I had the wonderful privilege of spending one week next to Jane Nona?s bed at the Peradeniya Teaching hospital in Kandy. 75 year old Jane Nona?s statistics could well have been 15, 15, 15. The smallest 75 year old woman I must have ever seen. She had married when she was just 15. Very proudly she tells me about how she gave birth to six strapping baby boys and one girl, all in her own home. A midwife had come and cleaned her up and held burning coals on which medicinal herbs were thrown in, her only means of sanitization. ??He was tall, fair and very kind to me? she says about her husband who had died 15 years ago. ?I knew nothing when I married him, I was only a child. He knew so much more? That had been sufficient for her. She didn?t have any complaints about him, her life, her children, her economic status or her even her reason for coming to a hospital for the very first time in her life. Her grandchildren had forced her to have a check-up. She suspected something was wrong but had no idea what it was. ?I am ready to die but my grandchildren want me to stretch it some more? she says. I looked at her file. She had a prolapsed womb. A small repair was scheduled. She had never before needed to see a doctor and never stayed in a hospital even once in her 75 years. What a blessed life, I thought. I was a veritable live-in compared to her.
She was daunted by the procedures, the examinations, the numerous scans, blood tests, especially because the doctors were mostly male. ?I have no idea what they are telling me child, what on earth is a isscan? Can you come with me when he does it?? I check with doctor and he smilingly says ok. She was schoked he could see right inside her womb. ?If my husband was around and he knew I was doing all this he will jump in the well and die? she embarrassingly declared. We went through most of the tests together. This supposedly more educated and informed 41year old from the city, was learning so much more about life from Jane Nona than any other lessons she must have learned.
Continue reading “Jane Nona”
Missing for over 300 days
On 25th November, far away from my motherland, I rang Sandya Eknaligoda to ask her, How are you? Yesterday was the 300th day that her loving husband has been missing. And for all Sri Lankans, one of our best cartoonists, writers, journalists, painters and activists has been missing for 300 days.
Sandya told me that a group of about 60 people met yesterday at the Temple of the Innocents with lotus flowers and oil lamps to do a simple ritual for Prageeth. This little monument in front of the Parliament was commissioned by Chandrika Kumaranathunga Bandaranayake?s government, designed and built by the artist, Jagath Weerasinghe, to remember victims of the late 80s/early 90s Southern insurgency. It had been long neglected, its meaning forgotten. Soldiers, whose job is to protect the coming and going Parliamentarians, had been using it as a place to piss. But friends cleaned it up and made it the place to be together on Prageeth?s 300th day.
My mind has been scrolling through the decades during which Prageeth and I have known each other. These are a few of those moments with my missing friend:
In the years of 60,000 dead, the late 80s and early 90s, Mawatha (The Way) magazine was struggling to make sense of our country?s vortex of insanity. Bahktin, Bukharin, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, all were being studied as fuel for our political thinking, trawled for a social analysis that might help us understand. It was 1990 and I had cycled into town, Galle in the south of Sri Lanka, to buy vegetables for my Auntie. I secretly bought a copy of Mawatha, rolled it carefully into the Government newspaper and hid it beneath the vegetables in the bottom of my basket because there were checkpoints every 500-1000 meters. Back at Auntie?s, I found a private place to read. This is where I first met Prageeth, in his writings for Mawatha 20 years ago.
The next time was in person in 1992 in Colombo. A group of us, young and middle class, used to meet to discuss politics, culture, democracy, human rights ? everything ? how to make things better, practical steps, what to do about our disastrous country. Prageeth was always present, mostly silent, closely observing.
Later, in 1992-4 we had a movement we called Freedom from Fear, confronting the cycles of violence in our world, against the killings and disappearances, trying to create a properly democratic space. Prageeth drew two portraits that became iconic images. One was of Richard de Zoyza, the popular actor, journalist and TV presenter whose slaughtered body had been found on a beach south of Colombo. Looking pensive, chin resting on his hand, his face, beard, and glasses aligned, Richard?s gaze was focused on the viewer. The other portrait was of Ranjini Thiranagama, the Tamil academic and human rights activist, founder member of the UTHRJ (University Teachers? Human Rights Organisation Jaffna), who had been killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These pictures became the emblems of our group.
