Spain won, but whose victory is it?

We’ve all heard the old saying that success has multiple fathers whereas failure is an orphan. In the immediate aftermath of Spain beating The Netherlands 1-0 to win World Cup 2010, an anonymous reader on a forum commented, “Barcelona won, with help from Iker Casillas”. Another reader said, “Barcelona, the first and last club to win the World Cup”.

These were a reference to the fact that more than half of the Spain team which won World Cup 2010 were Barcelona players – Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Pedro, Villa (who has just joined Barcelona), and Fabregas (inevitably on his way to Barcelona). Plus Victor Valdes on the bench.

Not just that, the style of play so closely resembled Barcelona. Busquets anchoring midfield, Xavi and Iniesta bamboozling opponents with their passing, Pedro an impact substitute, and Puyol and Pique forming the central defensive partnership. The Catalan media is quick to call this a victory of Barcelona.

An extraordinary development at the end of yesterday’s final was that the Spanish flag was not the only flag displayed by the winning team. Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez took out the flag of Catalunya and celebrated with it. To the uninitiated, Catalunya or Catalonia is the autonomous region in the northeast of Spain which was an independent nation for most of its history until the Spanish state annexed it the 19th century. A sizeable proportion of the 7 million Catalans wish for an independent Catalan nation. Some Catalans don’t even approve of Catalan players representing Spain.

It was amidst this background that the two proud Catalan players unfurled the Catalunya flag. By seizing an unexpected time to trumpet their Catalan identity, they had not only risked angering mainstream Spain, but also brought credence to the theory that this was a Catalan victory as much as a Spanish one.

Xavi and Puyol celebrating with the Catalan flag after Spain's victory in World Cup 2010

So while Barcelona Football Club and the region of Catalunya can both claim the victory that should have been Spain’s, another entity can bizarrely claim credit: The Netherlands. Yes, you read that right.

The present-day Spain team has an indelible Dutch imprint in it. The Total Football philosophy of the game that Dutch masters like Rinus Michels (coach) and Johan Cruyff (star player) brought to the 1974 and 1978 World Cups influenced the style of Barcelona Football Club. Hardly a surprise considering that Johan Cruyff himself was manager of Barcelona in the 90s and reinvented the club in his mould. Among other things, he married a Catalan girl and named his son Jordi after the patron saint of Catalunya. Catalunya’s adoped son shaped Barcelona Football Club, and Barcelona Football Club would go on to shape the world-beating Spanish national team.

It’s an irony that the Dutch themselves deviated from their Total Football philosophy and concentrated more on preventing Spain from playing. As Johan Cruyff himself said recently, Spain have become the true practioners of the Dutch philosophy. It’s always a good thing when a positive, attacking and entertaining side win the World Cup, and Spain has shown that this philosophy always reaps dividends. 2008’s European Champions are now World Champions. Just as Barcelona’s current team is the best ever and has two recent Champions League triumphs to its name, the Spanish national team are easily the best in their history. Not just that, they are now easily the best team in the world.

Flashback to 2002 – The greatest World Cup ever

With the world getting into the mood for World Cup 2010, my mind goes back to the most incredible World Cup of all time – the 2002 World Cup. None of the earlier World Cups (or the later one in 2006) can measure up for sheer excitement, drama, intrigue, fun, surprises and entertainment. It was a World Cup no true football fan would ever forget.

We should have known we were in for something special when Senegal stunned France 1-0 in the opening match in Seoul. The tone was set when Papa Bouba Diop scored past Fabien Barthez, and all the Senegalese players gathered at the corner flag and did an African tribal dance round an imaginary campfire. It heralded the start of the Senegal story, in which the unfancied African nation went all the way to the quarter-finals. Astonishingly, defending champions France then drew with Uruguay and lost to Denmark, exiting the competition in the group stage without scoring a goal!

Argentina was one of the nations with the best records in the qualifying campaign for the World Cup. And they were blessed with great entertainers like Claudio Lopez, Hernan Crespo and Juan Sebastian Veron. They were expected to challenge for the title, but they shocked everyone by getting knocked out in the group stage. They drew with Nigeria and Sweden, and lost to England in a momentous match in which David Beckham scored a brilliantly disguised penalty. That match was also pivotal for England, as it ensured their progress to the next round.

