04 April 2020

Let’s not stop singing in the lifeboats

Even in the flood of well-meaning, ill-intended, harmless, spirit-lifting and depressing posts, sometimes a soft, pink petal makes its presence felt. This is the quote that floated up from the void. Voltaire. ‘Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.’

Well, this is a shipwreck unlike any in remembered history. The downside is that we have, as a species, done everything possible to wreck the ship, steering it into tumultuous waters, unforgiving storms and of course known and unknown rocks. 


This rock is one that hadn’t been marked on any of the crude maps we’ve used to guide us. What’s worse is that we wrecked the ship long before we hit this rock, but pretended that it had been and will always be ‘plain sailing.’ 

Now we are struggling in the lifeboats and we cannot pretend any more.

The upside. People. Hope. Heart. Community. Solidarity. Song. The things that sustained us through the longest and darkest nights infested with nightmares and werewolves.

My friend Sudat Pasqual wrote about a song he heard. 

‘I was in the train on my way home from work a few hours ago. As my stop was approaching, I got up to get my backpack on and was having a little difficulty with one strap with the train lurching around. I felt the bag lift and a hand help me get the strap right. I turned and thanked him. "If you don't have the pack on right, your back will hurt tomorrow", he said. I agreed and thanked him again. I noticed him get on the train a few stations before, he was with a group who I am quite certain are homeless. I am glad that social distancing never even crossed my mind when he was helping me.’

Social distancing does not mean shutting the door on solidarity and humanity. That’s the rather long title of this song. You could trim it to ‘solidarity and heart.’ That’s a song whose melody moves from one story to another, one house to another house, from village to village. Somewhere, right now, someone is collecting and parceling rations to be distributed among the needy. Somewhere, right now, someone is talking with friends about how to obtain equipment  urgently needed by medical practitioners.

Right now, from the balcony of the small apartment I have been self-isolated for almost three weeks, I can see kites. I saw them yesterday too. It’s a late evening ritual, almost. There are kites resisting the setting sun and there are kites embracing it. The kites soar like a dream that will not be pinned down. The kites, they are singing, absolutely.

There are houses whichever direction I cast my eyes. I look to the west. There’s a coconut tree flanked by kohomba and kos. I turn towards the east and there’s a mango tree blending into a bo tree. A young father takes his child in a stroller up and down the lane. There’s a young mother who can’t stop smiling and bubbles through her fears about which all she says is ‘I don’t sleep well at night.’

People in Italy played music. They sang from their balconies. People in various countries decided to cheer the health workers and everyone working hard to repair the ship. At the same time. People all over the world decided that they will meditate at a particular time. Together. That’s song. That’s singing.

There’s always music in the luxury liners. There’s singing in the lifeboats. I don’t know about luxury liners, but the music from the lifeboats —they are divine. And the melody will wrap the earth many times over long after the voices have gone silent. They will ribbon the wrecked ship and transform into material and science that will help set us afloat again.

If you want to stop the Coronavirus, here’s a remedy: don’t stop singing.



Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']

When the Welikada Prison was razed to the ground

Looking for the idyllic in dismal times  Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete
Vo, Italy: the village that stopped the Coronavirus
We need 'no-charge' humanity
Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we?   
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 

 'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing? 

 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter 
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo? 
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody  
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop 
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds



malindasenevi@gmail.com

03 April 2020

When the Welikada Prison was razed to the ground…


One of my favorite Joan Baez songs is ‘Prison Trilogy’.  Three man. In prison for three different reasons. Three tragic stories. Together, they make logical the assertion, ‘and we’re gonna raze, raze the prisons, to the ground.’ 

If we were to do a thorough investigation of the justice system and conditions in prisons, here and abroad, we would probably come up with hundreds of such cases. Obviously the vast majority of them would not have known-names. Julian Assange is an exception, in this sense.

Being restrained in one way or another is not a happy thing. Confinement makes one yearn for and cherish things taken for granted. Mobility, obviously, but that’s not all. Prisons don’t ‘give’ vast expanses of sky. There are no rolling landscapes. The wind and rain come sliced to eye and ear. There are other obvious depravations. The Coronavirus has given us a flavor of such limitations.

Add fear and it’s probably quite hellish. Imagine the plight of a prisoner during a prison riot. It’s the same in plague-situations or an impending pandemic. What if the entire administrative apparatus collapses? What if the staff flees? What if the supply mechanisms get interrupted? What if the cooks die? What if your cellmate gets infected? Such questions can be quite disturbing to reflect on.

I am not privy to what goes on in the minds of a prisoner right now. All I know is that inmates of the Welikada Prison have decided to forego a meal, requesting that the relevant costs be diverted to the fund set up to help combat the Coronavirus.

It’s easy for the wealthy to make a sizable contribution. Even a small contribution from a rich individual would be many times larger than the largest gift a poor person can give. Maybe this is why there is always something extra special when those who have the least reach out to help a fellow creature.

