01 September 2023

Helplessness and innocence

A suspected new mural by artist Banksy is pictured in Marsh Lane in Bristol, Britain, February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden

['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 the 212th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]    

Helpless, in Sinhala would be asarana, literally without succour of any kind; innocence would be ahinsaka or without the compulsion to cause harm.  I’ve heard politicians, journalists, commentators on social media platforms and even academics use these words interchangeably as though one implies the other or, preposterously, that they are synonymous.

It is not always incorrect, for there are people in this world who would not harm a fly, so to speak, who are also helpless in many ways.  On the other hand there are similarly harmless people who are not exactly helpless.  

It is tragic when people are both innocent and helpless, but how often do we, when encountering helplessness, ask ourselves, ‘is there innocence here as well?’

I’ve seen helplessness and the helpless. I’ve seen the helpless engaged in activities that are not necessarily compatible with words like innocent and innocence. There are times when I brush off such transgressions on account of perceived helplessness. But there are times when those who are helpless are certainly nothing close to innocent. And there are situations where those who are hardly helpless act as though there can’t be anyone more innocent. At such times I wonder about language, words and their abuse. And I wonder about ignorance and naïveté.

People are resourceful. They have to live. They have to eat and breathe. They have to do something with the ‘everyday’ to obtain some semblance of meaning regarding their existence so that they can do it all over again the next day.  To do this, it is possible that innocence has to be compromised in some way.  

Then again there are those who exaggerate their trials and tribulations, they use perceived helplessness as a tool to obtain pity and exploit it.

The question, then, is, should anyone assume that the helpless are innocent? Are there ways of determining quickly whether innocence is in fact a companion of helplessness?  Is it easier to assume ‘probably not innocent,’ and turn away?  

Many decades ago my father offered some advice on all this without exactly using these words. He was talking of privilege.

Now anyone can always name someone who is more privileged and someone who is less. Anyone can abuse privilege. Anyone can abuse absence of privilege or the condition of being less privileged. He didn’t say all that but he said something along the following lines:

‘Remember that you are privileged in certain ways. So if anyone decides to harm you out of envy or some notion of justice, don’t think bad of that person. But remember that if you allow it to happen a second time it just means you are foolish.’  

I believe it was in the course of a discussion about politics and that he added, ‘in politics you cannot afford to be innocent.’

These are not theories and formulae that are cast in stone of course. Someone else might say, ‘be alert, don’t let anyone take you for a fool.’  

Over the years, I’ve learned that it is tedious to be alert at all times. It requires one to be suspicious of one and all. It pushes one to assume that anything said is a lie, that there’s manipulation and mischief afoot. Those are dark thoughts that can cloud the particular interaction. This can be extrapolated to larger contexts made of more than one individual, made of multiple processes and applied even to even entire systems.

That’s cynicism through and through and I am not saying that is necessarily bad. After all, the world’s blemishes are so many that it would be absolutely naive to assume the opposite, that it’s all about sunshiny days and seasons of fragrances and orchards of the sweetest fruits.  

We live, we learn, we notice patterns and tendencies and we become better at reading signs and extracting their meanings, this is true. There’s always the possibility of error, though. There’s always the possibility of being hit between the eyes by a pernicious brick hurled by someone or some group or some movement believed to be innocent, benign, unblemished and saintly.  

Over the years, I’ve developed a technique that yields peace of mind if not anything else. Here goes:

Someone claims helplessness and solicits help, that is support that can be rendered. A promise is often made: ‘I will repay you.’ Typically it is financial but even in situations where no money is involved, similar pledges are made: ‘thanks, I appreciate and will never forget; in fact one day I will do the same for you.’  

And so I respond thus: ‘No, there’s nothing to repay. This, in fact, is me repaying some kindness rendered to me in some previous lifetimes. It’s all done. Even. Don’t even think about repayment.’

What gets shelved by this is the burden of feeling indebted and the burden of giving residence to the thought that someone owes something to the giver.

Such processes could impoverish in some way, but they leave one thing intact. Innocence, the softer, more beautiful and far more fragile cousin of helplessness, contrary to what I believe is common belief. 

Other articles in this series: 

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

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
The allegory of the slow road