By 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.