By Natasha Ginwala with contributions from Abdul Halik Azeez (@Colombedouin), Muvindu Binoy, Sandev Handy, We Are From Here, Imaad Majeed and Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah
A torn body, correspondent
of extreme cold. Altitude
or thought. Colliding as an image
moving water, time, the slip
of simple life, It is matter, after all,
that is corrupted, not
spirit. After all, it is spirit
that is corrupted
– Amiri Baraka, ‘Dichtung’
On Easter Sunday, this restless coastal city, Colombo, and distant corners of the island felt a surging dark violence of previously unknown proportions. It came soon after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year holiday, Avurudu. Amid the fluctuating body count, frenzied house searches and spiralling Twitter feeds, the terror attacks at several churches and hotels also gave way to a heavy stillness. These bloody days and nights of suicide bombings and counter-strikes have been characterized as the most widespread violence in the country since civil war ended in 2009. And now, a foreboding sense of waiting: waiting for the nightly curfew to end; waiting for a police convoy with wailing sirens and politicians in SUVs to pass; waiting for the VPN to reconnect; waiting for racist slurs to abate; waiting between two attacks and waiting for the blame game to snap. Time has taken on a liquid dimension – every moment is a vibration, palpable in the torn body, rippling across terrains.
The cultural community in Sri Lanka has been grappling to glean fragments of meaning and share responses from a collective state of paralyzing shock and grief. The artistic voices I spoke to divulged many shades of vulnerability, mourning and resilience, felt and seen.
The ongoing social media ban activated since the attacks further intensifies already tightened control over news organs. A combative relationship in the current government since the presidential coup and the constitutional crisis of October 2018 ensures that disinformation indeed stems from the top. Science fiction writer and researcher Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is one of the creators of the app Watchdog, which verifies news stories and filters fake news and rumours amongst the stream of published information during the past weeks. Through his Instagram profile @Colombedouin, meanwhile, artist and journalist Abdul Halik Azeez has, since 2011, captured a striking range of street photographs, documenting a fast changing post-war civic sphere prone to gentrification, ecological precarity and communal fragmentation. The week of the attacks, his feed chronicled visual updates not only from sites where the attacks took place but also the tense atmosphere in the wake of heart-wrenching carnage: the vacant streets of Pettah market; the blatant rise in Islamophobia and hate speech; the topography of security at places of worship but also at luxurious homes of the political class; and the mood outside as a nationwide state of emergency is passed without a vote in parliament.
The 33-page emergency declaration includes protocols to censor media circulation and curb press freedom to a severe extent: among the list of new offences entered, Regulation 37 bans, ‘[u]nlawfully possessing any document prejudicial to national security/public order OR promotes hatred of the Government OR compels anyone to overthrow the Government’ (source: https://twitter.com/CPASL). Furthermore, it has granted security forces sweeping powers of search and arrest, all while the death toll rises and mass burials are still being held.
Batticaloa-based artist and university lecturer Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah expressed deep concern for his Muslim peers and students, and has described acts of retaliation that have sparked communal unrest. A shootout in the Eastern Coast followed the bombings. He reflects: ‘Even though we Sri Lankans did not find a solution to the ethnic conflict, nor did we recover from the dark past and heal our trauma, we are now confronted with a new horrible situation. After the bomb blasts, I was too upset to do anything at my studio. It was only late at night around 11.30 PM on 21st April that I began to respond by drawing.’ Through symbolic forms, Pushpakanthan renders minute drawings that carry the marks of splintered relations between self and community; moreover, he holds out the registrations of pain through wet ink as a testimonial event.
We are from Here is a community art project led by artists Firi Rahman, Vicky Shahjahan and various members of the ethnically-diverse neighbourhood historically known as Slave Island (now Kompannavidiya) in Colombo. This area includes the iconic building Rio complex, which was partly destroyed during the Black July riots of 1983, and was the main venue of Colomboscope Festival 2019, ‘Sea Change’ (an arts festival I recently curated). The charred walls of this former hotel and cinema instantly came to mind when first hearing of the explosions at three prominent hotels in Colombo last Sunday. The group writes: ‘We as a pluralistic community have endured and thrived despite experiencing racial conflicts through a 30 year old civil war in the past. Now we are sandwiched between concrete walls and half built skyscrapers. Despite struggling as a community who are under constant threat of facing an uncertain future, it did not fail to make Slave island the fascinating, diverse and resilient place it is. We came together not only for the festivals and funerals, but we showed the people that solidarity is our way of life. If these attacks were meant to sunder this nation and cause distrust among us, it will only make us unite as one, live harmoniously as one! And we still rise!’
In this polarizing milieu, there have been encounters of interfaith solidarity. Christian and Buddhist clergy have stood guard at Friday prayers. Muslim community leaders joined in mourning rituals while committing to tolerance and announcing their sustained rejection of extremist forces in the country, as a report on Bloomberg posted 22 April noted.
Visual artist and poet Imaad Majeed wrote to me: ‘This poem was written at 11 PM on Easter Sunday, as I felt the need to express a message that is not often communicated to the masses, that the provocations of these attacks extend a responsibility to each and every one of us to respond sensitively, so as not to invoke further violence and enmity. It was written before we knew who was responsible. We did not know of the government's negligence or of possible involvement of the National Thowheed Jamaat. It was written before ISIS claimed responsibility. I wrote this poem in a moment of waiting for answers, knowing that we needed to prepare ourselves to process the truth. I only hope it has been received as such, that we do better, be better and overcome:
someone has placed a thorn
in a lion's paw, the lion must
not mistake it for a sword
a thorn has been placed, also,
in each of us, one hand, on a day
for one who wore a crown of thorns
let us remember this, whether
or not we believe, regardless
of faith, race, language
or whatever means by which
our kind-ness is divided
each of us have at least one
hand by which to remove
a thorn, first from our own
hand, then from those
but, the lion, i fear
may have to use its other
paw to remove its thorn
for the lion has instilled fear
for too long, a state of terror
prolonged by the will to power
and the other was never truly
a thorn, just as the thorn
was never truly
‘There we may behold the thorny crown, which was only set upon the head of Our Redeemer in order that all the thorns of the world might be gathered together and broken.’ – Cassiodorus (c. 570), commenting on Psalm LXXXVI which speaks of the crown of thorns.
On 26 April 2019, we woke to the news that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of the opposition leader and wartime defence secretary, plans to contest the upcoming presidential elections. This didn’t come as a surprise, yet there is something eerie about Rajapaksa announcing his candidacy just six days after the attacks. He is still under investigation for war crimes and faces lawsuits in the United States.
Time is circular; overnight, we saw resurface the checkpoints that were active during the emergency state through decades of civil strife. The architecture of militarization never truly disappears; it simply keeps carving out a larger territory of control till we see it operate in broad daylight when it’s too late.
It is only in recent years that artists and writers of the diaspora have returned to share their work and ideas within the Sri Lankan context. The question is how to effectively continue building on that passage of connectivity between generations who have more complex narratives of belonging to this island. While these events have brought fresh wounds to older aches, the work of reparation requires the channels of regional solidarity and growing cultural understanding – to see our whole selves in each other.
This article was composed on 27 April and has not incorporated the events that have occurred since then.
Main image: Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah, Terrorism Has No Religion (detail), 2019, mixed media on paper, 22 × 30 cm each. Courtesy: the artist