Portugal was another country who were fancied to go all the way. Their players had been heralded the “Golden Generation”, and included Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes. They took to the field against the USA expecting to win. But they were in for a rude shock. The Americans scored 3 goals in the first half to lead 3-1. Portugal fought back to 3-2 and laid siege to the American goal. But it was not to be. The cat was well and truly among the pigeons. After both Portugal and co-hosts South Korea beat Poland, the two nations met for an all-or-nothing showdown. With a fanatical national following, the South Koreans delivered a 1-0 victory, and were through the 2nd round. The Golden Generation had failed. We can still remember Luis Figo in tears after the match.

The Germans are not known for their attacking instincts, but they woke up one day thinking they were Brazil, and duly hammered Saudi Arabia 8-0. Speaking of Brazil, they took to the field against Turkey, and got a rude shock when the Turks went in front. They fought back to win 2-1, a victory soured when Rivaldo play-acted to get an opponent sent off. Both teams qualified for the next stage, and were destined to meet again. Two other favourites for the trophy, Spain and Italy, made smooth progress to the knock out stages.

One of the stories of the World Cup came from a team which didn’t even go very far – Ireland. Captain Roy Keane was so exasperated with the pathetic training facilities and the defeatist attitude of Mick “It’s a big deal that we’re even in the World Cup” McCarthy that he blasted his manager in front of all the players. There was no way Roy Keane could remain in the team camp, and was sent home rightaway. The man had a way when it came to ending his association with teams. Just ask Manchester United fans what happened three years later in 2005!

After a first round of shocks, the knock outs began in earnest. Germany edged out Paraguay, the USA defeated neighbours Mexico, and England were too strong for Denmark. Senegal and Sweden slugged it out in an energy-sapping contest before the Africans prevailed in extra time. On one momentous day, both the co-hosts took to the field. Japan seemed to have the easier task against Turkey, but the Japanese following underestimated the wily Turks, who conjured up a 1-0 victory, causing free flow of tears in the country.

A few hours later, South Korea took on Italy. We all know what happened.

Ahn Jung Hwan missed a penalty in the 3rd minute. It seemed like it was not their day. Christian Vieri put Italy ahead, and as the final whistle approached, it looked like another professional Italian job. But Seol Ki Hyeon stunned the Italians with an 89th minute equalizer. The match went to extra time. Totti was sent off for a blatant dive in the box, and Trappattoni could be seen hammering a hoarding. Then Ahn Jung Hwan rose above Paolo Maldini to head the “golden goal” winner, and the stadium went mad. As did the millions of Koreans watching all over the country. The Italians went back with their tails between their legs, complaining that the Koreans cheated. Well, we can’t all be upright like the Italians, can we?

The Irish showed great spirit to take Spain to penalties. But they took some of the worst penalties ever seen, and the Spaniards finished them off with aplomb. Brazil circumvented a potential banana skin in Belgium, and recorded a routine 2-0 victory. England awaited in the quarter-finals.

That quarter-final was another of the unforgettable matches of World Cup 2002. England had the best defence at the World Cup, conceding only one goal in four matches. Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell had formed a formidable defensive partnership in front of David Seaman, and Nicky Butt had done such a great job shielding the defence that Pele called him his player of the tournament. Trying to pry open this backline was the best attack at the tournament, comprising of the 3 Rs: Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.

The match started with Brazil gamely trying to unlock the English defence. The game needed a goal to light it up. It arrived when Lucio made a defensive error and Michael Owen pounced to put England ahead. England had something to cling on to. Half time approached, and it appeared that England would go into the break with a lead to defend.

Ronaldinho had other ideas. Picking the ball up at the halfway line, he started running at player after player. Shades of Maradona in 1986. Then he laid the ball with a perfectly weighted pass, and Rivaldo sneaked in on the right. Getting the ball onto his favoured left foot, he placed it past David Seaman. 1-1 at half time.

Early in the second half. Paul Scholes fouls Ronaldinho way out to the left of the English goal. The entire English defence expects a cross. Ronaldinho swings at it with his right boot, and to everyone’s astonishment, the ball loops over David Seaman and into the goal! Did he mean it? We’ll never know.

