I would never have known of a man called Mark Knopfler had it not been for my musically inclined brother, Arjuna. He was so talented and so dedicated to whatever he set him mind to accomplish that he was all about the particular musical instrument that had caught his fancy at the time. He just soaked up everything there was to know. Not everything, for that’s impossible, but quite a bit and certainly volumes more than I could even imagine.
Most times it was some curiosity, something that he needed to figure out for himself perhaps. Once he got his anxiety out of the way, the instrument too would go. I never understood. He once told me that he gave up playing chess after he figured out how to checkmate with just bishop and knight: ‘you need to drive the opponent’s king first to the corner square of the colour opposite to the one controlled by your bishop before forcing it to an end that your bishop can control; the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, I learned.’ That was a profound explanation, but then again he’s brilliant in coming up with something philosophical to explain away things done and said for relatively pedestrian reasons.
It was different with the guitar though. I think Knopfler was such a hero that not only did he want to be like him, he wanted to be better. He had posters of course. He had the music, he had the motion and yes, the boy could play. He knew all the Dire Straits songs (he could sing too). Me, I was just the kind-brother-in-awe then as I am now. Certain things are not allowed to be outgrown.
Looking back I remember just one song and just one line of that song, ‘Brothers in arms’. I think that was the title song of a Dire Straits album. Just one line: ‘We’re fools to make war on our brothers in arms’. I checked the lyrics and the following caught me: ‘Someday you’ll return to me your valleys and your farms, and you’ll no longer burn to be brothers in arms’.
I am not sure to whom these farms and valleys will be returned or by whom. We do burn, though. It is as though this is all we know about community and solidarity. It is as though brotherhood is extracted and not cultivated or allowed to grow; enforced and not the result of an organically unfolding process.
The easiest brotherhoods are those that are given – those over which choice is not a factor. We say ‘family’ or ‘blood-tie’. We cling to similarity of colour, clan, faith and conviction. We die for these brothers and expect them to die for us if necessary.
My brother Arjuna was in Colombo one day in May or June in the year 1991. It would have been past midnight for him, but I saw him in the full flush of early spring sunlight in Boston. He would have been fast asleep but I saw him fully alive. He would have been silent, but he was making music. I saw a young boy, hair about as long as his, playing a different guitar but making the same music. Only the skin tone was different apart from the minor detail that my brother had never been to Harvard Square.
I wrote to him:
‘I saw you this evening
floating down the sunbeams
cleaving through the dark clouds
this springtime suddenly.
I saw you shine, brother,
long hair falling over your beautiful face
skinnier than when I saw you last,
a cigarette stuck on your guitar
sipping the high notes you couldn’t quite reach.’
The boy could play but I never saw him again. There are so many brothers and sisters in that category of never-to-be-seen-again. We see them all the time and we are blind to them too, because we are taught that the Brotherhood of Blood is thicker than that of shared humanity. We are one in our suffering and this means that we can be one in our solidarities too.
In 1973 I was forced to buy a ticket for a stage drama that was to be performed at the Navarangahala. It was the first play I saw all by myself. It was called ‘Pahanen Pahana’ if I remember right. All I remember was that Sinhala fighters were fighting the British army and that a lot of people died. I remember an ‘afterlife’ scene where soldier embraced soldier without worrying about uniform colour or skin-tone difference.
‘It is written in the starlight and in every line on your palm,’ Knopfler claims. Yes, we are fools to make war on our brothers in arms.
‘We have just one world, but we live in different ones,’ the song observes. I’d like to flip it. We have different worlds and we can choose to live in these isolated from one another. We don’t have to. We can live in the same world. In fact we do, but are loathe to admit the fact.
Arjuna Seneviratne is my brother. One of them, to be more precise. I have no quarrel with him. That’s not on account of blood-tie. I should try not to quarrel with my other brothers and not because they are not named Arjuna.
This was first published in the Daily News (July 5, 2011).
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: malindasene