Sunday, June 24, 2018

Because the stories we tell define us

The title of this post is taken from the title of Nayomi Munaweera's introductory piece in the third volume of the Write to Reconcile series.


Last month, I stopped by the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka's office and my eyes fell on a stack of brightly coloured books, intriguingly titled 'Write to Reconcile.'

It was the last of three volumes produced by a creative writing project conceptualised and led by Shyam Selvadurai along with Nayomi Munaweera, Ameena Husain, Amrita Pieris and Shiromi Pieris. The project was housed at NPC, which is how the books came to be there. 

Young writers applied to be part of the project, which brought them together to listen to speakers and took them around the island on field visits. They posted story ideas and stories, which were discussed in two online fora. One story by each writer was selected for inclusion in these volumes. The point was for the writers to deepen their understanding of the war experience, especially from perspectives outside of their own. Three batches of writers were convened, each making up one of the volumes.

Stories in the first volume focus on the war experience. They are set in Colombo and Jaffna, for the most part. In the second volume, the stories are largely set in the Eastern Province, where the population has been ethnically mixed for a long time. The last volume allows us to see the present post-war moment from the outside-in. A professional editor or literature professor might find the writing quality uneven, but it is hard not to be moved by the stories, and the intensity of feeling that most of them capture. 

It took me six weeks to steal the time between this pressing task and that urgent demand to finish reading the three volumes of 20-25 stories each. While it is hard for me now to look back and pick favourites from which to quote, I will never forget the voices and images with which they have left me. 

A family fleeing their home as the war crept in on them, leaving behind a patriarch who would not budge. An encounter with a soldier at a well in a desolate village. The towering statue of Shiva over a beach where two friends played, who were to be separated because of inter-ethnic quarrels around the temple. Sisters weeping for brothers. Sisters volunteering to fight to spare brothers. Brothers living in the shadow of war heroes. Lost homes, surviving only in memory. Memories so unreal they become fiction. People across the island, across ethnicities, search for and wait for their loved ones to return. Most moving, these images are created by people who have not lived the experiences for the most part. Such empathy, so creatively expressed! 

Let me dip in at random and share some words from here and there:

Nayomi Munaweera, writing about her family home: "The year the war ended, the Tamil Family who had occupied our house for about three decades left it and the house was ours again. In a casual conversation with a cousin I discovered that the Tamil family was from Jaffna. They had been forced out from their own ancestral lands and houses by war. They had taken our house because their own had been taken by the Tigers. Their misfortune had become ours." (Volume 1, page 11)

Shan Dissanayake describes a father sheltering in one trench with his daughter, wondering where his wife is and whether she has survived the bombing: "Siva's thoughts turned to his wife and now he couldn't refrain from softly sobbing. Was she one of those bodies in that other trench? The thought was unbearable... He felt his daughter move in his arms. They had to get away before it was their trench's turn." (Volume 1, page 52)

Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya: "The days grew more silent. Not the silence during the war when lights were switched off early and people spoke cautiously to each other, not knowing whom to trust. This new silence was of the kind where one small movement could shatter the peace." (Volume 1, page 91)

In Nifraz Rifaz's story in the first volume, a young Muslim man who polishes jewelry for a living, is picked up by three men in a van, because he writes a letter for his English class assignment. The letter is addressed to Prabhakaran. For this, he is brutalised, even before they read the whole letter, which ends: "Mr. Prabhakaran, is this war that we are fighting really worthwhile? One day when we die it's just the grave that will shelter us. And it's just a very small space. Isn't it?" (page 117)

In Vindhya Buthpitiya's story, a father and daughter bring home the ashes of her mother, into a Jaffna that her sister died to liberate. "Homeland rings hollow in my ears, like the carcass of this house. An overwhelming sadness washes over the anger I cultivated in these years of exile and I allow myself to cry. I think of Juderaj's spirited sermons abruptly rendered meaningless in the face of everything we have surrendered and everyone we have sacrificed." (Volume 1, page 199)

There are poems in these volumes too. Kandiah Shrikarunaakaran describes life during the fighting years and the long processions of the displaced leaving their homes. 
"Electricity cut off,
life now aligned with the sun's cycle,
we turned pre-historic.
Kuppi lamp with scant kerosene
resisted the night feebly,
every spit of light weak
against the howling wind.
These lamps flickered and dangled
marking our scramble backwards in history." (Volume 2, page 57)
"Lorries, buses, carts, disoriented crowds,
jammed, unmoving, rooted,
no one sure where to go,
which way to travel to safety.
Salty water brimming the road on either side,
failed to quench our thirst.
Impatient, sleepless, sunburnt,
our tears of anguish turned
the salty water saltier." (Volume 2, page 59)
Deborah Xavier writes about two people haunted by one incident in 1983: A bus load of people heads out in search of shelter amid the riots. They include a pregnant woman and a woman with a baby. The bus is stopped, and attacked by armed thugs. One of them throws the baby to the ground and kills the mother. (Volume 2, pages 159-167)

