It is a privilege to confine one’s experience of war to a particular season, to the printed page. That must be said.
That is certainly a privilege in this world. Even if it should be a right.
This summer I have plucked some of these nelgected stories from the shelves. Almost immediately it seemed another kind of wrong.
To be witnessing these horrors on serene mornings, otherwise preoccupied with pruning the plants on the porch and counting new blooms, offering nuts to the visiting squirrel mothers. Two, in particular this year: Maud and Weeblee. Any excess seeds feed the family of raccoons that lives beneath the shed.
And, yet, it also seemed wrong to set the books aside again, to claim that I should wait until the world outdoors was bleaker. February maybe? When is it a good time to read something tragic? When the critters are hibernating and the plants stuck in the back of a closet?
I’d begun Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s memoir of War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka (as told to Sunila Galappatti) several times. As many times, I had returned the book to the stacks with only a handful of pages turned. And this story – A Long Watch – is one we know, from the cover, to be a story of survival.
Boyagoda’s story is told in spare, clean prose. “I was a ranking officer in the Navy, accustomed to the facilities and deference of the office: a Commander. Then I was a prisoner, without a name. For the next eight years I followed instructions.”
It is told years later, after the Tamil Tigers have released him from captivity. He has had time for considerable reflection between. “The state of being into which I entered could never be peaceful, but I could grow accustomed to it. I think back on that time as when I inhabited a different, and hidden, age of man.”
While there, he learned about his captors’ experiences. “[One’s] family had been displaced from the Kent and Dollar farms. His story was like that of so many others. He had experienced upheaval and displacement on account of his culture and ethnicity. That had led him straight to the movement.”
Also, he examines their leaders’ principles and integrity. “I came to agree with Mohan that Selvaratnam was a good man, however much I disagreed with his political strategy.” In close quarters, both sides of the conflict are reduced to the experiences of individuals, which requires reevaluation and contemplation.
Devastating and deformative experiences are relayed in a matter-of-fact tone. “It takes a while to learn to walk in chains. You have to shuffle rather than walk. It also constricts the mind. Eventually, after years in chains, it took us some time to learn to walk without them.”
There is a map in the front of the book, but Boyagoda’s story prompts me to pull an atlas from the shelf. The line-drawn representation in the book marks only the places specifically referenced in his memoir; the atlas outlines the country with a soft pink and a clutter of names which extend into the surrounding waters. The complicated version is even further from the geraniums and petunias. There are so many more stories that I am not reading.
“The thing is – my story began and ended in two completely different countries. I was caught between the two, not knowing my way.”
Even more affecting than the descriptions of the captivity is the recounting of release and return, which at times is as strange as tales of soldiers celebrating Christmas together across the trenches in the first world war.
Which also recasts this question of privilege in a strange, new light. “But it also makes me feel like I was given a privileged insight. I can even feel happy about it. It was an experience that added something to my life even as it took other things away. If I didn’t see it like this, how would I live with it?”
It remains a privilege to witness. Something to tend. Like a potted plant. The small rituals of endurement.