22 January 2015

The MSM Principle of Engagement

This is the seventeenth in a series of articles on rebels and rebellion written for the FREE section of 'The Nation'. Scroll to the end for other articles in this series.  'FREE' is dedicated to youth and youthfulness.

This happened 22 years ago.  What was then known as the Agrarian Research and Training Institute (ARTI) and which now is prefixed with ‘Hector Kobbekaduwa’ (an honorable man whose life is worthy of separate study) was implementing a village tank rehabilitation project in a cluster of small villages about three miles from Galgamuwa and off the Galgamuwa-Anuradhapura road.  M.S.M. Silva was the engineer in charge of the project.

He was at the time over 70 years old.  He came with a reputation.  He is one of the most accomplished civil engineers we have had.  He was involved in the Gal Oya project, built the Uda Walawe dam (taking from the ancient traditions), restored and enlarged Rajangana and completed Ulhitiya (taken on by the River Valleys Development Board) faster than a private company finished Ratkinda. 

He had an eye for landscape and contour.  He once proposed that the water problem of the South East Dry Zone be resolved by diverting the Kukule Ganga via a tunnel across the Walawe and to Kirindi Oya.  There were probably a lot of pundits and deal-makers who got in the way.

MSM was accomplished. He also liked to drink.  Sober or drunk when it came to work he was as lucid as anyone could be.   Anyway, as the ‘Chief Engineer’, he oversaw the work of 5-6 village tanks.  Kids’ stuff for someone of his caliber of course, but he took the work seriously.  He stationed himself in an old house in one of the villages, worked, ate, drank, slept and worked and worked and worked. For several months.  He didn’t go home.

One afternoon MSM received a parcel of goodies.  It was from his wife.  She had sent him all kinds of things to eat. There was pickle, preserved meats, sweet and other things she believed he would enjoy.  There was also a long letter.  He was thrilled to received all this and duly handed over most of the contents in the box to the landlady. 

That night, a couple of young men who helped with administrative matters, were woken up by some unusual noises.  When they opened their eyes they could see a strange glow on the walls of the front part of the house.  MSM was on fire.

Well, metaphorically.  He was totally drunk.  He was staggering around, knocking into furniture.  And he had set fire to the box in which the goodies had arrived.  As the young men rushed in to see what was happening, MSM was tossing the letter from his wife into what was now quite a bonfire. 

‘Malli,’ he explained, ‘you can’t be sentimental when you work.’  That’s all he said.  The fire was put out.  MSM went to sleep.  The next day and in the days that followed, he worked and worked and worked. 

It seems a bit extreme of course, but he did have a point and one that is more applicable to rebels than to irrigation engineers.  Ernesto Che Guevara, it is said, had to pick either a gun or a medicine box when being chased by the Cuban Army after he, along with Fidel Castro, landed on Cuba ‘to make the revolution’.  He claimed that this was the defining act of his engagement.  There are others, as another guerrilla in another country engaged in another revolution in another time (Omar Cabezas, Nicaragua, late nineties) described in his memoirs (‘Fire from the Mountain), who on the run and forced to drop some of the load to make for speed, had to pick between a can of food and some trinket given as parting gift by a lover.  The younger and raw recruits would almost always drop the food.  The older and wiser would pick whatever was dropped.  In the end, Cabezas says, only memories remain.  That’s enough. 

The recommendation is not one of forgetting all, hardening heart and feeding the brute within.  It is about keeping whatever might distract out of the equation.  No room for sentimentality, MSM probably thought.  It did mean that he didn’t love his wife or had decided she’s unimportant or had stopped thinking of her.  For him, at that moment, a love letter was something that could wreck his focus.  At that time.  That’s all.  

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