Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images via Al Jazeera America
This past couple of weeks I’ve been rereading Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. I first picked up ‘Northern Lights’ (Book 1) in 2003 while at University in Scotland. My MPhil Thesis (completed in 2004) starts with a quote from ‘The Amber Spyglass’ (Book 3), and right now in May of 2014 I am perhaps on my tenth reading of ‘The Subtle Knife’ (Book 2). These three books have journeyed with me, as I lived my somewhat nomadic life around India and now Sri Lanka. These same copies battered (never dog-eared) and bruised still lift and plunge me into what is arguably one of the most astute readings of our human condition.
The story is eternal; good and evil made murky and grey by circumstance and intuition. As with all great books you become part of their story as much as the book invades your life and influences attitudes and reactions. I recall a rereading in 2005 post surgery (and a little delirious) where I forced myself to pick up the book and read only to ensure that the tale would reach its necessary end; as if not reading the words would trap those who had become my friends in limbo – their ultimate triumph was dependent upon my participation, my reading of what is written.
Pullman writes with a simplicity that encourages minds to explore and evaluate what we accept to be true and certain. It tells us not to believe all we are told. History, tradition and culture are indicators of what a people desire but not necessarily a reflection of what came to pass, is, and will become.
Reflecting on the last thirty years of Sri Lanka, we’d do no better than to internalize Pullman’s polemic and be mindful that not everything we are told happened or happens. Now, this appears childishly simple, intuitive and necessarily true. Yet, application of what we’ll call the Pullman principle is difficult. No less difficult than being called upon to apply the teachings of our God men, prophets and philosophers of ages past. We appear to be set up to fail; born in sin, trapped in the eternal cycle of rebirth and destined for perdition.
Yet, the necessary imminence of life pervades everything we are and do. The trite epitaphs we attach to those who have passed on – He/She lived life to the fullest – betray what we know to be real: We have no choice but to live life. Our choices lie in the decisions we take on how we deal with imminent-real-unasked being. Some call it accidental being, and attach a randomness to life, a chaos that we have no control over. Others, especially those who need apparent answers to why we are and do, prescribe to doctrines of destiny and purpose that have an intrinsic logic to the why-s and how-s of life. Then of course, you have those in between, the pick and mix brigade that reflect our pick and mix approach to what is true.
Pontius Pilate asked of Jesus “What is truth?” (John 18:38) Suggesting there are many truths as there are believers in those truths. If we agree that the first casualty of war is truth, then imagine the various truths we have been told, retold – and we in turn retell – faithfully over the last three decades. To reflect on thirty years of truths seems insurmountable. The old Burgher adage “facts are stubborn” may serve us better. We can list facts. Can’t we? Simple. Easy. Functionally necessary. Why did this ‘civil war’ occur? When did it begin? How many perished during the conflict? Why did women and men strap explosives to their body and blow themselves up around civilians? How many troops are currently deployed in the North and East? Are the rights of ethnic minorities upheld in Sri Lanka? What will our children learn from this bloody and terrible period? Have we won the war? Have we won peace? What is written down? Some tell us that to trust the victor’s history is to believe the official story. The ignored and soon forgotten atrocities of Russia and Britain during World War II are often held up as an example of this convenient and redolent amnesia. The role of the CIA in nurturing and fostering the evil icons of Saddam and Osama is another. What facts do we have on the ‘turning’ of former Commander of the LTTE in the East i.e. the current deputy leader of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party?
Detractors of the current government would suggest that we will forever remain in darkness with regards to what happened before and during and what continues to happen now, after the war was won. At best we may trudge through a quagmire of half-truths and distractions, akin to smoke and mirrors used by deft illusionists to convince us that the elephant has indeed disappeared from under the handkerchief in the room.
The Sri Lanka most of us want to live in is one of hope and potential. We’re told we already live here. There is hope, and the potential for us prosper as a people, well, apparently the opportunities we have are second to none. We’re after all a Middle-Income country now. The dwindling INGO populace, cutback to multilateral donors including UN partners is testament to how well we’re doing as a nation.
Yet, are these facts, or are we still stumbling around a fair ground attraction of distorted mirrors/truths that come in all shapes and sizes? If we apply the Pullman principle to the work that we do as The Grassrooted Trust on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), what emerges is a country that is determined to ignore the realities of gender based violence, child sexual abuse, sex work, drug use, sexual orientation and transgenderism. Our traditions and culture apparently allow only for heteronormative structures that include consensual sex only within the marriage contract with a focus on progeny. (Simple facts such as the legal age of consensual sex  versus the legal age of marriage  are also cast aside.) All else is held up to be abhorrent in our ancient culture – over two millennia of conservative Buddhist ideals. The diversity and difference of our people; a result of migration, trade, invasion and colonialism, is easily forgotten, or at the very least, ignored.
Since returning to Sri Lanka in 2009 one of the key obstacles we’ve identified to acceptance and dialog, not just in the field of SRHR, is the much bandied concept of ‘respect’. Our idea of respect appears to discourage investigation, reflection, and the revaluing of values that is necessary for a robust defense of who we are, or who we claim to be as Sri Lankans. The close alignment of respect with power in Sri Lanka demands that we unquestioningly accept the official version of what has passed and is, and will become. To differ in opinion, or even present facts and truths to the contrary is disrespectful, and in certain circumstances classified as dissent. If it is unpatriotic to ask questions, and suggest alternatives to the status quo, then those of us who claim to be Sri Lankans must necessarily keep silent. Yes? Therefore, the Pullman principle cannot be applied here. Those in power, those who wield it like a Viking broadsword – with one subtle edge being respect and the edge that hacks and cuts and mutilates, being power – seemingly have us under control. The fatigue of war has supposedly led to this state of inertia. Yet, perhaps human greed – those who benefit from ways things are – plays the more significant role. Captains of industry and business echo the party line that Sri Lanka is an emerging economic powerhouse, at least in public. We cannot also discount fear i.e., the very fear we have to articulate our fears as a people. Would we be unfaithful to our Lion flag if we ask for increased transparency and accountability from our government? Do we not do so because we’re afraid? If so, what are we afraid of? What are the consequences of asking difficult questions and demanding of those who represent us, the facts, the truths? If the facts and truths we’re offered in response are unsatisfactory, then surely the respectful and faithful riposte would be more questions to help clarify in our minds the progress of our collective objectives as a people, as a nation.
Finally, to return to the Pullman principle of revaluation that includes introspection, the time to do so is surely now. A time when we’re rebuilding a nation, where our hopes and aspirations are arguably one, regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation and all else that seemingly divides us. We are in pursuit of human dignity. We are in pursuit of economic empowerment. We are in pursuit of happiness. So let’s hold a little less fast to our truths that may morph with the willingness to accept other truths, let’s reexamine the facts, and come together as a people. Let’s look beyond the unity of diversity to the very essence of what it means to be Sri Lankan. The time is now. Let’s become.