My fourth moment was working together later in the 90s on the Values of Dissent publications for the Civil Rights Movement. Prageeth was designing the covers and layout, creating the visual concept for the series of books we produced.
In 2007, while abroad, I was reading Prageeth?s pieces on the LankaeNews website; sharp insightful writings about the fundamental issues behind the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, revealing the deeper meanings, the subtexts and hidden agendas.
Later in 2007, the last time we met in person, we talked a lot about education, the future of the next generation, his kids, and the daughter of a friend. As we said goodbye, Prageeth warned that we have to be very careful. ?These people know how to play the game with the world. They themselves were once democratic and human rights activists ? this regime is full of them!?
Now he is abducted, disappeared, missing for 300 days.
There was a first time: a year ago he was abducted and then released because they ?got the wrong person?. This second time they have dragged him into the vortex of Sri Lanka?s nightmare.
I am looking at the photograph of this little 300 Days ceremony. What can I read in it? I see many people with whom I have been involved the whole of my lifetime; people who fight for equal rights, for human rights, against abuses, war and corruption. There are small differences: people have got a bit old, there are fewer of them; many have been killed, exiled or silenced. But those in the photo, their eyes and faces are so bright, strong and energetic. They look like they have the inner strength and energy to fight for even more decades.
Beyond this photograph of people gathered for Prageeth at the Temple of the Innocents, I see in my mind the Sri Lankan Parliament so nearby. Most of the Parliamentarians sitting there, Ruling Party and Opposition, are responsible as perpetrators, colluders, collaborators and beneficiaries of the violence, the arrests, the abductions, disappearances, tortures, wars, corruption and impunity that has cursed post-independence Sri Lanka.
In one of his poems about Hitler?s Germany, Berthold Brecht asked: If you cannot protect your people, why should the sun rise on your country? In Sri Lanka people from all communities are being abducted, disappeared, tortured and killed. It pains me to say that my friend Prageeth is one amongst tens of thousands. There is a famous poem of Martin Niemoeller about those who dared not speak out when others were being taken. In Sri Lanka, whether you speak or not, whether you act or not, they will come for you.
[For a related article on Prageeth, read ?for The Missing by Gypsy Bohemia]
Related articles: “Crossfire”
THURSDAY, 23 SEPTEMBER 2010 00:00
The 4th article of the Dasa Raja Dharma, Lord Buddha?s incomparable treatise on good governance is about Ajjava, i.e. honesty and integrity. The ruler, the Buddha said must be absolutely straightforward and must never employ any crooked means to achieve ends. This week I planned to dwell on this particular aspect of good governance but am compelled to employ the idea to dissect something more specific. I write about honesty and integrity but only in terms of how they relate to the month of September.
I am writing this on September 22, 2010. September 22 is significant for a specific and personal reason. It marks an anniversary. On this day, exactly one year ago, the Daily Mirror published an article by me titled ?Welcome to Sri Lanka Ms. Patricia Butenis?. Ms. Butenis had just assumed duties as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka. My comment followed a statement she issued to the press subsequent to presenting credentials to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
She said in that note, ?No country, including the United States, has a perfect record in safeguarding human rights? but said that even while addressing its own shortcomings, the USA has a responsibility to advocate for the rights and freedoms of people worldwide. Ms. Butenis is aware I am sure of the adage that charity begins at home. I expressed in my response to her ?note? the hope that once she recovers from jet-leg, Ms. Butenis would write a lengthy piece informing Sri Lankans about what exactly the USA has been doing by way of addressing shortcomings.
A lot has happened since September 22, 2009. We?ve had Nick Clegg of Britain?s Liberal Democratic Party confessing while acting as Prime Minister that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. We?ve had ?Wikileaks? telling us of the horrendous and systemic perpetration of atrocities by US troops in Afghanistan. We?ve had the US justice system virtually giving a green light to torture of prisoners as long as it happens outside the borders of that country. We?ve had President Barack Obama wanting photographic evidence of excesses perpetrated by US troops in Iraq suppressed in the name of ?national security?. We?ve not had Ms. Butenis saying a word about these things.
