Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Living in a very small world: and dying to have a piece of it

Part 4

I was the last person in our group to come out of the railway station after divulging the intricacies of my visit to the somnolent policeman and the Civil Defence Force home guard who had checked me to make sure I didn’t poses any lethal weapons. I have never had to sit at a desk interrogating and recording the personal details and intentions of a few thousand people on a daily basis, nor have I had to poke and prod them hoping not to stumble on a firearm or explosive-packed vest. Never have I had to wield a firearm or been trained to use deadly force without any inhibitions to ensure my own survival and the survival of my comrades. Given my life’s experience, or rather the lack of it, I would be a wretched judge of these men and their actions in the course of carrying out their orders.

What’s more, I have grown up with a war that I knew very little about, let alone the intricate details about how wars are fought, by whom or for what reason. So, as I walked out of the station, still debating the pros and cons of the sacrifices we have made in the name of fighting terrorism, I was confronted with the humbling realisation that most of my opinions and biases about human dignity, civility and morality had not encountered the realities of war and the toxic world of deadly combat.

Outside the station, Sachindra introduced me to Rev. Lasantha who was animatedly talking to the others. Perhaps he may not have expected to find any familiar faces among the crowd that was trickling out of the station. The priest’s white robes stood out in the crowd as much as the arid rural landscape that surrounded the station contrasted with the one I had left behind earlier that morning. We introduced ourselves – first by our names and then by which part of Sri Lanka we were from.

Despite being a tiny island, Sri Lankans have a strong association of which part of the country we were born in and raised. My grandmother could often guess where a person was from merely by their surname, and I felt she could do this with reasonable accuracy. A few decades ago, a persons name would have given some indication of their ancestral village or town as well as which clan and caste they belonged to – factors that may ultimately define their role in society, their occupations, rights, obligations, limits to their freedom and power.

It is difficult not to appreciate that we have progressed a fair distance as a society on our journey in pursuit of liberty and equity since then. My generation which has been the first in the long history of Sri Lanka to be influenced more by our television sets than our grandparents, parents and teachers have all but forgotten that the caste system even existed. At least conceptually, we could all aspire to have the same opportunities and same rights irrespective of what our surnames were, thanks to (almost) universal access to education. As George Orwell would have pointed out, we live in a society where we know we are all created equal – some more equal than others.

My surname is Portuguese as are the top three or four most common surnames in Sri Lanka, but it distinctly identifies me as a Sinhalese. The Portuguese were not as organised in their medieval conquests as the Dutch and British were. I feel it is perhaps because they did not have the same competency for empire building and trade as the later did. The band of Portuguese sailors who landed on our shores in 1505 may have been driven more by the passion for the exotic than perhaps the riches of trade and the power of conquest. Perhaps that explains how well they ‘integrated’ with the natives of the land, as the prevalence of their names now suggest. Shazard’s name was the only prominent facet of his personality that identified him distinctly as a Muslim. Mauran’s surname and Gopi’s clearly identified them as Tamils as much as Sachindra’s surname could not be mistaken for anything other than being Sinhalese.

Outside the main cities, the different ethnic groups cluster together more closely. Even though we all essentially look indistinguishable from our physical features, our names reveal our ethnicity and it is hard not to imagine that the policemen at the railway station would have paid more attention to Mauran and Gopi because they were Tamil. I know this because my Tamil friends are held up at military checkpoints more often and for longer than I do even in Colombo, and Tamil journalists are forced to censor themselves more stringently. It seems our names do more than merely identify us as individuals or our ethnicity; they determine the level of freedom we can enjoy and the ideas and thoughts we are allowed to express.

In a society that has most recently been polarise more by ultra-nationalist sentiments than even the war itself, names and their ethnicity is being typecast often to insinuate loyalties and prejudices, beliefs and biases of their bearers. A society that has been made paranoid by its exposure to the mindlessness of ethnic war; increasingly stands in judgement of individuals for what race and religion they belong to.

Yet, because of the violence of war and the publicity it got, the truth about racial and religious inequity itself being the gravest issue to be resolved, has had to fight for its place in the collective conscience of Sri Lankans. The violence that has conscripted our generation inside an ethnic kaleidoscope under the guise of fighting against such unfair discrimination has destroyed the embellished image of a romanticised history dating back two millennia. The fact that the names of the vanquished terrorists sounded similar to Mauran’s and Gopi’s seems reason enough for many, to suspect my friends also to have the same violent ambitions.

