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Tamil Existentialism

I was very proud of my people as I observed the well-dressed, energetic men and women, young and seasoned, professional and industrious Tamils who roamed around, worked the room and pressed palm with dignitaries from all levels of government, law enforcement and respectful journalists...

by Roy Ratnavel

(January 22, Toronto, Sri Lnaka Guardian) Today is January 18th, 2009. And I am on board an Airbus 330 on a typical Toronto winter day en route to Vancouver – not my favourite plane as it has one of the strangest seating arrangements I ever seen in a commercial jet. I prefer its counterpart, the Boeing 747, instead. My plan for the next five hours is to sleep to recharge my batteries after few sleepless hectic nights, but my mind is racing and I am restless as I kept thinking about Existentialism.

Existentialism, by its very definition emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent environment, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts.

Yesterday, I was at a Tamil function in Toronto, although I was initially not that thrilled at the idea of flying almost 3,000 kilometers in an aluminum tube, or the prospect of eating processed food while flying over the Rockies and packed in liked sardines to attend this special event. But I am glad that I overcame my initial anxiety.

This was my first such event, and, as one would expect, I hardly knew the attendees. Over the course of a few hours I mingled with my fellow Tamils and honored guests while quietly watching and eavesdropping – my apologies – as many of my fellow Canadians of Tamil decent passionately articulated the plight of our loved and unlucky ones we left behind. And, some of the speeches eloquently, encyclopedically and exhaustively expressed the sentiments of Tamil self-determination.

I was very proud of my people as I observed the well-dressed, energetic men and women, young and seasoned, professional and industrious Tamils who roamed around, worked the room and pressed palm with dignitaries from all levels of government, law enforcement and respectful journalists. Although, I have my own bias against the 'actors' of the latter category I couldn't help but notice that ‘they’ – the media – seemed very genuine and reasonably informed of what has been transpiring back in Sri Lanka. We, Tamils managed to get to this level in a relatively short period of time, although it has felt like an arduous task from time to time.

While I was at my pinnacle of total Tamil "Nirvana" in that ballroom, basking in Tamil "Glory," a statement made by a Cracker-Jack journalist in a private conversation with me changed my mood very quickly. He hinted that "Tamil freedom is over with the recent advancements made by Sri Lanka troops." Of course, this went down like a lead balloon with me, not because of the fact that he is bound by his own realities, but rather because his body language projected the certainty of this end, and he seemed at least in my eyes as if he called this outcome. Or, perhaps to him the mood of the people can best characterized as incredulous despair.

Since I was given the task of representing the 'Tamil Brand,' I measured my words in my response, tried my best to avoid any tongue trap and politely made my case as to why he was wrong. This journalist stood there in his cloud of smugness and quoted a Sri Lankan high ranking official to back up his argument. Oh, I get it, since it is from a "Sri Lankan official," I suppose it must be true. Then he immediately puzzled himself and said "but, I am not sure why the Sri Lankan government doesn't allow Western journalists to enter the Tamil North." To this ridiculous confusion, I was compelled to answer by quoting TV's favourite dad Homer Simpson: "Duh!" At this point I realized that there appears to be no lack of useful idiots, to use Lenin's phrase, who will help Sri Lanka achieve its goal of total annihilation of Tamils. Sad, but true.

By this time my pressure was off the charts and as such I didn't want to run the risk of any verbal infractions, so I politely excused myself and walked towards the men's washroom. As I was walking, I recalled French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1946, he argued in an essay – ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ – that "Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from that moment he is responsible for everything he does."

To me as a Tamil this "no-excuses" attitude toward liberty and responsibility reminds me of our current collective predicament, even when, as Tamils, we never did ask for sympathy, and took responsibility for our own liberty and freedom – the Eelam cause that is – but quickly we were handcuffed in doing so by global reality. Needless to say, something legal doesn't make it right.

So I asked myself this question, Does Eelam exist? At one level, even though not recognized internationally, such geography existed up until recently. In our collective hearts and minds – still – there is a space that can be called Eelam and no one can erase that. This is, to borrow Sartre's terminology, Eelam pour fait – a fact.

In this – conceptual Eelam – that is a community of people with a sense of fellow-feeling, that links us together regardless of individual isolation, circumstances and economic status. It is this passionate, deep yearning that binds us all and in turn fuels our freedom fire in Sri Lanka and abroad. As I am typing my random thoughts frantically on paper to the amazement of my fellow passenger, who by the way is high on a vodka and tonic, –while flying over the rugged, snow-capped Canadian Rockies – I asked myself another question. Besides the obvious border that defines this great nation, what is Canada? To me it is a beautiful idea. An idea of fair governance of all people, an idea of civil society in which society activists and organizations ally themselves to establish norms, better regulations and standards. By this definition, in every Tamil's mind, the idea of Eelam exists and cannot be erased from consciousness.

The Sri Lanka state can recapture our ancestral land and desecrate it, it can torture our loved ones and humiliate us, it can even continue to destroy our cherished hard work in Wanni since 2001 to regress the lives of Tamils there, but it will never be able to imprison our minds. In this mind the beautiful idea of Eelam is still alive and well. Why? The answer lies in two words. Tamil Existentialism!

Ironically, the very times that make the prospect so worrisome are also the times that make it possible, even plausible perhaps. And, I saw that with my own eyes playing out in that Hilton ballroom yesterday. Being there was one of the best experiences I've ever had with my people or group of people, and I've had a few. I am at peace. Only tears of joy remain now as I gaze at those beautiful white carpeted mountains that appear through my window on the horizon. It is time to fasten my seatbelt as we are about to descend into Vancouver airport, and as Tamils in Sri Lanka descend into chaos. But the beautiful idea still lives in my mind – this is a fact rather than a bitter fiction.

The writer can be reached at : roy_ratnavel@hotmail.com
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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