10 October 2023

Reflections on ‘the unimaginable’

['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 240th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]

 Lin-Manuel Miranda, the American songwriter, actor, filmmaker and playwright who created the sung-and-rapper-through biographical musical ‘Hamilton’ considers ‘The room where it happens’ as one of the two best songs he’s ever written, the other being ‘Wait for it.’ The first has lines that are made for extensive political commentary on power and control. Flip it and it’s like a lot of political theory has been condensed into that particular song.

It is hard to pick a stand-out song in a musical, especially one like ‘Hamilton’ where music and lyrics are of a very high quality. ‘The room where it happens’ has been commented on widely and I’ve made a mental note to add my thoughts to that literature. The more poignant song is ‘It’s quiet uptown.’

Miranda wrote the lyrics and the music to the song which overlays the moment when the characters Alexander Hamilton and his estranged wife Eliza grieve over the death of their son, Phillip.  Eliza’s sister Angelica and of course the chorus appeal to the passersby to ‘have pity’ for they are ‘leaning to live with the unimaginable.’  So Alexander and Eliza deal with their son's death and mend their relationship in the process.

But then again, in the context of the entire story of Alexander Hamilton, the early days of the United States, the associated political intrigue and indeed the times we are living in right now, imagining the unimaginable takes on additional meaning.

‘There are moments that the words don’t reach; there is suffering too terrible to name,’ yes, the dimensions of sorry of a parent who has lost a child are unfathomable. And yet, this is also the story of the world, of human history, of the here-and-now.

And in the midst of it all, ‘there is a grace too powerful to name,’ and that is what manufactures hope in the midst of tragedy; acts of courage and compassion that indicate that there are some among us and collectives too capable of seeing beyond warrior and war, for instance. At first hearing it sounds like god and divinity, but ‘Hamilton’ is a human story, a history and a set of relationships, in particular between Hamilton and the Schuyler sisters, Eliza and Angelica, and that of the two sisters. There’s grace in all these things that are hard to describe. There’s grace in the midst of fighting for survival, in the midst of bludgeoning that happens so often that it makes people disavow the ability to imagine a different world, a different life.

‘We push away what we can never understand,’ that’s how Lin-Manuel Miranda puts it. We push away the unimaginable. Denial, they call it. On the other hand, there are things that we are persuaded not to imagine. We are persuaded to convince ourselves that things as they are can never be changed, that a different world is not possible.

It’s just too hard. It calls for sacrifice sometimes. It forces us to reject the easy pathways of cooptation and complicity. It makes us vulnerable to abuse. It invites danger of all kinds. And so we go with the imaginable. We take the happy pills, we walk on well defined pathways, we treat sorrows that come our way as inevitable and not avoidable. After a while we stop imagining altogether.  

The words that are out there, the truth of unnecessary horrors don’t reach us because we imagine that they simply do not and cannot exist. We don’t take the trouble to understand and therefore wallow in conditions of subjugation and exploitation while the structures and processes that subjugate remain intact. And we never get to be ‘in the room where it happens,’ those ‘lofty’ locations in structures of power where decisions are made that impact our lives, often tragically, even forcing us to learn ‘to live with the unimaginable’ as Alexander and Eliza had to, only not necessarily on account of a duel but deliberate murder of those we love.

There are obviously things we cannot imagine, but then there are things we can but don’t want to or somehow believe are beyond the realm of the possible. And that’s how we concede agency. That’s how we get to a point where we unconsciously strengthen the forces that impoverish and disempower us.

Words. They can be reached if we know how to read and have resolute hearts and minds that refuse to be complacent signalling our arms to reach out, our hands to grasp and our eyes and ears to read and listen respectively.  We can grapple with that which we are told ‘cannot be understood’ and that’s how we obtain clarity from the seemingly opaque, incongruous and incomprehensible.

There’s suffering that is terrible but it has to be named. Those who unleash suffering have to be named. And that’s how we start imagining ways to resist. That’s how we ask ‘how is it that there’s talk of the “founding fathers” but not the mothers and were there no founding people?’

Lin-Manuel Miranda has written some words. He’s put music to the lyrics. He has made me think that ‘the unimaginable’ is not an accident. Most importantly, he’s telling us, I feel, that it doesn’t really matter if we can’t name the grace, as long as we recognise, affirm and live it.  


Other articles in this series: 

Jackson Anthony is a book and will be read 

A village called Narberth Bookshop

Gateway drugs to A-B-C

'Irvin' and other one-word poems

Earth pieces Kerala and Sri Lanka

Obligation as bomb and ocean

In the land of insomnial poets

In and out of shadows

Over to Eve

When you don't need an invitation, it's home

When the Canadian House of Commons applauded a Nazi...

Touching the touch-me-nots

The importance of not skipping steps

No free passes to the Land of Integrity

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