Thursday, September 1, 2016

Another corner of Sri Lanka. Why talk to a stranger?

Another corner of Batticaloa

I rode to so many small corners in my Sri Lankan village when I was there. Almost always just at dawn. Moments come where I remember those corners almost just the way they were. They composed the atmosphere of a fairly remote spot of a remote spot of Sri Lanka, already a "corner" on its own.

The corner I recalled today was in Kallady village, not far from the main road, somewhere behind the Shanthi Theater where I came to spend time in a darkened hall, sometimes with lots of other bodies and sometimes almost all by myself, watching recent movies from Tamil Nadu, none of them that good but so much fun to catch the energy and the cadence and make out some words in Tamil with the help of subtitles. 

Not that the main road was that much, but it was lively and wide and crowded. People were rushing both ways, north and south, buying and selling, stopping, picking up fish at the fish market below the road or bananas or pineapples from the back of trucks. Buses plied noisily and dangerously fast. Fast eats places on both sides of the road. A coconut juice place, an employment office, a clinic, a well constructed median strip and a new HNB Bank branch. These elements combined to make it seem almost prosperous. 

As if peace were attainable or maybe even there already, having arrived stealthily, miraculously after war and communal violence and threat and loss and disappearance rained down, gritty, miserable, acid, gray, burning and strafing for the past thirty years. But in the back, the pokey back roads, some paved, some unpaved, some with speed bumps in front of schools and others with sharp blind turns behind walls, nothing looked prosperous. It looked very poor and bare. 

This corner was a bare spot. Maybe not the poorest in Sri Lanka. After all the lady kept cows on this muddy, scraped-away lot. And I saw her on her stool, sqatting, milking at the corner on many mornings. I wonder. Did she see me? Her lot was across from a small shop. Maybe her family owned it. Maybe they were rich. They could have been, with a shop and cows and property. Never mind the appearance. And someone, a son or nephew or son in law, seemed always to be close by in the morning in his sarong and bare torso. Pretty fat, at least broad, maybe another sign of prosperity. No vehicles nearby though. Maybe they were still locked inside the gates this time of morning. Because if this was indeed a family, and if they had cows, a shop, property, and more than one mature generation in proximity, then they must have had a vehicle. And not just a scooter. It has to have been a small or large sedan or even, though I doubt it--these were more Western Province vehicles, an SUV. No. SUVs were rare still in the East. Cars too. But not if you were wealthy. 

This place looked so poor. A lady in her 60s or 70s out early in the morning milking her cows. Maybe she'd done it for decades. Maybe it was a real source of wealth. A reliable source. But the scene didn't emit the glow of wealth or comfort. So not bucolic. No trees around. Only mud it seemed, even in the dry season when the unpaved roads turned to dust. And the cows. What could they have been eating? There was no grass to be seen. The lot was lower than the road. Maybe it had been a home. Maybe it had been lost during the war. Maybe it was wiped clean by the tsunami. Was this neighborhood in the zone of devastation? Might have been. Must have been. I think the wave went all the way to the main road. So maybe here like in Thiruchendur, everything you saw, no matter how dirty or worn was new. Built after the tsunami. 

I could pass by the spot once a day. One time each morning (way too hot the rest of the day), but I didn't feel I could stop. The tableau of the village street, the lady and her cow, the man in the sarong. These seemed private. A place I might pass through but not a place to stop. Not a place to gawk, let alone take a picture. A place to pass, silently, slowly, floatingly, straining to look without turning my head. Not making eye contact because it was none of my business. 

Others did it differently. Smiled. Said hello. I tried it sometimes. Not at this corner. But often the looks I got back in return said "this is not your place. This is not your business. This is not for you to separate apart into a domain of your own by saying hello. Why should we say hello to you? You are a stranger and you are strange in your age, your dress, your posture, your facial expression, your eyes. What are your intents? Why are you here in this private place, a foreigner, a European, an interloper. A troublemaker? Another sociologist come to 'study' us? Another interviewer? Go in peace but go. Go through this place and don't take the liberty of assuming it is 'yours' in any way. And don't bother us. We've had decades of bother. Just let us get on with the milking, the driving, brushing our teeth, packing our children off to school, finding time for our meals."