Continue reading “September 22 is for remembering”
We sat nervously huddled on the wooden bench of the Haputale Railway Station at 8pm last night, clutching our precious collections from the trip – kithul jaggery from Badulla and jars of orange marmalade, guava jelly and Nelli syrup from Adhisham for the two grandmothers.? Partly shivering in the cold, partly wondering how we were ever going to make the 10-12 hour journey back home by getting in to a train from a midway station with no previous booking.? We had taken a break on the way back to Colombo to visit the beautiful monastry Adhisham and didn’t realise the train will be full by the time it comes to Haputale.
“I love all kinds of people mummy, but I just can’t travel 3rd class on the train” said Mishka. We had just that morning taken 3rd class tickets from Badulla to Haputale and it was quite an experience when, after having paid for 4 seats, we were down to one, when Samaritan love overtook us and we gave seats to mothers with babies and grandmothers, also with babies in the hope of getting a sympathetic seat in an already overcrowded train. Mishka was miffed that people could assume we would feel sorry.?Little realising we were going to need that same sympathy soon.
I said let’s pray. Zoe said let’s throw some people out. Kyle said ‘don’t worry mummy, something will work out’.?15 more minutes to go for the train to arrive. I looked at my 3 fellows and thought I must do something. They had been such good troopers, climbing up and down mountains, trekking nearly 2kms in Indian sandals (bad preparation by the mother) to see and touch the Dunhinda falls, that majestically fell 190ft down creating a mystical cloud of spray and awe.?They had eaten noodles for breakfast and fried rice with no meat as it was the Buddhist festival where no meat was cooked.? They had slept in a mud cabin in the woods and no neighbouring lights, with absolutely no fear at all.?They had been thrilled at every little thing, the train rides through tunnels and around the mountains, the fiery short-eats and even the ghastly toilet in the train where they could see the tracks while doing their ‘little jobs’.
So I plucked my courage and told my three, ‘let mummy go talk to the station master’. The man at the counter had refused to even issue 3rd class tickets to us as he wasn’t sure if there would be room even to stand ‘all other seats FULL madam’ he had said a while ago.? So I by-passed him and walked into the station master’s office.? I made polite introductions in English and he asked what I was doing in Haputale and what had I seen, etc, etc. Then he asked me the wrong question ‘Are you Tamil or Sinhala?’ ‘Oh no!’ says Mishka, because she knows the tirade her mother goes into when that question is asked.? So I let him have it – about how this country got into this state because of questions like that.?And I thought, there goes any chances of getting seats.? Yet,?he didn’t seem peeved. He was in fact making very good conversation.? It ended with his promise ‘I will somehow get you seats but first get yourself on the train with 3rd class tickets’.?I saw Mishka’s face fall.
The train came. It was a mad rush. We managed to scramble into 3rd class. It was packed. It smelled of alcohol and it had no room even on the floor.? I was dismayed but was determined to take it.?I had just managed to put the bags up on the rack when the station master, uniform, cap and all, came running to our compartment and hurried us to take our bags and get off the train. The children groaned. We got off.? He signaled to a man in uniform where the reserved seats were and held up 4 fingers.? We were like refugees now running to the front of the train with bags and jackets and Ivndian slippers flapping under our feet. Passengers poked their heads out to see what was going on with the station master who was also running along with us. The engine driver was getting impatient.? A quick exchange between the two men and we were bundled into 2nd class reserved compartments.? Reclining chairs and all. All I could do was jump back down and shake hands with the station master and thank him profusely.? And as the train pulled away, he shouted ‘I don’t know why I did this but certainly not because you are a Tamil!’
I fell back on my seat laughing. Apparently some others had to be re-arranged to another compartment to fit us in there.? The children were giving hi-five’s to each other. Mishka had found a new hero – a tall, smart station master in Haputale. She was all starry-eyed. I was speechless.? The kindness people show others, in any dimension, makes such a difference to an individual, a family.? Never should one shy from going that extra mile, lending a hand or seeing to the comfort of another, to a strange mother with three children who believed in miracles.? The children will never forget this experience and also the belief that people in their country are helpful, kind and generous no matter what ethnicity they belong to.
And as the knight in shining armour blew the whistle, and Zoe cuddled up to me on the seat, happy she didn?t have to throw anyone out the window, I looked forward to the future of my children.
Switch off the lights. Rend your hair. Don only white. It is time to go into mourning. An old and ailing relative? democracy, has died an inevitable death. Dead at barely 60 years old though the abuse it suffered during its short life span made it appear much older.
