09 July 2015

The Quest for Commonality

Pic by Phusathi Liyanaarachchi
The following is the text of the Keynote Address delivered at the SAARC Literary Festival held recently in Bengaluru.

In the year 1933 at the Pen Club in the city of Buenos Aires, two poets, the Chilean Pablo Neruda and the Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca, resurrected a third, Ruben Dario.  They set up the dead poet Dario among the crowd that had gathered at the Pen Club in a manner inspired by a particular pass in bullfighting called al alim√≥n in which two bullfighters cite the bull while grasping either side of the same cape. 

Neruda and Lorca played with the cape of memory and tribute in a poetic dance where the one would complete the sentences of the other, with each pass breathing life into Dario and drawing breath from his life even as the words spoke about the larger family of poets and the even larger clan of humanity.  They referred to Dario as ‘the Argentinian who was also a Nicaraguan, a Chilean and a Spaniard’ and there could not have been any doubt that Neruda and Lorca were as Argentine as they were Chilean and Spaniard.  
That was 72 years ago. Today, in the year 2015 in the city of Bengaluru we are gathered here to have a conversation.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are nothing if not the fraternal citizens of a borderless and free territory of minds and hearts in a region called South Asia, a geographical accident produced by the movement of hidden plates over millennia and a passing specificity made of movement, sharing and exchange in the commerce of art, philosophy, innovation, goods, services and power.  
But what is our commonality, what is the common fragrance that stops our breath, the common flavor that excites tongue equally, the common textures we want to caress, the common music that lulls, the common vision that prompts deep reflection and spurs concerted action and the common ideas that will not let us sleep?  What is so common about us and which defines us in such sharp ways that this collective is set apart from any other, regional or otherwise?  Is there such a commonality or are we but accidents of history who in our sansaaric journeys or by the decree of fates beyond belief and poetry converged as roads converge, gathered as there is gathering to collective prayer and converse as is customary among strangers in random encounters?

I don’t have an answer and perhaps these are not answerable questions.  Who knows, perhaps the questions themselves are illegitimate and deemed illegal in the constitutions of melancholia and celebration, the rise and fall of life and love, the inevitable clash of arms, the elusiveness of equanimity when encountering the vicissitudes of life, the bitterness that visit and the resolve that keeps the weakest hearts beating so loud that guns are sometimes silenced.  

I don’t have an answer, but I have stories.  So do you.  In our stories we gather each other, we resurrect the dead, we confer immortality and weep for the error of having sought and been granted eternal life but one that wilts, withers and crumbles to dust.  

Let me tell a story or rather transliterate one that was first related by an unknown observer and then turned to verse by my friend and poet Saumya Sandaruwan Liyanage who is here with us today.  It is a July 1983 story and references fratricides of a kind that are not the preserve of Sri Lanka and yet haunt Sri Lankans specifically.  


Here, right here where the flower plant took root

This is where he sleeps
the man who turned and turned
the hairpin bends of remoteness 
and walked to the desolate
teachers’ quarters
the man who smiled in Sinhala
and in Sinhala spoke
the Tamil mind
which taught in Sinhala
a humanity
whether Sinhala or Tamil
he could not tell;
this is where he sleeps
the English teacher Ramachandran,
this is where the body
burnt and charred 
had fallen….

And this is where they fell
those Gandhi-glasses 
round but to be bent
those lenses 
that made for perfect reading
of Sinhala, Tamil and English
this is where they lay
crushed and broken…

There was a warmth too
that issued assignments
on teacher-poor days
that forced on us English books
and magazines too
warmth that to the Regional Office
sporadically went
this is that place
where warmth cooled….