There are stories of hope too. In Easwarajanani Karunailingam's story, a Sinhalese ex-soldier moves to Kilinochchi in order to help rebuild the town, and ends up adopting an orphaned Tamil child. The story describes the distress of the resettlement process. (Volume 2, pages 198-207)

The war hero in Ruhini Katugaha's story tells his little brother, a doctor, "Ethnicity is what we choose to put on ... not something we get from our father's surname. The war is never going to be over little brother, if we think like that. When we are done with this war, we'll find something else to fight over and then something else." (Volume 2, page 262)

Krishanth Manokaran describes the homecoming of a grandfather and granddaughter. There is joy and love but also the memory of unnecessary death. "Krishnan had taken his motorbike to drive Sugi to the market and gunfire had broken out on the A9. Who fired first they didn't know. The army blamed the boys. The boys blamed the army. What solace did that give to a father?" (Volume 3, page 27)

In Adilah Ismail's story, a court clerk's memories of her own rape at the hands of a soldier are triggered by the hearing of a gang rape case. We also meet the judge, stepping out for a cigarette break and reflecting on what it would mean to find the accused guilty--would his evening walks "contain a frisson of fear and a wariness of strangers"? (Volume 3, page 105)

Volume 3 includes a story that imagines life in a free Eelam, with trade blockades from Sri Lanka causing acute food shortages. People run blackmarket stores and as the one he is visiting is raided, the protagonist hides: "Calming his breathing his mind did a strange thing to him then' he was once again back on that beach in Mullivaikal. He could hear the screams of injured thousands ringing in his ears. He remembered how the salt of the Nandikadal lagoon bit into the raw wounds across his legs and arms. He did not feel regret then or now, only a bone-deep weariness that this life of his had been lived with so much struggle." (A.A., page 167)

The quotations I have selected are merely an indicator of the riches in these three volumes. The books have been printed as part of the project but they are not widely distributed, I think, and that is a pity. I would hope that a publisher would at least publish a selection that could be available in stores, not just in Sri Lanka but across the region. 

Understanding the human impact of conflict is not just important in places where there has been conflict but also in places where are readier every day to escalate the level of violence in ordinary interactions. We are touchy and we are quick to anger. We do not learn history so in any case, we know none to remember. We raise statues for those who teach compassion but show no mercy for the infractions and imperfections of others, even when they are imagined. These heartbreaking stories must be widely shared so that we all learn how fragile our lives are, how precious our dreams (and this world) and how vital to our survival are values like cooperation, reconciliation and forgiveness. 

You can access the anthologies here:


I want to close with a poem I loved, although it is really not about the war. I think it would resonate with anyone who has used boxes of paints or crayons with European names--prussian blue, for instance. How am I supposed to know what that means? (From Volume 3, pages 94-95)
Crayola Eyeseby Sukhee Ramawickrama
From childhood,
my Crayola-trained American eyes
Cherry Red
Royal Purple
Robin's-Egg Blue
Peachy Pink.
But here there is
Train Ticket Lavender,
Thambili Orange,
Milk-Tea Brown
which is creamier than
Spicy Pahe Brown.
Paddy Field Green is a favorite,
as is Floor Polish Red.
Poya Day White
 a shade crisper than
Jasmine White.
Indian Ocean Turquoise
endless, shimmering.
But nothing is brighter
than Little-Boy-School-Shorts Blue.
How can I begin to understand,
How can I allow myself to write,
When I am just starting
to truly see colour? 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Politics and fiction

The title for this post should probably be "Why I love fiction set in a political context."

I just put down Seema Goswami's 'Race Course Road.' I wanted to read it when she first posted about it, finally bought it last month, and picked it up during a sleepless spell the night before last, only to read it compulsively and finish it last night.

I read it playing the usual game one does with such novels, especially those set in India, asking, 'Now who is this supposed to be?' and 'Who is this character based on?' It is easy enough to guess but you realise that the answers do not make a difference to the simple but absorbing story, which is truly fiction. All the characters come alive, seem realistic, and you really want to know what is going to happen to all of them. It was just a really good storybook and I recommend it for weekend reading, holiday reading and definitely, reading on a really long flight. I mean, you can read it whenever you want, but best to read it when you can indulge without interruption--I found it hard to put down.

Seema Goswami's long years as a reporter show in all kinds of detailed references to the politics of the last twenty years, enriching the book.

I loved that the book tells a story, you can see Goswami's view on various issues (especially if you read her columns), but there is no hidden message. It is a clever book but it does not sit on a pedestal, pretending to dispense wisdom to lesser mortals--a problem I have with a great deal of contemporary Indian writing. People try too hard to impress and overload their stories with everything they know, layers of messages and too much else besides. In this book, the author brings a great deal of knowledge to her storytelling but the book is not about how brilliant she is--it is a book about the people whose story she is telling us. That has become a rare quality in this pretentious world we inhabit.

