A historian of the soulView(s):
On opening Beyond Checkpoints by Duleep de Chickera, and reading the first few pages, I was reminded of a similar opening in a book by Svetlana Alexievich who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature.
Working on an oral history of Russian women who fought in WWII, she wrote in her book The Unwomanly Face of War:
“I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of the war, but the history of feelings.I am a historian of the soul.On the one hand I examine specific human beings, living in a specific time and taking part in specific events, and on the other hand I have to discern the
eternally human in them.…
They say to me: Well, memories are neither history nor literature. They’re simply life, full of rubbish and not tidied up by the hand of an artist [….]. These bricks lie about everywhere. But bricks don’t make a temple! For me it is different [….] It is precisely there, in the warm human voice, in the living reflection of the past, that the primordial joy is concealed/and the insurmountable tragedy of life is laid bare.”
Beyond Checkpoints is about this history of feelings. This is so, even if Rev. Duleep, tells us in his Preface that it is “neither a history nor a novel, even though real happenings and story-telling feature in it.”He would rather have us read his book as “the public disclosure of an informal, personal journal, mostly recorded in the mind.”
But our understanding of history has expanded today to accommodate the informal and the personal. While what is definitively a history, or historiography, remains contested in some quarters, we are increasingly familiar with all kinds of histories, whether with a small ‘h’, or not, whether subaltern or elite, whether oral and alternative. In fact, the hierarchy of upper vs lower case is being increasingly challenged for an understanding that a history from below is equal to, or even more authentic, than formal and official histories.
Beyond Checkpoints takes its place amongst such histories. It is an account of Rev. Duleep’s travels, at times accompanied by his wife,on pastoral visits as the Bishop of Colombo, or as a member of an ecumenical delegation to the north. It is a traveller’s tale, which conveys to us with humour, astute observation and discernment, how victim-survivors, fellow travellers, priests, soldiers and militants in Sri Lanka’s long-drawn ethnic war narrated the conditions of their lives, or simply went about their business. In doing so, the book resonates with what Svetlana Alexievich set out to do: not to write about the war per se, but about ordinary human beings in war.She called this endeavour “a history of the soul”.
Thinking about Rev. Duleep’s book as “a history of the soul” invites different kinds of readings. It certainly carries a theological charge—of which there is a hint in the preface when the author describes his encounters and friendship with people caught up in the war as “a sacred privilege.” The impulse to jot down notes, recall scenes, reflect, and write from, or of the frontlines, is also resonant with the “writing back” /witnessing in the Bible (such as in the Acts of the Apostles) where observations on the early Christian church at the frontiers were sent to the fold back home.
Importantly, Beyond Checkpoints offers a window into the church’s role in the Sri Lankan war. We are told of how church workers navigated conditions of censorship with strategies that were two pronged—disguised or direct. So, there were “carefully selected” scripture readings, intercessions and hymns which “did what sermons dared not attempt”.Or,there was the use of parables to explain to young children what was good and evil in a context of child conscription. Conversely, there was the priest who confronted the LTTE directly to gather information on the killed and disappeared. As Rev. Duleep notes, “Space won for strictly religious work was the opening in this dangerous cat and mouse game.”
These vignettes, which capture specific events and decisions made by the clergy, complement the available scholarly literature on the role of the church in the Sri Lankan war. I have in mind Deborah Johnson’s (2016) essays on Catholic priests in the North, or of Bernardo Brown’s (2015) work on the Jesuits in the East, or the analysis by Johnson and Korf (2021)of how the Madhu church carved out a space of “precarious pastoral sovereignty” during the war.
Foremost in Beyond Checkpoints is the resourcefulness of those caught up in the war and thereby, their resilience. Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe also makes this point in her Foreword. The “Beyond” in the title—even before we get to its subtitle which directly references resilience—flags this for us. For the “beyond” is not simply a preposition here, but also an adverb which asks us to think afresh about the checkpoint itself. It is aplace where we are forced to stop and be searched, assessed, and often harassed. But the checkpoint is also a frontier beyond which there is “the other side” in which life goes on. Rev. Duleep’s book opens with a line of wry humour which encapsulates this vision of life beyond the checkpoint: “‘Welcome to Jaffna under moonlight. We have no electricity’” is how Govi greets the delegation as they arrive by boat. Govi, who is the delegation’s local clergyman tour-guide, demonstrates not only a stoic candour about the conditions of adversity under which he lives, but also the sense of humour so necessary to get by, and a sensitivity to the aesthetic which surely adds value to life even in the harshest of circumstance.
Battle for the soul
Beyond Checkpoints brings us a myriad perspectives from a diverse range of characters on what went wrong and what led to war. As we turn its pages, different voices emerge: some opinionated and didactic, others witty or cynical, still others earnest, bitter, fatalistic, bored, or passionate about turning things around. Such a pastiche of views is what literature brings best to the table, and it is these layers and loops of debate and doubt, action and inaction, withdrawal and resilience that make this book an essential narrative on the war with tales from within; both funny and sad. They speak to us of a battle for a composite soul of who we are.And they are always astutely and wisely observed, and narrated with immense empathy.
Finally, and importantly, the book gives us a history of unsung heroes like Kulasena,the cook at S. Thomas’ College who courageously staves off the 1983 mob to safeguard Tamil refugees within the school; or of Ruwan, a thoughtful driver from the South with Buddhist roots, who witnesses Tamil suffering firsthand and stands up for what is right. There is also a history of life at the checkpoint itself: of a sullen young Sinhala soldier who joined the army to educate his younger siblings and asks for a cross to supplement the pirith-nool he wears for protection;
of bored police and military men eager for a chat or a favour; and of an
LTTE woman cadre interested in
Beyond Checkpoints holds, therefore, a varied cast of characters in cameo roles, behind all of whom is the presence of the observer-narrator in Rev. Duleep, a kind of historian of the soul, who gifts us his observations, reflections and meditations, on how people lived the war. In doing so he reminds us that—and I return here to Svetlana Alexeivich and borrow the title of one of her chapters, modifying it a little—“A human being [can be] greater than war.”
Beyond Check-Points is available at the Anglican Diocese of Colombo, Cathedral premises, during working hours (011- 2692985/2696208), and at most bookshops. The proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards the Nuffield School for hearing and vision impaired children, Kaitadi, Jaffna.
|Beyond Check-points: Stories of Human Resilience in troubled Sri Lanka by Duleep de Chickera.The Diocese
of Colombo, 2023.
Reviewed by Prof. Neloufer de Mel
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