Like the aunt who lingers on long after most of the family believe she is already dead, this week?s death was a quiet one, it was long expected, some would say even overdue. There was no shock, no sudden loss.
Democracy in this country wasn?t overthrown by a dictator, nor shattered suddenly by the chaos of war and revolution. Instead it died a painful, slow death. Strangled by corruption, stifled by authoritarianism and finally snuffed out by the disinterest and apathy of the general public. ?And while it somehow lingered on despite being savaged by decades of war, riots, and attempted revolutions, ?this week we finally saw democracy die in the hearts and minds of voters.
The turn out ?for the 2010 general election stands as the lowest in history? only ?50% of the country?s people made the effort to participate in the country?s political process; not enough to sustain democracy?s ebbing life force. ?While some will criticise the voters? apathy, in reality you can only marvel at the patience of a people who voted regularly for six decades. ??At the devotion of a population who after years of false promises and disappointment continued to vote until finally a lack of credible candidates, tangible issues and the impossibility of effecting real change finally destroyed their interest in democracy.
Of course the truth is and always has been that ?regardless of the final results of this election, thugs, cronies and criminals will continue to rule this country. And regardless of anyone?s vote the present ?situation of lawlessness, ?emergency rule and authoritarianism is guaranteed to continue. The election was never going to address this country?s fundamental issues. Its lack of law and order, its almost medieval levels of women?s representation, the broken education system.
None of these things were even on the agenda. With victory guaranteed ?the most keenly fought battles in this year?s election took place within the ruling party, as the government?s heavy weight candidates fought openly over the spoils of certain UPFA victory; the 20 million vassals and serfs who no longer enjoy even the pretense of rights.
Instead of issues and achievements, candidates ?struggled to display their closeness to the country?s centre of power. ?We were treated to the unashamed sycophantism of ?posters showing Wimal Weerawansa sharing breakfast with our leader and ?Bandula Gunawardena daring to pass the ?phone to the President. ?Eventually ?desperation for inter-party preference votes saw ?government candidates desecrate Buddha statues and violate every section of the country?s election law ?with impunity.
Seeing the ugliness of the government, the impotence of the opposition and the hypocrisy ?of the institutions ? police, courts, charged with safeguarding democracy the people were inevitably disgusted. ??And at ?a crucial moment in the country?s history they ?chose to hide their faces from this mockery of the democratic process. They looked away ?from the hideous posters, meaningless slogans and the futile opposition ?and refused to make the effort to vote.
But while everyone looked away ?democracy died a second death ? that of the two thirds majority. ?Figures indicate that the UPFA ?will receive nearly two-thirds of the votes ?cast. ?And with this majority comes nothing less than absolute power. The ability to amend the constitution, the very basis of ?the nation?s law. The checks and ?balances that ?are the key to democracy have disappeared. ??And with the government in such a comfortable position the reforms that could ?possibly have breathed new life into the islands democracy? the 17th Amendment, quotas for women, a Right to Information Act, will never materialise.
Democracy in Sri Lanka is beyond revival. And in its place we now have just one party or more accurately, one ?family. ?And the country?s citizens have just one choice, either demonstrate their loyalty, obedience and gratitude to the ruling family or risk detention, death or worse the utter irrelevance of ?powerlessness.
This is no longer a criticism or a warning, ?it is simply reality. One chapter of the country?s history is now closed ?? the flickering light of democracy has gone out. ?The ailing opposition, the clapped out General, the toothless UNP will never be able to restore the people?s right to democracy. ?Instead if it is ever to return, democracy in this country will have to be reborn. Instead of ?being imposed by colonial masters it will have to take hold again in the hearts and minds of the people.
If nothing else this year?s low turn-out indicates dissatisfaction ?with the current political system and perhaps ?a longing for a process we can all believe in; ?it is still possible that the country?s people still long for genuine democracy. ?But until that hope manifests itself as a genuine grass roots movement for a return to a politics based on principles, representative politics and good governance we ?have dark years of despotism ahead of us.
Democracy is dead. And today only thugs, cronies and sycophants ?have reason to celebrate; the rest of us will be in mourning for a weak, flawed but comforting old friend.
