By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
(I publish this article just so that we can remember how sad the times were during the war for both sides. Let us hope and pray such will never happen again)
The one unforgettable memory that Selva always carried within himself was the colour of the vast Jaffna sky, spotless and shimmering in brilliant blue. It appeared as if the Gods had decided to spread a sheet and tucked it taut to the corners of the horizon as if to show off how perfectly they could do things. Off and on there would be fluffy white clouds, being sheep-dogged by winds aloft, harmless cartoons scattered in the sky, men and dogs, trees and castles or whatever a child wanted to imagine them to be. The clouds were seldom grey and laden with rain. That’s how the dry climate came about to roast the soil where Selva’s family toiled under the merciless sun, for generations, to grow chilli on. The kochika as they called it, were the thin and long kind, blood red, extremely hot and mouth-burning. Selva’s people sold the chilli harvest at the week-end market in the closest town. That was Vaddukodai, located an hour’s distance away, by bullock cart, from their nameless village of nowhere and no one; just blood red kochika and blue skies.
The place they called home wasn’t even a dot in a map, just a collection of huts with cow dung floors, mud walls and dried Palmyra leaf roofs. Palmyra leaf fences demarcated who owned what.
It was a peaceful little community of 20 or more houses; all chilli growers making their best attempts to look after their kith and kin and retain their mundane place in this planet. The monsoon winds blew and the sun and the moon took their turns to mark the passage of time and the chillies grew red in well watered plants that sprouted lush green on neatly laid beds.
Muniyandi, Selva’s father only knew how to cultivate chillies and make kites for his children. He was good at both, used to tug the string and make the kite nod and laugh, all in the clear blue sky.
He knew stories, too, ones he had heard from Selva’s grandfather who in turn had been narrating what his father had told him about how their people came from South India. It was a story he recited often and the one that the children loved.
“Our people were of the Varnakula clan,” he would start from the very beginning. “We escaped from the King of Maravas.”
“He wanted to marry our beautiful princess Kamalakani, but her father didn’t want that. So, they made all the arrangements for the impending celebration and stole out in boats the night before the wedding.”
“The entire village Appa.” The children knew the sub-punch lines.
“Yes, yes, everyone left,” confirmed Muniyandi.
“Our people came to Lanka and landed in Mannar and some walked south and a few like your great great-grandfather’s father and his father walked north and came to this area.”
“That’s how our people settled along the coast, mainly fishermen to this date and some of us like your Appa and Thaththa and his Appa went inland and started growing kochika.”
“Tell us, Appa, tell us what happened to the Princess.”
“That was the sad part … our people knew that the Maravas King would come with his soldiers by boat looking for his promised bride and kill our people and take her away.” “So, she agreed to make the supreme sacrifice, to give her life for her people, to die so that the Maravas King would not come with his men and our people would be saved.” “Everyone was very sad, she was a beautiful princess, but they killed her by drowning her and made her a Kula Devata to protect our people.”Muniyandi’s children knew the words by heart, even the tones and his animations which they could imitate. “One day when you grow up, I will take you to a village called Udappu. That’s where most of our people settled and where all this happened,” he promised.
Then the government soldiers came. The war for a separate homeland had been ignited and the fighting had begun. They came in big army vehicles wearing big boots and carrying big guns and rounded up some of the men from Selva’s village. The soldiers loaded them into trucks and drove away. “Suspected terrorists,” was maliciously mentioned. They took Muniyandi, too.
Selva was too young to understand, but Yoga did, he was the eldest. They all cried as the trucks moved away. Their mother Lechchimi, heavy with child, pleaded to deaf ears telling the soldiers that Muniyandi was just a chilli grower.
The war went on, and the old who remained grew their kochika with the women. The world was playing cricket, countries against each other and Selva wanted to be like Muralitharan. Twice he had seen Murali when Selva went by bullock cart to Vaddukodai to sell chillies with his grandfather. Murali was bowling, on the TV set, in the co-operative store, and people were crowding around to watch. They cheered every time the batting man missed the ball. They hooted and shouted when the wickets broke. Everyone said Murali was the best in the world.
