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acts-of-faithIndra and Diana were trapped—if that is the right word for what could well be described as the safest and most peaceful spot in the country—in a wild life reserve during the troubles. They had been on one of their regular visits to Phyllis who, though she adored her massive house and her little village, grew quite bored with it at times and whenever she could bundled any house guests available into her land rover to make an Expedition. These were often to the sanctuaries, but as often as not they were simpler meanderings towards and not towards some distant and not very vital goal, designed primarily for the enjoyment of the countryside, and the birds and the trees and the flowers. At the back of the vehicle, amidst pots and pans and provisions, were two village belles (usually chosen by lot since demand for places on these trips was intense) to do any wayside cooking and serving required, and either with them or on the roof-rack, depending upon the claims of modesty and their ages and his, was a boy of all work to set up deckchairs and build fires and do any other odd jobs necessary. Though Phyllis could do without a great many things, there were certain comforts she thought basic; and, even if Diana occasionally worried about the almost feudal character of these expeditions, to Indra they were blissful.

The troubles rocking the rest of the country indeed scarcely impinged upon them in their rural retreat, hearing about them as they did only from isolated trackers met on the paths or fitfully over the carefully censored and furiously crackling radio. They did however have a cause for worry in that the boy they had brought with them was Tamil. This was largely Indra’s responsibility and, if ever Diana came near to criticizing Indra’s initiatives, it was on this occasion.

Krishna was the son of Phyllis’ ancient gardener and had grown up within the grounds of the House; but a few months before he had gone off for ever along with his older sister and her husband to the new colonies that were being established in Vavuniya, in the bare and derelict lands between the Tamil north and the Sinhalese to the south. He had however found the life there dull and the work heavy, and had complained bitterly to Phyllis in several letters. His father nevertheless said firmly that the boy ought to settle down to being a landed proprietor, on however small a scale, and though Phyllis had been told that his views were governed by the fact that he had been given quite a large sum of money when the boy was taken away by the people setting up the colony, she felt that she ought not to interfere. But Indra had been very determined on hearing of the situation during his last visit, and had even suggested a trip to the area so that the boy could be rescued. So here he was with them now, deep down in the farthest south of the island, with many miles to travel through hostile country before they reached refuge in the Village; and, though he could speak Sinhalese, his accent was bound to give him away, if he were subjected to any rigorous and aggressive test.

About Krishna, as it turned out, they need not have worried. Their driver had a profound distaste for Tamils in general, but also a tremendous loyalty to Phyllis’ whole household, so he was convinced that Krishna did not really count; he swore violently accordingly at anyone who tried to stop them en route to see if there were any Tamils in the vehicle, and he carried such conviction that they got through unscathed. This was in spite of the fact that the day on which they set out, thinking that things had now calmed down, was that on which the troubles spread to the hills and erupted in the towns through which they had to pass.

The Village was still smouldering in places as they drove through, Phyllis’ cherished Village which she had held out constantly to outsiders as an example of communal harmony. Perhaps she was not far wrong. It was outsiders, they were told, who had swept in and burned and looted and killed. They had left Phyllis’ house untouched; but, drawn there by what seemed to be foreknowledge, they had set fire to the gardener’s hut at the bottom of the grounds. In it, they burned Krishna’s parents, his father deliberately, his mother because she had flung herself into the flames.

It is then a bleak picture we have before us this evening, in Phyllis’ drawing room as they sit hollowly before the television in anticipation of Tom’s long awaited address to the nation. Radha, Krishna’s younger sister, who has been spared the flames and had not sought them, feels guilt pervading her grief and buries her head in Phyllis’ lap without looking up. Krishna crouches beside her, his face blank and uncomprehending. Yet he has had earlier the relief of tears. Indra’s face beyond is similar, but rigid too. They have rung through to Colombo, and he has been told that Shiva also has died. It is not likely in such a situation that anything Tom would say could furnish much comfort. Still, it is something to cling to, imminent pronouncements of authority on the events, and they wait in hopeful expectation, for something that might divert their anguished minds.

It is with a horror akin to that they have already experienced, and which they never thought to have renewed, that they hear Tom declare that there is nothing surprising about the violence that has occurred. It was provoked, he says; and grieved as he is, particularly because of the damage done to the government’s development programme, he will take steps to ensure that the Tamils never provoke such violence again from anyone, least of all the Sinhalese, who are after all the most mild and peaceful of people in general.

 *

Tom has altered considerably once again, and it is a very different character from the prostrate figure of a few pages back that we have now before us. Protracted solitude and heavy drugging had worked wonders with a spirit in any case adaptable. After his recovery, washed and dressed and powdered and scented, he has been closeted for many hours with Luke, the most pragmatic of his ministers, the most adept at sensing the pulse of the nation, or rather of that part of it that is throbbing most energetically at any particular time. It is his influence that we can trace most clearly in Tom’s indulgent approach to the nation.

Luke’s attitude was a very simple one. He would deny vehemently that he was a racist. After all, some of his best friends were Tamil. He had had nothing whatsoever to do with the violence. Nor had any of his associates, at any rate at its inception. As it mounted, however, their natural passions could not be restrained. There was blood to be shed, and goods to be looted. Luke would have thought it naive to attempt to contain ordinary human aspirations at such a point.

