The longest tweet
The first sentence he wrote was less than 140 characters. How long would the rest be? How many sentences did he have? Would he have to edit? It was the beginning of a long tweet, maybe more of a trill or a whistle. He had come to Sri Lanka for commitment. But also to avoid commitment that had become hoary, wasteful. He wanted to capture the sound of waves in the lagoon. The way they lapped gently against the embankment of a shore. The sound of coconuts lobbing to the sand, fronds high above macheted and crashing. These sounds he figured as defining noises.
Also defining: the sharp sun of the tropics on already tanned skin. How often would the UV burn strike in a day and for how long? Sounds of bus music Sinhalese and Tamil. Some people knew these tunes and the words. He wasn't deaf to them but he had no inkling of their meaning or history. Cultural roots were unknown to him here, perhaps this was a throwing off of commitments.
He was after the corners, angles, shades, textures of a strange land. Sounds were the strangest. The wind off a wewa, the artificial lakes that made landscape here. There were 30,000 of these lakes, enough for another lifetime of work. Work was inquiry, recording, reporting nothing could stop this in a day. The grains of reporting added in a kind of sand timer. Like meals eaten or ideas that rolled through they were cloudlike, sweeping the sky, sliding to an infinite waterfall of the obvious.
His goal was tangible and intangible. 100,000 hits in a month. He had gone past 20,000 in January. Could February, the shortest month yield the lakh he sought? And with a trip to India planned, would that disturb the peristaltic motion of thought and game? Was it worth a try? Did the rainforest shorn of its trees react like a naked body, shivering?
Hard thoughts, like the hidden poisons of some curries. A brinjal made with tiny green eggplants. The seeds and flesh were removed. But the fatty fruit tasted of bitter solanacious strychnine. Manioc with its yellow exterior and strangely, ghostly white inner starches. The not dissimilar jak in its almost cheesy matrix of thick yellow recipe. Wing gourds and bitter gourds and kessel mua, the banana flower. All mildly indigestible. Fungus salty and chewy. Cambodge hidden but contributing to the rich mix. How to mine these flavors like a cave of gems? Where to stop on the plate? How to tell a server that five curries were too many?
Storage on his phone was another problem. Too many photos. Must send to flickr. But that will fill the server and twice he had spent a morning emptying that. Walking, the problems floated away. But walking in wet sandals brought double trouble. Sore feet could last for days. They changed sprightly into old, already glowing dim and red across the border a year or two away. Any sentence in this paragraph could have accordioned to build an encyclopedia of words. Or thoughts. Or motions. Or hues.
Dogs here barked but not the way they did at home. Even screeching at each other or at some wild boar of the forest the sound was less intimate. Less aimed at him in the narrow reverberations of his city village in America. Here dogs could run in the sand, shit in the sand. It was only another tweet. More a trill or a thrill or the peacock's plaint. Protection was strangely felt and it was all around. All around his wrist. Daanas and temple visits and Poya parades and visits to head monks had assured this. The numb hand recovered. The scab covered. An oil of anointment filled the pores.
The world kept coming to his table. This was a turned table not like the one at home. A mosquito coil here, not the pleasantest, offered a tang of aroma different from the day and protective. Like the ceiling fan it went round and around. Like the ceiling fan it combusted. It ran by combustion. But the combustion of a mosquito coil, like an incense stick, was immediate. Not a far off coal plant in Puttalam. Though maybe just maybe it was powered by the giant fans there that caught wind. Or the hydro energy of Mahaweli, where he'd just been. Could you read these things from the landscape? Someone knew them.
Someone knew valves and buckles. Someone knew steel and chrome. Someone knew motherboards. Someone knew sales. Someone knew bicycle repair. Someone knew tailoring. Someone knew cashew picking. Someone knew cooking the Sri Lankan way. Someone knew fertilizers. He did, slightly. He could invoke magnesium in a discussion of ginger cultivation. He could talk nitrogen and its role in Indian corn. He could read silage and pastureland at the roadside. He found a succor in running water. Was there anyone who didn't?
Frightening bits of imagined melody came into his dreams sometimes. Maybe these were associated with blood pumping. Maybe these were from the food. Maybe these were amalgams, like dreams, of the conscious and unconscious eachness. Each was a world. And worlds of horror were also close across the border, a border that sometimes was a bit too fluid.
In time, over time, aren't borders a fuzzy or a fluid thing? Where starts and finishes, regrettable but real are but a line, how do we measure the borders of a border? In sound waves of most words there's a running down. A tapering. 140 characters may be achieved by removing a period or changing an and to an ampersand. & more footsteps dissolve borders, push them, expand their width.
If your border's width is expanded monstrously where is the soft border and where is the hard border? Where is the edge of the border and where is the center of the border? Where does tolerable become intolerable? Where does peace turn to war and where does war turn to peace? Do these slide into one another or collide? Are there gradations and shades? If there is an "absolute" then what is absolute? Is that absolute? What is the calculus? What are these calculuses? How is a calculus of borders reckoned and counted? How are borders piled up? Are they counted like beans? Like cords of wood? Like planks of wood that have been shaven? What sound do they make as they are thrown on top of each other. He could recall the sound-different sounds-of piling wood.
Finding a bit of air could be a problem. But often it was solved by delicious breezes or the slight jump of a grasshopper. Geckos or some other lizards ventured out from behind mirrors or across screens. They stayed to their sides, which mosquitoes refused to do. Who would have known that mosquitoes hid in cloth? That they stayed behind bits of furniture like so many morsels of dust? Was this tweetable? Would this reach people's hearts?
Greens were another thing. The color, not the vegetable. They changed personality depending on the light. Whether light hit them or shone from behind. Greens in leaves could react in a million ways. Miraculous. And this could happen in New Hampshire or Sri Lanka. So it could probably happen anywhere. This was like the experiment where chlorophyll, exposed to certain lights, shone blood red. The red had a magenta border. It was worth sharing with students. Or was it? Could you gauge by their response? What was their response? Which part of their response did you sense? Students and other people too could be on a different planet. But you had to try to read them. You had to venture closeness or feign distance. But sometimes there was a closeness that etched like acid. This wasn't bad. It preserved consciousness.
But what of consciousness or for that matter conscience? People didn't want that in their political leaders. People seemed to not want that in their teachers. Or students. Was this tweetable? Did this reach people as you would reach for a loved one? Did you share the glint on a crocodile's tooth, the last slither of a monitor's tail, the rolling eye of a chameleon?
Why were reptiles so much like monocots? And why did coffee feel so human? If you put 100,000 sentences on twitter would 100,000 people read your story? Would the longest tweet tweak a border? Would the longest tweet exceed 140 characters? Could it? How "far" was philosophy from poetry? How stupid was diplomacy? How sublime was science? Sublimer than art? Weren't art and science one? Artifact and conscience? Artifice and sentience? Artful conscilience? Silence or confluence? Influence?
Impact might be measured as a meteorite that shook the globe or the lowering of an eyelash. A finger in a pond. Or a throwing your body into a dam to stanch the flood. You became a god. You became godlike. They named the lake for you or they named you for the lake or invented a reality in this land of invention and reinvention and revolving realities. Impact. The sound of a k or the typing it out k k k k k k k k on a typewriter. The transference of an ion. That took an instant. The movement of silt in suspension. The deposition of silt in solution. That was silent. Crunching on a short eat with your hot paper cup of Nescafé in Moratuwa. Plucking a white mulberry (Morus) from along the river bank in Cambridge or Arlington. Were these places missed, smelling as they did of oily mud.
Where did these corners go when you rounded them? Why did it always seem to be questions and who could you share them with? Did questions make better communication because they left room for the other? Were questions harder because in every language they are formulated differently? Did questions oblige an answer? Were they a retrorse prickle that held on, clutching, begging for company? Like a kitten's front claw stretched in a sweater? Did these things go unwritten until now? Can these be tweeted?
Can we break from stream of consciousness and pick it up later, downstream? Will this facilitate a mass consciousness that we share? How simple must the thing we share be? A piece of chocolate cake that's too filling? A handful of spicy dahl that's too engaging? A sip of salty lime juice that's just warm enough?
Why did my guesthouse owner swat flies with decrepit plastic remnants of fly swatters that smelled like dead fly? What happened when he was in Batticaloa in the Sri Lankan Air Force? Why was he there, west of Batticaloa when there were dozens of bases, maybe hundreds, in other parts of the country? Where does force come in in the peace process? And where are we mistaken in calling it a process? This is why he considered writing about peace in the context of design process. It could be parsed. It could be compared. It could wring tangible from the intangible. And the intangible could be wrought from the tangible. Irregular verbs, he learned, were often the most commonly used verbs. This speaks perhaps to their utility, their flexibility, their instrumentality. Can one tweet about verbs but curtail the verbiage? May a deep night silence hold verbs invisible and unheard?
Seal your eyes and release information. These were the last words he heard. Or was it the last thought I had? Before sleep happened. Or was it more than one thought? Who was being told to release information? Was it me? Was I telling someone else? I imagined for a moment it might be Darshan. Telling me or being told? The fan was going slowly. I was getting cold. Thoughts popped in. You must do this and that tomorrow. You must get on the computer. You must. You'll have to.
An imagined and distant aroma from the far past. The "Roumanian" butcher on Clark Street in Chicago. Roumanian. A rumor? Had the best pastrami. The salted beef smell. The slightly sliding smell. The smell when you opened the glass door. The tableaux of the glass wall and behind, the Romanian butchers. The Romanian butchers looked fierce in front of the hanging salamis. Some of the salamis were two feet, three feet long. For a shorter time there was another butcher on Devon Avenue, "Hungarian." Hungarian was saltier the place darker the men fiercer. Why would anyone ever name their kosher butchers' after these countries of butchery? Why ever invoke these names again I thought, the fan whirring in a dark solid room in Batticaloa.
Why not a simple name like Ashkenaz, exotic, seeming eastern though meaning, literally, "west." On the eastern part of Pratt Street in Chicago. Because Ashkenaz didn't stay. After what seemed like a long time it was there. Or maybe not so long. Twenty years? That's a short time. Two hundred years? That's a short time. Two thousand years? That's getting longer my love. Delis stopped being places where people wanted to eat. They were greasy. They were caloric. They were plebeian. They were ethnic. Not the right kind of ethnic. But you could buy platters from Roumanian or Hungarian I suppose. You could have your platter for a funeral or graduation or something. You could invite family and friends and maybe neighbors. You could use plastic cups. You could throw away the aluminum serving trays with their clear plastic covers. You could stuff the garbage with large multi-ply paper napkins. Is this tweet material? Maybe this is more tweetable in Sri Lanka or other countries where people are curious about how we live in America.
Would this have to be edited? Where is the word edit from? Is it like it? Like id? Does it relate to a suffix like "ad" as in administer? Could it mean go above or supplant? Could edit mean camouflage? He thought a good camouflage could be a smoothly written sentence. No more than 140 characters. Smoothly written? Hidden in language. Softened by shadows or neutralized by bright light. Neutralized by clarity. Have you ever heard of damning with faint praise? That is a kind of camouflage. You hide your intent in beige.
Intent could be read by observing the knees. Do they knock against each other? Intent could be read or divined by the reading of a menu. That is, watching someone else read a menu. Deli menus could be pages long. Is that any way to run a kitchen? When a kitchen is a business you'd better watch out. Why? You do the math and tell me.
Lies engulf and lies abound. What's going on around town? What happened in Matale and why can't I find out? Not in Wikipedia though I could swear it once was. Now just gotta ask and keep asking. What happened in Matale? What happened in Batticaloa? How is it that there is so much lie we are swimming in it sloshing in it. Is there a grain of truth as big as a piece of rice in the whole world? Even if truth were a grain of rice just in this country it would be hard to find.
But if that solid truth is there isn't it worth finding but how do you find it? Asking questions? Questions get "answered" in the most oblique ways. It's like there's a category of speech called answering questions that's honey dripped with lies. Answering questions as a part of speech like nouns or verbs but lies are the substance and trope.
Moving forward through lies. Is it like moving forward through a tunnel with no oxygen or like his dream of the night before, sitting at a desk in a university and just to his right (or was it his left?) a specimen jar much larger than a human and into it right then was dropped another person. The struggle was short and slow because the preserving liquid was honey. The "specimen" died in the sweetness in the jar, smiling. Is this why it feels like Poland here or Eastern Europe? The crimes are as lovely as a jar of honey, kitul honey, honey I'm home.
The solitariness of the search and act of writing, "just writing hon," was absurd in a place among people. Mostly people seeking guide from guidebooks where should we go next? Are the mountains really beautiful? How cold are they? Is the 17th highest waterfall in Sri Lanka worth a side visit? Where is the food best? Where is the food cheapest? Where is the best tourist beach?
Oh the best tourist beach. You must visit Pasakudah. The coral there was blasted away so you could bathe. Yes. But don't go too far from shore because there's coral there and you could get cut. So there's a little truth in Pasakudah but you have to get cut to find it out there. I'm giving you a little bit of a tip. Is a tip like a grain or is a tip just another lie? Can the landscape lie? Of course. We built it! We can construct any kind of lie. Isn't that wonderful? A particleboard series of lies and because we're such good architects as can build them into houses. Nice houses. Nice looking houses. Neat houses. Yes. Let's neaten it up shall we? Because the non tourist beaches are a mess. They are dirty. They are littered. No that's not the litter of the tsunami any more. Don't worry about that. It's the litter of our permanent rot that comes out of the mouths of politicians every single night on TV. It comes from the "Truth First" station where they show in their whites and their permanently dyed black hair and their mouths open and. Oh. You can tell those are lies. They are paid to lie and the more they lie the more they can extend their term of lying.
But why stop with politicians? It's part of the universities. Part of the way they were built because you see there can be a long bank of computer stations in a darkened hall that people stand outside of and use their phones. So the computer hall that cost "millions" is empty with its banks of computer consoles whatever that means and yes you had to struggle and ask nicely to get into that place at the main campus of Rajarata University but the lies there lie unlovely on its quiet campus save the heavy brownshirted police presence at the gate. Can't get in. Why let people in? The batch is being prepared. The batches are being prepared. The light is already here we don't need more. Our batches like so many packages of biscuits are being baked, mostly in English medium we tell folks, and they will be finished, ready soon for their next stage. The job.
That's where you can go and start lying. Just open your pink mouth and repeat after me. I have the sheaves of notes here from last years lectures and there's an orange-draped gentleman in the corner prepared to assess you and bless you and if you forgot to use English in your presentation and only read your powerpoint slides in Sinhala well then the foreigner here who can't help but be impressed with your erudition will at least learn to read "thank you" in your language that you put as the end slide. It will have been well worth the gentleman's time to travel across Colombo in suit and tie to hear your rendition of Sinhala verb placement. Because your verbs come at the end of a sentence. Because you can change what you're doing mid sentence. But that's not a lie is it?
English medium what a hoot when we hear that in a country of generations now of Sinhala only. So the teachers aren't so good at English are they and neither are the students. My architect friend when he got tired of haranguing his students in English telling them, "Don't lie to us, we're not fools! (Such a good way to train a new batch of liars) or, "Answer the question! (Use that part of speech we use to "answer" "questions") brilliant! More batches of lies! Would break into Sinhala and the student, lying, would say, "But sir, the gentleman doesn't understand Sinhala," hoping to put off the inevitable and my friend would turn around at me and snarl. Snarl back at the student. "He understands everything!"
Does understanding mean seeing lies? Do the lies act as a honey? You struggle briefly and sweetly and then you float down suffocated in lies. You haven't found the truth but the lies! They are delicious! They are scrumptious! They are clear as amber, which is nice. Because like a clear water place to surf or snorkel we like our parts of speech clear. Our statements clear. We like to hear it straightforward. From the horses mouth so to speak because then we are getting the true story. What happened in Matale? What happened in Colombo? Over there in Colombo the mess is buried in a bigger mess and a bigger mess so there, unlike in lovely Paris where you can memorialize "les eleves" who were dragged to their death by French gendarmes did I say gendarmes sorry I meant the Nazi enemy occupier, here in Colombo you just can't see it anymore. Maybe that's why he got allergic to Colombo. Maybe that's why his wife broke out in a rash when she arrived there. In Colombo? Commerce buries some of our lies. Filthy streets and congestion bury some of our lies. Noise and pollution bury some of our lives. Red betel spit everywhere buries some of our lies. The loveliest homes behind white walls is where so many more lies are hidden. And now gorgeous lines drawn by architects and executed by builders hide new lies at the same time they are lying. That will be the new Wellawatta, once we are finished improving Kolupitiya.
It had to be fiction because no "non-fiction" vessel could hold it any more. It was not work for archival research or primary sources. That ship, as they say, had sailed. The breeze too beguiling. The aromas too subtle. A cooked cinnamon. The singsong speech. The sopranos singing. The dark corners in homes and buildings with red waxed concrete floors and massive walls. An address in Dehiwala out of synch with its number. Not far from the beach but far enough. Way far enough from the main road to have qualified as quiet in a town where quiet is precious. It was a Burgher home where Burghers had lived and built their life and we were being treated. Burgher sandwiches of many layers. Gossip about gossip. Or about what gossip was. Whose family among whose family in wedge tight weave. Warped. Short eats. Booze on tap brought by passengers from Australia. Flung families, far, far, far from this place. But they had always been flung far from place. Flight. Fear. Settlement. Trade. Profession and craft. Pinto. Dias. de Almeida. Recognizable tribal names. The tribe had changed but it was the same tribe. Living in dark corners. Lightening them in generations. Safely hidden here in shade soaked gardens in Burgher churches immune to mission because they were already changed to the conquerers' religions. Had done so in centuries before the conquerers got to this particular island. Certified. Signing marriage certificates just like in the olden days. We saw the picture. Marrying only among themselves. In this small world what else was there? These families. "Have you ever been to the Holy Land?" he is asked. "Yes I was there last year and I have lived there." She sighs. "I want to see the places my Lord Jesus blessed with his steps," he is told. Along with a million pieces of gossip. Fraught far flung tales of clownery and generosity and giftgiving and taking. Of meals rejected and criticized. Of a hothouse of feelings and folly and signed marriage documents and. Fortitude?
A wall looks weak, looks like it may collapse. A dog walks on three legs. A child goes barefoot. A man has splayed feet. A man walks onto a bus in Wellawatta. His hands are in a bag. Passengers drop coins and bills into his crude bag purse, like a feed bag. The hands stay inside. The music plays. Canned music but live in turns to and from Hambantota. Soften the ride. Opportunity for charity. Quick to help. People rise in help to elderly on the bus. Children cling to their parents. Larger children, older children away and bounce on the seats to the music. The automaticness not like in our country. Not like on the Red Line at Charles Station. Or maybe it is. The daytime hazards are less clear than the night. The night blurs are as clear as the light off of pearls. The muslin sheets are wet but at least there are no flies. Were there flies after Matale? How did the mob travel? How was fear struck and how was it felt? Why the questions? Can't we get past it? Can't we build peace?
What is the foundation of peace? Don't tell me prosperity. Don't tell me concrete. Don't tell me power. Power? How is it dealt, measured, apprehended, felt? What are its limits if there is an "it?" Is it in speed or solidity? But how fast? How solid? Where are slownesses and porosities? Are they in the gorgeous fragrance of a papaya flower? A aralia flower stomped in mud but still smelling like heaven? The alleged moistness of a Burgher finger sandwich? The French-cafe like seating area of a small shop near the Batticaloa railway? But these scooters beep past and the musical release from inside is "South Asian," a fuse, a fusion, a doorway to pretend and pretense like any other Batticaloa breeze.
Brooms of plastic color wiggle in the breeze and strips of shampoo packets and snacks sway like any coconut frond. This might be peace. But the falling flowers indicate change, movement, instability. So must peace be static? Can it move and evolve? Is it on a ridge or in a basin? What does it move toward? Is sway a stochastic empirical struggling against the base that attaches it? Is this railroad terminal findable? Are the depots and electrical substations and nicely paved roads and fish sellers on bicycles with their wood boxes and scales a sign of peace?
