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? 

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