weekend-readsThe Greatest Sorrow: Times of Joy Recalled in Wretchedness

Amitav Ghosh

. . . Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria . . .

. . . There is no greater sorrow
than to recall our times of joy
in wretchedness . . .

—Dante, The Inferno1

On July 27, 2001, landing in Colombo’s Katunayake airport, I saw, at first hand, how fragile a machine an aircraft is. My plane landed on a runway that was flanked with wreckage on either side. Through the scarred glass of my window, I spotted a blackened pile of debris that ended in the intact tail section of a plane. The shape of the vanished fuselage was etched into the tarmac like the outline of a cigar that has burned itself slowly to extinction, leaving its ring standing in its ashes. Then there was another and still another, the charred remains lying scattered around the apron like a boxful of half-smoked Havanas arranged around the edges of an ebony table.

It was just four days since a small suicide squad of Tamil Tiger guerillas had succeeded in entering Colombo’s carefully guarded Katunayake airport. The strike was executed with meticulous precision, and the guerillas had destroyed some fourteen aircraft, virtually disabling Sri Lanka’s civilian and military air fleets. It was till then perhaps the single most successful attack of its kind.

Thirty-six years had passed since I first landed at that airport, in a
shuddering, blunt-nosed Dakota. The aerodrome, as it was then spoken of, was a relic of an older war, in which Colombo had served as the nerve center of Lord Mountbatten’s Southeast Asia command. I was nine then, a fresh entrant into that moment of childhood when we first begin to truly
inhabit the world, in the particular sense of committing it to memory. I remember Colombo’s red-tiled roofs, like stacks of hardbacked books spread open on a desk; I remember my school, Royal College, and the stairway where I first tasted blood on my lip; I remember after-school cricket matches on Layard’s Road and wickets knocked over by kabaragoyas; I remember marshmallow ice cream at Elephant House and the pearly insides of mangosteens; I remember the palm trees at Hikkaduwa leaning like dancers over the golden sands; I remember Elephant’s Pass and the road to Jaffna, as narrow as the clasp between a necklace and its pendant; I remember at Pollonaruwa, a cobra coiled on the floor of a resthouse, looking up as though in surprise at my silhouette in the doorway; I remember a train on a slope, its smoke mingling with the mists of Nuwara Eliya.

Such was the paradise from which I was abruptly torn, when I arrived upon the threshold of adolescence. In the summer of 1967, when I had reached the age of eleven, I was sent away to be educated at the other end of the subcontinent, in Dehra Dun, which was said to be one of the most picturesque places in India. But for me this sub-Himalayan valley proved to be anything but arcadia: I found myself imprisoned in a walled city of woe, with five hundred adolescents who had been herded together to be instructed in the dark arts of harrowing their peers. That it was my parents who were the agents of my expulsion from paradise was not the least part of the bewildering pain of my banishment. It was in that sub-Himalayan purgatory that I learned what it was to recall a time of joy in wretchedness. Now, in the recollection of that emotion, I have come to recognize a commonality with many, perhaps most, Sri Lankans—indeed, with everyone who remembers what it was to live in Serendib before the Fall.

Michael Ondaatje writes:

The last Sinhala word I lost,
was vatura.
The word for water.
Forest water. The water in a kiss. The tears
I gave to my ayah Rosalin on leaving
the first home of my life.

More water for her than any other
that fled my eyes again
this year, remembering her,
a lost almost-mother in those years
of thirsty love.

No photograph of her, no meeting
since the age of eleven,
not even knowledge of her grave.

Who abandoned who, I wonder now.2

These lines look back—as do I when I think of Sri Lanka—to a childhood long past. But the poem was published recently in Canada, and I doubt that it would have sounded this exact note, if it had been written at any other time and in any other circumstances. This is not merely a eulogy for Rosalin: it is an elegy of homecoming spoken in a voice that has been orphaned not just by the loss of an almost-mother, but by history itself. It is a lament that mourns the passing of the paradise that made Rosalin possible.

At the other end of the subcontinent lies another land devastated by the twin terrors of armed insurgency and state repression: Kashmir, of which an emperor famously said:

If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this.