What is a "sign?" Is it signal? Is it tweet? Is it more than a noun? Of course. "To sign." To produce a signature. Or to produce letters or words for and among the hearing-impaired. What caused hearing loss in these eastern children? Horrors of war? Parents shot before their eyes? Things they cannot hear or say? Are these signs that stay forever? Will these fierce children bear fierce children? Is fierce the other side of gentle or is it the same side? Do they share a plane? Are they edges of the same line? Is there a boundary between them or are they their own boundary? Are they felt in contrasting modes? Fierce loyalty? Gentle refusal? Furious. Furiously scribbling writing.
Two questions will be able to fill an hour's monologue. Then they can fill a book. What happened in Matale? How did you find out?
More questions that you might not want to ask people personally: You might not want to think about them: you might wonder why a person would ask them: You might regret reading them:
Is it better to end up in an orphanage because your parents were shot or because they were drowned? Is it better to end up in an orphanage because your parents disappeared or because your parents were under suspicion? Is it better to have been brought to the orphanage by your parents or was it better to have been brought by their relatives? Was it better to be brought by villagers because your parents were gone or was it better to wander there yourself because everyone was gone? Was it better to be in the orphanage when you knew where your parents were or was it better to be there when you didn't know where they were? What about your brothers and sisters? Did you know your name when you came to the orphanage? You might add:
Did you and the other children talk about your lives before the orphanage when you were in the orphanage? Did you feel safe in the orphanage? Did you know what was outside the orphanage? Why would you want to ask that?
Scientifically, because he was a scientist he could ask, what are the conditions and environmental stresses that a coconut palm faces? Heavy load of fruit on a thin trunk? Heavy load of fruit and fronds on a thin trunk? Heavy load of winds unfelt at the base but strongly perceived at the crown? Strong sun exposure where the fruit and flowers are borne? Poor soil with scarce nutrients and structure unsuitable for heavy weight-bearing trunks that are exposed to wind shear?
What did the coconut need? Materials and structure that allow the following: maybe you can think of more: Strength. Flexibility. Ability to sway. Support. Strong, well-protected fronds to do the delicate business of photosynthesis while they are potentially cut to shreds in the wind or burnt by the sun? Could you say a coconut tree adapted or was it "just" genetics? Could the morning kovil music every single blessed morning give you hope juice in its silly religious timbres? give you some answers? Could it strengthen you for the day and make you flexible? Could it support you by making you brave? Could it regulate you by waking you up? Could it protect you just by you hearing it the way looking at certain things was said to protect you? By the way what would "protection" be? Could you wear it on your wrist? And back to the kovil music: Was it different if you inherited that music because of your religion than if you inherited it because you were human and you could hear music in all its tones? Who could you ask these questions to? Why would you ask these questions? Whose idea was this? Did you regret being pulled in? This is why he wrote the questions. So people could read them and consider them for themselves. Is this tweetable? Are questions tweetable? Is a bird's tweet a question? Can birds ask questions? If questions are a part of speech that invite lies then what about answers?
Some questions you might want to consider but not ask: What made you decide to emigrate? Why did your parents force you to emigrate? Why didn't your parents leave with you?
You might also ask: What were the psychological factors that went into the the decision to emigrate or not to emigrate? (If you hate psychology please skip this paragraph). Fear? Stubbornness? Inertia? Faith in yourself to survive? Faith in neighbors to protect you? Faith in neighbors to keep on not killing you? Faith in your own ability to hide? Go underground? Escape if you really needed to? Faith in your own ability to make quick decisions based on the way you had made quick decisions in the past? Faith in your ability to make balanced, sane decisions based on your ability to make balanced, sane decisions in the past? Possessions? Language? Religious beliefs? Real estate? Relatives? Guilt? Rumors? Faith in the government to protect you (what is protection again?) Faith in local authorities? Faith in local authorities you had a relationship with? Faith in human nature? Your own poverty? Your profession? Your knowledge of how indispensable you were to your community? Knowledge of how indispensable you were to your profession? Knowledge of how indispensable you were to your colleagues? Knowledge of how indispensable you were to the government? Knowledge of how indispensable you were to your orchestra? (This would have to be Germany or Austria or who knows? Maybe there were orchestras in Sri Lanka). Honors you held or hoped you would get? Faith in human nature? Faith in your wealth? Faith that people wouldn't turn on you? That people couldn't turn on you? That rumors of people turning on their friends, colleagues, neighbors were only rumors?
What if you were old? What if you were young? What if you were married to a person of the other tribe? What if your children were mixed blood tribe people? What if the violence stopped at your border? What if the violence stopped at your town? What if your town was a peaceful place, the kind of place where violence didn't happen? What if you had lived in peace with your neighbors? What if your parents had lived here in peace with their neighbors? What if your grandparents had lived here in peace with their neighbors? Did time provide logic? Look on your retirement account prospectus. It says, "Past performance does not always assure future performance." Who ever believes that?
Wow that smoke. Who would ever believe it. There's so much smoke in Sri Lanka from everywhere. In Vavuniya it's coming from piles of corn silage by the road. In Colombo it's from vehicles and yard waste. In Batticaloa there is smoke from every home, like in Jaffna. He lights an incense. This incense was bought in a shop in Dehiattkandia. Dehiattkandia is 98%, 99%, 100% Sinhalese. It is Tamil-rein. How nice to live only amongst your own people. Or among. There must never be strife of any sort. They all speak the same language. There are no misunderstandings. No one rips anyone else off. There is no strong and no weak. There are no bullies or cowards. There are no precincts crowded with churches and mosques and kovils because there is only the Ponsala here and in every community of "Section C" of the Mahaweli Scheme. What a wonderful world has been brought here. A landscape built to look like Rajarata here in the Eastern Province.
The box of incense, he notices, is only in Singhala. The box of incense, maybe, is for ponsala use only. Not to be used in kovils, the place of Hindu worship, or in Christian churches. He is a foreigner. He lights it in the bathroom. The smoke! It is as solid as any smoke he's seen. It curls and wavers like other smokes he's seen from incenses but there's something about it. It stays. It's like a solid whiff of smoke that poses midair in front of the bathroom mirror, considers itself and the directions it might disperse. Reluctantly floats, barely, away. It's more real than any smoke he's seen. It's more real than a colleague's promise here in Sri Lanka. Why can't a colleagues promise be trusted? The colleague lies. How can you say that? It's not fair! The colleague was only doing things his way!
The colleague is part, participle, past participle, future participle, future past participle. His is a fabric of lies. Oh how trite! The fabric is as strong as the fibrous fabrics that grow on palms, coconut and palmyrah, Sinhalese and Tamil trees, are they? that give strength and integrity to the palm in its serious requirements for strength and integrity. The fabric of lies here must be woven tight, airtight, waterproof. Not woven by hand, woven by heredity. They must be this way to support and give integrity to a society of lies. How did the colleague lie? He let his student write about Matale. What's wrong with that? The student compared Matale (devastation) to Detroit. A town that lost population and stature because of post-industrial decapitalization. Matale as a rust belt town. Not Matale as a Sri Lankan Nuremberg Kristallnacht.
Let's explore. Let's take apart. Unravel. Imagine. Blow it up. Blow it apart. Let's think about a timeline. In slow motion. What is the trajectory from bemusement to terror? Comfort to horror? Liking something to not liking it? Liking someone to not liking them? Feeling like you belong to feeling like you don't belong? Feeling like you can stay to feeling like you better get out? Feeling like you're safe to feeling like you're in danger? Feeling like you're free to feeling like you're trapped? Get the picture?
What are the benchmarks? What is the evidence? When do random things start to "add up" and make a different, new picture? What are decisions along the way? Decisions to accept? Decisions to connect? When do the fibers ravel into a fist? Or when do the fibers of comfort come undone like so much retting, bacterialized? Shredded? Meaningless now except for the new bad thing that's been woven out of the stink of rot? And that bad thing is so clear in your vision. It's time to act. But is it too late to act the way you once might have? Are your quick impulses useless, your sane and logical decisionmaking toothless? Then what happens? What happens to your wife? What happens to your young children? What happens to your old mum? What happens to your books? What happens to your furniture? What happens to your musical instruments? What happens to the cans of food in your house? What happens to your savings account? What happens to the theatre tickets you had for next week? What happens to your shoes? Which ones do you take? What do you have time to take? What do you have space to take? Who can you take? Can you take anyone? Have you been taken? Is it you who has "disappeared?" What will happen if no one knows where you are? What happens to your self? Where have you found yourself?
Things started to change when he saw his friend, an elderly gent not that old, whose hand was nearly always to his face. Fingers up. Palm just below his nose. It was as if he kept smelling the meals he'd had before. Had he been brought up hungry? Why would this be the case? It's because the gent, not really that old, ate by shoveling food into his mouth, lustily using his whole hand. The palm must have smelled permanently from curry. This was not the only person he'd seen eating this way but this was the only person smelling his hand all day every day, when he wasn't calling to his younger brother (in his 50s) "Malli!! Malli!!" Other gentleman shoveled their food in as well. Was this a habit of the south? All these gents were from Galle.
The elder ate past satiation. He forced rice down his throat. So much rice escaped from his shovel-hand back onto his plate. He snorted while he ate. When he was done he sneezed violently. Then came the scary part. An electron cloud aura of torpor took over. His expression changed from fullness to food coma. His features softened then retreated then fell downward and finally fell off as food coma approached. He sat at the table but was unconscious and eyes open, unseeing. His swollen fingers rested on the plastic covered oil cloth. He barely stumbled away from the table on swollen ankles and legs that pressed against his sarong. Tipsy-like, he trudged to his afternoon rest behind the curtain.
Another point at which things started to change. Another gent. A colleague. Younger than I was. Younger than "he" was. Younger than the other gent. A university professor. We all have our tics don't we? Our tics and tacs and we depend on our close colleagues, I think, to ignore these. But.
The stress he showed while talking to students. He'd sit spread-legged, chubby, a stern look of stern indifference on his pockmarked face. This was his Saturday maybe he was thinking. Why do I have to come to work on a Saturday? His fat round stomach in a mustard color polo pushed up against the table in from of him. His legs splayed. His face partly indifferent partly angry partly coma like as if he'd had a huge lunch too but it was just past breakfast. Maybe he stuffed breakfast down with his hands and then got in his car and drove the miles to campus in bad traffic but not as bad as during the week and found a parking space at his old campus where he was among the founding students, the way he told me about their good times, their drinking, their giggling. (Group giggling. Male tension reliever and equalizer. When things get tenser wrestling may erupt and body butting starts and someone has to stop the budding butting trouble and the opponents must say "Aywboan," and separate and high pitched giggling can resume. Sounds merry doesn't it? Merry and lighthearted. Merry and lighthearted and let's get in there and all join the fun. This is groupmaking. It's the way senior students and junior lecturers act on their way to career). When you're a senior lecturer you're really there. You've made it. You can let your hair go gray or if you want to look like a politician or if you have a lot of intercourse with politicians in your post you may want to keep dying your hair. Jet black please.
Dyed hair for this gent. His rotund belly against the table piggy eyes staring across legs splaying out and in faster. Then the scary part (what's to be scared of? Such a nice country. People never say no!) the stomach started pumping up and down in rhythm with the legs. Not just the stomach. Hips and groin and legs and stomach while the manicured hands stayed folded or languidly opened another student folder. Tenth, twentieth, thirtieth student of the day for him to shout at and make a few offhand words of instruction. All the while humping the table, went on for hours. You read it here first. I couldn't make that one up.
But maybe things turned scary earlier. Sorry to go back in time. Shouldn't we always move forward? Shouldn't we let the past lie still and buried? Why dig up the past? Why dredge up the past? Why ruin a nice day or a nice flowing paragraph or a fun show or a great sports event (yay team!) with a downer from the past? But I'm supposed to be telling when and how things go from bemusement to horror. Gotta do my job.
So maybe it started way earlier like a couple of weeks in. We'll look at some other details another time maybe. Don't be impatient. Enjoy what you're reading now. Don't dredge up the past and don't get too far ahead of yourself. Let sleeping dogs lie. Make nice.
Started with a much younger gent. Not really a gent yet, not even a junior lecturer. Just a graduate student. Loved fun. Loved to show off pictures of his cute wife and new baby (what else would keep him draped across the desk snoring during a presentation. A baby of course. Not drinking!). Loved to show pictures of his new wife and cute baby or the other way around but what really tickled him was to show pictures of his wedding day. Wedding day and the days up to it and the photo sessions that make the day so special. Seen hundreds of pieces of evidence for this wonderful ritual of quiet or raucous frolic (this is really a fun-loving place. Its oozes gemuchchlikeit!). Nice beaches. Nice mountains. Beautiful people!
Evidence. Signs on UNESCO heritage buildings transformed into high end eateries and gem emporia "From this date onward you must pay the fee of Rs 12,500 for a day of wedding photography in front of this building. Rs 8000 for a half-day." Evidence, multiple photographers shooting from every angle the charming new couple. Joyous! Evidence, a group of same-clad girls and boys cavorting as a group in the sea, just below the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, back and forth into the waves they cavort, the ladies' tresses waving and their silky dresses just skimming the water. So much laughter. So much fun. A hired drone above records every glint of the sun on the waves, every happy glint of an eye, every glint of a white tooth in the morning light.
These things aren't scary. This gent did something scary for his wedding photos. Proud of it he showed and savored every picture. Proud to have designed the sets and the settings. He's a designer! He's finished his B-Arch at the second most prestigious architecture school in Sri Lanka and he's the student of the busy humping gent! He's got a future ahead of him. And a nice head of hair. And good taste! And a nice wife and a good baby, except when it keeps you up at night and you have to rush in to school on Saturday to show what you've done over the past month (nothing). But he did do something for his wedding photos.
His friends are a good sized circle. Why not? We use those friends our whole life. These friends love love love to collect old Volkswagens! What an unusual pastime. You don't see many VWs in Sri Lanka. They must have looked hard for them. Nice thing to collect. Old beetles. Old historic cars. Great sense of history in those old historic cars. Great sense of design too. All around a great thing to collect, drive around in, parade. Who doesn't like antique cars?
How to use those cars and make a really great wedding album? Gent musta stayed up nights thinking this one up until: Yes! We'll have a "World War Two-themed wedding." What a coup! No one on the island could have thought of this one. You'll make the "Matrimonials" in the weekend "Mirror" for sure.
Tell me. If you can guess it. How do you decorate those cars to make the "World War Two" theme really authentic. Remember. You're a designer with a sense of history. Why not emblazon them (is that the right word in Sri Lankan?) with a nice big black swastika?! Guys you read it here first. I swear. Could never have made that one up in a hundred years.
Scary? You betcha. Shoulda known then!
Let's take a break from the bad stuff. Let's talk about his friend's ginger crop that was coming up. His friend had had the planter plant about 200 tubs of ginger. When he first got here in January his friend was despondent. "They'll never come up," he complained. An outsider, he was more sanguine. He (well, actually his wife) had planted asparagus. They knew how intransigent these spoiled-looking monocot buds could be, placed underground. And. There were one or two bits coming up out of the soil. The soil was sandy with a bio charcoal fertilizer that was introduced. Bio charcoal he made as a by-product of the methane gas generator that used kitchen waste. The biogas had bacteria that broke down and provided micronutrients. This was when we talked about fertilizers. Magnesium and trace elements.
By now, the end of January, the
gingers were coming up in their hundreds. A good 180 of the 200 bins were fully occupied with ginger sprouts. It was a sight, them with their dark mesh pavilion above, just the tallness of a person. Should they be weeded? Could he participate? Assume that what he would have done in the West would "fit" here in this Eastern garden? He knew biology. He knew gardening. But still.
This was the season, the end of January right after Thai Pongol, when gardens were prepared and plants put into the ground. As if a miracle (it would be a miracle if plants could read the clock) the gingers came up at this time.
Also, okra was in flower and fruit, "ladies fingers," a taste so fresh the pallet didn't know what to do with it. Pumpkins and watermelons, in their well-prepared soil, enthused in their green vininess. Some would grow up on the stout sticks provided for them and display their fruit, hanging, from a tough piece of plastic wiring that was salvaged from somewhere. The leaves were getting enormous, you could say the plants were "waxing."
Tomatoes, shy tomatoes that had been put in the ground only a week ago, were peeking through the leafed branches put over them for shade. In a week they would surpass their shelters and in another week flower and start to bear fruit. Another thing his wife had seen and he had missed. Duly noted.
A pail of Areca nuts to be chewed with betel were prepared for market. Picked and gathered and then soaked to make it easier to break their shell. How nice the shade and breeze along the wide lagoon. The climate here on "Dutch Bar" so much cooler and more temperate than the sun-baked sandy main road. This delightful oasis. Now we're done with the nice stuff.
Like jungle creatures, like the Yakas their Lord Buddha supposedly tamed, the wild haired, wide eyed Yakas you saw painted in every ponsala, these people dipped out of existence into black murk whenever. They were like the jungle. Impenetrable. Not that you'd want to penetrate. Dark, even the light-skinned ones, and you saw plenty of propaganda for that on TV and on billboards all around Colombo. Remove the darkness and you see a smile come to the smooth face. Comely. What they call homely here meaning pretty and homey. Who wouldn't want to look that way? Who wouldn't want to be that way? Get light. It's the next best thing to getting Enlightened. If you couldn't study at least you could look great. If you couldn't study at least you could get into medical school in China or Russia or Nepal or Indonesia. Why train physicians here? They had looted all the Tamil physicians in 1983 &ensuing. Do we have to start with this again? Did we need all those physicians and their careers? Well. Not all were looted. Still. Did we need these physicians? We needed technicians!
As dark as a lumbering bear. As apt to lose oneself as goldilocks. As much enamored with hiding as Handel and Gretl. The crocodile stayed in the lagoon and watched. There were ten of them. How doth the little crocodile?
It was a dream to go from one surface to another. One was solid and multistoried. One was a white hammock, just as high. To get from one to the other you had to roll over. Just right. No effort. But there were nine inches of empty between them. Straight down. Don't do anything. Just turn around. Don't overthink, calculate, make an effort. Just do it. Roll over.
What about the bullying? What about the bossing? What about the subservience? He had never seen such subservient people in his life. Didn't people get sick of being called "little brother" once they were in their fifties? What did they get in exchange? Lifelong protection? Was it worth lifelong protection to be a slave? To your big brother? Was that a primitive trait?
Was it primitive not to talk to your daughter because she went out with the wrong boy? Was it primitive to go into a rage when you were displeased? Was it enough to donate all the flowers and all the incense and all the food every month at Poya, the whole family chipping in bringing, carrying, delivering. You were rich enough to do it. This became your obligation. More than talking to your child.
Was it primitive to go into a months long snit? Was it primitive to stop talking to your son for years at a time because he had done something wrong in your eyes. What could that thing have been? How bad was he? The boy was ten? If you were a father and you didn't talk to your son for all that time who would he talk to? Who could he talk to? Maybe he'd forget how to talk. Maybe he would talk to the wrong people. Could not-talking, a simple nonviolent thing, still be counted as brutal? What about not talking to your daughter? More brutal or less brutal? What about not talking to your wife more brutal or less brutal? Better to have a parent who won't talk to you or better to be an orphan. Slap. Stop. Don't say such words.
Was graffiti painting words on a gate brutal or free speech? Were the words used to protect, like the string around your wrist, or were they used to target? Singh-le just means lion's blood. Lion is an animal. Blood is its biology. Lion is a strong animal. Its blood is the sign of its strength. Blood means heredity. The lion has inherited strength. You have a car. You can do whatever you want with the car. The lion is an ancient symbol. You can put it on your bumper sticker. You can show it on your car because it's your car.
You can write "lion's blood" on your gate if you want to mess up your gate with a slogan or a meme or if you want to distinguish your gate or set it apart from other gates. Set it apart. Not that your gate is necessarily unique but it is set apart. The lion is an ancient symbol. You could say the lion and its blood are mystical. Blood is mystical. Blood is mysterious. How is it that there is life in a red liquid? How is it that chlorophyll shines blood red in certain UV lights? Can you just use blood on your doorpost? That's an old one. Look it up in the Bible. You'll find it in "Exodus."
So uncool to bring up the Bible. So cool to have your own lion meme. Looks computer generated. There are other ancient signs. You have a Volkswagen club. You are so cute. Your bride girl is so cute. Your friends are so cute. You have a wedding theme of World War Two. That is so cute and so original and so out there. The swastika is a simple design. You are a designer so you use it. It's your car.
