Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Seeing too much?

Why the "Mahansi padak?"

"Mahansi padak" is a Sinhalese expression that roughly translates as "tired face." I was asked several times yesterday if I was tired and someone finally commented on my "mahansi padak." Janet suggested it was because I hadn't shaved. I know it was because I was feeling too much, too deeply, for my friend. 

The Talmud says that every celebration is tinged with sadness and yesterday I experienced this in a cross-cultural context at my friend's house opening or "giving" ceremony. Buddhist priests come and chant and bless and they are given food and gifts. The gifts are a bowl, a toothbrush, maybe a robe. I was one of the servers who went to each of the ten or so priests and spooned bitter gourd and melun and curry and two kinds of rice, white and red, onto their plates. Their collective appetite was hearty. 

The guests had good appetite too, and the rice and curry was delicious. Before we ate, just after the priests washed, we held a length of string to sense that we were bound together as a community. Later the priests tied a string onto everybody's wrist. Some people bowed and prostrated themselves. Others skipped the string holding and tying and prostrating. Delicacies like cashew curry with sprats, prawn curry, brinjol and banana flower were served. Papadam too. Beer and wine came out after the priests left. My friend's new garden looked like it had gotten a good start. But it was sparse. I would like to have helped him with it. Like I want to help everyone with their garden. Growing things seems so desperate for people. The sod seemed to have "taken" with all the rain. The house, more like a small palace, shone. His wife floated gracefully in her traditional white garb and she managed a smile. 

Her relatives were there but not his. They've been together four years and he has another family by his first wife, late teens about the same age as the cute spoiled kids of his new wife. We've gone out with them and he's brought her around our place several times. Could be she's shy. Could be she's traumatized by her former marriage to a finance person gone bad. Very bad. Could be she's cold as ice, just tolerating this good man who "saved" her. At least financially. 

The relatives sat disapproving. How much they'd spent restoring the historic family home. How much else I wondered, were they thinking. Voluble old Uncle Ashok was there sipping wine, maybe the one who introduced her to her first husband. Her father died when she was an infant. The family was selling off its land, formerly a coconut plantation northeast of Colombo. 

All around is swampland. What she sold personally to send her daughter to school has been subdivided and divided again. It is a Muslim watte and all her neighbors are in garb. Her mother lives just across in another large house, her aunties nearby. They are a tiny enclave now on their ancestral land, a minority on a kind of island no one of them can leave. One leaves. There's one less. 

What do the relatives think of my friend? What do they think of his leaving his first wife of many years, a love marriage, for this gorgeous spoiled traumatized daughter of their clan? What does she think of him? "Your place is beautiful," I tell her. She waves it off with her hand, "he picked everything out." This practical former Air Force commander picked out the huge shiny white tiles that will need an army to polish? The gaudy light fixtures? The palace he built for his princess? He restored her ancestral home with no mind to the money he spent. Supports his first family too. I've never seen her look at him. 

How much did it mean to my friend have us foreigners at the giving? How much did it mean to be able to introduce me as a professor. A Fulbright scholar? How much did this appease the Ceylonese (not Sri Lankan) elder relatives, half of whom are Buddhist and half Christian, one of whom is the Trustee of the Kelaniya Vihara I visited just two days ago?

How complicated is this story? How many twists and sadnesses? How horrible is the reality of a new home subject immediately to dust, mud, breakage, leaks, animals, thieves, smoke, the evil eye? How limited are our means, our strength, even a healthy rich former army commander whose wife won't look at him? 

The workers who built this place and tore down the old and did the finishing and the polishing and the electrical work and the installing and the carpentry and plumbing came with their families. They sat in a shed in back eating. Not mixing with the family. Never. At the end they prostrated themselves to the lady of the small shining new palace. They kowtowed as people kowtowed to the priests. They kissed her feet. She in her white. They in their peasant best. Their children wide-eyed, prostrate at her feet, hands together in supplication, "ayubowan," as my friend stood in another room with his childhood buddies, ready for a stiff drink later. 

Maybe I saw too much. Maybe I saw too much that wasn't there. Maybe I should leave it alone and laugh it off. Be as dumb as I actually am, not knowing a thing. Maybe not. Maybe what I saw made me feel serious, more than sad. What after all is a mahansi padak?

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