Yet at some stage the carnival had to stop. The time was now more propitious to call a halt, for now greed was increasingly dominant while more abstract emotions such as hatred and resentment were dying down. All good men now, their passions exhausted, would rally round the government. Yet they should not be rebuked for what they had done, for this might only inflame them further. Something must be done to assure them that the authorities understood how deeply they had been moved.

Luke brought Tom thus far. It was Tom’s own fertile mind that worked out the precise form the sop to the masses would take. He had after all to assert his own primacy too at this point. He decided accordingly that everyone would have to swear an oath of allegiance to The President, to love and to cherish, to honour and obey, forever and ever, his language and his religion and his race. Of course it would be too troublesome to make absolutely everyone take the oath. But those who did not would not be able henceforth to function as members of parliament or ship chandlers or arrack renters or newspaper publishers or plumbago miners or insurance brokers or anything vital to the running of the nation or the economy.

It was, Tom pointed out to the nation, the unrestrained activities of the Tamils in such functions that had roused the Sinhalese to such violent resentment. It was his duty, as the father of his nation, and an Executive one at that, to don the mantle of his illustrious forebears, Devanampiyatissa and Dhutugemunu and Parakramabahu (both the First and the Fourth, though not necessarily the others) and Rajasingha and Vimaladharmasuriya and Sardiel, and bring all aliens politically and economically under his gracious control. This, he could confidently assert, from his knowledge of history—and he had won many prizes for history while he was at school—was the only way in which the country would prosper. He had an obligation to ensure that the country prospered. Whatever anyone might say, he had always fulfilled his obligations, and he would continue to do so while there was breath in his body.

It was, Matthew and Mark and Luke and Dick all assured him as the light dimmed and his face faded from the screen, the performance of a lifetime. There was no doubt after that that peace would be restored and businesses would flourish as never before. Matthew indeed went out promptly and bought up as many shares as he could in ship chandling, arrack renting, plumbago mining and insurance broking. He had competition in this from Gerry, who was beginning to be disillusioned with politics, and in whose mind the image of her father burned brighter as the years passed. They were both disappointed to discover that there were no shares available in newspapers, but this they felt was something that would be remedied in time.

 *

A few hours after Tom appeared on television in Ceylon, his brother Harry the Bishop did the same in England. Just before him, there had been an interview with a Sinhalese and a Tamil, both meant to be leaders of their respective communities in London, and they had shouted at each other excitedly for ten minutes. Harry had refused to be interviewed. As a churchman, he was used to making pronouncements, and it was as a churchman that he insisted on appearing. We can do no better than to quote from his statement, widely disseminated as it later was.

‘The facts cannot be denied. Thousands of Tamils, old and young and even little children, were assaulted, robbed, killed, bereaved, and made refugees. They saw their homes, possessions, vehicles, shops and factories plundered, burnt or destroyed. These people were humiliated, made to live in fear and rendered helpless.’

‘There are those who say that this massive Sinhalese outburst against Tamils in the south was retaliation for various wrongs, and was therefore justified. This is to advocate tribal vengeance. The conscience of those who make such a claim is distorted. We must rise above such tribal morality. What happened cannot be justified on moral grounds. We must admit this and acknowledge our shame. And it is not enough to be ashamed, because inhuman passions inflamed some Sinhalese for a short period. We must be ashamed as Sinhalese for the moral crime other Sinhalese committed.

‘We must also make our apology to those Tamils who were unjustified victims of the violence. We do this because we share in the total life of our people. Good and great aspects of our Sinhala heritage were due to the lives and achievements of only a section of the Sinhala people, but we claim what one section did as belonging to all. Similarly, when a section of the Sinhalese do what is morally wrong or bad, we share in it. We share in the evil they have done. Also, it is a mark of moral maturity to acknowledge a moral crime on behalf of those closely knit to us who do not realise what they have done. And an apology is made on their behalf. Parents do so on behalf of children. It is only by such an apology that we too will recover our proper moral and religious values.’

‘And we must act. There is need, not simply of relief work, but of rehabilitation. Most importantly, there is the public aspect of rehabilitation. This involves guaranteeing Tamils residing in or returning to Sinhala areas, genuine security of life and property. It includes regular payment of wages, and assistance to rebuild homes and restart business enterprises. We must hope that those in power will act conscientiously.’

‘We must also realise that if there is no sustained dialogue and negotiation, the situation will get worse. The deadlock amongst our leaders at present is disheartening. The urgent demands of our national crisis must overcome personal, party and petty interests. There must be a real determination to reach a settlement. Otherwise, there will be increasing disorder along with increasing dictatorship.’

Harry had prepared his statement before, and he saw no reason to change it though he gathered from the news that preceded his own appearance what Tom had said in Ceylon. He was not entirely surprised the next day when Dick rang him up to tell him that he had better not return in a month as planned. A recording of the broadcast from London had been played to Tom early that morning and he had remarked drily at its conclusion that it would be safer for Harry not to come back, since his safety could not be guaranteed.

Ceylon Today 17 August 2014 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-70559-news-detail-action-stations.html

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