Selva wanted nothing but to be like Murali, to be a great bowler and bowl on TV and shout at the umpire when the ball hit the leg, or jump up when the wicket broke. That was some monsoons ago.
Then they came for him too, to go and fight for a separate homeland. That’s what they told Lechchimi, they needed everyone.
“He is not so small,” the man said, “we have many like him who fight like grown men, he will be a good soldier.”
They gave him a gun, made of wood, to learn how to march, carry and aim. It was as tall as him. Selva and his young brigade were being trained to battle the brutal realities of the war of separation.
“They are ready to kill,” the sergeant shouted at them. “But we are willing to die, if the need be,” he growled as he looked them in the eye.
They all nodded, they had to nod at everything. That was the first lesson in training. The boy soldiers, in over-sized camouflage, learnt to obey. No stubble on the chin and none above the lip, not even a trace, they were that young, eyes of children, little minds making attempts to cope with adult battles.
Then it was running and creeping under barbed wire and jumping into ditches and crawling in mud. They leapt out of fox holes and tossed rocks pretending they were grenades.
Selva did think of Muralitharan, how he dived and fielded and threw the ball at the wicket.
It was time then for real guns and real grenades.
“From across the oceans, our people have sent, just for you, so that you could fight the soldiers and liberate the land of our people,” the sergeant always growled.
That’s how they learnt to shoot, standing, running; falling and rolling with real guns and real bullets, the sergeant taught them well to kill.
The sand dunes were sparse, scrub bushes and the ever-present Palmyra trees. Desolated and empty of life, the silence carried the gunfire far, some boomed like muffled drums and some like distant crackers, the kind that Selva heard when the village celebrated a wedding.
But this time the sounds were real and it killed.
That’s how the numbers dwindled. That’s why they buried the dead, in shallow graves, whenever they could. Little boys doing grown men’s work and fighting and dying for something they knew nothing about.
“When will this end Selva?” Potthu asked. It wasn’t his name, he was Potthuseelan. Too long a name for such a small one. He was the youngest of the lot.
“You want to bowl on the TV, but I want to go to sea like my father, catch fish and become rich.”
Potthu never lasted long enough to go to sea, he wasn’t even buried, there was nothing much left to bury. Selva recalled in sadness the story his Appa told them about Princess Kamalakani.
The young dying for their people was not something new.
The monsoons changed and the war went on. No more rocks to throw or drains to jump over. This was real and brutal. Theirs was a group that moved swiftly and hid in the jungles. Only the leader knew what was happening and what they had to do and the boys simply obeyed him. It was now a guerrilla-type operation; inflict what damage they could to the enemy. Small convoys were what they were after, trucks carrying soldiers who fought back even while dying. There were dead bodies from both sides when they moved on again to hide in the jungle and await the next order.
“Pick up your packs and let’s move out,” the harsh command from the leader brought Selva back to life and he is ready in seconds to go. That’s the way they had been trained, to move as fast and as stealthily as vipers. The numbers were now small, the few dozens that once proudly marched had now dwindled as the injured counted down and the dead were buried. The roaming trucks were everywhere, filled with booted soldiers searching for the likes of Selva and his kutaligal. The sky was the bigger curse, screaming jets that fired rockets, drawing white trails in the clear blue as if to boastfully say where they came from and where they were going. The choppers were the worst; they could hound you and hunt you down, barrels blazing as they emptied round after round of machine gun fire which could cut a man in two.
Now the soldiers and their aeroplanes were brave. Kilinochchi had fallen and the main body of the northern people had retreated to the coast and the Supreme Leader they heard was making a stand somewhere around the Nandikadal lagoon near Vellamulli Vaikal.
“He is planning to bring them into a trap and kill them,” says the Sergeant. “He knows what he is doing, like a tiger, he waits.”
