In this excerpt fro my novel of Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet," I take a look at different ways pluralism is embraced and practiced in different countries. Comes as a bit of a shocker to see how things work in Sri Lanka.
Let's hear it for pluralism. Yes. Pluralism as in plural. It's a hard act to follow. It's something we can't all get. Its something we can't all get our heads around either. It's something of rare value. It's something we struggle to accept. Pluralism as in plural. As in: "one of many." We use it like we use a glass of water. It refreshes. It lubricates. It makes strength. Sounds strange doesn't it? To extol that one intangible of our society (some dare call it "neoliberal" and I reject their "critical" pap) that makes it tangibly great. Tangibly chaotic. Tangibly fretful. Fretfully frenetic. Plurality. Pluralism. We struggle with it. We cherish it.
I'm first to admit there are troubles with it in our society. People troubled by it. People troubling it. Troubling trends that terrify, that threaten, that sorely challenge our shared value presumptuous it is to call it shared because I'm sure we don't. Not among us all. Our space is too huge and too different and too challenging and too full of haters to say with confidence "we all embrace pluralism." And we have problems with us even among the non-haters, or just the little bit haters or just the little bit sometimes or maybe barely-ever haters. Are there those ones? Then let them cast the first stone as it were. We all hold a little of the unredeemed and maybe even the unredemptive. We are humans. We are many. We are a pluralistic society even if not all our pluralisms are pluralistic. But out of our many we have a "one" that for all its rancorous negative bullying bullyboy bowdry belligerent beet-red bursting stupidity still defends on its most valued document, the one-dollar-bill, a credo that rises above all credos. A credo whose agnosticism becomes a religion. A credo of credibility. Somewhere. In courts at least. If not a cred of the street. Except we all use and I think truly we all do worship at one level or another the almighty dollar. "E Pluribus Unum" is just one of those things you don't get anywhere else in the world.
It's not that I'm all "let's hear it for the red, white, and blue." It's that here in Sri Lanka I am faced by a plurality so different in its nature, at first so soft and cuddly and ultimately so monstrous. I am burthened to report it. Sri Lanka is made of many people and peoples. For a westerner at first glance you are surprised, shocked, disarmed and delighted by the diversity. And by the diversity of religious places so close together, and religious grabs all on the same block, ethnic and socially fluid poses, all on the same bus. At least this is what you see at first. Next. Let's start with a question.
What's a railroad? It's like asking "what's a post office?" Well. What are these things? Think of their buildings, their housings, their services, their clients, their role in society, their faults and their strengths and their whimsies and their horrible incompetencies and their histories and their trajectories and their poverties and their poetries. What is a post office? What is a railroad? Who owns them? Who runs them?
Stop now for a short railroad poem:
What is a railroad sleek on its tracks clickity clack clickity clack the railroad car shuttles forward and back up on the track high on its stack trembling and clanging and hooting and smoking the rail gets you there are you sure? I'm not joking. It jokes and it jolts and it trembles and spits and the fans and the windows may open like slits and the clacking and clanging and cruel noise it makes and the slowness and pokiness and the dirt and the grease and the seven thousand stops feel like a disease make you scream make you bugeyed make you tired and impatient and before you remember composure complacent you wish it was over you wish you were there you're thankful for warmth and you're thankful for air but the noise the delays the absurd out of the ways the backwardses and the forwardses that don't seem to make sense and you settle unsettled as if in a tent and the hawkers like hawks hawk eyed grievous and random who attack in their numbers at cruel Maho Junction a nowhere train hunkers it stops and it halts and it breathes of the ashes and your worship of time undergoes trash and clashes.
The railroad. The Sri Lankan railroad. What is it? My philosophy of life: you get on. You stand a good chance of getting off where you are destined to go. "Good" equals "most of the time."
Who does this magnificent beast of transport belong to? And what does this have to do with today's uninvited unsolicited rant on pluralism?
It belongs to everyone. The railroad is everyone's. The railroad carries and transports and deposits and employs and conveniences or inconveniences everyone. Even tourists. Who have been sold a bill of goods that certain train rides, for example from Kandy east to Ella, will be a life-changing experience. It's a good ride. But as life changing experiences go? Well. It depends on your definition of life-changing experience. And it depends who you want to share it with. A car full of "backpackers," at least as it's devolved in this part of the twenty first century, Europeans complaining about "schmutz" and timetables? Not my kind of life changing experience. But I'm just saying. I've never been good with that language or with those kinds of complaints. At least the trains weren't used here to escort people to their deaths. Sorry sorry sorry. Can't help but bring it up. It has to do with plurality.
