21 October 2012

What kind of rock are you sitting on and what’s the view like?

My friend Mohan Bhagwandas has been reminiscing. He doesn’t live in Sri Lanka but visits often. He was here a little more than a month ago. He’s visited places that were memory-stamped and childhood-fragranced, he tells me. He wrote about a rock.

This rock, Mohan says, lies opposite his former home in Bambalapitiya. That is, opposite the K Block of the Government Flats. He used to sit on this rock for hours on end in the 1960s and 1970s, ‘watching the waves in the ocean twist and turn’. He had visited his rock. These are the thoughts he
shared with me (I am paraphrasing).

‘For the first time, it seems, since the ships carrying Portuguese sailors must have gone past the place in 1495, Sri Lanka is beginning to mature into its own identity once again. Sri Lanka in its current avatar is just 62 years old, that’s just ten years less than how long the average person lives. That’s how long things have become Sri Lankan again. Well, “Lanka”’, shall we say? How can 505 years be undone in a single lifetime? How are mindsets, attitudes etc changed? The catharsis of the last 30 years strangely has brought that maturity to the forefront. People are alert. People are purposeful. People are going places. The ‘ohey nikang innawa’ response is a thing of the past. Identity is emerging.’

Some would say appearances can be misleading and I might even agree to a point because, as Mohan himself says, it is hard to unburden ourselves of the collective memory of five centuries, and not easy recover enough of ‘self’ from that grotesque creature we were made to become, the ‘post-colonial’. Still, he has a point.

This nation was given a moment where it became legitimate and pragmatic to hope and just as there are the doomsday prophets there are also the young and enterprising, some in body and spirit and some just in spirit.

Mohan gets up from the rock.

‘My son was taking photos of me sitting there. I was his age when I last sat there. It is the first he got to see “my spot”. I used to launch out from that spot and swim to the reef. Dive. See the wonders of the underwater world. Catch lobsters.’

Today, there would be other ‘underwaters’, other ‘lobsters’, landscapes and pastimes as wonderful to remember decades from today. Mohan would agree. But Bamba Flats then was not the Bamba Flats now. Time passes, things change. Memory can’t be stopped. Except by death. Mohan remembers.

‘In the Government Flats, Bambalapitiya, I recalled, not one person was hurt during the 1958 riots. Not one person was hurt in 1983. Nor before or after. I walked up to the “top of the road”.
I remembered how this was my home, my community, my world which we called “The Flats”.

Things had matured. History’s clock had moved on.’

Not the rock, though, no.

‘The same waves lapped on the shore. A girl and boy, in the blazing sun came and sat nearby. Oblivious to the world, only focused on their love for each other.

Some things change. Other things don’t. I felt so connected to the land of my birth. I did not think of my ancestry, my parentage, of my mother being this or my father being that. I connected to something deeper. To the land. To the ocean. To the rock. I felt proud to be born a Sri Lankan.

The perennial song of the expatriate? Not if you knew Mohan. He is a Bhagwandas; be belongs to a family which, like many others, was fractured by the partition that carved India and Pakistan as separate entities. They were among the neither-here-nor-there and therefore ended up being everywhere. His blood does not contain the twisted DNA that is the inevitable result of 500 years of subjugation. He has mind, though. He has heart. And just as people can un-own themselves, people can make themselves ‘belong’ and become inheritor of heritage.

We all have rocks, don’t we? There are places that are not just unforgettable, but vantage points from which the movement of time can be seen and time itself can be rolled and unrolled, high points which give us sweep and turn us into judge and historian. There are places that make us stop.

I have never seen Mohan’s rock, but rocks I certainly have known, big and small, in different places, different continents, made of different material, some heavy and some light, some tangible and some not. It’s the same for everyone.

No one can steal our rocks. We can conjure them up at will. We can stand on them or pick them up and meditate on texture, colour and contour. We can send it skipping along water-surface, put it away for safekeeping in a box or let it be so that someone else can do whatever he/she likes with it, long after we are dead and gone.

What we do with our rocks is our business.

Not all men and women will take rock and think ‘independence’, but within every rock there resides invitation for meditation. On anything. Mohan chose to think about a different time and contrast it with a ‘now’ that he had encountered. He wrote hope. Others might conclude ‘hopeless’.

I haven’t seen Mohan’s rock. But I see ‘hope’. A nation that has defeated the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit against all odds is eminently positioned to slay its cultural, ideological and political ghosts. It might take longer than 30 years, but there’s a foundation that has been laid. Some might want to wreck it, but I concur with Mohan that we’ve turned a corner and the road though long is certainly visible now.