31 January 2023

Who did not listen, who’s not listening still?

That’s a slight spin from a line in Don Maclean’s popular song ‘Starry starry night,’ dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh, subsequently used in the experimental adult animated biographical film ‘Loving Vincent,’ the first fully painted animated feature film ever, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. 

‘Now I understand what you tried to say to me, how you suffered for your sanity, how you tried to set hem free; they would not listen, they did not know how…perhaps they’ll listen now,’ is what comes at the end of the first two verses. And at the end, Don Maclean twists it a bit: ‘now I think I know’ instead of ‘now I understand,’ and ‘they would not listen, they’re not listening still…perhaps they never will’ in place of ‘they did not know how…perhaps they’ll listen now.’ From hope to pessimism, then.

What Vincent tried to say and whether or not he was heard is up for multiple interpretation of course. That song has been dissected enough.

What’s been said and who’s said it? Did anyone listen, did anyone hear? Is it possible that someone will listen one day, is it more likely that no one ever will?

These are old-people questions, I feel. The thoughts of those who think they are prophets, the worries of those who don’t harbour such grand images of self and yet who have said or need to say things in the hope that someone, some specific person or persons will listen. 

‘Starry starry night,’ was introduced to me by Sanjeeva Ravindra Gunaratne, ‘Ravin’ to his friends back in the day, then a first year student in the Department of Architecture, University of Moratuwa. Ravin was an artist. He could paint. He could play the guitar. He could sing. He could, if pushed, sing all the songs of Maname and Sinhabahu. Indeed, he once observed that during a trip to Yapahuwa while a guest at the ancestral home of Channa Daswatte in Rambewa, Wariyapola, people communicated more with song than anything else.

So Ravin explained the lyrics of the song during one of the many long afternoons of music, literature and philosophy at his place down Thilaka Gardens, Nugegoda where food would be of the ‘elolu rasa (vegetarian, essentially),’ he said, following a discussion on the aesthetics of North Indian Classical Music.   Van Gogh, his story, his agonies and tragic end. All ‘news’ to me. And he told me about  Al-Hallaj the Persian mystic, poet, and teacher of Sufism who was stoned to death for the crime of blasphemy — ana'l-ḥaqq (I am God) he insisted.

Al-Hallaj, Ravin said, danced during his ‘death-walk’ flanked by the devout who threw stones at the misbeliever. He sang too, Ravin said. And then, in a heretical trajectory and winged by the sacred a single and singular rose took flight from among the multitude and fell at his feet. It ended song and dance. Mansur had then wept, Ravin said.

One account of his assassination details the story thus:

Mansour al-Hallaj was taken to a crossroad. Everyone asked him to stop saying Ana’l Haqq and hurled stones at him while he was smilingly chanting, “Ana'l Haqq. Ana’l Haqq.” His whole body got wounded. Then, it was his sister Shimali's turn. She threw a flower instead of a stone.  And then he wept.
Shimali asked, ‘Oh Mansur! People were throwing stones at you and you were laughing. Did my flower only hurt you so much that you started crying?’

Mansur replied, ‘Shimali, they knew nothing.’

'Abba Shboq Lhon (Father forgive them for they do not know what they do),' Jesus said at the crucifixion.   And the Bodhisatva, as an ascetic (Khantivadi Jataka), decapitated by a drunken monarch, did not waver in his patience, his composure and his compassion: 'my patience is not skin deep, it is in my heart.' He too died of his wounds later that day. It's all there in the Maha Vakyas of Hindu philosophy: Tat Tvam Asi (that, thou art), Aham Brahman Asmi (I am Brahma), Ayam Atma Brahma (my atma is Brahman) and Pragnanam Brahma (the consciousness is Brahman).

He had spoken what he believed to be the word of god; in essence that god is omnipotent and omnipresent and therefore is in everyone’s heart and mind, in the believer and the infidel. Mansur had spoken. No one seemed to have heard. Mansur had spoken. One person had understood. Shimali. 

And so, here’s to hoping that those who have things to say will speak, that those spoken to have the sense to listen and in the saying and hearing the earth will be made fertile by enough tenderness for a garden of roses to bloom and make hearts and minds that much more fragrant:

Striding down an empty street,
so much like a King;
nothing ahead, nothing behind,
and on either side
the multitude screaming;
Mansur danced the dance of the sublime,
singing the praises of the lord:
“Ana al Haq, Ana al Haq, Ana al Haq....”
So fervent the conviction,
so true the word,
it had to rain and how!
Stone after stone after stone,
making a monument
a blasphemous sepulchre
for Mansur Al Hallaj, Son of God.
Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani?
And yes, there was Veronica
with a rose-petalled kerchief.
and then the tears.
And Mansur
risen from the dead
once again unafraid
walks the streets of love
lined with screams and hand-grenades.
There is a humble song
of love and roses,
of waiting and knowing
and a scattering of body
in the disavowal of divinity.
It is the Spirit of Mansur. 

The spirit of the Bodhisatva, of Jesus Christ. And Vincent Van Gogh, one might add.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 


Other articles in this series:

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road