Deaths of Two Maidens and My Quest for English Roses

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Our maid Jayanthi, who comes every other day to help us, brings without failure a posy of gruesome news – senseless murder, gang-rape and child abuse –  to decorate our breakfast table. As if they are some sweet-smelling English roses. Today it was about a seven year old child who was dragged into an abandoned shack, raped and strangulated to death. We shudder and scream and bark at her to shut up. Spare us the details! The poor woman is a sensationalist – some find these stories of brutality strangely satisfying – or, she is truly disturbed that she seeks some form of venting. And who better than her paymasters?

I hate and admire Jayanthi at the same time. I dislike her for fouling up my mood. I loathe the way these stories are articulated in newspapers, which is what Jayanthi imitates. I detest the vein in which people describe and revel in the gory details and forget about them a couple of hours later. Though, I admit I have no right to find fault with them for that.

And then, I admire her for bombarding our cozy middle-class mornings without mercy. It’s hard to ignore that hint of accusation in her voice. Are we to be blamed for all that is going on? We, the educated, the privileged, the powerful.

We, the middle class. What power do we have? I am wont to say we’ve none. We’ve tried street demonstrations. Perhaps not the right kind, or the right scale, despite the noble motives. Perhaps we’ve not tried hard enough. We have somehow become so estranged from our home turf that when some of us get out on the streets we get labeled as NGO crows or Nightclub Buddhists. Even though we may not work for NGOs, neither haunt nightclubs nor temples.

The truth is that Sri Lanka has a minority of ‘liberal intellectuals’ (let’s say, for the lack of better nomenclature), who are culturally removed from the majority of this country. And this minority, for which we still have to find a better term than the ‘Colombo 7 elite’, is so thin and fragmented that actually they are no longer the elite. They have no influence over the current ruling dynasty. History has finally cracked that cruel joke, and power has slipped from those who held it, into the hands of a new elite. What’s more, the new dynasty is very much the majority of this country, though obviously that has not lead to much common good. They speak Sinhala and listen to Bana, celebrate Vesak and Victory Day in the same month. They have little regard and bother the least about a weak minority that is not of this soil. So who can doubt the fact that this country’s got what it deserves? Democracy to Sri Lanka, I feel, is like a free Ferrari for a tribe in the Stone Age.

What Jayanthi does not realize is that there’s not much of a difference between her and me.  We are just individuals, and despite one appears to be slightly better-off than the other in the scheme of things, neither has any influence over the machinery that controls that scheme of things. What can I do in a state where a school girl is fined for stealing coconuts and Duminda Silva, accused of murder and rape, is released scot-free? Write about it? But that book has been written long ago by one Mr. Victor Hugo. I cannot do better than him. What can I do but to put up a silly Facebook post or vent in a blog article?

How contained my revolt has become, in this day and age…

Six months ago, there were two news items that I could not forget in a couple of hours. Two girls in their early twenties died in two different places. Two totally unrelated cases. One has a name. The other’s we do not know. But does it matter, we would forget them anyway, in the lapse of time.

Who’s That Girl?

Rizana Nafeek, despite the pleas by some organizations to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to intervene, despite the requests for pardon by high and mighty, despite the demonstrations, was summarily executed. Our parliament observed silence. People debated on Facebook. Journalists swarmed that humble mud hut for a couple of months. Some of my friends got together to support Rizana’s family. Some comfort there?

I cannot claim to understand what Rizana must have gone through in her 24 years of life. War. Poverty. Hardship. Cruelty. Detention and execution. I have not experienced any of these in my life. Apart from a couple of smacks from my mother when I was a naughty child, nobody has ever beaten me. I have never been in the middle of war. The only form of poverty I have experienced has been my meager existence as a university student in one of the richest and most peaceful countries of the world – no comparison to that of Rizana’s war-ravaged Muttur. I do not speak her language, and I cannot claim to speak for her. I cannot write about it without over or underestimating the magnitude of this girl’s plight.

Rizana’s case is a clear indication of the dire straits in which sections of our society languish: The hand to mouth existences. How do we understand the continued rush of women to the Middle East despite such horrific incidents, of which Rizana’s is only one? Is it not our failure as a society to fulfill the very basic human needs of a majority of its members?  Things are becoming more and more desperate, unjust and alarming around us.

