20 May, 2022


Tragedy: Letter To A Friend

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Dr Coomaraswamy’s frank and perceptive article in ‘Groundviews’ of 14 May 2014, one in which you are deservedly mentioned, led me to think of tragedy. In what now seems a previous birth (it was so long ago. and Sri Lanka was beautiful Ceylon) you and I as undergraduates studied Greek and Roman literature under, if I am not mistaken, one Dr Amarasinghe. He knew and loved the Classics and, like all good pedagogues, imparted something of both to his students. Those who believe in a god or gods can subscribe to the notion of inexorable fate. ‘Oedipus Rex’ by Sophocles is an excellent example where the very attempt of desperate Oedipus to flee the horrible fate prophesied, is what brings it about. It is tragic irony. Oedipus is perpetrator, criminal and sinful, but even more an unfortunate victim: as Shakespeare’s King Lear says of himself (not without a touch of self-pity), he is  one more sinned against than sinning.

But tragedy brings to my mind not the Greek and Roman classics but the words of Othello: “But yet the pity of it… the pity of it” (Act 4, Scene 1). “Pity” I read as waste; the utter unnecessariness of things; that events could have taken another direction, resulting in a different, more decent and happier, shape. Here, unlike with the Greeks, there is no fate, and that is what makes tragedy (be it political and public or personal and private) all the more tragic. As my wife commented, that something is one’s own fault makes it all the more worse and harder to bear. We cannot escape responsibility: in Existentialist terms, we are the creators of the ‘fate’ we experience, enjoy or endure, and this is what makes Dr Coomaraswamy’s article so moving and thought-provoking. To quote her words, “we would have lived happily ever after”. I would add and emphasise – all of us (and not just one group).

Would you agree that the post-war treatment of the Tamils brings some degree, however small, of posthumous justification for the aim of the Tigers, namely, a separate state? They felt that it is only within a separate state that Tamils would have safety and dignity; be allowed to live life as they wished to, without fear. Tamils are now forced to sing the national anthem in Sinhala, even those who don’t understand a word of what they are singing: Dr Coomaraswamy. Far, far worse, than that, women, on good ground, fear sexual assault, and the entire civilian population – women and men, young and old – can be dictated to and humiliated with impunity, and that too in what was once their Heimat. Does this ‘fate’ posthumously lend a degree of justification to their wish for separation?

As for the means the Tigers opted for in order to realize their aim, namely, armed conflict, here again many Tamils felt they had exhausted all peaceful avenues (within what pretended to be a democratic, parliamentary, system) to achieve civic equality. Non-violent protest was met with state-sanctioned mob violence. Appeals to reason and fair-play were not heard or, if heard, were not heeded; indeed, were treated with contempt, being seen as the resort of the weak, the hapless and the helpless. No option other than force seemed feasible.

However, to understand the aim of the Tigers (separation) and the means resorted to (force), is not to excuse the nature of the latter. Their conduct was politically foolish; a crime against humanity and, to those who believe in the supernatural, a sin against god or the gods. If it was a just war in its origin, it was waged most unjustly and unwisely. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it has brought down upon Tamils the very fate the Tigers predicted and claimed to prevent. With tragic irony, their last act of cruelty was against trapped and terrified Tamil civilians.

To return to the Greeks, you and I were also taught that tragedy was not a remorseless and, therefore to some degree, a mechanical working out of the foreordained. No, the tragic protagonist cooperated in the bringing about of her or his fate. “Character is fate”, we learnt. In other words, a certain character led inevitably to a certain kind of conduct which, in turn, led to a certain “fate”. Seen in that light, in the public sphere, all are responsible because all have contributed to a people’s or to a country’s fate – be it constructively or negatively; in greater or in lesser degree. Tragedy is when the avoidable is made into the inevitable, bringing with it suffering and sorrow.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Prof Sarwan you hit the nail on the head. An excellent analysis for separation.

  • 0

    “Tragedy is when the avoidable is made into the inevitable ,bringing with it suffering and sorrow”.

    We’ll said. That is because one uses thought only to understand something not there or to remember something or believe or achieve something.
    Otherwise we don’t know whether thought is there or not..That is why like a self fulfilling prophecy the Tamils let their leaders think to foolishly proclaim the Vadducoddai Resolution in1976 which meta morphed as the LTTE only to ensure the fate that the said leaders predicted and intended to prevent.
    The avoidable became the inevitable, bringing with it loss humiliation.sorrow and disillusionment. That is the irony of Tamil fate.
    What can be done now is the question if we are to live in the country of our forefathers with dignity and self respect.The past is past and what we have learnt from the past is important for the Tamils future.

  • 0

    Times are changing – a Separation is round the corner, even which will be
    turned to the advantage of more Votes for MR – whose dynasty rule is
    ensured for another decade the least?


    “The British government is studying the importance of sending a strong message to the Sri Lankan government by lifting the ban, in light of the LTTE’s having completely distanced itself from terrorist acts now, say the source. This decision will have a direct bearing on the general elections due next year in Britain.”

  • 1

    If Tamils love Muslims so much why not settle all Muslims in Jaffna?

    Then everyone will be happy and safe.

  • 1

    ” No option other than force seemed feasible.”
    Seemed feasible? Really? To you too? After how many seconds of thinking?

    Even if character is not fate, it certainly guides the way we write:

    “you and I as undergraduates studied Greek and Roman literature under, if I am not mistaken, one Dr Amarasinghe. He knew and loved the Classics and, like all good pedagogues, imparted something of both to his students.”

    what is the doubt here Prof Sarwan?

    Whether it was one Amarasinghe or two, or whether Prof. Cuthbert A was a Dr. or whether he was not the “pedagogue” who knew and loved the classics?

    A sophisticated doubt consistent with the rest of the erudition.


  • 0

    Well said. Yes here too like in a Greek tragedy the antagonist has been more overwhelming that the protagonist.Bensen

  • 0

    If there is a deficiency in SL politicians it is Wisdom. Self is more important than non self which is destructive. A basic philosophy of buddhism that that choose to ignore. Violence is part and parcel of politics not realising that violence begets violence.
    The Bodu bala, Ravana ,and the muslim extremists are a message. The question is what causes it? Social instability that is the basis of this problem is caused by 1) poor governance egs you can only get a job if you are on the ministers list- this is biased sinhala ministers have mostly sinhala employees , Muslim ministers muslimsetc, 2) corrupt economic system where corrupt business folk are allowed to exploit the economy leading to the enhancement of particular communities that practice business 3) Black economy larger than the white economy majority sacrificing to a corrupt minority 4) Judiciary highjacked to safeguard political interests not the general welfare of society etc 4) allow foreign governments to subsidise extremists interests like allowing Saudi Arabia to start a university in the Eastern province
    Poor governance and injustice is the cause of all the problems of SL i.e. political class Until such time the corrupt politicians are educated and rule the country in an equitable manner the differences between the different communities will continue. The only way to do that is to make them accountable not at elections but by a judiciary system.

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