By Gypsy Bohemia
A solitary lamp perched on a desk top lights a room. A man scribbles feverishly on paper, hunched over the light as if he?s jealously guarding what little he has. His desk is cluttered with cartoons and drawings ? some of a President, others of two small children. He holds down his paper with one hand and writes with the other, so violently that other loose papers and articles shuffle with his movements.
He is breathing hard, as if he?s run to his desk from sleep, taken by wild inspiration. He has forgotten to switch on the fan, and the heat of that December night hangs in the air, thickening like spoiling milk. Small explosions of sweat begin to burst from the pores of his forehead, drip darkly onto his fast-moving hand, and trickle onto the paper, blotting the ink. This frustrates him but he doesn?t stop to soak up the liquid, just writes on, faster.
His wife lies in bed in the next room. She is awake, some inexplicable worry vaulting the sleep away from her eyes whenever it threatens to close them. She watches the empty space next to her, willing her husband to come back to bed but knows he won?t. She wonders what he felt the need to write about in the middle of the night, leaping out of bed as if possessed. She was afraid he?d knock something over in the dark and wake the children, but that walk from bedroom to desk is so familiar that he doesn?t.
It is only when he feels that familiar cramping in his fingers that he pauses. He looks around the room, fighting to make out familiar shapes in the blackness outside his little circle of light. His house is modest and unadorned for the most part ? the only exceptions are the sketches of his children that he has been drawing since they were born. Some have been framed; others lie strewn around the house ? on bits of furniture, stuffed carelessly into vases by the children, folded within the pockets of well-worn wallets, dog-eared between the pages of story books.
He wiggles his fingers to give them a stretch and picks up one of the drawings on his desk. His little boy is growing up quickly and sometimes he feels like he?s missing it, so caught up is he in his work. Sometimes he sees print in his sleep. Sometimes he finds himself talking to his little ones about his work and has to stop mid-sentence, realizing they don?t understand most of what he?s saying. He shoots a guilty glance in the direction of his bedroom, knowing he woke his wife in his mad midnight rush to get to his desk. She worries for him, he knows. He doesn?t take enough time to relieve her of those worries, to comfort her. He resolves to, as soon as he finishes this article.
After this brief pause, he goes back to his article, crossing and re-crossing the lines, scribbling out careless mistakes, cursing his own pen which writes far slower than the thoughts run in his head. He longs for the computer at his office but knows it is too late to go there now and besides, to leave now would be to disrupt the flow of his writing. The flow in tonight?s case is a torrential storm of words, figures and damning evidence.
His wife gives up a losing battle and comes to the doorway of the bedroom, which is always open ? just in case. She leans against the frame, appreciating the cool wood against her hot skin, and watches her husband as he works. She knows every telltale movement of his obsessive inspiration so well. Watching him from behind, he looks the same as he did when they first married. He would stop every now and then to shuffle through printed sheets of information and look up to stare unseeingly at some point on the wall, piecing parts of it together in his head. His back would periodically straighten and then fall into that characteristic hunch every time he was struck by something new that he simply had to write down. Even through the dull ache of worry in her stomach, she can?t help but smile.
She knows the value of what he does, but it isn?t the easiest thing to live with. The warnings, the childrens? questions, her own engulfing fear. When they came with ropes and iron rods to take him away she expected that fear to kill her on the spot. It stuck in her throat and seemed to expand outwards, threatening to burst vocal chords already strained with soundless screams. There was an awful moment before he was dragged away, when she looked from her husband?s eyes, smoldering with helpless anger, to the terrified ones of her children. Seconds later, she caught sight of her own in a mirror and saw only naked panic. 4 pairs of eyes, a thousand different emotions. Darting urgently from one to the other, trying to comprehend, trying to rebel, trying to say goodbye. Moments later, he was gone and they were alone.
When he came back, she couldn?t believe it. She wildly kissed each purpling eye, each ugly bruise and held him tightly against her, not caring even as he cried out in pain when her arms circled sensitive, injured skin. She tried to make him swear never to put himself in danger again. For her. For their children. He refused. The truth is more important, he kept insisting, and his eyes suddenly became distant and withdrawn and she knew he was already thinking of something to write. At that moment she felt a mixture of searing frustration and aching love so strong, she almost choked.
Today, as she watches him write, she feels a similar emotion. She looks down the hall to her children?s shared room, listening in the stillness for any indication that they?re awake. Her little girl has been having nightmares of late. She never says what they?re about, but insists on crawling into bed with them for the rest of the night. She only falls asleep when her head is nestled safely against her father?s chest.
