A friend said she was looking forward to reading my novel while on holiday in Sri Lanka, and she'd write a review when back in London. What she didn't know was that her sister took this picture while she was asleep in a jungle lodge. She is now on p186 by the way and swears she is enjoying the read. She was just very tired when this photo was taken.
After the murders in Westgate shopping mall renewed prejudice against Muslims, I started thinking about the world we live in. There are mentally unstable people with access to guns in every country, not to mention dictators who commit genocide or oppress the poor. Yet this is nothing new. Humans have been fighting each other all the way back to hundreds of years B.C. using race and religion as excuses.
When a tragedy happens, like the shootings in Kenya, I keep hearing that morals and violence get worse by the day. In other words, the world has changed and nobody asked our permission. Yet I’m not so sure that we have got that much worse. It’s our expectations that have developed over the centuries. As we become more educated with access to other communities through the internet we claim to be more civilised and dare I say it, we expect peace and an end to poverty.
For example, the World Wide Web Foundation was founded in 2009 by Tim Berners-Lee to further the potential of the Web to benefit humanity.
As the leading organisation set up to end conflict, the United Nations is often criticised for not having teeth but that’s the beauty of it. A grandfather in a rocking chair, it offers words of wisdom and once in a while, waves its walking stick as a warning. If it were however to gain any real power, it would become part of the problem, which would defeat the purpose of its existence. The UN definitely works best at helping and guiding rather than imposing its views.
So what can be done about peace and poverty? I know that as individuals, most people are decent: we donated more to the Tsunami charities in 2004 than all the world’s governments gave in aid. So this is where the power for good lies. It’s when we group together as politicians in government, religious and political clusters, or as company employees that we fight to be alpha males and females, taking advantage of others for profit or self-gain.
Before I go any further, I’ll say that the only politics I’ve studied was one module at university where I read Edmund Burke’s work, Reflections on the French Revolution as political theory. Later I discovered that it’s civil servants who wield power in government, not members of parliament and apart from setting up national health and education systems, all that politicians achieve with their hot air speeches is global warming.
Combine all of the above and I can’t help feeling that while there are politicians, there will never be peace; while there are profit-motivated organisations, there will never be a permanent end to poverty; and clusters of people, different by race or religion, also cause wars. All these groups have the might and power in society because humans are animals at the core. We have a pack mentality and it’s about the survival of the fittest.
Luckily for us, evolution and civilisation have kicked in and charities like UNICEF come into the picture. History shows that when it comes to real and lasting good, you can forget about the self-serving lot in parliaments and board rooms throughout the globe; and to a certain extent, you can forget about different races and religions. It’s only not-for-profits and people acting as individuals that can be unselfish. There is a valid argument though that you have to be competitive to be effective, because resources are and always will be limited but this shouldn’t be the dog fight it has often become.
I suppose my point is that there has to be a way that charities and individuals can lead the way in which society works. A partial Utopia if you like. Although I'm suggesting individuals should have a direct say in how a country should be run, rather than vote in governments, it’s clearly impractical for us to have a referendum on every law or decision. But there has to be something more humane than what we have now: sick people globally are denied drugs because pharmaceutical companies would rather have profits. Communism was a great concept but it didn’t work because it was run by politicians and once again a group took over and was corrupted by power. I’d love to come up with a feasible alternative to what we’ve currently got and what has already been tried, but as I’ve only got Reflections on the French Revolution to rely on for political theory, it might take a while.
I sometimes wonder if I should learn more about Sri Lankan literature and poets, rather than quoting English ones. However, through living in London for most of my life and being educated here, the British classics are also part of who I am. So this is why I am writing about the well-known poem, The Soldier.
This sonnet by Rupert Brooke, written while a soldier in WW1, is all the more poignant as he died aged 27, on Skyros, an island off Greece. While I don’t see war as a solution to problems, nor do I wish to undermine the risks taken by armed and security forces for the benefit of others. So I was in two minds about relating this poem to immigrants but the sentiments of being far from your country of affection apply to me as well as they do to soldiers. The expression of longing in particular, has always meant a lot to me since I first heard it. Above all, the writing is understated and powerful, crossing all borders such that England also means Sri Lanka, or whichever country you want it to be.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Following the ruling today in the UK that a muslim woman has to lift her veil only when giving evidence in court, I listened to the debate on BBC Asian Network then thought about clothes associated with religion. The woman is due to stand trial accused of intimidating a witness, so it’s not exactly a trivial matter. Much has been spoken about the right to live according to one’s religion and opinion seems to be divided as to whether or not muslim women should wear veils in public. As far as the court case is concerned, it was right that her face be visible when she gives evidence, but the judge ought to have gone further and said her reactions to witnesses’ evidence should also be visible to the lawyers, judge and jury.
Looking at the social aspect, given that racism can begin with a failure to integrate, and add to that the gender inequality in religion generally, I feel strongly that women should be made to lift their veil when in public. This is as much about individual freedom as it is a security issue. Much is to be said for France’s secular approach and the banning of the veil in public places but France can be racist too, particularly towards immigrants so I’m not entirely sure of the motives behind its move.
On another note, I have seen women lift the niqab to eat in a restaurant so I don't see how this can be as sensitive a religious issue as is sometimes claimed.
I am also against Sikhs being allowed to wear turbans instead of crash helmets while riding a motorcycle. Turbans don’t provide anything near the same amount of protection as a helmet does, so here it should be a case of fitting in with what everybody else has to do. However, a doctor I know said that after an accident, all a helmet does is hold a broken skull together until the biker arrives in hospital. I have no idea if this is true or not and the comment should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. (Ordinary kitchen brand will do. It doesn't have to be the fancy Maldon type).
But of all the religious clothing used to differentiate individuals, my overriding objection is to the veil, which is used to mentally imprison women. Islam is one of many religions that need to be hauled into the 21st century, with gender equality for its followers the first principle.
Having just finished reading Invisible Lives by Anjali Banerjee and looking for inspiration for my next piece of writing, I thought about sixth sense and the supernatural. Something that goes crash bang wallop in the night is me getting out of bed without switching on the light, so I can safely say that ghosts don’t exist. On the other hand, it’s not so simple with Extra Sensory Perception. In Invisible Lives, Lakshmi uses her magical powers of “knowing” to choose saris that will change her customers' lives. This is not as strange as it sounds. Selling a yellow sari to someone who is obviously unhappy will give them a lift unless they’re suffering from clinical depression.
Animals are also said to possess a sixth sense. When the Tsunami happened near the Sri Lankan jungle in December 2004, there weren’t any wildlife casualties, only human ones, the theory being that creatures fled to higher ground when they sensed danger. However, wildlife also has its own warning systems such as monkeys screeching in tree tops, so it’s quite possible that this is what alerted the leopards, boars and bears among others, to escape to safety.
As for me, aeons ago, I had a recurring dream where the streets around my home were teeming with police. At the time I didn’t place any importance on it. However, a couple of years later, I returned home after working away and there were indeed police lined up along the roads because a man had holed himself in his flat with a shotgun, having just lost his daughter in a custody battle. At first I thought I had the power of premonition but I lived in inner London and watched many TV series with similar scenes of police cordoning off areas, so the recurring dream wasn’t anything extraordinary when you think about it. Having said this, there are some who are more in tune with their surroundings and who have a deeper understanding of others, which is why they can harness these thoughts and feelings to sense what most can’t.
While much of this is harmless, some use the supernatural and spiritual to manipulate the vulnerable. We all know the rumours around Scientology but what about Christianity? Isn’t the priest who confirms to an elderly person that yes, there are spirits in their home, then charges the old person a fee to bless the house and exorcise the spirits, a manipulator? Isn’t the person who gives the elderly a “healing” stone to ward off evil, preying on the vulnerable? Yet when such influence comes under the guise of concern, we seem to accept it more.
Finally, there’s nothing spooky about coincidences. If you bump into a friend at the shopping mall, it’s because people of similar minds gather together and have similar habits.
And that’s all it is really. Sixth sense, or instinct, isn't a mysterious power from the gods. It's being in tune with what’s going on around you and acting out of habit.
I’m often asked what it was like writing my novel from a child’s point of view. As with other characters, I had to get into the mind of the person speaking, so in that respect it’s no harder than speaking as an adult whose life is different to mine. Surprisingly though, it was liberating because I could relive my childhood freely and allow Rohini to be more rebellious than I was while growing up. I also gave her a friend who was more like a sister. The latter is something I never had and for which I often wished.
Writing in a child’s voice sometimes lifted my business days when I was in meetings I didn't need to be at; although I had close moments with colleagues while I was living in the world of a seven-year-old in my head. Usually I could switch mode quite easily but I was once asked to attend a project finance meeting with my private sector client, bankers and the public sector. All parties had their respective lawyers and financial advisers there. I wasn’t really needed for more than five minutes in the afternoon but it was deemed necessary that I be there for the whole day. Needless to say, I drifted off and visited Rohini's world in my head. Then someone asked me a question in the meeting and I had to snap back to reality, almost saying, “I’ll do my very best.” Luckily, I don't think anyone noticed the slight pause before I answered. Perhaps others were also writing their own stories.
As well as the child’s voice, I wrote as Sohan, an adult male. I was hesitant about writing as a man, especially one who grew up in Sri Lanka but I took the plunge and went ahead. I then came across a website that claimed it could determine if text was written by a man or woman. I tested it with a chunk of Sohan’s writing and was chuffed when it reported back that the extracts were 65% male. I didn’t mind about the feminine 35%, because I was keen that he retained some sensitivity, which rightly or wrongly is a trait attributed to women. I don’t know that there was any science behind the analysis but it was a bit of fun.
Then we have writing as someone from a different race. I have done this myself in short stories and was less certain about that than speaking as a man or a child. Race is such a sensitive issue that this crossover point of view isn’t often talked about openly. In Pigeon English, based on his experiences as a social worker, Stephen Kelman writes as a young black boy. At first, I thought, ‘Here we go, another patronising white person pretending to be ethnic.’ Having read the first few pages though, that wasn’t how the story came across. Presumably he also wrote the rest of the book in the same vein.
On the other hand, I have seen a white African author write unsuccessfully from a black man’s point of view. It jarred with me because she didn’t get under his skin. She wrote about him as a white middle-class person who had only known blacks as servants and it didn’t feel real. The character wanted to follow a new profession, which the author researched but she hadn't tried to understand what motivated him. Had she made the effort to get to know similar people or even establish what it feels like growing up in a settlement, she would have had a more authentic point of view and it's a shame she didn’t go the whole hog. As it is, she wrote her story with compassion so she may get away with it because the novel will appeal to the white middle-class, which will be her main readership.
And that brings me to the end of this particular blog. Yet again, I find that it all comes back to writing about anything you like so long as you know your subject, and if you don’t then you ought to do your research.