There was a dark corner I'd come to every day on my predawn bike rides out of the grounds. First I'd unlock my bike from the post by my room and drift to the front gate. It was dark on the gravel road but not as dark as it would get outside the gate. Falling coconuts were the only danger but it was the same during the day, when the heavy yellow orbs were literally spit out of the trees. It seemed a greater danger in predawn to run into one I hadn't seen on the road.
At the front gate, next to the inevitably empty guard room, I had to get off the bike and pull the pin out. Balancing my bike on the other side because there was no kickstand, and because I hated to break the motion but still had to close the gate, I would replace the pin. It was a noisy process at this silent moment in the dark morning, because the metal gate was large and creaky, and the pin was metal too. I tried to do it in a smooth single movement to reduce the noise, but also so I could keep moving. The air was so gorgeous that time of day, before it got light.
Darshan had wanted to introduce a cow barrier here across the road at the front gate but he didn't get very far in his design. At least not while we were there. Or I should say: he got a mockup made but the barrier was never put in. I think it was not approved by his father, which was the case in most of the things Darshan did, except for his bookkeeping and fiddling with reservation systems like booking dot com on his computer. That dynamic between father and son is a whole different story. A chapter that I couldn't write about while I was there. Anyway, cows often visited the grounds and ate the crops. A whole field of ladies fingers was nibbled to the quick by a cow once.
Dogs came too, and that's why I made sure to close the gate. Once, early on my rovings, I'd left the gate open. (It would be opened for the day soon, maybe in twenty minutes, so why go to the bother of locking?). That particular day dogs got in and jumped the fence to the duck pond. They ate three of the ducks, or killed them anyway, and the rest of the small flock had to be slaughtered because, at least this is what I was told, they were so traumatized. It so happens that that same exact day several of the quails had escaped from their cage and disappeared. "Some of my dear guests must have opened the cage to show their children and then neglected to close it," Thava told me. Oh my god and on the same day I'd left the front gate open for the dogs. At least I didn't have anything to do with the escaped and missing quails! I always after that asked after the quails but I was never brave enough to tell Thava I'd let the dogs in. I think he knew. Some time later I mentioned that I'd seen dogs on the grounds but I knew the gate was closed. He laughed at me. Pretty much laughed in my face as if to say, "nice of you to make your confession, finally." But in his laugh he told me, "No, the dogs don't need an open gate to get in."
The dogs were unwelcome, less welcome than the several monkeys who stopped in during season to feast on mangos. More welcome than the young Muslim kids from Kattankudy who came in, unveiled like they were from the Maldives, pretending to be cool visiting tourists behind sunglasses. They'd make out on the benches at the lagoon, without even opening an umbrella! and sometimes they tried to get a room for the afternoon. Then Jainthi Miss would have to confront them and tell them they had to have a meal if they wanted to use the grounds and no, they couldn't have a room. She was the only person determined enough to make this pronouncement. Even Prince was afraid to talk to them. Well Prince was pretty ill-equipped to face any situation. Whenever he could, like when tourists came undemanding lower rates on a room, he would leave it to Jainthi Miss. For the Muslim kids she might have told them, though I know her strict Christian morals would abhor it, you want a room? There are places in Kaliwanchikudy.
Gate closed, I was free to glide down the unpaved road toward the corner. When we'd first come this road was potholed and uneven, and in our first weeks in January they started repairs by stuffing the holes with coconut husks. That's weird, I thought. But by the end of the repair job, once some clay and gravel were put over the compressed coconut husks, the road looked as good as new. Better. And it lasted through rains and gigantic vehicles, delivery vehicles, even construction vehicles, not to mention the cows.
Just outside the gate was Thavarajah's old house. I imagine it was here that they'd sleep during the conflict and even afterwards for several years, often in great anticipation of danger. It was a horrible time, something like dark always I imagine, not knowing where you're headed, things coming out at you randomly. I know this was the place where the head monk of the ponsala (the Buddhist temple in town, right next to the police station) had created a ruckus just outside the gate. I wonder if he was drunk or just drunk on power or anger. How could he have hurled insults and screams the way he is told to have done? What was behind his anger? What caused him to think his riotous, destructive behavior was within the bounds of normal humanity? It's that kind of craziness I couldn't fathom in Sri Lanka. But I guess it's the same here, at least with certain people in certain situations. Probably not clergy. But maybe. I suppose "civilization" or "religion" don't keep things civil. That was never the case in Batticaloa I'm told.
