03 April 2014

This Karu is a hero of our times

Similar sounding names and long names at that make it difficult to abbreviate.  Take ‘Karu’ for example.  There are all kinds of Karus.  Karunaratne, Karunamuni, Karunasuriya, Karunasekera, Karunasena, Karunatunga etc.  They are all called ‘Karu’.  This forces a tag. 

In the Arts Faculty, Peradeniya, in the mid to late eighties there were several ‘Karus’.   There was a Karu in my junior batch who was called ‘Second Year Karu’.  There were two Karus in our senior batch, one was ‘Action Karu’ (because he was in the Action Committee) and there was ‘Podi Karu’ (because he was small made).  There were two ‘Karus’ in our batch. One was ‘Karu’ because he was the most prominent of all Karus we encountered upon entering university.  Then there was a ‘Karu’ who came from another university. He joined us in the second year, along with two or three others who came from universities that did not offer a special degree in Political Science. This second 

‘Karu’ was ‘Pol Karu’ (for a while) for reasons of specialization. 

Pol Karu was also political in other ways.  It didn’t take long for us to realize where he stood politically.  He was with the Action Committee but not in the way many others were. He was quiet.  We figured that his involvement went beyond student issues and beyond issues that students championed as part of a larger political agenda.  He was embedded in that larger political project.

I can’t remember exchanging more than a few words with this Karu.  That’s not because we were in two different camps.  He was quiet.  He would smile the smile of common courtesy and recognition, acknowledgment of presence as it were.  That’s about it.  The other reason is that he wasn’t around for too long.  He was arrested. 

I remember days that dragged into weeks and into months. Days of ‘closure’ and days of ‘strike’ (technically, ‘boycott’).  The Arts Faculty reps in the Action Committee would call meetings.  Sometimes the Action Committee of the university would call meetings.  I remember someone suggesting that our batch should boycott classes calling for Karu’s release. Those were ‘don’t contradict the AC’ days.  I remember a few of us whispering, ‘next we will have to strike in order to get an arrested roommate released; how much more sillier can these people get?’ 

I can’t remember being sorry for Karu. 

I had forgotten about him until a few weeks ago. Another batchmate called me. He had met Karu somewhere.   Neither could place the other, but both saw familiarity. Conversation put the missing pieces together.  Through him I got to meet Karu.  He is not a Karunamuni, Karunasena, Karunasekera or Karunapala. He’s Karunaratne. D.G.S. Karunaratne. 

Karu had spent 7 years in jail.  Upon his release he had returned to politics.  He had fought the good fight without holding back one heartbeat.  He had left only when he was convinced that party and leadership, rhetoric and practice did nothing to overturn systems of resource extraction, exploitation of political subjugation but in fact operated as necessary cogs and adjuncts.  So he did the honorable thing. He quit.  He left the party, left ‘politics’ and became political in a different kind of way.

Karu came to see me.  It’s been more than 25 years since I last saw him.  Neither of us would have recognized the other had we met somewhere randomly.  But I knew he was coming. He called.  It was easy thereafter. 

He told me his story.  I did not know that his wife to be had visited him in jail for seven long years. I didn’t know that he has a daughter who is preparing for the A/Ls now, having been the first and only student from Narammala Kanishta Vidyalaya to score 9 A’s at the O/Ls.  Karu is father to a son and another daughter too. He lives in Narammala. Works in Kurunegala.  He is also an organic farmer.  He believes, obviously, that the best politics is earth-politics, doing on the ground that which is talked a few feet above it, typically.  

We discussed politics and history.  He smiled.  He smiled without anger when he told me that after he was captured somewhere in the late eighties, his captors beat him up, broke the bones in his hands.  I read his eyes.  He has the eyes of a man who will not be put down, who will look at captor and other detractors and read their eyes and in them their politics and their limitations. I am convinced that Karu never held a grudge.  I can’t prove it, but that’s how it feels.
He reminded me of something my father told me a long time ago: ‘people are born with mouths which need to be fed; they are also born with hands that can produce enough to feed the mouths provided that what is produced is not taken away’.  He has hands, Karu does. And a mind. And a heart.  They are all intact despite the bludgeoning.  A hero of our times for reasons that perhaps will resist being told as is often the case of stories of that time and such people. 

For me, a good human being who didn’t know and if he knew would not misunderstand that some 25 years ago I took his incarceration lightly.  Too late to rectify.  Never too late to acknowledge.