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 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. 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 mango 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? 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 fireign 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? 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 his student or his junior colleague you'd better intone it. 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 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. We are monstrously large but you 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? 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 G 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 G 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 English barrister 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 zone?
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.