Caterpillar song

A short story

Major Black was born in the jungle, miles from Colombo, the youngest of sons. He graduated school. He captained the team. As was the custom, he ate with his fingers. At age 19, he received a commission from the army and was sent to the Wanni. He fought for 12 years, without a vacation.

Thrice decorated for gallantry! Veins of tissue cracked his features. When his commander fell in Mankulam, he galvanised the troops to hold the perimeter. He raped women and men. He tortured and murdered. He ordered the digging of graves. "We cleaned them up," he said, "In masterly fashion." When Black was a boy, he used to pray daily, six times, once in each direction. To the East, he bowed on behalf of his mother and father: "Having been supported by them, I will support them," he pledged. "I will perform their duties. I will be worthy of my heritage." In return, he was taught, his parents would reciprocate. They would guide him from evil, support him in doing good, teach him skills, and bestow his heritage upon him. In this way, Black believed, he would be at peace with the East, making it free of fear.

He would then bow to the South, on behalf of his educators:

"I will rise to greet you when you enter, I will wait upon you, I will be attentive to your teachings, I will serve you, and I will master the skills that you teach." In return, he was taught, his teachers would reciprocate.  They would instruct him thoroughly. They would ensure that he learned what they taught. They would recommend him to their friends and colleagues. They would provide him with security in all directions. In this way, Black believed, he would be at peace with the South, making it free of fear.

He would bow to the West, on behalf of his brothers:

"I will honour you.  I will not disparage you.  I will trust you.  I will give you gifts." His brothers would reciprocate, he was told, and in this way Black believed himself to be at peace with the West, making it free of fear.

To the North, he bowed on behalf of his friends:

He pledged to honour them with gifts and kind words. He would look after their welfare. He would treat them as he would treat himself.  He would keep his word. In return, Black was told, they would look after his property when he was inattentive. They would provide him refuge when he was troubled, and would not desert him. In this way, Black believed, he would be at peace with the North, making it free of fear.

Below, he bowed on behalf of workers. He pledged to supply them with wages. He pledged to care for them when they were ill. He would share special delicacies with them. He would not dehumanise them. In return, he was taught, they would reciprocate. They would perform their duties attentively. They would not steal. They would be bearers of his praise and good repute. In this way, Black was told, he would be at peace with the ground below him, making it free of fear.

Lastly, Black bowed above, on behalf of spiritual teachers. He pledged kindness to them, in deed, speech and thought. He pledged to open his house to them. He pledged to supply them their needs. In return, Black was taught, they would reciprocate. They would restrain him from evil, encourage him to do good, be benevolently compassionate toward him, teach him what he had not learned, and guide him toward redemption. In this way, Black believed, he would be at peace with the Zenith, making it free of fear.

The International Terrorists' Handbook states: "Provocation is the subversive's task. Incite the government to reflex its impulses. Injustices strengthen anti-establishment causes." So lads on bikes rode with guns on laps to kill unsuspecting symbols of authority. Human decency called for retribution. It granted the government emergency powers, which allowed it to obstruct certain freedoms, and wield power less reckfully.  The rakshasas ensured that their visions were chosen, by process of elimination.

Only 13, then 14, Black understood little. He knew rugby. Letters on shirts and garlanded sleeves. Black and his buddies, cousins and brothers also knew that life wasn't easy. "Life," they said, "is like rugby."

On the rugby field, Black was a leader. Courageous and vicious. His opponents were marked and the goal was victory. He didn't hate his enemies.  He fought for what was at stake. "Be brave, machans." That was Black's mantra.

At 16, he watched his eldest brother hug neighbours. His mother wept, and Black tried to console her. "Why cry, Amma?" It was a festive occasion. His brother received blessings and gifts, a carefully wrapped cloth of mother-treats. There was an elephant parade at dusk.