Now we may have time to write to blogs and debate at forums about these things. Rizanas of this country don’t. They have families to feed before they join demonstrations of Buddhists questioning Buddhists and what not. But that may not be the only reason that when we walk out on to Lipton Circus, it is only us and our school mates from St. Thomas there. It is because we have no common language, no medium of reaching out to Rizanas. They are not on Facebook, no? In our fight for greater common good, what common grounds have we found with them?

I have a friend who argues that only the poor can fight for the poor and we pseudo-socialist petite bourgeoisie should keep out of it. He means it in a good way. Can the middle class champion the poor man’s cause? Isn’t that what all the NGOs are trying to do?

He may have a point, but I don’t agree with him anyway.

What’s my point, then? Simply this: Unless we build solidarity with others who may not be of our class, or our cultural milieu, our educational background, we cannot truly be a part of this country. Let’s not pretend to champion their cause, that’s fine. But let’s empathize. Let’s try to understand. Because unless we speak of things simply, in a language that anyone can understand, the masses will not join us university lecturers when we march on to Hyde Park. And let’s be honest and do it because we also care about ourselves, and not dress it up entirely in some altruistic frills. Let’s do it even if we only care about ourselves. Because it affects us, sooner or later.

Until we do that, we can never have those English roses on our breakfast table.

Sex Actually.

Nirbhaya, that girl who got gang raped in Delhi, makes me wonder about our understanding of inequality, class and basic needs in purely materialistic terms. If Rizana’s case is an example of how physical poverty affects society, Nirbhaya takes us a one step further. Not only does class limit our access to food, shelter and basic amenities. It also affects what makes us most human: in nurturing our ability to love and create, as against harm and destroy.  And I am not sure if Marx touched this point when he talked about inequality and class.

Some of the articles I read regarding the perpetrators strongly illustrated the stark realities faced by the young men from rural India who migrate to big cities in search of employment. They leave their families behind. They live in impoverished shanties under dire working conditions. Their situations are not simply hard. It’s more complicated, convoluted than that. Living in the capitol of new India, they see relative wealth all around them. What’s worse, they see extravagance, licentiousness and debauchery. They are lucky if they can afford a prostitute. Miserable street walkers get caught and thrown in remand, when glamorous call girls continue their plush business in the dissolute lavishness of their rich customers.  That’s the sorry truth about prostitution.

Ram Singh, the gang leader of the rape incident, had a wife who died back in the village of kidney failure; had an accident that left him ‘mental’ as others called him. He was prone to mood swings and violence. He hung himself while in detention in Tihar jail, his trial pending.  His parents claim that he was raped repeatedly by other inmates in Tihar. Consider the irony.

I am not pleading sympathy for Ram Singh. He was a rapist of the most brutal order. But Ram Singh and his fellow rapists represent the seething frustration of modern nations, jostling for rapid development and moral decadence twice the speed. It’s bursting at the seams.  Add a dash of deep-rooted South Asian sexism to that. Our obsession with the phallus, that demands to be retained as the only proof of virility of our nations. So we stick our guns and stick our penises to all and sundry. Protect our motherland, and our sisters, Inshallah!

We are hopelessly stratified and divided not only in terms of material wealth, but culture and decency. We are so deprived and frustrated that we lose the ability to nurture, to love. Instead what comes out is harm and violence; against women, against children, against the poor, against the rich, against governments and guerillas; Violence and counter-violence.

Yesterday was Vesak and as I walked around in my hometown in the night. I saw ‘Dan-Sals’. Ice-cream, coffee, rice everything. The young men ogling at the women, and pushing themselves onto them, made me wonder what sort of ‘Dan-Sals’ we should actually have. I know, the idea is insane.

English Roses

I am not talking about free sex. I am trying to think my way through material and non-material dimensions of inequality. It affects us all. It affects me at the deepest, most personal level. A friend of mine once noted that I always put love and politics on the same footing. I think they are, because they are both about power. Or about the inequality of power. I am not merely trying to romanticize social issues.

Even after six months, I still think about that girl who got ravaged in Delhi. I have been to the very Cineplex that she watched the last movie of her life, with a male companion, at the age of 22. Just like her. I have hopped onto a bus afterwards, just like her. And even if I hadn’t been in Delhi at a young age, hadn’t attended the same university she attended, it wouldn’t have made a difference, would it?

Even after six months, I still this of Rizana. I have been to Muttur only once in my life. I have never been to Middle East. I have never been a handmaid. But even if I haven’t it doesn’t make a difference.

Can men ever empathize a woman’s plight? Can Rich ever triumph the Poor’s cause? Can rulers ever represent the ruled?