Not quite done yet. Whose gate do you decorate with which symbol? Which words do you put on your bumper sticker and who sees it? Who gets to see it? Who has to see it in traffic?
Maybe if you put blood on your gate you'll be spared. That's the olde biblical myth. Maybe if you fly the flag you'll be spared. People will see you're a patriot! Flags aren't primitive are they even if they have ancient primitive symbols on them like lions or swastikas. Maybe if you write "Lion-blood" on the wrong gate you are making a target of the people in that gate. Maybe if you paint "Jude" on the shop window you will make a target of the people who own the shop. But it's only a name! How can you be guilty for just writing a name. And the font is interesting and modern. For some things we've dropped fraktur and invented a new font. A few more iterations and we'll call it "Helvetica." That calms it.
Is calmness a virtue? Is calmness less primitive than anxiety? Anxiety may be a derived state. Evolved after many unplanned unexpected unpleasant exoduses.
Calmness may be the state derived from peace or is it nirvana or calmness may overcome anxiety and madness. Who said anything about madness and why would they? Would seeing people burnt alive bring madness? Would seeing parents shot before your eyes bring madness? Would seeing children shot before your eyes bring madness? What about children beheaded?
What about the Lankan child martyr? You can find the name in Wikipedia because it hasn't been wiped clean like the pogroms in Matale in 1983. How many living national treasures carry the name of this child martyr? I count three that I know of but I've only met one. I won't tell which. Maybe it's not his real name certainly isn't his full name. He wears an exquisite linen shirt, lime-colored. He has the driver open the window to the van. He speaks down to the illiterate peasant (well not really speaking down but literally speaking down--he is seated so high). He asks for directions. His diction is so honed for his hearer that even the visitor from abroad (foreigner) illiterate and still deaf to the Sinhalese language, can tell he has changed his tone and dialect to address the elder (but younger than him and considerably skinnier and darker-skinned) man who knows the directions. I am told many times that this man in the linen shirt is a national treasure who never talks down to people of lower stature but I wonder, in the Buddhist religion, what makes people lower or higher in stature? Is this "equality" thing, however poorly it is put into practice, a stupid western construct? Would somebody please tell me please tell me please educate me? I am old but educable. The treasure tells me once I am a professor of very high stature, a scholar of very high stature but while we are in the van, which has been backed so so carefully, so fearfully, so mindfully into his front driveway with some people getting out and directing the people who stayed in who are driving oh so slowly so as not to upset a blade of grass in the Treasure's front driveway (now that is mindfulness!) the One is on the phone for a good ten minutes conversing in German and going over numbers and timetables and schedules after the greetings and warm solicitudes and salutations. Later he won't return the foreigner's emails. No biggie. The foreign visitor's stature is enough to keep him happily going. It's just one of those dead ends he has met here with the people of the forest. Just one of those disappearances that happens (not the white van kind, not the government forces kind, not the LTTE kind) in this time of every sort of social medium. Email not returned? Try twitter. Twitter doesn't get the job done? Try Facebook. Facebook, not Instagram or twitter I must tell you, is the fave here. Is it the face of the nation?
It is a treat to go into the field with a Treasure who knows all the plants and berries and birds and his younger colleagues telling me the whole time, chirping of his knowledge of these things: trees and berries and birds. And how many of these things do we stop to savor and taste (certainly not the birds!) but the object of this day, over which he and the visitor-foreigner have corresponded and for which they have hired a van (at someone else's expense--the visitor's), for which they have consulted maps and websites, for which The visitor came to this country actually months early so he could see it in the dry season, is barely skimmed over. It is striking how much more he learned from a local tuktuk driver, how much more focused their discussions, how merrily he, the driver, beeped at and talked to his fellow countrymen, cultivators, teashop owners, barbers, without ever talking down to them. Because the tuktuk driver was one of them. And he could answer emails that's how they arranged their visit. Count to ten.
He did not talk merrily to brown shirted guards at the gates of Rajarata University (Main Campus, Mihintale, North Central Province) nor to the neatly uniformed brown shirts who stopped him by the side of the road. Papers? License? "Little something?" How nice it must be to be one of them and fill the kitty so conveniently with gently smiling jaws on pockmarked faces. Always pockmarked. Unfair to call that a sign of cruelty or brutality. Unfair I say!!
Things to stay away from: brownshirted guards, army people, or policemen. Other guards, army people, or policemen. Guard stations, army stations, police stations. Law and order is the breath of the nation here I know it because I read the signs in plain English. And proper.
Also stay away from: electronics stores, Dialog outlets, astrologers', maybe dentists and doctors. Why is this? All these people deal in the unseen and they can pretend to see and do anything they want to you. "Take a tooth from the foreigner" can be translated as take a tooth from anyone, even your fellow Sri Lankan, "little something?" Big something? Take a tooth. Take away their bite. Take away something valuable. Rip them off.
Also. Stay away from jewelers. Amazing how people flock to these places, all of them, but not to guard stations, military stations, or police stations. The jeweler will throw some ugly piece of worthless glass with a gold-coated setting on a scale and swipe it away in a moment and tell you "Rs 7000." That price is nothing for you, a foreigner with all his teeth or all her teeth or maybe one or two false teeth that cost USD 2000 so you may be willing to pay the price in a trice? Why not walk away with a bauble from Sri Lanka, pearl of Asia? That's a souvenir you can remember your ramblings by. It's something you can value. Trust.
Trust. Rhymes with rust. Think: Corrosion. Diminution. Loss of strength. How strong does trust have to be to make things work? Can they work when trust is weak? What do you have to do to make up for lost trust? How much do you have to trust the checkout girl at Cargill's, depends how much change she has to make. But there's only so much, right? How much do you have to trust the electronic transfer of money? A lot. Or else you are using a mattress. How much do you have to trust your landlord and how much does he have to trust you?
After he left the guesthouse, the owner called him. "I don't trust Michael." "Then kick him out of your guesthouse." He hasn't paid his bill." "Then ask him to pay or leave." It's Susantha's fault. He hasn't asked him for money. "Then tell Susantha to talk to him." "Michael is sneaky. He said he had a headache last night so he couldn't come to my party. Do you think he was in the insurgency in the 80s? Do you think he was afraid to meet my friends because he was in the insurgency? He is from the south. He knows our language. He has projects going in Galle. I don't trust him. He said he had a headache but the cameras showed him with a girl. He took a girl into his room and she was there until two." "Ask him to pay or leave." "He won't leave. We asked him to pay and he paid some today but he asked me for Rs 10,000 credit. Do you think I should give him credit?" "He has enough money for cigarettes. He should be able to pay you. I'd never ask for credit." "You, no. But he's trouble. If I kick him out he'll make trouble for me." "Then make him pay." "What if he's hiding out here? What if he's wanted? He says he was brought up here so he knows the language. What if he wasn't?"
The convo went on for a half hour. The guesthouse host, a rich and powerful man with connections, was pretending the whole time. At least that's what the visitor thought. Why confide in him this way? What did the landlord have to be afraid of? Who could hurt him? Why? Did the visitor want to think about this? Did the visitor believe any word of it? Michael had told the visitor two days ago, "Don't trust any word of what anyone around here says. They are liars to a man." Talk about walking on jello.
It's the jello he'd felt since day one one in this place. Like a honey you sink into. Honeyed words. Honeyed phrases. How many of them?!
How many phrases did people know to recite about any number of topics? How many of these topics were being lied about and how many of these "topics" were lies themselves? Example: "I pick these white flowers to bring me peace." "We'll be in touch next week." "Everyone here is a liar. Don't believe anyone."
The one example, he found out in terms of his research, were the dozen sentences of Praise everyone had for the irrigation systems of ancient Sri Lanka. 1.They were ancient. 2. People built them with their bare hands. 3. Everyone cooperated. 4. Everyone cooperated because they didn't have anything else, like TV or computers or making a living to think about. 5. They used goats to find the lowest point to build a canal. 6. The goats were pregnant and wore a bell. 7. The Yoda Ela canal went for miles with barely a drop in elevation. 8. Tanks raised the water table and ameliorated climate. 9. Tanks incorporated biodiversity. 10. Every drop of water was used before it flowed to the sea. 11. Tanks were the responsibility of the villagers. 12. Kings built them. These could be recited in any order or combinations. Everyone knew them. Sometimes they were said in one breath. Sometimes they were said breathlessly. There was a 13th. Tanks were built in cascades. This was a Truth promulgated by the National Treasure. It was "discovered" some time in the 1980s. It remained the Eternal Truth. Those who denied or tried to interpret differently or further were crushed. Or if not crushed, silenced. Or if not silenced, not talked to. Why would you talk to a son if you didn't like the way he looked at things? So. If you were The Treasure's student or his junior colleague you'd better intone it. The cascade thing. Big men lumber into the forest and out of it however they like. They wear exquisite shirts. Others are rightfully subservient. They are "sons" or "little brothers." Sisters and daughters? What? Not.
Were there truths behind the truths? Was it presumptuous to ask since you didn't know the language? Any language? Why did it turn out the pidgin English served you just fine? Unless your listener desired the blessed silence of accord? Big men require accord and this brings peace. This brings protection. The big man is the First Author. Is that primitive?
There were always truths underneath the truth not like an onion, predictable as you peel but more like an egg. A rotten one. The shell-crust of lies looks OK and hides the smell and then...or like the earth. The crust of continental plates and their dry land and the water they hold including the blue green oceans so restive but actually so calm but a thin shell on top of molten lava and magma. And the magma circulating, always in circulation. Pushing the crusts with its pulses and crashing them into one another and, cooling, diving down to collect more heat from the core. A smelly destructive business. So the opening up, poring through, slicing and carefully dicing, sometimes diving for whatever truths might come. Something like a grain of rice? A carob? A carat? Something like a gem? Stay away from jewelers'.
The big men order people around, shout at them, call to them, clap their hands at them, but they are as subservient as the small men, always to a bigger man, his hair dyed darker black, his outer sheath of honesty whiter. The big men bow, not just to bigger men, but in kowtowance to smaller men they deem valuable or important. Important or valuable. Little something? Little man. Let me offer you a fingerful of arrack. Let me persuade you to drink arrack with me. Let me beg you to take arrack. Take arrack with me and my friends. Actually we don't drink arrack. We prefer whiskey, the British drink, the drink of discernment and by association, the drink of power. We are physically large like our monstrous cars with their monstrous Sinha-le bumper stickers. We are monstrously large but and are small but you are important but you are valuable to us let us beg you to drink with us, just a little, mix it with sprite if you wish, it's a starry night, let us say our prayers by praising you. You have come to us. You are our honored beloved one. You have blessed us with your presence. You have tamed us with your smallness. With your wizenedness, with your preciousness with your gentleness with your bloody feet from walking our fields. In your wake we smell the petals of aralia, aralia because this is the Sinhala west but we've brought it here lock, stock, and barrel to the East, to greater "Ampara." Amp it up. Bring the troops. Make a parade. Bring the poor and landless. Build a stockade. Make this Our Landscape oh ye Naga, ye Yaka. Wrest it from the jungle. Wrest it from the Tamil, that it may be ours. Can you say a prayer like this in Sri Lankan? Can you say this prayer in Sinhalese? Can you worship a Naga like you worship a Ganesha? Just to be certain? Even though it's not certified? Can you take protection from the Blood of the Lion? From the bumper sticker that shows this Holy Image? Take protection from all sides and sources that you can big man.
A malli kowtows to his ayya. A worker kowtows to her mistress. A carpenter kowtows to his employer and his mistress. A child kowtows to his Uncle. Uncle kowtows to the Priest. The pat on the head, "good child" uplifts and separates. The good cloud hovers, the timbrels clink and clatter, the tumbrels resound on their roads of blessing. You have been anointed. You have sloughed off duka by knowing your duty. You have banished evil. You have submitted your spiritual papers. You have paid your dues. Paid your due. Frightened away the bad. You have paraded with flowers.
You have been given a small basket of white flowers. You know now not to smell them out of respect but you think cupping your hands and kissing will be enough. But no. But Lo! You are to carry. Don't tarry. Grab the plastic basket like a basket of French fries but for heavens sake, really, don't smell it and don't eat the flowers like you would french fries. Any more than you would sample the birds of paradise. Just the berries. Just the berries the National Treasure tells you to try. Don't so much as look at the flowers. And don't look at the hundreds of faces of hundreds of worshippers who cup their hands and touch the rim of the basket or the fluffy top of the flowers and kiss their hands or make abeyance. Step up when your host steps up and step down when your host steps down. Don't slow down for the elderly or crippled who try to fight their way in for a chance at the rim of the plastic basket. Don't stoop for the stooped or for children or for those who are bent. Forward. March. Slow but quickly. Must get to the next ten steps of this worship.
Follow your host. Watch the rim of his sarama and thank your intuition that you brought long pants and white shirt and knew to take off your shoes somewhere outside before this began. Swim through the crowd that has parted for you but which would eagerly descend on you. No drinks today because it's full moon! They are thirsty for the aroma of incense and the priestly recital. But first you must reach the priest in the wake of your host's progress.
On high the priest sits and a gutter, painted blue, of running water surrounds his place, dug from the ground just outside his dwelling spot. The paint is a nice touch because water is blue. You stay outside, barefoot on a rice mat, near the blue gutter, under a light bulb. Very nice and pretty it is. And you are let inside after your host who has sponsored this and sponsors every Poya event has received words. His generosity to the hermitage knows no bounds. He donates flowers and incense sticks and food and drink. It makes people think.
The priest blesses, which is the least he can do. He smiles benign thanks for your presence and your four words of his Holy Language that you manage to speak, "inneva," the most irregular verb and the most instrumental because. It implies existence. Existence is power. Non existence is nonexistent. Kaput. What about Being? What about Enlightenment? Would we like to stop being and have we experienced the non-being many many times before? Is this why the flowers? Alive but dead. Alive bud dead? At the end of the night they will be swept like so many pieces of trash into dustbins for disposal. That's interesting I think.
The blessing is one word he can push out, "Protect," which the visitor is happy enough to receive. The visitor's wife doesn't like these things, doesn't wish to have her wrist tied or her forehead anointed with ash. Wouldn't that look silly on a foreigner? Foreigners look silly all the time.
There are many more steps to take. Down from the hermitage and keeping on the same gravelly path they came on. Keeping on the same too-large-pieces-of-gravelly path with ouch! Tender little toes! Tender little soles! Tender little souls. Ouch. Ouch. Don't experiment on me. Oh they are simple country folk. Doing things the simple country way. Talking to their dogs much more happily than they talk to their children. Is this tweetable?
The monk or is it a priest or is it an abbot or are these just distinctions we use in the West? chants and delivers for what seems like an hour. The visitor's pants don't give like a cloak and this can be bad or it can be good. It can be bad because it constricts and makes sitting cross-legged or even with the legs out harder and less comfortable to do. It can be good because it constricts and gives the sitter (who woulda known?) resistance, a kind of third angle to support him on this hoary venture. The chants and intonations are interspersed with words, maybe, of preaching. The visitor has ended up next to his host, smack dab in front of the priest, who looks very comfortable on his chair and doesn't speak down but literally does speak down in his magnificent orange to the packed room of cross-legged or straight-legged worshippers. The visitor mustn't show discomfort (please don't experiment on me!) so he watches out of the corner of his eye, without moving his eye, for when a neighboring body but especially his host's body shifts its position. This is tricky. This is hot. The room is packed with bodies. He doesn't do that well in places where bodies are packed and the air is scarce. Does carbon dioxide sink? Is there oxygen higher up? Why didn't he learn his gas laws better? He's supposed to be a scientist. What sort of bloody scientist is a botanist? (Just kidding). Why do the bodies in this room stay so still and supplicating and supine and subservient? The preacher has a fan. The preacher has a big round fan. Sometimes it covers his face and the visitor can jiggle a little, even if he can't move big time. This is a small mercy. But religions of mercy are special for not showing mercy. Remember the Crusades? Is that unfair game? Unfair to bring up in this context? Unfair to call names. You weren't there!
The gas is heavy in the room and there is no movement. The humble sit in corners or on the floor where they have stopped moving. Is this unfair? Why is it only the priest who has a fan? Is everyone equal under him? Can a Big Man be small in stature and his hair not dyed? But still. Those robes. That shoulder.
The intonation of verses does not cease. But certain verses the group catches on and repeats. The verses build. He is deaf and dumb in this language but he can tell when the voices grow and the participation excites. There is a short crescendo and a sudden burst of two or maybe three lines where the crowd cries out in unison. And the gas laws go into effect (well they were always in effect that's what it's like with the gas laws. They're universal. At least as far as we know on this planet). Stop hesitating, stop slowing down and speed up. What happens when the crowd cries out in unison one time, twice, a third time? A breeze picks up from all that warm exhaled carbon dioxide. Everyone cools down from the circulation of air. Everyone feels relief. It is the miracle of the gas laws! The intoning goes on.
Finally he senses then sees people standing up. He follows. Eyes meet his and he is told by those eyes to shake a leg! Get a move on! The doors have opened!
Outside a mass of incense is burning. Glowing incense sticks, thousands upon thousands of them ignite the dusky air made dusky by the smoke of thousands and thousands of incense sticks. He his handed some sticks, lit. He sees the dagoba. He joins the parade to the dagoba, just a few steps ahead. They circle the dagoba. They deposit lit sticks. They grab more sticks and circle some more. The air is heavy with humidity and smoke. This is cinnamon country. The south. Galle. The going around seems not to stop but he realizes he's nowhere near anyone he knows. People start to fall out of line. He sees he can. He deposits the last of his incense sticks in some sand where other sticks are stuck and he goes to stand in a corner near the exit to the courtyard where some kids play and an old percussion instrument hangs from a tree. He has faith. Faith that they will pick him up on their way out. Through the awful smoke he sees the women folk from the family. They are washing drinking glasses in a sink. The visitor hadn't seen the sink before and he hadn't seen any of the ladies. Now they were washing glasses like it was a regular glass washing day, maybe glasses whose rims were touched by the lips of the priest or the monk or the abbott? Don't dare ask. Only be thankful that there they are in the flesh after all that carbon dioxide and all that smoke and all the words, more words than he heard in a long time in a language not his.
Time for some more nice things. Nice and gentle things. Nice and gentle things taking place, not necessarily in the visitor's language. Not his own language. A sharing time. A giving time. Celebration. With music. Happy time. Happy happy. Invite friends. Invite staff. Order a cake. A birthday cake. Sing happy birthday to no one. To some one. Someone whose birthday it is but who's not here. Actually it's the waning hours of their birthday (it's twins! It's a girl! It's a boy!). Slice slice plop plop wah wah out they came. Now they're not here but somewhere else, back in the stranger's country where it's nine hours behind and many years ahead. Decades. Easily. Wah wah they're not here but we can sing them a happy birthday like we've done now for twenty years thirty years. Grab a cake. Order a cake. Have it sliced. Put the slices of chocolate butter cake on plates. Serve the whole group, the kitchen staff, the garden staff, the cleaners and servers and waiters and washers and watchers. What?! His two favorite people well two of his favorite people the farmer and the pool man are absent. That's sad. A small sadness. Not to share with them.
Sharing multiplies the sharing. Could I write anything triter? Could I write anything truer? More tweetable? Sending messages to friends "Happy Independence Day!" Brings back smiley faces. On twitter. He forces them to use twitter, which they don't like, because he doesn't use Facebook. Not a terrible thing. Not a sad thing as things go. You have a stomach full. In a good way. And then come bananas to your table. Home bananas. Gedera kessel if you live in the other part of Sri Lanka not officially partitioned but with a wide zone of separation. A gulf of separation. A Gulf of Separation. The bananas are too much on a stomach sated with pitthu and dahl curry and to top it off coconut sambol. A coconut-heavy coconut-light meal. But you've got to do your part. Keep that pile of young coconuts trained. There are more of them ripening on the nearby trees and they must be cut down or tourists will be bonked on the head. What about the farmer? He could be bonked too. What about his nephew the night watchman who goes around lighting the lights at night and putting them out by morning light. Night. Light. Nigh. Lie. Stop. You said you'd keep it nice. Nice means no lies and don't give anyone a chance to lie. Just a nice piece of cake and a nice big smile.
