away and at the same time depriving him of the power which he could assume once again with a gun in hand. In other words, she wants to end the cycle of gun culture which will destroy them all.
“Brother, we are alright. Thank you!”
The security guard’s wife, having lived a life of the most vulnerable and destitute, is a pragmatist created by Handagama to test the character of the hero. Whenever he is hesitant in making a decision, she gives practical advice to him like Krishna advising Arjuna in the Dharma War in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. She often repeats, “What else do we have to lose?” So, let’s live a life without thinking of the faults of others, is her sound advice to him.
Her final message to a Sinhalese truck driver is the culmination of Handagama’s movie. When asked about whether they needed help by a passing Sinhalese truck driver in a gesture of true affinity, despite the stark truth that they had been stranded, brutalised and in need of help, she says “Brother, we are alright. Thank you!” Handagama has shown that the Sinhalese truck driver, an ordinary member of that community, has defeated the enemy within. He is an example for other Sinhalese who still carry the enemy within to their own peril.
Mac Davis: End the cycle of poverty and death for your own good
Handagama’s movie reminds this writer of Mac Davis’ 1969 song ‘In the Ghetto,’ first sung by Elvis Presley and later performed by Dolly Parton and many others enchanting millions of hearts throughout the world (available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ox1Tore9nw). In that song, Davis has drawn attention to the recurring cycle of poverty, criminal life and death in the Chicago slums inhabited by Blacks, a minority in USA. On a cold and grave Chicago morning, a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto and his Mama cries because she knows with certainty what fate awaits him eventually.
Davis then asks very forcefully: People, are you blind? This child needs a helping hand and if you turn your heads away and look the other way, he will be an angry young man someday destroying you as well as himself. People nevertheless look away and the young man becomes an angry man to die in a gun battle with a gun in hand but not before stealing a car to run away. Then Davis says that another little baby child is born in the same Chicago slums and his Mama too cries. So, the cycle continues unabated.
Handagama wants this cycle to end. To do so, like Davis, he cries to people who are blind and looking the other way: Defeat the enemy within, give the correct value to life and make development inclusive and not exclusive.
What a powerful message he has delivered through the medium of cinema?
*Writer is a former Deputy Governor – Central Bank of Sri Lanka and teaches Development Economics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. This article first appeared in Daily FT – W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at email@example.com