The next chapter in the South Korea story unfolded when Spain awaited in the quarter-finals. The Koreans rode their luck with some dodgy refereeing calls, took the match to penalties, and scored five superb penalties to knock out Spain.

After knocking out Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain in earlier rounds, another European side, Germany, awaited the Koreans in the semi-final. Surely they were not going to get past the Germans and enter the final in Yokohama, annoying their neighbours in the process? They were not. The Germans outdid the Koreans in the department of precise, defensive and physical football. South Korea’s lack of a world-class goalscoring striker was also exposed. Germany squeezed a 1-0 victory and ended the Korean dream. But they were already heroes for the Korean nation. There were celebrations even north of the border. This remarkable World Cup was enough for Guus Hiddink to become a national hero and the Korean players to build good careers in Europe.

South Korea’s opponents in the 3rd place playoff were equally surprising – Turkey. The Turks went further than anybody predicted, beating co-hosts Japan in the 2nd Round and Senegal in the quarter-finals before coming unstuck against a Rivaldo-inspired Brazil in the semi-finals. Another surprising quarter-finalist was the USA, who lost to eventual finalists Germany.

After a World Cup of surprises, the very fact that the final comprised of two familiar teams (Brazil and Germany) was a surprise. The two finalists couldn’t be more different. One South American, the other European. One attack-minded, the other defensive. One was all about artistry, the other was all about precision.

A subplot circled around Ronaldo, who was part of that ill-fated final loss to France four years ago, when he suffered a fit in the dressing room prior to kick-off, was taken off the team sheet, and then reinstated for mysterious reasons. Ronaldo played like a shadow of himself that day, just like the rest of the Brazil team. Now four years on, there was a chance for both Ronaldo and the team to put the unfinished business to bed.

Ronaldo had had a great goalscoring campaign, with 6 in 6 games. Rivaldo’s creative magic was largely responsible for the output in front of goal. And they had just unearthed the find of the tournament in Ronaldinho. The Germans had the tournament’s best goalkeeper in Oliver Kahn, who had conceded just 2 goals in 6 games.

After a sideshow that involved Turkey beating South Korea to win third place, the two great footballing nations took to the field for the final. Keeping up with this World Cup’s adherence to sheer entertainment, it was the artistic entertainers from South America who prevailed. Rivaldo created two goals, Ronaldo score both, and Oliver Kahn undid all his good work with a schoolboy error for the first goal. At the final whistle, commentator Steve Banyard said, “Guess who has won? Brazil has won, because this is the World Cup final, and they almost always win!”

The “almost” was of course a reference to what happened four years ago. Now there was redemption for Brazil and for Ronaldo. The pendulum had swung back to South America, and to attacking football. In this, the most memorable World Cup of all, it was fitting that the philosophy of positive, attacking football triumphed.

My take on Avatar

This year’s “How can you not watch it” movie is Avatar. But ticket non-availability meant I only watched it last weekend. Even for that I need to thank my iPhone GV app, as I could book it earlier than anyone else.

I must say it lived up to (or even exceeded) my expectations. It was a visual feast and a great experience.

I’m not going to delve into the story or what was/wasn’t good. There are enough people doing that! Instead let me just give you my take on the story/plot/thoughts conveyed.

It’s a story with a philosophical underpinning. Not the most original (it reminded me of Pocahontas), but a serviceable story. Its message is that a life close to nature is the best. It makes the best use of resources, preserves harmony, and is better for the long-term success of a species. The same message was conveyed in this scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.

The earthlings have killed their planet and exhausted all its resources due to a life that deviated from nature as far as possible, whereas the Na’vi occupants of Pandora live in perfect harmony with nature. This characterization of the Na’vi inhabitants was based on the Noble Savage Theory by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that a life less touched by technology and its evils was the best. He claimed that man reached his peak when he had cultivated values like family, filial piety, tribe, homeland and loyalty, but before he had become a master of technology.

Another thing that struck me about James Cameron’s portrayal of the Na’vi was their concept of loyalty. The giant birds are loyal to their rider for life. When Jake gets back on Pandora after the first round of the war is over, his long-forgotten giant bird swoops down to pick him up. After the sex scene, Neytiri tells Jake, “We have mated for life”. This is different from the decadent world Jake came from, where multiple partners were commonplace. It was James Cameron’s message that a civilization which humans regarded as “hostile natives” can have a better value system than the technologically advanced humans.