‘It’s the thought that matters,’ we’ve heard people say. Almost out of habit. The truth is that the small thing is made invisible by the big thing. Thought gets displaced by action. And yet, I like to think that what has kept absolute disaster at bay is the thought. It is the small thing. The small people, if you will.  

There are people working tirelessly and at great risk. Most of us are required to do some basic things. Small things. We don’t like it. We whine about it. And we are even careless to the point of absolute irresponsibility.  There’s nothing wrong in focusing on oneself and one’s loved ones, especially at times like this. This is what we have been told to do. Stay home. Self-isolate.

And yet, there are people who think ‘one for all,’ even if all are not for one. The small but beautiful gesture by the inmates at Welikada reminded me of the Joan Baez song. It also reminded me of one of the few songs I like in Nanda Malini’s ‘Pawana’ (‘Wind’) album.

The song is a collection of wishes, among which are the following:

Wahinnata hekinam gigum dee, viyali gam bim valata ihalin
[if only I could with thunderous roar rain down upon parches villages and fields…]

Idennata hekinam bathak vee, bathak no-idena pelaka rahasin
[if only I secretly could be the rice that gets cooked in a hut where rice doesn’t get cooked..]

The prisoners didn’t turn into rain. They didn’t turn into cooked rice. And yet, I feel the drizzle of good heartedness and I taste the flavor of kindness. I feel humbled and ask myself ‘what have you done?’

Something wafted over the Welikada walls. Something seeped through them. There was music and fragrance. And thus did the inmates of Welikada raze their prison to the ground. And we, each and everyone of us, benefited.


Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']

Looking for the idyllic in dismal times 

Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now
There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love
We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete
Vo, Italy: the village that stopped the Coronavirus

Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we?   
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 

 'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing? 

 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter 
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo? 
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody  
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop 
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies




malindasenevi@gmail.com

02 April 2020

Looking for the idyllic in dismal times



There is a day, a time or perhaps a moment that is remembered frequently and even wistfully. The day before anyone had heard of Corvid-19. A time when the tragedies it would unleash were unknown. Many, I am sure, would want the world and life to re-boot to that point, barring those communities that were caught in play of guns and bombs of course. Such things have ceased. For now. Anyway, that pre-Corvid-19 time would certainly seem idyllic for many. 

My friend Kanishka Goonewardena put things in perspective a couple of days ago, posting on Facebook an exchange between the German magazine Der Spiegel (‘The Mirror’) and the German philosopher Theodor W Adorno. The interviewer from the Der Speigel makes an observation, ‘Professor, two weeks ago the world seemed to be still fine…’ Adorno cuts in with the trite and telling, ‘Not to me…’

Of course in the idyllic ‘back then’ that’s currently the most popular there weren’t worldwide lockdowns. There was no panic, although people were dying in the hundred of cancer and other diseases. There was no panic buying and no social distancing. Was everything alright, though? 

Adorno died in 1969. How has the world fared? We’ve bragged about technology, space exploration, breakthroughs in communication, cures for certain diseases and so on.  We have been mesmerized by the glitter of the ‘good life’ as such has been marketed to the world, even though only a fraction can actually enjoy it while the vast majority of people have to make do with crumbs or nothing. We have developed weapons that wipe out nations in the matter of a few seconds. We’ve seen some nations bombed into the Middle Ages. We’ve starved millions. We’ve poisoned the hearth, our waterways and the air we breathe. We have devastated the natural world. We’ve lost each other and ourselves.

And today, we rue the fact that we bartered food security for an economic paradigm that sold us the lie that if we had adequate growth we could always buy the food we needed, never mind the toxins embedded the food we’ve been forced to buy. We rue many things, in fact. For example traditional knowledge systems that include medicine and environment-friendly technologies that have been robbed, re-named and re-sold or erased from memory by the burning of books, mindless vilification and lack of use.

Is there a long ago that was idyllic? And how long ago, if so? Were people happier then? Did they not fret? Was life more predictable? Assuming there was such a lovely place, could we ever return to it?

Tough questions to answer. However, if the tourism industry tells us anything it is that those who have had the biggest slices of the so-called ‘good life’ very often spend their disposable incomes to obtain a slice of an idyllic that’s far away from glitter and buzz of their diurnal. It’s to faraway mountains, lonely beaches and other such landscapes that they go. ‘To recharge batteries,’ they tell us. The tourism industry is only beginning to ‘send’ customers to less physical destinations. That’s been the preserve of those in the business of selling and buying science that’s not called science, philosophy, culture and lifestyle.

