04 March 2015

The details, the details!

This is the twenty third 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.

Scouts would know about ‘Kim’s Game’.  It is a simple exercise to develop observation skills.  Imagine a table with lots of things on it.  Different sizes.  Different shapes.  Different colors.  Imagine there are about 30 items (could be more, could be less).  Now imagine being asked to walk around the table a couple of times.  Imagine you’ve been given just two minutes.  Next you would be asked to go sit somewhere and write down what was on the table. 

There can be many versions of this game.  You might be asked to observe someone.  That someone would do all kinds of things: remove his watch, shift handkerchief from one pocket to another.  Roll down or roll up his sleeves, scratch his chin, twirl a lock of hair, bite his lip etc., for two or three minutes.  You will be required to write down what you saw and in the order you saw it.  You could be asked to smell different things and be asked to write it all down.  It can be done with shapes and textures after the ‘observer’ being blindfolded. 

It’s a useful skill.  Here’s a story. 

In the early nineties a man in his late twenties visited some friends who were boarded in a small town close to Kandy.  At one point the son of the landlady came by to convey a message.  After he left, a few minutes later, the man told his friend, ‘that boy saved my life’. 

The man, let’s call him Shantha, was part of the military wing of the JVP in the late eighties.  He was in charge of all weapons used in the Kandy District.  He was a brave man.  Each and every time he heard that a comrade had been killed, he would take all kinds of risks to ascertain the truth.  ‘I saw the bodies of each and every comrade who was killed,’ he said.  That was part of the tasks assigned to him. 

Anyway, one day he had gone to Katugastota to keep an appointment with a comrade.  They were to meet inside the People’s Bank branch.  He had got there a few minutes early, so he had waited outside, watching the entrance.  Then he noticed a man he recognized.

‘Many months before that while I was waiting for a bus not too far from here, this boy who came into the room just now came up to me.  He must have known who I was and I suspect he was involved in the movement at some level.  He would have been around 18 back then.  Anyway, he came up to me.  He pointed to a man who was on the other side of the road. He said, “comrade, that man is with NIB”.  NIB means National Intelligence Bureau.  He was the man I saw in Katugastota that day.’

The moment he noticed the man, Shantha became wary.  He had seen his friend go into the bank.  He saw the man moving in.   Within minutes the ‘NIB man’ along with a couple of others came out.  Two men were holding Shantha’s friend, each gripping an arm.  That was the last time Shantha saw his friend alive. 

‘They killed him.  I saw the body.’

It’s all gruesome, yes.  A different time.  The moral of the story has little to do with saving your skin, though.  It’s about details.  One never knows what little piece of information will make a difference. In this case it made the difference between life and death.  In another context some piece of information, something you observed, some face you remembered, a fragment of a conversation might trigger a thought process that might save lives or gain territory.  It might help distinguish friend from foe. It might allow you to make a better assessment of a particular comrade, his/her will, courage and ‘breakability’ under stress. 

The rebel is human. He/she is plagued by the frailties that are common to all humankind.  A rebel, unlike others, is a risk-taker, a high-stakes player.  The rebel cannot know everything.  However, observation is an art that can be learnt.   An eye for detail is acquirable.  It’s the little things that give depth to that which is painted with a broad brush.   A quick glance does not yield them usually.  A trained eye will not miss.  

Other articles in this series