30 September 2011

Necessary meditations on carelessness and callousness

I haven’t seen Regi Siriwardena’s play ‘The Blinding’, directed by Haig Karunaratne.  I was not at the preview at the ICES and not at the British Council more recently.  I haven’t read the play either.  Someone else was at both performances, Comrade Aunty Nimal Breckenridge. And, as she sometimes does when something irks her, she shared a story. 

‘Last evening I was at a play pre-viewed before a group of us. It was "experimental theatre": a hard hitting commentary on how we "ordinary" people lived our ordinary lives while corpses were floating down rivers and petrol soaked tyres hung round young men's necks incinerated them. When the show ended the director/producer (a friend of thaatha's) started a discussion. I made the first comment. Then a mobile blared; and as the owner scrambled in her bag and started a conversation.  I asked, “Could the public's carelessness and callousness be displayed better?”   And walked out.’  And this, Comrade Aunty Nimal says, after Haig had specifically requested that mobile phones be turned off. 

She added a disclaimer, the gist of which I reproduce here: ‘I am told that I should guard against expressing such comments. My reactions are always spontaneous and polite; never pre-schemed.’

There is something about that time, the bheeshanaya or ‘Period of Terror’ in the Sinhala short-hand that few Sinhala-speaking Sri Lankans would be ignorant of.  It was deliberate and systemic terrorism on the part of the JVP and on the part of the UNP Government of the time. Some 60,000 people were killed over two years or so. The body count at the height of violence was around 50 per day.   Very few, if at all, were killed in gun battles. 

In stark contrast, when the LTTE was decisively crushed in May 2009, there was no lack of chest-beating, tear-shedding crusaders begging and even demanding that the terrorists be let off the hook.  And now that preferred outcome did not materialize, there is no lack of the same kinds of crusaders wanting to down those who rid the country of the terrorist menace.  Back then, in the late eighties, it was all ‘fair game’. 

Was it that in the late eighties the ‘right kind of people’ were getting slaughtered, i.e. those who were better dead?  Was it that the world didn’t have the eyes it claims to have now?  I don’t know.  What is indisputable was that back then there was a kind of callousness and silence that was apparent among certain sections of the population.  The transgressions, let me repeat, were not alleged to have taken place.  They happened.  Well documented. Facts, not allegations. 

A death is a death and each dead is consigned the same state of being, in a physical sense (the jury is out on other senses): they are out of the scene and the equation.  The manner of dying however and the circumstances too can provoke different kinds of reactions and so too the identity of the dead, apparently, where circumstance and manner are roughly similar.  

I am not talking of course of those rare beings who have cultivated the ability to exercise equanimity when encountering the vicissitudes of life.  The lady in question obviously did not belong that that category.  Callousness and carelessness cannot be stopped by way of legislation.  It is human thing; ‘inhuman’ some might correct me.  Perhaps the performance was weak, I don’t know.  Perhaps it was seen as some kind of ‘that’ which was different from the ‘this’ of being obnoxious.  These all include value-judgments at one level or another, yes.   

Still.

It seems that some deaths and killings are not newsworthy, some not worthy of respectful silence, some deserving cheering and some so irrelevant that keeping-in-touch via mobile phone is a far more important matter than being civil and civilized.  These things cannot be demanded, Comrade Aunty Nimal would not disagree, I believe.   

It is easy, someone might say, to pass judgment.  Someone else might observe that it easier and indeed too convenient not to.  It is easy to pick and choose when to engage and when to look askance.  Why bother to attend this kind of theatre, if one was adamant not to engage, not to reflect and open oneself to self-interrogation, and to change ways if way-changing made sense, all things considered? 

Comrade Aunty Nimal, as I said, was present at the British Council when ‘The Blinding’ was performed there.  She had a comment that might shed some light.

‘The discussion at the end highlighted, as the play did, the enigma of the human condition. Who were “ordinary people”? My first thought was [a question]: were we, in that room, ordinary people? [This was] sharply followed by the thought “why not? How many of us when we left, had had our brains "re-wired" .........?’

She concluded ‘I think I will stop there for now.’

I will too.  And I will proceed to reflect on these not-easy questions the inimitable Comrade Aunty Nimal raised. 

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1 comments:

Nancy Fernando said...

I love the "Poem for the Day" did you compose it?