(A Jungle Healing was originally written for and published in the UK magazine So It Goes, in April 2015. It was a collaboration with Cassie Machado, a British-Sri Lankan artist, whose images the original article was printed with, when they appeared in the magazine. The title, A Jungle Healing, was taken from R Cheran’s poem, of which excerpts appear here, of the same name. R Cheran is a Sri Lankan-Tamil academic and poet, who has lived away from Sri Lanka, in Canada, since the 1990s. So It Goes does not have an online edition; so I have chosen to publish my piece here.)
‘No one knows how
To gather the bones, scattered
On the ash-covered landless land
Stretching to the far horizon’
From ‘A Jungle Healing’, by R. Cheran.
In Sri Lanka, where the dominant religions are Buddhism and Hinduism, we have an interesting attitude to death. Because of a deeply-rooted belief in rebirth (reincarnation) we see death not as an end, but as a moving on. It can be seen as a new beginning. It is not the end of life, but life after-life. Naturally, there’s a lot of care taken to prepare the spirit of the dead: to ensure they cross safely from death into new life; from afterlife to rebirth. The beliefs are diverse – a community’s practices will vary with religion, region, and with Hindus, caste – so are the customs: leave a lamp lit from the moment of death until the moment of cremation, never let the flame die out; leave the windows open, you must allow the being to leave the confines of its old surroundings; leave the windows closed, you must prevent negative spirits from coming in while the being is in transition; commemorate the death accordingly, to collect and transfer good karma to the spirit. The consequences of not completing funeral rites successfully are believed to be most dire. The spirit, when not marked as ready to transition smoothly, runs the risk of becoming permanently fixed in an in-between world, transforming into a ‘ghost’ with no hope of ever moving on. In a culture where you are taught to accept change as the only constant, to transition with grace, until you arrive at nirvana, is the ultimate spiritual aspiration; fixed-ness is your worst enemy.
Another observable fact about our attitude to death is that it is never private; funerals are usually large community affairs that go on for days – people gather from far and wide to grieve, mourn, and memorialise the dead, collectively. These occasions define our sense of family and community. But like anywhere else, in Sri Lanka, while we tell ourselves that funerals are for the dead, they are in actual fact for the living. They help us, the living, move on as well.
Today, in Sri Lanka, the dead are many. A 26-year long civil war between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state, which began in the early 1980s, claimed many lives, both Sinhalese (the ethnic majority) and Tamil (the ethnic minority, which the LTTE felt they represented). The LTTE emerged in the 1970s in the largely Tamil-populated North of Sri Lanka; though they marked themselves as unique with a distinctive brand of brutality and changed the course of Sri Lanka forever, they were not the first to rise up in demand for Tamil rights and justice, in a political landscape which had been dominated by majority-Sinhalese interests since the 1940s. In 2009 – after two and a half decades of death, violence and fear – the Sri Lankan Armed Forces militarily defeated the LTTE, ending their long fight to claim the North and North East regions of the island as an independent Tamil homeland. The civil war had crippled Sri Lanka’s social, economic and cultural growth, but the end of the war was far from ideal. In the final, ruthless battles between the Army and the LTTE, fought on the island’s northern shorelines on a land spit known as Mullaivaikkal, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians perished – the actual death toll is still widely debated. Entire villages turned to wastelands; much of the living became the dead. In the months that followed, the government did everything they could to keep the facts about ‘the end of the war’ shrouded in darkness, while allegations of war-crimes began to emerge. Refugee camps were set up to house the hundreds of thousands of people who had nowhere to go. The rest of the living became the displaced.
When the world outside responded to this crisis, an interesting dichotomy surfaced. On one hand, Sri Lanka became synonymously defined by this conflict, especially this final bitter chapter. On the other, there was the distinct feeling that much of the West was happy to look the other way, while the Sri Lankan government ‘defeated terrorism’ with no heed paid to casualties or cost of any kind; it was a significant boost for the West’s ‘war on terror’. While some felt it impossible to see Sri Lanka as an idyllic tropical paradise any longer, some chose deliberately to continue to see it as nothing but.
In Sri Lanka, landscapes had transformed. Landscapes of incomparable natural beauty – of sweeping, rugged plains, lagoons pooling under blue skies, leading, always, to the crystal-clear ocean just beyond sandy dunes – became impossible to see without the stain of tragedy. The beaches of the North East coast, which had so often been framed in post-cards, had been sites of massacres; a famous lagoon, the site of a badly botched civilian cross-over. Beauty became wrought with despair, and unable to recognize.
