- Review of Public Writing On Sri Lanka by Prof. Charles Sarvan
“There are three sides to a story,
Your side and my side, for which we fight,
Then of course the side that’s right”
By Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
I have neither knowledge nor the educational background to write a review moving in tandem with what Dr. Sarvan wrote. He quotes the entire high-end of the literary world of which I know very little.
Even the lines above about the three sides of a story I only remember the words and do not even know who wrote them. My reaction to the book is simply that of an ordinary Sri Lankan; we have a more than valid opinion of things that happened in our homeland and how they should be understood if we are ever to have a hope for peace in Sri Lanka.
Sarvan’s narration is a collection of articles the learned professor has written which gives his understanding (and understanding is inevitably personal) of events that took place during the 30 years of conflict. The book also covers the resultant aftermath which may erase the division of races or add more fuel to the fire that burnt Sri Lanka, cauterising its hopes as a united nation.
Of course he is Tamil and his feelings are deep-rooted in expressing the northern reading of the story. He criticises the Tigers too (see page 235). It is vitally important for us from the south of the border to hear another’s views; his accusations of the Sinhalese and his defences of the Tamils. Sarvan addresses issues that have mostly shamed us all as a people; not as a country but as two ethnic groups, both sides having their share of the guilt. Yes, your side and my side for which we fight and then of course the side that’s right. The truth in this conflict is mostly in masquerade and it is by listening to different opinions that we can at least have respect for each other and maybe make our best attempts to understand an underlying hatred from a different perspective.
Don’t tell me that we have (like the chant of the New Year) a kiriyen paniyan filled re-union between the Tamils and the Sinhalese after Nandikadal Lagoon. Not by any wild imagination. Both parties need to know how the other suffered. If not it is a one-sided evaluation of a many- phased conflict that had left contradictory evidence as our sole means to find answers. Before I proceed further, I must heavily criticise the publisher who has printed out a book of such poor quality that it does not even have a proper index to separate the chapters. Prof. Sarvan deserves better and I can only urge the ‘would be buyer’ not to be discouraged by the sad state of the production but have the patience to read the contents which most certainly compensates for the shambolic appearance.
The writing is great; the author’s English is as good as it can get, straight from the top shelf, let me start with that. Of course such is to be expected considering the wide ranging background of the author with his multiple exposures. To quote some, (there are so many and it is difficult to select) he describes a visit to Jaffna in 2004; “In war, ordinary people endure the extraordinary,” says Sarvan and goes on to write a heartbreaking reference to a LTTE cemetery in Kilinochchi and his conversations with the old caretaker. The author quotes “there had been a rule that shoes needed to be removed when entering the place but had been relaxed because some of the visitors were handicapped and with artificial limbs, the wounded coming to visit the graves of their comrades who fell in battle.”
Cemeteries are solemn and sacred places and the pain of losing a loved one is no less intense and his or her last resting place no less important, simply because he or she happened to be known as a terrorist. On another note he says a Veddah child would ask his mother “Mummy Mummy, when are the Sinhalese going back to India?” or his explanation on who arrived first; “The Sinhalese came on Monday and the Tamils on Wednesday.” All this is pure original Sarvan and his quoting from Donne to Descartes, Mandela to Luther King and localised versions from Kumari Jayawardena to Michael Roberts and his praise of Neville Jayaweera’s writing gives a certain balance to his point of view. The insertions are appropriate and are quoted not for the ‘neon’ names but for the relevance to the subjects which gives weightage to the complicated issues he makes attempts to clear and clarify.
Let’s go to the meat of the matter, Professor Sarvan and his take on the ethnic conflict is pro-Tamil (absolutely natural) and his views which he expresses are bold and at times controversial and he does not pull any punches. Do I agree with him? “Yes” to some and a firm “No” to others. His side and my side for which we fight and then of course the side that’s right. No I am certainly not fighting with him, the expression is metaphorical. His views I respect and will definitely not enter into a ‘ping pong’ battle on week-end papers with him, wasting space that could carry better material for the reader. All I need to say is the devil is not as black as he is painted nor the angels with harp and halo whiter than water lilies.
The author has all the right to voice his view and it is important we see it naked and not try to dress it in rags just so that we can avoid the confrontation. He has not written these articles to cover the conflict but to give a Tamil version of what happened or what may have happened. If a reader feels that the author is one-sided, yes, it is so, he is not a jury, but simply a defender at times and a prosecutor in the same token. He’s certainly not calling heads and tails at the same time.
What I am glad about is the book speaks to us with a different voice and makes us awake to realities that brought untold suffering and tragedy which we should at least remember if we are to seek peace for our homeland. The sadness so mentioned has no division by a border and certainly does not apply to one race. It is the Sinhalese and the Tamils and the Muslims who suffered and mostly it is the innocent who paid the price.
Professor Sarvan, I read you loud and clear. I like your book and will always value what you have written. I need only to turn a page to go back in time and feel the shame, the anger and the absurdity of it all and the political pol sambol that almost ruined you and me, mainly the Tamil and the Sinhalese and added the Muslim too. Amidst the publications that have come from the winner’s corner it is good to have somewhat of a balancing act from a different voice.
The Tamil people’s plight during the entire conflict needs to be understood and they too have a side of the story that needs to be heard. The victory is not for the Sinhalese, but for the nation for it to raise its head again in harmony. In the same token, the defeat is not for the Tamils, but of terrorism, valid or not. “Your side and my side for which we fight and then of course the side that’s right.”
Thank you for the book Charles Sarvan; now let the reader judge what you wrote and have the wisdom to respect your opinion and the maturity to accept the contents in agreement and more so in disagreement.
(The book is available at Suriya Book Shop, Sulaiman Terrace, Colombo 5.)