By Mahesan Niranjan –
Serialization in the Colombo Telegraph of Rajan Hoole’s Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power is, of course a must read for any of us interested in understanding the way we transitioned from an immediate post-colonial period of much to be proud of, to one of extreme decadence in which we inflicted upon our fellow citizens immense sufferings. We are all guilty of lending active or passive support to particular lines of political thinking that shamed the value systems we were supposed to celebrate. The most recent segment, published yesterday (15 Nov 2016), covered happenings in one of the world’s most beautiful universities in May 1983, which we recognize as a practice run to the carnage that was to follow just a couple months later.
At our drinking session in the famous Bridgetown pub, I made the error of showing Hoole’s piece to my friend, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram. After downing several pints to neutralize the immense stress induced by the memory I triggered in him, he told me a story that happened on that unfortunate day — the Eleventh of May.
As background, there are two basic things we should remember. The first is chasing as a mechanism of political problem solving. Majoritarian Sinhala chauvinistic thinking has it that if the minority Tamils can be chased away across the seas to ‘where they came from’, all problems in the island will be solved. That thinking was copied and implemented with spectacular efficiency by rebelling Tamils when they chased away the Muslim population from the North. Other small scale combinations of one group chasing the other away in villages in the East of the country have also been documented.
Secondly, we often fail to think through if a solution to the political problem we face, and the future we ought to build, should be based on celebrating our genetic commonality or emphasising our phonetic discrepancy.
“We just keep missing the point, and engage in time and life-wasting arguments about who came here first, who is cleverer, who can chase away who and who can get help from who to chase away who…
“What a sorry state, machan (buddy),” lamented Thevaram. He then told me a story that took place on the Eleventh of May when, as a Colombo bound train was about to pull out of the railway station in Peradeniya, he had seen a handsome young man running desperately along the railway tracks, along the platform and then next to the train, hopping onto it when he was certain his speed just about matched that of the accelerating train.
Rather hurt by the chasing he witnessed the night before, this young man had decided to practice its natural consequence. Run!
From the hostel he lived in, he ran along the long corridor of the faculty where he studied and had just started a job at. “Let’s get out of this miserable place, I am not going to come back here,” being the thought foremost in his mind. As he passed each of the wings that housed laboratories where he was educated – past the workshop in which he managed to make a nut and a bolt and make them fit; past the laboratory where he learnt to make precise measurements and to quantify uncertainty in measurements; past the impeccably kept laboratory of mechanics where he was once told “there is no substitute for hard work;” past the laboratory where he learnt how to survey the beautiful terrain around campus using the powerful telescope with which, standing on the peaceful mountain, he could see villages miles away, of streams and of Sigiriya paintings, but in flesh and blood — all those images that flashed in the young man’s mind for fractions of seconds were trumped by one dominant thought:
“Run, there is no turning back!”
“Let’s call the handsome young man Thyristor,” said Thevaram, not wanting to reveal the man’s identity. But from the context of the story I quickly guessed the chap in question was of Tamil ethnicity.
As Thyristor dashed into the Laboratory of Sparks at one corner of the Faculty where his office was, quickly grabbing some books and stuffing them into his rucksack and was just ready to accelerate back to the peak speed he had hit just five minutes ago, he heard a gentle, yet powerful, sound. It was someone – a young lady — crying from another corner of the laboratory.
“We’ll name her Capacita,” said Thevaram, again wanting to hide the true identity of the person concerned. Here, from the name he chose, I could not guess Capacita’s ethnicity. “Which tribe was Capacita from? I asked. “She is Sinhala, machan (buddy),” Thevaram said.
Capacita and Thyristor were good friends. Her personality, one with boundless capacity for love — in a broad sense of the word – would not have it any other way. Think of various relationships: mother and son, sister and brother, just friends, lovers, father and daughter – all the good you can identify in these relationships, you would have found in the friendship between Capacita and Thyristor. The ethnic divide upon which the politics of our country was being built around them was something they failed to notice.
Linguists might be intrigued here. Capacita discharged much of her love with a single powerful endearing word in her conversations: “aney!” Might roughly translate to “oh dear” if you want it straight out of a dictionary, but the word, when spoken with the correct intonation can go far beyond that.
Let me try with an example: If I said to you “It is raining,” I am passing you a piece of information about the state of the world which I have observed and you haven’t. It ends there. But when Capacita says “It is raining, aney,” she is not just giving you that piece of information. A common identity between you and her, recognising a common threat in the form of the rain, the need for urgent action of fetching an umbrella and the command that instructed you to do the fetching would all be beautifully captured in that word “aney” and how she said it. In the Laboratory of Sparks, men would tune her oscilloscope under such command!
Thyristor guessed that she had heard of the event of the previous night (the chasing) and what was to follow (the running) and was naturally upset about it. He could not stop to console her or say good bye because any delay might make him miss the train with a sharp increase in the probability of a decoupling between his body and soul, he feared. He touched her shoulder and they looked in each other’s eyes for a brief moment.
Between sobs she muttered in a trembling voicer:“Api oyagollangwa elavanava kiyalanang hithanna epa…” approximately translate as /don’t think we are chasing away you people/.
But a second parse through her words might suggest there is more than what the literal translation would tell us. She did not say / […] kiyala hithanna epa/ to mean “don’t think so” she said / […] kiyalanang hithanna epa/. The little suffix /nang/ carries a lot of meaning here: /whatever you think of the happenings around you, this is not at all what I want you to think/, emphasising her disgust at the political act of chasing. That was the worst to which she could think her environment could descend to, in her name.
But then there was a pause just after her last word “epa…” during which Thyristor’s heart missed a couple of beats. Where did the words api (us) and oyagollang (you people) suddenly appear from? How had these words, which had no meaning in their relationship thus far, suddenly acquired semantics? Is this what was to going to define our future trajectory?
Thyristor was stunned. The torture he suffered that fraction of a second could not have been inflicted upon him by the armoury of techniques at the disposal of routine law enforcement, or seen exercised in the fighting of the “just wars” by the security establishment, of our country.
Capacita put Thyristor out of his misery. She knew he had to catch the train for his temporary safety. Controlling her sobs and wiping her tears, she collected herself and with a steady voice and gave him the energy boost he needed for the rest of the run and confidence for his future political thought: “aney!”