15 October 2023

The truly besieged

['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 244th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]

I have seen just three of Bernard Bertolucci’s films, The Little Buddha, The Last Emperor and Besieged. The first traces the life story of Siddartha, first prince then ascetic and finally achiever of enlightenment, through three children, each with claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama. Bertolucci’s directional finesse offers some scattered philosophical strands; it is a compelling if slow film. The Last Emperor is about Puyi, the last emperor of China and follows his ascent to the throne as a small boy and then to his imprisonment and political ‘rehabilitation’ by the Chinese Communist Party. Besieged is the story of a woman who fled her native village in Africa and works as a housemaid in Rome for a single English pianist and composer.

All three stories speak of incarceration. Siddhartha is first a prisoner of his Royal birth who later realises the deeper, broader and more foreboding imprisonment of the human condition. Puyi is a prisoner of a sweeping historical process. In the third film the principal character, Sandhurai, is besieged by the condition of exile, forced separation from her husband and the growing feelings for her master.

In a sense, we are all incarcerated in prisons of our making and those we discover, sooner or later, to have existed all along or have been built surreptitiously during moments of complacency. What of these, though?

I am thinking of more immediate and horrific forms of besieging. The conditions that warrant the use of the word ‘hostage,’ the particularly horrifying and pernicious besiegement of the here and now.

There is the Hamas attack that resulted in the deaths of 1,300 people followed by 100-150 people being taken hostage. That’s got a lot of play and not only on account of the shocking and unexpected way in which the attack was executed. Then came what is called ‘retaliation.’ And so I amended a line from  a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Let me think): ’from which window flew the first arrow, dipped in blood?’

Ah, the first arrow, dripped in blood no less, implies antecedents. How far back in history do you want to go, though?

Should we believe that history began on October 7, 2023, and that the relevant arrowheads were bloodless?  A wanton act of terrorism then that requires firm and uncompromising response on perpetrators, those they claim to represent and those among whom they’ve taken refuge even to the extent of firing white phosphorus, dropping bombs, bulldozing schools, hospitals and homes, and treating each and every Palestinian as a legitimate target?

Whether arrows needed to be shot notwithstanding, the arrowheads were not only dipped in blood but in fact layers and layers of blood. And if you want a slice of that bloody history, if you want to know who had voice and who was required to and forced to remain silent, if you want to know the birthplace of militancy, nay terrorism, we could travel back in time.

We would then encounter Haganah, a Jewish militant group that helped the chosen people evict residents and build settlements for 14 years before Palestinians decided to ‘go political’ in 1935.  Britain’s White Paper on the subject of terrorism tabled in 1946 mentioned two ‘extremist Jewish organisations,’ Haganah and Irgun. No PLP, no Hamas or any organisation of their ilk. Didn't end in 1946, simply put.

The history of the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel could in fact be written in terms of the territories annexed. Cartographers and historians could use quills dipped in blood as recording instruments. And in all that writing and all that mapping, one thing stands out: no one asked the Palestinians, they were not allowed 'in the rooms where it happened' and are kept out still.

If the lands were peopled by many groups, Jewish and Arab included, boundaries were marked and moved not as retaliation and security but simply expansion of real estate. Settlements were established, settlers were armed and they were protected for good measure by a military apparatus that operated with impunity. 

If there is anyone who is not willing to talk about history, pick up arrowheads, check for bloodstains and conduct DNA tests just to make sure, that’s a self-incarceration of minds and hearts. If such there breathes, the breath itself is marked by complicity. Alright, perhaps fear, but what fear in safe locations with no risks at all compared to the terror of living in a landscape where children being orphaned and parents seeing their children dying before their very eyes where every breath taken could be the last?

Let us retire history and the narrative of arrows. 

Millions have been asked to leave their homes with an ‘or else!’ that is screamed out in the form of low-flying aircrafts carrying bombs and releasing them (according the Israel, some 6,000 in six days). The people in Gaza are under siege. The people in the West Bank too.

Wait. Wait!

None of this is new. The people of Palestine have been under siege of one kind or another and forced to suffer deprivations which in another context, another country or another time, may have not required any second thought before releasing a full-throated cry, ‘Genocide!’ Cutting off water and electricity, prevention of movement, saturation of areas with the military so that even a journey of a few miles would take hours, white phosphorus, bombs, bullets, bullying, harassment at innumerable checkpoints — no, such was Gaza before October 7, 2023.
But today, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a word to think about. Today. If we talk of arrows, windows and blood, pick a date and look away, who are we then?

Faiz asks:

At what exact moment
were the trees drained of blood
so when the veins snapped,
nothing could be saved?

And we should answer, softly:

Ah! If only we had time to ponder
if only dusk came straddled by day and night
but there are no trees now
snapped veins too buried in the rubble of  amnesia;
heartbeats wander in a land and among people ghosted
and a drop of blood murmurs:
I am under siege and you are too, friend.

Silence is the language of a siege.  The question is, is that our preferred tongue? 
Other articles in this series: 

Love's austere and lonely offices

The mysteriously enjoined in the middle of nowhere

Serendipity now!

Reflections on the unimaginable 

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