My friend is 73. His mother died about 15 years ago. "Fifteen years back," as he says. She was 91. Same with his wife's mother. "What did the old people say about the trouble?" I chance. "You know," claims my friend, "they didn't say much. They were looked after by their children. They didn't have anything to say. They mostly sat around and read their bible." He pauses, hits the armrests of his plastic chair, and with his usual wan smile adds, "Well, I shall take my leave now."
Another chance for testimony testimony testimony testimonial remembrance lost lost lost. For now. I know he doesn't want to talk about it. I know no one does. It's ancient history for one thing. None of us remembers 15, 20, 30 years ago (I'm aiming for 1983: What happened in Matale? The "victors" still want to cover it up. They cover it up with a vengeance. What else are they hiding? Why? Must be something important there). But the non-victors (can I call them that?) want to get on with life, not open old wounds, not rub salt in wounds, not feel the hurt again, not restate the obvious, not encounter horror, not re-encounter horror, not enter this conversation.
I reference two pieces of holocaust testimony. One I saw at the British Imperial War Museum in London, a powerful exhibit. Not just this testimony. The smells coming from a porcelain vivisection table from Nazi times on display. Maybe it's not there anymore. What happens when you smell brain? The testimony goes like this. The speaker as young boy is playing soccer with his friends and classmates. Who wouldn't? It's Poland, 1939 or 1940, after the German invasion but before his family is forced into the ghetto. The friends beat him one day for no reason at all. He runs home. Grandfather tells him, "we are all marked for death." You can't Wikipedia this. I tried. But if you go to Israel you can see this kind of eyewitness accounting. You might not want to go to Israel. You might think it's an illegal "occupier" entity. Get over it. Study history. Will you go to London? Maybe you can force yourself to go to the locus of imperialism (or past imperialism?) Anyway, they more than set the stage for what unfolded, unraveled in Sri Lanka. Read your history. Find out what they did in the Middle East too. Especially "Mandate Palestine" circa 1947-48. Or go a bit further back into the British occupation of Palestine and see how they abetted pogroms against Jews there. Try 1929 and 1935. Why do I care? For one thing , just a small something, trying to put this whole Sri Lanka thing in a container. Trying to put "occupation" and "imperialism" and "language" and "demographics" and "geography" and "violence" into a container. But it's gotta be a big one. Way too big for the non-fiction audience. No way this is going to a university press. Can't! Maybe too big for Wikipedia. Can we parse it one tweet at a time?
The other account is Maus. Spiegelman's great-grandparents are in their 90s. Maybe they are 91. They are hidden by the family, already trapped in the ghetto, in a secret passageway. Finally the gendarmes approach the family, "If you don't give up the grandparents, who we know are here, we'll have to take all of you." This is in a comic book. Is this fiction? Fact can't possibly hold it. Fact breaks. Fact splits open. Fact defies this. This defiles fact. Fact can't tolerate this. Fact has to be backed up with figures. Facts and figures. Got it? (Coming. Please be patient. I figured out how to get facts for this stuff. Just wait. Can quantify! Can scale! Can make statistical! It's brilliant). OK. The family gives up the grandparents. I think they're 91. Like my friend's mother and his mother-in-law. Not so active physically but "with it" as they say, mentally. How did the grandparents respond? What did they know? They were reading the bible most of the time too. In the comic they are mute. Most of the mice are, most of the time. But mute doesn't equal no testimony does it? Or no ability to testify does it? The family looks at a brochure of Tereizenstadt, the "ideal" concentration camp. They look bemused and mildly optimistic in the frame. They are not bent. They all know they're headed for Auschwitz. The old ones and the whole family.
Why do I care about these testimonies? How can I trust a comic book more than Wikipedia? Read the comic book yourself! Why do I care about testimony? Why should anyone care about testimony? What's the difference? Lots of differences. One big difference is somebody doesn't want this testimony to happen, that's just for one thing. What is there to hide and why hide it? What are the consequences of letting it go? Letting it open? Is it like a huge societal vomiting? Might that make people feel better? Better to bury it? It (Sri Lanka) is not my society. You tell me what would make it feel better. Please.
