9 November 2008

Letter 4.16

Ella, Summer '83

Even a few months ago I was hearing stories of 'troubles', of 'difficulties in the North'; but I've heard a good many rumors in a good many countries, and have learned that whatever basis they may have in fact they usually come, in the end, to little or nothing. (One notable exception was the Sri Lanka insurrection of '71.) But -- so I gathered -- there had been increased terrorist activity (against government forces and Sinhalese) in the Tamil-dominated north of the island, by the 'Tamil Tigers' (TT), who for some years have been waging a campaign for 'eelam' or partition of the island into a Sinhalese nation (in the South) and a Tamil nation (in the North). I had also heard of (well-publicized) instances of the government making reparation to Tamil families who had suffered in one way or another at the hands of the army or police, and been struck on occasion by the barrage of government-originated publicity decrying 'eelam' as 'asking for the moon'.

But the first news I had of the present situation was the morning of the 26th, when I asked three brothers who live nearby why they weren't in school that day. 'Because the Tamils killed 13 soldiers,' they told me. I've heard better reasons for staying out of school, and I've heard worse, so I questioned them further. The killings had taken place in the North of the island, not in Upcountry (which is well to the South), and the brothers were unrelated to any of the victims; so those were not the reasons for staying out of school. The schools, it turned out, were closed. So too, it seemed, were the banks and all government offices. Finally they told me that it was not in mourning for the soldiers but because of a Sinhalese reaction to the killings which had resulted in anti-Tamil riots -- hardly the first, there having been a number of them even in the year that I've been back in the country (all local and quickly put down by the government).

The Sinhalese and the Tamils have both occupied the island for several thousand years, and there is a long history of tensions, as well as innumerable wars. Since independence in '47 there have been scattered outbreaks of disquiet caused by competition for what wealth exists, by differences of view and lifestyle, and so on. But this outbreak, I learned, was widespread, and for that reason the schools (etc.) were shut down for the day. But they felt that all would be well by the morrow, the schools would re-open, and peace would be restored. So I went about my business and didn't concern myself further with what seemed to be distant troubles. And indeed on Wednesday I didn't see the boys (or anyone else), and assumed them to be in school.

Thursday morning I went into town, and was informed by the AGA (Assistant Government Agent -- who is the highest government official in the village, a genial portly chap from Kandy side) that curfew would take effect that afternoon at 2 PM and would be in effect until 5 AM Saturday. 'Oh, then I won't be able to go to Bandarawela,' I said to him, although I had not in fact any plans to go there in any case. 'You shouldn't go to Bandarawela,' he advised me. 'There's fighting there. It's very dangerous. Many shops have been burned.'

Well, Bandarawela is the nearest town of any size -- maybe, what? 10,000 people? and only 9 miles from Ella -- so it was about then I first began to get an inkling that the situation might get serious enough to affect even me (although, as you know, it would not be the first time that I've found myself in the middle of big-screen-drama situations; in fact, it might even seem that I have a propensity for them). So I finished my business in town and returned home where, shortly afterwards, one of my Sinhalese neighbors, Suntil, came to call on me.

Suntil looked very upset, face puffy from lack of sleep, and he said the whole country was in flames, arson, riot and looting going on in much of the South by Sinhalese against Tamils and in much of the North by Tamus against Sinhalese, and that he didn't know what would happen to this country. Since he is a sensible fellow who has not previously been given to alarms I had to take him seriously. His brother, he said, had just returned from Colombo and reported the city devastated. The whole city, he said, would have to be rebuilt. Obviously not every single building had been destroyed, so I had no way to judge from such a statement how extensive the damage actually was, but I knew that in the capital there were no ethnic quarters, Tamils living alongside Sinhalese, and that most of the homes are old, i.e. made of wood (the Sri Lankans have never taken up the idea of tearing down the old to make way for the new).

