Colombo, Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict

On dimensions of ‘lyricality’ in times of war

Aboorvan Prabanjana takes great pains to drive home a point in a piece titled “Why does Malinda justify excesses of Government?” (Sunday Lakbima News, July 6, 2008). For the record, Malinda doesn’t.  But all credit to Prabanjana’s effort. That he doesn’t get it is of course another matter altogether.  He says he agrees with me and also disagrees and bases his agreement/disagreement not on what I have said but what he believes I have said. 

Just to clear any doubts on the matter of prejudice, let me state the following. In dealing with the LTTE I do side with the state.  There is no ‘hidden agenda’ in this regard. Painstaking excavation into what I write is not necessary to figure out where I position myself politically and ideologically.   There is nothing ‘tacit’ in the expression of intent; I am pretty straight forward and that’s much more than can be said for those who disagree with me. 

Prabanjana really goes overboard when he throws in George Bush, Bin Laden and Saddam to the soup which he stirs with his confused mind.  My positions on these individuals and the relevant politics are not ambiguous. Prabanjana’s sweeping statements about Iraq, Islamic Fundamentalism, George Bush, Bin Laden etc as well as his wild conjecture regarding alleged political affinity between JRJ and me is nothing more than the comparison of apples and oranges. Further debate is patently fruitless.

However, one comment by Prabanjana, I believe (correct me if I am wrong) is a typical driving factor for many political commentators who want a violence-free resolution of problems: “Those who are concerned with power equations have their own supportive theses of war and offer explanations to justify it. What I’m yearning for though is a violence-free world even though I’m well aware that it will remain an unrealisable dream. And it is not a sin to have such a dream of an ‘ideal world’, is it?”

One observes, in the first instance, that those who may want the LTTE out of the equation (like Prabanjana) do not really offer an alternative to military action and by omission and commission call for surrender on the part of the state. Dreaming is good. Fantasizing, especially when it comes to on-the-ground political matters should not, on the other hand, be mis-labelled as legitimate and constructive political commentary.

I was intrigued, for example, by an article penned by one ‘Gajaman Nona’ which appeared in the Daily Mirror: “Blood is their medal” (published first on Groundviews).  The author speaks, rightfully, in celebratory tones about Victor Jara and underlines the importance of celebrating life in what is said to be less than happy times (again, rightfully). 

There is however sleight of hand in the piece which makes the author’s plaintive call for lyricism rather hollow.

The author wants us to genuflect to beauty not the merchants of death. Yes, no one should genuflect to anyone, least of all ‘merchants of death’. The term, however, is problematic in the way it is used in the article.  Who are the merchants (I am assuming the author is thinking ‘beneficiary’ here) of death in Sri Lanka?  The LTTE, clearly, if not by the dispensing of death bringing them closer to stated objective, then at least by their perceptions of ‘success’, relative or otherwise as per operative logic.

The politicians?  The author dodges the question, preferring instead to go into a very general, unsubstantiated rigmarole about the Sri Lankan context, throwing in ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’ as ‘War President’ for good measure and exhibiting great skill in literary gymnastics to try and equate Rajapaksa to Pinochet and Sri Lanka 2008 to Chile post-1973. 

Do all leaders have a choice in the matter of being a War President or Anti/Non War President?  Now there is no doubt that the party in power and the President will win much political ground if Prabhakaran is comprehensively defeated.  Does that fact make the effort to defeat the LTTE wrong or immoral?  If there was any other way to take out the threat of terrorism, then, perhaps, yes, but then again, our ‘lyricalist’ doesn’t really tell us if that is possible, does he/she? 

What I see here is a loose bandying of terms, without substance, uncritical and with extrapolation that is perhaps good for poetry but irresponsible, deceitful, immoral and intellectually fraudulent when it comes to dealing with ground reality and real life death, dismemberment, displacement, desolation and destruction.   One cannot be innocent in these things. One cannot be naïve.

Civil liberties suffer in times of conflict.  That’s a price we have to pay to a lesser or greater degree (our deprivation, in this regard, is miniscule compared with situations that Prabanjana and this ‘Gajaman Nona’ refer to), yes. Who would not want to live in a world without security checks, without surveillance of any kind?  That’s a luxury we simply cannot afford and those who do not recognize the demands of the times should not demand fantasy from the times.     

Yes, the language of war is never pretty but war-times do not forbid prettiness in language nor subject.  You can’t call bullets, flowers, no.  But no has said no to lyricism, one observes, whether one want to use language to justify military action or oppose it.

I don’t know what this ‘Gajaman Nona’ has been reading, but there’s been enough written and being written on ‘the scent of the earth’. Life is never one-dimensional, never absolutely forbidding.  Poets have written in darker times and even in the darkest of times, nothing forbids a poet from writing about darkness, even if he/she has refused to cast gaze on less bleak social, geographical, cultural and other landscapes. Since the author robs Gajaman Nona of her name and references Sinhala poetry, he/she would do well to actually read some contemporary Sinhala literature.  He/she might not write such drivel, if that were the case.

I get this sneaking feeling that the author is not as naïve as he/she wants us to believe. I get this feeling that he/she is merely lamenting the setbacks suffered in terms of achieving his/her political utopia and is extrapolating to an entire society his/her personal angst. Correct me if I am wrong.  

I strongly suggest that the author read up more on Victor Jara and the political context in which he lived, sang and was murdered and while he/she is at it, why not read Pablo Neruda as well?  Two poems come to mind. First, in his ‘I’m explaining a few things,’ Neruda writes why it is not possible sometimes to write happy things. He was speaking of and to the Spanish Civil War.  And even when he wrote about his native Chile in its darkest times, Neruda did not ignore the Chilean or Spanish equivalent of the “farmers perched in watch huts staying awake to keep elephants out” or refuse to celebrate “the wild flush of bougainvillea, the lightning striking the sea in the distance, luminous and electric etc etc”. 

Neruda also wrote, and I am pretty sure that Jara would have concurred, Ah, if with only a drop of poetry or love we could placate the anger of the world, but that can be done only by striving and by a resolute heart.”

So, once our ‘lyricalist’ gets off his comfy perch in dreamland, he/she might want to do the hard thing; be like Jara.  Fight.  And whether he/she does this or not, let him understand also that there is a certain disingenuity in implying that Colombo, not Killinochchi is like Pinochet’s Chile.  The fact of the matter is that stupidity masquerading as a sensitive sophisticated consciousness is not what makes useful political comment. 

”Gajaman Nona” should re-visit all the literature on Pinochet’s Chile.  If he/she still believes that he is living in a military dictatorship of the Pinochet kind then he/she would be saying a lot about his/her general intelligence or lack thereof.  Under Pinochet, Groundviews (where this piece first appeared) would have been finely ground views. 

What we have here once the piece is stripped of lyricism, then, is fear-mongering, mischief-making and an excellent exhibition of naïveté.  If one pines for lyricism, one might do well to understand that lyricism does not forbid the referencing of a sense of proportion. 

It is quite alright to dream, let me repeat.   Drops of poetry and love do have a place in politics, not in placating anger, but in honing the political will that could, some day, engage in a manner that allows us to retain something of our humanity by the long time of the unavoidable meeting of weapon with weapon ends.  There cannot be poetry that is of any social use and no love that is true where tragedy is cooked with heady spices of fantasy and political positions coated with flowery language.