Basil is dead. Mint is dead. The second bilin tree in the back garden may survive its transplant. Our original bilin tree burst into fruit as it does every year – the only tree in our small garden which asks so little, gives so generously. I am picking and picking and picking and the fruit is not ending. I think I am done and there are three baskets full but then I look up and see the top branches are still filled with fruit. At the bottom is an electric green carpet – impatient at our slowness, fruit has ripened and rotted and fallen down in a soft, mushy carpet over the soil. Bilin is a strange thing to have an abundance of. It lacks the utility of coconut, the luxury of mangoes, the giftability of apples. There are limits to the amount of bilin one can pickle, salt, produce, eat and give away. But let’s see.
I was gifted an orchid plant at the beginning of this year. There has been some emotional transference with the plant and the giver of plant and it is etched in my head that this plant’s health is intertwined with the health of this relationship. My efforts to keep the plant alive is matched by the plant’s tendency to wither at small provocations and a stubborn refusal to display any indicators of development. The orchids it arrived with fell off a long time ago. There are no buds or new leaves yet. But it is alive. It is alive. I think. Orchids are a low-grow plant. You will not see fast results. It takes a long time for flowers to appear the man at the plant stall tells me as he hands over a bottle of plant food. We are in a market built on a razed memorial for the disappeared. I keep forgetting to use the plant food.
My mother’s garden is my mother’s garden but I have taken a few plants to brighten up my walled balcony which once overlooked a thicket of trees and the day’s skies and now overlooks nothing. Every day I examine each plant for changes. Every new leaf is a small triumph. Every dead leaf is a personal affront. I am learning to not recoil from the tiny creatures that burrow the soil. I am learning patience from plants. I am learning mutability. I am learning about relationships.
The cost of everything has risen over the months. Sometimes, the thumbnails of groceries on online stores have prices from last year – when juxtaposed against the new prices, the increases hit home in a way no infographic will. There is a food crisis imminent in Sri Lanka. Small businesses grapple with costs and shortages, food inflation hovers near 90%, the black market has blossomed, eateries close down. We are told that there is already malnutrition taking root as many have been forced to cut down the quality and quantity of their meals. What this means is that swathes of people, who have already been hard hit for a long time now, will be dealt an even bigger blow.
I see narratives about revitalising local food production but our systems are ill-equipped to handle this swell in national consumption in so short a time. In Hambanthota last year, we stopped at a fruit seller who was selling watermelons the size of a small fist. It took us a few seconds to recognize these as watermelons. The effects of the fertiliser crisis are also still unfolding on top of everything else. For those of us who are disconnected from the systems of production, for those lulled by QR codes and rationed petrol and cardboard stability, this will not hit us until it hits us.
On some days I keep wondering what we – my family, my friends – should be doing to withstand a food crisis and to help others get to the other side of it. We convened fundraisers through family in my father’s hometown to ensure that families have access to dry rations. There are stories of mutual aid, community kitchens, workplaces quietly galvanizing to help employees. On Twitter, I see that some have converted plots of land into home gardens and community gardens. A few weeks ago, the government declared (and then soon rescinded) Friday as a public holiday to encourage public servants to cultivate home gardens and embark on overnight self-sufficiency – edicts by men who have never spent a day with their hands in soil. This simmering anxiety bubbles over sometimes. We should convert our garden into a vegetable plot! Why aren’t we growing more herbs? Let’s grow more herbs! Why isn’t the spinach growing? We should be doing more. We should be doing more! What should we be doing? Even as the words tumble out I realise how I sound. My mother – her hands, a skin-report of scars and rough, peeling skin from working with soil and kitchen work and housework. My mother has always been working. I have never known her not to work. In my dreams, I have worked to build her a softer life – just looks at me. She just looks at me.
April: Kaputu kaak kaak kaak kaak
Kaputu kaaak kaak kaak kaak basil basil basil basil. It is lodged in my head. It is a traffic ditty. An aural emblem of solidarity. Someone starts it in the hope that someone else will respond. And someone always responds. I hear it on roads far away from the protest space. They begin dancing to it at weddings. When I pray at 5 am, it loops in my brain. During the Sinhala-Tamil new year week in April, I go to Galle Face and I am cocooned in crowds so vast, so loud I forget my name, who I am. Kaputu kaaak kaak kaak kaak basil basil basil basil. I try to explain all of this to a foreign journalist who has never written about Sri Lanka but like many now wants to write about Sri Lanka and is looking for sound bites and digestible pithy answers to complex questions. He doesn’t get it.