Others nod, Selva, too, but they all think a little different.
It was the same when Yoga went away to fight for a separate homeland. They thought they were winning. But Yoga wasn’t, that’s what they came and told Lechchimi, that her son had become a hero.
That was then, it all changed in a few months. Too many got injured and too many died, from both sides. The soil that gave life to the chilli plants got soaked in blood and the Palmyra tree watched it all, a solitary witness. The dead were no more paraded as heroes in the northern towns and displayed on posters for everyone to see. There was no time for that. Mothers hardly knew what happened to their sons or wives where their husbands were fighting. Children prayed for fathers to return. The battle went on, the dying continued.
They were now coming from all sides and there wasn’t a day that Selva did not hear the jets screaming above or the murderous “dug dug” noise of helicopters that moved like monsters and spat fire at anything that moved.
The news that used to be of victories wasn’t coming anymore; the news must be bad, that they all knew.
The sergeant led and they moved in a spread line, thinly scattered, ramshackle in total, carrying heavy guns starved of ammunition, stomachs heaving in hunger, eyes peeling the horizon to spot danger.
He heard the distant “dug dug” noise. Somewhere the choppers were searching for someone to spit fire at.
Selva scanned the sky, trying to spot the monster while running for scant cover in the scrub bush.
That’s when the machine guns started.
He saw them fall before he fell, the sergeant first and then some others, then him.
Selva couldn’t move, the waist downward was numb. He only felt a thick wetness that soaked his torso as he lay sprawled on the ground.
Then he looked up, not a cloud in sight, it was a clear sky in brilliant blue. Selva wished he could go back to softer times when his Appa split thin bamboo reeds and made a snake kite with a very long tail and how they released it to the wind and watched it dance and laugh.
That he remembered, and it crossed his mind that he may not be able to bowl now on the TV like Muralitharan.
When a wonderful human being crosses the great divide
Sarasaviya took this picture of Punya and Milroy at their home after the “Abhimani” Legendary Award was conferred on Punya, during their last visit to Sri Lanka to attend the Sarasaviya Festival in 2016.
“There are friends,
There is family,
And then there are friends
That become family”
Such a friend was Milroy, whose passing away a few days ago, we learnt with heavy hearts and deep sorrow.
To those who didn’t know him, he was the husband of Punya Heendeniya, the actress who captivated the hearts and minds of a nation by her portrayal of Nanda in the film classic “Gamperaliya”; Nanda was the quintessential Sinhala upper class village maiden who valued tradition over love.
To MBS (Siri) he was a lifelong friend “who stayed forever, beyond word, beyond distance, beyond time”.
To me (Kumar Gunawardane) who came to know him through Siri and also through his brothers, he was a pleasant companion, and good friend.
“He loved music, sing songs and kalawaa (art) in all its forms. That is why he married me. He went out of his way to help the needy in whatever way he could. He did everything for me and the children.
“In the last year or two he took to understanding what real Buddha Dharma was.
“May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!”
“We met on the very first day in the “Block”; alphabetically we were next to each other, Milroy de Silva and MBS de Silva. That day, wearing our white jackets and ties back to front, we had to march to the Anatomy laboratory, jeered by serried ranks of haughty seniors. The naked bodies lying on marble slabs was nauseating. I was directed to the appropriate cadaver by a tutor and paired with a brilliant student JBC De Silva, to dissect the upper limb. Confused and bewildered I could only gaze at the colleague carving the other arm. He looked equally nonplussed wielding a scalpel nonchalantly, while another student recited the instructions from Cunningham’s manual of Anatomy. Our eyes met and that was the start of a beautiful friendship; a coming together of the high-spirited and full of joie de vivre. We immediately downed tools and scampered to the canteen to revive ourselves with a cup of tea, laced with condensed milk, and the cheapest available cigarette ‘Peacock’. Our interests were similar; studies took a back seat, larking around taking precedence. The friendship was sealed further when we joined Bloemfontein the formidable male medical student hostel alternatively feared and lauded.