In the mid-1990s, at about the same time that Michael Ondaatje was writing his elegy to Rosalin, the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, was writing his great poem “The Last Saffron.” The poem begins:

I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain . . .

The poem ends with these verses:

Yes, I remember it,
the day I’ll die, I broadcast the crimson,

so long ago of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth

bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I’ll die, past the guards, and he,

keeper of the world’s last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On

two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone’s lips was news

of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:

“If there is a paradise on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this”.3

If the twin terrors of insurgency and repression could be said to have engendered any single literary leitmotif, it is surely the narrative of the loss of paradise. Nowhere is this story more precisely chronicled than in Shyam Selvadorai’s 1994 novel, Funny Boy. The novel is set in Colombo, in the turmoil of the early 1980s, when long-simmering tensions between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated government and the minority Tamil population exploded into a savagely violent conflict. The narrator is a teenage boy from a wealthy Tamil family, and the novel’s final chapter recounts the events of July 1983, when a terrorist attack upon the Sri Lankan army triggered massive reprisals against the Tamils of Colombo.

In Funny Boy the destruction of paradise is assigned precise dates and an exact span of time: it starts at 9:30 a.m. on July 25, 1983. It is only a few hours since the novel’s teenage narrator and his family have learned that “there [is] trouble in Colombo”: the night before a mob has gone wild after a funeral for thirteen slain soldiers; many Tamil houses have been burned. At 9:30 a.m. the family begins to ready itself for a hasty departure from their own house. “We are supposed to bring a few clothes and one other thing that is important to us. I can’t decide which thing to take.” But the boy’s mother has already decided; not the least of her provisions for the uncertainties of the future is the preparation for the coming age of sorrow: “Amma is taking all the family albums. She says that if anything happens they will remind us of happier days.”

All through the day, the family waits in the once-beloved home that has now become a prison. As the hours pass, the narrator seeks consolation in his journal, recording rumors and reports. He hears that the government has distributed electoral lists to help the mobs locate Tamil homes. He is hugely relieved when he is told that a curfew has been declared, and is therefore doubly dismayed to learn that the announcement has made no difference; the mob is still on the rampage. He hears of the police and army watching in silent indifference as a Tamil family is burned alive in a car. At 11:30 p.m. the boy writes: “The waiting is terrible. I wish the mob would come so that this dreadful waiting would end.”

The next entry is written a little more than half a day later, but in that brief span of time the world has become a different place. Nothing will ever be the same again: the boy’s childhood has become a place apart; this is the moment when history, the connection between time past and time ahead, has ended and memory has become an island that is severed forever from the present and the future. “July 26, 12.30 p.m.: I have just read my last entry and it seems unbelievable that only thirteen hours ago I was sitting on my bed writing in this journal. A year seems to have passed since that time. Our lives have completely changed. I try and try to make sense of it, but it just won’t work.”

What has happened is this: the long wait has come to an end soon after the writing of the penultimate journal entry. On hearing the chants of an approaching mob, the family has taken refuge in a Sinhala neighbor’s house. Huddled in a storeroom, they have listened, as their house is burned to the ground.

The morning after, they have looked over the remains of the house: the sight has made little impression; it is almost incomprehensible; the boy notes that his vinyl records have dissolved into black puddles, that the furniture has cracked open to reveal the whiteness of common wood. “I observed all this with not a trace of remorse, not a touch of sorrow for the loss and destruction around me. Even now I feel no sorrow. I try to remind myself that the house is destroyed, that we will never live in it again, but my heart refuses to understand this.” It is only later, on being told of the destruction of his grandparents’ home, that he is able to grieve: “ . . . I thought about childhood spend-the-days and all the good times we had there. These thoughts made me cry. I couldn’t cry for my own house, but it was easy to grieve for my grandparents’ house.” A precocious prescience has led the boy to grasp the precise nature of his grief: he ascribes it not to the immediacy of his own experience, but to the memory of better times—to that act of remembrance which, as Dante’s Francesca da Rimini tells us, there is “no greater sorrow”: that is to say, in the recollection of better times.

