21 March 2012

Reflections on the map of my country

A few years ago my daughter, then just five, made a random observation: ‘langak venakal mama hithuwe ratak kiyanne toy ekak kiyala’ (until recently, I thought ‘a country’ was a toy).  This was in the year 2006. The month was October.  I wrote a piece for The Nation newspaper titled, ‘A country is a toy, but that’s alright’, in which I mentioned that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had been right all along.  

I am not going to re-write that article, but I must make a slight qualification to my observation: ‘our country may have been more of a toy then than it is now’.

I was thinking of this toy-business and the notion of ‘country’. I learnt the alphabet in Grade 1.  The first two letters I learnt were rayanna and tayanna (the symbols for the sounds ‘ra’ and ‘ta’).   That ‘rata’ has been the predominant concern for me since then in all things political.  Years later I learnt what ‘free education’ meant, and the responsibilities it confers on those who benefited from it. So too ‘free healthcare’.  The ‘rata’ that entered by mind when I was 5 years old took more concrete form later on, when I was shown the map of Sri Lanka.  I doubt if I had a notion of what rata meant when I was in Grade 1, even though I didn’t think it was a toy as my daughter did.  But when it came to the map of Sri Lanka, it was love at first sight.

Those were times when one couldn’t just pop into the boutique down the road and buy a ‘lankave sithiyama’ (map of Sri Lanka) or ‘loka sithiyama’ (world map).  We were required to draw these maps and bring them to class to be used during the geography period.  It was a matter of tracing the map from the bhoogolaya (Geography) text book.  Painstaking work for an 8 year old.  To me, what emerged was the most beautiful picture ever.  Sri Lanka.  I was fascinated by all the little thudu and kalapu (points and lagoons). I loved the division into climactic zones, the differentiation of the island according to elevation.  I loved tracing all the rivers and not just the Mahaweli, Kalu, Kelani and Walawe that are mentioned in folk song and poetry. 

Time passed.  We lost that map.  It got scarred. It got torn. Blood was splashed on it. Its rivers were turned into cemeteries. So too the thousands upon thousands of other water bodies, as were the road sides and canals.  We lost our map. We lost our innocence. We were weary of waiting for our leaders to gift us back our country, we were weary of waiting for a moment when our country was not treated as though it was a football and we were weary of people promising us they would deliver back our ‘rayanna tayanna rata’, of returning to us the beautiful map we traced as children, felt belonged to and felt we owned. . 

Time passed.  I was weary, but I didn’t give up hope. Like many others, I too fought for a motherland whose dimensions I admit may have not and may not be the same as those imagined by others.  To the geography that ‘nation’ denotes and is ‘capturable’ on paper was added the more intangible elements of history, heritage and culture, and the togetherness that resists description, the unity that translated (for example) into a collective national roar the day Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996. Added too were things like ‘citizenship’ in its many elaborations, structures of governance, and prerogatives of responsibility that rise from assertion of and demand for rights.  I fought, as others did.  My body and my mind suffered much violence on account of all this and I didn’t consider any of it ‘sacrifice’ but consequences of choices made. 

I go back often to the books I’ve read, the people I’ve associated, the things I’ve seen and heard, all of which boils down to one thing: the map of my country.  I know that it is more than something described by a line on a piece of paper, but I know too that all those other non-line/non-space, beyond-a-picture things would mean very little if we didn’t have an entity that could be described in black and white or if it wasn’t traceable by a 9 year old child onto a piece of paper which he/she could then hold up and say ‘rayanna tayanna rata’.

I remember the year 2005 and the kind of map we had.  I look back today and I realize yes, we are still a toy in a way but we are more of a country now than we were in 2005.  I remember that there are no bombs exploding in crowded places, that the smell of gunpowder is not attaching itself to torn pieces of school-uniform soaked in innocent-blood.  I remember that I don’t ask myself each morning ‘will I see them again?’ as my daughters worship me before they go to school and I kiss them and touch their heads saying ‘mage duwata budu saranai’ (May the blessings of the Buddha be yours, my daughter).

Yes, I love the map of my country. It is something that was robbed from me and I don’t want to dwell on the how and why of it all.  All I know is that after some thirty years, I got it back.  All I know is that I couldn’t say this in November 2005 but I can say it now.  All I know is that we had many leaders who were said to have been ‘great’, ‘capable’ etc etc., but that they did not give me this moment, they didn’t give me back the map that was such an important part of who I am from the time I was able to write ‘rayanna tayanna rata’ and trace the lankave sithiyama. 

Today I have my map.  I have a country.  Today I know that my children can build a world on this map.  I am thankful.

[based on an article written in January 2010]


fayaz said...

lovely piece ..

Anonymous said...

unfortunately our country is being abused by a vicious family while we have to shut our mouths and wait.Open your mouth, the white van will pick you up never to be seen or heard again.