“If you must sell the Cherry Orchard… then sell me with it”
– Liubov Andryeevna in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard; 1904.
The run up to what is now known as the “Ranaviru Vijayagrahanaya” (the glorious triumph of the war heroes) saw several VCDs hitting the (black)market of entertainment. These “films” recorded the gradual march of the armed forces of Sri Lanka from Pooneryn northwards and were released as a serialized assortment. At the height of the offensive, a collected “4-in-1”, too, was “released”, where one could check out the crippling of the main LTTE bastions for Rs.200. Sold along the pavements and sung of by the bus-to-bus sellers at the Pettah stand a live promo commentary of the following nature would often accompany the goods: “I have with me here a CD with the war victories of our valorous and glorious war heroes. How the war heroes throw their lives in the line of the enemy’s fire to protect the country. The fifth part of the series was issued this week and you can now watch the victorious march from Pooneryn to Kilinochchi and beyond in this 4-in-1 special edition”. The bus-to-bus seller peddling his goods recommends the CD as a must for a family view: “A show you can sit down and enjoy with your sons and daughters, ladies and gentlemen. Buy this for your kids at home – a rare opportunity to show them the glorious triumphs of our war heroes”.
The commentary above is a rough English translation from the original Sinhala. The sequel to the “4-in-1 Ranaviru CD” cited above hits the market on the aftermath of the May 18th death of the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhaharan. This VCD is aptly titled “Prabhage Avasaanaya” – the “End of Prabha”. Bus-to-bus salesmen advertise the “End of Prabha” CD, too, as a “rare show [which] the whole family can sit together and watch” – an assortment of events allegedly of the final few hours leading up to the killing of the “beast of all humanity (manu lova thirisana)” – Velupillai Prabhaharan. Selling at rupees one hundred, the CD seller’s live advertising follows not too different a diction from as what was used in his promotion of the “Ranaviru Collection” a few months prior.
The lingo of the sales act is dense with what one may call “jingoism” or “popular nationalist rhetoric” – a rhetoric, which I suspect, that has been un/consciously adopted from a more “central” stakeholder of power – and is dished out to lure the interest of a passenger making it home. Not that the peddler is necessarily concerned of the said heroic feats, their executions or the effect which is their end result. His central and most immediate function in this “act of salesmanship” is to try and earn a couple of hundred rupees to enhance his day’s fortunes. This enhancement, though, is improvised on the seeds of a “nationalist rhetoric” he has snapped off his universe and appropriated into his trade. Not that I am suggesting that this improvisation or appropriation are necessarily planned and are deliberately acted out. But, the seller, as a good salesman, has identified a potential market among the dynamics of our current ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ – a mindset that will consume a “Ranaviru CD” – and is making his own live advertisement in order to sell his goods.
However, the commentary that accompanies the salesmanship in question has the power of the “transmitted word”. Why did the seller choose the words he chose in setting out his shop? From where did he extract these very words for his purpose and how did he come about the rationalization that allows that very selection? How does he know that the use of the exact words he has used will enhance his sales and his chances of tapping into the consumer’s consciousness? Surely – there has to be a reason for his allowance which, logically, could not have been an automatic choice.
What intrigues me is the choice and repetition of several phrases which I identify as key markers of the consciousness which the seller addresses. The footage of the military offensive is prescribed to be “share[d] with kids and family”. Then, again, the dead Velupillai Prabhaharan is dubbed as “the beast of all humanity”. What the CD promotes, in an objective analysis, is military violence and gunspeak. Yet, where the “Public Enemy” is targeted, the bullet that unleashes no lesser a carnage on civil society and the civil consciousness becomes a celebrated bullet that demands preservation and canonization. It is interesting to note how the invitation for the “Prabha CD” or the “Ranaviru CD” to be “shared with the kids” is manifested within a commonsensical intolerance of “child violence”. For instance, one would not generally be seen peddling gunspeak, with similar slogans, in a consumer environment. But, the killing of Prabhaharan and the demolition of the LTTE are “special instances” that may not be judged by the common standards of sales ethics and tolerance.
Removed from the actual battle scars, not having to even imagine the actual horrors, our conception of the massacre of the “terrorists” is no more than a presumption. By “our” I refer to the Southern Sri Lankan consciousness that was not exposed to or engaged in war as a course of its sustained day-to-day reality. Largely filtered and manipulated (the more technical euphemism is “censored”) reports coming home from the battle lines would inform us of the progress. The “reality” of war carried out in an “imagined geography” that the Southern consciousness had had not too frequently visited gets realized in terms of place names (hitherto alien), space and numbers. One day, it is reported that the LTTE is trapped to a thin strip of 112 square kilometers. As the defeat of this organization becomes more imminent that idea of “elimination” is, still, engrained in our psyche as a reducing magical numeral – 58 sq.km; then 16 sq.km; and so on. In that last week, with a solitary square kilometer left in the “enemy” account, we await the signal for celebration. What I am trying to foreground is the curious process through which the Southern Sri Lankan fashions his/her realization of war. Numbers, names and places “alien” to their consciousnesses, rumours, stories heard and relayed, media snippets, ad hoc “warfront reporters” in gal helmets (while downplaying inter-media rivalry to “be the first”) giving expert analyses of things – this is altogether a different temporal setting; but, our function of meaning making is no different to one’s trying to make meaning of the Trojan War with the aid of available literature.