He?s been writing so hard and so long, he doesn?t notice she is standing behind him. Suddenly though, in a rare lapse of concentration, he feels the pressure of her stare on his back and the weight of her worry cloaking his skin ? another layer of heat on an already hot night. He turns around and looks for her in the darkness, finding her barely visible in the shadows of their bedroom doorway.
?Come to bed? she says quietly and her eyes linger on him for a moment or two before she turns to go back inside.
He looks at his unfinished article for a moment, hesitating. Then he wonders how many times he will get to hold her after this article comes out. He lives under no illusions ? they came before. They will come again.
He puts down his pen as if putting down a heavy weight. The truth can wait for a few hours, he thinks. The truth can wait until morning.
He gets up, switches off the lamp, and as the room dissolves into darkness around him, walks that familiar path back to bed.
Authors note: Journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda went missing on the 24th of December, days after writing several critical articles regarding election malpractices by the Government. He remains missing to this day. Like him, hordes of journalists have been arrested, abducted, jailed, tortured and murdered for reporting the truth and expressing dissenting views. Some have been returned to their families. Others, like Ekaneligoda, have simply vanished without a trace, leaving their families with the horror of not knowing whether to hope or grieve.
These attacks are not simply hits against the media. They are a direct violation of our rights: the right to know the truth of what is out there, the right to ask questions of those who should answer to us, and the right to simply have a different point of view.
For every voice that is silenced, more must shoulder their burden, wear their courage and take their place to end this cycle of insidious violence. This is my tribute, for The Missing.
Heading to my flat. It will be a night to reminisce.
10 years ago this time, I was lying on a hospital bed, being prepared for a C-Section, in a cold and sterile surgical unit.? Waiting for my son to be taken out. I didnt know it was going to be a boy. I only knew it was going to be hard on the finances. Hard on my time with my daughter who was only 1.8 yrs. So many thoughts running in my head. A lone tear ran the side of my face. I couldn’t brush it off as my hands were strapped on the side. A woman could never feel more vulnerable than when on strapped down on a surgical table, with a swollen belly and a surgical blouse that doesn’t meet at the front. No pins allowed in the OT.? Cold and shivering and and not just because of the airconditioner. Wishing hard for the anesthesia mask to be placed quickly over my face so that I just go into oblivion. But the nursing staff was taking their time.? It was a teaching hospital and I didnt have to pay for the theatre. Only for the medicines. Care is expensive.
Then I heard a woman sobbing on the other side of the curtain. She sounded young and she was crying asking for a man, in Sinhalese. I mentally wiped away my own tears and fears and started talking to her. It was her first pregnancy. She was 23.? I said you should be happy and proud that you have come all this way with no problems. No pressure, no diabetes, baby’s reports were good and I could hear the radio monitoring the heartbeat of the baby strong and rythmic. Maybe she was scared of the procedure. I told her men are not allowed in these hospitals as the surgical rooms have more than one at a time.? What she told me next stopped me dead.? She said the baby’s father will never come, not to this room, he wasn’t even standing outside, he wasn’t even waiting anxiously at home. He just wasn’t anywhere near.? At 26 years, he was buried somewhere in the north of country. Died only knowing he was going to be a father.? He had joined the army only a year ago before their marriage. They thought it will end.? This was 1999.? Caught in crossfire. She hated Tamils.
Dear God, I thought. Here we are two women lying in the same room with not just a curtain separating us and our lives and the lives of our children to be born, but a world of man-made differences.? She went into labour.? I was weeping.? Not for myself anymore.? The nurse chided me. How little she knew of what was happening at that moment.? She went into panic and stopped pushing. They gave her sedatives and baby was delivered by forceps. Swarna gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, fathered by a soldier who, perhaps died in vain.? Life for a life. I saw the bloodstained baby being taken away to be cleaned up. I prayed God help her to forget the hatred and pain by just holding that baby.? I never saw Swarna again because she had a normal birth and in a different section.? I was the woman whose pelvic bones never budge, said doctor. Hence the slice and cut open procedure.