One of the most appealing things about the movie was how the animals were similar to earth animals but also somehow different. The “this looks like a rhinoceros, but wait a minute, it’s blue and it has big ears” feeling somehow appeals to us. It invokes a sense of wonder, like a biologist who discovers a new species of penguin with lights on its head and a shark-like fin. If a human-like species is known as a humanoid (as the Na’vi are described), then Avatar was also full of rhinoids, horsoids, birdoids, leopardoids and jellyfishoids.

In a lot of science fiction movies, people with even a cursory understanding of science know that several things are unscientific. But everything in Avatar was consistent with science. If you look at the pack of leopard-like animals which attack Jake shortly after the rhinoid attack, they move in packs exactly as wolves would. Their manoeuvres, their positioning, their teamwork, everything is consistent with how pack-based earth animals operate.

The language of the Na’vi was also scientifically created. Just like the language Klingon was created for the Star Trek (tidbit: the Hamlet was translated into Klingon), linguistic consultant Paul Frommer created a new language for the Na’vi. He created syntactical rules and over a thousand new words for the language. No wonder it didn’t sound like rubbish, but sounded like a real language. A lot of insight went into how the language should sound. Since the Na’vi were a peace-loving community, the language was musical and mellifluous. Klingon on the other hand was rough and rasping.

James Cameron says he crafted a few scenes deliberately for the sequel. We can guess which ones they are. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) “dies”, but her “soul” goes to Eywa. There must be a reason for that. I’m sure she’ll come back in the sequel. Also for the sequel, the humans are not exterminated and can always come back. A larger army and better technology can give them a better chance of success next time round.

I’ll definitely look forward to a sequel. It will be another visual feast, and I’m just hoping that James Cameron will have surprises in store.

A nation under siege

In July 2009, chaos hit the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. There were riots between the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group of China making up 90% of the country’s entire population, and the Uighurs, the majority community of Xinjiang. On the surface, it seems typical of what happens in other countries throughout Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Community A cannot see eye to eye with Community B, and there are tensions. But if you scratch the surface, it becomes apparent that a nation is under siege. Now, what do I mean by this?

The Uighurs are one of the great stateless nations of the world. A nation with its own history, language, culture, food and festivals, but without a country of its own. The stateless nations of this world are often subgroups within a country, and in some interesting cases, may be transnationally shared among more than one country. The Uighurs are one such nation. They are like the Basques, the Catalans, the Kurds, the Tamils, and China’s own Tibetans.

There are only 8 million Uighurs in this world, and the Han dominated Chinese government is laying siege to them. There are aggressive family planning efforts to prevent Uighurs from procreating, so that the Uighur population can be reduced and brought to a tiny number before long. There is state sponsored migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang to alter the demographics of the province. Han Chinese are given preferential treatment in education and employment. The predominantly Muslim Uighurs are sometimes even forbidden to perform daily prayers. The Uighur language, which belongs to the Turkic language group of Central Asia and Turkey, has no official patronage in China. There are even attempts to destroy traditional Uighur architecture in Kashgar, the ancient cultural capital of the Uighurs and a famed city on the Silk Road. The very name Xinjiang means “new territory”, a name reeking of expansionist sentiments.

These have caused Uighur hatred towards the Han Chinese ruling race. Most Uighurs have stopped identifying with China. They aspire for regional autonomy and possibly independence, but recognize the futility of these efforts against an iron-handed Chinese government. Whenever possible, the Uighurs leave China. They have established sizeable communities in several western cities including New York, San Francisco and Vancouver. They are somewhat like the Sri Lankan Tamils who don’t really identify with Sri Lanka but have established Tamil settlements in Toronto, Paris, Berlin and several other western cities. As percentages of their total populations, the Uighurs and the Sri Lankan Tamils have two of the largest diasporas in the world. Another similarity with the Tamils is that the Uighur diaspora attempts to instigate separatism from outside. Uighur separatism has received unwanted publicity through Guantanamo Bay, where 17 Uighurs are currently housed.