Tamils are a significant minority in Colombo, as in fact they are also in most Upcountry towns, including Bandarawela and Badulla, which is the district capital (and rail head), about 15 miles away, with about 50,000 people. I believe it's the largest town east of Kandy. Most of the Tamils who have settled in Upcountry towns are traders and professionals. They are also all 'Jaffna' Tamils, Jaffna being the main city in the North of the island, as distinct from the Estate Tamils. The JT's have been in the country for about as long as the Sinhalese, whereas the ET's were imported during the last century by the British as cheap labor to work the tea estates (or, before the blight of the 1890's wiped them out, the coffee estates). The JT's look down on the ET's, and even speak a rather different sort of Tamil dialect, like uppercrust Oxford English and Cockney, and there is virtually no intermarriage between the two communities, which therefore maintain separate identities.

Around Ella itself there are not JT's, but of course there are hundreds of ET's who work on the tea estates which surround Ella, still fulfilling the role for which they were brought in from India. (and still working for base subsistence wages, presently about $1/day). So the Sinhalese do not fully identify the two groups with each other. But obviously they also have some things in common, so they are partly identified together. The danger, then, was that the ET's might also be attacked, in which case Ella would become involved, and, with ET's and Sinhalese about equal in number locally, the situation could become serious. Suntil told me a few horror stories, probably true, of what the Tamils had done to some of the Sinhalese in the North (the TT's seem to cultivate a bloody-handed image); no doubt similar stories can be told of what some Sinhalese have done in the South, though I haven't heard any such tales myself.

That afternoon it was very quiet: I've accustomed myself to the modest amount of traffic on this road (a road less travelled by), but for the first time I became aware of how much I'd had to ignore. It was a very pleasant afternoon, though, and the troubles were still at that time remote enough that I could indulge myself in reveries of supporting whichever side promised to maintain the curfew, etc. Even then, although I appreciated that the situation was difficult, I still regarded it as not more than a larger-scale version of the local incidents that had affected various towns from time to time. Multicultural nations have many advantages over unicultural nations (such as Thailand) -- e.g. a greater ability of the people to accept, and to understand, different ways, a greater ability to adapt to changing conditions, a more diversified pool of talents, etc. -- but there is a price to be paid for it in the form of communal tensions. These need not result in riot, but they all too easily do.

Such were my reflections on Thursday afternoon, and in the evening as well. The few shops and houses visible from my place had their lights out, and it was pleasant to take the night air without their lights glaring (frequent as they are, power failures come all too seldom for me). But about 8::30 at night I noticed to the west a bright red glare which could only be fire. It died down, then flared up a minute later, then again died away. Well, I'm east of Ella, so I speculated on what the light might signify.

Most of the ET's live near me or across the road and into the estate -- away from town -- but there are a few of them living in old housing near town. These people do not work for any estate, but survive on odd jobs and so on. I believe the housing is left from a failed estate; and the people are mostly elderly and mostly quiet and religious; by no stretch of the imagination could they be supporters of the TT. They are also extremely poor. So I hoped that nobody had been so foolish as to set their homes on fire. Another explanation was the tourists. There are 6 guest houses in town, from the high-class government-owned Ella Rest House to the ones that attract the backpack crowd. During the season (now) they do well on people who come usually for a night only, look at Ella Rock until they get bored with it, and leave the next day, since there's nothing else to do here except walk around. One 0f the owners had mentioned that morning that he had 12 tourists -- a full house for him -- that day; and perhaps they had become bored with the curfew and lit a bonfire. I've seen more foolish behavior than that by travellers, e.g. during the Guatemalan earthquake, during the Cambodian refugee crisis, during the Bangladesh refugee crisis, etc. I listened for a long while, but heard (and saw) nothing else -- no cries of distress, no screams (or bumps) in the night -- and so finally concluded that whatever the flare had been, it had not spread. With that I went inside for the night.