The feeling wasn't hostile. It was just there. It wasn't respectful either. It was just leave us alone. And maybe I wanted to be left alone myself. Left alone to engage or disengage or float or imagine or gain impressions as I wanted them. Maybe it was enough to see and breathe the dust, to smell and breathe the smoke, to take in the sounds as they were offered or as I perceived them. To feel the roughness of the road or see a cow, a large one, unexpected around the corner. To feel the dips in the unpaved road and go into and through them like a joyride or to circumnavigate around the side of them when it rained great huge storms. 

The place was a place of cows. It felt like every place with cows radiated their gentleness, passivity. I don't know if you could call the people passive. Their struggles had been huge, ongoing, stuck into decades like a knife. The struggles came from all sides, politically. There could be no trust. I don't know the suffering of people in Batticaloa. I didn't know them personally enough to understand how they suffered. Do all people suffer alike? Does "accepting" suffering happen differently? Not being allowed into their suffering is part of what I wasn't allowed into. The "mind our own business. What are you doing here anyway?" But suffering is personal even if shared. And the way you suffer, the "approach" to suffering. Who can tell? How is that suffering different or dissipated ten or twenty years out? I more than touched upon this in my writings there. It's a black box, a complete mystery to me. Yet. Suffering was on the agenda. It was on the menu in appetizers, mains, and desserts. There for you to sense but not understand. 

So I couldn't be like my acquaintance,  a graduate student in sociology, who went into people's houses and started her interviews with, "so take me to the worst day of your life, the day of the tsunami." The cheek, ignorance, disbalance and disrespect that question showed explains how this person was so unhappy where we were. How she sought solace in a local, newly built Hari Krishna center. 

What was the mission of a place like that? Who's agenda was it there to serve? Agendas and intrusions, misbehavior of every sort is what we witnessed there in the East. All ages, genders, nationalities. Of course even Sri Lankans were in on it. A great feeding frenzy of misery. And the sufferers of misery, or their children, escaping the vortex of unhappiness and deprivation at dizzying speeds, or maybe more like swimming and slashing their way out of a pool full of sharks. It wasn't a happy place. 

The corner in the morning could provide what you might call a "happy" place. When you are gliding past you are savoring the minute or seconds that it takes. You know you are alive, but in the strangest way because there's no place you have to be at any particular time. You may not be of the people there but you are seeing their lives and passing through, even if just for a moment a day. The lives build a landscape. They are not the backdrop because they are all there is. So the suffering or the sounds of gossip, all of these are there front row center, a drama of each day reckoned in its moments. 

That's the corner for today there are many more to explore. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Opportunity lost and found

Opportunity lost opportunity. Whet can it possibly mean? What can it possibly add up to? Every day I was there I worked. I wrote. Intensively and intensely. I struggled with words, stumbled on words, did heavy lifting with words and word entities that pointed, reflected, advanced the ideas and experiences I encountered. Fought their way out of the dark thick obfuscation of the heated days, the impassive lagoon water, the baking sun, the power-laden light, the heavy smoke, the exploding birds, the portents of trouble I thought I could see. 

As I wrote the words, at the same time as I used them as tools, some heavy as iron and some light as a feather, I knew. Deep down, and from the vantage of thousands of feet above I knew. Knew that I was not taking advantage of the time. Knew I could never employ them completely enough. Knew there were whole dimensions missing in the word fabric I wove. Knew the stories were deeper, more numerous, mushroom in with more meaning than I could muster. Knew I was losing opportunity even as I used opportunity.