The recent riots in Xinjiang are only symptoms of a deep, underlying disease. The disease of Chinese expansionism. Much like an anachronistic kingdom of a bygone century, China avariciously aspires to gobble up lands that do not belong to it. Xinjiang and Tibet are merely two such examples. The long-standing conundrum of Taiwan need not be raked up, for fear of inducing slumber. And just ask the Indians about China’s designs on Arunachal Pradesh and portions of Kashmir. Speaking of India, there are allegedly some Chinese designs on the entire nation! China has established bases in Cocos Island in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan, completing a “string of pearls” (as military strategists like to call it) around India. There are also rumors that China funds Maoists and Naxalites within India. In other words, China has surrounded India from all sides, including the inside! Come on, which other country in the world would want control over an additional one billion people?!

If China wants to be seen as a cooperative and dignified country within the international community, it needs to quit its designs on lands and people which do not rightfully belong to it. But who honestly sees it happening? It’s like expecting the dragon to stop breathing fire.

America delivers!

Obama

There’s no further doubt. America truly is the greatest nation on earth. It truly is the land of opportunity, a nation of dreams. America has finally delivered on its promise that anyone born on its soil can achieve anything.

On 5th November 2008, Barack Hussein Obama won the epic contest to become the 44th President of the United States of America. It was the victory of progressiveness over backwardness, of diversity over monoculturalism, of honorable conduct over gutter politics. A nation celebrated, and the world celebrated with them.

With the benefit of hindsight, was it really going to be any other way? Not with a leader who had the charisma unseen since Bill Clinton. Not with a candidate who had been compared with Lincoln, Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr long before election day neared. In a nation clamoring for change, Obama not only offered it, but personified it.

The calamitous reign of George W Bush made it impossible for any Republican candidate. A catalog of disasters (self-inflicted and otherwise) made the American people sick of their incumbent party. McCain and Co compounded the problem with a dirty campaign that repelled most of the undecideds. The economy hit rock bottom just four weeks before the polls. And then, there was Sarah Palin. Enough said. The writing was on the wall.

Conservative, insular and parochial forces tried their best to set the evolutionary clock backwards, but sanity prevailed. Obama swept to victory in hotly contested Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and added insult to injury by prising Virginia. The traditional Democratic bastions remained blue, and McCain had to fall back on traditional Republican territory. When the dust settled, it was a monumental victory for Obama.

What does this mean for the world? Everything. America will no longer be wrongly perceived as an institution of white men trying to extend a colonialistic influence across the globe. America will be perceived for what it is, a great nation where blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, men, women, young and old belonged, and belonged equally. It is no longer white Uncle Sam zeroing in on unassuming targets. It’s no longer the bald eagle swooping down on oil-rich territory. America is now a friend to the world. A nation that offers hope and direction to an ailing planet.

It will be years, perhaps decades, before Americans realize the full magnitude of what they have done. They have freed their country from the shackles of slavery, slavery to parochial instincts, slavery to age-old prejudices, slavery to their own barriers.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”

Yes they did.

This is my India, now tell me yours

Gurdeep Singh returns to his grocery store from lunch. He is a strong, tall, turbaned, bearded Sikh. A Canadian Punjabi. He has been in Vancouver for the past 32 years. He set up his store in Vancouver’s Punjabi market, catering to the South Asian community. He has brought up his son and daughter lovingly, giving them the education he could.

To Gurdeep, India is Punjab. The wheat fields, the strong youth, the gurudwaras, the five rivers, the multitude of Sikh gurus. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the enduring symbol of his culture. One of his proudest moments was showing the great Sikh monument to both his Canadian-born children when they went back to Amritsar a few years ago. This is his India.

A thousand kilometres south in Sunnyvale, Krishnan is finishing his dosa at Saravana Bhavan, before driving off to catch the latest Tamil movie which has been released at the Indian Movie Center in a nearby suburb. Krishnan is the typical Bay Area Tamilian. He graduated from Anna University in Madras and joined a leading Silicon Valley firm. He started off as an R&D engineer and worked his way to a team lead position, where he drives a team of 8 R&D engineers.