This depiction of the violence of 1983—and to my mind Funny Boy is one of the most powerful and moving accounts of those events— was published in 1994 in Canada, where Shyam Selvadorai’s family had settled after leaving Sri Lanka. I draw attention to this only to underscore two facts: that Funny Boy was written by a recent immigrant to North America and that it is an act of recollection that tells the story of a departure. These facts appear unremarkable, yet there is to my mind a puzzle here and it lies in this: an immigrant’s story is usually a narrative of arrival, not departure. And nowhere is this more true than in North America.

North America is famously peopled by immigrants, and nowhere else on earth is the experience of immigration so richly figured as it is here: in popular culture, literature, film, and indeed every aspect of public life. In photography, the emblematic image of this experience is that of a family of immigrants standing on the deck of the ship that has brought them across the Atlantic. In these pictures the immigrants’ eyes are always turned in the direction of the waiting shore—toward the Statue of Liberty and the towers of the shining city ahead. Many of these immigrants have suffered terrible hardships, yet we would search in vain for similarly powerful images taken at the hour when they boarded the ship: that moment holds only passing interest in this story. This is because, classically, narratives of immigration into North America are stories of arrival, not departure, stories of suffering but not sorrow or regret; they are stories of hope, founded on a belief in the redemptive power of the land ahead. The vitality of these stories derives in no small part from the obvious parallels with the biblical story of the Promised Land, which is, of course, equally a story of hope and of arrival. Those who followed Moses out of Egypt did not linger to cast glances of melancholy longing upon the Nile. They looked only ahead; their memory of Egypt was of unmitigated suffering; there were no times of joy there to be recalled in wretchedness. The mark of an exodus lies in the direction of these eyes, looking ahead toward the far shore, confident in the belief that the bonds of community will not perish in the process of migration. But this is not the direction in which Selvadorai’s narrator has turned his gaze. Here is the novel’s penultimate sentence: “When I reached the top of the road, I couldn’t prevent myself from turning back to look at the house one last time.” And this is how he ends his story, with the narrator looking back, through the rain, at the charred remains of a home that was once filled with happiness.

It is the direction of the gaze that identifies this as a story, not of an exodus, but of a dispersal; the story of an irrevocable sundering of the dual bonds that tie members of a community to each other and to other like communities. In the experience of an exodus there is an unspoken ambiguity: the sufferings of displacement are tinged with the hope of arrival and the opening of new vistas in the future. A dispersal offers no such consolation: the pain that haunts it is not that of remembered oppression; it is rather that particular species of pain that comes from the knowledge that the oppressor and the oppressed were once brothers. It is this species of pain, exactly, that runs so poignantly through the literature that resulted from the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. For we know, from that line of Boethius, which Dante was later to give to Francesca da Rimini, that “among fortune’s many adversities” the most unhappy kind is to nurture the memory of having once been happy.4

This is where recollection turns its back on history, for it is the burden of history to make sense of the past, while the memory of dispersal is haunted always by the essential inexplicability of what has come to pass; by the knowledge that there was nothing inevitable, nothing predestined about what has happened; that far from being primordial, the enmities that have led to the sufferings of the present are new and unaccountable; that there was a time once, when neither protagonist saw the other as an adversary—a time that will be irrevocably lost with the dissolution of the history that made it possible for many parts to be a whole.

That which I, in the fever of my pride, am struggling to put into words, has been much better said in Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Farewell”:

At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory . . .

There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.
There is everything to forgive. You can’t forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?5

There is nothing arbitrary then about the ending of Selvadorai’s novel: the story ends here because it must. To carry it any farther would be to link it to the present and the future, to imply the possibility of a consolation. And this of course, the writer could not do, for the reason why there is no greater sorrow than the recalling of times of joy, is precisely that this is a grief that is beyond consolation.