Wanted to go deeper. Wanted to recoil. Needed and sought language, ran from language or tuned it out. Flew in the wrong smoke-filled breezes to above the coconut trees, to look down on their infinitely tough baldness, a baldness borne of fiber, fibrous forces of millions of years of evolution in their photosynthetic presence. How could this not have been a waste of time? But what is time? What is waste? How is time wasted? It's like saying the planet is dying. No way. It's a rock around the sun and time, part of that planetary fiber, is part of that immutable reality. Can't waste it any more than you can kill a planet. Stop looking at things that way. 

Almost never set foot in their religious places. You see part of it was that I wasn't interested. Not needing to apprehend, to comprehend, those institutional blips on the landscape. But at the same time these "blips" could be seen more as pustules, more like the fiber-bound circulation around and through the seasons that is Eastern Province at its core. Religion and identity are so much to those people. But. I wanted to experience their identity not as they practiced it in houses of worship. More I wanted to experience it like they expressed it in their landscape, the banausic every day of going and coming, buying, delivering, riding, fishing and carrying. What a theory that made, could have made, if I didn't waste time watching it flow instead of spinning my trawlers net and pulling it in against at the current. Going with the current = wasting time? Not sure. 

To be fair I didn't go as well because I felt, and she expressed it herself, Janet's deep disapproval. Still hard to understand how you can disapprove of someone else's religious practice. But I get it too. Late in our stay at an evening kovil celebration on the beach we witnessed reenactments of religious stories, myths, personalities. They weren't violent but they threatened violence. They were messy, loud, liquid. They seemed chaotic and risky to the participants. What if he slipped? What if she fell? What if this blade missed its mark? You could see the potential. You could feel the promise, or at least the threat of violence happening. But it didn't. And maybe I would have been richer if I went to observe more. Or maybe not. What's inside? What's outside? What's full and what's empty? How is time used well or wasted? What's a conversation, what's the use of speech, when the words pronounce lies? Better maybe to lie still, stay low, crouch and absorb. I find there's a lot of knowledge that seeped in. Imperfect to be sure. But is there perfect knowledge? Let's be real about this. 

The Tamil Hindu devotional music. I've learned more about it now, that strange rhythmic air-filling background to almost every early morning and many afternoons. It's mantras. The mantras help you overcome obstacles. The obstacles are real or not, inside or outside of you, tangible or imagined. There are so many. The mantras are a medicine against obstacles. They can help you negotiate obstacles, enter them and find your way through, keep the walls just that far from your body and keep them elastic, not rigid. Like a body's bloodstream. Circulate. It's not a going forward necessarily. It's a fantasy and a reality, evolved through thousands of years of culture. Moving through and around obstacles. A finding? Not the way we experience these things here. The nature of experience. The same for every one of our species? Or different, different between cultures? Different between people? You tell me. I only have one experience. My own. 

So here I am every other morning in Cambridge in the basement gym off Massachusetts Avenue, deep in Central Square, deep in the sound of devotional music that was real (though canned and unattended by worshippers or the community around the kovil). The music comes through earphones and abides me through the first rolling steps of exercise, on a "stationary bike," exercise that I would have taken a few months ago on a real bicycle on the real sandy road to the real sound of the kovil music, my strongest impression of an atmosphere in that Sri Lankan place. The monitor reads the imaginary calories my body might be using at a given speed at a given setting. Convenient isn't it? To know your presumed heart rate and your hypothetical caloric use as you move through the imagined obstacles mental or physical with the presumed antidote to obstacles. The elephant is huge that rampaged through the jungle and clears itself a path through the vegetation. Those thorns and woody stems are no obstacle at all. Waste no time thinking they are. Just experience opportunity. 