The Reverend’s questions about our names and where we were from were not so sinister or even judgemental. That is of course how strangers often enter a conversation, more so among Sri Lankans no matter where in the world we meet. This is for good reason, because we are a very closely knit society where it seems everyone knows someone who knows you. Finding out that I was from Kandy and now lived in Australia was enough to prompt Rev. Lasantha to ask me whether I happen to know his nephew who was also from Kandy and recently migrated to Melbourne. Despite there being a twenty million or so of us, it seems almost a rarity for two random Sri Lankans to meet in a random corner of the world and not find that they have a mutual friend, at most once or twice removed. Indeed I knew the priest’s nephew – in fact I was sharing the same flat with him!

Maybe it is bizarre that such a large population could be so closely connected. That is why it is even more bizarre that a civil war could break out within such a closely knit society made up of friends of friends of friends.

  • Rukmankan Sivaloganathan

    Nice! I struggle as well to explain the minuscule degree of separation we Sri Lankans have non- Sri Lankans. 20 million is a large population compared to a lot of more prominent countries and people are constantly amazed at how Sri Lankans always seem to have a mutual friend.

    Re. the bit about the Portuguese names. I’m not sure if it was a case of the Portuguese integrating with the locals. From what I understand the Brits and Dutch were interested primarily in empire building and trade while the Portuguese (and the Spaniards..but we didn’t have to deal with them!) were essentially out to convert the ‘heathens’. Hence people either converted or, like the Koreans with the Japanese, just changed their names to make it look like they had converted.

    Not sure if my theory is 100% accurate though…

  • Rukmankan, my expressed views about the portugese can and must be contested – it’s about a point in time beyond any living memories and few verifiable facts remain in our grasp from that era. apart from converting the heathens, colonialists of those times were very much interested in enslaving them as well – the fact that we would not have been the ideal ‘slaves’ (as Russell Peters animates in his comedy) not withstanding.

  • I’m an Englishman who has lived in Sri Lanka and I came accross the mutual friend thing alot. From an outsiders perspective it seemed to me more a class urban thing – as the higer strata of Sri Lanka society is very smal indeed and relatively speaking Sri Lanka has a very small urban population. In fact having lived in and around Colombo for a year, I struggle not to find a mutual friend when I meet a middle class urban Sri Lanka…

    Still, what would I know?

  • Talking Head

    Hi Sam,

    Are you an Englishman from England or from one of the colonies? Man I can’t figure out what you’re trying to say here; I wish I finished my high school. Okay, let me guess: you mingled with middle class Sri Lankans and, for you, this constitutes the “higher strata” of Sri Lanka society. Oh my, my!

    Ta ta!!!

  • SomewhatDisgusted

    I personally think Sam’s right at some level. The number of people who can actually afford to live/work abroad in a developed country are generally from this thinner upper strata. So it’s not too much of a stretch to see why this phenomenon exists. As the late Tarzie Vittachi said, our real act of independence in a post-colonial era was the introduction of the free-education system, which was the only real way that people have managed to blur these neo-colonial class distinctions. Otherwise, how else can the poverty stricken majority ever aspire to get a visa or even buy a ticket to get into one of these countries?

    The other reason I think is the naturally closely-knit fabric of Sri Lankan society (as in being very nosy and curious but has the positive side-effect of creating more inter-personal relations ), which makes the oh-look-we-have-mutual-friends phenomenon more profound 🙂

  • Humanist

    Harendra, thank you for this extremely well-written, perceptive and mature account of what it means to be a human being in a society torn by war and conflict. I look forward to future episodes.

    Re: the Portuguese, the reason they integrated so well partially, was that they didn’t bring their women, unlike the Dutch (who brought some) and the British (who brought the most number of compatriot women). Lankan women made sure that their partners/husbands integrated… And partially because the Portuguese were adventurers and missionaries rather than empire builders – in fact, before the empire was consolidated and the British East India company was the more powerful player, the company used to gift a gold coin to each child born of mixed marriage in India – thus, the British too promoted integration in the early trading period. As for changing names, people in most historical periods have wanted to make sure that they can benefit from the opportunities available to them…if you are relatively free of identity crisis and ideological baggage, changing a name is not a big deal, after all.