If there is a central intuition in Funny Boy—as in those poems of Michael Ondaatje’s and Agha Shahid Ali’s that I have quoted here—it is that of a rupture in time: the shattering of a chronology, the dissolution of continuity. These are writers who, through the circumstances of their lives, have been forced to contend with the terrors of insurgency and state repression well before their counterparts in most other parts of the world. It is as though they are compelled to look back in sorrow because they cannot look ahead, because the events of which they write have rendered the future even more obscure than it is usually acknowledged to be. The question that arises then is, why is this so? What is it about the circumstances of terror, insurgency, and repression that engenders this vision?

The past, as Faulkner famously said, is not over; in fact, the past is not even the past. One of the paradoxes of history is that it is impossible to draw a chart of the past without imagining a map of the present and the future. History, in other words, is never innocent of teleologies, implicit or otherwise. Ranajit Guha, in a recent lecture on Hegel and the writing of history in south Asia, says: “It is the state which first supplies a content, which not only lends itself to the prose of history but actually helps to produce it.”6 In other words, the actions of the state provide that essential element of continuity that makes time, as a collective experience, thinkable, by linking the past, the present, and the future. The state as thus conceived is not merely an apparatus of rule but “a conscious, ethical institution,” an instrument designed to conquer the “unhistorical power of time.” In other words, since the nineteenth century, and perhaps even earlier, it is the state which has provided the grid on which history is mapped.

It was perhaps this politically insignificant but epistemologically indispensible aspect of time’s continuity that was most vitally damaged by the patterns of political violence that began to emerge in south Asia in the 1980s. Even before then, it had often been suspected that elements of the state’s machinery had been colluding in the production of communal violence: after the violence of the eighties this became established as a fact. It became evident that certain parts of the state had been absorbed—had indeed become sponsors—of criminal violence. No longer could the state be seen either as a protagonist in its own right or as a consciously ethical institution: its power over time had ended.

The flames created by the recent past were so plentiful that only poets noticed the unsung death of a teleology. “Everything is finished, nothing remains,” writes Agha Shahid Ali of a poet who returns to Kashmir in search of the keeper of a destroyed minaret:

“Nothing will remain, everything’s finished,”
I see his voice again: “This is a shrine
of words. You’ll find your letters to me. And mine
to you. Come soon and tear open these vanished
envelopes.” . . .

This is an archive. I’ve found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.7

Buried within the poet’s “shrine of words” lies a map: a chart “of longings with no limit.” It is not the fall of the minaret but the loss of the map that is the true catastrophe: it is this loss that evokes the words “Nothing will remain, everything’s finished.”

Shahid’s is not the only lost map. In “The Story” Michael Ondaatje invokes another:

For his first forty days a child
is given dreams of previous lives.
Journeys, winding paths,
a hundred small lessons
and then the past is erased.

Some are born screaming,
some full of introspective wandering
into the past— that bus ride in winter,
the sudden arrival within
a new city in the dark.

And those departures from family bonds
leaving what was lost and needed.
So the child’s face is a lake
of fast moving clouds and emotions.
A last chance for the clear history of the self.

All our mothers and grandparents here,
our dismantled childhoods
in the buildings of the past.
Some great forty-day daydream
before we bury the maps.8

The old maps are gone and two of the finest poets of our time, Michael Ondaatje and Agha Shahid Ali, exiles from twinned Edens, have borne witness to their loss; gone are Michael’s “forty-day daydream” and Shahid’s “longings without limit.” Writers who look back, in the wake of that loss, can only build shrines to that past. And yet the mystery of the sorrow that is entombed in their work is that their grief is not just for a time remembered: they grieve also for the loss of the map that made the future thinkable.