We stop to the owner's house to try some mango. The mango is kept out on the table peeled and sliced and living under a woven straw dome. No fly or anything gets in there. "Eat a piece," the visitor is told. "Eat a big piece," he is ordered after he takes his first piece. First piece of a big mother mango. These mangos can cost a lot of rupees he's told. The mango is good and thank goodness he didn't have the cake. It was for his own twins but he didn't eat the cake. Is not eating the cake at a birthday party, your own birthday party or a birthday party for your own kids a bad thing? I think in the balance it is not. And I think in these circumstances it's a good thing because the mango is a bit overwhelming, just a bit overwhelming because when afternoon comes he must ride down to Kattankudy and eat a lunch with people who will want to overload him. Whose duty it is to overload him. To eat like a prince for at breakfast you're told to eat like a king and at lunchtime you're told to eat like a prince and at dinner you're told (suggested portion size) to eat like a beggar. Or was it to give your dinner to a beggar? See. I told you it wasn't his language but anyway see how far he got without language? Right into the owner's home. Right into the home his owner called "like a farmer's home." Right to the mango on the table peeled and sliced, something you'd have to pay many Sri Lanka rupees for in the market and something you'd take a chance on in the market. You might pick a bad one. Off with the bad thoughts now! And on to the lady's finger patch.
The okras grow there tall and proud, if a plant can be proud. Can it? And the owner tells him, "young ones you can eat raw. And if you tell them in the kitchen they'll just sautée it for you nicely. Here." A young or not so young fruit is snapped off the plant. A calyptra-like tip is untipped, disposed of, the owner cleans off a few insect looking things with his own hand and he hands it to the visitor. Crunch. Sweet. Edible. Gummy and mucilaginous inside. Has to be. It's an okra. Cotton and hibiscus family. Lecture over? Not quite yet. What about tomatoes (also coming up on the farm), brinjal (lots of varieties) and peppers hot hotter and hottest? His host says "hibiscus family" botany was his favorite subject but there's a lot of water under the bridge. Visitor says no. "Solanaceae." Lotta water under the bridge but not as much. "Oh yes! Solanaceae." It has a nice ring. It makes sense. It makes the world vine together. It deactivates, temporarily, the active chaos of the natural world. Puts it into three bites and five syllables. Count 'em. Use your fingers if you like.
They finish by looking at the rabbits the owner just fed and the tortoise climbing her ramp for all she's worth. The hares are burrowing. The tortoise is climbing. Tortoise and hare. It's another nice day on the breezy shady farm near the lagoon. Liked that didn't you? I promised you something nice for your birthday.
Yes. Right. Saying nice things clears your mind and makes it nicer for everyone. Everybody likes nice. Everybody likes smile. Responds to smile. Is smile a way to truth? I don't know. Truth is as small as a grain of rice. Maybe as small as a grain of sand. Maybe as small as a molecule? A molecule of what? Agar wood oil? Water?
You needed strength to eat this much. A constitution of iron. An iron constitution. Iron jaw muscles. Iron muscles. Iron stomach. So much onion. You had to eat your way to the truth. Is the truth information? You can disseminate the truth like you disseminate agar wood smoke in front of your Buddha shrine. Some people in the cinnamon village have the real thing. Grow their own agar wood. Other people. Maybe? Use fake. Eat your way to the truth. How? Might one of those ten lakh of rice grains in front of you at the table (if you are Batapola) or on the mat on the floor (if you are in Kattankudy) be the real thing? Be real. That's not the rice grain of truth any more than it's the bluebird of happiness. But sometimes if you shovel in that rice too fast and too hard a grain may fly up your nose. Get serious please. You've said nice things. You've smiled. You've told a little story about the bluebird of rice grains flying up your nose. What you contribute here. What you submit here. May not be tweetable. So get crackin' with the real deal.
Science. Disseminate information. Semen contains information. Lots of it. Is that related to dissemination? Sowing the seeds? So a rice grain may also be information-packed. If you eat your way to the right one, as if there were some single right one. In nature there are sperm that have to eat their way to the egg. Sperm meets egg is a one time deal. The real deal, as they say. The money shot. They have to worm their way to the egg. They eat and worm through the nutritious material of the archegonium. Is that still the phrase? Lotta water under the bridge since those botany lessons. Pine sperm do it. Spruce sperm do it. If you're in the tropics I think cycad sperm do it. Can someone do a fact check for me on that? Wikipedia! But you can't find the facts of Matale there. Just saying. So. Sperm meets egg, information is exchanged. Nice model.
Fungal cells also worm their way through a nutritious matrix though not necessarily to "mate." Can fungi "mate?" There aren't male and female, female or male. So let's say for conversation's sake they are gender-free which is a very provocative way of putting things. At least it was that way when the visitor studied botany those many many years ago. Fungi do it (worm their way through, work their way through) by exuding enzymes that break down the wood or sawdust or cellulose or soil or jet fuel, whatever they find themselves in. The small molecules that ensue are absorbed by the fungus and provide nutrition. Lecture almost over? Not yet.
Part three. Worming their way through is also a practice of worms. Long tubes of bacteria. They ingest the soil or whatever and the bacteria in their gut break it down and they excrete a bacteria-rich, could say information-rich excreta. Garbage in. Information-rich excreta out. Then they eat that stuff again. Gross. But. That's just biology. Worms don't search for truth, fungi don't search for truth, gymnosperm sperm don't search for truth. Humans digest somewhere between the way fungi and worms do it. Do we search for the truth? Rather not, thank you. Truth is such a human construct.
Or is it? Maybe it's lies that are human. Not truth? Nature doesn't lie. There's no such thing. The wasp that lays its eggs in butterfly larvae is straightforward. Looks like an arrow. Straight as an arrow. No lies there. Nature lives by truth. It's the real thing. You live or you die. You carry on and that is the truth. No goals. No striving for perfection. Only the simple things. Humans? We talk a lot about the truth. I think philosophers looked for it or wrote about it. Maybe people write about the truth. I don't know. Check Wikipedia. You know one truth you won't find there. Truth yes. Nice subject.
Such a nice lunch the stranger had in Kattankudy. For here he was truly a stranger. But also a visitor. So his host's religion bade him treat a visitor well. Forbade him to do otherwise. How do you do what's forbidden? This is haram. This brings harm. You treat your stranger visitor guest so gently. You peel a banana for him. Another banana you peel and give him. There is no more solicitous thing you can do to show care and respect. Maybe there is but let's say the banana peel is the nicest, most solicitous thing a host ever did for him. But host: What do you do when you find out your precious guest is a suboptimal choice, a poor candidate, impure, harmful, haramicious? Ask the host not the guest. He (host with the most) has other things to toss and turn about at night. Older son wants to be a geophysicist. At lunch the younger one reports he wants to be a beggar. Could an author make this up? Doesn't it belong on twitter?
Sitting on a mat for lunch wasn't easy. Same as sitting all that time in Batapola during Poya on the floor in front of a priest. What is it about this country and sitting on the floor? ("Table" in Sinhala and Tamil is a word derived from the Portuguese). The host says every person wants to move toward godliness. This makes a kind of Aristotelian sense. It's a striving for something. Toward some perfection. Not what nature does. But well-intentioned. Platonic. But. OK. Next piece of logic (how could this be a lie?). Best way to help men serve god is political. Bring us closer by law. Enact laws. Everyone must follow. Hm. Sharia-ish. The guest/stranger listens, smiles, but doesn't nod assent. And third "piece of logic": if laws are enacted then shouldn't we all follow one law. And? That law is the law of the most recent prophet. Know who that is? In the panoply of prophetic presences people, that would have be the prophet whose name one mustn't write. Remember what happened to Rushdie? Remember Charlie Hebdo? Not putting myself there but.... Reader, you guess it. You fill in the blanks. Most "modern" of the prophets? Most "evolved" of the prophets? Best ideas? By the way. Don't try to say "Ali." His host told him Shiites were the worst people on earth. Don't even think of their afterlife cuz it ain't gonna be a pretty place. Tweetable? Mmmmmmaybe not. Lecture over? Wait. This wasn't a lecture. This was reporting the stranger's after-lunch conversation.
Cross-legged wasn't the most comfortable but like the Sri Lankan languages he could see. Even schoolchildren do it. Might have been easier when he was a schoolchild. But, when in Kattankudy...Hoped to god he wouldn't eat too sloppily. The bowl was there, full of goodies, full of goodness, generous goodness from the hostess's good hands. But you couldn't lift it to your lips. Not her hands you idiot the bowl. Not a first world problem, this. Bowl is there but you must eat cross legged on the floor and you can't reach the eats. Why does this seem like such a "developing world" problem and who am I to write about it? Suggest it? The food that made it to his mouth was kind of delicious. Maybe the spice was brought down for the gueststranger's palette but it needn't have. Doesn't the devil like spicy food? But they didn't know who they'd invited. Why did he wear a good new shirt? He didn't know he'd be cross legged on the floor. It was funny. It was hard to make balls out of food at this angle. And the food was different. They were using different oil. Was it palm oil since Kattankudy was molding itself in the image of a middle eastern satrap? Is that fair to say? Should the host have balled the food in his own fingers and fed the guest? Nicer than just peeling bananas. More tweetable.
Is it fair to report more parts of the post prandial discussion, where the guest was ordered oh so nicely to sit. Can we imagine the inexorable progression of that conversation? Why imagine? Just report. And don't say logic. Say progression. This was a real opportunity. First time ever to eat on the floor and first time ever to break bread (rice) with his Muslim brethren. Rice he did spill, modestly, on the mat, because of his discomfort or rather, the discomfort of this posture. He didn't feel discomfort because of his naivety. Because of his comfort with other people. Because of his sense of humor. Because he felt truly welcome. Because his wife was there to absorb the discomfort. Because it was an adventure. Because Kattankudy had looked pretty awful before. Now Kattankudy was people. And people were kindly. They had begged you to come to their house. So many times you felt boorish to reject their invites.
So not that much rice fell to the mat. No more than anyone else at the table. Table! Hah! But the father, the host, the banana peeler, the interrogator, later the one who asked him to leave, twice (hard hard hard it is to pick up on cultural cues in a culture of hospitality. Isn't this the most hospitable culture on Earth?) hospitality doesn't lie. The host cleaned his palm oil plate and all the grains of rice in it. Good man! No waste. Find that golden grain.
The conversation. No. First three questions of the conversation. This took less than five minutes. In brevity lies Truth, didn't someone write? 1. What's your religion? (Why not cut to the chase? Sri Lanka is a country obsessed with religion. Or. Identity?) 2. How many of you are there in the United States? (Scientific. Get ratios.) 3. How is it possible that so few of you numerically run the government, dictate to the media, dominate business, and own all the banks? (Guess the religion yet?)
Where do you go with this kind of inexorable "logic" and after all consider the source. He got this "information" from somewhere.
Had to. Gave the guest "literature" to savor on his way out. Great reading!
Was the guest uncomfortable? This is a good question, a relevant question. You could understand if the guest was. But was he? Guest enjoyed. Guest felt safe. Guest felt coddled and privileged. Why wonder any more? Why take anyone else's word for it any more? Let's hear it from the horses mouth! A parent like him. Someone else who has to toss and turn over their kids. Someone else who likes to discuss: 1. World peace 2. Charity. 3. Our obligations toward others 4. The search for truth 5. The way we should try to act. Five are enough. Six might be too many. The guest enjoyed. But he was asked to leave twice.
First time. Do you have other obligations this afternoon ? (Host is an English teacher from a family of English teachers, father and grandfather were English teachers. He's Educated. Can say "obligations"). Maybe you'd like to leave. "No. I'd rather stay and discuss. If it's OK with you. This is very interesting." Host spent a year in the UK. At Aberdeen! Worst climate in the world. Maybe worse than Boston. We had lots of commonalities. Lots to discuss.
Second time. "I could get in trouble with the community for having people like you in my house." People like who? Interesting point don't you agree? Would have been good to leave then. But what an amazing thing to hear. What an amazing thing to explore. What an amazing thing to contemplate, to reflect on. Letting a jewperson into your house could get you in trouble! That's so...Mitteleuropaeish circa 1942. Or. Is it that letting an americabperson into your house that could get you in trouble? After all, does Sri Lanka have diplomatic relations with America or doesn't it? Or, since america and israel are actually one country, jewpersons the rulers of both, and since the Mossad is their arm of terror and spying, was it a danger to have let the visitor, actually an agent of Mossad, into their house? Into their community. Filth! And he had peeled bananas for this creature and let it touch his children's heads and bring probably poisoned oranges, watermelon, and sweets into this house, bought here from the pure hands of a Kattankudy fruit seller and surely poisoned in the five minutes it took to come from the main road down the central Kattankudy road. Throw that stuff out. Not fit for the dogs.
Tell me, who was more uncomfortable. The "guest" or the "host?" Who was squirming with the sudden understanding that this intruder was a suboptimal choice, someone you would not want to peel bananas for in the future, someone you would not want your children to call "uncle," someone you hoped would go back to their wasp's nest of America and never, ever celebrate "national day" (Sri Lankan Independence Day) with you and your family. Ever. What have you brought on this family, this house, this community, by bringing in the enemy? This wasn't some catholic you could reason with. This was the Enemy! That's enough for this morning kiddies.
Oh but one more thing. Serendib was the Arabic name for Sri Lanka. They discovered it early but not the earliest. Lots of people came before and even before the Indian invaders. Waves and waves of people like so many past lives of the Buddha or whoever. So think clearly. Was the latest greatest, even a prophet, even greater than the invention of Microsoft word? The human endeavor is so multifarious. Sometimes nefarious. Sometimes naughty but sometimes so nice. Live and let live Habibi.
Was it a design flaw? This was a question he asked himself, maybe hundreds of times, considering this problem. Considering the unintended consequences of a problem vast x vast = vast squared. Appropriate because this was in part a problem of geography, area, space. But the ramifications and side issues and qualities and dimensions and wonderment of this problem (and the project he had chosen) went way beyond the two dimensions of a perch or hectare or acre or even a country the size of West Virginia. Some say "teardrop" and some say "pearl." He thought, design. Maybe it was the way his own brain was designed. To look so closely but to miss so much. To respond to the vast by looking at its cracks. To turn nice things not so nice? And to tweet them.
Design seemed to be in the precincts most high, shared across disciplines from furniture to software. Design could be bundled. It could bundle. It was remote and it was intimate. Design inhabited a cloud of ideal and ideals. Maybe that shoulda been a red flag. Ideal and ideals. But. Looking as in a scale or a fulcrum think of the failed disciplines, practices so narrow they painted themselves in a corner. Refused to collaborate or, talking some abstruse talk, insisted upon their own so-called collaborative, interdisciplinary nature (lies) while digging themselves deeper into a tunnel of self-referential, self-reverential nowhereness, fighting for their plot, dividing and subdividing and flying high and taking to the bank so to speak specialization, canalization of thought, growing irrelevance, burgeoning irrelevance, tidiness and tradition or ambiguity and post-modernism. Fantasy studies were supposed to predict the future. And their brand of logic performed a self-fulfilling role for them that proved wildly successful. Almost a religion. Its priestesses cloaked in fabulous, fantasist raiment that blinded oncomers and intoxicated newcomers.
All the while Academia, self in-feeding on its own bellybutton of self-proffered information and communal infighting. Some of the topics? Archeology. Art history. Botany. Chicano Studies. Developmental Analysis. Ecology. Economics. English. Environment. French. Geography. History. Yes. All the way to and through Zoology. Is that enough? Do you have some to add? Do you disagree?
But the design was ancient. Very ancient. And that's what he was here to study. Here to study with Sri Lankan colleagues. Here to discover with eager students and their devoted profs, instructors whose main wish was to expand their students' horizons. Naïveté being the coin-of-his-realm or was it a design flaw in his personality wait! We're not talking about human design here we're talking about design of the curriculum, design of the landscape, design of man-made lakes in rural Sri Lanka! Task. Stay on task!
Naiveté. He never suspected his colleagues would be preoccupied with batches of students who had to get through so much curriculum. Like so many biscuits in the oven or loaves rising, doughy. Like fungal mycelia making their way through a substratum or worms working their way through a matrix or water buffalo in Hambantota wading their way through a swamp, munching on greens, their gut bacteria processing the whole mess. Or is it batch? Them (the gut bacteria) giving off methane and carbon dioxide, the buffalo excreting milk, the milk fermenting (so many bacteria!), and people eating the curd. Such a balm for their abused gut bacteria.
Don't forget the clay pots the curd sets in. These are made from the finest clay of the earth dug from silt deposits in the tanks, one of the finest if not the finest irrigative design man had ever known. And it was this irrigation system he had come to look at.
As it unraveled, as he visited a handful, tens, dozens, maybe 100 maybe 200 of these "tanks," (such a tiny sliver, such an unreliable paltry "x" of the 30,000 lakes there were to see). The landscape of puzzle of seens and unseens, sensed and insensible and scents and ascents and he saw them now and as he went along, gawd! never in a straight line, always as curved at least as the trunk of a coconut palm, but didn't that curve add strength? in new and different perspectives. Each tank had its own perspective. Its own curves and aromas and directions and spillways and dikes and forest and aspect and sluices and mud. Tank was such a military term. But the Portuguese cartographers labeled them this way, on maps with elephants and wild trees. The interior, unknown to them with its thousands of magnificent lakes, was painted as a fantasy. Tourists who bother to look out the window see that fantasy today. The Portuguese designed their maps to show a fantasy. The fantasy was a truism for the future but the military sounding word "tanks" had a past that was unsuspected and undetected, but which had consequences deep into the future.
Fast past to the Kelaniya temple and its gorgeous frescoes of Solias Mendis. Those Yakas running in fear of The Lord Buddha serene and untouched. Scattering them, obliterating their dastardly practices taking a home in the forest among them, claiming a home in the forest among them. What story did this tell? Blessedly blissfully free of knowledge he could, like any illiterate peasant, bring to the present the Life of the Buddha by walking through the image rooms of the island. Awesome. Like cathedrals of Europe these told stories of faith to the preliterate. Some in Kattankudy, a marginal liberal slice of some few, still True Believers, admitted that Buddha could be a prophet. But a minor one. After all. But the Mendis murals. And every image room on the island. They could have been designed for the postliterate just as well as preliterate because their message crossed boundaries of language and even culture. A thousand words and all that.
Wake me up and tell me to be happy. My scientific experiment is working. But I'm here as so much more than a scientist. And in a trajectory so meandering. How can I unroll it for you? Daughter would you like to wake up and watch me sew a tale? No mother I want to sleep. Father would you like to see me paint? No son you are not doing the cobbling I taught you. Where is the boundary between cobbling and painting and sewing and sleep? Isn't the border fluid and wide? And why all the bother with borders and boundaries and no-mans-lands and wastes that belong to nobody and spaces lifted off the map and lines drawn one way in a 1:50,000 and completely differently in the 1:10,000 edition. What happens to straight lines? They curve. What happens to strict boundaries? They blur. Why the trouble with blurring and curves and boundaries, sewing and cobbling and painting and oxenyoke making? Can you tell me dear when you wake up from your dream nightmare of Starbucks drive thrus?
The incense stick is designed. Smoke falls off or rises from it in patterns regular and discernible, also disturbable. Smoke flows like a smoke-cave of tiny tiniest bits of particulate matter. They remind you of the bus stand in Dehiattkandia a designed town where rainforest once lushed. But it had to become a Sinhalese stronghold in the East. No wonder we never heard of this in the West. From 30,000 feet these boundaries blur. But there is no religion designed to deal with despair. Is this because despair was invented in the 1800s and most of the religions are much older?
The visitor climbed to the top of Mihintale Rock, shaped like a cashew, a very long time ago. This is what he wrote:
"On the ground you wouldn't know it. Dusty roads, scrub forest, greasy towns, the occasional cooling expanse of rice paddies. But from the citadel rock of Mihintale, the founding place of Buddhism here and the highest point for miles around, you sense the power of this place, agriculturally, socially, and politically. It is a landscape of culture and spirituality, a landscape that reflects its people and their collaboration with nature. From the white bubble stupa atop Mihintale you stare out to the west and in front of you lie the giant dagobas of Anuradhapura, enormous white bubbles in the hazy smoky morning landscape. With Mihintale, these epitomize the cultural and political hegemony of the Sinhalese in ancient times and in the present."
