14 February 2015

An ode to dimensionality

Christina Glaves, friend, photographer and a healer who had that rare gift of absorbing the pain around her and thereby delivering relief and peace, once told me that people don’t look at the sky enough.  This was said in a small caf√© frequented by out-of-the-mainstream sorts in Ithaca, New York. We were having coffee at ‘Stella’s’ on a cold February evening in the year 2000 and talking about people and things, the world and the universe, eternal verities and diurnal prerogatives.  The conversation meandered from dust-speck to the universe, lingering at random things in the in-between of these magnitudes. The sky-comment came, I remember well, at an intersection called Humility.

She told her sky stories. I related mine.  Just two.  The first was a thought that arrived at World’s End in the December of 1986.  It was the clearest view I’ve ever had from that point in all my many visits to Maha Eliya or Horton Plains.  The entire region south of the central massif right down to the coast was clearly visible.  How vast this island is, I thought.  It was a Poya day.  That night, stretched outside a tent and by a campfire, I looked at the cloudless sky and the full dimensions of my existence and its utter irrelevance in the larger order of things came to me.  I knew the size of my country on the world map.  The view from World’s End indicated the size of the planet.  The Milky Way indicated the diga-palala of our Earth in relation to the limitlessness of the universe.  It was humbling.

It was empowering as well.  I felt unburdened.  I realized the meaning of ‘dispensability’.  I obtained the true dimensions of ‘self’ and ‘location’ in what is called ‘the larger order of things’ and what a lottery our lives our in terms of the impact or otherwise of conscious as well as unconscious acts.  I used the word ‘empowering’ because the shedding of illusion and ego gives working space to honesty and reason.  True, we slip and forget, but once you have a sense of dimension, it keeps nudging you saying ‘I am around, don’t forget’. 

There was a second story I told Christina that night.  It was the night of February 27, 1992.  I was trying to force myself to have a dinner of dhal and bread.  The dhal looked like stuff taken from a toilet.  It had too much salt.  I had in any case lost my appetite.  I was sharing a cell in the Wadduwa Police Station with Rev. Athureliye Rathana Thero.  This was a couple of hours before the OIC of the Police Station, one Karunatillake began beating those being held in custody.  The drunken officer got the cell opened and having assaulted me, grabbed Rev Rathana’s head in his enormous and cruel hand and banged it against the wall. Again and again and again. 

Right now, remembering, I note that Rev Rathana is frequently vilified by many who neither carry a single scar nor have lifted one finger to rid this country of terrorism, the benefits of this reality they enjoy with absolutely no thanksgiving to those who said it must be done and can be done too. Like Rev. Rathana Thero. Back then, in Ithaca, that February evening, I related to Christina how it occurred to me that we might all be killed that night 8 years before. I realized then that even if each of us lived another 30-40 years or even more, our lifetimes would be nothing compared to the long span of history; that the past did not anticipate us and the long future would not remember anyway.  It gave strength and humility. Slipped, yes, and many times too thereafter, but dimensionality asserts itself again and again to check, to balance and re-confer humility and empowerment.

Last evening I was reminded of the needlessness of many things by a quote that my favourite quotation-sender, Errol Alphonso sent my way.  Carl Sagan, astronomer and writer put it all in ways that I would never have conceptualized:

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.’

February is a short month and for me, one that is memory-laden, some sad and some not. Like all other months, yes.   This morning I am conscious of dimensions, of being grain of sand and therefore, paradoxically, empowered to embrace a universe.  Tenderly, hopefully.  The sky can be the limit, yes, but perhaps only if we recognize sand-grain.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  The above article was first published in the 'Daily News,' on Feburary 17, 2011.