Sri Lanka’s “Sunday Essay” Columnist passes away

Journalist Ajith Samaranayke who wrote the popular “Sunday Essay” column in the Sri Lanka’s Sunday Observer passed away on Wednesday. He was a journalist who had inspired a generation of journalists in Sri Lanka.

In paying tribute and honour to the Journalist loved by thousands of readers, TW News Features, reproduces his column in the aftermath of the December 2004 Tsunami, which appeared in the Sunday Observer of January 2, 2005:

God, Nature and technological man
Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake

Nature (now that we no longer believe in God) has chosen December as the cruellest month for Sri Lanka.

Tortured by a protracted fratricidal war, subjected to two insurrections of the southern youth within a space of 25 years and plagued by all the multiple ills of a Third World economy, this once paradise isle was last Sunday chosen for the dubious distinction of being the country which suffered the worst damage from the Tsunamis tidal wave which wrought havoc across South Asia.

[“Tsunami took away lives, I am still sad.” – Photo: HumanityAshore]

The irony, of course, was that except for the occasional floods accompanying monsoon rains Sri Lanka had hitherto being immune from every other kind of natural disaster and that indeed Sri Lankans had delighted in this condition which they had taken as being almost divinely ordained.

Deadly earthquake

Normally it should have been the most propitious of days. The previous day had been Christmas and this was Sunday and a Poya day, the last of the year. In fact television footage of people fleeing from the killer wave showed women and children dressed to observe ‘sil.’ But while the people were in a holiday mood the sea was hatching a deadly earthquake which sent its tremors through the ocean bed.

As eye-witnesses on the beach recalled the sea was suddenly sucked away. The waves rose 20 foot, then 100 foot and roared and stormed inland breaching the conventional barrier between the sea shore and the town, uprooting everything in their path. The most pathetic victims of the sea’s fury were the children who could not run to safety and for whom their mothers are still wailing in the pitiless glare of the TV eye.

Science on the pedestal

If we lived in an age which believes in gods it would have been easier to have reconciled ourselves to such a tragedy. Primordial man propitiated the deities which he saw even in the form of trees and stones because he lived in fear of the elements. Water, fire, the sea were all unknown and alien elements to ancient man who felt himself trapped in a hostile universe. But it is now long since we banished the gods from our secular, liberal, democratic, scientific universe.

Goaded by the Enlightenment and the Renaissance and with the benign shades of Darwin, Freud, Marx and all those other prophets looking down on us we have consigned the gods to outer darkness and enthroned Science on the pedestal. But all our careful measurements and charts, our Early Warning Systems and other scientific panoply and paraphernalia are sometimes of no avail. There is more on heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our petty philosophies.

But in a secular age what consolation do we hold out to those who mourn the dead? How explain the sudden and relentless fury of a hitherto placid sea which had swiftly become a devourer? How explain the suddenness with which their loved ones had been snatched away even while they were going through the motions of daily living?

Television footage showed even hardened and sophisticated westerners reacting with trauma, shock and even tears to the calamity. For a stark moment man in the new millennium, armoured supposedly against all calamities by his rational technological outlook and advanced political philosophies, has been rendered helpless by Nature and orphaned and left abandoned, his cities ruined and laid low and all his grand inventions and constructions in disarray.

This was nowhere more starkly illustrated than by the devastation caused at the Thai tourist resort of Phuket if not Sri Lanka’s own southern tourist resorts if on a smaller scale. Here were two economies substantially thriving on the western tourists whom they succeed in inveigling to their sun-kissed beaches. Both worship at the temple of tourism with a fervour even if most people in these countries do not realise that the tourist industry is a kind of replication of the old colonial relationship between the westerner and the native which they had shed at independence.

One fell stroke

True the western tourist does not exploit the native in the same way that the White Raj did. On the contrary the natives are even grateful for the dollars and the Deutschmarks which come their way but ultimately this relationship between the tourist and the native is debasing of human relationships. But in one fell stroke the paradisal beaches were denuded.

The worshippers of the Sun were hounded by another of Nature’s elemental forces, the Sea. Suddenly the lights went out in the pleasure gardens of the fabled East.