Slow motion in Eastern Province

It's not the remembering now as much as it was the living then. Every moment was lived. Even the slow motion mid morning lie down under the fan, when it was too hot to think of anything, when the pool was over and anyway, heating up. That pool. It was new, only built a few years ago. One of the only ones in Eastern Province. A phenomenon. Also a focus of disagreement between father and son, Thava and Darshan. Darshan wanted it near the lagoon, where it was finally built. Dad wanted it farther in, away from the lagoon, closer to Thiruchendur village. Darshan won that one, and his instincts were right. Looking like an infinity pool. Coconut palms swaying above. Brahminy kites riding the thermals above for hours. The clouds gathering, piling up in the west, collapsing in on themselves. It was an incredible spot. 

For hours I was exposed to the sun. Open, every surface of my skin and every pore, to the hot light. It poured on me like it poured on everyone and everything, bleaching and nourishing by turns. The heat was more uncomfortable than the light. Sometimes a merciful cloud would develop, or a phalanx of clouds would block the direct sun for minutes or hours. Otherwise it broadcast what seemed endless radiation. Maybe I was mistaken to let it at my skin the way I did. I won't know until we see what develops of small brown spots Janet found. Maybe I let myself in for a slow motion train wreck with cancer. My skin back there was the least of my worries. Most of the time I gulped down that sun. But mostly not the Sri Lankans. Yes, at the pool they stripped to their trunks but on land they were never without long sleeves. Long sleeves and long pants, long sleeves and sarongs. Sometimes they'd pull the sarong up, fold it to nearly the top of their thighs or fan it straight out for air and refold, but never shorts. Ever. 

The large Muslim men kept their well-ironed sarongs down, draped across generous legs and buttocks and never in public higher than the ankle. But everyone or almost everyone when they got on their motorcycles, covered up with a jacket. Sometimes a heavy one. I'll never forget seeing a father lovingly zipping up his children's black jackets before driving them off to school on his scooter one hot morning. The boys at the guesthouse would do the same before they left for the day, pack themselves carefully into a black jacket before taking off into the 90 degree heat of afternoon. Clinton, compact as he was, always wore this outer layer on his (brother's) motorcycle. And when you passed the men's clothing stores, Gent's Corner, Gent's Choice, or the smaller shops, all of them displayed the black jackets, hanging on hooks against the wall of a shop. Sometimes black windbreaker pants too, like we'd wear on a cold icy day for riding a bicycle to work in the city. The black outer garments. Jackets, pants. They were de rigeur for driving or riding a motorcycle in the tropical sun . 

The dress for women of course was different and as I think back, at least among the non-Muslim women, it seemed always to be a sari or a some variant of the shalwar. This is whether they were the driver or passenger, and always as the latter they sat sideways. Women and men wore helmets. Children almost never. A family might sit on a scooter, parents sandwiching a couple of I helmeted children on their was to school. 

The motorcycle as vehicle was endemic and peculiar. They could be as steady as a stream or as daring, zipping in and out of traffic, as a flock of crows. The passenger almost never held to anything. I would grab drivers' waists who offered me a ride but I was kindly introduced to the back bar, which I took to grabbing instead. Always riding on a motorcycle was pretty much a paralyzing experience for me except for when drivers took it very easy, maybe in respect for my age, and went agonizingly slow. How could that back bar offer you any protection anyway? Would you flip backwards over yourself? But I guess if you were going to go flying that would apply to holding on to the driver too. Couldn't exactly use them as a landing pad. 

One of my last days I had just crossed the Kallady Bridge townward and decided to use the crosswalk some meters down the main road instead of taking my chances at the foot of the bridge to cross. This was almost fatal. Not for me but for an unlucky motorbike driver who stopped for me. Unusual as it was to stop for anyone maybe he did it because of my white skin or maybe, possibly more likely he stopped because this corner was particularly rife with police. This was just around the corner from police headquarters. And never when I passed were the police not stopping someone. "A little something," I heard them demanding (or I guess I could say strongly suggesting) from every driver who they stopped. 