The next morning – Friday -- there were buses on the road, and a train on the tracks, so I guessed that the curfew had been lifted. Even if it hadn't I would have gone into town; there are footpaths through the woods. But instead I went by the car road. In town I learned that curfew would start at 5 PM and also that the night before the firelight I had seen had been the initial flare-up of a fire that had destroyed the Sunnyside Lodge, the guest house just beyond the other side of town (more than a crow's mile from me, the farthest buildings before the tea estates start again).

The lodge had had half a dozen tourists at the time, who fled into the dark injuring themselves a bit on the pointy ends of the tea bushes, but otherwise unharmed. I knew the Sunnyside was owned by a Mr. Joseph, who I had thought to be a, Burgher (of European or part-European descent), since he is a supervisor on one of the estates the previous government had nationalized, and because of his name (Tamil names are usually long and difficult -- for us -- to pronounce), and because of other impressions. But non I learned that I had been wrong in this belief, that he is a JT. I had been told that there were no JT's living in Ella, which is true: he lives on his tea estate a number of miles away; and that no shops were owned by JT's, which is also true. But I hadn't known the Sunnyside to be owned by a JT.

A I also learned that a rumor had been circulating -- false, as it turned out -- that a number of JT's from Bandarawela were hiding at the Sunnyside, refugees from the riots and killings in the main towns. So it is entirely possible that people from Ella set the place on fire to 'get the Tamils'. It would be easy enough to do, since it is out of Ella, surrounded by tea and a small fruit grove. But other explanations are also possible: it could have been Sinhalese from one of the outlying villages, which look to Ella as their commercial and government center. These are villages up in the hills, where I had heard of occasional difficulties between Sinhalese and JT's in the past. (The JT's there all moved away during the last few years.) Some of these villagers are rather rough-cut (though there are certainly some locals who would be quite capable of splashing some gasoline and lighting a match). Or it could have been from the neighboring tea estate, for they and Sunnyside had been having an acrimonious dispute about water rights, an important matter in this dry area, particularly so in this year of drought. I don't know the management at that estate, so I can't say whether this is or is not likely. But certainly it is possible. Or it could have been Sunnyside's competition. I've heard it said that the (Sinhalese) owners of some of the other tourist joints felt that Sunnysidewas getting an 'unfair' amount of the trade (whatever that means). And the owner of one of these guest houses is a person who would be uplto such an opportunistic act (none of the others would be, I think). Or it could be something I haven't even thought of (just as the fire itself was accounted for in a way I hadn't thought of). There's no telling.

The place, though, was totally destroyed. Stone walls waist-high still stood, and the walls at each end of the tourist building, which supported the roof structure, still stood. One of them had a window with a glass unbroken. But otherwise there was only ash and stench and fire-whitened zinc roofing sheets, and a couple of chairs too burnt to be repairable-perhaps they had been outside. The black char on one wall seemed to indicate where the gasoline had been poured (it was the light of the gas flame I had seen; the light of the burning building was not intense enough to light up the sky for me to see it over the hill that lies between my place and the Sunnyside). The other building was also totally destroyed; it was the dwelling of the cook/caretaker and his family, and he had lost everything he had put together in his life (he is in his 50's, I would guess). It was impossible to tell what material -- wood, bamboo, or whatever -- had formed the walls of either building above their stone base. One large roof beam, only half burnt, still smoked. A garage had not been burnt.

On my way back through town I met a villager who had just been to Ballaketuwa to sell some produce. This small town -- one or two hundred people, the same as Ella -- is about 4 miles from Ella, 3 miles from my place, and is therefore the closest town to Ella, aside from the villages which -- 5 or 10 houses each -- lie wherever there is farmland. He told me that at Ballaketuwa one of the Tamil-owned shops had been set afire and was burning even while he had been there. And then on my way back home I heard from someone else that all the Tamil shops at Ballaketuwa had been set afire -- maybe 4 or 5 shops, I'm not sure, for I've only been there once -- and that the Tamils, not content with the situation, were fighting back. With fists? I asked -- or with weapons? Not with fists, he said. But he wasn't sure what sort of weaponry was involved. Were the Estate Tamils involved? He wasn't sure, but he thought so.

