The school term here in Sri Lanka starts officially on January 4 though with a three-day holiday coming up this week I have a feeling the real start date is still awhile away. But still you see kids in their uniforms with backpacks loaded down, crossing the main road from every school of every shade.
So it was really upsetting the other night when Mr. Thavarajah took us to the Jewanande Girls' Home where sister Helen told us not only did they need backpacks. They needed paper, notebooks, and basic art supplies too. Thavarajah generously called her today and put together a list, including the things she felt were priorities. That way of the bill got too high I could soften my commitment.
We had the pleasure of driving into town where we pulled up at the loading dock of the store "United Book Centre," a large new place that you can see does a ton of business. As Thavarajah went through the list with his friend and fellow board member of the local Lions' Club, Mr. Selvarajah, I started to worry about the price of saying yes. Some of the notebooks the good Sister requested were expensive even by US standards and we were buying packs of 50!
The owner, Mr. Selvarajah, who has been distributing notebooks far and wide around Batticaloa graciously offered to lower the price by about 40%. Without his help I couldn't have managed it. So it's interesting to note that in this simple endeavor we needed at least three players to make a team. Thavarajah introduced the ball into play by taking us there the other night and agreeing to drive me today, essentially brokering the deal. I took the pitch, and the bookstore owner eased my way to a home run. Very nice and interesting collaborative work leading to good feelings all around.
The biggest obstacle was purchasing the backpacks. Diesel brand was the best quality and also the cheapest. But they only had three in the pile. So we waited around until they could be brought from another store. I took the moment to walk to the corner and get my phone reloaded. Then came back and showed Thavarajah some pictures of Boston in winter. It always answers the nagging question people have, "What are you doing in Sri Lanka?"
Even the backpacks were discounted so I was able to pick them up for about $7.50 apiece. I think a small profit was still made but whatever.
Boys loaded Thavarajah's car for us, he revved up the AC, and off we shot. Him with two more funerals to attend today! So in a real way his mission of mercy was greater than mine. He carved a real piece out of a real day to get this done.
I have to say we were about to stop with the "essentials" on the list, which brought me to about $250 at that point. Then I thought to myself, how could we skip the art supplies? Who am I if I leave art out? To my mind art and the act of artistic expression is the most important thing I ever learned at school. It's an approach to the world that makes things shine and make sense. Everyone needs to do art. Maybe the orphans of Jewanande Girls' Home the most. Well worth another $50.
Seashells arranged to look like cobras
As we sat in Mr. Selvarajah's sleek and gently air conditioned office I couldn't help but noticing the Hindu iconography behind him, including a large swastica, the lingam painted onto his desk in front, and the fat Buddha statue Chinese-style with a tray full of coins all around it. Why not cover as many bases as you can? It reminded me of our ride yesterday as Thavarajah drove past my favorite kovil so far, the shrine to Kali the destroyer. It's a piece of art in itself. All the statues are black. The place is scary beautiful and as we passed I asked Thavarajah, "do they suppose that sacrificing to Kali will protect them from destruction?" My question was not sarcastic but he smiled a bit of a sarcastic smile back in response.
Back in the office-cum-icon room I mentioned to our rotund host that if the three of us went to dinner and enjoyed a couple of bottles of wine in my country the price of the meal would be about this much. Thavarajah appreciated that I thought that way and told me so. "Not everyone does," he offered. I guess not but...isn't it true? We spend a fortune on going out in Boston, even of we do it rarely enough.
Same thing with the owner of United Book Centre and maybe with Thavarajah and maybe with me. The Torah tells us that "charity saves." Here in a desperately poor corner of Sri Lanka it may play some part in saving these children. And who knows? Even though it was nominally a Catholic charity I may get a much-needed little morsel of merit myself. We're all human and we all have needs and I think we all have to help one another. This has made my experience in Sri Lanka all the more real.
No biggie actually.