There are no easy answers. No quick fixes. As cost of living skyrockets together with the sense of alienation, as it plunges our youth into an abyss of frustration, we sit back and watch.

Last month, I was with a group of young girls and boys in Puttalam in a workshop.  The most burning issue they saw around them was premature marriages and teenage pregnancies. After talking through with them to identify the root causes, beyond superficial popular and puritanical interpretations, what they identified as they needed most was to change their attitude towards their opposite sex. They wanted safe spaces to interact with the ‘other’, where they could discover each other beyond the traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

I thought that was a good start.

Talking to each other is always a good start.

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Party

It’s past midnight and I’m still searching
Searching for a party to join
Walking past the neon lights
Past the posh cars whizzing by
With rich and powerful chasing
Their dreams through the city night
Empty streets, foul gutters
Clicking stilettos in flight
Past the doors marked Members Only
Lurid music on the prowl

It’s past midnight and I’m still searching
Searching for a party to join

It’s past midlife and I’m still searching
Searching for a party to join
Walking past the thugs in white
Past the lying, pilfering, ranting, ballot-box stealing
Past the censoring, mud-slinging, match-fixing,
Past devote Sinhala Buddhist kings coming back to life
Past journalists performing disappearing acts
Past the guns and saffron robes flaring
Past the cheated, tired, disappointed crowd
Past the bhodhi pooja women and unemployed men
Traffic jams and lost ideals and something seething in between

It’s past midlife and I’m still searching
Searching for a party to join

Waiting for Exile

This scorching heat
Is not just the April sun
Hovering right above this cloudless island

The pressing air
Is not just the heavy breath
Of an erratic monsoon
Slapping us into a daze

This thunder is not the threatening
Voices I begin to hear
This lightning not the disappearing
Shadows of people who used to be
Now, mere ghosts
Of men who used to think different

This waiting is not
For leaving
This wishing is not
For a better day

This anger is not
For the waiting
But for the silence
Of broken glass and masses

When words must carry
The thunder and lightning
Of our days
Forewarning
The stones about to be hurled

When others tell me
I should leave
I stay

The Year of the Patriot

The Chinese missed this animal – the patriot in their zodiac. And the lion. But they got the monkey and the rabbit and the horse.They got the tiger,too. But let’s not talk about that! Slightly disturbing though, because we are so fond of the Chinese.

If the Chinese had the patriot in their zodiac it would be an animal with many avatars. It would be more potent than the dragon, with human and beastly manifestations.

The avatar we see most these days is an animal with claws and fangs. In its human form it could be armed with swords or bionettes. It may or may not have a tail or stripes, but it has a heart wont to provocation and irrational fear, suspicion and jealousy. This patriot suffers from inferiority and superiority complexes simultaneously.

I confess, I too have been under the shadow of the patriot. In my younger days, I have given in to the wonton joy of patriotic jingoism. The odd thing is that I have never felt it for Sri Lanka. Don’t kill me now. The truth is I am glad I never felt that sort of patriotism for Sri Lanka.

Hey, hold on, you are saying now. If it wasn’t for Sri Lanka, then where? To cut a long story short, I’d say India. I can clearly recall the exact moment when I felt that raw cheap feeling. I was at Wagha, the border between India and Pakistan. At six o’clock every morning and evening, there’s a parade. A performance.

It’s worth checking out.

So I have been part of that mass euphoria. I have screamed Hindustan Zindabad! I am guilty of patriotism for a place that is not even my country of birth.

But I am glad to say that it was the only moment. I lived through the Gujarat massacre, albeit at a safe distance. It was an unnerving experience. And when I saw the mobs, I immediately recalled the mobs at the Wagha border. I knew I had felt it myself.

So I know how it feels like. It’s a sort of reckless blindness. A feeling so powerful due to the mass of people around you who are feeling equally blind and reckless and destructive. anything is possible in these moments. You can mock, hate, humiliate, de-robe the other. You can rape and kill.

So I am not here to talk like a saint who never sinned. Patriotism is an overwhelming feeling. I know it. But fortunately, I grew up. I travelled and I saw. When I read about how women were raped in Gujarat, I was so shocked I wanted to leave India. I couldn’t believe that I had loved India more than my own country at times. It was depressing.

Gihan got it right when he drew this cartoon on our independence day. Flags. Aren’t they all just fake? Didn’t Roy once say that governments use flags to shrink-wrap people’s brains?