As always it was the poorest of the poor who were affected. The rich in their upstair flats or high-rise apartments were immune from the fury of the sea run amok. Whether it was in the East or South of Sri Lanka or in South India it was those who are already ground down by poverty who were struck down by the tide as well.

Hence their sense of despair and helplessness for not only were they being bludgeoned by an economic system which they did not understand but here was Nature itself turning against them.

Most of them were fisherfolk who had been used to treating the sea as a source of bounty, the prime source of their sustenance. True some of their men had been lost at sea at times but that was for them a part of the natural order of things. But the sea going berserk and devouring them and their possessions was something they were not used to.

Hence the endless litany ‘We have lost everything.’

Similarly a country fragmented by every kind of division imaginable has been united by the cruel bond of a shared misery. Both Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts in the deep South of Sri Lanka and the Northern and Eastern Provinces have suffered devastation on an unprecedented scale.

Some of the hardest hit areas have been Batticaloa and Ampara in the East and the Mullaitivu, Vadamarachchi and Kayts areas in the North. On account of their relative inaccessibility the wretched of the North and the East have been at the butt end of a particularly cruel misery.

Reports said that even by Tuesday relief had not reached substantial sections of those affected in these areas. Misery eschews the man-made divisions of race, religion, caste and tribe. Time was when we in Sri Lanka flattered ourselves that we were unlike any other country.

Not only were we immune from every kind of natural disaster but politically and socially too we were superior to all the other Asian and African countries which had attained Independence along with us. We were the first British colony to receive universal adult franchise.

We had a high literacy rate thanks to free education and health care too was free leading to low infant and maternal mortality rates and high life expectancy. But most strikingly Westminster-style parliamentary democracy had taken successful root in Sri Lanka so that the country was periodically changing governments without bloodshed or recourse to strongmen riding at the head of the military.

The afflux of time was to strip us of most of these illusions. Increased majoritarian attitudes and a sense of intolerance on the part of the Sinhalese was to lead to the alienation of the Tamil people and a serious erosion of the consensual basis of the political order.

Failure to evolve a planned economy which would address the priorities of the country at large and the interests of the generality of the people rather than those of a bloated urban elite and dependence on the nostrums of the wise men of the IMF and the World Bank have led to the stagnation and the crisis of the economy. A failure of vision on the part of the national political leadership has led to a sense of national drift and a sense of rudderlessness. And now as the unkindest blow comes calamities from which we had fondly imagined ourselves to be immune.

Perhaps this is the hour of reckoning and Tsunamis the agent sent by whatever power to make Sri Lanka confront its collective conscience. In this interregnum between the expiry of the old year and the advent of the new marred now by the country’s greatest tragedy Sri Lanka has received the opportunity to look inwards and examine its own conscience.

The days of national mourning should culminate in the country emerging reinvigorated by such a self-examination. Where did we go wrong as a nation and as a people? Why did we fail to build a Sri Lankan nation after Independence but rather preferred to fritter away our chances in petty communal and political bickering. Why have we failed to bring about social justice and economic egalitarianism? On the contrary in the face of this collective tragedy which has struck the poorest of the poor what is apparent is that the gulf between the rich and the poor has widened alarmingly.

The rich are no longer just rich but plutocrats while the poor are being steadily pushed to the fringes of our consumerist society. The festive season now become a national nightmare demonstrated how wide this hiatus was with the supermarkets groaning with all kinds of superfluous goods which the majority of the people can not afford even to think of buying even while the advertising industry and the electronic media foster a hunger for such goods among the populace.

It took a tidal wave taking away the lives of the poor for the super-rich to call off their New Year’s Eve balls although it is a moot point whether this will make them out down on their lives of conspicuous consumption.

It is also worth asking whether the Jathika Hela Urumaya has served the Buddhist public in any way by injecting the Maha Sangha into parliamentary politics and whether by purpose or accident introducing religious fissures into an already fractured polity and raising strident alarmist cries quite contrary to the spirit of Buddhism. It is a sad paradox that a country where ‘pirith’ is chanted both in the morning and evening through loudspeakers should have fallen prey to such an unprecedented catastrophe as a tidal wave.

And so the sea has struck and retreated. The earth made desperate by the despoliation, denudation and depradation inflicted on it by senseless human kind has extracted its vengeance. It is a terrible revenge no doubt but the question is whether we will learn its lessons and when?

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