The regime of the then Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse – swollen with pride and triumphalism over his accomplishment in ‘ending’ the war – were convinced they knew how best to prevent the LTTE from rearing its head ever again. Their solution was to systematically crush the spirit and erase the identity of the Tamil minority in the war-torn North and North East. The Army was deployed to rule these areas with an iron fist. Protocol and constitution were set aside entirely in constructing what was effectively a military state, where Tamil civilians were to be governed by an entirely different set of laws than those their Sinhalese counterparts in the South were being governed by. A military victory, which, it had been said, would finally reunite the island in peace, only further deepened the wide chasm between the Sinhalese in the South and the Tamils in the North. Ironic as it were, Rajapakse split the island in two – what they had supposedly waged war to prevent the LTTE from doing. Tamil civilians in the North/North East have been living in a state of total oppression, with severe restrictions on basic human rights, such as the right to livelihood, the right to seek justice, and the right to movement and migration. Among the violence and indignities they have had to suffer: they have not been allowed to acknowledge, mourn or memorialize those they lost in the conflict, mostly in cruel and unthinkable ways.
After 2009, for the Tamils affected by the war, there have been no funerals. Of course, as it happens with war, there were no bodies; bodies were either decimated, or lost because they had to be left behind when the living fled the fighting. But, to make matters worse, in the months and years since, the Army prohibited all kinds of congregation, making it impossible to commemorate or memorialize their dead, something which could be seen as an integral part of the processes of healing and reconciliation. The graveyards of dead LTTE cadres – sons and daughters, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers – were razed to the ground. While the former government spent millions commemorating the brave dead of the Army in the South, erecting expensive monuments, gathering the masses for public ceremonies, handing out medals to their wives and inviting their children to lay flowers underneath their fathers’ etched names, families of the Tamil dead have had nothing. They have had to act as though they have nothing to grieve; no one to mourn. They have had to live with the thought that the spirits of their dead are trapped, unable to transition from death into the afterlife.
This skillful exploitation of the power of memory, and the profound effect it can have on human dignity and identity, was one of the unique things about the Rajapakse regime. Their policy to remember some of the dead and ignore others, to allow some of Sri Lanka memory and not others, was a reflection of their frightening vision for Sri Lanka. They thought they could erase memory by denying the past.
But memory endures, and the past remains present.
‘There is neither sea nor wind
For us to dissolve the ashes
Proclaim an end
And close our eyes.
When will there be
From ‘A Jungle Healing’, by R. Cheran.
When Cassie Machado and I woke up on the morning of the 8th of January 2015, we had never met. Unknown to each other, we woke early in our beds in two different places, separated by the Indian Ocean – Cassie was in Arugam Bay, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, and I had just returned from Sri Lanka a few days before to my current home in Bangalore, in the south of India. We woke early because it was a momentous day: it was the morning after Sri Lanka’s presidential election, and election results had been streaming in since around 4am that morning. While we watched the news that morning, each on our own laptops, it became clearer and clearer that Mahinda Rajapakse was losing to his opponent Maithreepala Sirisena, a common-opposition candidate who had been backed by a coalition of almost all of Sri Lanka’s major political parties. Even before the final result was declared, everyone seemed to unequivocally agree that Sirisena had won – though it felt like just hours before, Rajapakse had seemed so unbeatable. And while Cassie and I had had fairly different lives, we had a few things in common too; for one thing, that morning we were at the edges of our literal and proverbial seats, wishing and hoping – knowing but, like much of Sri Lanka, not daring to believe – Rajapakse had lost. When the final result declared Sirisena’s victory over Rajapakse as certain, Cassie and I rejoiced along with a huge majority of Sri Lankans both at home and abroad – the unbeatable had been beaten.
When Cassie and I finally ‘met’, it was on Skype. As our conversation progressed, it became obvious that our lives were, in some incredible way, parallel: our trajectories merged with our love and passion for Sri Lanka. Cassie and I swapped stories about our journeys to the North/North East of Sri Lanka, where we had encountered so many stories of sadness and trauma, but also of hope and love; how we had made enduring connections with people in those areas, who just wanted a chance to find closure, heal, and move forward; who had spent the years since 2009 living under the keen gaze of the army, in constant fear, as stories of disappearances, arrests and torture increased in their communities. Cassie and I discovered that we engaged with similar tropes in our creative work too – her major work-in-progress Afterlife engages with the aftermath of the war and the subject of an atrocity, and seeks to question the potential of the medium of photography to bury and transform a trauma, thereby creating an afterlife where wounds can be identified and mourned. We had both asked the question: what happens when the living are not allowed to acknowledge the dead, and the living – much like the dead – thus become permanently fixed in a state of limbo?
