Monday, January 4, 2016

Doing research in Sri Lanka

At our Fulbright orientation in December we heard a talk on "Doing research in Sri Lanka." It was well-meaning and as far as I remember the presenter was well-spoken. But if I recall correctly my impression was that the talk was less than entirely useful. My experience up to that talk and subsequent experiences have supported that impression. So. What is it like doing research here in Sri Lanka?

Let me start by saying that one of the blessings of the Fulbright is that there are no research deliverables. If there were I would be in a heckuva worse mood an awful lot of the time. Before arriving here I had been in correspondence with colleagues--several of them, for about three months. Enough time, I thought, to make my research goals more or less clear to them. Our correspondence was frequent and friendly and a good bit of intellectual exchange was had. One colleague back in the United States commented that I was sure to hit the ground running when I got here. 

You could say I hit the ground running when I arrived up in the Dry Zone (Rajarata) near Anuradhapura. But the ground, which was meant to be dry according to the season was already dampened by early rains. The rain had turned the tank bottoms, which I had come to study, into squishy clay beds. And while these were very interesting in themselves they taught me one major lesson: there are no pristine tank beds (just like there's no pure research ). The beds of these artificial irrigation lakes, built in partnership with nature thousands of years ago and still in use, are all covered with silt. Tons of it. Silt in itself wasn't a problem we couldn't overcome. But my colleagues had prepared a different bed than I expected. We were soon out there taking soil samples in order to measure the nutrient and compaction status of the soil. Not by a long shot the landscape analysis exercise I had in mind. It got me out to some tanks, not as good as the tanks I had studied in May with a local "uneducated" driver. But out there anyway. More diversions, if not dead ends, followed.

The most senior person I had been in contact with, the one who eagerly picked us up at the airport, the one who I had hoped to do tons of fieldwork with, kind of disappeared. Actually (a word so much part of the Sri Lankan vocabulary--I've yet to hear it translated into Sinhala or Tamil), this gent stuck around. Just not in person. He must have called at least a dozen times during our first week or two to check on how we were doing. And most gentlemanly, he asked after Janet every call. His foundation sponsored lots of village work and we even arranged to visit one of the villages he sponsored. A walk around the village tank did teach me a lot about human-built village ecosystems. I was on the ground again. But there was no follow up. 

I learned later that this kind gentleman, like so many other gents of a certain age including many monks I've met, are working on increasing their "merit" now that they've retired. As a gentleman approaching their age I've served as an ideal foil/target. Someone with a bit more energy. Someone from America, where many of their children are. Someone with a prestigious grant and "Professor" in front of his name. Someone to share their post-retirement hobbies with. But that's not research. 

What is research? What is research in Sri Lanka? Research is asking questions in search of an answer. I quickly learned that in Sri Lanka questions quickly take ones interlocutors out of their comfort zone, whether linguistic or conceptual. The best way to learn is to stay quiet and take in what people say. This proposition yields results, but very slowly. Maybe "results" are too much to ask--a kind of expectation which, in the Buddhist mindset leads to duka--suffering. Suffering is something I can live without, so better to lower or lose your expectations altogether. But where does that leave your research?

Another friend, another retired gent in it for the "merit," in far away Hambantota badgered me until I came to visit him at his foundation. Not content to get ahold of me he kept calling my guesthouse staff until we made a date, a few weeks in advance, to see him in Hambantota. The visit he promised, full of tank walks, turned into a trip back to his ancestral village, 2/3 of the way back to Colombo. I got to see some cool countryside. I got to accompany him on all kinds of exotic forays, meet his cinnamon oil-producing family, and grind through a good 12 hours of bus rides. But I didn't see any tanks. Another friend made. Another research opportunity sidetracked. 

I've mentioned the driver who took me to the temple in Kelaniya and who taught me so much about his country. We hired him to drive us up to Anuradhapura and yesterday we went for a great visit to Mihintale. About a km or two west of Mihintale I asked him to take us down a side road where there's a magnificent village tank I wanted to show Julia and Jose. Susil soon found my puny knowledge about tanks a bit too much for him (he's a local from Mediwachiya so I was surprised). But while we were climbing Mihintale Rock he called a friend from home, a local tank expert, who just "happened" to meet us when we reached bottom. "My friend told me a lot about tanks," Sunil offered. "Have you heard of bisowateka (a kind of secondary sluice built to protect the dams)?" Yes I had. And this gent was happy to fill me in with his knowledge on this interesting feature of irrigation tank construction. 

Back to square one, where everyone has his top dozen great things to say about tanks. So. What about research here in Sri Lanka? The reading room at the National Museum seemed promising, but with no access to the stacks you're limited to what you can deduce from a title and then ordering one book at a time. One dead end after another in the literature department gives you a hankering to get back in the field. But how to make fieldwork work?

So my next plan of action, which I hope is not too ambitious, is to plant myself in a modest guesthouse deep in the country, just east of Polonowurra. There I hope to find the time, or the driver, or the bus ride or the bicycle, to take me to a tank-rich corner of Sri Lanka just east of the Mahaveli River. I'll do what I set out to do. Walk the countryside. Traverse the bund roads. Take pictures and gather impressions. If I'm lucky I'll find an informant or two who can help me understand tank structure and function. Someone who may be able to address my infatuation with local irrigation systems here, and who may be able to discuss how they fit in with local cultural landscape ecology. 

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