July: 12 July 2022
When a country runs out of money to pay for fuel, its logistic arteries clog. Fuel lines snake on for kilometres; cement bulkers hug three-wheelers hug motorcycles hug sleek cars that are more expensive than your home. The few buses and trains available are teeming with people. Ambulances stop operating in some areas. People ration fuel, measuring their movements according to their petrol bars. There are reports of people jumping into houses to siphon petrol. Food delivery apps encourage underpaid riders to deliver on push bicycles in sweltering heat. This is rebranded as agility, as business adaptation, as resilience.
There are little or no three-wheelers and cabs. Commuting involves transport patchwork, tenacity, luck — you go as far as a three-wheeler is willing to take you and then you find another three-wheeler/walk/bus it until you reach your destination. At the hospital this week, the recurring question among everyone waiting for their procedures was how did you come how did you come. People are dying in fuel queues. In parts of the island, people die unable to access emergency services in time. These lives become marginalia in a crisis.
On 9 July, previously waning protests peak. The visuals from this day, the numbers are even more impressive when you consider the logistical gymnastics everyone had to go through to get to the site. People walked for kilometres and hitched rides. That night we walked against the throngs of people returning home from the protests. A couple ambled in the way new lovers do, hand in hand, both clutching crumpled Sri Lankan flags. Occasionally, dimo batta lorries, cars packed with people returning from Galle Face rupture silent roads.
When a country runs out of fuel, in the absence of city traffic at night, Colombo's cats come out. Cats occupy empty roads, curl up on pavements. One cat crosses at the pedestrian crossing but skitters off when it sees us. On Twitter, Vajra wrote of 7 ginger cats observing people like oracles. This one, pictured here, sat watching protesters huddle into the few open restaurants that night — hungry, exuberant, loud.
Tonight, before the full moon, we walked the same route as the other night. The roads are less empty — there's fuel on the black market or if you can wait it out for a few days in a line you may get lucky. Maybe. How does an entire country run out of fuel? What level of inefficiency do you have to descend to for this to happen?
Gas distribution began after months today – there has been no gas to cook in the past months and many people who ran out have had to find alternative ways of food preparation. I look for the cats from the other night but they have receded into the shadows.
August: How to dismantle a protest
Dylan Thomas on a denim shirt at the protests: Do not go gentle into that good night [...] Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In the past months in Sri Lanka, protests grew from pocket neighbourhood protests to the kind of crowds and movements that I did not think I would see in my lifetime. I kept going to the protest village that was set up in a state-designated protest site to minimise the ‘inconvenience’ of protest – a delicious act of subversion and public reclaiming of space. The protest village was flanked by buildings, a beach promenade, a reclaimed land project, a vast shopping mall and plush apartment complex, constructions and multiple hotels including an intimidating 5-star hotel I always feel like a social upstart walking into.
The recent protests didn’t begin because people who voted for a military man with a rich history of racism, nepotism, and corruption and lacked political governance experience suddenly realised that they had voted for a military man with a rich history of racism, nepotism, and corruption and lacked political governance experience. The protests began because the systems which protected a majority of people in this country disintegrated and there was a rupture in long-established status quos. For a while, the protest village offered a promise. It offered a physical space for people fuelled by this dissatisfaction, people hungry and hopeful for larger change, people who had been resisting and fighting for change for years. There were teach-outs tackling complicated topics. There were screenings, theatre, dance, exorcism rituals, political art, a community kitchen, a vast crowd-sourced library that could not keep up with donations. Colombo had its first pride march. Commemorations for the war were held – commemoration as a moment of reflection and remembrance instead of military triumph. The space was not idyllic. There were multiple movements within it, it was messy, never static. Ideological differences, homophobia, transphobia, murmurs of koti katha after May 26, violence, deaths, shades of ethnonationalism, sexism and gendered politics which spilt over in many ways, class fissures. These were also embedded within the protest. Resistance is messy. Change means different things to different people.
I kept going to the space to interview people, to be immersed in it. On some days, I would go to walk through and see how the space had changed since my last visit – because it kept changing and growing and gasping for air and fumbling like a new-born animal. I went during the day. I went at night. After work, my laptop bag chafing my shoulders. Alone. With friends. With hesitant family. In rain. I went, even as I had my to-do list piled up, even as I had chores and work to attend to. I wanted, for a moment, to be steeped in something that was larger than myself. I had reservations about the nuances within the protest beyond the immediate economic crisis. About intersectionality. About what fuelled the protest. But I kept going. My unease with large crowds did not abate. My discomfort with national symbols and patriotism intensified. I am still distrustful of performative unity, of the uncritical lauding of homogeneity. One night, someone hands me a black and white leaflet with a quote by Pablo Neruda in English and Sinhala: “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” For a while, I stand there thinking about Neruda’s admission to raping a Tamil woman when he was a diplomat in Ceylon. “It was the coming together of a man and a statue,” he wrote about the rape in his memoirs. I do not know if a pan-Sri Lankan identity exists – or if there is, I don’t know where I belong in this definition. But still I kept going, in search of something I could not name.
