By Charles Sarvan
A Clear Blue Sky (New Delhi, 2010)
This anthology (a collection of “stories and poems on conflict and hope” by writers of the Indian sub-continent) is a Puffin Books publication, meant for children.
An “impressionable” person is one easily influenced.
Children are very “impressionable” and, unless something happens to effect a change, they will grow up with the ‘Weltanschauung’ of the adult world. In that sense, childhood produces the adult: see epigraph. (The Jesuits claimed, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”.) Children are not born with group prejudice but imbibe them through adult conversation, folk story, song, jokes and visual representation. History is a story – the word “story” is embedded in “History” (His + story) — and pseudo, mythical history or a particular interpretation or emphasis of historical events can contribute to the creation and perpetuation (even intensification) of group animosity. Sometimes, the poison is spread consciously and deliberately but often, innocently, unaware of consequence. Apropos the latter, I quote from my Racism and “exceptionalism” (17 January 2010).
While an undergraduate at the Peradeniya Campus, one of my closest friends was (let’s call him) Wijesooriya. I spent extended holidays with him at his parental home in what was then a little village off a little town. His gentle, kind and caring mother treated me as if I were one of her own family. Yet “Wije” told me that, while he was a growing child, she had related stories which portrayed Tamils not only as “the Other”, but which created the image in his mind and imagination of the Tamil as trouble and menace, to be distrusted, held at a distance and controlled. I have not the slightest doubt this was not her intention: she simply was not aware of the image of the Other that folk tales and folk history create; their effect on the mind and imagination of a child and, finally, on the hapless Tamil.
Essentially decent and good, she was simply “innocent” (in the sense of being unaware) of the possible long-term effects of the stories she narrated, tales she told and retold simply to entertain her son. Folk history and stories help to explain the depth of distrust, the intensity of hate, and the ferocity of attack during successive anti-Tamil riots and pogroms. They form a line of suspicion, resentment and hatred from ancient times into the present.
Blue Skies provides counter-narratives, aimed at healing and reconciliation. The front cover juxtaposes guns (instruments of death and destruction; cause of pain and suffering) with flowers: beautiful, therefore valuable; fragile and vulnerable. Significantly, every flower in this design is different in shape and colour: as I have written elsewhere, while variety in nature is welcomed, within the human community, difference leads to suspicion and hostility.
The anthology has stories about the violence that attended Indian independence (since it also meant partition). Then there’s the antagonism, injustice and unkindness rising from caste and class difference, and from the Sunni-Shi’ite schism in Islam. Sikhs are set upon and killed; courting couples are harassed because their behaviour is “Western”, decadent and against the “purity” of traditional culture. Those with a darker skin-pigmentation are looked down upon by their own society (in what is sometimes known as intra-racial racism).
Not surprisingly, a boy wonders (poem, p. 11) whether it is necessary to grow up. ‘For God’s Sake’, ungodly things are done: poem, pp. 96-98. It’s “nothing personal – just the way of life” (97) but the impact, the consequences, are terribly personal. Finally, group suffering, the pain and humiliation inflicted on the collective ‘Other’, is experienced by human beings, separately and individually, each in her or his body and mind.
Given this ugly and tragic reality, the title of the first story is apt: “A time to mend,” reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 3:3: “a time to heal…and a time to build”. A skilled, Moslem, seamstress mends the altar-cloth damaged when the church was vandalised. The irrationality of prejudice, our readiness to think the worst of the other — even on the basis of rumour, gossip and hearsay — described in “Oranges” (pages 56-64) reminded me of David Campton’s play, at once both humorous and sad, ‘Us And Them’. In yet another story, three pray together, harmoniously, but to three different deities: Hindu, Moslem and Christian.
Elmo Jayawardena’s A Clear Blue Sky gives the anthology its title, and is the only Sri Lankan contribution. The story is told from the perspective of (Tamil) Selva who responds to “the colour of the vast Jaffna sky, spotless and shimmering in brilliant blue”. It is the perfection of nature or of the divine — call it what you will — but human beings are far from perfect. Quiet, peaceful, village life is disrupted. Selva’s brothers are abducted by Sinhalese soldiers on suspicion of being Tamil Tigers, and are never seen again. Selva’s dream had been to become as famous a cricketer as Muralitharan, but he is recruited by the Tigers, and killed during the final phase of the war. Dying, “he looked up… it was a clear sky in brilliant blue. Selva wished he could go back to softer times” when his father made a snake-kite which they released and “watched it dance and laugh”. It is a poignant story, and Jayawardena, with sensitive empathy, reaches behind group-labels and prejudice to the human individual, and a cruelly wasted life that is emblematic of thousands of other Sri Lankan lives. Children’s books are written by adults for children, and it is up to other adults to bring books such as A Clear Blue Sky to children, make them available in libraries and, most importantly, use them in school and discussion groups. The end of the internecine war will, no doubt, lead to stories which celebrate the courage of one side, and execrate the villainy of the other. ‘Blue Sky’ presents a different narrative and, through it, a different value-system and conception of how the world could, and should, be. Given what I wrote in the first paragraph, the importance of such works cannot be over-emphasised.
Some Sri Lankan writers are conscious of urgent need and responsibility – see, for example, Sharadha De Saram’s One Country And One People – and try to make a difference, try to help fashion a future different from the violent and ugly past. Most importantly, it is hoped that such counter-narratives will be in the language accessible to the majority: Sinhala. The chapel at S. Thomas’, Gurutalawa, is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, and I recall words from his prayer for peace: Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.