26 April 2012

George Mastrakoukos echoes Wasantha Wijewardena

[This is another piece written in Greece, a year and a half ago.  Was thinking of thickets and burning last night and thought I would share]

George Mastrokoukos, Chief Organizer of the World Youth Chess Championship 2010, currently underway in Halkidiki, Greece, ran into me as I stepped out to get a breath of fresh air a couple of days ago.  I was close to midnight or perhaps even a little bit after. 

‘It’s late,’ he observed.

‘The best time,’ I replied.

‘Yes, yes.  It is healthy.  Let me tell you something I know.  It’s my quote. Those who want to walk in the light must first learn to work in the night.’ 

We laughed. He got into his car and drove off. 

I am in charge of 17 young Sri Lankans who are accompanied by 12 parents.  It is easy to manage kids not least of all because when they are not playing they spend hours with our coach, Rajeendra Kalugampitiya who has had very little sleep because he works around the clock preparing and coaching.  Parents are a different kettle of fish.  ‘Greater love’ and an ‘I know what’s best for my kid’ attitude is quite taxing because is fractures team discipline.  Arrogance when married to ignorance can produce weird creatures. 

I can only imagine what it must be for George to be in charge of an event where there are over 1400 players with at least a third of them accompanied by parents.  It can’t be easy for him.  I figured that he must have spent many hours walking and working at night. 

Got me thinking, his words did.  I remembered a walk in the night.  A dust road in the South East Dry Zone of Sri Lanka.  A few miles off the Thanamalwila-Haldemmulla Road.  Shrub jungle on either side.  At several points the road was intersected by stream-beds. Dry. It was Amawaka, a moonless night.  The half-light from stars was barely sufficient to illuminate anything. The luminosity of memory, however, was bright enough to light the way for my travel companion Wasantha Wijewardena, a self-confessed professional rastiyaadukaaraya, whose approach to life and the world had been unequivocally stated when in his last year at school he had opted to refuse the most prestigious prize at Royal College just to make the eventually recipient, his supporters in the teaching staff and the principal happy.

We had many miles to go.  It was anecdote time, a time for song and light humour, a time to talk about life and love; the life we lose by living and the love we lose by loving.  A rastiyaadukaaraya or vagrant is a gatherer of narratives. Such people are magnets for folklore. They are repositories of narratives that did not warrant front page mention or place in history.  Wasanth knew stuff.  He regurgitated stuff. A lot of stuff.  Right now, I am reminded of an observation he made that keeps surfacing in my mind whenever I encounter violence of any kind.  This is what he said:

Those who set fire to the thicket do so because they are intimidated by the dark and its secrets.

This is George, speaking in another voice belonging to another body and in a language he is not familiar with.

It is true, isn’t it?  We are fragile creatures. Timid, for all our big talk, arrogance, professed courage and what not.  We are bad at adapting to circumstances so we spend lifetimes manufacturing circumstances we are comfortable with, even if it means we have to desecrate landscapes, destroy cultures, massacre communities and disrupt the cycles of the natural earth beyond the point of regeneration and thereby bring ourselves and all life on earth to the brink of extinction. We are pyromaniacs. That’s the signature trait of our species. 

We set fire to all thickets, real and imagined, as literal entity and as metaphor.  Out of ignorance. Out of fear.  And yet believe that setting fire will clear cloud and density, repel ignorance and doubt, and that the resultant light will help obtain wisdom.

Wasantha told me that the forest is a friend and that it protects those who are innocent in intent, humble in disposition and benign in all engagement.  ‘It is not that there are no dangers Malinda Aiya,’ he said, ‘just that there are always safeguards for any eventuality.’ One has to cultivate a certain way of thinking and being in order to obtain the eyes and second-nature skills necessary to turn dark into light, forest into clearing, enemy into friend and danger into plaything.  That was what he said.

‘The sacred is secret, Malinda Aiya.  There is a reason for this.  Secrets are not revealed except to friends, and friendships are hard won things.   We think we can dissect things, split them and somehow unearth the philosopher’s stone that reveals all. We are so wrong.  We do learn this way, but not anything that is important when it comes to perceiving the eternal verities, the sadaathanika sathyayo.  The touchstones that light up truth are there but few can see and they are always invisible to the arrogant, to those who would burn the forest, cut the trees.’

It is 10.25 am where I am right now.  The hotel lobby.  I don’t see George Mastrokoukos around, but I think he is somewhere nodding in agreement. 

Post Script:  Wasantha's wanderings took him to India and to Ladakh.  He told me he wanted to be ordained as a bikkhu.  He emailed me saying that he had tossed his passport into the Ganges.  The last I heard of him, he had been arrested in Kashmir for lack of identification. He is now happily in a jail, just like all of us, except for the trappings.