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On remembering Richard and forgetting Ranjithan

By Malinda Seneviratne

(February 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There were some 60,000 people killed in what is clearly the bloodiest period in post-Independence Sri Lanka, 1988-1990. Our roadsides were turned into crematoriums, our rivers, canals and such into cemeteries. I remember a day in June 1988, in Bingiriya. I remember distinctly thinking this thought: ‘I can’t do anything to stop this!’ ‘This’, then, was an inevitable hurtling of an entire nation over the edge of sanity and into an abyss made of fire and bullets, the order to assassinate and the screams of the dying. Almost twenty two years later, I have a question for everyone reading this: can you name one person who perished during that time?

I am sure that more than 90% of those who grew up speaking English and who live in Colombo (and close to 100% of those in Colombo 3 and 7), if they can come up with any name, it would be that of Richard de Zoysa. That’s one out of over 60,000 victims. Some might remember Nandalal Fernando, Harsha Abeywardena, and Stanley Wijesundera. Those who have had any association with left politics would remember Vijaya Kumaratunga, L.W. Panditha, Devabandara Senanayake, Dharmasiri, A. Jayantha, Chandrawimala and others killed by the JVP. Still, I am willing to bet that if asked to name one person who was killed during that time, nine out of 10 would say ‘Richard de Zoysa’ and that if asked to name a victim who was known, very, very few would speak up.

Is it something to do with the fact that Richard de Zoysa was an exceptional individual? He was certainly a ‘personality’, a public figure inasmuch as any non-politician could be one. He was a poet, a theatre man, a personality in literary circles. A talented and to some an exceptional one too. Richard didn’t fall from the sky. He was born of a woman’s womb, he grew up, went to school, had fun, got his knees bruised etc. He had friends. He had feelings, I am sure. Fears too. Desires. He breathed, he ate, he drank, he sweated, had a pulse etc etc. If you pricked him, he would bleed. When tortured, he would have cried out in pain.

And what of those other 59,999 plus people? Well, they would have been differently talented. They couldn’t have fallen from the sky. They too would have been held in wombs, birthed by mothers, taken care of, sent to school, formed friendships, learnt lessons; they also would have entertained dreams, felt things, breathed, loved, sweated, pulsated etc. If you pricked them, as the bard said, they too would have bled, they would have cried out in pain too when tortured. Their last moment would not have been any different to that of Richard’s in that they too would have released one last sigh as exclamation mark and as question. There are some 60,000 plus question marks and an equal number of exclamation marks, but how is it that we remember and name one but not the 59,000 plus others?

Who has heard of Senadheera from Kurunegala, a teacher and who of Dassanayake from Matale, born with a congenital defect in an eye that made it impossible for him to hide behind a disguise? Dassanayake knew his time was coming and he refused to escape: ‘I have brought too many people into this to leave now,’ he said. He was drawn and quartered, literally, and his body parts hung from a tree in Katugastota. His question/exclamation marks don’t have identity tags. Neither did those of Lalith from Kuliyapitiya, the medical student Atapattu, and countless others, including Thrimavitharana of the Colombo Medical Faculty who had nails driven into his skull, who was tied to the back of a jeep and dragged along a gravel road.

There was a massive crowd attending Thrimavitharana’s funeral. How many remember his name today? This I am asking from the comfortable and comfortably complaining, whining, dining, self-righteous people who think that ability to speak English is a sign of wisdom and a right to be snooty and condescending. Do you remember Thrimavitharana? Richard was special, yes. Talented, yes. Wasn’t Ranjithan Gunaratnam special? Was he not talented? Have you heard that name? Do you know who he was? Do you know what kinds of skills he possessed?

People who had never met Richard know of him. I have never met Ranjithan, I know of him though. He was an engineering student at Peradeniya. Born to humble, dignified and utterly civilized parents who lived in Kegalle, Ranjithan was highly conversant in all three languages. He was a poet. An artist. An orator. He was well read by all accounts, a good friend, a man of immense capacity and endowed with indefatigable energy. Arrested. Tortured. Killed. Each time I look into his mother’s eyes, I see how special each person who died was to those who knew and loved them. But Ranjithan was not Richard. He was not ‘English’. He was Tamil. He was Sinhala. He was Hindu and Buddhist. He was not ‘city’. He was ‘city and village’. His name is not remembered. Why not?

There is, I believe, a politics to remembrance. Sepulchers are not innocent. Commemoration is vile. There is erasing and ‘oblivioning’ in the matter of selective commemoration. No, I am not saying that Richard should not be remembered. I am merely asking myself and you, ‘why do we remember Richard and why have we forgotten Ranjithan, if we ever knew of him that is?’

During the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya of 1988-1990 democracy was bruised and tortured. Our sensibilities were lacerated. We acquired a certain degree of immunity to violence and crime. Death by violent means became something like pickpocketing; a few raised eyebrows, some political mileage for some, sweeping under carpets and years of forgetting. We lost something else. And this is why we can’t dwell in 1989-1990, however sad we are and however much we need to celebrate the lives of those who are not around today. There’s one thing that few acknowledge or even remember today when thinking about Richard or Ranjithan, or any of the other 59,998 plus people. That thing is called HR. Human Resources.

I told this to Werawellalage Premasiri, born Kumarigama, Ampara, my batchmate at Peradeniya, former lecturer in Political Science and now a public servant. I said ‘Aliya, (that was his ‘card’ at campus) me rate maanva sampath pilibandava deventha prashnayak thiyenava’ (there is a huge human resource problem in this country). He answered quietly: mama dannava; ape rate maanava sampath bheeshanaya kaale athurudahan karala demma (the human resources of our country were liquidated during the bheeshanaya).

We lost the best we had, didn’t we? Not all those who died were guilty of wrong doing and even if they were extra-judicial killing was the wrong way to go about sorting out the problem (those who howl about human rights violations were silent back then and those who call for truth commissions and such are conspicuously silent about such mechanisms for that particular blood-letting). I have no doubt about this: we lost our spirit, the cream, the most talented, the young people most endowed with attributes such as integrity, sacrifice, energy and ingenuity.

There were many Richards among them, but they didn’t write in English. They did not get published, they did not have the Lionel Wendt to perform in. They were born to humble parents, raised their voices against injustice and were slaughtered for this crime.

Let us remember them all. Let us remember that if we are struggling today on account of a serious lack of human resources, there are people responsible for this. Let us also remember that the conflict in the North and East saw a similar though less voluminous ‘evacuation’ (since it dragged across several generations). Let us remember that languishing in harsh circumstances in these regions and in the rehabilitation camps are young Tamil people who too are endowed with the same kinds of attributes. Let us remember that there are Richard de Zoysas among them; only, they do not write in English, have not got published and have not played at the Lionel Wendt. They must be allowed to do so.

So when we remember Richard, let us remember these others who didn’t/don’t have a Christian name, were/are quite un-English, but were/are no less talented, no less human.

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