24 June 2023

The relative values of life and death

At around 11.30 pm, Sri Lanka time, on Monday the 19th of June, a submersible vessel, the Titan, at the other end of the world, set off with five persons on board and a 96-hour oxygen supply to explore the wreck of the ill-fated British passenger liner, the Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. The wreck lay at the bottom of the sea around 640 km away from Newfoundland.

An hour and forty five minutes later the vessel lost contact with its operator, OceanGate Expeditions. Four days later a robotic diving vehicle found major fragments of the sub on the seafloor about 480m from the Titanic shipwreck. At present it is believed that the Titan had imploded, instantly killing all five passengers.

The resources deployed in search/rescue operations were phenomenal. It dominated the news channels for four full days. I happened to check BBC around midnight that Sunday and continued to check on the progress of the rescue efforts. There were frequent updates. We were offered details of the passengers, their names, vocations etc. We knew which countries, which agencies, which vessels and what kind of technology were involved. And we were given a countdown, almost, of how many hours worth of oxygen remained, in the event that the Titan was lying somewhere and unable to communicate for whatever reason.

As the deadline for oxygen running out neared, I found myself imagining what it must be like in the Titan, assuming the sub was still intact. How would those people deal with the knowledge that each would be competing with the other four for life breath, literally, I asked myself. Among them was a father and his son. All kinds of scenarios ran through my mind. At one point I found myself thinking, ‘it would be best if the Titan had imploded,’ a possibility according to more than one scientist. Instant death would have been preferable to slow, tortuous and inevitable asphyxiation, I reckoned.

Others may have also wondered along the same lines and come to their own conclusions about preferable ways of dying. At least there’s closure now. Most of all for the families and loved ones.

For four days, I had found myself checking the BBC updates. It was there, right on top. For four days. I hadn’t checked the BBC website for about a week before the Titan went missing, but I had totally missed another tragedy.

Less than a week before the Titan tragedy, a fishing boat had sunk about 80 kilometres off the southern Greek town of Pylos. Seventy eight (78) have been confirmed dead. A total of 104 survivors, mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, have been brought ashore. It is believed that there were up to 100 children in the ship’s hold and that as many as 500 are missing.

It is claimed that the Greek authorities hadn’t reacted fast enough. Greece have rejected these accusations. One this is undisputed. The media coverage was nothing like what it was with regard to the Titan’s disappearance. Indeed, I got to know about it only because there was some play in social media, comparing the two tragedies.

There are obvious differences of course. Those who died in the Titan were enormously wealthy and probably very influential. They were, in other words, known. They had names. Those who died off the Greek coast were refugees. While there have been people visiting the wreck of the Titanic after it was discovered in September 1985, this was probably the first high profile (and highly expensive) tour with passengers having to pocket out hundreds of thousands of pounds for the trip. In contrast, thousands of refugees have died at sea.

In 2022, over 3,000 had died trying to cross the Mediterranean. In the early part of 2023, over 400 had perished at sea. Refugees. No names.

There are more sobering numbers. There are 35.3 million refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate and 5.0 million Palestine refugees under the UNRWA. There are 62.5 million internally displaced persons and 5.4 million asylum seekers. That’s more than a 100m displaced people. In a sense, 5 is media-manageable, so to speak; 108.4 mullion is obviously not.

I remember Rauff Hakeem, commenting on the LTTE’s political chief, S P Thamilchelvan, being killed, quoting John Donne: ‘Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

Are we ‘diminished’ equally by each death, though? We don’t know the names of the 3,000 odd (yes, ‘odd,’ means, ‘unspecified’ or ‘unable to specify’) refugees who died crossing the Mediterranean last year, do we? Their loved ones alone know. But we know who died in the Titan. We can google the question and the answer will pop up immediately: Stockton Rush, Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding and Paul-Henri Nargeolet.

Reminded me of King Lear from the Shakespearean tragedy. Lear’s story is sad but no less tragic than countless others who suffered similar fates. Lear is collectively mourned. The others? Well, by their loved ones, at best. 

Not all deaths can diminish us equally because those who died weren’t equal in the first place.

Someday, someone might make a movie based on the Titan story. There are probably movies made of refugees dying at sea but we would need hundreds of thousands of scripts to do justice to the stories of each and every victim. They will not be fleshed out.

The world is not flat. Lives are not equal. And death is variously valued. It’s as simple as that. It is as atrocious as that. 


['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:

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


Anonymous said...

The stark reality we forget or choose to forget.