There was a period in my life when I belonged to Sweden. Heart and Soul. Most Swedish homes display their national flag in their garden and it’s there throughout the year, unlike ours that come out on independence day, after a war or cricket victory. The flags are there throughout. But I have never seen a Swede given into cheap patriotic jingoism. At least not among my friends. As I travelled around I saw a more or less equal society. I saw men and women on an equal footing. I saw respect for the state. I saw intolerance to the slightest injustice. I saw city squares with rock bands singing for the rights of the migrants.

The Swedes love their country. They love their state. We used to joke in our South Asia study class that a Swedish woman trusts her state than her husband. And that is the truth. No Swedish woman has to tolerate an abusive husband. No Swedish kid has to take a beating from parents. the state is the safety net for all citizens to fall back on. No wonder the Swedes love their country. If it wasn’t for that harsh winter I would have never left the place.

So this is the other avatar of patriotism. And I believe it is present not only in the cold Scandinavia but in also in our warm tropical quarters. I have seen it in India too. When I sing the Indian national anthem, I feel my heart filling up with many vibrant colours. When it calls out for the Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Marati, Dravidian, Oriya and Bengali people, I feel I am also somehow included. The island i come from could be just another one the Indian states. When India gained independence, they decided to scrap the national anthem under the British Raj “Vandai Mataram” and adopted Tagore’s ‘Jana Ghana Mana’. The reason was that Tagore’s lyrics, originally written in highly Sanskritized Bengali, was far more inclusive than Vandai Mataram.   (Weerawansa lied when he said the Indian national anthem is in Hindi! Click here to read more!)

The Indian national anthem can include even a foreigner like me. I know the words by heart. When the fiasco about our own national anthem came up, I wished someone would highlight how India, despite all its failures, managed to build national identity that transcended its narrow ethnic barriers.

The truth is that a country just doesn’t belong to a government. The government belongs to the people. And people can come from and belong to many lands.

Is that possible, you ask me. Is it possible to belong to more than one country? Can someone write national anthems for two countries? Is it possible to love more than one person within a lifetime?  Is it possible for our national flag to be made in China? I can give you  clear-cut truthful answers to all.

Yes, it is all possible!

Tagore wrote national anthems for India and Bangladesh. He proposed internationalism in place of nationalism. There’s a chapter in Amartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian  called Tagore and his India that I propose you read. It’s about how India went about creating a national identity that included all. Not that this Tagorian tradition is unrivalled in India, but it is still strong.

For instance, look at our performance in ICC Opening Ceremony yesterday. What are we projecting to the world as a nation? And when are we going to get over this obsession on ‘Sinha Seyyawa’. When are we going to find the human form of love for our country?

Just check out the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games and see how India depicts itself in “The Indian Train sequence”

Yes, it is as Bollywoodish and funky as Bhathiya Santhush dreams to be, but it also depicts India as it is. It is the show of the common man. It depicts the coolies, the bicycle man, the politicians seeking votes, the women balancing water pots…the colour and beauty of the common Indian.

Here’s creativity for our artists!

We should be proud of our land, not because of the harbours and auditoriums the chinese build for us. Or because of the fabricated history we claim as ours taught in our schools. We should be proud of who we are, a people who come from everywhere, and belong too, to many places.

So please, let’s get over this lion and silly patriotism. Stop repeating history in this warped fashion. Check your sources, and you’ll find that it is not history but myth.

Let’s find a new way to articulate who we are as we are. Let’s find a way to love our country in a human way.

And its not only upto the politicians. It is up to singers and cartoonists and writers and simple folks like you and me.

In the Company of Men

Returned to Bolgoda to translate ‘No Return’ with Rajitha, Shyam and Gihan. It was a small bungalow on the edge of a lake with lotus and water-lily fringed banks. In fact, the very first entry of this blog came from my previous visit there, when I captured ‘Just another Lotus from Lake Bolgoda‘.

And this time, I got some more. It’s almost unbelievable that such beauty could bloom and fade within a day, and keep blooming and fading everyday, in hundreds. It is almost unbelievable that world can hold such beauty, in such simple things.

I woke up early in the morning and walked to the edge of the lake. The mist was just lifting off the waters, revealing the blooms to the Good-Morning-kisses from a rising sun. Again, I cannot believe, that this beauty  repeats every dawn. Just how much do we miss each day, in our crazy-busy line-up of meetings and events and projects and pomp?

