I want to share a hauntingly beautiful story with you. The source is E. Valentine Daniel, and is titled, Charred Lullaby.
As you read it, contemplate what you understand and know about authentic leadership. The powerful story will doubtlessly invite you down other pathways, but I would at lease encourage you to pause and consider this through a leadership lens.
In the 1977 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka, Mr. J.D. Immanuel, a retired Tamil school principal was boarding the 3:15pm train to Kandy. Formally dressed, he chose one of the old red train cars, with two long wooden benches, one with its back against the windows and the other, across from it, facing the outside. The only passenger in the compartment was a Sinhalese woman. Mr. Immanuel narrates:
She was a typical Kandyan Sinhalese with the sari worn the Kandyan way. She wore Kandyan jewelry and a blouse with puffed-up sleeves that only Kandyan Sinhala women wear. She was seated on the window side; I sat on the bench against the wall, away from the door. She could have been the mother of any of those many Sinhala boys and girls I had taught for fifty years.
I knew the riots had started in Kandy town.
I knew that the thugs were coming and was praying that the train would start before they entered the station. But the steam engine gave only one blast and a short whistle, then the mob entered the station and reached the platform. The guard could have given the signal; and the driver could have pulled out.
I don’t know what happened. Either they were frightened by the mob or they wanted to see the fun.
I was hearing thugs shout in Sinhala, “Get the Tamils out! Kill them! Kill them!” I didn’t look. I could hear passengers being pulled out and beaten. There was lots of screaming but no other words from the victims.
All the talking was coming from the rioters. Rioting, cheering. Then I heard screaming in the very next compartment behind ours. The next moment, our door was being opened. As the thugs were climbing the steps to our compartment, this woman suddenly gets up and comes and sits beside me. I have my hands on my legs to stop them from shaking. She puts her hand on my left hand.
She does not say a word. I do not say a word.
The mob come and stick their heads through the window. Three young men get in. Look at us. Turn around and say, “No Tamils here, go on to the next compartment.” Few minutes later, the train pulled out of the station. Tamil passengers from the train were still being chased, beaten and stabbed.
This woman did not let my hand go until we reached Gampola (thirty five minutes later). She didn’t say a word. Not one word. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. Life passed through my head like a reel. All the schoolchildren, all the teachers, all the parents, all the sports meets, all the cricket games, all the prize-giving’s. Like a reel.
At Gampola, she gets off the train and leaves.
She doesn’t even look at me. I don’t even know her name. I reached Nawalapitiya an hour later. Still alive, thanking God.
I still hear the screams of those people. I start shivering in my sleep. Pushpa (my wife) says, “Wake up! Wake up! You are having a bad dream.” Then I feel that woman’s hand on my hand. I stop shaking.