Lasantha Wickrematunge

by Vidyan Ravinthiran

Author’s note: The Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, was likely assassinated. He wrote an editorial that, published after his death, stirringly accused his alleged murderers from beyond the grave. He received several awards posthumously, including the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize. Everything in italics was written by Wickrematunge. The editorial in question can be read online, but I’m also deeply indebted to And Then They Came For Me, a memoir by his widow, Raine Wickrematunge. In it she explains he once wrote a column appearing under the pseudonym “Suranimala”, which became famous for his use of the catchphrase: “be that as it may”.

– Look me up
(one must with words
                                    you don’t
understand)
                        try:
                                    SRI LANKA GOVERNMENT WAR CRIMES 
                        or
                                    SRI LANKA JOURNALIST KILLED 
instead of Googling yourself, or
the outrage du jour
like a goldfish swimming circles in its bowl

                                                                          But who am I
to howl:
O Western Reader
the best minds of your generation 
have no sense of history?
                                          My nation
is the same
and not – we’ve
no Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum 
no poppies and no wreaths
except the one
killers sent my family before the act

This is a fact
we delete graveyards
palmyra trees shells
fired on civilians burnt black
– rather than look back
we build over
tank-crunched tarmac
silk-smooth lanes flowing from lens to horizon
and where
outposts of barbed wire
shrines of the wrong religion
once defaced good Buddhist soil
we make a clean breast of it
– the domes of stupas – pure white

Be that as it may
I’m curious about this thing you call a poem
a strange transfusion
“so in my veins red life might stream
again, / And thou be conscience-calm’d”
– it’s a bit suspicious
don’t you think
in the making of this poem was no one harmed?

Journalists do things
differently – though
an alive-dead voice is news that stays news 
– the last words of Miguel Serveto:
             “I will burn, but this is a mere event; we 
             shall continue our discussion in eternity”

My printed voice (its grim chortle) 
rose from the grave – immortal

                                                              No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down 
                                                              their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri 
                                                              Lanka, journalism.

                                                              Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and 
                                                              killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those 
                                                              categories and now especially the last.

– Some words have disappeared
as if snatched off the street and detained without trial 
who does this poet think he is
the TID comes for you in a white van
the poet with his white space
                                                              and a self-lacerating smile
a blockhead
8,569 miles
from my bloodshed
                                        but that’s ok 
you can look up what I really said

Echo or ghost
I haunt like a grease-devil
a rakshasa the vast
margin
of your history / literature / world-phloem 
– take that Keats poem
there is no evidence
I ever read
where the Ceylon diver’s ears gush blood 
so the fountains of Europe gush wealth

Like finding a rupee
or two you’d thought lost
one discovers – in this, let’s face it, 63
stanza test
of your wired attention span –
a phrase that glints like a shell-casing on Attidiya Road 
the headline: “two brothers and their murder’d man” 
ride between realms
to the forest of death from the city of love

The shifted adjective
foredooms Lorenzo, dead-alive
and goes to show
between there and then and here and now 
are strange bridges – moments
fusing distant
places and events
in your chest beats – my heart
and from my part
of the world rushes toward you
goods
and bads too

Be that as it may
on Attidiya Road
the tourist may discover
my corpse in its silver Corolla
I was stabbed in the temple
men in black smashed the window
– I say stabbed
but a journalist must be exact
their weapon wrapped
in newsprint has in fact
never been identified
– my crushed skull’s tiny scars an inch apart suggest a cattle prod

                                     It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my 
                                     house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious 
                                     assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these 
                                     attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended.

                                     When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

I called out
the Tigers and government both
I took no sides
which in my country is not considered 
a possibility
                           – money laundering 
                           abductions
                           ghost
                           companies
                           tsunami funds gone AWOL
I exposed them all

When the Tigers seized Palaly 
the censor stepped in – still
I found a way: a Gordian NOT

                                     Heavy fighting was not raging in northern Jaffna peninsula and Tigers were not 
                                     pounding Palaly with heavy artillery and mortars for the fourth consecutive day.

                                     Tigers did not enter Kaithady on Wednesday night after 12 hours of so-called 
                                     fierce hand-to-hand fighting in which more than 40 soldiers were not killed 
                                     and scores not wounded.

those soldiers in Kaithady
alive and dead – unreal
as Schrödinger’s cat or our pal Lorenzo 
or my remains
“warm and capable” of a last editorial

The free media
serves as a mirror
in which the public can see itself 
sans mascara and styling gel
– yes I said that
me not this interfering busybody poet
but they killed my paper
bought us out
(oh the good old days
when the press at Ratmalana was set ablaze 
one could fight
fire and not with fire)

Frederica Jansz
– my brave successor 
sent threats in red ink 
had to leave the country
                                                                I’ve left too
for here and nowhere else 
a citizen of your memory 
a citizen of this poem

                                                                          I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, 
                                                                          hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of 
                                                                          innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long 
                                                                          been written that my life would be taken, and by whom.

those are my words 
this
is something else