To Krishnan, India is Tamil Nadu. His idea of going back to India is to fly to Madras, visit his parents in T Nagar, Ranganathan uncle in Mylapore, and his in-laws in Kanchipuram. He’s a Kamal Hassan fan, so he’ll have the usual banter with his cousin who’s a Rajnikanth fan. He also loves talking about the other great duality of Tamil Nadu: DMK and ADMK. He will argue about the relative merits of Vivek and Vadivelu, and the reasons surrounding Subramanian Badrinath’s omission from the Indian cricket team. This is his India.

Halfway across the globe in Hong Kong, Manish Wadhwani is in heated discussions with his associate regarding his firm’s latest line of clothing. It is late at night, so he will soon drive off home for his daily dose of chapati. He is the archetypal Sindhi businessman. He came to Hong Kong 18 years ago, set up a business in the textile industry, and made his fortune.

To Manish, India is Bombay and Baroda. His idea of a trip to India is to fly to Bombay, take a train to Baroda and meet his clan there. His family had migrated to Baroda from Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan, during the partition, but to all intents and purposes, their native place was Baroda. His choice of topics include a comparison of Hong Kong with Bombay, the religious riots in Gujarat a few years earlier, Narendra Modi’s politics, and the relative merits of Sindhis vis-a-vis Gujjus and Parsis, their fellow inhabitants of Gujarat. This is his India.

There are a million more Indias living in the minds of the Bengali in Kolkata, the Malayalee in Muscat, the Tamilian in Singapore, the Gujarati in Kenya, the Kannadiga in Mysore and the UP-ite in Kanpur. It could be Rabindra Sangeet and Rabindranath Tagore for the Bengali, it could be Mohanlal’s next show in Muscat for the Malayalee, it could be Mayawati’s latest insult to her political rival for the UP-ite. One way or another, regional identities are dominant in India. Indians from different parts of India invariably view the country through different glasses. They might as well ask one another, “This is my India, now tell me yours”.

Why are regional identities so important to Indians? The answer is that India is a country of many nations. Each linguistic community in India is an ethnic group with its own history and culture. Gujaratis, Punjabis, Hindi-speakers, Tamilians, Kannadigas and Marathis are ethnic groups as real as the French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Poles and Danes in Europe. Ignoring this and expecting all these communities to weld into one homogeneous identity is simply unrealistic. Indeed, attempts to homogenize Pakistan (a multi-ethnic country just like India) led to the loss of East Bengal, the 1972 riots between Urdu-speakers and Sindhis, and the continued separatism in Baluchistan. Even in India, an attempt to homogenize the country with one language invited a fierce backlash from the state of Tamil Nadu, which nearly seceded on the issue.

The best way to manage India’s diversity is to accept that the Indian national identity will always be the sum total of all its individual national identities. Unity is not about brushing differences under the carpet and pretending they don’t exist. Unity is about celebrating diversity, not ironing it out. It is about many colours in one rainbow. Regional identity does not conflict with Indian identity. In fact, it embellishes and adds vibrancy to it. Rabindranath Tagore, great son of Bengal and India, wrote Amar Shonar Bangla for Bengal and Jana Gana Mana for India. He was completely Bengali, completely Indian.

I’m writing this as a member of the Indian diaspora. As someone who has traveled to the northern, southern, eastern and western parts of India. As someone who knows Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil (in alphabetical order). As someone who watches movies in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu (again in alphabetical order). My India is an India of 22 languages, 6 religions and a kaleidoscope of diversity. Now tell me yours.

When humanity shone through

This is a fictional story, with fictional characters (including the narrator). But it is based on a very real calamity: Black July 1983 of Sri Lanka. In July 1983, Sri Lanka was in flames, with widespread anti-Tamil riots, murders and looting, and a blaze of destruction to Tamil businesses and institutions. However, humanity still shone through in the form of the Sinhalese who protected the Tamils from certain people who claimed to be Sinhalese but were in fact not even human.

It was 24th July 1983. I was an average ten-year old Sinhalese schoolchild in an average Colombo school. It was just like any other day. But at 3pm, the unexpected news came, and we were all jubilant. The school ended early! We had no idea why the school ended early, but we merrily left the building.

I was pleasantly surprised to see my parents’ car in the carpark. How did they know my school ended early? I went in happily. But there was no joy in my parents’ eyes. “Chaminda, get in, quick!” said my mother. “Ma, I thought I had to come home on my own. How did you know my school ended early?” There was a deafening silence as my parents looked at each other as if to say, “Don’t tell him.”