Although I was tempted to ask the anesthetist if she was Sinhalese, I was happy to be knocked out. That’s the good thing about C-Sections. There is a baby next to you when you wake up. Hopefully it is yours!!? He was taken out a little after midnight. The moment I saw his big coconut head, I thanked God for whoever discovered c-sections.? He was such a good baby. Slept soundly all morning while the other brats were screaming for nothing.? But he is always like that.? Happy to cuddle up to me. All day and night.? Even till he was seven.? A very affectionate and concerned fellow.? Never likes to see me cry or be alone.? He would assure me a hundred times, ‘don’t worry mummy, I am just here’.? Always warned me of pending danger.??? He would check out the house before I could walk in. A dinasour could be behind every door. One day I opened my notebook in the boardroom while at a meeting with old cronies and a dinasour stared at me from my notebook and a caution ‘be careful mummy’ left by my son. Very timely.
He has promised not to marry but instead take care of me. But that was at 6 years. I said wait till you are 16 years and check again.? He is superman, he-man, batman, iron-man all rolled into one jumping off washing machines and table tops with an old cot sheet for a cape. Broke his heart when the sister quipped, ‘you look like a peacock’. Even Superman needs his mummy to rescue him at times like these.? To him, I am a star.
Every year my thoughts go back to Swarna. Wonder what her son must be like.? Maybe one day I could trace her from the hospital records.
Any news? I had asked the intermediary, after the fall of Kilinochchi. ?I fear the worst? was the short reply.
?We had never met. It was always through the intermediary that she approached me. Image files encrypted layers deep in ?less likely to be searched? laptops were passed on. Endless conversations about her, without her ever being present. Photographs, letters, and at a later stage films, are all that remain with me.
?Theepa* was a commander in the LTTE. I knew her as a photographer. In a letter to me, translated by the intermediary, she had written. ?Even after an artist?s death art lives. After death it will be so. I have that small belief.? She took photographs of conflict, of death, but there were also those tender moments, of women doing each other?s hair in the bunker. Footsteps in the sand, idyllic sunsets. This was a part of Kilinochchi daily life I had never seen.
There are those who mourn for Prabhakaran. Those who gloat at his death. Leaders are vilified, deified, mummified, bought, sold, traded. But they are the ones remembered. The foot soldiers, who have less to gain and far more to lose, are oft forgotten. She lived an extra ordinary life in the hope her people could live ordinary ones.
Theepa* had wanted to study at Pathshala, the photography school that we ran. The LTTE had a well-developed media campaign. Even in the early days, Prabhakaran?s hunger strike in Chennai in 1986, had been for the immediate return of ? not his rocket launchers, SAM missiles and AK-47s ? but his lifeline to the world, his wireless sets.
The ?Big Boss? knew the value of having a good photographer. So when her intermediary sent me this message ?She told me last night that the ‘Big Boss’ here is very happy with the way things are unfolding for her concerning the magazine articles and Chobi Mela etc. etc.? He has just bought her a Canon D1 Mark II as a gift and is willing to set her ‘free’ in January 2008,? I was elated.?
She had submitted work for Chobi Mela IV. We had hung the work at Shilpakala Academy, the academy of fine and performing arts. Later it showed in the Brussels Biennial. I had sent her photo magazines, the Drik brochure and the Chobi Mela IV catalogue. Big boss had requested an extra one for himself. Her photography was changing, she was having a go at ?art photography? dabbling in film. Some of the films she sent were very well made. It was in the genre of the early German and Russian propaganda films. Her?s were in colour with well mixed music, smooth tracking and fast cuts. I pondered on the propaganda, but delighted in her new skills. And then the communication stopped. Things had changed by January 2008.?
In her writing I appeared as an elder brother, a teacher. anna and aasiriyar. She was my little sister thangai. While she appreciated me helping her with her photography, it was my refusal to pre-judge her that formed the basis of our bonding. As I wrote about her to Rahnuma, my partner, I realised I was weeping. Tears for a little sister I had never met. Fondness for a student I had never encountered. Rahnuma too shed tears at the other end of the chat line. She had only known her thangai through me. This unseen, unknown, untouched little sister who had entered our lives. I had nominated her for awards where she had been turned down because she was a terrorist. I remember how in 1971, when that word had not yet become fashionable, the Pakistani media called us ?miscreants?.