"Cultural and political hegemony..." Did these words presage his later discoveries? How did he come up with this stuff when he didn't know a thing? Possible he just felt it? Possible those cute 'bubble stupas' just got their message across no matter what your language or your culture? We rule this landscape.
Look at the next paragraph to see how "design" filtered into the discussion. What was he thinking? How did 'design' fit in? Here are the words he used:
"About 2500 years ago the ancient Sinhalese, who traded with civilizations as far away as Greece, started designing dams (‘bunds”) that transformed their landscape."
And in the next paragraph, "boundaries." Couldn't have read it anywhere because it wasn't written. This was years ago when the beauty of it all overwhelmed the senses. Or was it "deadened" the senses? He wrote,
"I realize these were boundaries! The tanks and their associated religious architecture were originally the focal points of separate villages that grew together over the centuries."
Villages. Dogs. Rice fields. How nice. How very nice. Can't say enough nice things about them. And if you can't say anything nice...
"In a real way the tanks, not the rice fields, are the source of life," he wrote. Might they be anything else? Like the source of power?
Then he finished up, innocent little lamb writing for an architecture magazine in Seattle,
"Evidence of royal power is part of the broad landscape, bubble stupas spreading across the horizon like clouds that touch down onto the earth, and giant Buddhas like the Aukana. But the hegemony of the Sinhalese civilization lay in irrigation and agricultural works they mastered. A landscape of richness, sustained over thousands of years."
The end. What a nice ending. Because everyone knows Sri Lanka is a Democratic Socialist Republic. No kings here. So it's safe to write about them through the haze of history. Like the haze of nationalism. Identity. Blood. We're beyond all that. No blood libel! We're equal in the eyes of the "breath of the nation," our laws! Just read "The Mirror." Pundits there tell us the Sinha-le meme is just a sign of heritage for the whole nation. Even Tamils. Even Muslims. And we live in harmony. Just check Wikipedia for the facts. The war ended in 2009. The flag represents us all. But one writes about Matale there! Well. Someone did but it was wiped clean. Swiped.
He went for a bike ride some years later in the East, once the rug was pulled from his eyes. He wrote:
"Why is going on the prettiest and quietest roads you have ever gone on and can ever can hope to go on are such an upsetting experience? Is it that going on roads like this in our country would mean you were horribly lost? Probably not.
Is it the dunes of garbage on the most beautiful sand beaches you've ever seen? Maybe.
It it the "tsunami danger area" and "tsunami evacuation route" signs? Why no signs for "Terror and suppression evacuation? Repression and warfare evacuation?" Was no one protected from the evil that reached here, generated elsewhere but as the crow flies, not that far? Are the houses out here destroyed by time, tsunami? Or are they part of the ruined lives of a thirty-year conflict? Has this conflict really ended?
So he did a survey. On his bike. Every tuktuk that passed him or approached him. Looked at the front and back. Parked tuktuks he looked at all four sides. Lots of Sri Lankan flags. It was just National Day! But where were the Sinha-le bumper stickers that "Tamil" drivers put on their three wheelers and "Tamil" hawkers sold "to make a living." Everyone loves that meme we're told in the "Mirror" and the editor of "The Nation," a great patriot he is!, that this is about our shared heritage. Beautiful! Like the pathetic hawkers, former seamstresses or former opera singers of Warsaw, selling armbands for a few groschen. The armbands were at the same time a symbol of the hawkers' religion and a symbol of the Nazis' criminality. They were heritage like the Sinha-le meme is! Great to be part of the flow of history. Or is it the ebb? You tell me. Maybe these great stickers just haven't gotten to Batticaloa yet. Sold like hotcakes in the south so none left for distribution to the East? The East. Why is it all so familiar? Was it a past life of the visitorstranger?
He looked at a book about Sri Lanka. His friend R said "You've absolutely got to read this book. It tells you everything." So while she slipped into the pool, afraid her driver might see her sixty-year-old legs and buttocks (really?), even though any driver knew he wasn't allowed anywhere near the pool (see how much R understood about where she was), he had a look at the recommended tome. So personal was the writing, so what they call "interactive," so smooth, so fair and so fairly analytical. He could tell why his friend insisted he read it. Its blandness, its travel-book-trope, its length, breadth, gravity, weight, and its professional, well-spoken, refined author were all positive points of recommendation. So far he hadn't been able to pick up a book or even so much as a magazine, all these months he'd been in Sri Lanka. Everything, even a conversation, seemed so much a distraction. The non-distracting convos were the ones between people here who were interacting with one another. Not with him or other visitors. They were rare, or should I say, when he appeared, even a sliver of him around a doorway or a wall, these conversations stopped so people could take care of him. All he wanted to do was listen to the cadences of speech, the patterns of sounds, the emphases and the pauses. These were barely allowed him. While the other conversations, the written materials, the musings and reflections in his own language he felt separate from and oppressed by.
It's my responsibility now to talk to you about what was in the first part of this story. The main question is how you look look look at something until it becomes something else than the thing you were looking at. So this story is about irrigation tanks and landscapes and borders and human geography. But it's also about how immersion leads to transformation. The tritest thing I can say is that the observer, the one who's immersed, changes. A little more to the point, what are the signs along the way to that change? Are they perceptible. Documentable? Are they incremental? Do they fall in a pile like the bombogenic winter storm, one low pressure system lumbering in from the south and another one rushing toward your city from the west? Or like the pile of wood planks I wrote about in Part One?
Speaking of cities, cities infamous for their pogroms, Kishinev comes to mind. Its many sounds and pronunciations. Romanian, Russian, Yiddish. There in 1881, under czarist rule, several days of rioting by civilian mobs, unchecked by any government authority, left the town's Jewish community with dozens dead, hundreds displaced, and an economy in ruins. It's the first pogrom I know of in modern times and it's worth a look. It "set off" a wave of similar pogroms in what was known as the "Pale of Settlement," those areas at the edges of Russia proper where Jews were allowed to reside. It also triggered a mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe, at least we are told. I wonder. How much are stories of migrations, even modern ones, part of a myth? Remember to ask me about "Yetziat Europa" (Exodus from Europe) street I saw in a town in Israel. But. 1882. Over a million people left over the next tweny years or so---seems paltry compared with today's hundreds of thousands per month leaving Syria doesn't it?--mostly bound for the United States, the UK, and Ottoman Palestine.
The word pogrom is derived from a Russian root meaning "noise" or "explosion." The result of an explosion is a scattering, and you could say that people were scattered by these events. Scattered and un-settled. Unsettle people and there are consequences. Has any scientist looked at the results of the Brownian motion of displaced peoples over the past few centuries? Are there patterns we can discern? Consequences we can pin to these displacements? A predictive formula we can derive that tells us what we can expect from events like this? How are mythologies made to explain emigration and what myths are woven to clothe a popular denial by the expellers? This is where my interest in Matale comes in, if you'll forgive me, because Europe has, kind of, in an oblique sort of way, sort of, could be? turned from denial of what it did in 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945. Hard to escape.
Pronouncing Kishinev in as many ways as I can doesn't teach me much about the events there. Though it might help recall a word by a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle, once when I was six or seven, that provides an almost olfactory sense of knowledge. A molecule of data. My Armenian friend took Russian in college for the same reason I did. To unlock secrets of her past. It was a long shot but unlocking secrets is a long shot, and a crooked road that no one can map out for you. I suppose that's why I'm after a kind of guide to how our ideas shift. How did I stop looking at village tanks as magnificent sustainable ecosystems and start seeing them as instruments of power, ownership, and hegemony? Don't get Foucaultian on me please. I don't know the first thing about Power.
I asked for forgiveness a minute ago and I ask again. Because I'm slightly lost. It's my job to put on a suit and tie, or at least a pair of pants and a respectable shirt, and take the lecture stand. Or lead my class on a reasonable field trip. It's not that I've misplaced my notes. It's more that I'm unclear as to their order. Order is important rhetorically wouldn't you agree? So I need to organize.
At the same time I think we shouldn't fetishize organization. Being slightly or even a lot lost helps us rewire and find our way in new modalities. That's evolution. Too tight a schedule, too detailed a roadmap limits the way. It limits also how much we can discover. And it's pretty futile. There are always obstacles and surprises. But it's nice to have if you're fleeing with children. At least until you're in a safe place.
In the depiction of Lord Buddha among the Yakas at the temple in Kelaniya, the one I remember best, the Yakas, like so many clods of earth (terrified though), scatter in every direction from His Light. The frescoes of Solias Mendis there are priceless. Beyond evaluation. They tell a great and immediate story of the Buddha's life. It's as if he (Lord Buddha) landed as a meteor or god forbid a bomb, disturbing, scattering, obliterating. Like a meteor creating a hole. And in the hole is water. Later people learn to use the water. To cleanse. To irrigate. We see the same depiction here in the Ponsala in Batticaloa. The structure was heavily damaged by the LTTE. Today it is adjacent to the police headquarters here in town. It's an outpost. The tank was a kind of outpost too. Deep in the forest. A watery stockade in the wilderness. A still surface of liquid that reflected your enemies' approach, like the lawn of a country manor, a palace, a fortress in England. Was it designed that way?
Tank design obsessed me. I wrote about it, vaguely, for years. Wrote about it in notes and posts, in short essays, in emails, in applications. How did these beautiful bodies of water come to persist over time, serving the descendants of ancestors dim in the smoky past? How did the tanks evolve so that nature was incorporated into them, their bodies an organ in the forest, with which they were one, they themselves composed of organs, valves, circulations, inlets and outlets? Were they seen as human-like to their builders? Were they godlike? Their names, their legends, their shapes. Did it occur to me to ask how they came to be? Only vaguely. And the questions were answered with the vague fabric of gossamer tales. Pregnant goats, bells round their necks, lowest spot and all that. Mythologies within mythologies embodied in a mythological landscape. The landscape as self-sculpture of the community, a model of the nation.
In "The Shining" we see Jack Nicholson as he slides into insanity, an insanity that may have been there all along, or which might brought on or even exacerbated by his troubled spirit being situated, as it was in previous lives, on an Indian burial ground. His descent into depravity is linear of not particularly gradual, and the depths to which he falls are the fascinating part. He is willing, driven to kill his son whose spirit "shines" in apposition to Nicholson's. Another source of amazement is that Shelley Duvall's realization is so late, when her husband has already gone down the path of insanity and reached a point of no return. It's her naiveté in the face of our knowledge of her husband's condition that provides another line of horror and amazement.
I landed in Sri Lanka a little but like Jack Nicholson and a bit like Shelley Duvall. I "landed" where I truly wanted to be-where I truly felt comfortable, as Nicholson does in his role as "caretaker." And like Duvall my doe-eyed naïveté kept me from realizing the larger picture until what I consider fairly late in the game, almost five months into my fifth visit to Sri Lanka. Why did it take me so long to "see?" When was the rug pulled from my eyes? When was the rug torn from my head? When was the rug pulled out from under me?
Rug might be an apt cognate for the tanks, which stretch like a liquidy carpet through a magnificent countryside. One tank in Kotte, a once and future capital of Sri Lanka , was compared to a woman's flowing dress. Tanks are a cultural centerpiece of this country. They have captured the imagination of many poets, philosophers, and even the producer of a recent music video extolling President Sirisena.
After many visits to many tanks I learned dutifully their "working parts," the ecosystem "services" of each tank feature in their respective roles of absorbing water, distributing water, protecting the bund, shading the water and so forth. In their natural settings, for example in Rajarata "King's Country," near Anuradhapura the tanks are magnificent even in their dotage. Stuffed with agrochemicals and suffocating under feet of unremoved silt, subjected to backhoes and culverts and tractors and other abuses the tanks still function. And they are beautiful. They appear as part of nature and brilliantly, the villagers who maintained them all these years learned to let the tanks function along with nature. Natural mosaics of plants protect the catchment and the periphery of tanks. They filter water upstream and downstream. They cleanse the water and protect it from too-intense evaporation. All these things had to be learned by villagers. They were not the domain of kings. And villagers used the tanks as livestock grazing areas, bathing areas, and animal reserves. As well they used the tanks as a source of many different kinds of food. Lotus leaves and roots, flowers for temple offerings, every kind of floating plant and fish as a source of nutrition. These tanks were and are fictional almost in their functionality, utility, beauty, and spirituality.
It's the spiritual part where tanks begin to suggest another dimension of the landscape. Ancient-looking Ganesh-painted rocks are almost universally found at one end of the bund. Other more local, sometimes hyper-local deities are commemorated here too. Sometimes these deities were derived from men or man-gods who threw their body into the dam thereby saving the tank and its village. Often the shrines are festooned or simply lain with a branch of the margosa (neem) tree, signifying a journey, physical, spiritual or even legal, that someone took in which they sought protection by propitiating the local god or Ganesh or both.
It's past midnight. I don't want to look at the screen and I don't want to write nonsense but there are a few things I want to communicate. From my open window I can hear the Indian Ocean pounding the shore half a mile away. Near that shore is a Hindu kovil that was built on sand and now lies at a permanent tilt. The tsunami nearly toppled it. The sound of the ocean is gorgeous. Its onetime destruction is unimaginable. Outside my room insects and frogs sing in high pitched disharmony. I woke up thinking it was a leaking pipe. The only sound I can think of that approximates their sound is a radiator with a loose valve. We had that in our house in Cambridge, on Fairmont Street. The bathroom was always warm and steamy thanks to that leak but the rest of the house was cold. Hearing these bugs and frogs reminds me of that sound. But the sound of the ocean in the distance is incomparable.
At home there's a blizzard raging. What a piece of news! And this week is the first time I miss home or even think about it. Mostly I think of my kids, grownups, and how they must be dealing with this weather. It makes me kind of sad not to be near them, even though they're too old for me to be with them. It surprises me that these leaky bugs, that ocean, and thoughts of the blizzard shaking the walls of my kids' distant houses keeps me up and curious.
I know when I'm home people will ask, "How was Sri Lanka?" and I'll have fifteen seconds to answer, before they go on to talk about whatever is current and they think is important. I'd rather skip the discussion in that case because how was Sri Lanka is a little too big, even for a whole minute.
So I feel like as troubling as it is to write, and as boring as the "discipline" of writing feels to me, this, right here, is my only chance to communicate.
I've had a sore on my foot, the outer part of my right foot, that I got from walking around for miles in wet sandals in Dehiattkandia. When the scab was well formed I rubbed against something and it came off and the secondary injury has been taking its time to heal. It's painful, a bit of a surprise, but it's not red. There is strange swelling and an unusual tissue reaction, a fat ring of ghostly white skin that I suppose is being sloughed off as part of the healing. I don't like it and I hope it's not some buggy thing I picked up in Dehiattkandia, which was once a jungle, and which is still very watery and warm and barely "tamed." There's a young doctor here and other people too have warned me that these kinds of things can get complicated "in the tropics." That's the last thing I want. I've been staying off the foot because even with a bandaid (they call it a "plaster" here) the spot rubs against my flipflop. I'm OK with staying off my feet. I prefer it that way. But I like to move. Riding a bike is out because the spot scrapes with every stroke of the pedal. I can't go in the pool because I want this thing to mostly stay dry and not compromise the tissue any more. I keep the bandaid off when I'm not walking to or from the main building where the wifi is.
I'm only bothering with all this to say that I woke up sweaty after a dream that I'd like to think was a resolution of this problem. I was still in some pain when I woke up. But I dreamed that a for-profit doctor wanted to see me. This was in Westchester County where my father in law lives, the last grandparent standing. The dream is happening in a clinic or hospital lobby and I'm holding my papers to be seen. Instead of diplomas or travel posters or flower pictures on the wall there are discrete plaques that advertise Heritage Hills, where he and my mother in law lived until she passed away last June. He walks in to the lobby and tells me it's best for me to not see this doctor. Then in come my friends Victor and Judy and Judy looks at the papers. She snorts when she sees the "doctor" I'm supposed to see is one of her former interns, a greedy guy who focused mostly on his greed and his stupid toys. He asked her to write him a reference for the Harvard Business School. Twice. And when that didn't work he asked her to write more and better to more (and better? Less prestigious) schools. Finally he came to grips with the fact that these places weren't in his immediate future and he went on to collect cars or whatever. But with my father in law's admonition and Judy's snort I woke up (still dreaming) and took a look at my foot to see the skin had sloughed off nicely and the injury had been resolved.
Not so easily resolved the communal injury in Sri Lanka. A driver who we hired for a couple of weeks, one from the "other side" (Medawachchiya now living in Gampaha) came by last night on the seventh or eighth day of a trip with a German couple. That they remind him of me says something about the way I see Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims for that matter as one in the same here in Sri Lanka. They are short, fat, dour, bad-humored, stingy, hard of hearing, aloof and imperious. Not the Sri Lankans. The Germans. Hm. Maybe that's me in a nutshell.
Susil and I were happy to see one another. He was vastly uncomfortable. I took him for a short walk around here to show him the gardens, the ginger cultivation, okra (ladies' fingers), tomatoes, and the breathtaking walk along the lagoon. I asked him to join me for a beer and he responded, "Let's wait for them. They like to have a beer with me every evening." This evening I guess they forgot as they sat at their laptops and madly swatted at mosquitoes, frowning and complaining loudly the whole time.
It gave Susil a moment, and I hope we may have more, to spill out his feelings about this place, where he was stationed during the war. Doesn't matter what was truth or not, only that he spoke or rather spilled his gut, hushed, nervous, emotional for fifteen or twenty minutes. Not the composed gent I'm used to seeing at our Mt. Lavinia guesthouse or behind the wheel. And he doesn't feel like it, the conflict, is over. Far far from over. And he knew of Sinha-le, the "Lions Blood" slogan and bumper sticker and he knows it's not a "symbol of the nation," which unfortunately some much more sophisticated, more proficient in written English "nationalists" insist it is. Susil told me simply. "We have the national flag for that symbol." And he reported that he's talked to his teenage children about this. Because it's his children who will have the burden of war or no war and he feels that people behind this sullen symbol are people who don't know the experience of war. I don't know the circumstances but Susil left the military before he could collect his pension. He's a good person but not a very happy person and he's been deeply scarred.
So I'm walking around in a scarred society. Maybe in some ways a society like his clients Werner and Angela were born into. A society afraid of its own crimes. There is almost no one I've met who isn't scared. Some are running scared. Some are hiding scared. Some are arming themselves scared. And the most shameful ones, the ones I've met most of, are the lying scared. I want to talk about them. It's not them, but their behaviors that are despicable. But I'll take a break now and consider. Sometimes this narrative sounds better as fiction. Angrier. Funnier. Less coherent. Kind of like this place I'm in.
Friends asked me the other day if my recent experiences in Sri Lanka and the way I'm reflecting on them would influence future travel to this place. They obviously still haven't had their fill of it. For me I feel the issue, like my scar tissue, has been resolved.
How shall I go forward? How shall I worm my way through this story? It seems so hard.
Not easy, not as easily as lies are delivered up. At the University I found the two words "Actually, Sir," to be the most reliable predictor of lies. Better to have these students sound asleep, sprawled out at their work tables, giggling like ninnies, creating black spaces with markers, than to have them open their mouths with the word "Actually." Followed by the token of respect, "Sir." But you've gotta wonder who taught them to lie this way and who such lying serves. Or better. What purpose this lying serves.
The lies and the ignorance are frozen like ice in an obfuscating cloud of drivel. There is no way to offer effectively a comment, a gentle criticism, a probing question. These are met with the words "Actually, Sir," after which a pile of shite falls out, like the tail of a cow being lifted for excretion. The words that follow make worse than no sense. They are a repeat, a hardening of the first statement. They present an icy cliff no logic can climb or penetrate, a vaunting structure so shockingly lacking in vulnerability as to chase away a friendly interlocutor. The questioner is asked to pack his bags and leave town.
