*Inspired by Electra’s What happened in Sri Lanka Today
My younger son watches the news. He’s only 7 but he likes to sit there, drinking in information he can barely understand. I watch him more than I watch the screen, seeing the flickering images catch in his wide, curious eyes. Cataclysmic events unfold in front of him and he stares, mouth slightly ajar, his food untouched on the plate that is perched on his lap.
I nudge him gently. “Eat your food” I chastise and he robotically takes a mouthful, forgetting again as soon as it is swallowed.
My older daughter doesn’t watch the news at all. Instead she slouches in her seat, long legs crossed, hands resting on her lap. The phone which lies within perfectly manicured nails never stops beeping, irritating me with these constant reminders of its presence. A persisting stream of text messages and calls dominate my daughter’s life, leaving room for nothing else. Whenever I teasingly comment on this she gives me that classically teenage roll of the eyes and muttered “Whatever” and goes back to her tiny phone-screen world.
Tonight she is more preoccupied than ever, playing distractedly with her hair in between texts. When the phone beeps, heralding a new message, she fairly lunges forward, texting feverishly. I wonder what’s happening in her life, what she isn’t telling me. Then I guiltily wonder if I’m better off not knowing.
“You should know what’s happening around the world, you know” I say, trying to distract her a little. She glowers at me silently but makes a point to stare with glassy eyes at the screen. I know her thoughts are elsewhere. She knows I know.
My little one gasps, taking my attention back to the TV. As the news anchor dispassionately doles out the bad news, I shake my head, disappointed but unsurprised. Another journalist, incarcerated. Guilty, says the woman on screen. I look at the man’s tired smile seconds before he is pushed into the prison vehicle and think to myself that he doesn’t look like a criminal. I chide myself for being sentimental in this age of cold objectivity. The door of the prison vehicle on screen slams and my son jumps, his eyes wide, his mouth trembling. His forehead is wrinkled with effort to understand what he was hearing and seeing onscreen.
Watching him, I wonder at our blind faith in the media. I wonder how much of what we read, hear and see in the news is true. This is the way the world is, the papers tell us. Accept it as truth. It never occurs to a regular person that what we are told may not be gospel. From my son’s age, we are taught to believe without question – to get wrapped up in whichever version of the truth that we hear. And, as we grow up and start to question, questioning suddenly becomes a crime worthy of serious punishment. We read about it again and again in the newspapers. The few familiar faces that go to every picket, every demonstration, who are totally involved in the hackneyed adage of standing up for what is right – we all know they are targets, we all know what they’re up against. We prefer not to get involved. And so questioning falls by the wayside again, albeit reluctantly.
But it’s a dangerous world and we have to stay safe, we tell ourselves. So we nod and accept. Smile and converse with half-understanding knowing full-well we haven’t quite got the whole picture.
“What did he do Amma?” my son asks, pulling me away from abstract thoughts. My heart clenches slightly at the genuine worry I see in his eyes.
“He wrote something bad, Baba” I say lamely. “He’s going to jail. For a long time”
“How long?” he presses. I tell him and his horrified expression makes me ashamed of how removed I have become to hearing bad news. To how easy it has become for me to nod and accept.
He is silent for a long time, perplexed as he tries to fathom that amount of time. Almost thrice his lifetime. He turns to me again, searching. “All that time? For writing something bad?” he asks.
I cannot answer. Funny how the simplest questions are the hardest to answer. Hardly a split second later and he hits me with another one and it cuts.
“But… can’t you do something?”
He sounds almost pleading and I feel suddenly like I’m destroying a part of his faith in humanity, a part of his innocence. But how to explain this to a 7 year old? What does he know of terrorism, of fear of abduction, of how treacherous times of ‘peace’ can be if you don’t do things ‘right’?
Even my daughter is watching me now, her interest piqued by my deer-in-the-headlights expression. My irritation at her sudden attention gives way to surprise when she joins in on the conversation. She ignores me, addressing her younger brother instead.
“There’s no point, Malla. No one can do anything. Everyone’s afraid that they’ll get in trouble too. So he’ll go to jail. He’ll stay in jail. There’s nothing anyone can do. Or even if there is, no one will be willing to do it”.
Her answer upsets me. “Is that really what you think?” I ask her.
She finally looks at me, contemptuous. “Why do you think I don’t watch the news?” she asks. “Terrible things happen and no one does anything. It’s the same story, every day. The people who can make a change just don’t. A few picket and shout and write articles, but nothing happens. What’s the point?”
“There are people who try…” I say but my answer falls flat.
“But where are the results?” she argues, her anger strangely earnest. It strikes me that she hasn’t sounded that way about anything in a long time. “That man was put away for all that time and most of you just looked on. And then you turn around and tell me I should watch the news and care and be involved? I’ve just learned from the best Mum. It’s better to just stay out of it – like you have.”
As if on cue, her phone rings. She gets up disgustedly and leaves the room, leaving me shocked. My son blinks. “Why is Akki so angry?” he asks and I distract him by feeding him another mouthful of food, now cold and unsavoury.
“I don’t know” I say quietly. “But somehow, it’s my fault”. I lift my eyes to the TV screen. The prisoner peers out from the criss-cross bars of the prison vehicle as he is taken away to a hell on earth. My gut twists uncomfortably as his eyes seem to meet mine. His gaze holds a question – one I’d rather not see; one I’d rather not answer.
I get up and switch off the TV.