Well, now it seems that it would have been better not to venture too far from such places. We’ve lost that paradise, some claim. Have we, really? Perhaps we’ve not lost it but put it under threat and dragged it to a place where its demise is imminent. Perhaps it’s just that we’ve lost the eyes to see it, for it can also be argued that that lost worlds iare all around us and even within us. Only, we have lost the capacity to see these landscape, physical and otherwise, or the wisdom to assess their worth. 

One thing is certain. We can’t go back. We can however go forward. There’s nostalgia for that which has passed. There’s hope about a different future, not just a future that’s green but a future where people don’t die of starvation or disease on account of being unable to access overflowing granaries and effective healthcare, respectively. 

Two thing. The natural world (yes, that’s not a ‘one thing’ but is made of the countless) and community. In the pursuit of profit and it’s illusion, we have subverted both. They are both recoverable. Perhaps it is time for us to consider the possibility that it is only by attempting to recovering or regenerating the natural world and cultivating solidarity that we can hope to locate a realistic ‘better world.’ 

The idyllic, then, is somewhere out there. It is in the past. It is in the ‘faraway’ that we mostly think of as ‘tourist destination’. It is also in the future — if we have the will and the wisdom. Indeed, it has to be the future, if we want a future at all.

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']

Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now

There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love
We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete
Vo, Italy: the village that stopped the Coronavirus
Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we?   
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing? 

 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter 
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo? 
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody  
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop 
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies


Every citizen has to be a 'Suwaviruwa'

The idyllic was never lost, we just lost sight of it

Who won the battle against terrorism? The easy answer: ‘Ranaviruwo’. Yes, the men and women who battled, who put lives on line and lost them or were maimed for life, played the most important role, without doubt.

This is not the moment to enumerate contributors, but it can safely be said that many others helped in numerous ways. The general public also played a role. They took the hits and kept their faith. They were vigilant.

Today, we are dealing with a different kind of terrorism. There are similarities. There is fear. Vigilance is called for. A sense of civic responsibility has become crucial. The military, as always, stood up to the challenge. The front lines however are not made of people in military fatigues. It’s the medical personnel that’s fighting tirelessly. ‘Suwaviruwo,’ as someone calls them, are doing their best to get the job done.  And unlike in the war against terrorism, every single citizen has to be a soldier — as dedicated, vigilant, resourceful, disciplined and convinced of victory.

The precautionary protocols have been detailed. Adherence is the problem. All the measures taken and the untiring efforts of our medical professionals who are fighting at great personal risk will be absolutely useless if we, as citizens, do not back them 100%.  This means, we have to do everything that we are required to do. It also means every single one of us has to do it.

That’s 100 percent. Not 10%. Not 95%. Not 99%. Not 99.99%. Each and every single citizen has been called on to make tremendous sacrifices for their own protection and the protection of their families and fellow citizens. If one person is careless or arrogant, everyone will suffer. One  irresponsible individual or one act of irresponsibility can lead to thousands of deaths.

The evidence indicates that by and large the people recognize what needs to be done. We have seen admirable maturity and civil responsibility in this regard. Every breach however is unfortunate and even tragic. Some have not disclosed fully the history of ailments to doctors. Some have played hide and seek. Some have even organized or attended large gatherings in absolute contravention of medical advice.

These are criminal acts. I repeat, these are criminal acts and those who behave in such manner are criminals. Obviously, kind words and pleas will not stop irresponsible, ignorant and arrogant individuals. The problem is that there’s no way of identifying such individuals until they do something absolutely stupid. This obviously calls for a tightening of rules. Freedoms will be curtailed. They must be curtailed. This could have serious repercussions if and when we overcome this crisis, for history has shown that rules broken for pragmatic reasons in a national crisis are often  allowed to remain broken to serve those in power. There is no way around it. That bridge has to be crossed later. If we don’t arrest this now, there won’t be anyone to cross such bridges or else such travels might be rendered meaningless.

One of the reasons for absconding is stigma. One. There are obviously others that are not pathetic but are pernicious. We have to recognize that the infected and those who die are our fellow citizens. Tomorrow it could be you. It could be me. If we are insensitive then we risk our fellow citizens being insensitive should be be infected. Those who are ill need our help. Vilifying them or venting one's anger on them does not help. In fact it can indirectly make this that much harder to contain. We need to identify those who are infected. We need to quarantine them. We need to check the history of their behavior. We cannot do this if they don't cooperate and they are less likely to cooperate if society shuns then.

To state the obvious, this is a global crisis. Obviously it is also a national crisis because the problem manifests itself uniquely in each nation and each nation in turn have unique coping mechanisms given available resources, cultures of containment and levels of resilience. The problem is that the entire world is in trial-and-error mode. What we know today, we didn’t know yesterday. It is easy to ask in anger or with sarcasm ‘why was that not done?’ or ‘what on earth did they do that?’ To look back in anger is easy. Retrospection is a privilege but one that doesn’t really help.

