The following article was written by Basil Fernando – a Sri Lankan Poet, Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission and Adviser to the SLC
Prageeth Eknaligoda’s wife and a small group of faithful supporters met representatives of the United Nations yesterday on the occasion of the first anniversary of Prageeth’s disappearance. That the family had to meet representatives of the United Nations and not representatives of the Sri Lankan state is symbolic. It is after any hope has been lost of a genuine inquiry into Prageeth’s disappearance that the family had to resort to the United Nations to seek its help. The nation itself was little concerned about this disappearance. The people of Sri Lanka have become accustomed to such tragedies. Such is the psychological conditioning of the nation. Powerlessness before cruelty is the condition in which the citizen lives his or her life.
Meanwhile an Arts Festival is being celebrated in Galle. Some may say that the two events, the disappearance and the festival have no connection. And many will treat the situation as having no connection. That too reflects the mentalities that have grown in the midst of repression and violence that affects the nation. In such circumstances life and art are disconnected. The so-called arts try to be oblivious to the actual realities of life and try to create a festival even when the people are facing the funeral of the freedoms. Such disconnectedness is again the condition under which the people live in Sri Lanka.
Under such circumstances the controversy that has arisen about some prominent international writers boycotting the festival is quite interesting. What is there to be surprised about in such a boycott? However, some are irritated about the boycott as if people in other lands are under some kind of obligation to come and participate in this so-called festival. Even the freedom of people to chose as to whether they want to attend or not is little understood. The state ideology supported by some appears to be that the festival must go on and that everyone should come and participate. That kind of mentality is also symbolic of the kind of delinkage between the actual realities and the so-called festivities that are created artificially under the conditions of repression.
Hypocrisy and creativity
The eternal theme of creative art is the contradiction between hypocrisy and the genuine capacity to reflect, to speak out and to depict the human condition. The greatest obstacle to Sri Lankan creativity and the creative arts is the deep seated hypocrisies that prevail within the nation, particularly among the more articulate and sophisticated sections of society. The desire to portray a great civilisation deeply contributes to this hypocrisy. To deal with the sheer cruelties that the state perpetrates on the people which in turn create the cruelties among the people themselves are difficult themes for the local mind to deal with. To those who wish to deal with such themes there is no audience. The hue and cry against exaggeration is made against those who try to depict the actual realities of their fellow beings and this of course, includes themselves.
The romanticised concept of nationalism affects even those who are at times, critical of the circumstances under which they live. There is some kind of religious attachment to the idea of the greatness of the nation and the civilisation. In order to preserve this belief it is necessary to deny the actual realities, the actual experiences of people in the real nation as it has been experienced in the lives of the people. This contradiction reflects itself in the various ways by which the creative mind finds various routes of escapism.
It is only the type of creative artists like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that can really reflect and break the intellectual paralysis that has grown up out of the deep seated hypocrisies of the Sri Lankan nation. Such a person will not be welcome by the sophisticated art elite of Sri Lanka. They all want to say that Sri Lanka is no gulag. By denying the existence of our prisons, our death camps our capacity to cause large scale forced disappearances of our fellow beings; the need to deny the torture that goes on in every police station every day of the year; the cruelties that the teachers perpetrate on young children by way of ill treatment; the hypocrisy that we have in relationship to dealing with the freedoms of women and on matters of sexuality, all these act as barriers to the development of the sensitivity towards the deeper problems that the nation is faced with. In the absence of such sensitivity no worthwhile creative achievements can be made.
So we will worship the Lord of the Flies when the lawless nation is unable to deal with its own problems. We will celebrate the festival of the fools when the nation is in such a deep abyss and wants to keep on believing that there are things to celebrate.
The rest of true development of art will the increase of number of persons to stand in support of the family of Prageeth and the like. When the walls of hypocrisy are broken, the walls of repression will also break. Till then a few will have their fun and festivities, when many weep in silence.
It was these contradictions that I reflected in my poem, written in July 1983, which is reproduced below:
Yet another incident in July 1983
Burying the dead
being an art well developed in our times
(Our psychoanalysts having helped us much
to keep balanced minds whatever
that may mean)
there is no reason really
for this matter to remain so vivid
as if some rare occurrence. I assure you
I am not sentimental, never having
had a break down, as they say.
I am as shy of my emotions
as you are. And I attend to my daily
tasks in a very matter-of-fact way.
Being prudent, too, when a government says:
“Forget!” I act accordingly.
My ability to forget
has never been doubted. I’ve never
had any adverse comments
On that score either. Yet I remember
the way they stopped that car,
the mob. There were four
in that car: a girl, a boy
(between four and five it seemed) and their
parents, I guessed, the man and the woman.
It was in the same way they stopped other cars.
I did not notice any marked
Difference. A few questions
in a gay mood, not to make a mistake
I suppose. Then they proceeded to
action. By then a routine. Pouring
petrol and all that stuff.
Then someone, noticing something odd
as it were, opened the two left side
doors; took away the two children,
crying and resisting as they were moved
away from their parents.
Children’s emotions have sometimes
to be ignored for their own good, he must have
thought. Someone practical
was quick, lighting a match
efficiently. An instant
fire followed, adding one more
to many around. Around
the fire they chattered
of some new adventure. A few
Scattered. What the two inside
felt or thought was no matter.
Peace-loving people were hurrying
towards homes as in a procession
Then, suddenly, the man inside,
breaking open the door, was
out, his shirt already on
fire and hair, too. Then, bending,
Took his two children. Not even
looking around, as if executing a calculated
decision, he resolutely
re-entered the car.
Once inside, he closed the door
Himself I heard the noise
distinctly. Still the ruined car
is there, by the roadside
with other such things. Maybe
the Municipality will remove it
One of these days
to the capital’s
garbage pit. The cleanliness of the capital
receives Authority’s top priority.
— to see more of his work please see www.basilfernando.net
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