Is there then another map to replace those that have been buried in the rubble of our daydreams? Once, six years ago, I thought I had a glimpse of one: this is how it came about. I had spent a sleepless night at a guerilla camp in the thickly forested mountains of the Burma-Thailand border. The Myanmar army was entrenched a few miles away, fighting a fierce engagement with Karenni insurgents. My hosts had handed me a makeshift pillow, a book wrapped in a towel. The bundle came undone at some point during the night and I discovered, switching on my flashlight, that the book was called The Transformation of War. It was written by a military historian called Martin van Creveld. I began to read and was still reading hours later. The next day, I wrote in my diary: “I am appalled by van Creveld’s vision of the future, yet over here, it makes more sense than anything I have read about this kind of conflict. Van Creveld is arguing that modern weaponry has been rendered obsolete by its very effectiveness. The destructiveness of these weapons is such as to make conventional military-based conflict impossible: hence fighting will increasingly take the form of low-intensity conflict, based upon ‘close intermingling with the enemy’. Civilians will be in the front lines of the conflict; they will be the focus of attack, and conventional distinctions between army, state, and civil society will break down. Groups such as private mercenary bands commanded by warlords and even commercial organs will become the main combatants: ‘future war-making entities will probably resemble the Assassins, the group which, motivated by religion and allegedly supporting itself on drugs, terrorized the Middle East for . . . centuries.’ ”

Till then I had taken for granted a pattern of the world that divided the globe between a large number of nation-states. Now suddenly it was as though a bucket had been upended on the map, making the colors run. The camp and the disputed territory around it were no longer on no-man’s-land; it was a reality in its own right, one that extended in an unbroken swathe through northern Burma and northeast India, to western China and Kashmir, Afghanistan, central Asia, and the Caucasus. In this immense stretch of territory van Creveld’s vision was not just one of many possible forks in the road: it was a turn already taken. Nor could I any longer regard Myanmar and its brutally despotic regime as an aberration, a holdover from a preempted past. I was forced to ask myself whether that country might not hold some portents for the future. Burma is a country to which terrorism and insurgency came exceptionally early: within a few months of independence, in 1948, the Rangoon government was beseiged by sixteen rebellions. Accounts of life in Burma in the 1950s are replete with tales of derailed trains, bombs in stations, sudden ambushes and the like. Within a few years civil society collapsed and there followed an absolute militarization of political life; the results are well-known. That this could happen elsewhere did not seem improbable.

Warfare based upon “close intermingling with the enemy” presents the nation-state with an almost unresolvable dilemma: it is intended precisely to cause the collapse of the legal and institutional bulwarks that make civil society possible by cushioning it from the exercise of power. To effectively combat terror the nation-state may well be forced to suspend some of the provisions on which its claims to legitimacy are based. But in doing so it can only broaden the base of its adversary’s support. The ethical expectations of the modern state are thus the terrorists’ most important defensive weapon. It is because of these expectations that they are able to take shelter within civilian populations, knowing that international and local opinion will make a full deployment of the modern arsenal impossible. Their strategy is thus based upon the assumption that the state’s actions will be bound by a body of rules, laws, and principles. Should a state trespass upon these boundaries by targeting a group of civilians, it can only be at the cost of its own legitimacy. This makes this form of warfare particularly effective in circumstances where the state’s legitimacy is tenuous. In those situations, terror and repression can bring the march of the state through history to an abrupt end.

     • •

Not unaware of the world’s discontents, I took van Creveld’s vision
seriously and tried to incorporate his warnings into my everyday life. I made a point, for example, of not trying to shield my children from news of violence and terror. Yet no matter how carefully we prepare ourselves for the future, the reality is always far in excess of our imaginings.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting at my desk in my house in Brooklyn when my wife called from her office in midtown Manhattan to tell me about the attacks on the World Trade Center. My ten-year-old daughter, Lila, was at school, a couple of miles away, and my eight-year-old son was at home: this was to have been his first day in a new school and I was scheduled to take him there later that morning. But instead, we rushed out together to fetch Lila home from her school in Brooklyn Heights.

Downtown Brooklyn was choked with people, and in the distance we saw a plume of dust rising into the clear blue sky, darkening the horizon like a thundercloud. Everyone was heading away from the river; only the two of us seemed to be walking toward the darkness in the distance. I held my son’s hand and walked as fast as I could. On arriving in Brooklyn Heights, we found Lila in the basement of her school. Her eyes were bright and she was eager to tell me what had happened. “Where were you?” she said. “I saw it all. From the window of our history class we had a clear view.”

