26 June 2023

In praise of courage, determination and insanity

Human beings are curious. Their curiosity prompts them to explore the unknown, venture into unmapped territory and test their own capacities to endure. They climb, they sail and they dive to depths never reached before.

Exploration itself is a challenge. Explorers encounter the unknown which could take the form of species and peoples never seen before as well as territories and environmental vagaries they are ill-equipped to handle. So there are costs, monetary and otherwise. Some pay with their lives.

Discovery is a happy byproduct of exploration. We get to know things we never knew before and in the process we, as a species, learn something more about ourselves. Science invariably keeps pace. Those who climb Everest today are far better equipped technologically than was Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. The discovery of the Titanic wreck in 1985 a joint French-US expedition led by Jean-Louis Michel and Robert Ballard in 1985 spurred others to think of further exploration and even commercial ‘visits.’ Scientists and engineers were commissioned by interested investors to develop vessels that could reach those depths and navigate any and every anomaly that could scuttle such efforts.

Obviously there are risks involved. There were at least 14 attempts to ascend Everest before Norgay and Hillary finally succeeded in 1953. Seven Sherpas were killed in an avalanche during an attempt led by Brigadier-General Charles Bruce in 1922. In 1924 George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared. The former’s body was discovered only 75 years later.

These tragedies/failures didn’t dissuade other explorers. Since Norgay and Hillary, more than 6,000 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest. And who can tell how many tried and failed and how many actually reached the summit long before it became 'a project' that was recorded?

We don’t know if all the determined people who attempted what had never been achieved before Norgay and Hillary were cautioned by friends, family and experts. It’s safe to say that some of them may have been told, ‘it has never been done before, so it cannot be done.’ A bit like ‘THE Revolution.’  Never been done therefore impossible, some would say. 

Just the other day we had James Cameron, director of the 1997 blockbuster ‘Titanic,’ drawing parallels between the wreck of the ship and the implosion of the submersible ‘Titan’ a few days ago. The Titanic had been warned about ice; the Titan was warned that since the vessel did not meet voluntary industrial standards there was the possibility of ‘minor to catastrophic’ outcomes.

The end? No. Tragedy is taken as a challenge by some people. There will be others convinced they could do better. There will be other investors who will commission other engineers and other experts to build a better submersible and they will no doubt learn from the mistakes of those who designed the Titan.

There were Sherpas, many of them in fact, and explorers who used their expertise to ascend Everest. The experience of the likes of Bruce, Mallory and Irvine would certainly have been invaluable to Norgay and Hillary. Every scientist who came up with an invention that has made life easier for all of humanity, stood on the shoulders of giants who came before, learnt from his or her numerous failures. Therefore, in a sense, those who designed and those who died on Titan have not really failed. They were ‘crazy,’ one could argue, but then again anyone who attempts or envisions that which has never been done before is invariably dismissed or vilified. Crazy, stupid, frivolous, unreasonable etc etc. They all earn such tags.
They inspire, nevertheless.

The Titanic was not the last ship, passenger liner or otherwise, British or otherwise, to venture into the North Atlantic Ocean.  It is unlikely that the Titan would be the last commercial submersible to attempt a Titanic wreck look-see.  The need to design a better vessel will probably generate technological innovation that could be used in other situations as well, some good and, invariably, some bad. That’s how it goes.

So, even as we are sad about the fate of the Titan’s passengers and appalled by media preferences that result in far worse tragedies being ignored, let us spare a moment at least to meditate on the fact that their efforts, dreams, adventurous spirit and, yes, even frivolous insanity may not be in vain. Let us spare a moment to be appreciative of those who attempted and failed to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Let us spare a moment for the unnamed and unknown who were crazy, creative and absolutely courageous and thereby added value to the human spirit.

['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 relative values of life and death

Feet that walk

Sarinda's eyes

Poetry and poets will not be buried

Sunny Dayananda

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990)

What makes Oxygen breathable? 

Sorrowing and delighting the world

The greatest fallacy 

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Beyond praise and blame

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

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