It started with students I was asked to accompany to Galle Fort. I wrote about this debacle in the first section but I didn't write about my feelings of Galle Fort. For whatever reason, and I'm certain it's political, this place was afforded UNESCO world heritage status in the late 80s or early 90s. It's a peculiar place with a peculiar history and character. The one decent discussion I had with students during those 24 hours was about whether Galle Fort is "Sri Lankan." The structure is Dutch, the infrastructure is British, and the remaining inhabitants are almost entirely Muslim. One of the students, who I suspected was a real Sinhalese "nationalist," "explained" to me that in 50 years this city might have the character of a "middle eastern city." I'm sure he was referring to Kattankudy or what he'd heard about Kattankudy but I suspect he's never been out here. He's the gent who also explained, "Do you realize Sir, that if I go into a Tamil shop speaking Sinhala they'll ignore me? I'll never be asked what I need. I could starve to death." suspect he'd never be approached by a shopkeeper because he's a silly teenager, replete with a stylish two-inch thumbnail, in the poor disguise of an adult. I also suspect it would be a long while before he starved.
The adult-let and his mates, including swastika-boy were graduate students put to work on "planning" yet another restaurant, tourist shop, information kiosk, or exhibit space for Galle Fort. This was a project also bring done by the last-year undergraduates so I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of student work go into pablum projects meant to enhance a site that is already focused on tourism. Worst of all were the dozens of proposals I saw that were centered around "exhibition spaces." These smacked of an utter lack of architectural program. I imagine students were taught this device because so many of them introduced it. "Exhibit spaces" came to represent for me the same flaccid energy, the same nonchalant blobbish movement that I saw everywhere. In my crit notes I wrote that students should be taught to introduce architectural program into their projects instead of dressing empty hallways or large rooms with the role of "exhibit space." Maybe someone read this or maybe they didn't. Maybe it led to my colleague ignoring me and maybe it didn't. No matter. It's not my country and these problems aren't mine. No one was encouraged to bite into the real problems of planning, and they are huge.
Sri Lanka is transforming. Nowhere is this as pronounced as Colombo, where residential projects are zooming skyward. The city is the focus of a spanking new "Megapolis" plan that will grow the region beyond its current bounds but without adequate attention paid to transportation infrastructure in particular. Colombo now rates as something like #213 out of 214 Asian cities in terms of livability and visitability. It would seem there's nowhere to go but up. Here in Sri Lanka though it's never too early or too late to miss an opportunity.
That no student out of the 50 or 60 that I came into contact with is grappling with problems of the Megapolis, or for that matter any aspect of Sri Lanka's built environment problems speaks to the inertia of the faculty and administration at their university.
That inertia can be sensed in so many ways, even by an outsider. I spent several afternoons talking with my colleague there. He spilled the beans about his disappointment with the university and with his department. German-trained and a Canadian citizen himself, he initiated and ran an international conference several years in a row and also spearheaded a new journal. He is a real standout in his group but he mentioned to me some of the dysfunction he experiences. Also mentioned a desire to spend some time in the United States ( everyone does), something that I took seriously enough to consider strategies for getting him over to one of my institutions. I also set him up with a very special opportunity to meet a colleague and students from a prestigious American design school who happened to be visiting Sri Lanka for an extended period. In fact, her group has been grappling with planning issues in Sri Lanka's far east, where real problems could use some real solutions. Happy to be included it seemed, he got right in touch with my American colleague and they agreed to meet, along with their students, for a weekend charrette six weeks in the future.
The date approached, I of course changed my plans to be out east when the Colombo group came, to participate in the stimulating program. Two days before the meeting my American colleague hadn't heard from him so she sent him a note. He had the courtesy to write back, "too busy, can't make it."
This signalled to me once and for all his indifference. But maybe it meant more. Possible there was a fear about coming out to this part of the country. His star student had told me after all that he could starve to death in a Tamil shop. Could be this reflected the feelings of his professor too. I thought about it. I had seen this professor and his differential treatment of different students. Especially along gender lines. The laziest lad merited praise while girls who did equal work (I mean to say equally bad work) were drilled and grilled to the point of tears which, bless them, not a one shed. I wasn't sensitive to how deep the ethnic rift here went so I can't speak to his behavior toward Tamil students. But in retrospect I recall an awful experience I had here in 2013 when I came to the first conference sponsored by this colleague and his university.
What I'm trying to do here is unpack the experience of disillusionment. What is the trajectory of realization that things aren't the way they should be? How do we move from comfort to discomfort? How do we wake up and smell the coffee? Obviously in 2013 I wasn't even sniffing.
The amazing experience on Mihintale Rock had gotten me thinking about landscape in new and exciting ways. I began to see landscape as a sort of self-sculpture of people and society. This is what I wrote:
"Some years ago I was playing with clay and I made a small sculpture that looked like a hand. I recognized in that gesture the will for something more than self-expression in art. More of a self-revealing. I produced that hand sculpture, created in a state of conscious unselfconsciousness. That is, I was awake and aware but molding the clay without intent or purpose. The result was a kind of self-portrait or if you will, a self-sculpture.
On a larger scale landscapes reveal what their people are about. Or more specifically, how people model themselves in their landscape. Using this tool of inquiry can unravel questions about what seem to be otherwise "inscrutable" landscapes. So for example I found that a Mayan architectural mystery in the Yucatan was nothing more than a self-portrait of a community. Mexico City I came to see as a gigantic sculpture of movement in a state of constant rebuilding and refining. These qualitative conclusions were drawn quite subjectively. My only "proof" of their verity were my own observations, my own conjectures. My ideas are a lot about intangibles. But this may not be such a bad thing. Because embedded within landscapes are many intangibles. Landscapes themselves, though they include walls and paving and stones and hewn wood and tiles and staircases, may be said to be intangible. What can we draw that's "tangible" from our analysis of the intangible?
Partly it is the encounter with questions that lead in unexpected directions. Considering the complexity of tank function I have run across a dearth of tangible explanations. But there are many intangibles and many questions to be asked.
I do know that tanks are personified, that there are many tales of people being buried in their curving dams or sacrificing their own bodies by embedding themselves in breached tank dams. I know that tanks take on names of gods and in many cases lend their names to local gods. I know that some tanks are shaped like human body parts, specifically female breasts, the source of life. I know that tanks are simple-looking but profoundly complex in their functions of storing, filtering, and distributing water. So in many senses they are constructed, or more exactly perhaps conceptualized, like the human body. Or perhaps the human heart, with its chambers, valves, pumps, and carefully controlled openings.
Until quite recently tanks and the rice fields they nourish were built by human effort and human body parts. Feet and hands did the fine shaping, instructed by brains with centuries of collective experience. I've seen people in action in these arenas. Their bare feet just supplemented by hand-held tools. Elephants, not backhoes were used for the heavy work and for compacting the bunds. But the daily shaping, piling, digging, carrying, constructing, and refining were done by human hands. Tanks are a collective sculpture of each community that built and maintained them. Can we consider the tanks to be a self-sculpture of these communities?
Tank design brought him east where borderland forests held ancient secrets. In the far east tanks were different. Sprawling affairs with bunds dozens of miles long, serpentine. The ground was flat and the long bunds extended in diffuse catchments through swamp and jungle. Some of these tanks were very very old. But they were not the neat tanks of Rajarata. They supplied massive water but their form and distances made them almost unrecognizable. The formula for design here, essentially the same, was essentially different. Tanks were inaccessible because they blended into the landscape. They were accessible because they blended into the landscape. The parts were different. The elevations and landforms subtler. The nature insistent in a way wholly different. You could call it less organized but the organization was exact. These precise meanders that went unmappable were products of the same design philosophy of interior tanks. Catch every drop of water. Achieve it however you must.
Tanks "belonged" to one or several villages. Their waters were shared and divided. Cultivation was the aim and the activity and these villages might have been rich. They went right to the sea. There were so many fish.
What about tanks in the interior? Were they rich? Were tanks built for the same purpose? Could a small village tank with an acre or so of area build a richly resourced civilization? Some say yes. Of the king counted as his riches the working peasants and the water they managed to impound.
Was impoundment the goal or was ownership itself the goal? To farm or to possess? In the near east some old questions faded and new ones approached from out of the fog.
A creative gasp resounds
The East brought other realizations. He wrote:
In a world as limp as a rag doll, a world of flowers and fug, lax and lackadaisical and dreamy and docile, the words "revoke!" "rescind!" would seem to have no place. The "official" seems so far from the mildly disorganized social and cultural schedule, a schedule adapted for picking low-hanging and delicious ripe fruit. Until you learn to see below the surface.
Deep subservience colors each day for people whose only prod and only proof is that subservience. More like snakes than cattle these herded hordes wait for their orders. Obey is not a word. It is the only way.
Scratch the surface of an accomplisged architect or a graceful poetess and you will see the iron attachment to Authority. As they bark orders in their turn you can hear the tune of fear that shakes their loins. No air in or out. No wiggle space. "Order!" they scream.
They experienced war and terror and crime and violence and random evil all their lives. No wealth or family status protected them. But it was war, a war they wrote themselves with the bloody ink of Devotion, a war their people promulgated and nurtured and seek to remake and rewrite. Their devotion to a Peaceable Lord taught them not peace but devotion.
Flowers, masses of flowers, truckloads of flowers and volumes of incense smoke are the product of minds that focus on the steely vision of blood, duty, belonging. That the sweet smiles of their pink mouths morph into lips and teeth that bark orders comes as no surprise. You only need to stay among them long enough. Forms encyclopedic and detailed, small and large gods of plastic. All vulnerable to the elements so shore them up with lies. Your dissent may jeapordize the whole endeavor. Can that be allowed? It must be disallowed at any expense.
The waggle, "suit yourself" is capable of murder, decapitation, immolation of the "other," whose energy and focus are intolerable. A creative gasp resounds as furious bloody paws of the lion take it down to the pavement.
So what about that architect?
He thought out of the box. He was creative, an artist himself. He had made nice designs, simple designs, civic designs. They had lots in common. They both though Coomaraswamy was great. They both asked their students to read. Both were interested in urban form, urban ecology, historic preservation, international collaboration. Both shared a frustration with their respective university. You worked more than hard. You innovated. You re-worked. You brought students to new levels. You organized useful things for your institution. You were not rewarded. In a sense you were punished. You were not ignored personally but your department was. Your senior faculty in the department were confused, aimless, two-faced, lazy, submissive, comfortable. Whatever. They didn't take the department where it could have gone and they didn't like you particularly trying to take it somewhere. So your department was overlooked in favor of other departments. Your work was wasted in terms of university advancement. Your ROI was doubtful. You were disillusioned. You were aiming for something new, you weren't sure what. Interesting things to talk about and have in common. One discussant thought this was creating mutual bonds of a more personal nature. The other thought who knows what.
The discussions brought out that the architect would like to visit the United States, if even for a few weeks, but he could not leave his practice for long. The visitorstranger took note and tried to scheme about ways to being his friend over. Too bad one institution where he worked was too big. The other one was too small. Was there an opportunity that was just right?
As luck would have it the visitorstranger got an email from a colleague in the United States who introduced herself and asked of he'd be in Sri Lanka when she was coming with a group of students. Her institution was just right and before thinking of himself he thought of his Sri Lankan colleague. "Of course I'll be there, (it had been his fervent wish to bring American students to work with the Sri Lankan group at his adopted university here). Can I also put you in touch with my colleague J? It would be great of he could bring his students out to join you for a weekend."
"Perfect!" She responded. And they set up a three-way email where the three of them could share arrangements, plans, and schedules.
Six weeks later the agreed upon date got closer. His American colleague had put aside a long weekend to work in conjunction with the Sri Lankan group. She put it on the syllabus and got her students ready. No word from the Sri Lankan colleague. No biggie. Maybe he was busy. This would be such angriest opportunity to get the groups together. Some plans had to be made. The week of the meeting started. Still no word from Colombo. The American, not the visitorstranger, sent a note to their mutual colleague. His answer:
"Though I was initially trying to come to Batticaloa, with several Saturday government holidays we had during the past weeks, our program with two batches of students requires to run full week ends during this month and next 2 months in order to cover the syllabus. Therefore we are sorry that we will not able to visit and meet you all. However, I will assure that we will meet with you at your next visit to Sri Lanka."
What a nice assurance. How about that executive planning! A real professional! Knew his Saturdays and his "government holidays" by heart (good Sri Lankan). At least his lie isn't "i lost track of time" or "I lost your email." Just never planned to follow through. Why?
Could it be that Sri Lankan professors have a different notion of introducing their students to experience than American professors? Could be. The American had brought her students across the globe for a work-study experience. Her Sri Lankan colleague wouldn't bring his students across the island.
Could it be that American professors have a different notion about expanding their students' horizons than Sri Lankan professors? Could be. The American arranged weeks of works with local craftspeople, artists, and activists for her students. She had them staying in the American Ceylon Mission quarters in conditions most were not accustomed to. Their work went on at a local orphanage, among boys whose parents were lost or who had abandoned or abused them. She was taking her students way out of their comfort zone. Yay American colleague! You are really pushing the envelope for your students. This is how we learn, especially applied and entitled students. Yay you! You're bringing out their creativity and teaching them life skill too! The Sri Lankan colleague? You read it here first. "Batches" of students that have to "cover the syllabus."
Kind of closed-minded. Kind of too bad for his students. Kind of a lost opportunity (am I wrong? Do you disagree? Is this the wrong thing to tweet? Should I be giving him the benefit of the doubt? Is this just "the way things work in this part of the world?" Please please tell me so I don't misjudge!). A few more questions. Was this professional? Was this considerate?
Consider what the visitorstranger wrote months before the rug so-called was starting to fall or be pulled but he was still fairly desparate to give his Sri Lankan colleague the benefit of the doubt:
Maybe, visitorstranger thought, they're not utilizing me here out of respect. A Sri Lankan professor would have retired by this age.
Maybe, visitorstranger thought, it's the end of the term so they really have to get some stuff done.
Maybe, visitorstranger thought, my colleague is super busy with the international conference so he just can't engage right now, with me or his students.
Maybe, visitorstranger thought, even though I'm a scientist who's taught in an architecture program I'm not "certified" in his book to teach his students.
Maybe, visitorstranger thought, he doesn't want me to see weaknesses in his program.
Maybe, visitorstranger thought, the curriculum is just so tight that there's no fitting me in.
Maybe, the visitorstranger thought, he and his wife have so many projects going on they're unable to reciprocate our gesture of hospitality we made when we first arrived.
Maybe, the visitorstranger thought, his wife is ashamed of her English so she's embarrassed to see us socially.
Maybe, the visitorstranger thought, that's just how things are done here.
Just how things are done here. Ignore the uncomfortable and embrace the usual. Ignore the stranger and entrain among your family. Open your pink mouth and let words spill out or don't use that many words or just lie. What's the difference. Sooner or later the stranger will make himself strange and you can get on with it. The peristaltic motion of rejection, removal, the covering up of a sore through granular tissue and then scab. A falling off of the scab to reveal fresh skin. A forgetting. It never happened!
Later. Possibly, thought the visitorstranger, my colleague was afraid to come to Batticaloa. Afraid to come to Batticaloa?! A certified architect? A PhD? A Canadian citizen? A lover of Coomaraswamy? Coomaraswamy was Tamil? Why should he, an architect of national standing, be afraid of little watery scenic poor isolated Batticaloa? So afraid that he cast off professional relationships and said goodbye to his ticket to America?!
When does something go bad?
When does something you thought was good turn into something that is bad? When is something you thought was beautiful go to pretty to pretty ugly to ugly. What are the steps as you ratchet your way to disdain and disgust? Are there infinitesimally small ratchet-steps downward until some moment when you have hit the floor, red and waxed or fake wood or tile or just dirt. Is it a straight line? How do you get there? Is there any way to fight your way back. What's lost on the way? Can't you hold onto your good humor or at least your sense of humor or at least a humor? And what about your sense of forgiveness? What formulas of forgiveness can you use to take you up a ratchet or move back up to a state of like or tolerance at least? Too much to ask?
Is it a decision or a set of decisions? A moment or a monument? Private or public? Silent or explosive? Gradual or all of a sudden?
When you beat your wife did you ever think "I could be sorry for this later." When you thought of beating your wife...beating your wife!!?? What am I writing about?! Did you think, "She's gonna make me sorry." Did anything whisper or yell to you "I'd better not." Were you drunk? On alcohol? On power? What "power" is it to beat your loved one-ever! To break the walls of your own house? Who do you share a home with? Who do you share a home with when your home is a small island? A precinct? A ward? A street? When do you start beating? How do you start beating? How long did you meditate on this beat? Did anything at all along the way stop you or make you think to stop or make you stop to think?
"Share my story. Write about my story. It's Sri Lankan." But how could I write about a Canadian who beat his wife? Can we count the pressure points, the ratchets as he first considered lifting a finger against his bride? Who thinks that? Who does that? "You are still the man," I could have told him in his language, not mine, because there's no word for that in my language. That expression belongs to Here. "You take control." "You take control sounds nice." Men lose control.
What is the nature of control? What are "controls?" A Supreme Court ideologue dies. His nasty grip of control is gone. We speak of controls like "checks and balances," a nice financial asymptote. But what are the points of deflection, inflection, predilection, traction?
He asks me how I like Sri Lanka. First sentence? Like asking me my religion. It's too out there. It's friendly and lite like a lo-cal yogurt. You can never get enough of that. But you can get enough of Sri Lanka. How? You can see enough. See enough? How's that possible? There are thousands of corners to this country. There are 30,000 tanks to explore. Your presumed focus of research Most of them ancient. How can you say you've seen enough? "Because I've seen too much."
Too much! Outrageous. You're a foreigner. You have no language, no ties to this country, no "relations" who could relate anything to you. Anyway what's enough? What's too much? How did you come up with this? Did you tell your wife? What did she say? What do you mean she'd also seen enough? Did you put the screws on her? Urge her to say that? Invite her to say that? Tempt her to say that? Cajole her to say that? Trick her into saying that? Enough? Enough is enough.
She said, "Let's not get paralyzed by this." She said, "just keep writing down your words." She said, "just keep thinking about these things." She said, "sometimes I feel like we've seen enough." She said, "I don't want this to turn out like Alaska."
What about Alaska? What was the beginning, middle, and end of that chapter?
He'd lived in Alaska a year when he started to write. Actually he started to write the first day. Things he didn't know a thing about. Things he noticed and didn't understand or thought he understood. The dip of a road, a change of elevation, a shadow, a breeze, a dapple of sunlight, the moistness of a bud, the taste of a new leaf, a speck of dust on a petal, a cloud of gravel dust along the road, the roar of a motor, the grace of a feather or wing, the sound of a bird landing, the sound of distant gunshots or the engine sound of a Piper Cub.
Landed near him one day a sandhill crane, his height. Another friend had told her, in Fairbanks, showing her his treasure, and maybe his dowry, a freezer full of game meat, "Sandhills are good eating." The landed sandhill here, on this gravel road, bigger than life it seemed, scared this city boy. Why wouldn't it? Whoever saw a bird this big closeup and very much alive. Good eating? This marvel? It flew at 11,000 feet over the Alaska Range to get here. She flew over the Alaska range with a canister of oxygen between her legs. Had the patient had a heart attack or was he just dead drunk? What about the pilot? Ready to fly? Dead drunk? Heavily drinking that afternoon? Moderately drunk? Just a bit drunk? Ready to fly over the Alaska Range to Anchorage? Nice place to work? Helping others? Building a better rural community? Delivering medical care to the underserved? Empowering native healers? Or as we'd say now. In Sri Lanka. "Building capacity?" I love language. Absolutely do.
When he'd finished with the intangibles, the curve, the gleam, the wave of heat or grip of cold, he'd gone on to identify tangibles, or what seemed like tangibles. Naming the birds, identifying the plant species, thinking about their distributions and how they connected to the intangibles he'd studied. This one likes full sun. This one takes root in a rock. This one grows sideways. It was poetic and it was ecological. It was a place of dramatic dark and sun. Nearly unimaginable cold and neatly defined (thanks to its smallness) shadows. This is how things started in Alaska.
In the middle phase of things in Alaska he noticed an intangible that could be quantified. One small intangible circumstance that rewarded observation and promoted a link between tangible and intangible. What was tangible? At the beginning of May when the sun was strong, before the snow had gone and before breakup on the river, before water levels rose so high they reached within an inch of their styrofoam- covered outhouse toilet seat, before the boy split his head at 11PM, still light, and she had to beg for a medivac that couldn't land because the runway was flooded, at the beginning of May, the sun was strongest in the southwest. This was tangible. It stayed there for hours in a never final descent and sent waves of differential melting, a kind of opposite of "moss-on-the-north-side-of-the-tree," where small and ever bigger plots of dirty or clean snow melted in relation to this long-held-grip of growing-more-powerful-each-day sunlight. Does this happen in Toronto where your wife took out a restraining order on you? Is there a willow growing near your house?