There was an eerie calm on the streets as we drove out. When when we proceeded further, I saw something I had never seen in my entire life: An upside-down car burning. “How did that car end up like that?”, I asked. Mom and dad pretended they never heard me.

Further down, I saw something else that puzzled me. A bunch of tall, large men with clubs and spears. “What is happening? Are they looking for people to beat up?”, I asked. Now I sensed something was wrong. School ending early with no apparent reason, a burning car, and now a bunch of rowdies on the streets. “They are beating up some people”, said my dad. “But they won’t beat us up”, he added. I wondered what made him so sure that they won’t beat us up. I was scared. Really frightened.

Dad then turned into a road we usually do not take. I knew he had some plan, but I didn’t know what it was. Presumably knowing that I would ask where we are going, my dad said, “We’re going to Siva Uncle’s place. Then we’ll take him to our house.”

I was old enough to connect the dots. The school ending early, the unusual atmosphere, rowdies on the street, Dad’s intention to take Siva Uncle to our house. I knew some people were in danger, and Siva Uncle was one of them. There was only one missing piece in the jigsaw: Why were some people in danger, and others were not?

This missing piece in the jigsaw fell into place when we waited at a traffic light. Another bunch of rowdies appeared. My heart was in my mouth when they came to us carrying their weapons. One of the men bellowed out a simple question. A question which slammed the missing piece of the jigsaw into my head with all the force of a sledgehammer. He hollered, “Sinhalese or Tamil?”

When my father stated the fact that all three of us belonged to the former community, the rowdies started to move away. Then one of them said, “Wait. Open the boot and show us!” My dad opened the boot. Looking in and finding no one, they charged off.

We turned into one of the streets on the way to Siva Uncle’s place. We were entering Wellawatte, the Tamil locality of Colombo. A shrill, piercing scream filled the air. I saw something burning in the distance. “Chaminda, close your eyes!” screamed mum. I immediately obeyed. As we drove through the street, I smelt suffocating fumes, heard unknown objects being smashed brutally, and listened to people screaming agonizingly. All with my eyes closed. I dared not open them. In retrospect, I wish I had opened my eyes. Because imagination is a terrible thing. In my darkest nightmares, those screams come back to me, embellished with the most horrible images that my imagination can conjure.

We reached Siva Uncle’s place. “Siva, come in!”, called my father. Siva tried to open the boot and get in. Dad said, “No Siva, change of plan, you go to the back of the car instead of the boot.” Siva Uncle said, “But if they see me in the back of the car and suspect that I could be…” Dad interrupted, “If they see you in the boot, they won’t suspect, they’ll know.” Siva Uncle got into the back of the car.

Siva Uncle was a friend of my dad. A Tamil as his name suggests. He had just to moved to Colombo from Jaffna three months earlier, so his Sinhalese language proficiency was only basic. We spoke to him in English most of the time. But my mum suddenly asked him in Sinhalese, “Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Siva Uncle replied in Sinhalese, “I’m Sinhalese.” Mom said, “The accent is still not perfect. Please say it again. Everything could depend on it.” He said it a few more times. Then they moved on to other, longer phrases. Within five minutes, Siva Uncle knew how to say, “Yes, I agree that we should kick the Tamils out of the country” in Sinhalese.

We proceeded. Siva Uncle said a few times, “I don’t know if Kamala is alright.” Kamala Aunty was his pregnant wife in Jaffna. He had just married her a year earlier and left for Colombo against her will, citing greater economic opportunities in Colombo. He was supposed to stay in Colombo for a few years, make enough money, send back enough of it, and then eventually go back to Jaffna. A simple plan, but it was suddenly in serious jeopardy.

Luckily, we managed to bring Siva Uncle home without any interruption or interrogation by the rowdies. Once we got home, Siva Uncle was anxious to contact Kamala as soon as possible. Our home did not have a phone (most homes in Sri Lanka did not at that time). Dad suggested, “I have an idea, but it’s a bit risky. We need to leave our house for a while. You said Kamala’s neighbour has a phone. My elder brother works nearby. We can go to his office and make the call. Don’t worry, we’ll get you there quickly and get you back quickly.”

