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.