21 September 2023

No free passes to the Land of Integrity

['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
226th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]     

 The late Professor Ashley Halpe, delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Sri Lanka Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (SLACLALS) in 2011, pointed out the importance of ‘liberation from our complicities.’

Today, more than a decade later, in a discussion with Khury Petersen-Smith at Brookline Booksmith in Boston, Ru Freeman spoke about free passes.  

'Transformation requires us to be willing to say that just because you are Sri Lankan or Black or Trans, you don’t get a free pass on certain things. You don’t get to be a racist or classist or whatever or brute even. Everybody is like that’s ok because they are Black or South Asian or they are foreign.' 

She illustrated with an example. She said that on the way to the event with a friend, driving from Amherst to Boston, they had to deal with an erratic driver ahead of them. The vehicle must have belonged to some company for she said that she had called them up and complained. 

‘That erratic driving could kill someone. He shouldn’t get a free pass just because he looks like me.’  

And it comes down to the personal level as well, not just about ‘others who look like me,’ but in fact ‘me.’

‘My youngest daughter would say something and I would say “Oh, she’s a they.” And she’s like “No, it’s not a they, it’s they.” This is something I have to get used to and I am getting used to it.’

I have drawn extensively from Prof Halpe’s comment, both in writing and in life. It’s a check. It’s a call for self-examination, self-criticism.

Let’s talk about Thileepan, the LTTE member who died during a ‘fast unto death.’ Some claim that he was dying anyway; some claim from some kidney ailment and others from wounds sustained in battle. Either way, the decision to engage in that particular form of protest (if indeed it was his and not a directive from the rather rigid and unforgiving politico-military apparatus he identified with) itself shows commitment to the cause he was fighting for.

That it was a terrorist organisation, that he identified with an ideology which considered killing unarmed civilians acceptable, that he was a trained militant and may have himself been guilty of crimes against humanity, that during that very time the LTTE had decimated rival Tamil militant organizations, and that it was little more than an exercise of making the best out of a bad situation etc., should not detract from the affirmation of commitment and loyalty.

Celebrating commitment to a cause and loyalty, however, should not blind anyone to the unmistakable truth that Thileepan was no Gandhi. Celebrating commitment and loyalty with scant regard to context and the larger truths about the LTTE is irresponsible. If it is all a product of ignorance, it is not hard to understand. On the other hand, many who are championing Thileepan today, are certainly not babes in the woods. They know. They choose to abstract an act out of all relevant contexts. That’s giving Thileepan, the LTTE and themselves a free pass. There’s complicity in all of that. Free passes. 

All of this reminds me of Uvindu Kurukulasuriya who runs the Colombo Telegraph, a website  (www.colombotelegraph.com). We have ideological differences. We attach different values to different things. We could accuse each other of making mountains out of molehills, reducing mountains to molehills, seeing mountain and molehill as monolithic entities, missing nuance and forgetting context, but I believe we trust each other to be honest in intention and also to have enough humility to admit error.

Uvindu, more than anyone I know, is acutely aware of the possibility of complicity. He knows about free passes and how easily they are given to friends and political fellow-travellers. This is why he is detested by those who one would expect to be in his political and ideological camp. So he is dismissed as a traitor by those who call themselves leftists even as he is vilified by those who take issue with his political convictions.

The Brookline Booksmith discussion was a celebration of Ru Freeman’s book ‘Bon Courage.’ Khury Petersen-Smith made the observation that courage is not the same thing as fearlessness. ‘Fearlessness, he said, ‘can be uninformed, maybe in a placid way.’ Maybe this is why we talk of ‘the courage of his/her/their convictions’ but not ‘the fearlessness of his/her/their convictions.’

Being informed. That’s the key. Wanting to be informed, doing the hard yards in obtaining all necessary information, sifting them, analysing them and drawing conclusions are therefore prerequisites for integrity in action.

It is easy to make sweeping statements which are essentially preceded by the sweeping away of that which is uncomfortable and disconcerting, The relevant denial may help advance a political project but if a more civilised outcome is envisaged, it distracts and detracts. Simply put, we don't have the right to be erratic drivers and would do well to call out erratic drivers and driving. We just can't afford to, really.

It takes courage to be conscious of and informed by the possibility of complicity. It takes courage to be conscious that there can be no free passes if integrity is to be affirmed. There’s a price one has to pay to be courageous. Uvindu pays that price. He knows that there are no free passes to the borderless territory called ‘Integrity.'

So, a thank you goes to Uvindu, to Prof Ashley Halpe, my sister Ru Freeman, Khury Petersen-Smith, Brookline Booksmith. 


Other articles in this series: 

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a building, statue, street or stamp

Rajagala and the Parable of the Panner

Let's show love to Starbucks employees!

You've got mail?

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

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