Reflections on the interchangeability of light and darkness | Daily News

Reflections on the interchangeability of light and darkness

The oldest citizens of Sri Lanka might remember a time when power-cut was a meaningless word. Those who lived through the Second (Mostly) European Tribal War and in certain limited areas of the country might remember blackouts during air raids. The much younger and yet old enough to know that the country was held to ransom by terrorists and their apologists, here and abroad, might remember the occasional blackout when rudimentary suicide aircrafts of the terrorists entered the skies above Colombo. Some may remember a particularly dark time in the mid 1990s which brought into conversation a term called ‘daylight saving time.’ Even today in part of the country yet to be ‘blessed’ with rural electrification, power cuts probably won’t persuade people to curse.

Time passes, though. Those who made do with a petromax lamp back in the day would not call for blood-letting at the prospect of extended power cuts. It’s like shifting to a faster computer; if forced to use the previous machine for some reason, it would seem snail-slow.

Today, writing this in candlelight, I was taken to another century where agitation on account of power cuts or power failures were inconvenient and yet hardly cause for agitation. I remember, for example, a time when the evening rounds of chess tournaments were often interrupted by power cuts. They were unannounced but not unexpected, so tournament organisers would often have candles ready. Indeed, dozens of schoolboys and schoolgirls playing with candles on either side of each chess board at the Inter Schools Chess Championship (Finals) in the main hall of S Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia sometime in May or June 1983 made quite a quaint picture.

And I remember the 1st of October, 1986. The GAQ Examination was all but done on the 30th of September. There were two pure mathematics exams scheduled for the 2nd of October. I was the only Arts student offering pure mathematics and had to sit these exams in Peradeniya along with Science Faculty students. Back then first year Arts students and second year students reading for a general degree were at what was called the Dumbara Campus, located in Polgolla.

Since the exam was done, there was a party on the night of the 30th. Much revelry. Late into the night. Even by noon the following day, many students still loitered around, perhaps reluctant to leave friends and go home for the inevitably long vacation following the GAQ. Among them, my friends with whom I shared a ‘chummery’ in Gunnepana, about two kilometres away. Twelve boys in three rooms, sharing six beds among themselves. I had to sit two papers the following day, but wasn’t too enthusiastic about going back to the chummery to study all by myself. I was ordered to go back.

That was Rohana Kalyanaratne, a few years older than the rest of us and accepted and respected as the father figure of the group. His word was our command. I complied.

I walked all the way back. By the time I got there it was late evening. When I got there I decided that it is impossible to do anything in a few hours that could have even the slightest impact on my ability to contend with mathematical problems. Fortunately or unfortunately the lights went out. Having nothing better to do I decided a nap was in order.

The others arrived around 8 o’clock. Rohana woke me up. I still don’t know how he did it, but Rohana conjured up a kuppi lampuwa and some kerosine oil. All for me. Rohana didn’t know anything about pure mathematics but he could recognise what mathematics was not. He came to check on me and blurted out, ‘umba me kavi liyanava neda (you are writing poetry, aren’t you)? I had to return to pure mathematics, embarrassed and feeling quite guilty.

There was one paper which had three sections: set theory, number theory and group theory. I had a decent grasp of the first two, but I only had time to read up on the conditions for a mathematical group which helped me respond to a few parts of two questions. Perhaps it helped, perhaps not, but I passed. Had I not, I would not have qualified to do a special degree at Peradeniya. I would more or less abandon numbers but continue to hold poetry close. That day, however, Rohana lit a lamp and it made a difference, not so much to my ability to do well at an exam, but to understand light and darkness and their interchangeability.

We lost Rohana Kalyanaratne to the swirling waters beneath the Polgolla dam 17 months later. All our lamps went out on that terrible day, the 22nd of February, 1987. And now, each time I dedicate merit, ‘Idam me ñatinam hotu, sukhita hontu ñatayo (May this merit accrue to my departed relatives; may they be happy!),’ I include Rohana among family, friends and those who have knowingly or unknowingly caused me harm, in lifetimes past and lifetimes to come.

And for this, among other reasons, I don’t curse the darkness. ‘How brief the flame, how long the night,’ I tell myself. ‘Even the darkness illuminates,’ I also observe. I remember a friend from another century, light a lamp and reflect on impermanence.

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