What kind of rock are you sitting on and what’s the view like?
My friend Mohan Bhagwandas has been reminiscing. He doesn’t live in
Sri Lanka but visits often. He was here a little more than a month ago.
He’s visited places that were memory-stamped and childhood-fragranced,
he tells me. He wrote about a rock.
This rock, Mohan says, lies opposite his former home in Bambalapitiya.
That is, opposite the K Block of the Government Flats. He used to sit on
this rock for hours on end in the 1960s and 1970s, ‘watching the waves
in the ocean twist and turn’. He had visited his rock. These are the
thoughts he shared with me (I am paraphrasing).
‘For the first time, it seems, since the ships carrying Portuguese
sailors must have gone past the place in 1495, Sri Lanka is beginning to
mature into its own identity once again. Sri Lanka in its current avatar
is just 62 years old, that’s just ten years less than how long the
average person lives. That’s how long things have become Sri Lankan
again. Well, “Lanka”’, shall we say? How can 505 years be undone in a
single lifetime? How are mindsets, attitudes etc changed? The catharsis
of the last 30 years strangely has brought that maturity to the
forefront. People are alert. People are purposeful. People are going
places. The ‘ohey nikang innawa’ response is a thing of the past.
Identity is emerging.’
Some would say appearances can be misleading and I might even agree
to a point because, as Mohan himself says, it is hard to unburden
ourselves of the collective memory of five centuries, and not easy
recover enough of ‘self’ from that grotesque creature we were made to
become, the ‘post-colonial’. Still, he has a point.
This nation was given a moment where it became legitimate and
pragmatic to hope and just as there are the doomsday prophets there are
also the young and enterprising, some in body and spirit and some just
Mohan gets up from the rock.
‘My son was taking photos of me sitting there. I was his age when I
last sat there. It is the first he got to see “my spot”. I used to
launch out from that spot and swim to the reef. Dive. See the wonders of
the underwater world. Catch lobsters.’
Today, there would be other ‘underwaters’, other ‘lobsters’,
landscapes and pastimes as wonderful to remember decades from today.
Mohan would agree. But Bamba Flats then was not the Bamba Flats now.
Time passes, things change. Memory can’t be stopped. Except by death.
‘In the Government Flats, Bambalapitiya, I recalled, not one person
was hurt during the 1958 riots. Not one person was hurt in 1983. Nor
before or after. I walked up to the “top of the road”.
I remembered how this was my home, my community, my world which we
called “The Flats”. Things had matured. History’s clock had moved on.’
Not the rock, though, no.
‘The same waves lapped on the shore. A girl and boy, in the blazing
sun came and sat nearby. Oblivious to the world, only focused on their
love for each other.
Some things change. Other things don’t. I felt so connected to the
land of my birth. I did not think of my ancestry, my parentage, of my
mother being this or my father being that. I connected to something
deeper. To the land. To the ocean. To the rock. I felt proud to be born
a Sri Lankan.
The perennial song of the expatriate? Not if you knew Mohan. He is a
Bhagwandas; be belongs to a family which, like many others, was
fractured by the partition that carved India and Pakistan as separate
entities. They were among the neither-here-nor-there and therefore ended
up being everywhere. His blood does not contain the twisted DNA that is
the inevitable result of 500 years of subjugation. He has mind, though.
He has heart. And just as people can un-own themselves, people can make
themselves ‘belong’ and become inheritor of heritage.
We all have rocks, don’t we? There are places that are not just
unforgettable, but vantage points from which the movement of time can be
seen and time itself can be rolled and unrolled, high points which give
us sweep and turn us into judge and historian. There are places that
make us stop.
I have never seen Mohan’s rock, but rocks I certainly have known, big
and small, in different places, different continents, made of different
material, some heavy and some light, some tangible and some not. It’s
the same for everyone.
No one can steal our rocks. We can conjure them up at will. We can
stand on them or pick them up and meditate on texture, colour and
contour. We can send it skipping along water-surface, put it away for
safekeeping in a box or let it be so that someone else can do whatever
he/she likes with it, long after we are dead and gone.
What we do with our rocks is our business.
Not all men and women will take rock and think ‘independence’, but
within every rock there resides invitation for meditation. On anything.
Mohan chose to think about a different time and contrast it with a ‘now’
that he had encountered. He wrote hope. Others might conclude
I haven’t seen Mohan’s rock. But I see ‘hope’. A nation that has
defeated the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit against all odds is
eminently positioned to slay its cultural, ideological and political
ghosts. It might take longer than 30 years, but there’s a foundation
that has been laid. Some might want to wreck it, but I concur with Mohan
that we’ve turned a corner and the road though long is certainly visible