There was a willow by their house in McGrath, Alaska, a willow that grew in a southwest exposure. So cruel was the climate there that even an arctic willow needed a favored space, one with sun. In a favored space the toilet and associated indoor plumbing was not. They were in the slowly sinking back of the house (permafrost and all), permanently in the shadow of the house so guess what. Frozen solid. Frozen in March when he got there and frozen through until September when the frosts started again. So, a styrofoam-seated outhouse they called "Telida," the name of a village on a tributary. In modern parlance, Kuranagela.
The willow that faced southwest. In its swelling, warming branches a migrant warbler came to visit. Like the sandhill crane it had come several thousand miles, crossed the Alaska Range over Rainy Pass, ten thousand feet, and then hop skip and jump found the budding taiga of the light-drenched Kuskokwim Valley. Lots to eat in those melting pockets and swelling warming budding branches of the willows and that particular sw-facing willow.
Looking close at the bird. What a pleasure! He saw a cat. No. Not a cat! A catkin. A willow flower. A make willow flower. A staminate flower, since he would someday soon start to become a scientist, a botanist. Slip into science though not always as comfortable or as easy as an old shirt or pair of pants. The catkins, ovoid, came to light slowly. Though frost was gone yet it was nigh. Conservatism for those first days and weeks. Don't open all at once (April for "open" was invented on a warmer clime, wherever). Put out your anthers slowly, in rhythm with the sun and its strongest rays. Put out your anthers and make them available to pollinators geometrically in proportion to that southwest sun. You're a willow, a modular organism, make use of those modules. Strategize with those modules. Flower carefully, not all at once. Expose slowly, a fading of the grey, a blush of orange, a tinge of yellow, a pod of exposed pollen. It was expensive to make, full of protein and replete with information-bearing sperm. Don't risk it all at once. Make a little tuft of exposed anthers (can't close them back down--no mechanism for that) just facing the warm of the long-setting sun.
Make your tuft a little bigger each day as the sun grows stronger and lasts longer. Control this process. How? Hormonally? Let's just call it light-mediated. Link your opening, barely tangible, to the growing sun (tangible). Make a new measure-anthesis-the phenomenon of flowering, in correlation with an old measure, the tracking of the sun. Trace the tangible track to an intangible tract, that tuft of colorful pollen-bearing catkin that grows each day, always facing just that angle of southwest, until spring has sprung.
It was done. It was fun. It was fine. Observing intangibles had led to a new tangible. One he could document and even calculate, if he'd been into math. Which thank you, he wasn't. It transformed for him what he knew was there, a landscape of intangibles, into an ecology as subtle as it was gorgeous. As hidden as it was clear. And as dear. How could you not fall in love with this place? It was compelling. It blushed like a beautiful cheek. It responded like a breathing being. Its plants and animals, and for all he knew its fungi responded in irrevocable embrace to the sun and its by-products. Light and warmth. Embrace this set of phenomena.
Second part of "how Alaska happened" over. The third was swift and dangerous and ended abruptly with them leaving this Eden for good. And quickly. And with some goodbyes but not many. And with many sighs, long breaths of relief.
The state of Alaska, flush with oil and gas money, granted the town a grant. Seems small now. It was only $100,000. Every resident that year got their own thousand dollar check just for living in the state. What could a town do with $100,000? Lots.
Take the lot in back of town along the river. Scenic and sandy and open and mostly unused it had served a nice purpose in a nice place where nice men brought nice guns and some beers and had a nice afternoon of target practice. What?! Guns are legal, always have been in the United States. Unlike Sri Lanka. Rifles too. So bring your rifles boys and let's have a shootup. It's good clean fun and no one ever gets hurt.
Now with a hundred grand they could get a new lot for shooting, set up some blinds, clean up the sand dunes in back of town and mine them for some construction projects. Roadbuilding and whatnot. But where to put the new shooting range? Hire one of your hotshot pilots, only moderately to severely drunk and only 80% of the time, name of Lucky he went by. Yup. Didn't make that up. Lucky went up up up. In the days before google satellite! And found the town a nice juicy spot where they could set up the new shooting range. He went out a few times. Wanted to make sure he got it right. Yes! Perfect! No laws against this great new spot! Buncha tundra waste anyway that nesting area. Sandhill cranes. Great eating.
How did Alaska come to an end? When did they decide to emigrate? Go back to the Lower 48 where they Belonged? He wrote about it just like I'm writing now. Pointed out some injustices (my friends this was long before the days of google satellite and even "animal rights," whatever that's supposed to mean). This was the last frontier I mean Last Frontier. You can read it on license plates. Just like "Law and Order: the Breath of the Nation." What a motto for Sri Lanka! Why not "Land 'o Lies?"
He wrote and published and attended a meeting at City Hall (McGrath was a sophisticated place with great civil structure and a hall to practice it in. Don't go outside though. Things break down). The unanimous feeling was to build the shooting range where Lucky had flown. The lucky place Lucky had mapped out. Mmm. Good eating those Sandhills! He raised his hand and spoke. He must have spoken about intangibles because people saw red. No one likes fuzzy logic! Another meeting was called I think.
The next meeting was scheduled to wrap up the question. Not to worry. No violence was done. No injuries to any vertebrate animals during this court session. Lucky's tall blond girlfriend, Ginger (couldn't make up this name any more than I could make up Lucky. Sorry. Not creative in that way) took the stand. Ginger was a graduate of Dartmouth, the Harvard of New Hampshire. Many thousands of miles away. The girl was seriously slumming it up here in interior Alaska with her man Lucky. Ginger took the stand. Swore she had studied ecology at Dartmouth. Swore she'd been doing a study of her own. But a lot more real than staminate willow flowers. Girl swore up and down she'd done a population survey of the sandhill cranes and they were infesting the runway in town. There weren't any cranes out where Lucky and his handlers planned the Big Shoot. They were seeking the warmth of the asphalt at the end of the mile-long runway and they posed a threat! A threat to commercial flights, threat to FAA flights, threat to BLM flights (firefighters could be killed!). The sandhill cranes were a pest species like the Canada geese we have today in our cities that just won't go away, that were overpopulating the region and highly likely to cause damage to the infrastructure, if not a threat to life and limb. Ginger was applauded. We realized it was time to get outta town. Academic creds were used for the first time (for my records) promulgate a lie. The next time was in 2013 when a graduate student at Moratuwa University, the MIT of Sri Lanka, compared the pogrom in Matale to rust belt Detroit. May this not end up like Alaska!
My new friend who is separated from his wife, "I'm not perfect. No man is," asked me, "Couldn't you mention to your colleague how he was wrong?" I asked, "who do you talk to in this country when you see something's wrong?"Couldn't you mention to your colleague how he was wrong? Who do you talk to in this country when you see something's wrong? Couldn't you mention to your colleague how he was wrong? Who do you talk to in this country when you see something's wrong?
Could you talk to a politician? The darker their hair the more they lie. Could you talk to a Tamil politician? You think I'm crazy? I don't want to be involved with them. Could you talk to a journalist? Are you kidding? They're all bending over backwards to defend Sinha-le, the " lion's blood." Politicians. Journalists. Academia. Still naive after all these years. I expect history to be preserved, not wiped clean, in the Academy. By the way, check for yourself what happened in the German Akademie in 1933-1943 (absolutely no Jewish Problem after that). Tell me what you find in Wikipedia. Tweet me.
So what about design and designers? What about the people who make it all happen through the design process? What are their motivations, their vulnerabilities and susceptibilities? How have they been used in the witting or unwitting service of projects that further particular interests and neglect or negatively impact others? How is design used to pervert, to destroy, to make a mockery of the vernacular? These questions, I think, are fair game in a constellation as complex and corruptible as the one I find myself in here in Sri Lanka.
I'd read before about a design "solution" gone astray in almost the same context as the tanks. I had run across it in my search for literature on vernacular landscapes of Sri Lanka. And it fascinated me. A years'-long project, if I remember correctly a decade or more, in which rural communities were studied in great depth-especially their built environment, with the result being a "model" village built to benefit a rural community in need. In short order this project, which had engaged some of the best architectural minds in Sri Lanka, a project they had studied, argued over, struggled to achieve, turned into a high-end resort for foreign tourists. An "academic" pursuit, undertaken with (if I remember) the very highest intentions was dragged through the mud of dispute and controversy and ended, quite intact as a model environment but in a functional role very different, even at odds from the way it was envisioned.
I put it in the back of my mind when I finished reading about. It sounded like it was the constellation of people, players, places, stakeholders, events, need, and capital that went astray. Predictable perhaps for a developing country but hardly, I thought, emblematic.
What was it and who was involved? Lucky I've forgotten the specifics. This is supposed to be fiction anyway. Something I found out about. Something I put out of my mind. Something peripherally but not centrally connected to irrigation tank landscapes. Something perhaps less pure than the study of tanks. Looking back I wonder. Even though this was a one-off, a futile exercise that led to unintended consequences, might it represent a model for How Things Are Done in Sri Lanka? Was it emblematic of other such projects? I later found out it was a small example in a sea of design projects gone wrong.
The first hint I got of this problem was when I happened upon a village tank near Giritale called Phambalawewa. Phambalawewa was perfect, the kind of village tank I'd wanted to uncover and study in greater depth. In the perfect shape of a dagoba, a gently arcing parabola of watery expanse, this neat and neatened tank had all the parts I expected to see in a "classic" tank design. A gradually curving bund, concave to the edge of the water like open arms, was lined by an allee of same-aged kumbuk trees planted there by design to filter water, shade its surface, and protect the bund from waves and potentially damaging internal circulation. In the near distance at the far edge of the tank I observed the neatly maintained perihana, the grassy expanse that filters silt. And behind it rose the forested backdrop of the gasgommana, the wild catchment that filters flowing water, absorbs and improves groundwater, and serves as a kind of wildlife refuge. Opposite the tank bund a deep slope covered with the requisite kattakaduwa, a swampy wet forested area that serves as a water filter, wildlife refuge, and agricultural no-mans land where drainage infrastructure into the rice fields begins.
One strange thing I detected, apart from the expertly descending spillway that accommodated a well-built road, was that there were no rice fields below the kattakaduwa. Water from this tank was channeled to irrigate fields some distance away from the tank. Another observation: the single sluice where usually there are at least two or three. The sluice was well-protected inside a locked gate, about 2/3 across the tank-not at the usual halfway mark. The drainage pattern also might have provided a clue. This sluice poured abundant water into a channel that turned left and carried the water off to unseen fields. The rice fields I could see took up less space than I would have expected from a tank this size, which I later learned irrigates some 2000 acres of paddy. Alright I thought. Not functioning like a village tank but it looks like one. Maybe a royal project from Polonowurran times, built as part of a larger irrigation scheme.
My guess about "larger irrigation scheme" was on target. But my predicted age for this tank, my first contemporary tank, was off by about 1000 years.
As I wandered behind the kade to catch a photo of an unusual Ganesh, Susil, the driver who had brought me here, had a word with an older gent sitting in the shade on a chair. He told Susil the tank was built during the time of C. P. deSilva, the Minister of Lands and Irrigation, as well as other related offices, from 1956-1970. This tank was developed part of a nationwide irrigation scheme connected to the harnessing of the Mahaveli River for electricity and increased rice production. It certainly wasn't ancient!
I was fooled by what looked to be a "perfect" tank which was, in retrospect the product of contemporary design mimicking an ancient irrigation template. Immediately I wondered how this tank stood up to neglect and silting compared with the 30,000 ancient tanks dotting the island. Did the engineers who designed this tank go deeper than just the "look" of an ancient tank? Was this a design triumph (as ancient village tanks are) or just a cheap imitation? Further wanderings were to teach me more about the uses and abuses of design in this part of the world.
Where to go with this story? It's a story of how things go bad. How love goes to disillusionment and disillusionment to something scarier. It's scary in part because the spores of disillusionment have been there all along. Why weren't they recognized? Why were they ignored? Were they hiding? Camouflaged? Fooling us? Like the spores of a disease that takes hold when the immune system is down. Or the precursor cells of cancer that become "activated" by a cascade of biochemical signals. No one knows for real how any of this happens. How this works as a system. Yes we know the parts. But. Our ways of looking at it, all of it, are too reductive. We can only see one corner, one surface, one reaction or the gateway to that reaction. Why are we so limited?
Maybe it's the intoxication of beauty. There is so little of it in our world. I mean the Western world. I mean the postindustrial world we pretend to thrive in or maybe we actually do thrive. But it's not a beautiful world for the most part. You can't be that graceful making your way with freezing wet feet through slush. Or climbing three feet to throw yourself into the seat of your Suburban. Or reaching through your car window to pick up your Starbucks. On the other hand. How could you not be intoxicated with the sultry beauty of Sri Lanka? Swaying coconuts, glassy lakes, steaming jungles, beautiful bare feet. Not so pretty towns. But still, a beautiful place where all "truth" is relative, where people are shadows and shadows are forest glens and glades. What's not to like? What can you possibly see?
My project was one of intangibles. I was to see and record and analyze intangible features of the landscape. What do you do with that? It's not history. It's not art history. It's not diplomacy. It's not reconciliation. It's not any kind of buzz word. It's only one man's word and how can you trust that? What if his arguments turn out to be circular? What does any of this have to do with contemporary Sri Lanka? A hard sell on the grants market. How do you quantify or even rationalize, let alone defend the statement, "my findings will guide me to further research." Shouldn't have written that one. At least, shouldn't have submitted it. But someone bit. A bit open minded, that. Or cockeyed. What if you don't find anything? What if you're just over here to sit on the beach and drink beers? Or king coconut? What can the bend of a tank bund possibly tell you? What can 30,000 of them tell you?
No interviews? No. Because no questions. No questions? No. Because "actually, sir." Get it? If you're not quite sure I'll tell you. Because every question gets a lie. So. You can sift through lies or half truths after you have made copious notes on your gargantuan efforts. Or. You can sit quietly, walk quietly, stand quietly and let would-be answerers creep up behind you and tell you what they want. And there are answers in the curve of every tank bund. Just come up with some other way to say it would you? Some way that's a little further from your personal "truths." Some way to the bank.
But if they (the curves and the people who sneak up on you, the way you feel the wind, the way language is used) tell you what they want how will you get what you want? Simple. Kind of Buddhist actually. What you want is what you get. You formulate from there. Sound circular? Please. Don't bore me. Those many years at Harvard led me to the hems of garments of so many circular-argument promulgators. But pal, make one peep out of their circle of "truths" and your words garner the label "circular argument." Nice to have a label isn't it? Because the label is so circular, so perfect, so seamlessly closed onto itself that you cannot argue your way out. It's a beautiful thing. A disappearing weapon like an icicle. Round and round we go in circles until "actually sir" carries with it an implacable truth-telling. Like. Truth is at the point of a gun. Or like wikipedia quotes Mao, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Arafat said it too, a little more brutally, at least for every single Jew. Who. He. Swore. To. Kill. Oh Gloomy. Check his properly attributed quotes in Wikipedia. Check his improperly attributed quotes too, just so you've got a good handle on the man. Swedish Academy must have. He got the Nobel Peace Prize! Like Wikipedia? I do. But sometimes truths get scrubbed out of there. Like the truth about Matale. Didn't need Wikipedia for that. Only needed the planning department at a university here in Sri Lanka to do the job. Maybe because they were using circular reasoning.
Self referential is another "critique." Because gotta be unusual, get out of the circle. Not reference your own ideas. Use someone else's. But don't forget to cite appropriately! Anyway I think Hitler had it right after Kristallnacht, after the Anschluss, when truth came from the bristles of a scrub brush. He taught those worthless German and Austrian Jews a lesson. Just like these Tamils needed a lesson to be taught to them. And they got it in Matale, not to mention Colombo and Jaffna. And many other cities. Scrub those sidewalks. Scrub those latrines!! Nothing to do it with? You people are smart. Use your clothing! I saw a building next to the Mt. Lavinia hotel that was abandoned by its Tamil owners in 1983. What would you have done? I stayed in a place in Anuradhapura and met the owner. A doctor. "I bought this place from Tamil friends who were 'leaving the country' in 1983. I bet you did.
Achtung. Breathless. Now breathe. Go to MOMA for an afternoon. Go see the brilliant controversial frescos that Diego Rivera did for his rich American clients. Look at his workmanship. Look at the technological genius behind his frescos. Think about the controversy. No. Rockefeller and Ford weren't Jews. Far from it. Can you say far from it when you're either "in" or "out" of that small circle? Is that circular reasoning? Is that circular enough? What was Rivera's 1930s vision? Rich bastards and (please do pardon me) rich bitches cleaning the sidewalks and the verges. His vision. Put into "aktion" just a few years later by the Nazi Germans! Or did Rivera just look in that week's paper to find the image? Must look it up in wikipedia and maybe I can tweet it afterwards. Or is circular reasoning one that doesn't belong on Twitter only Facebook? Instagram? Snapchat. So bad to age yourself. But where's the room for being self-referential? Everywhere. That's a selfie!
It took one hour to get my friend to talk about his parents. Should I be bothered by this? Why do I feel any time pressure? What's the difference? Well, I'd like to get at things through the back door. It just totally wouldn't do, not a bit, not one iota, not a speck to ask him about his own feelings from the time of a double whammy war against civilians. Maybe triple whammy.
My friend is 73. His mother died about 15 years ago. "Fifteen years back," as he says. She was 91. Same with his wife's mother. "What did the old people say about the trouble?" I chance. "You know," claims my friend, "they didn't say much. They were looked after by their children. They didn't have anything to say. They mostly sat around and read their bible." He pauses, hits the armrests of his plastic chair, and with his usual wan smile adds, "Well, I shall take my leave now."
Another chance for testimony testimony testimony testimonial remembrance lost lost lost. For now. I know he doesn't want to talk about it. I know no one does. It's ancient history for one thing. None of us remembers 15, 20, 30 years ago (I'm aiming for 1983: What happened in Matale? The "victors" still want to cover it up. They cover it up with a vengeance. What else are they hiding? Why? Must be something important there). But the non-victors (can I call them that?) want to get on with life, not open old wounds, not rub salt in wounds, not feel the hurt again, not restate the obvious, not encounter horror, not re-encounter horror, not enter this conversation.
I reference two pieces of holocaust testimony. One I saw at the British Imperial War Museum in London, a powerful exhibit. Not just this testimony. The smells coming from a porcelain vivisection table from Nazi times on display. Maybe it's not there anymore. What happens when you smell brain? The testimony goes like this. The speaker as young boy is playing soccer with his friends and classmates. Who wouldn't? It's Poland, 1939 or 1940, after the German invasion but before his family is forced into the ghetto. The friends beat him one day for no reason at all. He runs home. Grandfather tells him, "we are all marked for death." You can't Wikipedia this. I tried. But if you go to Israel you can see this kind of eyewitness accounting. You might not want to go to Israel. You might think it's an illegal "occupier" entity. Get over it. Study history. Will you go to London? Maybe you can force yourself to go to the locus of imperialism (or past imperialism?) Anyway, they more than set the stage for what unfolded, unraveled in Sri Lanka. Read your history. Find out what they did in the Middle East too. Especially "Mandate Palestine" circa 1947-48. Or go a bit further back into the British occupation of Palestine and see how they abetted pogroms against Jews there. Try 1929 and 1935. Why do I care? For one thing , just a small something, trying to put this whole Sri Lanka thing in a container. Trying to put "occupation" and "imperialism" and "language" and "demographics" and "geography" and "violence" into a container. But it's gotta be a big one. Way too big for the non-fiction audience. No way this is going to a university press. Can't! Maybe too big for Wikipedia. Can we parse it one tweet at a time?