Here, right here
here’s where a plant took root
a plant that gives 
flowers unnamed
this place
where that silent heart
had at July’s end
fallen…

This reminded me of a story related by Jayatilleka Bandara who along with some friends walked the length and breadth of Sri Lanka trying to convince people of the futility of war.  His political positions, to me, were erroneous but this story I remember.  His group had an event somewhere where the war raged in the mid nineties.  There had been a skirmish and there were combatants who had perished.  There were bodies of LTTE cadres being loaded into a truck.  There is no decorum in the evacuation of the dead when thousands had already died.  There was a body of a young girl.  When it was tossed into the truck part of her lower body was exposed. A solder, Jayatilleka Bandara related, quickly covered the exposed parts and said ‘ane pau’…which was essentially an expression of pity and perhaps a recognition of human things that are not separable by identity and ideology, the fact of war and the fact of death.  

There are things that do not need visa or the granting of leave to move from one territory to another.  There are things which make borders and distinctions meaningless.  In the Mahabharat, for example, Prince Yudistara responds to a question with a simple but profound observation:  every creature on this earth, however strong or weak, however large or small, share one thing — the fear of death and the will to live.  

We are made of geographies, tangible things that are made for map-marking.  We are made of ideologies and outcome preferences.  We are divided as nations and we are divided within nations.  As humans and as writers we know that words can bind but we also know that even as they cut and slay, break and break, divide and rule, words also liberate, they also float through all distinctions to touch hearts and minds in ways that do not allow us to breathe the way we’ve breathed before.

The poet Ghalib once wrote that he had found a cure for pain but in a pain that was incurable.  He also said that he could cut the ropes of love’s inevitable imprisonment but that alas he was in love with his imprisonment.  We are all like that.  We are prisoners and yet we are free.  We do not run away from history or this moment.  We have by choice as much as by chance found ourselves in each other’s company, each other’s hearts and lands; we touch sorrow and our fingers burn, we encounter nuance observed and recorded in ways previously unimagined and we fly over continents and time, we gather the words and hearts of those we love, we resurrect and celebrate resurrection.  We are nothing and everything.

Rabindranath Tagore in one of the sweetest love poems I have read invites lover to bring lamp close to face ‘so that (he) can see what her time with him had written on her face’.  There’s a lesson there.  We write each other.  All of us write each other, all of us here and everyone we know, those who write and those who don’t, those who read us those who have never read but nevertheless obtains story from the earth and its creatures.  We don’t often bring lamps close to each other’s faces, but if we did we would read histories we were ignorant of, understand how we have made each other and we would even in the most unforgivable times reach out over barbed wire and intractable position, the severity of a border and venture into uninviting landscapes to discover hidden pastures and clues to life’s deeper meaning.  

So what of commonality now, friends?  I do not know and it is a blessing that the answer eludes, for the quest, as it is often said, is sweeter than the capture and indeed search often redefines journey and takes us to destinations more splendid than the one sought.  But in all this, we must not forget as the Bangladeshi poet Himani Banerjee once observed that ‘trees have roots and rivers have sources’.  That observation was beautifully expressed in Sinhala by Ruwan Bandujeewa, one of the best poets of Saumya’s generation in a poem titled ‘The canal’:

Well dressed
the canal moves
‘tween paddies.

That day and night
the reservoir toils
these garments to stitch
not to single stalk of rice
has the canal whispered
still.

So let us in these coming hours talk about reservoirs that contain the sum total of our histories and aspirations, what we’ve already gathered let us share and let us talk of all that which calls for collection in the endless fields of reason and love and even if we are unable to condense into a single drop of poetry the harvest of these days, let us celebrate the fact of gathering. 

And as Neruda and Lorca did 82 years ago, let us first bend low to all the poets who came before, those who with words and tenderness brought down walls and barricades, forced rivers to reverse their flow, varnished life’s hurts with the sunlight of truth, and in these simple ways remain alive, in Buenos Aires and Bengaluru. Let us unite in the admiration of poetry, be cognizant of the fragility of love, and let me leave you, ladies and gentlemen with one final question that is query and at once statement:  Who are we if we are not one another, who are we if we are not the signature of sky on a leaf, if we are not the chlorophyll that turns the cosmos into garden and love?
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