I’ve heard it said that Colombo is easy to settle into, but difficult to know. I would second that. After nearly two months in the city, I still find it impossible to hold within my mind an image of what Colombo—and Sri Lanka more broadly—is. The city speaks with many voices and wears many outfits. Opposites are comfortable next to one another, and sometimes fuse. Wide, lush boulevards become narrow, crumbling side-streets with colonial villas in their folds; wild, agitated tuk-tuks weave through pedestrians walking in the most dreamy languor.
It’s not uncommon to see Vishnu, Buddha, and Jesus keeping company on the dashboard of a tuk-tuk. They are, perhaps, to thank for protecting me from the tie-dye buses that dash into traffic with what is best described as a ‘screech’ (rather than a ‘honk’). Time will tell if Vishnu, Buddha, and Jesus are also protecting me from the billowing clouds of smoke which these buses spew into my face.
The dizzying beauty and diversity of Colombo is not only a treat for the senses but also a lesson in humility, which I have come to understand is central to human rights work. To complete a ‘task’ often requires stalling reflection. At some point, you have to settle on a ‘stand’ and produce whatever it is you’re being asked to produce. But this is inappropriate (and perhaps impossible) in contexts where there is such a wide array of discourses, where even the basic facts of major events are contested. In these situations, listening has to take the upper hand over speaking.
The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, where I’m interning this summer, has asked me to write a report on impunity—in short, lack of consequences for actions. While it is common to understand impunity as a mere lack of accountability, I’m exploring how impunity also operates as the denial of truth and the denial of memory. The plan is for me to work alongside a filmmaker who will produce a documentary on my findings. Instead of structuring my report as an act of speaking, I’m attempting to structure it as an act of listening. I hope to conduct interviews and create a space in which different voices can resonate against one another and against issues of truth and memory, as these relate to impunity in Sri Lanka.
There are almost no guidelines for my project, so I’m free to unleash my curiosity. While it was intimidating at first to be tossed into an ocean of unknowns (with no ‘checklist’ of tasks to complete), I’ve grown comfortable with this independence and am thriving on the experience.