She longed to see me, but warned me against going to Kilinochchi. It was too dangerous. I remembered another Sri Lankan girl, another thangai, whom I?d met after the tsunami. Shanika had lost her mother and her three sisters to the sea, and warned me to stay away from the water. Theepa remembered a mob killing six of her family in 1983. Kilinochchi was the sea, she wanted to shield me from. I the anna, remember my two little thangais, one Sinhalese, one Tamil, who both wanted to shelter me from harm.
She was a fighter who had wanted to be an artist. A worker who wanted to be a poet. She was prepared to die, but longed to live.
She, like so many others who have been oppressed, will forever yearn for freedom. Until another?s prosperity gives one joy; until another?s sorrow gives one pain; until the betterment of another becomes one?s concern; until one is liberated by another?s freedom; victory over another, will be a defeat for oneself.
I talk of her in the past, but against my better judgement, I believe she may be alive. Perhaps in a rehabilitation camp with other fighters. In her letter she had said, ?I hope that if our liberation war lets me live then I would love to meet you.?
Wherever she may be, I know we will meet. Together we?ll explore photography.
*Not her real name
” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Sir Arthur C Clarke?(16 December 1917?? 19 March 2008)
“Oh you are going to take pictures? Let me put on my sincere smile. Don’t manage it all the time.” He chuckled, as he stroked his belly. I should have been awed by a man who had propagated the idea of the geostationary satellite. Arthur C Clarke was the author of one of the most significant books on science fiction, and has inspired the names of lost dinosaurs and spacecraft. I had not been sure what to expect. But he quickly put me at ease. “I’ll protect you from Pepsi.” He said, stroking the Chihuahua that curled up on his lap. “He fought a hound.”
Sir Arthur C Clarke who died early morning on the 19th March 2008 at a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since the 1950s. ? 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Continue reading “Venturing Into The Impossible”
Portraits of commitment
Why people become leaders in the AIDS response
Challenges help us find our true selves. They take us on a journey within the depths of who we are, leaving us at a destination we hope is worthy. Some people find themselves at lesser places.
AIDS is one of those challenges.
The South Asians in this book tell how AIDS has made them a better doctor, researcher, legislator, citizen or person. We know AIDS affects our daily life?but because of it we now have more respect for human rights and individual choice where once there was little or none. AIDS has helped us to see who we want to be.
Photographs by Shahidul Alam. Interviews by Karen Emmons. Commissioned by UNAIDS.
Viewers watching “Portaits of Commitment” at Fort Station in Colombo on the 21st August 2007, as part of ICAAP8. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
A story from Sri Lanka on WAD: Positive & Strong Princey Mangalika on HIV/AIDS
Reviews: IPS. Daily Mirror
Shilpa Shetty. Actress, Big Brother Winner. Mumbai India. “Being a celebrity has advantages – people hear you. I thought I should make use of this position and speak out.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Tahir Baig Barlas. Corporate Manager. Karachi Pakistan. “We have the opportunity to do something now before it’s too late. Let’s not be reactive.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Sabina “Putul” Yeasmin, Daughter of a sex worker. Tangail Bangladesh. “I gave wrong information to make others afraid, as I had been. I had to go back and give correct information.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Sapana Pradham-Malla. Advocate. Kathmandu Nepal. “I can’t turn away.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Sally Hulugalle. Community Worker. Colombo Sri Lanka. “I want a better deal for those who are voiceless.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Rev. Alex Vadakumthala. Priest. New Delhi India. “The church finds its meaning when it responds to the challenges of the times.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Rajiv Kafle. Former Drug User. Kathmandu Nepal. “I saw a need and an opportunity where I could step up and really make a difference.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Noor jehan Penazai. Partliamentarian. Islamabad Pakistan. “These politicians have to realise it’s a very serious disease and we have to talk about it.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Dr. Ananda Wijewickrama. Doctor. Colombo Sri Lanka. “I had to do something for the patients …they needed a place to go, to be consoled and, if dying, to die with dignity.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Arif Jafar and Anis Fatima, MSM and mother. Lucknow India. “I am grateful to Allah he gave such a son to me.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
Habiba Akter. Dhaka Bangladesh. Positive Counsellor.
“I have no choice. If I don’t do it no one will.” ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld
An exhibition supporting the book opens at the Barefoot Gallery, in Colombo at 7:00 pm on the 18th August. 704 Galle Rd. Colombo 3.