We stepped out and joined the great wave of dust-caked evacuees that was pouring over the Brooklyn Bridge. I held my children’s hands and tried to think of words of reassurance, something that would reattach the moorings that had come undone that morning and restore their sense of safety. But words are not to be had for the asking and I could think of none.

Since then I have come to recognize that there is very little I can say to broaden my children’s understanding of what they saw that day. As a writer I have tried to live by the credo that nothing human should be alien to me. Yet, my imagination stops short as I try to think of the human realities of what it must mean to plan a collective suicide over a span of years or to stand in a check-in line with people whose murder has already been decided on; of what it takes to speak of love on a cell phone moments before one’s death or to reach for a stranger’s hand as one leaps from the topmost floor of a skyscraper. These are new dimensions of human experience, and I realize that they will become a part of the generational gap that separates me from my children: their imagining of the world will be different from mine and that very difference will create a new reality. From my own childhood I remember a day when I stared at a newspaper, mesmerized by a picture of a Buddhist monk burning at a crossroads in Saigon. At that time, this too represented a new addition to the armory of human motivation: this was the moment that inaugurated the era of political suicide in the modern world. Since then such suicides have become so commonplace as often to go unreported. They have become a part of the unseen foundations of our awareness, present but unnoticed, like the earth beneath a basement.

In one of its aspects terror represents an epistemic violence—a radical interruption in the procedures and protocols that give the world a semblance of comprehensibility. This is why it causes, not just fear and anger, but also long-lasting confusion and utterly disproportionate panic; it tears apart the stories through which individuals link their lives to a collective past and present. Everyday life would be impossible if we did not act upon certain assumptions about the future, near and distant; about the train we will catch tomorrow, as well as the money we pay into our pensions. Not the least of the terror of a moment such as that of September 11 is that it reveals the future to be truly what it is: unknown, unpredictable, and utterly inscrutable. It is this epistemic upheaval that Michael Ondaatje and Agha Shahid Ali point to when they mourn the maps of our longings and our forty-day daydreams: the pure intuition of poetry had led them to an awareness of this loss long before the world awakened to the knowledge that “nothing will be the same again.”

On October 11, a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the New Yorker organized an evening of readings to raise money for the victims. I was one of those invited to read and I chose to read two of Shahid’s poems. Several of the other readers chose texts that hearkened back to the wars of the twentieth century: Winston Churchill on World War I; Remarque on the trenches of the western front; Auden on the declaration of war in September 1939. When it was my turn to read, I was struck by the sharpness of the contrast between Shahid’s voice and those of the poets of the last century; by the vividness of emotion; by the almost-palpable terror that comes of having looked into the obscurity of a time that will not permit itself to be mapped with the measures of the past. It was as though news of times to come had been carried to the capital of the world by a messenger from a half-forgotten hinterland. Time had turned on itself: the backward had preceded the advanced; the periphery had visited the present before the center; the “half-made” world had become the diviner of the fully formed.

Yet the message itself was neither a presaging nor a prediction; it lay merely in the acknowledgment of the loss of a map. But to be aware of the death of a teleology is not to know of what will take its place. The truth is that on the morning of September 11 I had nothing to say to my children that had not been said in Michael Ondaatje’s poem, “The Story”:

With all the swerves of history
I cannot imagine your future. . . .
I no longer guess a future.
And do not know how we end
nor where.

Though I know a story about maps, for you.9



1 Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. R. and J. Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2000) canto v, 121-23.

2 Michael Ondaatje, “Wells,” Handwriting (New York: Knopf, 1999) 50.

3 Agha Shahid Ali, “The Last Saffron,” The Country Without a Post Office (New York: Norton, 1997) 27-29.

4 These lines of Dante’s, from which the title of this essay is taken, are thought to be based on a passage from Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy: “among fortune’s many adversities the most unhappy kind is once to have been happy” (The Inferno 99).

5 Ali, “Farewell,” 21-23.

6 Ranajit Guha, History at the Limit of World History, lecture iii.

7 Ali, “The Country Without a Post Office,” 48-51.

8 Ondaatje, “The Story,” 60.

9 Ondaatje 63.

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