(Written a few months ago, posting now. Fervently hoping this has lost its relevance.)
I’m not sure when it happened but Running in the Family has become one of my favourite books. I’d read it years ago and I stumbled across a battered copy at a Sunday book bazaar last year and pocketed it (50 Rs!) with little hesitation. Over the months, I would head for it almost instinctively whenever I needed a pick-me-up or a reminder of home and my already worn copy now bears the brunt of public transport, marginalia and dog-eared pages.
‘You know, I honestly haven’t been homesick in months’, I muse to my mother the other day. 1506 miles away I can almost hear her bristling over the phone and I hurriedly repair my tactlessness. Tonight though, I’m overcome with a wave of melancholy and I push away my mini mountain of readings and reach out for the book. An exercise in nostalgia, I think one of the many reasons I love it is because Ondaatje manages to combine just the right eccentricities of Sri Lanka with his perfectly imperfect family, reminding me so much of my own.
While reading, I suddenly remember an incident—I think it was during the late nineties when the terror was slowly reaching its zenith and Colombo’s comfortable little bubble was in danger of being punctured. It was around this time that security was drastically increased and warning posters about unknown parcels containing bombs dotted bus interiors. Emergency training was conducted in schools. All I remember was that we were told to put a pencil between our teeth and scramble under a desk in case of an explosion which, between you and me, seemed quite pointless.
My cousin sister was a member of the national (insert sport of choice) team and had been out of the country for a tournament. The entire team had arrived back to Sri Lanka earlier than planned and there had been little or no time to make arrangements for accommodation. Most of the girls hailed from far flung parts of the island and so the entire team and coach apologetically arrived on our doorstep with nowhere else to go. The army had suddenly started doing spot checks around this time, and just after we had settled into bed that night, the doorbell rang.
Awakened by the voices, I crept halfway downstairs and sleepily observed the motley crew assembled in my living room—My mother in her pastel housecoat; four perplexed army personnel unsure of what to do; a dozen girls rudely interrupted from their sleep, scrambling from their makeshift beds, and my father unsuccessfully trying to explain in fragmented Sinhala why there were a dozen unknown girls asleep in our living room. I think my parents managed to convince the army personnel that their house wasn’t a front for nefarious night time activities and the army personnel saw the humour of the situation. They finished their security check, patted my head awkwardly, as adults usually do with children, and with a few parting quips, headed out.
Lately, in light of the recent events unfolding in Sri Lanka, I’ve been trying to reconcile three ideas of home. One is the sanitized, selective history propounded by the state. The other is a far more sinister side siphoned off information sources on the internet and international news. The final one is the version of home in my mind and the limited geographical space I grew up in. All three meet rather jarringly. There’s a quote by Julian Barnes which seems apt as I attempt to untangle my own notions of personal identity and geographical space; ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’.
It’s been years and I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in school our text books conveniently trailed off after 1948. We would spend months memorizing kings, cataloguing their bloodthirstiness and making lists of their achievements. We dutifully memorized the advent of the Portuguese (1505), the Dutch (17th century. My social studies teacher should be proud of me) and the British. More names were memorized—colonial governors, freedom fighters, dates of quelled rebellions. Certain changes in the constitution after Independence and elements of parliament were included in the syllabus like an afterthought and then it conveniently trailed off into ellipses. Like a person hurriedly using a napkin to blot stray specks of sauce before it congeals on his shirt, insurgencies, political parties, uprisings, tensions were blurred away.
While living away from home brings an enviable sense of detachment, it also brings about an augmented anxiety in times of crisis. The recent wave of violence in Sri Lanka has left me in a state of agitation. I’m writing to you because I’m scared and sad and I’m struggling to make sense of this madness.
News alerts, snippets from blog posts, articles from dubious sites with even more dubious grammar, racist rhetoric in the guise of opinion columns, information compressed into 140 characters, grainy videos of mobs led by monks storming commercial establishments and places of religious worship, pictures of torn Qurans on Facebook—I devour all of it in an attempt to wrap my mind around what is taking place at home.
All the information I siphon is second-hand and I don’t know enough to differentiate if this recent eruption of violence is a result of professional agitators and higher political powers staging a decoy or if this will snowball into a repetition of the conflict we have only just emerged from. I’m sad that selective amnesia was and still is the norm. That memory and an acknowledgement of the past are dismissed as irrelevant and that our country seems to be approaching the future with all the arrogance and brash indifference of an adolescent teenager.
I feel helpless because I’ve seen enough of the world today to know that violence is now the first impulse and not a last resort. Everything I’ve read about the riots in the eighties suddenly come to mind—the betrayal of neighbours, mobs drunk on power, men stripped naked and burned on the streets, houses looted and families forced to flee. I’m scared because my Muslim family lives in a staunchly Buddhist neighbourhood and while this never seemed important all these years, I’m suddenly acutely aware of it.
Yours in anxiety,