As if being there surrounded by all this blissful beauty wasn’t enough, I was also blessed with the delightful company of three gentlemen. Men that I am only getting to know, I must admit, but with whom I completely felt at home. Men who did not remind me that I am a woman, someone different from them. I could only feel how much I am like them, passionate about politics and plays, sentimental and soul-searching, light-hearted and at ease. The conversation flowed freely in the true spirit of camaraderie: Rajitha talkative and almost innocent in his honesty; Shyam quiet and deep like the serene lake before us, with the eyes of a wanderer and the smile of a heart-broken; and Gihan, boyish and gentle and happy.

Three Gentle Men.

I felt rewarded more than I deserve.

As I was sipping a brandy in the evening with them, sharing music we loved, I suddenly realised that this is what the Buddha called ‘Kalyana Mittatta’ (beautiful friendship). Ananda, one of Buddha’s best disciples once suggested that kalyana mittatta is the partial realisation of the Goal of the Noble Path. The Buddha replied: ‘Not so. Beautiful friendship is the Goal and the Consummation of the Noble Path’ (Samyukta Nikaya 1.88) The Buddha believed that when human beings care for each other in kalyana mittata they would need neither the gods nor earthly potentates to protect them.

Coming back to Colombo, moving again with the usual crowd, waking up to news on the radio and dailies, driving to work in the traffic jam, I realise this is exactly what we miss so much in our lives. Simple sharing and caring. In all our relationships, be they parents, siblings, lovers, bosses, servants, colleagues and friends. (I would even add strangers.) How much do we genuinely share and care in these relationships and how much of it is obligation, ownership, convenience, exploitation, subordination, possession, choicelessness or simply dead habit?

By no means do I imply that it is simple. Relationships are indeed an intricate mix of all these things. Maybe I am a bit of an Incurable Romantic to expect otherwise. I have no idea, maybe it is difficult for a husband and wife to be good friends. Beautiful friends. Maybe it is difficult to be a kalyana mitraya to your brother or sister or mother or father or your boss. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t give it a try!

I chose to be in the company of these three men over an official obligation. I enjoyed every single moment of being with them and working with them and talking with them and listening with them. It’s what I have missed, having rolled over the world for more than the first half of my twenties like a gypsy, friends with whom I can connect to at a deeper level. Friends who I can support creatively and who can inspire creativity in me in return.Friends whom I don’t have to leave behind and email from the other side of the globe to keep in touch.

Drunk with the beauty of Bolgoda and each others company, we were debating if Sri Lanka is actually the most beautiful country in the world. I don’t remember us coming to an agreement. But I firmly believe that if our people find joy in caring and sharing, in kalyana mittatta instead of benevolent dictatorship (that our  Buddhist clergy advocates so contrary to what the Buddha said), it stands a good chance of becoming the most beautiful island in the world.

Colombo Colombo!

Last Wednesday evening, after a tiring day, my soul needed a bit of art-therapy. Jumped into a tuk-tuk and got myself to John de Silva where the final round of State Drama Festival was taking place. Colombo Colombo, a play by Indika Ferdinando was on. There were many who liked it and disliked it and naturally I wanted to form my own opinion.

I walked into a full-house and found a seat on the row before the last. I must say, my heart balloons up every time I see such a crowd at a theatre. Somehow, I feel like it’s a personal achievement. (I confess, I have no connections to anyone in Colombo Colombo or the State Drama Panel.) But still, I am proud to see a full house. And I’m a lucky woman to have witnessed crowded theatres here in capitol Colombo as well as in remote Thambuththegama. Hope is an amazing thing, when you can actually feel it. Even amidst the terrible heat, with no fans working in John de Silva and people fanning themselves, with what ever they could shake the air around them. I repeat, Hope is an amazing thing.

I switched my mobile phones to silent mode before the play began.

And so the play began. And perhaps it went on for 20 minutes, I couldn’t say. The rain started pouring down from heaven right on to the tin roof of John de Silva. The wind started blowing the black blinds up and the lightning outside fused with the stage lights and suddenly transported the audience to some sort of horror-flick. Amidst thunder and lightning the crew battled on the stage for a few more minutes, their voices completely drowned out and the disappointment so bitter on their faces. I could see how desperate Indika Ferdinando was when he finally got on stage and called off the play.

After calling a cab, I found my way to Sunil at the front row. He was mournful. Indeed he has told me before that this has happened several times. State drama fes usually takes place this time of the year during the monsoon season and this happens all the time. Apparently, the first day of this year’s festival got cancelled, since the lights weren’t up on time. Rumour has it that the president of the drama panel asked the casts of the short plays to perform under fluorescent lights. I hope it’s only a rumour.