I decided then not to go directly home. I consulted Suntil (who is the most influential of the younger Sinhalese in Ella, not only because he runs a shop and owns much land and comes from a large family, but also for reasons of character), who told me that he was storing in his house the valuables of the ET's from the Sutherland lines ('lines' meaning the row buildings where the ET's live, one family to a room), Sutherland being the estate closest (it is the only private estate in the area: I've mentioned before the owner, Mr. Henry, a Burgher), for the ET's there were now very worried, and had been making arrangements for the women and children to stay in the more remote lines while the men were prepared, if necessary, to defend themselves. One block of these lines lies directly in front of (and below) my place, a few hundred yards away. So I told these people that if there was any trouble, they could come to my cottage, where they would be safe. It is quite certain that no Sinhalese would harm me, and -- Suntil agreed with my assessment – almost as certain that they would also not make any trouble for anyone I put under my protection. This is particularly so for the Ella people, who all know me. So the ET's knew that they could find safety nearby. Suntil was also worried for his own safety, for if the Ella people learned that he was protecting (the goods of) the Tamils some of them might cause him trouble, particularly if they thought there was a chance to do some looting. He is the youngest child. His last sister was married just last month and now only he and his mother are in the house (though one brother -- the one who had returned from Colombo -- lives with his family nearby).

I then went on to Mr. Henry's burgalow -- estate bungalows, built during the days when the British owners were making fortunes, are always substantial structures that could hardly be duplicated nowadays -- to inform him of what was going on and also to phone on to the Newburgh office (although Newburgh tea lies just above my cottage, the office, bungalow and lines are a mile or so away, and I'd already done a lot of walking) to inform those people that there was a safe place for them, if they needed it, and could get to it. The phone wasn't working just then, but Mr. H said he'd call later. I also learned that the Newburgh Tamils were taking a more militant attitude than the Sutherland Tamils, making large knives (firearms, if any were to be had, were not spoken of: it would be rare in Sri Lanka for any average person to possess such weapons, unlike in Thailand -- or the US) and preparing a defence. There had been rumors that some JT's were taking refuge there, and whether true or not the rumors themselves were enough reason to be concerned: witness the fate of Sunnyside.

Mr. H had also hired a number of Sinhalese -- roughnecks, I assume -- to keep a patrol on his land, including the lines, during the night, and no doubt the same had been done at Newburgh (which is government-owned). He told me what he knew of the national situation, from radio and TV, which largely centered on government proclamations, suspicions of 'foreign' (i.e. Indian) support for the Tamils in general and the TT in particular (many of the ET's are still legally regarded as Indian citizens, even though they may have been born here: there is no doubt that, like many minority groups in the world, the Tamils have grounds for perceiving inequality of treatment), and also revelations of much that had been previously kept secret. It seems the killing of the 13 soldiers had not been a singular incident: something far more serious had been developing for some months, approaching in the North, a full-scale insurrection. loss of life on both sides (army/Tamils) had been much higher than reported; in particular army losses had been concealed, much to the disgruntlement of the army. And it was in fact a group of angry soldiers who finally told the press about the 13 slain that blew the lid off the government cover-up. (The government had tried to ship the 13 bodies to Colombo in the dead of night -- so I was told, and it may be true -- without informing the next-of-kin, this last detail being a particular grievance of the army dissidents, as well as the payment of reparations to some Tamils but not to army next-of-kin.)

The government had kept all these troubles quiet, of course, hoping the situation would blow over and fearing that exposure would result in rioting -- a reasonable fear, as it turns out -- and then just got sucked in deeper and deeper until the situation could no longer be hushed up. By then rumors were so rife -- many of them true, it was being discovered -- that the rioting when it came, was beyond the government's capacity to control.

