Photo courtesy BBC
In our favourite bar on the afternoon of the 21st this month, I was having a beer with my usual drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow, Sivapuranam Thevaram. “That was a horrific photograph, no?” he started the conversation. He didn’t have to be more specific. I knew instantly that he was talking about the photograph taken thirty years ago at the Borella bus station, supposedly by Atta / Raavaya employee Chandraguptha Amarasinghe. The photograph was of a naked Tamil boy surrounded by dancing thugs who, in all probability, went on to murder and burn the boy. In which order, we have no way of knowing.
That “Black July,” has a certain effect worth mentioning here. Have you heard the story of two Englishmen shipwrecked on an uninhabited island? They never spoke to each other because they had not been properly introduced. Such an issue does not arise for Tamils of a particular age range. They start talking about which camp they spent that week in, and of their journey by ship to Kankesanthuray. So, you can appreciate why Chandraguptha’s photograph got us into spontaneous conversation.
Thevaram relates to the plight of the young man with strong emotion. “It could have been me, you know – or my brother,” he says. “I was a kilometre away from that unfortunate young chap and it was the presence of mind I had to jump off a second floor balcony that saved me. My brother came even closer escaping because he spoke fluent Sinhala,” he recalls. “Our two guardian angels were doing overtime, while that of the young boy in Chandraguptha’s photograph had gone for an early evening in.”
This easy topic of conversation centred round the year 1983 is etched deep in the minds of some people. It is now hard-wired in their hippocampi.
“But, just because something is in memory, does not mean you can always retrieve it without impedance,” Thevaram claimed. “See, it is a bit like the light coming from stars. It is light that left the star several million years ago you are now looking at. It must have gone through transformations – reflections, refractions and phase shifts before reaching us, no? Similarly, neural signals that come from that permanent dent I have in deeper brain, when I pull them up to the working brain, travel through other stuff also stored there.”
“Oh, cut the rubbish and get to the point,” I said, not at all in tune with some weak analogy he was trying to build.
“See, what happened post-1983 is important. We got ourselves into a cycle of mutual destruction over these 30 years, didn’t we? One side said the only way to save the Tamil people from 1983-like pogroms, was to accelerate the process of separation, and to achieve it by force – a perfectly justified line of thinking, some would say. Equally, the other side thought that the all-important goal of maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country — so men of importance may sleep stretched full length — was to put down the rebellion at any cost – that, too, is an argument with merit, some would say.” Following that comment the two of us went through the well-rehearsed exchange of chicken and egg scenarios.
We went on a killing spree: Anantharajan, Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran #1, Yogeswaran #2, and so on… so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. All in the pursuit of justice, some say. We went on a killing spree: Pararajasingham, Ponnambalam, Raviraj, and so on… so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say.
We carried out indiscriminate bombings, didn’t we, of the Maligawa, of the airport, the Dehiwala train and so on… so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. All in the pursuit of justice, some say. We carried out indiscriminate bombings, didn’t we, of the Navaly church and of every square kilo meter of the landmass between Kilinochchi and the Eastern sea and so on… so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say.
We massacred people – innocent men, women and children at Anuradhapura, Aranthalawa, Keppitigollawa, the Kathankudi mosque and so on… so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. All in the pursuit of justice, some say. We carried out massacres of innocent men, women and children on the Nawanthurai boat, the five boys in Trinco, the dozen aid workers and so on… so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say.
We threw thousands of Muslims out of their homes in Jaffna, so that no Tamil may suffer another episode of that Black July. In the pursuit of justice, some say, and you might believe they have a point. We threw hundreds of people out of their homes in Valikamam and we dumped people from Keppapilavu in the middle of a jungle, so that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country may be maintained. All in the pursuit of justice, some say, and you might believe they have a point.
And all along, we ignored as minor detail that the social class from which the fighters were drawn was rather different from the one from which the decision makers came from.
And when people tell us about justice, according to Thevaram, we should challenge them. “Push their arguments a little and see what sort of grounding those arguments have. And by doing that so many times,” he emphasized, “I have discovered a universal formula.”
“What is it? What is it?” I asked in excitement.
“It is a spelling issue, you see. I ask them to spell the word `justice’, and you know how they spell it?” “How,” I ask.
“`aar’, `eee’, `vee’, `eee’ `en’, `gee’, ‘eee’.”
“Very poor spelling indeed,” I am sure you will agree. We can blame it on 1956 and all that.
Let’s fast forward to the endgame that was reached in May 2009. An asymmetric end, some continue to complain, but being the grown-up man he is Thevaram wants to move on. Shortly after that end game, he had made a promise – a promise to his old man Sivapuranam, that he will come back often to Sri Lanka, to engage and to contribute in small ways.
Now we all know how easy it is to make promises, and not keep them. A bit like New Year resolutions, we could say. Take me, for example. I promise to become a vegetarian, to cut down on beer, to go regularly to the gym etc., on the first day of every year. Ten promises I make to myself, but never really keep them. Nowadays I only make nine promises. The tenth one is reserved. It is to review the previous nine on 15th January.
But in the case of this Thevaram – Sivapuranam Pact, the promise cannot be broken. It is a contract between two parties with only one signature on the document, one in which trust dominates over legality. For when the contract was signed, old man Sivapuranam was already dead and was about to be cremated at the Kanatte cemetery, just about 50 metres from where Chandraguptha’s photograph was taken. But unlike what happened to the boy, we know with certainty that Thevaram’s lucky old man was dead well before the pyre was lit.
And so it was that Thevaram arrived at the HillTop University in the latter part of 2009, ready to engage. He met with a class of bright young graduates and spoke to them about many things. Advanced topics in molecular biology and why a person with mathematical skills would want to study that fascinating subject, tricks in Artificial Intelligence and its use in mining large and complex datasets and so on.
But something classic Sri Lankan (Michael Meyler, take notes) also happened in his meetings with the young people. When a man over 50 meets young people about half his age, he starts telling stories from the past. So did Thevaram, telling them stories about the electronic professor whom nobody understood, the professors in mechanics, soils and structures who were exceptionally talented in their subjects, the professor who studied the stability of power systems and did part-time politics from the extreme left end, the thermodynamics professor who cultivated a sense of social awareness among students with witty remarks, and the professor who got sacked for flying a black flag when President Pinochchio (yes, you got it, the guy whose nose became long because he told lies) visited the Hill Country. Thevaram also told them about the consistency of the toilets that didn’t flush across the decades, and about recognizing the curtain hanging in the computer room being precisely the same as it was all those years ago.
A clever young lady in the class, whom I shall call Udarata Menike to hide her identity, decided to put a stop to these boring stories. “When did you graduate from here, Sir?” she asked politely.
“1982,” Thevaram replied, “Yeah, it was just a year before I left the country in 1983.”
Note he could easily have put a full stop after the “1982” to answer her question. Instead he chooses to calibrate, putting events in context by mentioning that 1982 was 1983 minus one. Oh Christ!
Young Udarata Menike offered him the badly needed perfect full stop, which subsequently was to become a driving philosophy of my friend’s political thinking on Sri Lankan affairs. Her comment helped him re-gain something stolen from him thirty years ago this week.
“Ah, Sir, I wasn’t even born then, no.”