03 April 2020

When the Welikada Prison was razed to the ground…

One of my favorite Joan Baez songs is ‘Prison Trilogy’.  Three man. In prison for three different reasons. Three tragic stories. Together, they make logical the assertion, ‘and we’re gonna raze, raze the prisons, to the ground.’ 

If we were to do a thorough investigation of the justice system and conditions in prisons, here and abroad, we would probably come up with hundreds of such cases. Obviously the vast majority of them would not have known-names. Julian Assange is an exception, in this sense.

Being restrained in one way or another is not a happy thing. Confinement makes one yearn for and cherish things taken for granted. Mobility, obviously, but that’s not all. Prisons don’t ‘give’ vast expanses of sky. There are no rolling landscapes. The wind and rain come sliced to eye and ear. There are other obvious depravations. The Coronavirus has given us a flavor of such limitations.

Add fear and it’s probably quite hellish. Imagine the plight of a prisoner during a prison riot. It’s the same in plague-situations or an impending pandemic. What if the entire administrative apparatus collapses? What if the staff flees? What if the supply mechanisms get interrupted? What if the cooks die? What if your cellmate gets infected? Such questions can be quite disturbing to reflect on.

I am not privy to what goes on in the minds of a prisoner right now. All I know is that inmates of the Welikada Prison have decided to forego a meal, requesting that the relevant costs be diverted to the fund set up to help combat the Coronavirus.

It’s easy for the wealthy to make a sizable contribution. Even a small contribution from a rich individual would be many times larger than the largest gift a poor person can give. Maybe this is why there is always something extra special when those who have the least reach out to help a fellow creature.

‘It’s the thought that matters,’ we’ve heard people say. Almost out of habit. The truth is that the small thing is made invisible by the big thing. Thought gets displaced by action. And yet, I like to think that what has kept absolute disaster at bay is the thought. It is the small thing. The small people, if you will.  

There are people working tirelessly and at great risk. Most of us are required to do some basic things. Small things. We don’t like it. We whine about it. And we are even careless to the point of absolute irresponsibility.  There’s nothing wrong in focusing on oneself and one’s loved ones, especially at times like this. This is what we have been told to do. Stay home. Self-isolate.

And yet, there are people who think ‘one for all,’ even if all are not for one. The small but beautiful gesture by the inmates at Welikada reminded me of the Joan Baez song. It also reminded me of one of the few songs I like in Nanda Malini’s ‘Pawana’ (‘Wind’) album.

The song is a collection of wishes, among which are the following:

Wahinnata hekinam gigum dee, viyali gam bim valata ihalin
[if only I could with thunderous roar rain down upon parches villages and fields…]

Idennata hekinam bathak vee, bathak no-idena pelaka rahasin
[if only I secretly could be the rice that gets cooked in a hut where rice doesn’t get cooked..]

The prisoners didn’t turn into rain. They didn’t turn into cooked rice. And yet, I feel the drizzle of good heartedness and I taste the flavor of kindness. I feel humbled and ask myself ‘what have you done?’

Something wafted over the Welikada walls. Something seeped through them. There was music and fragrance. And thus did the inmates of Welikada raze their prison to the ground. And we, each and everyone of us, benefited.

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']

Looking for the idyllic in dismal times 

Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now
There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love
We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete
Vo, Italy: the village that stopped the Coronavirus

Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we?   
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 

 'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing? 

 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter 
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo? 
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody  
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop 
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies