The late Nihal Fernando knew this country through and through.The nation, it her multiple facets, physical and social, walked through his eyes into his heart. What the lens captured, he shared with the world. Certain things that settle in the heart are not as easily shared, however. Not for lack of desire of course. Such as what I describe below.
In his later years, Uncle Nihal, as I fondly called him, wanted to get people of his generation to write what they knew of the country and their ideas about how to right her wrongs. He even had a title for this collection of articles that never got written in the way he wanted: ‘Sri Lanka: a land without tears.’
Well, it’s not that we haven’t had reason to weep and it’s not that we’ve not shed tears. Uncle Nihal focused on the positives, that’s all. He saw all the beauty of this land and its people, the past that is so present and the heritage that is very much alive.
He was an icon. Typically there are libraries housed in what is iconic and this holds true for him as well. Those stories probably left mark on people and things. His signature would be remembered and later, like all things, forgotten. Just like this note and what it’s all about.
I interviewed Uncle Nihal almost twenty years ago. Manik De Silva, Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Island gave that piece a title, ‘Nihal Fernando: the Lanka lover behind the lens.’ That love is clearly evident in all his photographs and the various collections published over the years.
But then there’s love that rarely surfaces to the public domain. In his case it emphatically did during the long, arduous and ultimately successful battle to save the Eppawala phosphate deposits from Freeport-McMoRan and a clueless and spineless set of politicians. Most of it was probably behind the scenes, where too a lot gets done.
Today, re-reading that interview I cam across a gem he shared with me. This is how I wrote it:
‘Being the self-effacing man that he is, he refused to give a picture of himself, so I asked him to select a picture that best represents his beliefs. And he gave the one that was carried in the Eppawala poster. It had the following caption: “ape paduwe inna denna” (LEAVE US ALONE!”). I believe it captures more than an appropriate slogan for a particular struggle, but is the defining political line that can bring us true independence.’
Ape paaduwe inna denna. It deserves separate commentary. I’ll leave it aside. What’s relevant here is the following anecdote:
‘Once a World Bank official had invited Nihal to lunch at a five-star hotel. Nihal had said “I can’t afford it.” The official had said “No, I will pay.” Nihal’s answer is a classic in that it contains the essence of the political economy governing our lives, the threat and the answer to everything that seeks to destroy our way of life and our heritage: “No, you don’t understand, I am paying!”’
Each time we pow-wow with the enemy (and he clearly saw the institutions and their personnel as such), we run the risk of having to suffer. Having to pay. And he knew we, as a nation and a people, could not afford it.
It made me think of the controversial ‘agreements’ that have made the news in recent times such as Resolution 30/1 of the UNHRC. It made me think of SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact that the USA is trying to force down our throats and which, sadly, some of our politicians believe ‘we can afford’ while others think of it as a ‘bitter but necessary pill, perhaps in a smaller dosage.’
Uncle Nihal would have repeated those words, I’m sure.
We can’t afford to barter that which gives meaning to our lives, that which makes us who we are, the culture and heritage that are resident in us and which shape our engagement with one another and the world. We can’t afford to turn certain resources (like Wilpattu) into timber. We can’t afford to compromise food security in favor of quick bucks through the so-called ‘high value crops.’ We can’t afford to (continue to) poison our soils. We can’t afford to trade the beauty of our island for short-term gain such as trade concessions. We can’t afford to have the strength of our people exploited in the name of flawed economic theories and profit motives. We can’t afford our solidarities to be subverted, from within or without.
Uncle Nihal knew these things. He didn’t say much but he said it all in the little he said. He’s a library we can visit again and again if we want to know what is of true value and of course what we can and cannot afford.