“I remember our first Block dance at the King George’s hall. He was smartly dressed in black tuxedo pants and a cream jacket; only missing element was a lady companion. I, who wore a black shirt and a white tie, had a beautiful girl on my arm. I asked Milroy where he came by his tuxedo and he disdainfully replied I have two brothers who are doctors and one tuxedo for the whole family and now it is my turn to have it!!
“Our bonds strengthened during our intern year. Milroy returned to his roots in Galle and I joined him a few months later at Mahamodara, the hospital by the sea. It was a year of back breaking work, but also a year of fun and frolic.
“Milroy was then posted as chief (District Medical Officer) of the Moneragala hospital. But “I was left high and dry, Milroy, thoughtful as ever arranged for me to work with his brother Dr A.S.H De Silva, who had a thriving general practice just down the road from the hospital. Three months later, I got a posting to Buttala, which was then a mostly elephant and serpent infested jungle. It was classed as a ‘punishment’ station by the Health Department. The attractions however were the proximity to Milroy, and also the predecessors who included medical giants such as Professor Rajasooriya and the distinguished surgeons Dr Bartholomeuz, and R. L. Spittel the Surgeon of the Wilderness. In this pastoral outpost Milroy was bowled over by the image of Punya. He was at a loss to reach her. I advised him to write and he did so with panache. She invited him to visit them at Mirigama, her hometown to meet her folk. They teamed up in Punya’s own words for 52 years seven months and 22 days; a match made in heaven.
“As a dutiful father, he wanted to give his son and daughter the best education available and so it was that he and Punya migrated to Zambia. It was here that they demonstrated hidden strengths of character which helped them overcome adversities and even threats to their lives and move over to England. Milroy re-invented himself and rose to top of the ladder to become a consultant psychiatrist. His two children also became consultants in the NHS, the son a gastroenterologist and daughter an endocrinologist. He acknowledged freely Punya’s role not only in all his triumphs, but also in the hazards and misfortunes in their paths.
“Yet, more than all this was his humanity and humility, generosity to those less well endowed especially relatives and also to those medical graduates at the threshold of their careers. They were gracious hosts; Punya was an accomplished cook and less well known, a euphonious singer. I and my good friend Karu had the good fortune to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions in London.
“Milroy my friend, “To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die”
“May your journey in Samsara be short and my you attain the Supreme bliss of Nibbana!”
I first got to know Milroy at Bloemfontein, the medical student’s hostel adjoining Carey College. He was a dapper figure, stylishly dressed with an unceasing gentle smile on his face. His chums, Siri, Gerry, Wicky and others were always friendly with us juniors and never intimidating. Their banter and capers in the dining room and the spacious portico were invariably hilarious.
My friendship with Siri was cemented in the hurly-burly of the Galle hospital, where I too did my internship. When I was unemployed after its completion it was Siri who arranged for me to work with Dr ASH, Milroy’s brother. ASH and Kingsley, another brother became my friends and mentors.
“Punya was a heartthrob of many young bucks of our era. But only one, Milroy, could win her hand and her heart. What a splendid partnership it was.
The Buddha Dhamma teaches that death is natural and inevitable. Yet it is sorrowful and we pray for you and your family’s peace and comfort. Their sadness is soothed by the beauty of your life, a life well lived. As the Buddha said death has no fear to those who fashioned life as a garland of beautiful deeds.
May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!
A New Arrival at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre
A newly hatched blue and gold macaw bred at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre being attended to by a staff member Sisira Kumara.
The Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre has a comprehensive collection of rare macaws, cockatoos, lorikeets, and parrots from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The collection also includes a range of Arowana fish. This unique collection was originally presented to the Centre by Nimal Jayawardena, a leading business person, lawyer, and wildlife expert.