All of this was interesting, of course, but this story -- the national story -- was in certain ways quite divorced from the immediate situation in Ella; on the national scene we were only spectators (with seats in the bleachers, yet) whereas on the local scene there was a situation that was very dangerous. Therefore after checking with Mr. H, as to his preparations, I went back to town, and talked to the people there, telling then basically that it was not a question of Tamil/Sinhalese, that such a view would only lead to more trouble, but that it was a question of right action/wrong action. Then as evening came on, I went back home, along an empty road.

The night was tense: that was clear. It was always possible that people -- Sinhalese or Tamils -- might come from Ballaketuwa. We didn't know how the fighting had gone there. Or they might come from farther away, particularly the Tamils, either seeking refuge or -- TT's or their agents -- come to stir up troubles. Occasionally vehicles went along the road. I could recognize the government jeeps on patrol; but because so many vehicles, especially trucks, had been put to the torch many owners had turned their vehicles over to the army and police for official use as well as greater safety for the vehicle. So most of the vehicles were not jeeps, but whether they were army/police patrols or something else I couldn't tell. One car stopped, about 8:00, at the entrance to the lines, paused a minute, then returned towards Ella. I kept watch, but nothing happened, and I learned the next day that this had been a police-driven car taking one of the ET's (who for some reason had been in town) back to the lines.

That was the most dangerous time, that night, and it is fortunate that nothing happened, for there could easily have been a spark struck that would have left Ella in cinders as were Bandarwela, Colombo, Kandy, and other towns (though, of course, on a smaller scale). But Saturday morning when I went into town I learned that there had been locally no further trouble. However I also learned the sad story of Badulla, the district capital.

Badulla is an entirely ordinary town, neither beautiful nor ugly, but since Kandy is not really considered quite Upcountry, being only 1600 feet elevation -- Ella is more than double that -- Badulla is the biggest town in the tea area. Tamils, like any minority group in the world, must specialize in order to survive as a group. Thus the JT's tend to be better educated and more industrious, and dominate the business community and play a big role in professional capacities. ET's survive as a group by doing work that no one else cares to do, and doing it for less than anyone cares to do it. The Muslim community, on the upperside, control a substantial amount of the gem trade and, on the down side, are often fishermen (these are of Moorish descent, the last Moors left in the world). The Burghers are often in managerial positions. The JT's have been attracted to Upcountry towns because (aside from good climate) outside of Colombo and Kandy most of the coastal Sinhalese are too hostile to them for the JT's to wish to settle there. It was in coastal towns that most of the isolated troubles of the last year occurred. Also, of course, they will have better business opportunities among the ET's even if they do not mix culturally or socially. And Badulla is large enough to offer the professionals -- doctors, engineers, accountants, etc. -- a chance to establish themselves. So in Badulla there are a lot of Tamils from the North. (I also have the impression that there are larger-than-average sized Muslim and Burgher communities.)

The TT, it seems, had a plan to take Badulla in the hopes -- quite possibly justified -- that if they succeeded the BT's of the entire district would rise with the JT's. Since the ET's can hardly be expected to be content with their position, economically, socially or otherwise, it is not an unreasonable notion that if they thought there was a good chance of success they would join the JT's.

Accordingly, at least 50 Tigers had been in Badulla, where aside from raising money from the Tamil merchants, they had also been stocking large quantities of weapons. When the riots began in the country they prepared themselves and laid their plans. The police seem to have had some idea of what was going on, for they arrested some of the TT before they could escape. Somehow -- perhaps from the arrested Tigers -- it was learned that the Tigers had made plans for a general attack on the Sinhalese, and somehow -- perhaps from the police -- the news became known to the Sinhalese in Badulla that the time for the attack was but two hours away. It took no more than this for mobs to form. Every Tamil shop and most Tamil homes were put to the torch. As the shops burned explosions from inside revealed that stores of bombs had been concealed in them. Naturally the flames spread. The Tamils tried to hurriedly mount their attack, and fired upon the Sinhalese, but the Tigers were not organized, and after a bloody fight they finally surrendered to the police/army.

