How to hold out: lessons from a labyrinth



[This is a revised version of the Introduction to the book HOLDING OUT. The Prologue is by Asoka Handagama.]

HOLDING OUT: Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in Sri Lanka 1986-1988 is, at its simplest, the story of a woman political prisoner from the South of Sri Lanka. The AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL REPORT 1987 said of her arrest: "By the end of 1986 over 400 Sinhalese were estimated to be detained under the PTA and Emergency Regulations, among them Pulsara Liyanage, a lecturer at Kelaniya University arrested on 1st November."(pp. 264-269)

The events described here took place before the writer had turned 30. It is an exemplary story of young educated Sri Lankan woman academic and activist who was among those few who walked the talk in a dark time in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history, engaged in a dramatic political experiment and was trapped in an extreme situation.

The story is of her experience in that extreme or ‘limit’ situation in which existential choices are made, which in turn reveal character. This story was written three decades after the events. The retrospective account is exemplary for its humanist perspective and tone of wry humor.

But that’s only at its simplest, most basic level. What this book is really about is a period, a project and a person or a personal experience. More precisely it is about the intersection of a period, a project and a person.

The period was the first ten years of the UNP rule following the election of 1977 or more precisely the Jayewardene presidency of 1978-1988, though neither the Presidential model nor the personality of Jayewardene, still less the open economy, are the villains of the piece, the root of all evil.

What was wrong was the ideology, the model and an arrogantly authoritarian style of governance marked by coercive violence. From the perspective of contemporary history, those ten years mark the attempt of a Westernized ruling elite to arrogantly force through a capitalist modernization from above by imitating and imposing an authoritarian model drawn from East Asia during the Cold War.

The model ran into resistance from several quarters: contending Tamil and Sinhala ultra-nationalists, an irked big neighbor, and the smallest oppositional player, a visible, articulate modernist leftism with its populist and radical, Westernized variants.

This story is to be located within the trajectory of that socialist left, of which the populist wing was led by Vijaya Kumaratunga and the modernist radical variant incarnated in several groups, one of which the author of this memoir was a founder member and leading cadre of.

The project of this left was to cut across the widening ethnic divide, to outpace the accelerating ethnic polarization, by an alliance of the revolutionary, or more modestly, radical left or lefts (plural) of South and North; Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. The organization that the author belonged to incarnated the multiethnic, modern, socialist Sri Lanka that was imagined possible and sought to be brought into being.

In a reaction against the tribalist horrors of July ’83 and its precursors, the educated youngsters involved, had a shared value of anti-racism and a pronounced internationalism, based upon the shared values of modernity, rationality and universality. Improbably naive as it may seem, the models were Cuba and Nicaragua and the ongoing Central American revolutionary movements; the preeminent inspiration was the Latin American Left.

The entire enterprise proved Quixotic, which is not to say it was a complete and predictable waste, since Fidel Castro urges that every evolutionary should have a bit of Don Quixote in him or her, a bit of ‘madness’, as he puts it. This bit of Romantic and modernist madness was counter-posed to the larger uglier lunacy of the State, the mobs, and worst of all the Tigers and the JVP.

The story in these pages is about a small group of rational if radical, Romantic young people caught on three fronts, between the State and two neo-tribalist barbarisms incarnated in the LTTE and JVP. Ironically, as the story unfolded, there was more in common between these embattled young radical activists and their immediate oppressors, the State, than there was between them and their fellow liberation fighters, the JVP and LTTE. The existential choice came when the rational Sinhala Left, populist (Vijaya) and radical (Daya Pathirana), was being savaged by the JVP, while its Tamil counterparts, the EPRLF and PLOT were being butchered by the LTTE, in a season of political cannibalism.

This book is an authentic personal testimony of a time and a tragedy. The tragedy was not an abstraction, and the author recalls those comrades who died horribly, victims of the main contenders for power, mangled – at least one, mistakenly--in the triangle between the State, the JVP and the LTTE (and one might add, the IPKF).

The slim memoir also serves as an indispensable text for students of contemporary history. Note for instance the precise moment the tide of opinion on the street begins to turn against the JVP, never to turn back—the moment that popular consent begins to erode.

Above all, the text is what it claims to be, a memoir. It is a personal record of a personal experience. In his Prologue, award-winning filmmaker Asoka Handagama affords the reader a fleeting, accurate ‘shot’ of the author at the time. It is that young person, a woman, a gifted and serious student of Western Classics (now a holder of a PhD), who underwent the experiences in this book. These are known as ‘limit experiences’, in what the modern European thinkers call ‘extreme situations’.

The author reconstructs them indelibly, each chapter a short story leaving a residue of a word-sketch in charcoal as it were. The daisy chain of the narrative, which include the suicide of a young woman, portraits of madness and drug addiction, the sounds of brutal interrogation and defiance, are reminiscent of Russian short stories. This emerges not so much as a story solely of the author but as one of the human beings and human experiences she encountered and witnessed. The entire narrative is informed by a deep humanism speckled by a characteristically wry humor.

The story ends just before the author turns thirty, and thus covers an experience undergone by a young woman in her late twenties. What arises from the pages above all, is the story of the endurance of mind and spirit in extreme adversity, sustained by moral fiber, the ethics of solidarity and high intelligence. It is a record of what the Existentialists call "authenticity" and a display of the value that Hemingway upheld, that of "grace under pressure". It is a story of heroic humanism.

This book should be read not only by those of that generation which experienced those turbulent and violent years of repression and civil war, but also by Generation X and Generation Y readers who should learn about that moment in our history and be educated by the testimony of a young, educated, English-speaking, Westernized urban woman of an earlier generation.

It is an exemplary story for the current generation of Westernized urban youngsters wrapped up in gender and identity issues; whose activism never brings them up against the Rightist government (a direct descendant of the one in the 1980s, led by one of the same personalities), still less the System; who cross lines only in their private and personal lives and lifestyles, never those that place them in danger of losing their lives, limbs or freedom of movement. In short, Holding Out is a lesson in commitment for a generation of dilettantes (some of them daughters of dilettantes).

"Human rights, dissidence, antiracism, SOS-this, SOS-that: these are soft, easy, post coitum historicum ideologies, ‘after the orgy’ ideologies for an easy going generation which has known neither hard ideologies nor radical philosophies. The ideology of a generation which is neo-sentimental in its politics too, which has rediscovered altruism, conviviality, international charity and the individual bleeding heart. Emotional outpourings, solidarity, cosmopolitan emotiveness, multi-media pathos: all soft values harshly condemned by the Nietzschean, Marxo-Freudian age… A new generation, that of the spoilt children of the crisis, whereas the preceding one was that of the accursed children of history." – Jean Baudrillard, ‘Cool Memories’, London, Verso, 1990, pp. 223-24.

HOLDING OUT is then a story of "the accursed children" of contemporary Sri Lankan history, not the spoilt children of the post-Civil War years. It is a story from the age of "hard ideologies… radical philosophies", not one of and from "soft, easyvalues" of "conviviality, the individual bleeding heart and…cosmopolitan emotiveness".

HOLDING OUT is published by Stamford Lake and is available at all leading bookstores.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...