A short personal reflection on the Easter Sunday attacks, and counting the dead, in Sri Lanka.
When there’s a funeral in Sri Lanka, they put posters up all over the place. They’ll have a photo of the person who died in the middle accompanied by various religious epithets, if their religion is inclined that way: “may you attain nirvana”, “rest in peace”, and so on. On the left side of the photo is their date of birth and on the right their date of death. A life framed.
It’s one of the first ways I remember of learning how to count. Subtracting the year on the left from the one on the right. It was especially helpful for learning the Big Numbers, because these days people usually die when they have spent quite a good few decades on earth. Funeral posters helped me count up to the fifties, sixties and beyond.
The process also inadvertently built up a sense of what a life is worth. It made the unusual deaths, the ones with the inconvenient numbers, stick out, and indicated what feelings were appropriate to accompany them. The aachchi who lived for over a hundred years, with a sepia-toned picture: a good record, but it was probably her time, no? Or the teenager on the cusp of adulthood, with a full color picture of him still in school uniform: a shame, all that potential. Or that uncle on the wrong side of fifty, with his business portrait: sin, men, hopefully his family can manage.
And so, I counted my way through life, past countless funerals and funeral posters. They would fade over the days and months, disintegrate in the heat and rain, get replaced by fresh posters — sometimes even new funeral posters — and I’d keep counting.
There were a lot of funerals these past weeks in Sri Lanka. So many posters have been put up. And some of them are harder to look at than others. The ones whose pictures in the middle are from awkward family photo shoots, or taken during school prize givings. Dressed in colorful, overly formal dresses and suits, or pristine school uniforms — all resting uneasily on small frames. From each, eyes looking up which aren’t (weren’t) quite sure what a photo is supposed to be, maybe.
These posters have the easy math. The Small Numbers you don’t have to carry over for, or hold down multiple fingers for each decade. Some, wrenchingly, where the difference is less than a year. Are you allowed to count down months with your fingers?
Who decides what these lives are worth? Who can, when they were gone in such a flash? And what feelings are appropriate for seeing tiny lives sandwiched between numbers too small? In the days since this wretched Easter, the feelings we deem to be appropriate have already turned from sorrow and hurt to anger and hate. The posters will be up for a few months more, before time claims them, too. But I fear we will never realize that we have a new arithmetic, and that we just don’t know how to count with it.
Pasan Jayasinghe lives in Colombo where he works as a legal researcher. Prior to Sri Lanka, he lived in New Zealand. He is on Twitter @pasanghe.