In multiple interviews with multiple people at multiple points at GGG over the months, the recurring verbal leitmotif which ran throughout was aadaraya aragalaya, aadaraya aragalaya. You look sceptical. One interviewee squints and peers at me. It is May. We are in the library at GGG. I am face masked but perhaps something is spilling over. The day we speak is a very Wrath-of-Gods-Rain day. Step out of the tent, and you slip-slide in mud. Inside the tent, there is a rush to place buckets under the leaks to protect the books. It is cold, wet, miserable. What am I doing here? Why am I here? Many of the protestors I speak to are out of Colombo. Those living in Colombo visiting GGG have places to return to rest and rejuvenate, many who came from other parts of this island did not have this logistical luxury. Many I speak to have come at great personal and fiscal cost. I hear stories from people around the island who did not have much but travelled to Colombo to contribute in whatever small way they could (books for the library, food for protestors), to brush against what felt like a pivotal moment. I don't answer his question. How long have you been here? I ask him as the rains intensify. I have to repeat the question to be heard over the rain. Since the start. Since the start.
Gotagogama, the protest village, was dismantled this month. The crisis and protests brought about some semblance of a large civic movement, the resignation of a president, a prime minister and his son, a governor of the Central Bank who had a talent of saying a lot of things without saying anything, deaths, violence, the burning of MP’s houses, a very public pool party, commentary on presidential underwear from a bedroom in the presidential secretariat, promises of change. What has also since ensued is a systematic crackdown of selected protestors by the state apparatus to decapitate any stirrings of resistance.
October: Persevering, still
I don’t know if it’s civic timidity or a scarcity of hope or trying to juggle all the moving parts of life or the compound of COVID years and multiple crises catching up but I am exhausted in new ways and so jaded and on many days it is hard to keep moving and working and have the audacity to dream and plan in the face of so much structural collapse. The general consensus by people who pay attention to certain indicators and forecast and predict things is that things will get worse before they get better. On social media, I see people urging others to practice positivity and hope. And while these are important ingredients, they cannot substitute and need to complement community, collective care, well-designed systems which serve the public and economic justice. Perhaps it is easier to be prescriptive and pontificate (…and write long essays) when you have certain privileges to buttress you. It is hard to run purely on positivity when everything around you is burning, when you’re struggling to get by, when your material conditions are dire. In times of crisis, many are forced to switch to survival mode. And in this country, many have been in survival mode long before this crisis. Of late, I notice myself teetering towards cynicism and hopelessness and being dulled into deep despair and inaction and I keep having to consciously pull myself back and look for new tools, communities and systems to manage these because these feelings can be corrosive and the erosion, once it sets in, is hard to scour off. I already recognize the rust in my relationships, in work, in the ways I am engaging with the world.
I walked past the GGG site this week and I wondered if I dreamed up the protests, the crowds, the music shows, the theatre, the chants, the art, the library, the sign boards, the performances — the site was bare except for a few people playing cricket. A disgraced president is back in the country, out of the public eye. The political parties which deepened the crisis are still in power. They are now in the middle of an aggressive rebrand and redemption tour, distancing themselves from the president and past policies, feigning multiple public epiphanies and penitence and co-opting protest vocabularies about system change and civic education. There is a lot of public posturing and soulful thoughts from many who had no qualms aligning with or profiting from a racist, corrupt regime until now.
When I think of the changes in the past few months, I think of these words by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery in Joyful Militancy.
“The upwelling of conviviality and joyful forms of life is only one tendency among others in situations where control is abated. Alongside these are other tendencies: waves of sexualized violence, hoarding, bunkerism, fascist vigilantes, intimidation and violence from military and police, and desires for control based in fear and mistrust. To reinstall its rhythms, Empire [sidebar: ‘Empire’ is used in the book as an overarching term for the organized destruction under which we live] must turn these moments into situations of extreme deprivation and violence so that its subjects can only experience the suspension of control as a horrifying prospect. The bubbling up of decentralized, convivial forms of life must be crushed as quickly as possible and “order” must be restored. In this sense, Empire’s means of counterinsurgency include not only police repression but also the liquidation of emergent orders, the stoking of divisions and terror, and the reinstallation of individualizing and isolating forms of life. People go back to their jobs, their houses, their smartphones, and control returns.”