“This is the state-of-our-art” Sunil shook his head. I gave a pat on his shoulder. He seemed heart-broken. He has been saying the same thing for the last 20 years. What would I feel if what I have fought for, for 20 years end fruitlessly, as on an evening like this. I felt miserably sorry for the cast of Colombo Colombo (despite the fact that they could hardly grip me in the first 20 minutes of the performance). I felt sorry for Sunil. I felt sorry for Tilak, who wasn’t there that day, but had told me how it used to rain right on the stage at John de Silva some time back. Those who know, know how he walked out of Art Council sometime back.

I felt sorry for all artists and individuals who had fought hard to right the system.

I waded my way into the cab and the cab waded its way out of Colombo after three hours and many moments of near drowning.

The next day they said it’s the hardest downpour we’ve had after 18 years, as if it’s some kind of an excuse. The truth is it doesn’t take a storm  to drown Colombo. And it is only another testimony among a zillion how we lack governance and state structures that puts the welfare of people first.

Yesterday evening, I was at this forum that discussed the role of civil society in post-war context. There was the opinion that the space was shrinking. There was the counter-opinion that we don’t demand space. There was the counter-counter opinion that there was no space to demand for space. Someone I respect said that we had over-estimated the role of civil society, that the concept did not exist in 1940s and still there was much better activism among people at the time. A representative from the donor community said civil society was drowning in its own juices. Whatever!

I love dialogue. And I loved this one. But I still cannot understand why we do not discuss the obvious. Which, in fact is the problem. (Maybe no one wants to state the obvious, thinking its a stupid thing to do.) Since I didn’t mind being taken for stupid, I finally said it.

Of course, civil society is more than our odd motley of NGOs, but to focus on them, I do not think the structures and the culture of our NGOs are any different to the government or any other institutional structures we have in the country. They are equally festered with nepotism and power-politics. They are as bureaucratic and unprofessional. Since they are dependent on mainly foreign donors, they are less accountable to the people they serve, though they may write the sort of reports the donors want in their filing cabinets. (Oh, c’mon, do you really believe they read it?) I’ve never heard of German civil society organisations receiving funds from, China or France. The objectives they pursue are indeed very German, as they should be.

Besides, how can NGOs respond to a changing context? Their projects are either 1 year, 2 year or 3 year ‘quick-fix’ formula. They have done their context analysis, defined their objectives and outcomes and outputs and indicators and means of verification of measurable impact and then they go about ticking the list. How can they respond to a changing context? How can they respond to human need?

As professionals engaged in development, why do we not discuss the fact that the whole aid industry by itself is another industry in a functional capitalist order? As much as we advocate changing the structures of the governments we criticise, should we not advocate changes within our own structures and organisations to become more democratic and transparent entities answerable to people, not only to where the funds come from?

For a long time, I’ve been wondering how to go about changing the system. What is a system really? Where is this system? Isn’t a system something we live in? But does not the system live inside us? Inside out head? For instance, if the call of the day is to suck up and shut up, if this is a part of the system we want to change, how do we go about changing it?

I’d say it starts with me. Myself, speaking up. Standing my ground. Fighting for something I believe is right passionately. I don’t want to give it lofty labels like ‘deshanuragaya‘; it is simply part of professional integrity that most of us lack, including our civil society activists. If we just do our job right, I mean, really think through it and do it, and do it because it is the right thing, the needed thing to do that moment and do it creatively, and not because it is an obligation, I feel things could be different. From the Art Council to the Met Department to the RDA to the rest. Then, plays wouldn’t have to be called off in the middle and Colombo wouldn’t flood every monsoon season and people loose lives drowning in potholes in Colombo 7.

We crib there’s no space, but why can’t we write an article to a paper, or a blog about something we feel passionate about, rather than write an obligatory report? I see this happening all the time in my office. Just senseless, obligatory reports, reports, reports that doesn’t convince anybody!

I know you are laughing at me. All poppy-cock! It’s not practical.

No, I think it is practical. Because I just made that choice right now. And instead of writing a report that nobody would read, I write this. And I am sure that SOMEBODY would read it. And here. I’ve created a space for myself to express.

I know, maybe it is risky. I’m told that chinese IT guys are devising blog surveillance mechanisms. But then, not only soldiers are required to be brave, ne?

If it’s hard to right the system, write over the system.

For a start.

