Every violent empire claims their motives are just, because... Every suicide bomber believes they are creating a world that is just, because... Everyone blithely observes the world through a screen, just because...
Neetha Kunaratnam’s debut collection interrogates violence by examining the societal structures that underpin war and the cultural narratives that justify them. Just Because reflects on the slaughter of civilians in far-away places, and acts of unkindness closer to home. It’s a book that investigates the shared masculinity of Popeye, Spartacus, paintballers and urban teenagers. But Kunaratnam also celebrates fatherhood, and delights in finding the miraculous hidden in the everyday, inexplicable and unexpected pleasures that bring joy, just because...
Front cover: Emma Delpech, ‘Twisted Living in the 21st Century’
Author photograph: Georgina Low
After every war someone has to clean up. Things won’t straighten themselves up, after all Wislava Szymborska, The End and the Beginning And someone will have to clean up, but this is no job for ordinary Joes, only specialists padded in moon boots, face masks, and white chemical suits, so someone will have to write a cheque for the foreign input, the expertise and expensive equipment: the mine detectors and nerve sensors. Somebody will need to order them from the catalogue, ignore the new solar-powered, GPS models, choose the standard, remote-controlled breed, as faithful and expendable as someone sought to cordon off the area, skirt the perimeters on tiptoe, mark out the dimensions of the operation with sniffer dogs in tow. Someone will need to believe the aggrieved can make a difference, pray in numbers, petition our leaders to subsidize farmers who can no longer reap lest they’re blown into thin air… Someone will have to locate, then collect any bright packages dropped after the bombers droned off into the night, their black boxes still replaying screams, and someone sort out the dried food from the prosthetic limbs, filter out the notes of explanation, decipher a rationale from the mistakes made in translation. Someone will have to point out that mustard leaves might not survive the blasts, and checking they’ve turned red might set off a barrage of blinding and a cluster of regrets. Somebody will have to teach the children that these M&Ms aren’t filled with peanuts but pack an almighty punch. Explain that a bomb as small as a battery can turn a sheep into a cloud.
Sri Lanka, August 1983 The red betel smeared on our jowls was meant to cure our mumps, but made us conspicuous, so at every checkpoint we were told to reiterate burgher caste, in spite of our dark Tamil skin, being too young to be entrusted with the proof of our British passports. Buying provisions had by then become a treacherous task, and the tension in the house only eased if everyone was home by dusk. Then the gunshots would start up, announcing the curfew, and repeat at regular intervals, like whips cracking ominously up the street, until you could sense them knocking at the door. Then one evening, unannounced, mum hissed that the storm troopers were coming, to quickly get dressed. (later, she would tell us Darth Vader was Singhalese, but by then no analogy would suffice). We rushed into the cellar, eyes pounding, a nickel stink corroded our shallow breathing, and we hid, wheezing, until the footsteps had disappeared overhead, and the gunshots been wrung out of earshot. Carted out of town the next day, in an open-topped van, we reached the refugee camp, makeshift like a school turned polling station, and took sanctuary a few nights. Huddled on the floor in blankets, a dark ocean of bodies and familial territories, children spied at each other curiously, before learning slowly to dim the glare, improvise, share: brush our teeth with Thambi’s mint leaves, enjoy the neighbours’ chai, with its excess of cardamom, dish out the boiled sweets though no one was car sick, until one time I woke up forgetting- a seven year old again, so selfish and intractable that, not knowing she had gone for water, I tearfully reproached my cousin for borrowing my sandals and not bringing them back in time.
The delegates in Teflon suits emerge from the vacuum of the plush conference room, and sip and schmooze in the theatre’s spacious foyer. Over coffee and cake, they digest tech spec, dissect the briefing on infrared homing, and the hand-held footage of two run-throughs, filmed Blair-Witch-style in the dust of Falluja and Kabul. Price lists are consulted, emails pinged to HQ. For this matinee stand-off, we assemble in protest, a rag-tag cast of fifty hogging the back lawns, with banners demanding Arms Dealers Out! Thinktank think! Weapons Smart! Jeering from the wings, we presume the police cordon is part of the performance: truncheons brandished to dissuade hecklers, their bolshy frowns impassive to our one-liners, their bullet-proof vests an extravagance to repel our djembe beats. Then from the glass balcony of the hospitality suite, one bullish antagonist flashes us a gloating grin, drawing a gasp as he cups his hand to his ear, mouthing – I can’t fucking hear you, and I lose it in a volley of abuse, feeling so incandescent that the expletives soothe me, until an officer, luminous in his reflective apparel, deadpans: ‘Please Sir, there are children with you.’
I am chaperone for these games, this friendly fire with tea breaks thrown in; I hadn’t really planned to watch, but my eyes sharpen like snipers at the sniff of dried sweat on deadened skin; embedded, I am a tick burrowing to the core, third party to these mini massacres, implicated in the hard shit that comes with the warfare. Having chosen not to play, I am neutralized, so observe from the Dead Zone, a cage with grandstand view and protective netting to stem these automatic experiments of some fifty acolytes of Pollock, masked anonymously like storm-troopers whose tactics have been scuppered by adrenaline. Why don’t you play, they keep asking, and mishearing, I wonder what prayer has to do with anything, when their lungs are spent like uzis, and their faces blood-drawn.
Eleven if you include the bomber herself, and the moulting grey canine. Four died oblivious, their minds combusted, but six had considered their own mortality that very day, of whom four had prayed and two toyed, for reasons unknown, with the idea of self-immolation. The stats of divine vengeance were: three Catholic, three Agnostic and three Muslim. There was one Other, Miss X, and the Alsatian. Three were stood on the platform, five were running late and the dog was asleep with the tramp, Mr Z, when fire stopped the clock. 14:26 was the official time of death but two watches were slow and three fast. Two were drenched in coats and five in suits, although the rain had long since given way to sunshine. Five were still carrying umbrellas, which maimed them. Half of the victims hailed from the soil and half the concrete. Spores of fear crackled in the air, electrifying all fifty-six witnesses, the majority of whom sustained serious injury, and echoed the explosion with fearsome cries. Most were traumatized, even those who had been caught daydreaming.