Before the 8th of January, Sri Lanka itself existed in this state of limbo. The Rajapakse regime – consisting mostly of members of the Rajapakse family – ran Sri Lanka like a corrupt private family business: sealing, and lying, using public funds for massive personal indulgences, intimidating and even silencing any sources of dissent, and running natural resources into the ground. They controlled all public offices including the bodies relevant to protecting human rights and fighting corruption, all bodies of law enforcement, and the media. They laughed in the face of all allegations against them – repeatedly declaring they finished the war with ‘zero civilian casualties’ – and flouted recommendations for post-war reconciliation, both from the international community and a national commission set up for that purpose (the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission). They saw themselves as being accountable to no one.
Which is why when Sirisena, formerly a minister in Rajapakse’s own cabinet, stepped forward and declared himself ‘the’ opponent in late 2014, the shift in tide was almost instantaneous. When Rajapakse had won the previous presidential election in 2010, he had come to power backed by overwhelming and genuine public support. In 2014, the feeling was very different – people, even those Sinhalese who had vehemently supported Rajapakse’s battle plan in 2009, were disillusioned by the crippling cost of living, and flagrant corruption.
In an awe-inspiring show of democracy, Sri Lankans, in record voter turn-out, voted Maithreepala Sirisena in as their new president on the 8th of January. The Sri Lankan people spoke, and this time, the Rajapakses had to listen. A wave of genuine pride and true patriotism – quite different from the oppressive kind we’d all become so wary of – swept over the island. People, from all walks of life, gathered at Colombo’s Independence Square to watch Sirisena take his oath that evening in an understated and simple ceremony. We all hoped it was a sign of what was to come.
Since then, many signs point to true change: the Sirisena administration have published a 100-day plan which clearly demonstrates their desire to reinstate democracy in Sri Lanka. It promises to abolish the executive presidency, restore autonomy to all important public bodies including the judiciary and the media, and to be transparent with its spending. In his speech on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day on the 4th of February, Sirisena hit every nail on the head, in a quiet, somber style, quite contrary to the rabid fist-shaking style of his predecessor. Where Mahinda Rajapakse used occasions like Independence Day to propagate his signature brand of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism, Sirisena instead chose to address the need to bridge the huge rift between the Tamil and the Sinhalese ethnic groups, which had widened since the end of the war. Where Rajapakse chose to repeatedly remind us about his victory over the LTTE, Sirisena chose to remind us that we had failed as a nation to heal the wounds caused by war. For the first time, someone in power said: we must reflect, we must grieve, we must mourn, we must look inward. Finally, a ‘declaration of peace’ sought to pay respect to every life lost in the war – of all ethnicities – and pledged to never let the violence recur. For the first time, someone in power acknowledged all Sri Lankans who had died in the war, regardless of who they had been. In a moment, all the nameless and ignored dead were once again remembered, and given new life in being remembered. Perhaps, finally, in the months to come, those who loved them while they lived, can do what is needed to mark them ready for transition – and in the process, mark themselves ready for transition too.
There have been good signs, but can we trust again, so soon?
We know the road ahead is not easy or smooth – instead, it will be a challenging journey to make. We have been given the important opportunity to redefine ourselves, most importantly, in relation to each other. We have been given the rare chance of a new life. We are like a new nation, being born all over again. Can the new government help us, and can we help it, redefine Sri Lanka while truly addressing the issues which have for so long, struggled to rise to the surface? Can the new administration provide justice and closure for Tamils affected by the war, with immediate effect? Can the new government – and indeed, we, a newly inspired people – ask the right questions of ourselves, of our nation and attempt to seek answers together?
In effect, trust then, is what we need the most. For the moment at least, all cynicism must simply be replaced by trust. Even those of us who had not dared for a second to believe, have to believe. And we have to continue to believe, even beyond these weeks and months. We have to believe that we can shape a new life, a second life, an afterlife for Sri Lanka. Together, we must be a Sri Lanka which can, once more, believe in itself.
When the sun rose on the 8th of January, Cassie and I, and our generation, which had known nothing of Sri Lanka without tragedy, were finally able to see past tragedy and glimpse real beauty, because within the glimmer of hope we all felt, there was also a feeling that we were truly seeing Sri Lanka for the first time. And what we saw was utterly, breathtakingly beautiful, in every way.