Jiit's house was on the right, just outside the gate, across from Thava's old place, which was used as a kind of budget dorm with a shared bathroom for backpackers. Jitt's was a low but not small house, partly tiled in that "Dravidian" way, pattern repeated and repeated but ending up looking kind of flat. A large well outside that was actively used for bathing, doing the dishes, and washing cloths that seemed to always be hanging up outside. Under Jitt's carport thingy, just in front of the front door, which was usually open, there was a motorcycle most of the time-not Jitt's, because he only walked as far as the office just inside the gate or he stayed at his house--his wife's family's house that is. Maybe the motorcycle belonged to a brother in law or some relation of his wife's. I never pictured Jiit as having his own relations. He told me about his father once, late during our time. He and his wife, who I never met, didn't have kids. But I did hear him mention "my wife's relations" and I think some of them lived right across the road. That would make sense. Because if you weren't sending your family straight across the world, like Thava did, or if you weren't going to the Middle East to work, which people did for all kinds of reasons, then you lived on your (wife's) ancestral land right on top of or across from one another. Or you could live in Colombo.
Sometimes the Jiit family would sit under the carport, which all the families did, or at least part of the family. Looks like they were there to catch an afternoon breeze or watch the people go by and catch up on gossip. Or they would sit or squat on the shady side of the house, near the well. Jiit was out there sometimes in his sarong, usually without a shirt, the way Sri Lankan men hang out at home. Next to the house, on the opposite side of the house from the large well, there was a brick outbuilding that must have once been in the process of construction. Mostly now potted plants were on its walls and an unfinished cement staircase inside. Jiit's life was kind of like that staircase I imagined. Incomplete but somehow solid. You could see into the house but not into Jiit's mind, at least not until many months in when he'd talk to me kind of like a brother or cousin or a friend. He was one of those managers, like the awful Susantha in Mt. Lavinia, seeming always at his number columns, always half smiling, with good but selective English. Ask Jiit or Susantha for something they were not directly responsible for and you could be taking to the wall. They went deaf and literally would look at you like someone with no comprehension, like they were looking at an alien, which I guess we were, the half smile glued hopelessly to their face, shrugging slightly or better, actually squaring their shoulders against your intrusion.
But Jiit did talk to me in the end. About his disappointed Catholic faith, about the way songs in church now were all about guitar playing, about the rich charlatans who led the new Christian sect churches all over Batticaloa. Why was it I wondered that Jiit started on this line of monologue. We had established gardens and gardening as a topic early in my stay. He told me he'd have a garden in on his land before we left (which I never saw), and he always asked me how our garden in Boston was doing at a given time of the year. "Still snow," I'd have to tell him. Or, "too cold to put in plants for another month." But there in Batticaloa it was always warm. And his place was blessed with shade and breezes from the lagoon. So I think he could have had a garden pretty easily. Except for watering and weeding.
Why didn't Jiit get his garden in? Why didn't Jiit ever do anything? Just like he was selectively good at English he was selectively cordial. Our best moments were when he was sitting at the big slatted table at headquarters, right in front of the reception office, entering numbers into his ledger. I was there too, adding up our meal bills that accumulated like so many feathers in a special black pouch assigned to our room. I'd wait until there were 40 or 50 of them and then sit down, battling the overhead fan that threatened to blow them away, pen in hand, happily recording The figures in columns of ten. Checking my work twice and three times because Jainthi Miss would check it again and I didn't want to appear the cheater.
Jiit hung out in the office a lot with Jude, who was 21 but the size of a fifteen year old. He had the face and gleam of a mischief-maker and he was forever flying across the grounds back and forth between the pool and headquarters. Smiling a huge mischievous smile. Jude was a relation of Grace, Mrs. Thavarajah. So he was a kind of wild card, could do whatever he wanted as far as I could see, took responsibility for "tech" jobs like choosing the music or getting the bikes fixed in town. Jude turns out to have been indescribably shy. When he and I spoke alone he broke into a sweat and lost the smile, stuttered, excused himself, ran. But on his own turf among the staff he was indomitable. I could have sworn he and Jiit were in cahoots over numbers, and therefore money, but who was I to know? I didn't like thinking that they could be cheating Thavarajah and it seemed obvious to me that they could. Their cabal was at night when the family had had their dinner taken to the house and we're watching TV or had already gone to bed. It was anyone's guess.
Jitt and Jude concocted the worst playlist and boomed the most awful ghetto music at night into the dining area, completely, completely out of character with the feel of the guesthouse. I never complained except privately about the music. But one night Kim was over. She got up from the table and went straight to the office and told Jiit, I suppose in excellent colloquial Tamil, that the music was a shame and a disgrace and immodest and didn't belong. Maybe she was using words like that because her Tamil was Kattankudy Tamil, where everyone is supposedly concerned with modesty. But the music stopped coming. Finally! And I got the Tamil movie music I asked for, mostly from the recent hit "Theri." Because I too had gained a little cred by spending so many months there and also, it was now known to everyone including Thava, going to the cinema once or twice a week.