The response will always be imperfect. This is why we need to constantly reassess. We see this happening. The authorities must come clean. They must paint as accurate a picture as possible. They must communicate the truth, explain the logic of measures put in place and be firm in word and deed about what needs to be done and the kind of support expected. All policy decisions should ideally be endorsed by available scientific and medical knowledge. That expertise should frame response. The people will be more inclined to fall in line if they are convinced that the Government is doing its best to set in place mechanisms that will allow quick and effective response to changing scenarios.

The government has to be sensitive to the plight of those who are daily wage earners and those who have very little savings. No household should be in want when it comes to basic needs. However, just as support our suwawiruwo by following their advice, so too should be draw from the ‘basics’ that have helped our people in times of crisis throughout history. We have to help one another whenever possible and in whatever way possible. The collective ethic must come to the fore. Solidarity must be demonstrated. Such things cannot be decreed, but let us not forget that we always had and still have an ethic of giving and sharing, an ethic of standing with even our enemies in times of tragedy.

I firmly believe that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans are fully capable of overcoming the challenge. We have to fight this battle together. Each and every one of us. We can’t leave it to the medical professionals. We can help them by being responsible, but being patient, by curbing our enthusiasm and by managing with the essentials. This is not the time to complain.

Discipline and empathy alone will see us through. This is the time to call up every ounce of civic consciousness. We have to do this. For ourselves. For our families. For friends and neighbors. It is for the nation. It is for our tomorrow. We have to tell ourselves something like the following: ‘I am at the forefront of this battle. I stand with you, stand with me. I fight with and for you, fight with me. We shall together win and secure our freedom by ridding our nation of this menace. I want to be a suwaviruwa and I will do my best to be one. ’

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [April 2, 2020]
 
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malindasenevi@gmail.com

31 March 2020

Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now

Words. Millions of them. We are getting an avalanche. We are being buried or shoved into a void.

Maybe it’s fear. Could be determination. Some of it comes with knowledge. It is backed with information that is sent through the mills of wisdom and experience so it comes out with cogent and pragmatic proposals. Not all of it though.

Words. It is not that the Coronavirus made people use more words than usual. The advent of social media did that. Words are used and shared. It has become a frenzy. 


And now it’s as though we can’t step back. Words, like a virus, find us out. There’s no place to hide. They come, they pin us down, they drown us. We lose the thread.

 


So, theoretically, we could receive a piece of writing that could be described as a lucid focus on priority issues. It could be a superbly expressed call to action. Then comes the question: ‘how can we keep such insights from disappearing into the void, especially since people have learned to glance and move on simply on account of the word-floods that hit them daily?’

Is it that in general social media users have developed an out-of-the-loop phobia? Are we scared that if we tarry too long reading something or researching it we may miss some life-death post in the newsfeed? Is the possibility of ‘missing’ sending shivers down our spines? Do we believe that if we missed something it means we’ve entered the vast void and cannot come out?

And what do we gain, really, from what appears to be cursory perusal? We click. We like. We share. Words fly in all directions all the time. There are so many words that in the end they gather in incomplete or incomprehensible sentences, isn’t this true?

Have we paused to ask ourselves, ‘so what did we learn and how has that learning changed things?’ Not much, I feel.

It’s time to stop, perhaps. One of these days or maybe even within the next hour something is bound to turn up in your newsfeed. Something that is ‘a lucid focus on priority issues’ or a ‘superbly expressed call to action.’

Stop right there. Such messages come with prescription, the wiser the prescription the simpler it is, typically. Call someone who is alone, an elderly relative, a retired teacher, parents of friends who are overseas, someone in a home for the elderly. Plant something. Anything. Look at the stars at night, the elements like a mad artist spraying the sky at sunset, the poetry of cloud formations, the grass struggling to break through a crack in the pavement. Anything.

Write something. Write a list and shake it twice. Write several lists. The things that truly count and the inconsequential which we have been obsessed with for years. Those who have hurt us but who we’ve not forgiven. Those who we hurt but didn’t say sorry to. Things to do at home that we kept putting off because we didn’t have the time or inclination. A list of every single individual we know who in one way or another helped us become who we are.

There are such posts, aren’t there? Yes, they can all disappear into the void. Maybe what we haven’t realized is that we are in the void and have been dwelling there for years and years. Maybe if we stopped, embraced (instead of shoving aside) and focused for a moment of ‘putting things into practice,’ we might come out. Slowly. Surely.

There are words. Millions of words. They touch us, push aside or into an abyss and move on. We are being hit by a word-flood. So let’s try to catch a word-drop. Just one. Hold it in your palm. Reflect on it. Dissolve it in heart and mind. Water the gardens of life with the liquid magic of simple ideas.  The void will, I am sure, come alive.

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']

There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love

We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete

Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we?   
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing? 

 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter 
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo? 
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody  
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop 
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies



malindasenevi@gmail.com