As writers, we have a duty to question our own people and their actions. It is a responsibility.
On the island of Sri Lanka, an important anniversary will soon be celebrated. 18 May is the day last year on which the war ended in a government “victory” over the Tamil forces of the LTTE. In a token gesture, to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has pardoned Tissainayagam, the journalist sentenced unlawfully to 20 years in jail. Although many other journalists languish in prison and 80,000 civilians in camps, the bloody years appear to be a memory – a memory discarded and ignored among the land mines, and the mass graves.
There is another anniversary that occurs this May. Unnoticed by the West, it marks a tragedy from almost 30 years ago: an event of such significance that even today, educated Sri Lankan Tamils cannot speak of it without a tremor. I am not talking about the violence perpetrated by government and terrorists alike. Nor am I talking about those genocidal crimes against tens of thousands of Tamils, the human rights abuses, or even the continued hounding of the press. I am talking of something simpler, older, more symbolic: the burning of the public library in Jaffna over a period of three days and nights in 1981.
I was in my twenties at the time, a young mother, working part-time as an assistant librarian at the University of Leicester. One morning my father, a Tamil man living in London, rang me with the news. He was close to tears as he described the details.
Two Singhalese policemen had been killed at a political rally in Jaffna. Later that evening, police and government-sponsored paramilitaries set fire to the public library, razing it to the ground. Over 97,000 books and scrolls of historical value to the Tamil people were burnt. Once scholars came from all over India to study these manuscripts, some the only copies in the world. Now the works of philosophers, dramatists and writers, all who had made so significant a contribution to Tamil culture, lay in ashes.
Sri Lanka has been at war with itself for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory was in 1958 when, aged four, I watched a Tamil man being set on fire in Colombo. Self-hatred has ebbed and flowed ever since, penetrating every aspect of life in this small, beautiful island and turning it into a fool’s paradise.
For the psychological structure of a country cannot flourish when large swathes of the population continue to live in fear and deprivation. It comes as no surprise then, that the handful of Sri Lankan-born writers lucky enough to achieve international recognition no longer live there. Instead, they have chosen Canada, the US, Australia and Britain, taking the opportunity to develop in an environment free from aggressive censorship. Yet those expatriate writers have other issues to deal with. Although their writing often borders on the sublime, through no fault of their own they too are the victims of what is happening in their homeland.
Like rare orchids they are visible, but silent. Theirs are not the voices one hears first proclaiming the injustices of the last 50 years. For when the official line of the Sri Lankan government is zero tolerance of any criticism, how can writers, in their struggle against forgetting, speak out?