What am I after? I'm after a map of safety and danger. I want to know, physically, which places were dangerous. How they were dangerous. Who endangered whom, when, in what way. If you crossed this street was it dangerous? If you passed to this island was it dangerous? If you passed this hour was it dangerous? What were the boundaries? How wide were they? How fluid? Did they work the same for everyone? Was it one way for the rich and one way for the poor? One way for cultivators and one way for city people? One way for Hindus and one way for Christians? Different again for Muslims? Women? Men? Children? Professionals? Businessmen? People in traditional clothes? People in western clothes? People with glasses? One way for children and one way for grandparents? What were you doing in these days, these moments?
Someone tells me, not in the context of "war" or "conflict," that they had American sitcoms. So you could watch tv and laugh. So you had a tv. So you laughed. So you learned some English from the tv. And you laughed with it. Was this during all the years? Thirty years! Lifetimes! Did it change and how did it change? Did you laugh less? Did your parents laugh less? Did the old people really and truly never opine? Whisper? Did they really feel safe? Did your parents feel safe? Did you feel safe? Were you ever hidden by your parents? Did you ever hide your child? If there's nothing worth remembering can you please tell me why and under what circumstances you sent your child/children to the UK? Australia? Canada? Who was "in charge?" Did you ever feel in danger? How? Did zones of danger change? Did safety zones expand? Contract? Morph into danger? How quickly? Overnight? At night? Can you remember one thing?
Which places were safe? Which borders were safe to cross? Which friends was it safe to play with? Which things did you hear? Which things did you try not to hear? Which news was rumor, radio? Whispered?Shouted? What was in the papers? What was censored? What did you think was censored? What did you know was censored? How was the ground you walked on? Certain? Uncertain? See? There is a large container here waiting for you to fill it up. Fill it up any way you like. Go ahead. Sing it out. Throw it up.
Why do I pick up on this energy here among people? It was all so long ago! All of it! What if we just keep it buried in the past and move forward. There are lots and lots of young boys in the Shanti Cinema just past the Kallady clock tower. Just past the Pilliyar Kovil, other side of the road. They come on scooters. They come with their friends in small packs. Together in the fan-cooled room they make a larger pack. They go out for orange soda at intermission. They are hooting at the stars and the plots and the foils and the monsters, movies from Tamil Nadu. Hilarious rollicking time consuming loud colorful musical fun. Does this testimony have anything to do with them? Did they grow up free of the subjects I'm interested in here? Yes. They were born let's see, maybe 20 years ago. Would have made them 13 in 2009. Lots of years for their parents to have to have looked after them. Bet they were busy. No time to be reading their bibles.
Do these boys have critical skills? Who cares? Facebook is there for them. Invented in Boston! Their testimony is every day. This mass of electrons adds up to a collective testimony at once powerful and meaningless. This mass of electrons. Can we measure it? Can we measure the testimony? If the old or the middle aged or the young won't talk can we ask them to fill out a survey? Of course I'm joking! What did you think? But then I could contain it, social-science style. A social scientist! Not an asocial scientist like a botanist or archeologist.
What kind of survey monkey survey could you administer (let's do it electronically! More electrons into the black hole!)
How scared were you in the war years? Scared shitless, heartily frightened, frightened, hardly frightened, unfrightened. I was looked after by my (children, grandchildren, grandparents, parents, aunties, orphanage--choose all that apply) and reading my (Bible, Readers Digest, newspapers national and/or local) other.
How much did things shift from safe to unsafe? Very very much, very much, much, less than much, not.
What did your parents/grandparents/aunties/uncles say (leave blank for optional comments).
We can go on. We can characterize enervation, dysfunction, quaking fear, maybe bravery, appetites, freedoms or lack thereof, feeling surrounded, vulnerable, clueless, at sea, entertained, hungry, isolated, or maybe it was life as usual. I'm not a Sri Lankan person. Maybe things were different here. You're from Sri Lanka. You tell me.