One person who had been there said that in one schoolhouse he counted 55 bodies. In other schools Tamil refugees were guarded by police against the Sinhalese -- about 3000 homeless -- and elsewhere hundreds of captured terrorists were being held. (I'll bet there was no school in Badulla that day.)

The town, I've been told repeatedly, has been destroyed, flattened, demolished. In Bandarawela I‘m told that though few houses were burnt, all Tamil shops were destroyed and some Sinhalese shops as well. Looting was rampant. The army, which could hardly be expected to look kindly upon the Tamils, is said to have told people (unofficially, of course) that they could kill and burn, but not to loot. On the other hand, soldiers went out to Ballaketuwa, stopped the fighting (which, it turned out, had not gone farther than stone-throwing), recovered from Sinhalese homes what looted goods they could find and restored them to the Tamil merchants, and warned the Sinhalese not to make more trouble or risk arrest (for looting, I assume).

In Colombo there are about 50,000 homeless refugees and perhaps another 25,000 in the rest of the South. I have no idea whether the death toll is still in the hundreds or has mounted into the thousands, nor do I know the situation in the North. Ironically, the coastal towns -- Sinhalese-nationalist strongholds -- suffered less than Upcountry, because most of the Tamils had already fled those places due to previous troubles. In the area north of Upcountry but below the Tamil area -- Anuradhapura is the main town -- there seems to have been little trouble.

Some people who tried to get to Kandy said they were turned back at Nuwarm Eliya -- the foremost tourist town in Upcountry, the one homesick British like so well (though homesick Americans would not concur, there being no McDonald's) -- due to mobs and flames. Parliament has passed some new laws, about what I'm not quite sure. A minister from Mrs. Gandhi's cabinet has flown in to assess the situation. And opportunists of every stripe and spot have taken what advantage they could of the situation to benefit themselves, most commonly by looting or taking revenge for wrongs done to them, real or fancied. But in Ella, that Saturday, all was peaceful and the situation felt less tense (shops opened half their shutters rather than a quarter of them, though the small fruit stalls were closed). But the roads were still uncertain, and there were no trains, so some of the tourists were getting itchy. Saturday night passed peacefully.

Sunday morning was very quiet -- no vehicles, no trains, no pedestrians. So naturally I went into town to see what was up. All shops were closed and I was told that the night before the government had declared Sunday to be full curfew island-wide. Some of them thought there was still trouble in Colombo while others opined that Saturday night the government, having realized in a flash of intuition that the next day, being Sunday, was not a normal business day, had decided to celebrate their acumen by declaring full day curfew. Certainly all was quiet in town, although the police in a jeep which passed me (raising no objection to my being out and about) were heavily armed with rifles and shotguns. I was also told that the chief of the local constabulary had been sheltering some Tamil refugees in his own home, upon their payment of a very sizable incentive, and that someone had pasted a letter to the door objecting to this, though whether the objection was to his sheltering refugees or taking protection money or both was not made clear. At any rate, so I was told, the chief took fright at this notice and ordered his wards to leave at once, though whether they were able to recover any of their payment I did not learn. I did not learn where they might have gone, and heard no further rumors of JT's being given protection by the Newburgh BT's. So much for Sunday.

Monday morning there was traffic on the road and no curfew until evening, and a feeling the tension was now relaxed and that, for Ella at least, there would be no further troubles. This feeling was maintained into the afternoon. At about 5 o'clock a private car with a policeman at the wheel drove along the road, came to a stop, did a clumsy reverse, nearly backing into a ditch, and after an unnecessary amount of unskillful maneuvering, managed to reverse itself. Then a jeep came tearing along the road with several policemen, came to a screeching stop beside the private car, and held a hurried consultation. I happened to be at a house by the road at the time, getting one of my sporadic Sinhalese lessons and therefore I was able to learn that the policeman in the private car had decided to give himself some practice in driving and had borrowed the car -- which was in the care of the police so that it would not be burnt -- without telling anyone. The police in the jeep, having suddenly realized that their comrade and one car were missing, had rushed out to rescue him from whatever dire fate might have befallen him. He claimed that he had only gone out to get some tea and sugar for the boys (although there were at least 6 shops between the cop shop and where I observed the incident); they advised him to get back to work. They left and he haltingly followed after. And with that Keystone [ops episode the uprising can be considered to be over.