These days fuel is rationed through a QR code system. Power cuts are back. We are so used to 13, 10, 6-hour power cuts that 3-hour power cuts are only a minor inconvenience to rearrange life around. Time is both fast and slow in this country. Last month, I had three farewells. Many are leaving en masse, not out of a shiny-eyed vision of greener pastures but out of steel-cold necessity. In the news this week was the story of a young man who tried to swim to India, dodging bullets from the navy. I have been thinking of lines from a Warsan Shire poem. “Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth” / “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” / “I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing”. At the passport office, after 8 hours of waiting, I received my new passport at 9.30 pm. The waiting room is packed. Life feels like a photocopy of itself. Everyone is adapting, adapting. We will adapt and compromise and origami ourselves to adjust to the new shapes our lives are taking until we are unrecognisable. If we are among the lucky ones, when all this is over, we will be able to unfold whatever shape we have taken to survive and the indentations will not be too deep. This all sounds very beige and it's not as though there are moments of colour and warmth and kindness still tinting life but everyone is also frayed at the edges. It is hard to know what the next week will look like. It is hard not to feel anger and sadness. I’m telling myself to focus on solid things … but everything melts replied a friend to a text message a while ago. I thought this was a beautiful way to articulate the disorientation of navigating shifting baselines.
I have been searching for joy, for new ways of being, ways of seeing, helping, ways of working and creating. In Joyful Militancy, bergman and Montgomery reclaim and reshape the idea of militancy and write about community, resistance and joy in times of hardship. While they are thinking and writing from and about specific contexts, parts of it have stuck and can be transferable.
“When people find themselves genuinely supported and cared for, they are able to extend this to others in ways that seemed impossible or terrifying before. When people find their bellies filled and their minds sharpened among communal kitchens and libraries, hatred for capitalist ways of life grows amid belonging and connection. When someone receives comfort and support from friends, they find themselves willing to confront the abuse they have been facing. When people develop or recover a connection to the places where they live, they may find themselves standing in front of bulldozers to protect that place. When people begin to meet their everyday needs through neighbourhood assemblies and mutual aid, all of a sudden they are willing to fight the police, and the fight deepens bonds of trust and solidarity. Joy can be contagious and dangerous.”
“In this sense, joy does not come about by avoiding pain, but by struggling amidst and through it. To make space for collective feelings of rage, grief, or loneliness can be deeply transformative. Empire, in contrast, works to keep its subjects stuck in individualizing sadness: held in habits and relationships that are depleting, toxic, and privatized. This stagnation might be held in place by the pursuit of happiness, and the attempt to numb or avoid pain. To be more fully present, in contrast, means tuning in to that which affects us, and participating actively in the forces that shape us.
This tuning-in might be subtle and tender, or it might be a violent act of refusal. Sometimes these shifts are barely perceptible and take place over decades, and sometimes they are dramatic and world-shaking. For Deleuze, thought begins from cramped spaces where one is hemmed in by the forces of subjection. It is not an act of individual will, but a scream that interrupts unbearable forces, opening space for more active combat. This is why so many movements and struggles begin with a scream of refusal: NO, ¡Ya Basta!, Enough!, Fuck off. They interrupt Empire’s powers of subjection and make new practices and new worlds possible. One spark of refusal can lead to an upwelling of collective rage and insurrection. In this way, joy can erupt from despair, rage, hopelessness, resentment, or other so-called “negative” emotions.”
Every other day I go to my grandmother's to tell her the power cut schedules, news updates. Her face has taken on a permanently grumpy expression because the ends of her mouth have comically embraced gravity. The edges of her irises are milky grey with age and cataracts. What is this life, what is this life? she sighs on particularly hard days. My grandmother is the strongest person I know. I told her once, in passing, during our conversations, that I wanted to get anthuriums for my balcony garden. This week my grandmother – who is in her late 80s, whose peers have passed away, who rarely leaves the house and is very offline – has procured, through the mysterious powers she wields and the networks she is a part of, three anthurium plants for me. Pink. White. Red.
The second bilin tree did not survive its migration to the backyard. The herb garden is one mint plant, persevering. One morning I go to my balcony and the orchid plant has produced a gentle pink flower and with the promise of three more nestled within translucent pink-green buds. Burst into blossom implies an immediacy which elides the labour and listlessness of the past ten months. While writing I shy away from bloom to describe this. It doesn’t fit. Bloom conjures images of colour! Effortless time-lapses of buds growing into flowers! Beauty! Once again I am grating against the inadequacies of the English language for the moment we are suspended in, I am coming up against my own limitations.
It is October. I am here. The orchid plant I have been tending to for ten months is alive. It has given me one perfect flower.