If you know immediately what the day means to Sri Lankans, it is for you that I write. But, ironically enough, if you have no clue as to what this date connotes, it is for you also that I write. Because come the day this year, and Sri Lankans will be doing one of four things with the 18th of May. And I don’t mean chilling out at the end of a long weekend; returning from an extended vacation outstation or overseas; contemplating the cosmos in the tranquil serenity of heart, and hearth, and home; or venerating the birth, enlightenment, death, and passing into blissful oblivion of the Enlightened One, which the day marks. I mean celebrating the official end of our war – or mourning the manner of its passing.
Most Sri Lankans today still buy into the government’s sense of statecraft in celebrating the defeat of terrorism on sovereign soil… and who am I – a law-abiding tax-paying non-patriot – to deny them, their security forces, and the nationalist faction, their moment of triumph, regurgitated glory, and reassertion of the full writ of law? Many of those, however, who either sign their names in another, non-Sinhala, script – to say nothing of those who sympathized with the rebel cause, for whatever reason – may choose to mourn, and rue the day on which, to them at least, the aspirations of the Tamil people for self-determination, plus or minus, more or less, was firmly squelched and forcefully squashed. Some citizens, last and by all means least, who might think of themselves as the educated, enlightened, or ennui-driven elite among the less illuminated hoi polloi, opt to do neither – it is they, this pathetic apathetic lot, to whom I also write; and for whom, especially, the rest of us may have a message. That while we, as fellow countrymen, women, and children, either mourn or celebrate, they commit a crime against humanity by choosing to remain apathetic.
Don’t get me wrong, folks! I don’t hold with either camp. Or, to be more accurate, I find the pendulum swinging in that ambivalent middle ground in which I cannot sometimes make up my mind between the lesser of the two evils. Rest assured, I see both points of view. But am awakened in the midnight hours, trembling and sweating, fearful that one who sees both sides is perhaps one who truly sees neither side. And the only thing that returns me to my soporific ignorance of the dark reality in the harsh world out there is the assurance that the real symptom of a humanity which has been touched by a brutalizing war is to hold two points of view simultaneously in one’s head.
And not be driven mad. True, O king, that all your horses which say “Ha!” among the trumpets and all your men of arms and all your chariots of war have accomplished an unparalleled feat. True, O subjugated people, that this monstrous machinery may have used a sledgehammer to kill a nasty species of fly, whose carcass has long since attracted some foreign hyenas alien to our nation’s case. True also, that in the limit, as much as the rebels may have had cause to mount a protest, the rulers (and I don’t mean a race, but rather the apparatus of state) had a right to do everything in their power to end the riot… even if the modus operandi was hardly revolutionary, in that it dealt death to a regime opposed to its own raison d’etre, as much as it spelt suffering for a regiment of people whom it was meant to protect. War, as one unmemorable warmonger once said, is all hell.
For in a world where the race is not to the swift nor bread to the wise nor riches to the intelligent nor favour to the skilled but the battle to the strong, and where time and chance happens to us all, isn’t it better to mourn with those who mourn and celebrate with those who celebrate? Isn’t it a sign of a nation that is sick that some of its citizens have no feelings either way about arguably the most decisive and cataclysmic event that shaped our recent history and may very well inform our destiny in unfathomable ways? And is it the case that rather than have the state legislate what we celebrate, or a chauvinistic lobby cry for or decry what we mourn, that Sri Lankans unite in their joy and their grief, on this day of all days?
As long as what we mourn is that such a miserable, morbid, and mortality-friendly measure of military might was necessary to restore the status quo! As long as what we celebrate is that now, in the coequal peace that is new under the sun, we will pursue the pleasures of the absence of conflict as if we meant it when we said there are no more minorities in the land…