My dear friend Thavarajah, with whom I learned I share a first name (he has three but one of them is Samuel) took me to his mother's ancestral village, Mandur, today.
Julia and Janet had left for Kandy at 6:15 to catch the direct bus from Batticaloa. Actually they were headed for Pinderwela and I truly hope they found it not too touristy. It looks awful on the map. The place we stay in Batticaloa is incredible and Julia was starting to get the feeling that she'd like to stay awhile. Anyway, nice for them to have some mother daughter time on the road. Wish her voice had been heard when she said she wouldn't have minded staying another day.
So there I was high and dry and it was about 10:00. "Busy schedule today?" asked my friend. "I can offer you a funeral if you'd like to come. No obligation of course." It was a done deal. Funeral it was. He'd pick me up at noon.
Noon sharp I was ready after a morning of hurrying up and waiting for my room change, walking through the village trying in vain to find a dialog reload (cards only--I'll have to walk into town), and a truncated session at the magnificent pool here--wanted to be in time for my ride.
Unshaven and kind of gross looking I slipped into my white linen shirt and long pants (torture) and set to waiting. At about one my friend showed up and motioned "Fifteen minutes!" Relief. I had time to pretty up and shave. After all. A funeral. I also wondered for some reason whether I should grab a couple of business cards (called visiting cards here) and on second thought considered "Funeral. Card not necessary."
Our ride to the village was smooth. Through Kattankudy where I mentioned the similarity to the West Bank and the geography-demography-hegemony games being played there (like everyone I've met here my friend is curious about Judaism--at least he's heard of our religion--and asked me how American Jews differ from Israeli Jews--was my professorial discussion about Germany, Lithuania, Galicia, Turkey, and the Middle East--the latter from which 800,000 Jews fled on the wake of post-colonial Arabism a bit too complicated geographically and linguistically? Don't know. I teach non-majors. But Thavarajah is a very smart man. Very smart indeed--just that there's so much going on here. How is it all reconciled?).
Did someone say reconciliation? Almost. Yes. Right. Back to Kattankudy. Asked Thavarajah to discuss, in his spare time, how we might realistically, positively, help the orphanage (I posted about them yesterday). We'll talk. Driving the main road (or the back roads for that matter) was not the right time.
Awhile into our journey my friend ventured, "I hope I haven't induced you into doing this." "Thank you for the induction" was my joyful answer accompanied by a smile. How great is it riding these roads and seeing these things in well-tempered, knowledgable, and entirely agreeable company? I was to thank him later as well, as we shared a chuckle, for taking me to the funeral. "But let's not do it again too soon."
We approached the village through breathtaking, heartbreaking beautiful fields of rice and lagoon and wild birds and cattle and goats and water buffalo. This is a landscape at once mundane and deeply scenic, used every day and yet resembling the very best Monet or Corot could have conjured. It is a landscape unknown I think to 99.9% of travelers to Sri Lanka. And I imagine close to that percent of Sri Lankans is unfamiliar with the place. I am deeply drawn to it.
Beauty aside, our continued conversation. "There are two alternatives. You can come with me to the funeral or I can drop you at my relation's. He's an intelligent man who studied at Colombia and an excellent mathematician. He had a stroke recently but perhaps you can strike up a conversation." Given the choice I ventured, "May I attend the funeral?"
Surprise. The funeral was scheduled for four PM. We had plenty of time to pull into the relation's. Poor man had traveled and taught extensively but unmarried, and with no savings (but a trove of books in his cell, and two computers) was in the care now of his brother's daughters. We pulled onto the sandy verge below palmyrah trees and assorted fences, and were ushered in to the scholar's space by the older woman who cares for him. If I hadn't seen the paralyzed father in Batapola or roughly a thousand other scenarios in Sri Lanka that, to a "western" eye are utterly weird, then I might have hesitated. But this was right within the dreamscape that Sri Lanka reveals every single day, thousands of times per day, dreamscapes that are overtaken by more and more and more until the dozens of men riding laconically along the back roads bringing fodder to their cattle at exactly 5:30 are no longer strange or even notable, nor is a scholar spilling Milo onto his sarong as he tries to stick in the straw (dang why didn't I offer him my gent's hanky?). They are fixtures of the landscape just as parasitic police who ticket unsuspecting drivers over invisible infractions (Thavarajah received his second today--second day in a row and delivered in stinging, pointed, arrogant Sinhala).
Part of my journey of immersion into Sri Lankan landscapes is my embrace of them. I pull moments as I observe and document them. I invest myself in them. I apologize if this narrative seems to become unattainable. It is not.
Uncle relation (their grandmothers were sisters) sits upright. His diction and his vocabulary and his treasure chest of experiences is intact and ready for deliver. So he spills his Milo (my first here) as he tries to insert the straw. I should have offered him my gent's hanky just as I should have brought a visiting card to share with him. He asks for it. Do you sense how gross my malapropisms are? How language might bridge if only Thavarajah hadn't sent three corn on the cobs up to me at my room? Steamed by the kitchen staff but offered up for sale today on our ride home at the poorest, most deserted corner of Sri Lanka by a boy who couldn't see straight and his cousin, who Thavarajah asked to put the corn on the back seat and who touched every inch of window, upholstery, and my available hand? How do you plumb the depths? How do you keep a smile? How do you avoid what my friend described after our afternoon as a "slight depression," ameliorable by a day of gardening tomorrow?
"Yes. That will bring my spirit back." And how much it would so mine.
Funeral? Mandatory. "If you don't show they will think you consider yourself too big." "I don't recognize most of the faces there but if I didn't come they'd know exactly who wasn't there."
Last week there was another one. The community is part Hindu and part Christian. There were earlier, serious squabbles when Methodist missionaries imposed their way here through education, jobs, and "betterment." Ladies cried here under a tent. So did the son, who I saw being kissed on both cheeks and followed suit. Thavarajah stayed close to the corpse, whose face was exposed and feet were being washed, until he moved to the outside of the hot circle of bodies. He chatted with a few relations, introduced me to some, then got back in the vehicle, turned on the AC, and headed for home. We had our first Tamil lesson. He grinned. I liked myself speaking the language. We got lost. We were stopped by the police. "No," he answered. "I don't tell my wife about this." Your secret is safe with me friend. Tomorrow we garden.