"Lunch in Kattankudy" is an excerpt from my novel about Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." I've got to mention here, I've heard so many misconceptions from people here in Sri Lanka, and I've read so much calumny against Israel and Jews in the Sri Lankan press, most of it written by Muslim contributors. It's kind of strange to find oneself swimming in a sea of lies, all of which are seen as "Truth," because they were written in the "Newspaper." When I meet people who are interested in conversation I try to introduce some different perspective, something they will not have been exposed to in the press here. Sometimes this brings people to a new understanding. After all, and this goes for all humans I think, we wear blinders that constrain us very much to our own culture and sources of information (or indoctrination). So conversation is good.
Everywhere I've gone in this country as well, almost everyone I've spoken with, reflects some level of dislike and fear of Muslims. As a minority person myself I feel in my gut that that's unfair. I've been curious, since we came here, what the root of those feelings might be. It is noteworthy I should add, that the negative feelings toward Muslims here in Sri Lanka is very much at odds with the way Israelis reflect on Muslims. You would think there was universal hatred and fear there. More there is bemusement and the overwhelming desire to live in peace with their neighbors. (I suggest you travel there to find out for yourself. Or read the very diverse press published in Israel online). It wasn't until I came to Sri Lanka that I uncovered so much hysteria about Muslims.
I saw my lunch in Kattankudy as an opportunity to find the truth beneath the "truths," one of my goals for this amazing Fulbright opportunity in Sri Lanka. That afternoon, barely fictionalized here, gave me new insights.
Truth is such a human construct: Lunch in Kattankudy
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? What do you think? 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? No! 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! The host is 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 americaperson 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 Christian you could reason with. This was the Enemy! That's enough for this morning kiddies