21 June 2016

I was birthed by a bullet on July 21, 1984*

I can’t remember what the paper was.  Perhaps Economics.  Maybe Political Science.  This was the final term exam before the A/Ls. The year was 1984.  June 21, 1984.  Exactly 26 years ago (when this appears in print).  Even the most focused student would surely have been distracted for a few seconds at least.  There was a billow of smoke rising above the tree line on the other side of the school ground, i.e. from Colombo University or beyond. 

It had to do with something that had happened two days before in Peradeniya, I told myself. On June 19, 1984, a student was shot dead in Peradeniya.  Padmasiri Abeysekera.  A year later, when I entered the University of Peradeniya, Hasinee Halpe, a year senior to me said, ‘those guys were drunk!’  The ‘those guys’ were a bunch of students who had attacked the Police Post that had been set up on campus.  The ‘those guys’ had been returning to their hostel (Marcus Fernando Hall) when the incident had happened.

I felt even then that there was some inevitability in it all, that the moment the authorities decided to establish a police presence on campus it was scripted that some Padmasiri Abeysekera would get killed. 

I am getting ahead (or behind) my story.  I remember scribbling off the rest of my answers and rushing off.  I found a group of younger students walking in the same direction, i.e. along Reid Avenue, towards Thunmulla. Among them was Chiro Nanayakkara, Vasudeva’s son.  The campus was deserted.  We walked on towards the smoke.  We found the source.  A bus.  Burning.  This was at the Havelock Road – Keppetipola Mawatha junction, just where years later a statue was erected for Ranjan Wijeratne.  The news rose like a ghost from off a road that was trembling with shock.  There was a name. Rohana Ratnayake.  Dead.  Shot.  There were no ‘those drunk guys’ here.  Just students protesting an unnecessary death. 

An interested reader, if he/she perused the newspapers in the days following December 12, 1986, might find a photograph of some students carrying a coffin. That was Rohana’s funeral.  Right in front, carrying the coffin, was another student.  Daya Pathirana. He was abducted and slaughtered by the JVP.  That’s all I saw of Rohana Ratnayake. 

I remember well that moment.  Chiro let out an expletive in his explosive fashion….Munge ammalaata (sorry, impossible to translate).  Asiri Gunasekera, now a partner I believe of Ernst and Young, observed, ‘if you and I were in campus, it could have been either of us machang’.  It was a truth-moment.  For me.  Whatever it was that produced things such as this had to be challenged. One way or another.  The political decisions that prompted strategies that caused unnecessary provocation, the systemic fault lines that prompted such decisions, the reactions that were invested with degrees of passion that overruled reason, all these, had to be considered anew.  That was a moment. 

I remember something my late mother told me the day she left me in a boarding place in Katugastota a year later: ‘Putha, don’t get involved in unnecessary things; I am telling you this even though I know that you will do what you want and what you think is right, which is what I want all my children to do’. 

I didn’t get involved.  I was involved that day, June 21, 1984, and I think I had very little choice in the matter.  I did not know then that by the time I left university there would be so many convulsion, so much violence, innumerable deaths, running into tens of thousands, all of them unnecessary, most of them caused by a despotic regime that gave rise to a fascist insurgency and reacted with a terror-unleashing that was a hundred-fold more violent and indiscriminating. 

On June 21, 1984, we were given notice. It was a sign. A warning. A beginning or more accurately a reiteration of a beginning (that had taken place two days earlier).  The road map from there to the bheeshanaya of 1988-89 ought to have been obvious, but we were so young then.  Back then it was seen as a should-not-have-happened death.  Now we know, it was a death, a waiting-to-happen death.  It was ‘unnecessary’ only to the extent that the randomness of victim-selection.  All the peranimithi pointed to a death in Peradeniya followed by one in Colombo and 60,000 deaths by the end of the decade given political realities, economic ‘prerogatives’, a regime that fed and fed on insurrection for its survival and a leadership that was prepared for and wallowed in blood-letting.  As I said, we were young, too young to have the analytical ability to read ‘moment’ and to extrapolate accordingly.  All we could do was to say ‘munge ammalata…’

Fast forward to June 1986.  Batch trip.  Sigiri-Dambulla.  Some students had expressed concerns about bomb-threats.  Yes, even then there was scare-mongering by disgruntled elements.  The ‘concerns’ had originated from a group that had proposed Haggala as an alternative destination. The organizer of the trip, W.G. Premasiri, when I told him about the ‘concerns’, said ‘Mage ammata maava nethi wei, umbe ammata umba nethi wei…echcharai’ (my mother will lose me, yours will lose you, that’s all).

In the end that’s what happened. It is 26 years since Rohana and Padmasiri were killed.  They would have been in their early 20s then.  Their parents probably close to fifty and if alive today, almost 80.  They lost their sons.  Who can tell today what life for them might have been if randomness had not picked out their sons for punishment, example, sign and signal of things to come? 

Something died in me that afternoon in June, 1984. Something else was born.  I haven’t been the same since.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it meant to those who were near and dear to Rohana and Padmasiri. 

I wrote about Padmasiri 26 years ago. Here are a few lines:

‘One feels the embalmed silence
Among the flowers;
Where a random student died.’

And of Rohana, a year later:

‘…you will for a long time haunt
The deep canyons of our souls
When with bloodied ash
You etch a memorandum
To serve a petition to our conscience,
Cradled as we lie
In the haven of a witness box.’

Crude, yes.  It’s true though.  A student was shot dead 26 years ago.  I was re-birthed. I did not come out bawling then. I did not shout.  Today, though, I am surprised by the tears.  I really don’t know why. I cannot explain. Perhaps I never will be able to.  

This article first appeared in the Daily News (June 21, 2011) under the title "A student was shot dead 26 years ago...".  (should have been '27').  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.