Less than a year, and Black's second brother followed the first. To Black, he seemed as noble as the cause. A steel-eyed lion. There were flags, banners and impassioned speeches. Girls kissing and waving. Never once did the terrorists enunciate their cause. "If you have a grievance," the speaker spoke, "state your solution precisely. Otherwise stop blowing things up! The Tigers want a separate state? What kind of separate state? Will it protect its people from oppressions? Until justice is its vision, the LTTE will have no moral authority. It would be to all of society's benefit if it did."

Two months later, Black's third brother joined. Another month, his fourth. "We've lived together for fifteen hundred years! How to separate?"

Seventeen, and a man. Black had watched outcasts wreck havoc on the unsuspecting. He was courageous. He could not watch idly. He said as much to his friends and none argued. They shared his disgust. In one year, they would become soldiers. In the meantime, they practiced. They beat up kids who wouldn't enlist. They nurtured emphatic optimisms. They drank arrack cocktails.

Identity is a fragile concept. If Black had been born someplace other than in the jungle, he would have turned out differently. So how to differentiate Black from his surroundings? Since everything makes the world, and everything is all things, not a single thing can change without changing all the world. No thing is constant. As facts change, the world changes. Mountains collapse. Stars plunge from their orbits. On the quantum level, things change constantly. Thinghood can't exist in a world where change is constant. A non-constant thing is not one thing but many, and many things are not one. For a thing to be a thing, it must be that thing, or some other thing. It couldn't be both one thing and another, simultaneously. Nor could it be neither one thing nor another, because it would then be nothing. For a thing to be a thing, it must have some essential nature—something that does not change—some intrinsic identity—but there is no evidence that such a thing exists, and there can be no world of something else's, if there is no world of things. Of all human parts, it is the I that is the most fragile.

Black rode to the Wanni in the back of a camouflaged truck. He felt on the cusp of powerful changes. There were other men. Each felt like an avatar of some eternal.

Were Hitler's millions more victimised than the millions in India who starved when food was diverted to British soldiers? The commies followed Hitler. The Iron Curtain.  Mutually Assured Destruction. The New World Order. In what sense victory? When? For how long? Isn't having enemies the only reality that enemy having creates?

After 12 years, Black's fingers shook, but he'd survived with his body intact. When he walked past glass, he imagined how it might shatter. Instead of fireworks, he heard enemy gunfire.

After 12 years, happiness, for Black, didn't exist. There were varying degrees of experiential intensity. He hiked to a cave that housed thousands of bats. Their shit was higher than his thighs, and the cave was squirming with poisonous snakes. "Adventure sport," he called it.

After 12 years, Black found a lover in Colombo. They drove to the ocean, at 90 kilometres per hour, past checkpoints where soldiers played slow motion games of Russian roulette. She gave him head along the way. They romped in the ocean, had sex in the sand, drove naked past wide-eyed sentries. After 12 years, life was a dare.

After 12 years, he hadn't had a vacation. He'd been thrice decorated! His father met him at the station, with unspoken apologies. Black placed his vices before him. His mother entered the room. He waited for her to leave, then wanted more. His head was abuzz. At any moment, anything was possible, even chaos. "I'm desperate," he said. "There's nothing I won't do."

Of all human parts, the I is the most fragile. "What am I," asked Black. "Am I still he?"

Sonya wanders like that Wednesday in November, when she packed a bag with hope, and hitchhiked 20 towns away. She met Black at one of Colombo's casinos, playing baccarat on the minimum bet table. It was November 1999, and Sri Lanka's troops had just been routed by the LTTE. She expressed her condolences, and by his eyes, she could tell he knew her to be sincere. They passed the rest of the night, winning big and drinking heavily.

"There's someone I'd like you to meet," she told him. After 15 or so drinks, she wasn't even slightly drunk. Her cheeks were tender and her eyes were wide. Black hair draped like silk across her shoulders, her breasts. She placed small, calculated bets. Before they left, she donated her winnings to the bathroom attendant.

"Have you ever experienced tragedy," Black slurred. She shook her head no, and took his hand. "It's the capacity for redemption that separates us from beasts. Better days are created, by thoughts, actions and speech."

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Himal Southasian