Subashini Navaratnam lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and has published poetry in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Poetika Malaysia, Aesthetix, and Sein und Werden. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH’s anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi’s ebook, Semangkuk INTERLOK. She blogs at disquietblog.wordpress.com
We went to Polonnaruwa to find history
We went to Polonnaruwa to find history. And when we got there we weren’t sure if we had found it, so we stood there, looking around. Around the stupa stood all the tourists, taking pictures. Taking pictures is not my thing and maybe I should have written a blog post, a series of tweets, an essay or a poem or a novel or a play or a philosophical tract or letters like Mary Wollstonecraft to a nonexistent lover. But Buddha was watching and I wanted to capture the essence of an ancient stupa under the searing heat of a February sun in Sri Lanka. The camera is a weapon which you must learn to wield carefully while regarding the pain of others.
But you think I want to undo years of ghostly visits and whispered insinuations by taking the right picture. You think I want to rebuild my memories and construct history from a few ruins and photographs to find out what really happened. I don’t think that’s why I’m here. I think I just want a picture of this stupa in Polonnaruwa. I found my stupa but there is a white man standing right next to it. He’s in my way and I stare at him. He looks at me and smiles, and before I know it I smile back. What are we smiling about? I don’t know. My picture of a stupa in Polonnaruwa will have a white man standing next to it, smiling.
Then we went to Jaffna to find history. Do you remember the time they torched the library, they set fire to people, and we waited for the news, I asked no one in particular. When he died from an “aerial bombardment” we cried over the phone and waited for more news. We stayed home in (y)our country. But droves of white men came here to document what went wrong. They love it here and so they stayed. They are driving tuk-tuks down Galle Street as we speak, heads thrown back, laughing, already owning what was never theirs to own. But the proliferation of stupas, you know, performs its own tyranny. Who came first to build the first building? Which building is stated on record as being the first building of the first civilisation?
And that is why we went to war. To find history. Somebody, somewhere, has the facts and then we will tell you what happened. You are still counting the dead but don’t worry, we have the exact number. You say we cut their bodies into pieces, we tossed their rotting corpses into the river, we hung burning tyres around their necks, but you are making it all up. Lies, tears, and propaganda. Anyway, the markets agree that this is the best time to visit Sri Lanka. The beaches are beautiful. The people are friendly. We have some of the best views. Buddha is on every street corner, welcoming you. And look, this is where we killed the terrorists; the guided tour begins at nine. Don’t worry, the soldiers are friendly and speak English. They will explain everything.