Curfew lingers on, as it did in '71, long after what gave rise to it has finished, just as a cough can linger on after the cold is cured. But otherwise, in Ella, all has pretty much returned to normal (it is now Thursday, the 4th of August, a week since I first heard of the curfew). And now what remains is to pay the price for the past week. ('Riot now, pay later.')

Economically it can be calculated: so many buildings to be rebuilt, so much production lost, so much to be made up for or forgotten, etc., etc. So much goods destroyed, to be replaced or done without. Food distribution will be the first priority. Probably no one will go hungry (or if anyone does it will be the Tamils), but some things are already scarce. Even here, where no shops were burned, they can restock themselves only from the government co-op in Badulla (which is farther from here than is Bandarawela), and not all things can be had there. In Colombo, I hear, a coconut -- formerly Rs. 2.50 (figure 23 rupees to the dollar) -- is now going for Rs. 12. A kilo of beans up from Rs. 3 to Rs. 50. Because of the transport shortage all goods that need to be moved are now very expensive. And though, as tie-ups get unsnarled and profiteers put down, prices will drop, it's unlikely that they will drop to their former level. This will be a very difficult time for many hard-pressed people who have already been suffering much from the inflation which is a concomitant of the present government's efforts to tie the country more strongly to the international economy.

Such a tie-in inevitably benefits urban people at the expense of the rural -- the demand for rice, after all, will not rise as fast as the demand for the flood of electronic goodies now pouring into the country, mostly from Japan -- and therefore hurts my neighbors, though they usually have other ideas, or no idea, about the source of the present inflation.

With much of this year's first rice crop failed due to drought the food situation will worsen. The second priority will no doubt be construction material. Not only is the demand great, but existing supplies of many materials will have been destroyed -- timber, zinc sheets (which can be ruined by an intense fire), etc.

This will affect my own plans, though as yet I can't say how: my landlord clearly intends to carry on with his plans to tear down this cottage and build himself a house, though whether the increased price of goods will convince him to wait until, the demand going down and supplies coming in, the price reverts to something more reasonable, I can't say, and perhaps he can't either. He has made up the plans, however, and showed them to me recently. The dining room is at the opposite end of the house from the kitchen, which he planned to make 5 feet by 9 feet, 'Will that be big enough for your wife?' I asked him, 'I didn't ask her,' he told me, perhaps surprised at the notion. I suggested to him that if his wife were consulted, and if a space suitable to her needs were alloted, he might get better meals than otherwise, and if he put the kitchen next to the dining room he might get hotter food as well. Perhaps some communal strife can be avoided. Though whether he will act upon my suggestion remains to be seen.

The burden of making reparations will not be eased by the disruption of communications networks in general -- in some cases power facilities damaged, many vehicles to be replaced or done without, etc. What the final cost will be I can't say, but I can say it will be more than this poor country can afford.

Also more than it can afford will be the non-economic cost-the loss of trust and co-operation between people who, a decade ago, were not at loggerheads, the greater dissatisfaction among those who already find or invent grounds for dissatisfaction, etc., etc. Certainly the Tamils have now learned that the Sinhalese have the will to keep the island as one undivided nation, and since they are a substantial majority the Sinhalese will succeed. Diehard Tamils will still resist, but most of them will now realize that for the present 'eelam' really is 'reaching for the moon'. What sort of agitation will persist I don't know, but it should be, if at all, on a much reduced level -- for the time being. That's perhaps the only 'lesson' drawn from the past week, and it's a lesson for which this country has paid dearly.