Anyway this poor motorbike driver stopped for me but the guy driving a van in back of him didn't stop. It was all in slow motion because full stops were uncommon or rare. The goal was just to keep moving. The van tapped him, slowly but relatively huge. This sent the motorcycle guy flying backwards. I'll never forget the look on his face, utter surprise as he was back ended and went flying. Arms up! Legs just managing to hug the bike. He arched all the way backwards. Must have played hell on his shoulders and neck for weeks, for which he probably spent time at the hospital, probably cursing me. He looked like a baby starting. And the scream he gave sounded like. Well, it sounded like someone who's just had the shit scared out of him, same as I felt the other day here in Cambridge when a huge SUV from Tennessee did a sharp right at the corner I was just getting ready to cross on my bike (in the bike lane thank you). 

The whole thing was in slow motion so the guy actually stayed on his cycle. There was some traffic stopped and some yelling but I decided the best thing to do was slip away. 

Next day, my very last day before we took the train out of Batticaloa at 6:10 AM, I was on the main Kallady road headed south. Just this side of the roundabout, where road and village converge to give so much promise. Maybe something is there! Something worth seeing, exploring. There never was, really. Nor was there anything really worth eating. The bhavans and smaller shops dished up the same rice or fast eats. Fried things, baked things, things with fish or onion or egg. There was plenty of beauty around but nothing much to "see" "do" or "taste" in a tourist sense. 

Anyway there I was on the main road where it's wide and there are potentially four lanes of traffic, two on either side of the median strip where there was always a cow or two, sometimes more, grazing leisurely. This particular morning one of the white cows had ventured onto the road. She was on the west side where town-bound traffic was coming. Not that busy that morning. Along lumbered one of those all-purpose painted trucks you see all the time. Nothing fancy or ostentatious but not poor either. Solid and built for business. Slow motion again. The driver I'm sure reckoned that the cow would get out of his way in time. Part of the general scheme of movement the same as planets revolve around the sun. This cow wasn't into that. She stood stock still in the Kallady road and the truck, which slowed imperceptibly by the second but never stopped, finally got her. It's the only time I've seen a vehicle hit a cow. It happened in slow motion but the cow went down. A serious offense in a place where cows have the same road rights, maybe more than people. The truck went along. The cow got up, maybe unfazed. I couldn't know. It sauntered. I memorized the license plate of the truck and remembered that it had a name "Muhammad" written on it. And I thought to report it to my hosts. Who knows where they would have gone with the information? Maybe they wouldn't care. Maybe it would add to their overflowing store of anxiety. Maybe it would make them hate or fear their Muslim neighbors more. I couldn't calculate the outcome of my reporting this thing so I decided to keep it quiet until now. I pretty much kept everything under wraps in Sri Lanka. Partly because of language. Partly because of lack of interested audience. Mostly because I sensed that any statement I made would have unintended consequences. I saw this happening so many times. Better just to listen and to be, to make myself small. 

That may be why these slow motion memories count for something. Even though they're not lived anymore. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

On my way to the main road in Kallady village

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. 

Indifferent muscle

Respiration
Like a mismapped something
or a piece of uncooked oatmeal not finding its way all the way down
This is how you pant
Finding the black hole of semi consciousness 
Watered by very distant tunes
playing right in your earbuds 

Balance
Marks the distance you cannot map
or a weighted ball that hovers
This is how you breathe
Wearing the sheath of indifferent muscle 
Creating worlds of breath
playing right in your throat

Potent
Plays a repeating tune
of jingling bells and quavering voices 
This is how you listen 
Crying your own thoughts in your own head
Finding pools of lotus 
hemmed by steps to the water