The only quibble I have with the book is the extremely tiny and light print--not the author's fault. But if you read it on a Kindle, and if the publishers produce an easy-to-read edition, I would say this is one of the most fun books I have read in the last year.


As I read 'Race Course Road,' I realised that I am very easily drawn into fiction--in any medium--that is set in a political context. I have binge watched 'Madam Secretary' earlier this year. I have 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes PM' bookmarked. I loved the political parts of the Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles (which I really enjoyed on the whole!). This context is what I really enjoy about Nayantara Sahgal's writing.

I want to acknowledge that a lot of other novels also merit the label 'political'. So maybe in the Indian context, what I mean is really a 'Lutyens' novel, to borrow a term from Goswami? Something that fictionalises Parliament, parties, elections and so on.

In real life, I am bored by television news discussions about politics, and despite wearing the political scientist tag on my bio, I tune out of everyday whosaidwhattowhom politics--the kind people seem to be enthralled by and for the first time in my life, I couldn't identify most political worthies in a line-up, even with a list of names in hand, without wild guesses. The politics of parties and netas really bores me. There, I said it.

Happily, fiction of any sort uses filters. Boring things get ignored and better still, in the best work, as much is left unsaid as is recorded. Unfortunately, this is not true in the real world. Politicians and even more, political experts, appear to be the most verbose creatures on earth. Where novels and television series cut to the chase, in seminars and interviews, people are hard to stop.

Truth, the saying goes, is stranger than fiction. The real world of politics has long crossed from 'strange' into bizarre, grotesque and evil. So in work like 'Race Course Road' and 'When the Moon Shines by Day' (Nayantara Sahgal), even the worst things people do, still seem not as bad as reality.

In the real world, there are unmanageable consequences for incompetence and evil, which are contained in fiction. You know, that as horrendous as someone's actions or acts of omission are, their consequences will be limited to the page and their comeuppance is imminent before the end of the novel. I don't need to feel anxious about that world. On American television fiction, there is a consistent triumph of idealism that is quite comforting. Take the President in 'The West Wing': there were moments in which one really wanted to vote for him. Moments, but they were there.

Fiction offers idealists like me a larger selection of good people. I know, I know, that's a horribly cynical thing for me to write, unworthy of a Piscean. But it's true. Who on a television newscast makes you feel as hopeful as a fictional character, even for five minutes?

Reading 'Race Course Road' made me want to read another novel like this immediately. I hope the author is working on one!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Ode to my laptop

Ode to my laptop (away for repairs)

On most days
you sit there alone
soaking in the hot glare of the western sun,
the yellow on the walls
magnifying its intense warmth.

I have forgotten to draw the curtains.
I have forgotten to cover you
--with the yellow napkin that is your comforter.
I appear to have forgotten you.

I am stuck at my other desk,
trapped in correspondence mode without end
and in an endless waiting for this and that.
I sit there,
anticipating the next disturbance,
faced with long task lists,
stuck till someone else responds,
yet pottering to fill the time between now
and when I can finish them.

I do forget about you.
I forget to break away and read the articles I store in your memory.
I forget to sit with you and watch words flow from my fingers
on to your screen.
And when I remember, I chafe that I am stuck.
I cannot always return to you
the minute I remember.

Sometimes I am mid-task;
sometimes I am a prisoner of the schedule I made.

I forget about you
and that is to forget about me.
That I am more than a generator of email messages
and tweets, and drafts crafted to make people work.
That I want to work with words and images
and not just to arrange events or market programmes
but just because it gives me pleasure.

I forget you and it is as if I have forgotten pleasure.
Photoshopping flower-photos into cards.
Watching slide-shows of holidays past.
Writing blogposts no one will read.
And reading to learn and reflect and write,
in order to remember that once
I learnt to learn, and once I used to teach.

You belong mostly to my other life.
And when I forget you,
I forget that I owe it to myself
to keep that part of me alive.

But now you have been out for repair
a whole week
and I think,
if you were there, I would have written this,
I would have finished reading that,
and my morning labours with you
would have given meaning to my day.

With you, waiting on that desk,
I have the option of other lives.

As ever, when you are gone,
I promise I will never forget or neglect you again.
Never mind whether I will keep that promise.
Just come back today.

June 18, 2018

Summer holiday Sundays

After many years of working long weekdays and all weekend, a bad spell of insomnia and fatigue last year forced me to change my ways. With great difficulty, I began to resist working on weekends. I go to bed earlier and sleep as normally as I can, approximating 6-8 hours on a good night. And not working now means stepping away from all devices, or rather, from work applications on all devices, including social networks.

