Erasure does not Bring Closure
There was a post, more like a fence post, a silent sentinel at the main junction of my home town; a post I hardly looked at, though, tucked away in some part of my memory was the knowledge that it had been erected to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Naturally, that junction where the post stands has come to be known as the Jubilee Post, a quiet suburb outside Colombo in my young days, though, today, falling within the jurisdiction of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, it has grown into quite the bustling and sought after neighbourhood.
The junction meanwhile, with all the development going on, and seeing more traffic than it can handle, is having a makeover. Road widening is going on at a pace, and in all that activity, I suddenly realised the Post, which I hardly give a thought to is missing.
Guess it’s just post, one that does not even have an inscription to tell us its story, but one that is a memorial of an event Sri Lanka, then Ceylon marked when it was a British Colony.
Inquiries reveal the post is in safekeeping and will be re- fixed when all the work is complete. But, now I miss it! It’s not been around for at least three months, and I keep looking for it each time I pass the junction.
After all, the junction closest to my home got its name after this post. It is a reminder of things past, a reminder of our colonial era (though there are many today who would like to erase all of that and lay the blame to all our ills too!). It is even a connection to my parents, products of our Colonial past and who made this vicinity their home for over fifty years.
Speaking of my parents, there was that time I visited the graveyard where they are buried sometime in early 2020. It was the month my father passed away and also when my mother’s birthday falls. Imagine then my consternation on that visit, when I was unable to find the cross that marks the grave. Where is the cross, the one which has the names of those buried in that grave? Without that marker, I was not quite sure of the exact spot they are buried? I started to feel disoriented. A quick check around the place, and I spied the cross, lying face down further away.
The cemetery keeper apologised. When a grave had been dug right next to where my parents are buried, the grave diggers had removed the cross, so they could work easily, and had forgotten to plant it back.
But, for just a couple of minutes when I could not find the grave, I went through a host of emotions; I knew the grave was somewhere close to where I stood but, which one was it? I phoned my sister to confirm I was standing at the right place!
Thankfully, the Cross is back on their grave; a remembrance, a memory, a place to visit and pray, not just for my sister and me and our immediate families, but for the generations to come.
Memorials preserve a memory; of a person or persons, an event that could be either joyful of painful. It serves as a place one can go to, to ponder, remember, grieve a loss or celebrate a life, to make a vow that you would do what it takes to stand up against injustices.
Like other nations Sri Lanka is full of memorials; tombstones, statues, towers, stone carvings, buildings, and murals, the list is endless. And they serve a purpose. They become a part of our history. They are reminders of lives well lived, honours won, senseless deaths, of those missing of whose whereabouts will never be known.
But it seems that in Sri Lanka we would prefer not to remember or permit to remember or memorialise some incidents of our past. Just this month, we watched with utter dismay the demolishing of the Mullavaikkal Memorial that had been built at the University of Jaffna. Following protests, the University’s Vice Chancellor re-laid a foundation stone at that very spot, with a promise to rebuild the memorial.
Then why demolish it in the first place?
The decision to demolish it we are told was taken by the Vice Chancellor himself. Issuing a statement supporting the actions of the Vice Chancellor, the chairman of the University Grants Commission, Prof. Sampath Amaratunge stated the that the VC, Professor Sri Satkunarajah had seen the monument as being an obstruction to reconciliation between the people of the North and the South.
The statement went on to say “The children who are presently studying in the university system would have been 9, 10 and 11 years old when the war ended. Regardless of their race or religion, Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim, they are all our children. I’m happy to say that some 1,500 Sinhala students study at the Jaffna University today. Similarly, at least 600 to 700 Tamil students, especially from the North and East are studying in universities in the South. Most important thing we have is there are no problems among these students.”
“Therefore, the only proof we have that those experiences that we had before will not be seen in the future is the unity and peace that exist among these children.”
One cannot but agree that if we are genuinely pursuing a peaceful future for our children, that there must be reconciliation. But how does destroying a monument erected to remember the dead in a long and painful ethnic conflict achieve that goal?
Aren’t such actions more in line with how the vanquish would act over the vanquished?
If Professor Amaratunage’s justification is to be accepted and implemented, then we must remove every single monument, statue and sculpture erected, bus shelters and street names remembering soldiers who laid down their lives in the war, every mention of dastardly deed we wish to memorialise.
Why do we then not take down the war memorial erected near the parliament, or the bus that stands in memory of the monks killed at Arantalawa?
Let us not remember the Tsunami victims either. Let us tear down every vestige of memory of our colonial past, the Dutch Forts, the graveyards dedicated to soldiers of colonial times, let’s rename anything, church or hotel that reminds us of those long ago times.
Let’s tear down the memories of the most recent terrorist attack; the memorials and plaques put up to remember the victims of the Easter 2019 bomb blasts.
How does destroying a memorial of one community or prohibiting them from remembering their dead, or commemorating an event, help rebuild this country where respect and empathy for each other should be the hallmark?
Will it not result in the ‘other’ feeling angry and frustrated, of being excluded, and fuel a simmering anger that will be percolating just beneath the surface!
If erasing our past is the way forward, then it must apply in equal measure to all.
A genuine effort to rekindle peace and reconciliation comes only when we grieve collectively, acknowledge and respect each other and stand together to withstand attempts to tear apart communities.
Visiting a grave or standing by a monument in memory, commemorating a past glory or a tragedy is just one such.