Monday, August 22, 2016

Why I'm using Twitter with my students this year

Face it. I have a class of 92 students. I'd like to engage every single student and give them a great experience. But with this many people in class there's no way I can engage or get engaged with each of them to the extent I'd like. Especially not using "traditional" modalities like term papers, lab reports, and exams. But engagement is the goal of my course. In my opinion engagement is more important than content mastery for my students, all of whom are fulfilling a science requirement that many consider to be an obstacle to completion of their degree. Darwin, the central figure in my undergraduate biology course, was a genius. But forcing students to learn what he learned just doesn't work. Sorry to say but I can't find a reason for anyone who's not a professional biologist to have to learn about sexual selection, population bottlenecks, or commensalism. They're part of the theoretical canon of biology and yes, I hear you, they can make our students "better scientifically literate citizens" whatever that means. I am interested however, in teaching my students new ways of observing and analyzing their world. It's a toolkit that will take them further in science and the rest of their endeavors than, say, the Hardy-Weinberg equation. My goal is to teach an experiential way of learning that truly keeps giving, to paraphrase the philosopher John Dewey's words. But to accomplish this I need to engage. And to engage with my students I need to reach out--frequently, informally, succinctly. I want them to do the same. 

So if I assign a reading I can ask for a quick tweet: "what did you think of it?" And I can hope for answers. My students will be advised upfront that I want them to engage, and that their engagement will be measured in part by their tweets. Using a question from the reading as a kind of prod, I will get responses from students that warrant a reply from me. Of course my replies will contain further questions and in this way, I hope to carry on multiple conversations with students in real time. These conversations always lead to teachable moments and they help me get to know my students better. As we get to know each other better we relax. We discuss. We engage. 

Student engagement in the course, with me, and with one another is my main goal. But there are more. I want my students to observe deeply, to contemplate on what they observe, and to communicate about the process. To "check their work" in this arena I can ask them to tweet me photos, comments, sketches, maps, you name it. I can ask them to "slow observe" something for five minutes, ten minutes even, which seems like an impossibly long period for a 19-year old. Then a quick snap and a note about what they observed and what they think they "saw." I see their photo. I ask a question. My responses are built to encourage further discussion. 

I used Twitter last time I taught this course to monitor and comment upon people's work during lab. I asked them to read a piece and respond, and then begin the lab exercises I had prepared. Sometimes I asked for frequent tweets, every five minutes or so, to see how people were progressing with the work and to see how they were responding to the challenge. Part of each lab I design is meant to give students a chance to reflect on their own process of learning. Tweeting is an excellent way to get an idea of how that process is going for students. And believe it if you will. It's possible in 140 characters to discern an engaged tweet from one that's no so much. Also if someone's cracking gum I can send a discrete note instead of policing, which isn't my thing. Not with undergraduates. 

Last time I taught this course I stood in front of lab the whole class period tweeting, retweeting, "liking," and commenting on student work. Colleagues would pass in the hall amazed at the focused silence in my classroom, or sometimes the focused chaos. But they were more than a little discomfited that I was on my phone the whole time instead of "professing." Had I lost control? Was I that apathetic? Little did my colleagues  know my students and I were deeply engaged as a group and that in any given lab we might generate dozens of conversations and hundreds of tweets. That's engagement. 

A couple of years ago we had a monster winter in Boston. Several Mondays in a row were cancelled, and I think some Tuesdays too. What a great opportunity. I assigned my students some readings, some snowbound activities they could do in their room, and for extra credit, a walk in the snow. "Please respond with a tweet" kept my students on board and gave me something to do during those long days of whiteout conditions. Lots of folks at the university professed to do something with students those days but I think I'm the only one who had students active, busy and involved online the whole time. And I was conversing with each one of them individually. 

You would be right to tell me I could use our university's proprietary blackboard site for this kind of work. But have you tried to click through the maze of prompts and symbols there? And have you ever tried to use it in your mobile device? Now think about your students. How useful is that clunky vehicle for the snapchat generation? If you're worried about a record of your student work there's good news. At the end of the semester I can track every tweet a student made. Privacy? If someone's concerned they can use twitter's private messaging. Though I prefer the open channels of communication so I can retweet and get some group ideas rolling. 