Imagining Malinda Seneviratne
By Uditha Devapriya
I’d like to begin this tribute with a memory. I wasn’t always an avid reader of newspapers. My father, on the other hand, was. Somewhere in middle school, in Grade Eight I believe, I began picking them up once he had done with them, poring over the columns.
My eyes rested on certain topics more than others. They’d invariably centre on the war. How were we fighting the enemy? How was that enemy fighting back? What new conspiracies had been unearthed? Who had unearthed them? Who was next on the enemy’s kill list? The peace process, dead as a dodo long before it died, had floundered. Officially, we were back at war. As intriguing as that would have been, it was also disconcerting.
Even more disconcerting was the ambivalent stand of the English language press on the war. Not that the editorials called for a cessation of hostilities, much less a return to the peace process. But beneath the fine print, one could discern an almost confused pacifism, an almost abstruse neutralism.
This conformed to the same pattern: an acknowledgement of the heroism of the armed forces followed by a critique of government policy. Ultimately it all boiled down to, not whether the government was conducting the war properly, but whether the war had to be conducted at all. Even there the editors remained indecisive: they concluded that the LTTE had to be defeated, yet refused to endorse the war being waged to achieve that end.
None of that felt frustrating, of course. Cut off from the fears of a war next door, one could only revel in the delicatessen of wartime journalism. Yet it was clear the scales tilted to a side: very few writing in English advocated a military solution to the world’s longest running ongoing ethnic conflict. What explained their hesitation?
I didn’t bother finding out, but given the preponderance of those who wrote against the war, I was transfixed by those who wrote in support of it. Of them, one in particular caught my attention. Seven years later I met him: a coincidence I ponder over even now.
I have known Malinda Seneviratne in his many forms: writer, poet, translator, activist, editor, citizen, father, husband, and teacher. Yet I can’t recall why I wanted to meet him. Was it the eloquent prose, sharp as nails even at its most polemical? The equally eloquent poetry, haiku-like and evocative of both Neruda and Galeano? Or the activism, unabashedly nationalist in a country whose Westernised intelligentsia abhors such “tribalist” sentiments?
Malinda’s political education began with the Left, first with his father Gamini, then with a batch-mate of his father, Nanda Wickramasinghe (attached to the Revolutionary Communist League at the University of Peradeniya), and finally with Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygunasekera (until the latter’s defection to the UNP). The Ratawesi Peramuna, precursor to the Sihala Urumaya, came later.
His activism in (and for) the Ratawesi Peramuna followed his return from Harvard (where he completed his Bachelor’s in Sociology) in 1991. It was while in this group that he deepened his friendship with two of his biggest influences, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thera. It was also his activities there that landed him in trouble; the police swooped on a meeting organised in 1992 at Wadduwa, following an exhibition of LTTE, IPKF, and JVP human rights abuses held in Matara, was intercepted by the police, who proceeded to arrest 15 members, including Ranawaka, Rathana Thera, and Malinda.
Held for three weeks, and tortured on the orders of a drunken OIC, they filed a fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court. Upholding their case, the Court, which acknowledged that the RP did not constitute a threat to national security and did not warrant the treatment meted out to its members, ordered the State to pay Rs 5,000 for each applicant. The Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota later archived the case, “Channa Pieris and Others v. Attorney General and Others.” In the meantime, the Ratawesi Peramuna turned into Janatha Mithuro, a green socialist/nationalist outfit preaching the gospel of alternative development paradigms (what Ranakawa called the “third chapter of development”).
Malinda ended his political associations once he started out on his journalistic (and writing) career in the 2000s. By then he had gone through Janatha Mithuro, Sihala Urumaya, and the National Movement Against Terrorism (2006-7). These are, no doubt, colourful affiliations, befitting a colourful memoir. Yet, despite his activism, it’s hard to put a finger on his convictions: he just can’t be categorised in the same way his opponents, or for that matter his allies, can.