So. We've established. The train is everyone's. Even foreigners. What about the train cars? They are relatively comfortable to relatively uncomfortable. They provide endless entertainment of looking out the window. You may buy from hawkers who enter the cars: milk coffee, water, Milo drink, "juices," peanuts, popcorn, boiled chickpeas with herbs which are marvelous but you must eat them with the fingers of your unimaginably dirty hands, "savories" of fried gram balls with or without prawns stuck into them and accompanied by fried hot red chiles, other things. So. You may eat and drink on the train and you may be merry. But your merriment may fade into the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth hour of travel. We are soft and spoiled here in Sri Lanka. In India I heard you may have a train ride of 24 hours or more. But I'm not here to complain about the time. I'm here to complain about the stations.
You may ask and you may well ask, what is this guy's problem with the train stations in Sri Lanka? Is it the bathrooms? No. Don't care. Is it the lack of running water? No there are plastic Arpico tanks with water. Don't care anyway. You need water on the trip? Carry some. Is it the space? No. The stations are simply but nicely designed. I've never seen anyone fall off no matter how crowded the station. Is it the signage? No! You are told to stand on "track two" and that's where you go. You stay there until a train approximately of the time you expect comes by and you ask people until someone knows. You ask with one word: your destination question mark. And in those few seconds you have until the unlabeled unnumbered train pulls out someone will signal to you non-verbally, so you have to be good at reading these things, "yes. This is the train you want" or "no, this is not your train." And if you're lucky and perceptive and they are particularly communicative they may tell you in an incomprehensible signage, "your train is next," or miraculously, "the train over there is the one you want. Sorry you're on the wrong track. Run!" No. Signage is no issue. So what are you complaining about? Is it the maintenance of the stations? Of course not. Some have plantings. Some may have won "best train station on the Colombo-Batticaloa run," or "prettiest station" or "greenest station," whatever those plants are meant to bring. No. Prettiness, signage, water, bathrooms, space. All of these are fine or better than fine or just a tiny bit below "fine" but whatever. You find your way. So what's the problem?
I'm embarrassed now. The problem seems so small. For western eyes the problem seems so unreal so not present so picky so anti social so anti Sri Lanka. What's your problem with a little Buddha in the station? Buddhism's great! Yay for Buddhism! If you don't like it there's something seriously wrong with you. If you don't like it go spend your travel dollars somewhere else. Buddhism is sweet. Lay off! Incense? Nirvana? Get a grip please. What's Nicer Than A Train Station With A Buddha?! A train station without a Buddha? I quake as I ask not wanting to change this sojourn into an "Alaska," where quaking aspens were almost as common as willows.
Here's where three cheers for the red white and blue comes in and I hope you can forgive me for sounding jingoistic about this thing. Cuz I'm not. But what are we in the United States? Like 95 percent Christian? Do you ever see a cross in a train station or a post office or a police station or any of the highly contested governmental agencies that are there to serve and belong to everyone? Go look. I can't vouch for all the millions of public governmental places in the USA. But all the places I know that are run by the government in our country are religion-free and creed-free. Not that they don't have their problems with inefficiency ugliness and bad will. But can we stay on topic just for one minute? What we've got is a public sphere that embraces pluralism. Here in Sri Lanka, where only some 75% of the people are "Buddhist," everyone must embrace or at least face that figure or some picture of plastic Buddhist statuary in the train station. A place that belongs to...everybody? Or if you are entering towns, don't make me name them, you are told whose territory this town is by the gigantic Buddha statue at the entry to town. Hate to go all sensitive on you (tissues please) but the feeling for that other quarter of the population might just not be a total feeling of comfort or ownership or belonging. Those placid pieces of plaster and plastic say something. "It's ours."
Now. I'll just finish by saying as a "westerner" you might see this as pretty benign. We all agree. Who doesn't like a little incense and a "mudra" pose. And maybe I'm just sensitive because I'm sort of "off white," part of the small 5% in my country. I take pride there that my minorityism is protected in public places. Maybe other people are too. Don't know. Didn't ask. This is all about conjecture. Mine. But why don't we ask our Tamil friends or our Muslim friends here how they like the public Buddhas everywhere? Think you'll get a straight answer? Why do you suppose not?