The first few weekends were hard, not because I longed to go to work--it had been years since I felt motivated to keep working--but because the guilt was overwhelming. How could I possibly be idling? What do I do with the day if I am not working? I had forgotten that I used to have hobbies.

For all those contemplating this transition, I want to tell you that it gets easier. I now start shutting down work on Saturday morning; which means I do what needs to be done and don't initiate anything new. I do some of this resentfully--no one else around me is working even when I do, so why should I? I am not recovered enough from burnout or fatigue for time-off not to be tinged with negativity. But it is just getting easier to let go. To shore up the barrier and say, no, I will not respond to this in a hurry now. I tell myself when an email calls for an instant reply: I will hurry but they will not read it till Monday anyway, so why bother? I see a frantic message from someone who makes me wait all the time, and go, ha ha, now it's your turn, I will do this on Wednesday. And so Saturday afternoons are once more becoming a time of temptations: shopping, coffee with my cousins, colouring books, chatting with my sister.

And Sunday. What can I tell you about my summer holiday Sundays? I set aside the mobile phone I use for work calls. I charge the other one where I watch Amazon Prime and the iPad where I have Netflix. I have a pile of books by my side. I have a notebook and some pens. But I make no plans and have no expectation that I will do this or that.

I am slowly learning, "just for today" as the meditations go, to ignore the obstacle course I have set up everyday--I have to be up by this time, get so much done by that, heat breakfast by this, eat breakfast by that... it's a high-pressure race that the clock wins every time. I experience time like a series of concentric walls that close in around me. At this point, this leaves my body and spirit wrecked everyday. The clock is fastest, I am running hard and quite fast behind it but most people around me appear to be moving like snails slowing me down as I reach out for things they are supposed to be passing me. My war with the clock exacerbates my war with the world around me.

But not on Sunday. On Sunday, I retreat to the pace of a 16 RPM record. I have learnt to slow down quite a bit. I spend a lot of the day flat and virtually all of the day alone.

Let's talk about the 'alone' part. For six days a week, I am forced to interact with people and perform a variety of roles: founder of NGO, political scientist, fake expert on this and that, cheerer of the miserable, encourager of the fearful, dutiful relative, and so on. On Sunday, I am practising the only one that can get me through this lifetime: me.

On Sunday, I spend most of the day by myself, interacting quietly with those in the house and nothing more. I hope to god no one wants to meet for anything that day. I drag myself to visits. I even postpone urgent grocery shopping so I will not have to interact with people on the way and at that end. Sunday is reserved for indulging my introversion. Just one day in the week. I don't want to talk to anyone. Go away. Let me pretend I live in complete isolation. Don't remind me of how much my life irritates me every other day.

That solitude is enough to endow Sunday with a magical quality.

I am remembering all the things I like to do apart from work, and now, one day is not enough for them. I think I can once more list 'hobbies': reading, music, watching fun stuff here and there (of course, nothing highly recommended), drawing and colouring. I have an incomplete craft project sitting in a bag. And dozing. I do a lot of dozing. I yearn to blog and work with my photos but that would mean coming to a computer so I resist and promise to steal more weekday time from work over the months ahead. I want to return to letter-writing by hand and use all that beautiful paper I keep buying.

And I want to tell you, there is a category of work reading I do on Sunday that my week life gives me no time for. I remember that precious part of myself.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that I have reconstructed my school summer holidays in my Sunday non-routine. Sunday is beginning to feel lazy and quiet. I look forward to it. My books invite me and I curl up with them. I spread everything out and do what I feel like.

When I taught in the US, Christmas week was like this. When the Fall term ended, I would pull out paints and paper and spread out and never put anything away. I would listen to audio-books and have the television on, and just draw and paint for about a week. In blissful solitude as everyone else partied. That too is a part of my Sundays now.

The bad thing about Sundays is that they culminate in Monday. Unlike some of my friends, I do not look forward to Mondays. Monday mornings, such as this one, bring the dread of a time-bound obstacle course. I have only till about 9 to myself. After that, my time, energy and attention are fair game. Anyone is likely to show up and ask for anything. I will not get my life back till Saturday.

This is where the summer holiday resemblance stops. One finished the summer in anticipation of the new school year: Who will be in my class? Who will be my class teacher? Who will sit next to me? And of course, in Bombay, it was time to by the next size of raincoat and gumboots (or rain shoes) and if your parents felt indulgent, a new pencil box or water-bottle... Monday brings no such temptations but a return to anxiety and more work than this healthy new life-style will allow me to finish. I close my eyes and sigh and think, if this is how I feel, I need a change of life. And I put that on the work-list to deepen my dread of Monday.

But never mind, if I can close my eyes and get through this day, I can go to bed early and dream of another life. And inshallah, time flies, so Saturday afternoon will come around soon enough. And another summer holiday Sunday.