Typical Tropical Woman in Berlin

So it’s Berlin 2010. It’s the fall. The maples are caught in the Autumn fire. The sun mellowed down and sentimental. My  German colleagues tell me I’ve brought the sun with me, since it’s out again after weeks of rain and meek weather.

And this time, as I was walking through the clean streets, with polite traffic, across city squares with guitarists and lovers and children engrossed with their ice-creams, I felt truly peaceful inside. Unlike last summer, I wasn’t haunted by a heartbreak or an unresovled past in Europe. No guilty feelings. Just me and the summer. I admit, every moment did include a parallel moment, in which I was sharing that moment with G. It was magical. But still, I was not homesick or lovesick, and I was truly present in the moment, fully awake and conscious and absorbing what Berlin had to offer. What a GREAT feeling!

So, the first thing I step into, right after the airport, is a taxi, with a driver who fled Baghdad 30 years ago, for political reasons which he doesn’t want to share with me. But ofcourse, he’s mad about Hindi films. He’s seen Arzoo and Ai Milan Ki Bela. He loves Sholay. And Vaijayanthi Mala is his favourite.

Tumse mohobethain…he crooned as he drove, overenthusiastic to find an audience who knew the same songs. And knew what they meant, as well.

Thanks to globalisation, I was thoroughly entertained all the way to Movenpick Hotel.

And I recollect the same feeling I had, coming to Europe the first time in my life. Just getting out of the train in to the city square, and strangely feeling at home. Surprise! Surprise!

Sunday afternoon; Alexander Platz with Kristin. I take the subway, and momentarily held by this subway singer…

And another one in Alexaner Platz…

Ask me what I appreciate most about the European cities…yes, there are many things a typical tropical woman could appreciate, but what strikes me most is this ‘Love is in the air’ mood. You know the lovers, walking hand in hand, kissing in public, cuddling in the sun and all. (ya, it’s a couple kissing in the background!) It’s this freedom to love, and to express love in public. And I can’t help remembering how wonderful it was to be in love in summer europe, and how dismal it is now, by comparison, to be in love in my tropical isle sometimes…

To generalise, if I may take the liberty to, our men are a bit paralysed in this department. I mean, they are fantastic in bed. They can compete there, at an international level, in terms of technical perfection of the art. But in the art of affection…oh dear…I wish I had never experienced love in Europe now that I have to live with this permanent Rebecca syndrome. I don’t wish to look down on the men in my country. I’m a tropical woman. I want to love one of my own kind. But I couldn’t escape globalisation. So I had to go through all these experiences. And I can’t help these philosophical observations! It’s not criticism, so if you are a tropical man reading this, don’t take it personal.

OK, you’ll say it’s not our culture to display affection in public. But then, do our men display affection in private? Or do they just do it because they are expected to. Some times I feel they do, simply because it’s what our sentimental women kind want. Something just to get over with. Like an obligation.

Life is an obligation. To be faithful to your wife, to love your mother, to fight for your country!

Ha! Ha! Ha! That’s my only reaction!

Of course, I am not saying all our men are like this. I have indeed met a few wonderfully affectionate men in Sri Lanka. But overall, when I listen to my friends and observe the world around me, I feel that our society has crippled our men, hip upwards, I mean. They are denied the right to express themselves. They are denied the right to feel, to be emotional. And I often find them uneasy, when a bit of affection is expressed in public.

I don’t know why people only talk about liberating the woman in this part of the world, because the men, oh them poor souls, they so need to be liberated themselves. Being a man and being human must be difficult, come to think of it.

In Sri Lanka when a bit of affection is displayed in public, the public scoffs right back at it. It’s considered ugly, uncultured and vulgar. What’s ugly, uncultured and vulgar about a man loving a woman, and expressing that in public? I don’t get it. I think it’s at the core of the sexual frustration and violence of this society – the big secret everybody knows but nobody talks about. Without allowing the men to be human, to be affectionate, we will never liberate our women. (That’s my ‘loud and clear’ to the feminists!) It’s not just enough to talk about sexual harassment in public transport, you see – something I have never experienced in Europe and experience daily in Sri Lanka.

I mean, it’s simple right?

