Column: ‘Life is suffering’

Published on June 3, 2008

Three years ago I was part of a small group of Asian journalists who marked the birthday of a colleague from Sri Lanka with an impromptu pizza party in a hotel room in Austin, Texas. There may have been a slice or two left in the box when A gave thanks—and stumped us with his closing words. He did not celebrate his birthday, he said, although it was good to mark its passage in the company of new friends. For “life is suffering.”

I understood him to mean there were more important things to care about than the passage of time. Indeed, as he explained in an e-mail the following month: “When you know that life is suffering, you can reduce the dimension of sorrow, frustration or whatever you call it—the aftermath of ‘down and out’ in your daily life.”

Last week he responded to emailed greetings from our group with an update on the situation in his war-torn country. “Though I do not celebrate my birthday, I engaged in many religious activities this time. As you know, the political turmoil as well as the natural disasters beating Asia, the carnage, agony and unrest have become the order of the day here. War is being waged between the security forces and the LTTE [the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] in the north and terrorists who target VIPs as well as civilians indiscriminately explode bombs blowing innocent people in buses, trains, offices, markets to smithereens in a split second. Politicians are playing games in numbers to maintain power, and no solution is seen in the offing.”

His next words worried me: “I take all care while traveling, as I am compelled to commute over five hours a day to office and back home. I also try to avoid danger-prone areas and events, and I take care not to send my reporters too to the wrong places at the wrong time. Terrorists have infiltrated the outstations and they use local criminals to place bombs in schools and buses running to rural areas. I am worried as my children use such buses to go to tuition.”

* * *

His letter received a thoughtful reply (bits of it written in text-ese) from B, a colleague from Pakistan.

“I can understand the situation you are going through nowadays as I had also experienced the same feelings a few months back. I was afraid to go to bazaars, even in Islamabad, which was considered to be a safe city. We were all living in depression but Mr [Pervez] Musharraf [the president of Pakistan] was enjoying the situation and didn’t bother to resign from his seat. I have also seen innocent people killed by unknown terrorists. We faced the consequences of our dear President’s policies that now we cannot go to our northern areas, which was once known for [some of] the best tourist places in the world.”

B added: “After the formation of the new government the series of killings by the suicidal attacks of Alqaida [her spelling] have come almost to an end. But the newly formed government is trying to tackle electricity and flour issues. Nowadays we are living with electricity and flour crises in the country. People are seen standing in front of stores to get flour bags and sometimes it takes them almost five to six hours to get one bag.”

* * *

On Sunday, the church I went to passed the hat for a second collection, this time for the victims of the earthquake in Chengdu, China. I remembered some of my Chinese journalist-friends; in the last few weeks we had exchanged notes on the terrible earthquake and its aftermath.

I was deeply moved when C wrote a day after all of China observed three minutes of silence in memory of the victims: “When the national mourning decision was made officially, a lot of us burst into tears. This may be a little exaggerated, but at the actual moment, with the horns all singing together yesterday afternoon, we did. For the first time, we felt part of a nation of Chinese. And we are family.”

Another friend, D, whom I had not seen in years but found through Facebook, wrote: “Yes, I kinda feel the same way. Yesterday afternoon, the air-raid sirens, fire alarms, car horns and mourning people on the streets did touch me deeply.”

* * *

But my friends also put their finger on something that unsettled them.

D wrote: “However, some other ways of expressing nationwide sadness started to make me feel a bit uncomfortable, on both sides of the government and the citizens. All of the online discussion boards of entertaining have been shut down. So have online games and TV shows. Everyone cries and gives out money or blood. I have never felt such strong Chinese national cohesion before. This even confuses me since it reminds me way too often of crazy nationalism of all sorts in history.”

C felt much the same thing: “But there was something unpleasant that followed. The authorities’ order for no entertainment, and no commercials in newspapers as well, made it an enforced national mourning, and lots of individuals might have felt uncomfortable and humiliated as well. You might have taken notice of the happening on Tian’anMen square [his spelling] yesterday noon, and it looked like the Red Guards coming back.”

He ended: “I am not a Christian, but I do believe that Christ could spare the peace and rest to those [who] suffered.”

* * *

The headline on Yahoo cuts to the chase: “Clinton weighs how to end candidacy with her dignity intact.”

Unsolicited advice from a non-American who thinks she would have made a good president: Concede, on the condition that the delegations from Michigan and Florida be seated at the Democratic convention—in their entirety.


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