12 March 2023

Matters of honour and dignity

There are times when struggles against injustice end in defeat. The resistance fails. Real estate is conceded or terms of exploitation are established or enhanced and even legalised. Diehard revolutionaries will mutter or shout some version of the follow quote attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s closest and most devoted acolyte, first the chief propagandist of the Nazi Party and then Hitler’s Ministry of Propaganda; indeed I’ve heard quite a few ‘true’ representatives of the 4th International say it, with conviction and gusto.

‘If the day should ever come when we must go, if some day we are compelled to leave the scene of history, we will slam the door so hard that the universe will shake and mankind will stand back in stupefaction.’

Brave, inspiring words, sure, but defeat can deflate a lot of things. And those who insist it is retreat and not total surrender, two steps forward and one step back, are for the most part consoling themselves.

Sure, there are those who are pushed back who do rush the barracks later on, those who take a step back but will somehow take two steps forward. Time judges. People judge. The individual or collective concerned will take a call on such things.

What of the daily struggles, though? How about those who are insulted and humiliated in so many ways every single day? What of their dignity and honour? Is there consolation-salve for them?

There's faith. Religious faith. It’s the will of the gods. It’s karmic play. Such consolations are not necessarily just expressions of resignation though. Divinity or karma notwithstanding, people live their lives. Especially when times are hard. Declining real incomes and galloping inflation make for a daily grind where circumstances don’t really release moments for deep contemplation of religious cosmology.  And yet, even in dark times, people do find coping mechanisms. They do the must-do things, utter a prayer or two and somehow find ways to survive, think of punching a hole through adverse circumstances and plot emancipation. And sometimes they fall back on dignified and honourable narratives about who they were, who they are and who they could be.

Every village is made up of histories, versions of history and often fascinating stories regarding their names. In a land where place is used and thought of as a proxy for lineage, names matter. Names of people and names of villages. Names tell stories.

Kelegama and Palugama. Two villages in one of the driest pockets in the ‘Dry Zone,’ a few kilometres north of Galgamuwa off the road to Anuradhapura. The first is associated with the farmer caste, the latter the kumbal or potter caste. The geographies that mark the respective villages there are households that are identified with both castes but if you ask them, they will mention the village associated with the caste. So someone from the kumbal caste living in what’s defined in the books as Kelegama would still say he’s from Palugama.

The inter-caste play and the working of things economic, cultural and environmental constitute many sociological treatises, but this is about names. Kelegama and Palugama, literally ‘village in the jungle’ and ‘desolate village.’ ‘Desolate' on account of a curse but that’s another story. Now people in Palugama insist that those who belong to what’s now known as Kelegama, earlier known, it is said, as ‘Ratmalegama,’ were usurpers who forcibly occupied ‘Kalegama’ (village of the earthenware pot[s],’ a kumbal village, and cleverly changed the name to erase kumbal association.

None of this is talked about in the everyday of kneading clay into wonderful shapes, drawing intricate designs, firing the kilns etc., not in the equally arduous tasks of cultivation, managing meagre budgets, contesting tyrannies, surviving the onslaughts of climate change and, simply, getting by. It’s there in the subconscious and easily surfaced if a simple question was asked about names.

Names. They were, in a different era, given by officials tasked to do so, officials from the govigama caste. And they, deliberately, etched humiliation on birth certificates, marked people for life. Until those so marked created or rebirthed a heroic narrative of a courageous and skilled ancestor who single handedly saved a ship of the Royal Navy of the time and enabled an appreciative crew to fly a flag of victory. Jaya-Kodi, flag of victory, Jayakody and Jayakody Arrachchilage: that’s how it evolved.

And to make the narrative that much more legitimate, one of the village tanks associated with Palugama, Hapukumbure Wewa, they claim, was commissioned by the famed Prince Sapumal who named it. The name, for ease of pronunciation, evolved from Sapukumbura to Hapukumbura, so the tale goes.  

The two villages are at war. People adhere to the norms associated with tragedy and triumph, commiserating and celebrating as expected. Antipathies rise, fall and disappear, only to resurface on occasion. On such occasions, rivalling histories are referenced. Insults and humiliation, counter insults too, and the salve of a heroic narrative applied to make ancient and recent wounds throb less painfully.  

We don’t know what really happened but we can say with certainty something salient about what is happening and that people, in the moment of truth, draw from various sources.They find dignity and honour. Even in defeats, great or small. And doors need not be slammed hard to obtain the same outcome.

['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:

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

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

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