Mum said, “No, Mahinda. Don’t take the risk. We’ve gone through so much to bring Siva home. Don’t let it go to waste.” Dad spent a few moments in thoughtful silence, and then said, “In that case, there’s only one thing I can think of. I’ll go on my own and call Kamala. What would you like me to tell her? You want her to come here or go anywhere else? Or just stay in Jaffna?” Siva Uncle replied, “There are refugee camps being established all over the country, including Jaffna. Tell her to go to one of those camps near Jaffna.”

Dad drove off to make the call. Those thirty minutes were hell. Though I was only ten years old, I could understand how it felt when a loved one was at risk. We were all quietly praying that dad would return with good news.

When dad got back, Siva Uncle asked agitatedly, “What happened? Did you speak to Kamala?” There was a deafening silence as we waited for the answer. Dad said, “No, but…” We all screamed, “But what?!!” Dad then broke the news. “She’s not in Jaffna. I spoke to your neighbour Mr Salim, and he said Kamala has taken a flight to Madras along with a few hundred other Tamils. She’s safe there!”

Siva Uncle hugged dad. We enjoyed unlimited relief. Siva Uncle then went up to a statue of Buddha we had, touched it, and then touched both his eyes.

Dad then elaborated, “Kamala is in a refugee camp near Madras. Once you go there, both of you will be safe. Now we need to get you to Madras.” Mum said, “Yes, but let’s wait a day or two for the violence to die down.”

The next day, something we dreaded happened. A couple of large, armed men knocked on our door and asked the inevitable question, “Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Dad gave a reply which has stayed in my mind ever since. I still give the same answer whenever anyone asks me if I’m Sinhalese or Tamil. Dad said, “I’m a Sri Lankan.”

The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that this answer has never been sufficient. These intruders were not satisfied with the answer. They kept repeating the question. My mom then asked an interesting question. She said, “You can’t tell the difference between a Sinhalese and a Tamil unless you ask them, but you still kill people based on that difference?”

One of the rowdies bellowed, “I’m not here for a philosophical discussion. Don’t quote dhammapadha (Buddhist scriptures) here. Tell me if you’re Sinhalese or Tamil.”

If my dad had told him his name was Mahinda Gunasinghe and we were Sinhalese, the next natural step would have been searching the house, finding Siva Uncle in one of the rooms and demanding what he was doing there? Was he related to us, was he my dad’s brother, or worst of all, was he a Tamil to whom we had given shelter? Sensing this, my dad did something I least expected. He said, “My name is Mahendran Gunasingam.”

Hearing this Tamil name, the two rowdies charged in on him. My dad blocked both of them with a skilful maneuvre. He punched one of them in the neck and kicked the other in the underbelly. With a series of quick, dexterous maneuvres, he battered the rowdies into submission. As the rowdies ran away, dad said, “Come to Dehiwala Karate School! I’ve been Chief Instructor there for the past eight years!”

Siva Uncle came out of one of the rooms, and cried, “Mahinda, why did you put your life at risk for me?” Dad replied, “It takes much more than those two creatures to put my life at risk. You know very well what I do for a living!”

Based on the news in the radio, we sensed that the tensions had died down over the next two days. On 28th July, Siva Uncle left our home, giving me a kiss and hug before he left. Mom told me Siva Uncle was going to Madras to reunite with Kamala Aunty. She also added that Canada had offered to give asylum to the Tamils, and Siva and Kamala would soon leave Madras for Toronto. I asked mum, “What is meant by giving asylum to the Tamils?” Mum smiled wistfully, perhaps envious of my blissful ignorance. She said, “It means the Tamils can go to a country where they will be treated as humans.”

Later, we received the good news that Siva Uncle and Kamala Aunty had made it to Toronto without any hurdles. 25 years on, they are still happy and peaceful in Toronto. They are Canadian citizens, and both their sons are engineers. They go out on the streets knowing they won’t be arrested. They go to temples knowing they will return safely. They look to the skies for the stars, not for the planes. They can safely guess that they and their loved ones will be alive in an hour’s time.

I’m 25 years older now. In 1983, I had a lot of questions. Why should we kill someone for speaking a different language or worshipping a different god? Why did we, my dad, my mum, have humaneness while others did not? How is someone treated as a human being in all countries except his own? Many things were strange to me. 25 years later, they still are.