The other account is Maus. Spiegelman's great-grandparents are in their 90s. Maybe they are 91. They are hidden by the family, already trapped in the ghetto, in a secret passageway. Finally the gendarmes approach the family, "If you don't give up the grandparents, who we know are here, we'll have to take all of you." This is in a comic book. Is this fiction? Fact can't possibly hold it. Fact breaks. Fact splits open. Fact defies this. This defiles fact. Fact can't tolerate this. Fact has to be backed up with figures. Facts and figures. Got it? (Coming. Please be patient. I figured out how to get facts for this stuff. Just wait. Can quantify! Can scale! Can make statistical! It's brilliant). OK. The family gives up the grandparents. I think they're 91. Like my friend's mother and his mother-in-law. Not so active physically but "with it" as they say, mentally. How did the grandparents respond? What did they know? They were reading the bible most of the time too. In the comic they are mute. Most of the mice are, most of the time. But mute doesn't equal no testimony does it? Or no ability to testify does it? The family looks at a brochure of Tereizenstadt, the "ideal" concentration camp. They look bemused and mildly optimistic in the frame. They are not bent. They all know they're headed for Auschwitz. The old ones and the whole family.
Why do I care about these testimonies? How can I trust a comic book more than Wikipedia? Read the comic book yourself! Why do I care about testimony? Why should anyone care about testimony? What's the difference? Lots of differences. One big difference is somebody doesn't want this testimony to happen, that's just for one thing. What is there to hide and why hide it? What are the consequences of letting it go? Letting it open? Is it like a huge societal vomiting? Might that make people feel better? Better to bury it? It (Sri Lanka) is not my society. You tell me what would make it feel better. Please.
What am I after? I'm after a map of safety and danger. I want to know, physically, which places were dangerous. How they were dangerous. Who endangered whom, when, in what way. If you crossed this street was it dangerous? If you passed to this island was it dangerous? If you passed this hour was it dangerous? What were the boundaries? How wide were they? How fluid? Did they work the same for everyone? Was it one way for the rich and one way for the poor? One way for cultivators and one way for city people? One way for Hindus and one way for Christians? Different again for Muslims? Women? Men? Children? Professionals? Businessmen? People in traditional clothes? People in western clothes? People with glasses? One way for children and one way for grandparents? What were you doing in these days, these moments?
Someone tells me, not in the context of "war" or "conflict," that they had American sitcoms. So you could watch tv and laugh. So you had a tv. So you laughed. So you learned some English from the tv. And you laughed with it. Was this during all the years? Thirty years! Lifetimes! Did it change and how did it change? Did you laugh less? Did your parents laugh less? Did the old people really and truly never opine? Whisper? Did they really feel safe? Did your parents feel safe? Did you feel safe? Were you ever hidden by your parents? Did you ever hide your child? If there's nothing worth remembering can you please tell me why and under what circumstances you sent your child/children to the UK? Australia? Canada? Who was "in charge?" Did you ever feel in danger? How? Did zones of danger change? Did safety zones expand? Contract? Morph into danger? How quickly? Overnight? At night? Can you remember one thing?
Which places were safe? Which borders were safe to cross? Which friends was it safe to play with? Which things did you hear? Which things did you try not to hear? Which news was rumor, radio? Whispered?Shouted? What was in the papers? What was censored? What did you think was censored? What did you know was censored? How was the ground you walked on? Certain? Uncertain? See? There is a large container here waiting for you to fill it up. Fill it up any way you like. Go ahead. Sing it out. Throw it up.
Why do I pick up on this energy here among people? It was all so long ago! All of it! What if we just keep it buried in the past and move forward. There are lots and lots of young boys in the Shanti Cinema just past the Kallady clock tower. Just past the Pilliyar Kovil, other side of the road. They come on scooters. They come with their friends in small packs. Together in the fan-cooled room they make a larger pack. They go out for orange soda at intermission. They are hooting at the stars and the plots and the foils and the monsters, movies from Tamil Nadu. Hilarious rollicking time consuming loud colorful musical fun. Does this testimony have anything to do with them? Did they grow up free of the subjects I'm interested in here? Yes. They were born let's see, maybe 20 years ago. Would have made them 13 in 2009. Lots of years for their parents to have to have looked after them. Bet they were busy. No time to be reading their bibles.
Do these boys have critical skills? Who cares? Facebook is there for them. Invented in Boston! Their testimony is every day. This mass of electrons adds up to a collective testimony at once powerful and meaningless. This mass of electrons. Can we measure it? Can we measure the testimony? If the old or the middle aged or the young won't talk can we ask them to fill out a survey? Of course I'm joking! What did you think? But then I could contain it, social-science style. A social scientist! Not an asocial scientist like a botanist or archeologist.
What kind of survey monkey survey could you administer (let's do it electronically! More electrons into the black hole!)
How scared were you in the war years? Scared shitless, heartily frightened, frightened, hardly frightened, unfrightened. I was looked after by my (children, grandchildren, grandparents, parents, aunties, orphanage--choose all that apply) and reading my (Bible, Readers Digest, newspapers national and/or local) other.
How much did things shift from safe to unsafe? Very very much, very much, much, less than much, not.
What did your parents/grandparents/aunties/uncles say (leave blank for optional comments).
We can go on. We can characterize enervation, dysfunction, quaking fear, maybe bravery, appetites, freedoms or lack thereof, feeling surrounded, vulnerable, clueless, at sea, entertained, hungry, isolated, or maybe it was life as usual. I'm not a Sri Lankan person. Maybe things were different here. You're from Sri Lanka. You tell me.
People won't talk
Thinking you want one kind of information" and your hosts taking you much further into that information than you expected. Deep into the matrix of information so that the perspective is lost to you. You can't grab your bearings and you're not able to use your powers of distinguishing. so you're not able to "see" what it is you thought you wanted to see but you are actually being immersed further than you expected. Your immersion is so complete and so connected to the truth and truths of your pursuit you have no way of parsing the connections. You could be lost.
The dream was somehow connected to Adam's Peak. The visitorstranger needed a piece of information, a piece of information about how they heated their houses, something he was sure the locals were keeping from him. He lie in his bed, sweating hard and profusely with illness. In the dream, which was happening in reality, he was being taken by the hand and led to small concrete shelters. The walls of the shelters were low, only up to his knees or so. There was a neat roof, pitched four ways, just higher than his head in each shelter. The space between the low wall and the roof was open. But it was still. No wind circulated in. Light could get in but anyway it was the murky hour after sunset where light remained but mostly fled. Inside each shelter it was sweltering hot. He realized he was sweating more than he would have in a warm bed in a hot airless room. Sweat and heat were the goals he was trying to discover in this village. He was sure they were keeping him from it because there was no fire, no steam, no visible source of heat in any of the shelters they led him to on the hillside. One of the shelters lacked even a roof. It was hotter than the rest. At this point he realized. They had led him to heat. They had led him to a new understanding of heat. They had led him further than he had wanted to go. Further than he thought he could go. By putting himself in their hands he had been led to a new perception of their life here, the way they used heat, the way they thought of heat, the way they related to heat. But they couldn't or wouldn't tell him about the heat. For one thing they hadn't thought about it. Why would you? It was there. They needed it marginally and they got it when they wanted it. So his perception that "they wouldn't talk" was marked by his own need to talk and find out about it. Not by their disregard.
They won't talk. They won't go over it. They won't refer to it. Their answers are three words: "people suffered here." They speak your language but they won't speak it. They show you, slowly on car ride, sites associated with the horrors. But when you look. When you stare. When you ask, "can you please stop the car," there is just a field or a view or a hut or a rut or a cat or a cow or a palmyra tree. There is a roadside. There is some rubble. Nearby is a small poor shop. There are sloping roofs no better and no worse than roofs in other parts of the country but the roofs don't say anything. You can see them and you can see the walls and you can see the verges with rubble in them and you could, if you wanted, walk along those verges like you have walked in the smoke through many verges on this country in a sort of "fact-finding" for intangibles in the landscape. Things that are there, pieces or bits of landscape that could convey information you think, if only they were better developed. A different wall is what you find yourself wishing for. A different species of shrub, as if it would make a difference, a thread of music distant or close or a whiff of something besides the smoke. Was cumin always used here? You would like to ask. You would like to think that the ginger crop or the yellow powder could nudge you an answer. A suggested answer. An answer that's a hint. An answer that whispers. A whisper. For what? From whom? From where? A whisper that's too quiet can't be heard. Can you listen more carefully? Should you listen better? Could you? What if you can't understand the language of the whisper, even if you could hear it. Is it right that you should be privy to this? Should you have known better than ever to have asked because the signals are so jumbled and the colors of the wire are mixed up and the wires themselves are frayed with the wear of energy lost or held in so that these people's lives can go on in relative lack of pain, relative isolation from the "truth" you are asking them to spit up for you?
What right do you have to the information? To this "truth?" To these truths? To the cockles of their experiences? To the gear of the matter? Who are you I ask. Who the hell are you? Even if you had a right to it. To any of it. To one iota of it. To a molecule hanging off one scrap of it, what if it's just that you don't need it? You don't need it because you will never use it. Never use it? You don't need it for "research" you don't need it for a "dissertation" you don't need it for recitation or to prove a point or to walk with it draped on you like a uniform of this time, this place, this shame. How does a uniform of Shame become you? Will you shed it when you feel it to be uncomfortable after your next stop? Unstylish. From another world. From another time and place. From another set of circumstances where at the time you felt this was the best, the very best thing you could wear. In fact it could save your life because it could keep out that one degree of cold that could, if you weren't prepared, kill you. The poor piece of cloth. The wretched rag. This could save you. It was woven from another world and it transported you to that world where safety satiety and warmth were your way of life and the way of life for people all around you. Why save that piece of cloth once you were out? It had no stories to remember it by and no stories to tell to anyone else because nobody cared.
So the locals were showing you/him this piece of cloth or the molecule that stuck to a piece of filth dripping from the cloth. No wonder you wanted to see a different roof or a different shrub or to see a verge that maybe was older, tar and gravel and dust that maybe weren't so new but were laid down twenty or thirty or fifty years before and carried with them something you couldn't bend down and pick up any more. But did you. Would you ever have. Wanted to bend down. Ah. Here is a piece of charred flesh. Here is an ash from a human who was burnt. I smell blood here. Or I smell filth here. These are tangible clues. Now you can only feel the sun and sense the direction of the road. Who walked here? Who was fleeing? Who was chasing? How many chasers were here and what did they carry? How many of the chased fell? Do you really want to know this? Are these really the things you want to carry home in your luggage? So you really want these things on the page? Because they may not please people who read them in another place. They might not last the "test of time" in another time as time flows and time flies and time circles. Time's arrow, time's circle. Rough approximations of what may be contained in time or what time contains or doesn't because time is not material, not even a piece of marginally warming cloth.
So you're off the information grid so to speak. The information you can get is arbitrary, long in coming, hidden, flocked over, dissolved. You can't sieve through it like you might run data through a filter. You can't quantify it like you might've able to count the packets of biscuits on a shelf in Cargill's Food City. This is not shelf-brand information that can be plucked or basketed or twined or tuned or tempted out of hiding. This stuff is buried. This stuff is dreams, not even aromas. This stuff is hiding I think I can say. And when we see that it's hiding we know there's a good reason for it to be hiding and when we know there's a good reason for it to be hiding we know it is "valuable." So valuable that you can't go to the Shanti Cinema down the road on a hot afternoon and watch a movie in Tamil from Tamil Nadu, all the way in India? No! The information is there! So valuable that you can't ride a bike ten, fifteen kilometers out of town or just to the next street corner where you are almost killed by scooters going around the roundabout? No! The information is there! So valuable that you're wasting your time in conversation with a person much younger than you and much younger than the conflict, someone who can't possibly know what there was back then? No! The information is there! So valuable that you can't waste your time getting a haircut or a shave in the saloon on the corner? So valuable that you can't eat the fry fish curry, sprats, they offer you? Or watch the fishermen or listen to the lagoon on its way to the ocean? The information, not just information but if you care, the Information you are seeking is in on with beside encountered by transported in all these things.
You are swimming in information. Currents and eddies and waves of it. The waves are filled with filth but the filth, even if it was produced on a distant shore and buried upshore and unburied by the waves and tides and thrown up on this shore among fishermen's acrylic ropes blue and pink in the boring down sun, those waves and the filth and the random way they are laid on the shore. They are full of information!
Scrubbing the truth. Or. There were very few Tamils in Matale
The water in the lobby, the hotel lobby, the five-star hotel lobby splashes happily. Wonderful thing. It blocks out the other sounds. Did I tell you how wonderful this sound non sound is for the troubled brain, the overheated brain, the tired brain, the confused brain, the jangled brain. The water is a brain braid taking it in every direction flowing it and falling it and smashing the warty worries into oblivion or at least temporary sensation of a temporary cessation of sadness. If the sound of water doesn't bring light at least it brings quench squish squish squish squish squish squash squish squash wash splash. Nice that water washes and washes away and cleans and cleanses and purifies. What would we do without water? Nice to think about water and water fountains and their nice noise because it's nice to think about things that flow along, things that wash gently away or not so nice things that water scrubs away or things that end up to be not there any more or that aren't there anymore that is, it's nice to not have to think about things that are there or were, period, that you can hide now because it's not nice to think about them really.
Why isn't it nice to think about them really? What's the problem? If the problem is violence it's nice to forget about it. Splish splash splish like the sound of a south asian phone making its random noises that please its owner but I'm sorry, behaves like a distraction to somebody else who's sharing the same couch in the five star hotel lobby, cushy, and hearing the sound of the fountain, splash, but above it the sound like a fluid lighter, its flint, chashing and clashing and clicking unpleasantly among the nice sounds. It's not nice except to its owner, kind of the opposite of a baby's cry that upsets its mother and causes her to lactate but doesn't affect the rest of the crowd except it's loud.
Loud is the sound of pogrom. Po. Grom! From gromko, loud, a Slavic sound. They knew. They didn't invent it the blini eaters but they used it to full effect. But Ramya tells me. "Matale! It couldn't be!" "There were no pogroms in Matale in '83. You see Sam, there are very few Tamils in Matale! I'll check. But there were no pogroms in Matale." Couldn't be in 'eighty three. "Maybe you're thinking of the mass grave that was found in eighty nine! Maybe you're thinking of the JVP massacres. I'm afraid you're wrong. Nothing happened in Matale!" "Maybe you're pronouncing it wrong." Do you mean Matara? Do you mean Vavuniya? Matale didn't happen." Couldn't have. There are very few Tamils in Matale.
Very few now my good friend but how many were there? One? One hundred? One thousand? Ten thousand? How many were injured, affected, chased, thrown out, robbed, rioted against? Hurt? Scared? Pushed? Trodden? Stripped? Tortured? Abused? Sent packing? Ripped off? Shorn? Cleaved? Insulted? Trampled? Traced? Displaced? Erased?
Erased? No no my dear friend never. Scrubbed perhaps. Not in the Wikipedia site. Which was scrubbed. But let's be fair. It's not just just a Sri Lankan problem. Be fair! I insist! I ask for fairness. That's all. It's the least you can ask for. So. Look up any town in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Italy, Greece, Macedonia, the former Yugoslavia, or France or Holland or Belgium or Norway. I've forgotten some I know it I left them out but. You will see their city seal. You will see their place on a map. You can trust those. You can see how they're pronounced in another language, perhaps the language of a temporary conqueror that imposed their own sound on the territory. Auschwitz is not the polish pronunciation. Look up the German name for present day Łodz. There are lots of examples. You may learn from them. You will read the towns' demographic profiles in Wikipedia. Not Oświęcim or Łodz. These were very very bad places where hundreds of thousands of people died. One is a UNESCO Heritage site. These places are approved places to learn from. I'm talking about small towns. Sorry to get all lectury. Thousands of them. Read the demographic profiles. You will see there are very few Jews there. "Very few Jews there." Very. Few. Jews. There. News. There were very few Jews. There was no war there was there? It's so long ago! We're looking at upwards upwards upwards my friend of seventy years. Irrelevant! Not information! And there were really places where there was no war. Or just a little bit of war. Or some war. Or some Jews. Maybe not that many. Shall we name the "states," made "states" postwar even if they didn't "experience" "war," but in which place or places some million or so Jews resided and had done so for some many many many many centuries in "harmony" with their neighbors. Let's start. Cuz they were a little bit like Tamils. A little bit apart.
Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco. Sure. I'm sure I'm forgetting some. But they weren't forgotten. Because "nation building" where they lived in those decades say, 1945-1985 demanded linguistic hegemony of the majority people, no a gradual or not so gradual forced flushing of this most unfortunate importuned minority. They had to go! They had to get! They had to git! Git up and go! We don't care where. Get it?!
So if there's no history in these places and if there's no memory in these place or of these places or of these people or of their houses and their neighborhoods and their being and their livelihoods, what? Were they there or weren't they there? Does it matter? Because it was a long long time ago. And no one cares any more. No one cares now because there are bigger problems to worry about. Bigger places where we can hang our star. Bigger places to lay the blame whatever that means or says or suggests or posits. Let it be. Ancient history is ancient and not digital. Ancient landscapes. Pretty. But who cares?
So Ramya you're a smart person and you had your higher education in the UK. But you never heard of the Tamils of Matale. There are bigger fish to fry. Bigger things to think about. Bigger and more important and more colorful and quite to the point more attractive to think about. And who wants to think about uncomfortable things that are old history and open old wounds that you were not involved in and certainly you are not bringing up your daughter to be involved in and for sure wouldn't have "approved" of but for real. These things couldn't have happened. No. It's not that they couldn't have happened. They didn't happen. There are so few Tamils in Matale. There are so few Tamils (left) in Matale. But actually sir, it's not like a question of anyone who's "left" in Matale because when people left or were left behind that was a long time ago. So there are Tamils now in Matale (just a few let's say) but they live there we think. We think it's not that they were left there or that they left there. By the way is there a kovil left there? Might that provide us with a physical evidentiality? Something we could pin our conjectures on? Not in Austria. Not in Poland. Not in Germany. Not in Slovakia. Not in Greece. Not in France. Not kovils stupid.
If you don't like being called stupid well who does?! No one likes to be called stupid. And no one likes to be called ignorant. Ignorant and stupid are labels we don't like. They're unpleasant. They make us feel queasy, vulnerable, not delighted or delightful. Angry maybe. Especially when it's about our own country and our own history. We own that don't we? We should own that shouldn't we? We own that or should own that through our knowledge, our learning, our books, the things we were taught. Our well-meaning elders taught us well. They taught us to know. To own. To embrace our country and our history. So what did they forget to tell us, write about, write down, recall, recollect, explain, suggest, report, entertain, remember? And why my dear friend? Why forget to remember? Unpleasantness. Not neatness. Messiness. Uncomfortableness. Discomfort. Hurt. And pain. And unease. And uneasiness. And dis-ease. These are real. How do we deal?
You were a good learner. You were quick to learn which towns had Tamils. Where there were few. Where there were very few. Where few were left or a few left behind. You could tell me posthaste I was wrong. I'm a foreigner. You you you you you you you you you you you you you you live here. You live in this place. You are not a Kuwaiti child taught by a Britisher in the British system who's told "there are a few changes in our curriculum" please remove the pages that cover the "holocaust." For us in Kuwait it didn't happen. We don't want that to have happened. We don't want that in our children's history books. We like British history and the way it's taught but. But. But. We don't want "holocaust," whatever that's supposed to have been, in our curriculum. We are told it's a lie. Look in Wikipedia. Travel and see with your own eyes. You will not see synagogues much less kovils in these cities in Eastern Europe where the Zionist entity says Jews were. They weren't. So. Why waste our children's good brains on lies? Why introduce twisted lies? Why not look at the facts. Where there are Jews today there is violence and war they promulgate. They do it from their base in the Zionist entity and they are backed by the Americans who are their slaves, not allies, because everyone knows how these people distort the truth and enslave others. How they have done this throughout history. How they are the enslavers and how they were making slaves of innocent Germans and Iraqis and all those countries. Like Russia. Which would have been able to get along so much better if it weren't for them. That is, people like Marx.
So can we step back for a moment and regard the truth, truth as we see it, truth as it's written, truth as its televised, truth as it's recorded and the Truth we hear in sermons every Friday or read in our papers written by journalists. Let's be mindful of the truth and regardful of the truth and not let the truth be whitewashed or washed away or lightened or forgotten even if it means we must dig for it, mine it, find it in unexpected places and deduce it from unexpected objects physical or metaphysical.