And in lecture? Twitter gives me an effective way to hear students' comments, to get an idea of how they perceive an idea. I use it often in lecture as a way to get people to stop taking notes, think for a minute or two, and send me a response to a question or challenge. To use Twitter in lecture you have to not be afraid of minutes of silence while people think and tweet. You also have to be willing to admit that your ideas and the material you're "covering" don't hold primacy. Students need to be engaged in lecture too. 

What we lose in verbiage we gain in communication. Relaxed, simultaneous, responsive. No slipping a ten page paper under the door and getting it back with red marks a week later. Does anyone read those comments the professor made so laboriously? So this year, as I've done successfully in the past, I'm planning to change labor into play, drudgery into fun, and excess verbiage into interactive communication. Students will still have a couple of exams and a formal paper, as well as small-group presentations to the class that will count toward their grades. They will still be expected to master the material, which admittedly occupies a minute slice of the biological canon. But they will also engage, interact, explore, and have some fun with me as we learn together about how we learn. I'm expanding my Twitter experiment from a couple of years ago to see where it takes us. You're welcome to join us. 

Your memories may not be welcome

It's not that I wanted to stop thinking about Sri Lanka. It's that I had to get back to "here." The immersion there was deep and subtle, permeated by sounds and visuals that are pretty well inexplicable in our world. Nothing to explain to people here. And no one wanted to hear. In conversation, as I'd predicted, us bringing up our Sri Lankan experiences in parallel with what people here experienced at a given time was, well, unwelcome. Instead of lingering on the experiences of almost a year I realized, and quickly, that I had to sweep it away like a strong cold front moving through. Clear skies after thunder. 

So much of the time there was waiting. Waiting. I felt like a spider in its web waiting for prey, or maybe more like a sponge at the bottom of the ocean waiting, more passively than a spider, just a sponge you see, for a bit of nutrient to fall my way, to filter through to the dark depths. What were "nutrients" there? A word, a taste of language, a sentence of heartfelt opinion. Someone else's. Always I was waiting. Waiting to hear what was on people's minds, what they were experiencing or had experienced or what they expected out of life. Too much to ask? Maybe. What do we hear from people at home?

Looking also for secret moments in the hour before dawn or the deadest times of midday. Looking for the collection of electrons or information bits that got together to make an image, a flavor, a discernible time in space. Who would think now that I've been home two months that I could find dozens of Tamil devotional pieces on YouTube and relive the sound waves of those mornings where every kovil played its canned music and filled the airwaves with sound? What did that mean? Did anything hold meaning? Can it have had more or less meaning than the dawn minutes here or the quieting moments of late afternoon when the rattling of air conditioners falls to a sickening hum?

On bicycle in Batticaloa I saw people had less of the "gracefulness" I'd witnessed in other parts of Sri Lanka. Less of the "composure" we'd thought we observed early on. You might call the Batticaloa look a natural clumsiness. And why not? The killers on the other side moved like eels, sleek, doe-or-dead eyed, graceful and slim. But in the east, and could this be attributable to their torture in the war, their horrors of tsunami, their natural stance (?) people moved more normally. Not like the baby face who will stab you in the back. A fact of human evolution: Neanderthals were wiped out by their cute small-boned cousins who had a better facility for making sharp things and aiming them. 

Our Thavarajah though. That was something else. Something for a whole different chapter or two. He moved gracefully and his wife Grace more so. She was a dancer since a young age and moved like that. Classically. Gracefully. He a feline with catlike instincts. How else did he tread the thin line of war and oppression and hate and violence and threat? How else did he emerge, a quiet hero, a defender, a father, a builder? There were hatreds there within him, he told me. But his mild demeanor belied their presence. He had salvaged a piece of Tamil life in his corner of Sri Lanka and he did it without violence. But sent all three of his kids out of the country for good. But another time for Thavarajah. And more space as I recall him. Not now.