High degree of sexual freedom, acceptance of affection, flexible gender roles – low levels of sexual frustration, harassment and violence (summer Berlin or Sweden, to quote an example I know better)

Low degree of sexual freedom, acceptance of affection, strict Victorian mores and gender roles – high level of sexual frustration, harassment and violence (our tropical paradise)

And I don’t know how to change this society around me; or to liberate a man, (or myself for that matter), but I know I can love. Not in a possessive way – not to hunt a man down and put him in chains of lifetime bondage (aka marriage) but in a way that redeems. In a way that supports both individuals to grow, to explore, to be more affectionate beings, not just unto themselves, but to others as well. One could also do all these things within a marriage, or without it. The choice is personal.

I feel this is the key to the politeness, the gentleness, the ‘culturedness’ that I sense in the European public life. Now don’t call me a post-colonial Eurocentric rootless bastard of globalisation. I’m just expressing my opinion. I’m entitled to one.

So to get back to Berlin – Tacheles. I want to talk about Tacheles. It’s this run down building which belonged to East Berlin before. Now, the area is transformed. The Big Bad Banks have come in. So have Gucci and Prada. And the government wants to pull down Tacheles because it’s an eyesore in the middle of a chic commercial district.

And the artists resist!!!!!!!!! The very next day there was a peaceful public demonstration, not devoid of music and dance.

So the call to rally goes:

To enforce art piece Tacheles

We save the creative centre of Berlin – We build a city

The pillage of Berlin by banks, investors and neo-liberal pseudo-politicians must stop!!!

Performance-Demonstration

Monday 20th September 2010

And they’ve been successful in resisting the demolishing of the building since the 1990s.

For more on Tacheles go to the Wikipedia entry  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunsthaus_Tacheles

and then walking through the graffiti covered walls, exuding an anti-capitalist verve, I come across this great poster shop. The work is bold and gripping. (Btw, that’s Kristin in the photo thanks to whom I visited Tacheles)

So why do I feel like this is another important element missing in Colombo. Just the space to have ‘honest straightforward talk, purpose’ (that’s the meaning of the yiddish word ‘tacheles’). Now where’s that space in Colombo, or anywhere in Sri Lanka? Ours is a society of stifled emotion, come to think of it. There is no space to come together and to have a dialogue. No public space for people to meet and talk (leave alone kissing!). In Colombo, the Galle Face Greene is the only ‘public space’ and in the evenings no wonder it is overcrowded. And still, it is NOT a public place. Because, people don’t come there to meet new people and to have a chat, they just come there with their families to fly kites! It’s just an escape from the four walls of an urban home. Nothing more.

So, our civil society  – sorry, but there is no ‘society’ in that sense. It’s only a collective of individuals, families and organisations, struggling in their own small worlds. And that lonely struggle embitter them. No wonder, when there is no space, like or unlike Tachales, to bring people together to share things that are common. And our pseudo coffee houses like Commons (which has nothing in common with the common of our country), or Barefoot which has nobody who ever had to go barefoot, offer no ‘public space’. In fact, they form status hierarchies that the middle class has to struggle to access, in order to be ‘cultured’. (Btw, this also makes me a pseudo-intellectual, because I also grace these places despite my criticism.)

So in that sense,  we need to pay attention to these words like ‘civil society’ and ‘public space’, because I am not sure that we have these in the true sense of the word.

So, no wonder we are crippled, not only in terms of showing affection in public but also resisting power in public. There’s no culture of peaceful public protest. And our protests, forgive me for being brutal here, but they are soooo boring. And sometimes even sponsored by organisations (like the one I work for, so I am not innocent here, you see!) I mean I do have a soft corner for some genuine individuals who repeatedly take to the streets and I do respect them sincerely. But the truth is it is not in our ‘culture’ to protest peacefully.

We deny the issues till they brim over the top and every 10 year cycle we have a violent revolution or a guerilla war of some sort that can only be countered by terror and suppression only.

And the only way I see out is to work systematically to build these ‘public space’ to be affectionate, to create, to express and to protest!

Ok, this is getting too long. And beginning to sound like a sermon, so I’ll have to skip the rest of the travelogue, in which I visit Fusion Street, a creative organisation working with marginalised and immigrant kids in Berlin, the visit to the New National Gallery of Modern Art, the Pergamon Mueseum…maybe some other day…

At Colombo duty-free I bought a Bailys, a Semmilon Chardonnay, a Chivas Rose and a French Brandy. They are all locked up in my grand ma’s closet right now, which is full of duty-free spirits! You see, my family culture is not one that encourages drinking. Like my mom asks ‘who on earth are you going to go drinking with?’

So you see, if I want to  promote dialogue, I can start at home!

Nevertheless, let me raise my glass!

To Love, Art and Politics!