On the ‘national Question’, on the 13th Amendment, on our relations with India, indeed on global politics, he projects a provocative perspective. Thus, for instance, while he supported the Sihala Urumaya’s and Hela Urumaya’s parliamentary aspirations, he critiqued the latter’s decision to field Buddhist monks at elections. Even so, however, he does not oppose the entry of monks on a matter of unyielding principle: for him, they constitute a group having as much a right to parliamentary representation as any other.
In any case, whatever those convictions, the more I read him in my middle school years, the curiouser I got: then as now, what defines Malinda is the contrast, one could say paradox, between his ideological predilections and his poetic instincts. The two do get together, more often than you’d think, in his anthologies (just sample his poems on Geneva). And yet there’s a disjuncture between them. Perhaps this was what made me want to visit him.
Our first meeting went by innocuously enough. Lasting a little more than an hour, it ended on the promise of a second meeting, which transpired a month later – to be followed by another, and then another. The rapport between us grew quickly; by the time of the third meeting, he was asking me to come in and write to the paper he supervised as editor.
I hesitated at first. With characteristic flippancy, though, he shrugged my concerns aside: “When you work for me,” he promised, “you will write on everything.” I thus gave in: as with all 21-year-olds new to the trade, I wanted to write and be read in print. A few months later, in fulfilment of a promise he made before the January 2015 election, I was in.
Malinda taught several lessons as a writer, journalist, and senior. First and foremost among them was the line between writing news and writing features. For no matter what people may say, a good writer does not necessarily make for a good reporter. Pen and paper in hand, you need to record whatever it is that you’re covering is putting out to the public. Cutting through a morass of irrelevant anecdotes, you need to distil what you heard. And of course, you need to separate facts from comment: you can’t editorialise.
This proved to be a difficult exercise for me, far more difficult than the light pieces I ended up submitting to the features section. Suffice it to say, then, that insofar as Malinda taught me anything about journalism, it was that I could never aspire to be a journalist.
The second lesson was simpler: no matter how good (or bad) you may be as a journalist, if your editor doesn’t encourage you, your ink will dry. This applies to other professions also: where would Thomas Wolfe be, for instance, without Max Perkins?
Malinda, of course, was not my first editor. Yet he and I shared interests which immediately bridged the gap between him and me. In the end, I wound up writing on topics I had always wanted to talk about. That could not have been possible without him.
The third lesson, the most important one, was that writing to newspapers is never going to be a stable profession, especially not here. I learnt this lesson the hard way: five months after I got in, his paper closed down. Petrified for days, wondering whether I would ever be able to write again, I eventually came to realise that, as shocking an experience as it may have been to me, for Malinda it did not mean much: he’d been pole-vaulting from one paper to another from the day he left active politics for journalism.
His experience there became my guide: one evening, after the storm clouds of his termination had died down, he told me bluntly, “In this trade, if you’re good enough, you’ll never be out of tenure.” I disputed him. Six years later, having contributed to every paper he wrote to and is writing to, I realise I was wrong to do so.
Having read him and met him, I thus ended up learning under Malinda: a trajectory I am yet to go through a second time with anyone else in his line of work. I can’t really assess him, or do him justice, except maybe to note that, for the little or the lot he taught, he never demanded a payback.
Perhaps that’s just as well. For without taking away anything from what he did, I was hardly the only person he supported this way. Many others, most of them as young as I, all of them endowed with a superior penmanship, also found their way to the pages of the papers he oversaw. I know for a fact that he always insisted on compensating them – in full.
The West Indian international relations scholar Herb Addo once wrote that Andre Gunder Frank, from whom he learnt about the political economy of underdevelopment, “taught me nothing.” For his contemporaries, Addo argued, Frank “taught from a distance”, yet let his students develop as individual, independent intellectuals, in their own right.
By no means do I suggest that Malinda taught me nothing, or that he did so from a distance. But reflecting on how he taught all that one needed to know, and how he dismisses it today as though was just letting me evolve on my own, I wonder: was he, as Frank had been to Addo, a teacher in the Gibran vein, leading me to the threshold of my mind?
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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