The “nationalism” or “patriotism” we refer to at present, at their worst, are hollow concepts. I believe that these words which, in the contemporary Sri Lankan setup, have earned a rejuvenated respect have earned that renaissance for a series of wrong reasons. On analysis, terms such as “nationalism” and “patriotism” seems to be more fashion statements of the day and not a broadly conceived “national sentiment” – as the term/s pretend to represent. “Nationalist” and “Patriotic” are the “proper” states of being – the right colour to wear in days of post-war transition. At present, these concepts are more the robes in which we march the cease of our own Southern insecurities which we felt at the height of LTTE activity. These insecurities were the more immediate “tangible crises” the Southern mindset encountered in their day-to-day confrontation with a “nation at war”. Now that we may do our marketing without undue fears of bombs going up the anxieties and uncertainties of civilian living are perceived as expelled. The rest of it – as to what happened in the “North” for 25 years – still remains to the Southern Lankan as alien and distorted a reality as the actual root causes of that armed resistance.
The CD peddler at the Pettah is but a solitary, though by no means the only, example of this manifestation. While he propagates the “glory of war” and the “unity of the geo-political state” in a borrowed rhetoric what immediately underlies that propagation is, in fact, his personal economic security and that of his near and dear. “Patriotism” and various stimulants of this patriotism are consumer items in multifold guises – be they flags, CDs, songs, speeches, we are catering to a live market where ideas and, in turn, political agendas are being framed and trafficked; and the bus-to-bus seller is an un/conscious intermediate.
“Patriotism”, then, is hardly the point – as it is at numerous other levels, the word borrows the shade of an artful camouflage that decoys the “real pressures” that groom the context in question. Take as a further example the (illegitimate) pavement-sellers who, too, have put up twice-the-larger-than-life-size placards congratulating the “threefold forces” for their “glorious triumph”: “[t]he highest salute of the Pavement-Sellers’ Society of (for instance) 2nd Cross Street to the Honourable President, the Secretary of Defense, the Leaders of the three-fold forces and the brave war heroes”.
I am not arguing that these pavement-sellers, who have been denied a legitimate space to earn their living, are in want of “patriotism” (as realized through the conceiving process discussed above). Yet, underlying their timely salutation and appraisal is the petition to enhance their mileage by demanding “legitimacy”. Their placard/banner, at this hour of the patriotic-unpatriotic dichotomy, earns them a fetish “ownership” that has hitherto not been their constitutional allowance where the thin strip of 2nd Cross Street pavement is concerned. Under the prevailing circumstances who, then, would ask these salesmen to “get lost” or cite them the law and its disallowances? Morally – many cannot; and many will not. Some may instinctively feel that it is “unpatriotic” to disallow a “patriotic” seller to occupy a harmless strip of pavement. Here, too, as in the case of the CD vendor, the concepts of “patriotism”, “war heroism” and the military castration of the “separatist ideology” are exploited and improvised on to meet ends which are more personal and individually compelling. But, all the time, the rhetoric assumes a nationalist urge that is simply there to enhance the “sale” and “brand”.
The strong worded threat sent to the CPA a few weeks back, for instance, is signed off as a “patriotic group of citizens”. Where these groups turn up or register themselves in the war-peace discourse of the contemporary demands our attention. Are these “patriotic groups of citizens” the more adamant stakeholders that feature in the power discourse who locate agents such as the CPA as intellectual enemies? Or, is it a proxy drawing inspiration and length from such a stakeholder? What does the “patriotic group of citizens” gain by writing the letter to the CPA? Will this threat enhance their mileage where their political objectives (whatever it may be) are concerned? Or will it enhance the mileage of other agents of power whose stability will, in turn, reflect on the fortunes of the proxy? Or, is it, as appearance has it, a sheer “patriotism” of a concerned group of activists?
Your execution will depend on where you politically stand in the hierarchy of “things” and the kind of “strings” from which you descend. I wonder what the range and reality would be like if a Sri Lankan soldier is to write of the war after returning home. How would an LTTE carder write of the same war: as it being for a cause that is/was “glorious”, “heroic” and as “patriotism” personified? Would the average Lankan military agent, in self-confession, declare that s/he joined the forces to enhance the solidarity of their domestic economic setup? Or would s/he allude to some “patriotic spur” that prompted to her/him the combat gear?
In reality, the “holiness” which we attribute to “patriotism” and “heroism” in our definition of the concept/s can be neutrally assessed as “meaning making acts that are sanctioned by the arms of central Power”. “Patriots”, then, are the agents that are inspired by and symbiotically give continuation to that sanctioning process. By all means, go ahead and buy the “End of Prabha” CD before the stocks run out. But, do so in order to financially assist the poor bus-to-bus CD vendor who, most certainly, is hanging at a straw to feed his family. Your own moral consciousness and tolerance level will determine whether you would watch the CD and or not. But, try not to watch it out of voyeuristic pleasure. There is little that is heroic in metal balls making meat balls.
This was written for and refused publication in “Spectrum” — should be May-June 2009, or thereabouts. Anyway, it was meant for the second edition since Malinda’s leaving the editorial seat.
This is a word-to-word reproduction of the original article that was then submitted.