17 March 2023

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Voltaire’s oft-quoted recommendation, ‘Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats,’ does offer hope for those who find themselves in hopeless situations, for those who have suffered a defeat or a series of setbacks, as individuals or collectives, but there’s something missing in the l

Good advice.

There’s something missing though. It’s as though it’s all some kind of divine plan, that god, let’s say, wanted all people, of all places, of all ages to experience shipwrecks and was and is taking notes: who in the lifeboats sing and who do not, and to hell with those who drowned.  

Maybe that’s all there is to it, if you are ‘a believer,’ that is. I am not. I don’t believe in divinity and therefore I don’t believe in divine plans. Ships get wrecked in storms and ships that are less seaworthy have less chance of weathering storms. Not everyone gets to escape in lifeboats and indeed sometimes there are no lifeboats at all. People drown.

Voltaire came to mind when I was looking for a poem by Nazim Hikmet and came across the ‘Reflections upon reading a letter from Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), which I wrote in July 2012. The following, in particular:

“Pablo Neruda describes in his ‘Memoirs’ Nazim’s account of how he was treated after being arrested in 1936. He had just published ‘The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin’, the last of his books to appear in Turkey in his lifetime and the Government was perturbed by the fact that military cadets were reading his poetry, especially ‘The Epic’. 

“Neruda relates: ‘He was stuck into a section of the latrines where the excrement rose half a meter above the floor.  My brother poet felt his strength failing him. The stench made him reel. He knew then that his tormentors wanted to see him suffer. So he sang, low at first, then louder and finally at the top of his lungs, all the songs he remembered, love songs, his poems, the ballads of peasants, the battle hymns of the people. And so he vanquished filth and torturer.’

“In 1961, writing his biography in East Berlin, Nazim wrote: ‘Even if today in Berlin, I’m croaking with grief, I can say I’ve lived like a human being and who knows how much longer I’ll live, what else will happen to me?’”

Nazim spent most of his life in prison or in exile. If his life was a shipwreck, what he’s described above is just a small element of the tragedy. It’s as though his life was one shipwreck after another, an angry ‘god’ punishing him over and over again for the sin of singing in the lifeboats he made for himself from wreckage he painstakingly mined.

Yes, he is not alone. Throughout history, there have been shipwrecks and shipwrecks, lifeboats and lifeboats, life-savers and self-liberators, people who were subjected to ‘trails’ similar to those Nazim faced. Or worse.  Voltaire was speaking in a different context of course, but not everyone who quotes Voltaire thinks of asking, ‘who made those damn ships so they cannot withstand a storm?’ They don’t ask, ‘who sent that storm our way, what kind of god does that?’ They don’t seem to be perplexed by the fact that ships get wrecked in calm waters that roll gently pushed by balmy breezes under cloudless skies.  

Voltaire prescribes singing but not songs. What are the songs that the shipwrecked sing or should sing? Should they sing the praises of gods in hope of divine intervention of a kinder, gentler kind? Could they, god forbid, sing about shipwrecks and ship-wreckers. Should the lyrics include a resolution to build better ships, so that people won’t have to sing consolation-songs in lifeboats but can sing upon the decks themselves?

Nazim sang. This is why we know of singing and shipwrecks of a different order, and why in East Berlin, even as he was choking with grief he was convinced that he had lived as a human being. And among his songs, there was one written in 1949 titled ‘Keep your heart’ [with a subtext I read as follows: keep your heart at all cost, in whichever prison you happen to be].

‘Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
            ten or fifteen years inside
                                    and more –
            you can,
            as long as the jewel
            on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose its lustre!’

Voltaire meant well. We must not forget to sing in the lifeboats if, indeed, we find ourselves shipwrecked. What’s important is what we choose to sing, what we choose to sing about and what we do while singing. And making sure that the jewel on the left side of our chests do not lose their lustre. 

 ['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:

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

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