And yet, by the very fact of being part of such a world one cannot be completely sane; and to be not completely sane is to be not sane at all. But if one tries to escape is that not then evidence of a spark of sanity? Perhaps so; but the problem is that when we try to escape we discover that we can't: every effort to free oneself from (in Buddhist terms) involvement with craving, aversion, and delusion or (in the novel's terms) the war -- every effort apparently brings one back to the same dilemma, and results only in making the problem more urgent (and perhaps also more evident), as will be recognized by anyone who has ever tried to extirpate the root of craving, and failed. Is it not madness, then, to try to escape?

And yet, if to do nothing is regarded as less insane, still that too does not lead to disengagement from a mad world. This is the very crux of Yossarian's dilemma, and ours as well: a dilemma illuminated in experience by the effort to practice the Buddha's Teaching and in fiction by Yossarian's effort to escape from the war. Heller puts it this way:

"Can't you ground someone who's crazy?" [Yossarian asks the flight surgeon, Doc Daneeka.]

"Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy. "

"Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy.... Ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am."

"They're crazy."

"Then why don't you ground them?"

"Why don't they ask me to ground them?"

"Because they're crazy, that's why."

"Of course they're crazy," Doc Daneeka replied. "I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?"

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?"

"He sure is," Doc Daneeka said.... "I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."

"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"

"That's all. Let him ask me."

"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.

"No. Then I can't ground him."

"You mean there's a catch?"

"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy." -- p. 45

Thus Yossarian's efforts to establish a rational basis for being grounded must fail. Logic is an inadequate tool to deal with the human situation, for whenever we apply logic there is always a catch. This is not to suggest that logic is not necessary, but rather that it is not adequate. In this computer age we could hardly manage without logic. Let alone computers, without logic we could make neither mathematics nor music nor marmalade. But whenever we try to deal with the fundamentals of existence, with the forever unanswerable question, "Who am I?" (or any other question concerned with "me"), we find that logic neither answers that question nor shows us the way to stop asking it.[4] ("'Why me?' was his constant lament, and the question was a good one" -- p. 34.)

And the reason for this, the Buddha informs us, is because of avijjá, or ignorance. But avijjá is not a mere absence of information; it is a refusal to see what is at all times there to be seen. It is not failure to see one particular thing among other particular things, but a radical refusal to see the way all particular things are, and in this respect it is as great a modifier as death -- indeed, the two are (so the Buddha tells us) inseparable. The dependent arising formulation says, in summary, "With ignorance as condition, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come into being."

The deluded person, in refusing to see the nature of all things, refuses also to see the nature of his refusal to see (which is also a thing). That is, he refuses to see delusion. Thus, by denying itself delusion sustains itself. This is stated in the Suttas (e.g. Sammáditthi Sutta, M. 9) as follows:

Friends, that which is non-knowledge of suffering, non-knowledge of the arising of suffering, non-knowledge of the ceasing of suffering, non-knowledge of the way leading to the ceasing of suffering, this, friends, is called ignorance.

For after all, what is "the way leading to the ceasing of suffering"? It is (the Suttas tell us) the noble eightfold path. And what is the first factor of this path? Right view. Ignorance, then, involves non-knowledge of right view. And right view is knowledge of the arising of suffering; that is to say, knowledge of ignorance. Right view is knowledge of right view, and also knowledge of wrong view, whereas wrong view is non-knowledge of wrong view, and also non-knowledge of right view. And this structure of ignorance is, in fact, Catch-22 at its most fundamental level.

Sāmanera Bodhesako,
from The Buddha and the Catch-22

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Tamils are a significant minority in Colombo, as in fact they are also in most Upcountry towns, including Bandarawela and Badulla, which is the district capital (and rail head), about 15 miles away, with about 50,000 people.