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Love conquers all?

Ameen Izzadeen
Filed on February 12, 2008

THE shock was in the advertisement. A five-star hotel in Colombo has advertised a US$2,000 package targeting lovers on Valentineís Day. Isnít it atrocious? My civic-minded friends asked me as we sat down for a conversation over a cup of tea.

The Valentineís Day price tag spoke of the widening gap in society. Occupying a place somewhere in the middle of the income spectrum, I see, at one extreme, people for whom busting up US$ 2,000 in a single night on a stupid commercialised concept is a pretty simple thing. On the other hand, I see people struggling to make ends meet. While the rich drive around in their gas-guzzling SUVs, the poor walk to the neighbourhood grocer to buy milk powder and sugar not in packets but in small scoops.

How can we tolerate Valentineís Day extravagance when more than 90 per cent of Sri Lankaís population is reeling under the heavy burden of the rapidly rising cost of living? The suffering of the poor is no business of the rich who make no effort to realise that they are trapped in the vileness of commercialism.

But shouldnít they at least be sensitive to the tragedy that has befallen the country? Celebrating Valentineís Day on grand scale while hundreds of civilians, including schoolchildren, die in daily violence is as cowardly an act as terrorism itself.

What is happening in the name of St Valentine today will make the third century priest turn in his grave, with every business firm trying to make quick bucks by announcing special Valentineís Day packages. Banks offer special discounts for credit card holders while jewellers say they have come up with new designs. Rub a-dub, the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker, all glorify romance for profit.

The American brand of commercialism which has made Valentineís Day a multi-billion-dollar business has not even spared soldiers on the war front. FM radio channels have special Valentineís Day programmes lined up for soldiers fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They will carry messages to and from soldiers and their loved ones as requests for romantic songs choke up radio channels.

After all, soldiers are also made of flesh and bones. They also have feelings, emotions and a craving to love and to be loved.

But the Roman Emperor Claudius II who jailed and killed St Valentine, did not think so. He saw love and marriage as factors that take away menís ability to fight. So he is said to have imposed a ban on priests performing marriage ceremonies. St Valentine, in whose memory Valentineís Day is marked, defied this ban and he was sent to prison where he is said to have fallen in love with a jailorís daughter before he was finally executed.

I often wonder what love and romance meant to people in Sri Lankaís war-ravaged north. Do they fall in love? Do thousands of men and women who have joined the Tamil Tigersí fight for a separate state for Sri Lankaís minority Tamils have the luxury to pen love poems?

Tamil literature is rich in love poetry. Tradition says Tamil literature has a history of more than 12 millennia. Love and romance have been enriching Tamil literature since the ĎSangamí days some two thousand years ago and throughout. Kavi Chakravarti (emperor of poets) Kamban (12th century), who gave the Tamils the Ramayana, and Kavi Arasu (king of poets) Kannadasan (20th century) are giants or the Tamil equivalents of Shakespeare or Shelly.

Surely, every Tamil youth must have heard Kambanís son Ambikapathi who was executed for falling in love with Amaravathi, the Chola kingís daughter. When Ambikapathiís matter came up in the kingís court, Kamban defended his sonís right to fall in love and describe the beauty of Amarawathi and express his love for her in poetry. But the king insisted that Ambikapathi was inspired by lust, not by love and got him killed. The story of Ambikapathi-Amarawathi is the Tamil equivalent of the doomed romance of Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu or Salim and Anarkali.

To assume that love does not blossom in people who live in war-hit areas is as stupid as assuming that weeds do not grow in marshes. But the difference is that in the war zone, love blossoms as a necessity rather than a commodity.

But I donít think people in Jaffna and the LTTE-controlled Wanni and the people languishing in refugee camps romanticise romance. My observation is based on my study on request-a-song Tamil radio programmes. Hardly a youth from the war-hit northern areas telephones or sends a postcard, requesting songs. There was a glut of such requests during the ceasefire period ó that is when the ceasefire was respected by both the government and the LTTE from 2002 to 2005. When the guns started booming again, the voices from Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and even the security forces-controlled Jaffna disappeared from radio programmes.

Love conquers all, they say. But we remain divided on ethnic, religious, and racial grounds. We fail to see that by tying a knot with a Sri Lankan identity, we could prosper as a family.

In a lighter vein, a peace activist said that Sri Lankaís ethnic problem could be solved if every year, one thousand Sinhalese men marry one thousand Tamil women and one thousand Tamil men marry one thousand Sinhala women. If this trend continues, within years, we all will be one big extended family and can live in harmony. But there is no St Valentine to promote such inter-ethnic marriages.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo


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