At the very end of our stay one day I was racing back and forth on the Kalmunai Road, actually trying to get some banking interactions done and still have time to see a movie. Neither errand worked but Jiit saw me racing past his place on the bike. "Were you going to the cinema, Sir?" he asked me in his politest way. Not obsequious, which he could be, but sort of confidential as of we were in on a secret together. At the end, on my birthday, just six days before we left, Jiit gave me a sarong. It was grayish and stiff and I still haven't worn it because I have four others and, well, I'm back in Massachusetts now. But he kept asking if I liked it and yes I responded with my biggest smile, I love it (not). "Then I will take it to my wife's relation and ask her to stitch it for you." And he did. And the deal was sealed.
At the end of Jitt's property on the right is a small road going to some execrable place called Chinna Cottage with rooms and meals, which I never went to even to have a look. Only once I saw blue balloons arched over the gateway for some event that was being given, maybe a girl's puberty rites because I'd seen a bunch of young teens and their mothers at the corner temple just that day. Anyway Thava told me once that Chinna Cottage was built a foot off the ground. You couldn't possibly clean there he complained, and it was a perfect breeding ground for serpents. Thava would know.
If you took the road after Jitt's place to the left instead of to Chinna Cottage you rose onto your first encounter with pavement. Be careful though. Cows. Dogs. Cow dung. Dog shit. Vehicles. Dark, but still not as dark as it will get. Sometimes there's a very frustrated looking gent, tallish, early in the morning. Sometimes smoking, sometimes not. Anyway usually there on the way back, which is still early, not in this still totally dark time of morning.
A quick jog to the right takes you to a very rough unpaved road that leads to the main road (Kalmunai Road). It's more puddle than road after the rain and riding a bike on the dry edges so close to barbed wire, there's barbed wire everywhere, is too much of a challenge to be worth it. Better to go toward the temple. It's a matter of twenty feet at the most.
The temple, an old fashioned open-air compound with no kovil tower, is pictured on the map Grace prepared for the guesthouse card. On the card, which leads you to the property from the main road, it looks like the distances are considerable. But they're not. This is ten seconds on a bike. The temple is never truly empty it seems. Sometimes on a Friday there's canned devotional music playing, which I grew addicted to and would ride aimlessly around the village following the sounds, then stop a few moments in front of the nearly empty temple and listen, until someone seemed to notice me. Anyway this temple had a well and a wonderful frangipani tree at the side. And the smell of that tree was as real a part of the landscape as any bit of pavement or wall. It made life worth living.
Sometimes there would be one or two people at the temple. Sometimes more. Once or twice I saw a crowd. At least a middling crowd. That day, incongruously, I think it was holiday season so people were traveling around, there was a corporate hotel van. And on the back of the van, and this is the incongruous part, there was a "Sinha-le" sticker, the Sinhalese meme that had taken on sinister overtones of oppression. Blood of the lion? Not in the East.
I never went to the temple though I could have. Right at the temple came another junction. Straight ahead to Thiruchendur village and the beach, or hang a right toward the main road, Batticaloa, and Kattankudy. You had to go down a few inches to get off the raised concrete road. This time you were on another paved road and of you went right (towards town) as I did, because I was headed for the Lady Manning Bridge and the early morning gym beyond, this is where it got dark. Always there was somebody on this road on a bicycle. Usually fishermen. Sometimes somebody else with business in Thiruchendur. This junction could get very busy in the day and dozens of scooters could pass in a couple of minutes. There was always honking but not at this precious early hour where the sounds were muted and the lights still out.
There was another guesthouse on the left, some walls hiding houses to the left and right, you rode for ten seconds and then you got to a sharp right. Lots to tell about what lay here, including my excellent village haircutter's and a tea house where I was warmly welcomed and should have visited more, but only went into twice. Here at this sharp right, which went over a culvert so there was a kind of bridge-rise, which you could risk riding on the right hand side so early in the morning to save time and stay on the better pavement, but where the risk for a crash was great except for certain moments of earliest predawn, like when I was riding, here, where walls faded away and house lights and street lights disappeared, this was the deepest darkest place of the whole ride.
Into this dark hole I would fall every day, gliding through blind and clueless on my bike. The fall was not a gravity-induced fall. It was a trance-fall where darkness wrapped itself around you, only for a heartbeat, and you were enveloped in place and moment on your way to the main road.