Thursday, June 11, 2015

Public and private landscapes: Fluid concepts?

My friend and colleague Gihan Karunaratne send me a manuscript he's working on that describes the tightly congested urban landscape of Slave Island, one of the oldest precincts in Colombo. In his essay he touches upon issues of shared space and the flexibility practiced by people in the Slave Island neighborhood when it comes to private versus public. It's a complicated question, more than I can delve into in a short post, but something that's especially appropriate in the Sri Lankan context. 

I'm researching small tank landscapes in the Dry Zone of North Central Province. This trip, I was lucky to have an expert driver and guide who is based in Mihintale. Amara knows the immediate vicinity like the back of his hand. Having grown up in Mihintale he knows practically everyone and everyone knows him. How generous he was to take me to so many intimate spots that would normally be inaccessible, and indeed invisible to a foreigner like me. Amara was completely comfortable in these places within approximately a 5 km radius of his home. He made more than eye contact with the people we encountered, in some cases carrying on lengthy conversations. Afterwards he reported as he saw fit, who was who, what they were doing there, and a little bit about their conversation. In terms of landscape analysis this told me a lot about how people use and relate to their immediate environment. A kind of byproduct was that it illustrated something about public and private spaces. 

If you are preparing a muddy rice field for planting, and you are deeply engaged on reinforcing the dikelets in your field, you are unlikely to welcome anyone but your closest acquaintances for a look. This in spite of the fact that you share the field with 10 or 20 other cultivators. Is this private space? Not exactly. It is worked by several families collaboratively. Is it "public" space? Certainly not the way the thoroughfare of a city would be considered public. 

What about the irrigation tanks and their dike – pathways? Nominally it's understood-one village, one tank. People use the tanks primarily for rice irrigation but they are beneficial for a number of other purposes--bathing, laundering, harvesting fish, lotuses, and assorted edible plants, and also for indirect things like improving the water table. Irrigation tanks are an island-wide phenomenon but they are also personal, intimate spaces, in which nature, people's bodies, and the local gods interact. 

Bringing a foreigner to these spaces was a kind of double edged sword. It brought Amara prestige to be guiding a foreigner but also friction. Some kids on bikes told him "take a tooth from (rip off) the foreigner!" At least that's what he reported. It was a while before Amara translated their comments to me, and I sensed they were commenting on the presence of two men together in this quiet spot. Later at the tuktuk Amara found that his glasses had been ripped off as well as the jack for his spare tire. Intimate with the landscape he tracked the kids down but ultimately, no one admitted to the deed. Parents and neighbors were enlisted in the search for "justice" but Amara never got his eyeglasses back. In the end I think, my presence as a foreigner proved a liability to Amara. 

It happened again at another spot as a bicycle brigade of lotus pickers traversed the dam. Amara noticed the insignia on their pants that indicated they were volunteers, taking lotuses to a nearby temple complex. Again a few looks, some harsh words, and when we got back to the tuktuk later our water bottles were missing. Not a huge deal but something that speaks to interfering in private precincts. At least that's how I interpret it. 

So what's public and what's private? How do we define the terms? Are they dependent on a definition?

At once we could be speaking with someone in his yard about tank infrastructure, or asking a granny for instructions to a tank, or passing through gardens (as instructed by the roadside mechanic) and passage through these spaces was acceptable and comfortable. Elsewhere we ran across families bathing in the tank, dressed but wet and vulnerable, and we were greeted by smiles. But tank dikes and more so, the rice fields that lay beneath them, seemed sacrosanct. 

Last year when Chameera guided me through a tank landscape I remember asking for "more." As a privileged city boy and graduate of an architecture program he was more comfortable guiding me through the monuments of Polonnuwura than taking a simple walk in the country. I remember now how he told me that his educated city Sinhala was different from the country folks'. And I reckon his comfort level "out there" was less than in a dozen other situations we had shared in other settings. He was used to giving orders, not fitting in with the countryside. 

So what does all this say about private and public landscapes? I think it goes back to Gihan's discovery. They are fluid. But certain "laws" apply. A landscape may be open. But in ways it may be profoundly closed. More to develop as we explore these intangibles of possession, privacy, and other landscape parameters. 

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